Category Archive: Miscellaneous

Science as the new God

There are many good things one can say about the effects of a century of science on life in general, including a better standard of living on average, longer lifespans, perhaps even peace between nations. However, there is one aspect of it against which reasonable arguments can be made. The scientific attitude is supposed to be one of deep skepticism and relentless doubt but science itself has inculcated in the general masses, curiously enough, an utter morbidity of thought, a complete surrender of skepticism. It has ushered in a whole generation which celebrates everything it associates with science with the exact same devotion as is expected of a religious person. Science has silenced debate even in areas where its grip is still too weak and its mad worship has completely undermined such fruitful activities as the liberal arts. It has made the idea of a well rounded human being who can think on his own and argue, a total anachronism. With its reductionist tendencies, science has created what are essentially robots who seem to think in similarly fragmented, hyper-specialized, broken ways and who are only too eager to appeal to borrowed arguments from authority. The result is a population which seems to have lost its sense of all that is human in this world, the grayness of issues, the lack of clear blacks and whites, the idea that we still live in a world where, when all is said and done and strictly speaking, nothing can be proven as a surety and which is why it is still of use to learn from diverse sources.

I think the idea that there either already exists some scientific explanation to our question or that there will be one one day is a dangerous one because it allows us to shift the responsibility of thinking about it to someone else and to some other time. We are, once again, throwing our lot and our hopes with an external authority. We have done it time and time again with different gods but this time the God is Science. It's the latest agency to say to us, believe in me, I'm right. At this point I want to clarify that I have the utmost respect for the true scientific attitude. My problem is with how science is seen in the current society, as the last word in all matters, as something worth groveling against. And this is not an accident but the unintended consequence of the narrow-minded and idiotic efforts of such scientists as Dawkins.

Young and Old

Dorian Gray is one of those books which I found unusually striking at the time when I read it. Wilde had completely turned the traditional way of looking at things on its head and illuminated to me a philosophy which was at once seductive and rebellious. I have since come to take the aesthetic philosophy espoused in that book with a grain of salt but there is infinitely more to be learned from the failures of great men than from the successes of small ones. Wilde failed eventually at his own philosophy. He died in penury, alone, and what is to me the most heartbreaking negation of his own life, lost to the mystical and mediocre ideas of Western religion. If only he had died headstrong and rebellious his philosophy could be taken much more seriously. Still, I find the crux of Dorian Gray as illuminating now as I found it then. I find it brimming with the potential for further thought.

The central thesis of the book is that in this world the one thing worth having is youth and wisdom is what old people like to call their absolute surrender to life's inexorable web which closes in on each and every one of us. I think this thesis is pretty spot on and this is what this little post is about. If there's one argument which opens and shuts the case for youth, it is that young people find it easy to be happy. Sneering and cynical people on the wrong side of 25 ascribe this to inexperience and a general lack of responsibility and they are correct. But so what if at the end of the day someone is happy? Of course, the youth of today would grow up and join the ranks of the cynical old people and the cycle would continue. This, therefore, is an argument precisely in support of youth and not of those who are young. There's nothing special about those who are young as they will be, in general, condemned to the same misery in a few years time. Youth likes to think that it has a special grip on reality, a special understanding of the age. This is, thankfully, never true. I say thankfully because such an understanding, if it existed, would be built on very superficial foundations, and because this arrogance is precisely what gives youth its happiness, abandon, and attraction. As people grow old their edges are blunted by circumstances, they are bruised, broken, and battered by life's many pulls. This lost man (or woman) finds it difficult to see his utter surrender honestly in the face and invents a fiction and a euphemism. He calls it experience. I don't say that this experience is useless but it is nothing more than his weak attempts in the face of the incredible forces of life and it signifies the loss of a precious quality, of the happiness which comes so naturally to youth. Old age deals with it in the only way it knows how, by belittling youth through the labels shallow and superficial, by aggrandizing its own follies not as something which is inevitable but as something which is desirable, and by turning its face away from the one truth here, that there exists a deep seated jealousy in the hearts of those who have thus surrendered against those who have not yet had to. Old age waits in vengeful anticipation, knowing that the young will turn into them soon enough, that they will soon enough be smoothed by the sandpaper of experience. The man with such conventional experience, to me, is a broken person and there is very little that is attractive about him. There is even less to learn from him because his ideas are not his own but are owned by the group to which he belongs. Even his surrender is not his own. He surrenders in a completely conventional fashion, devoid of any story, any brilliance. He surrenders in a way which is expected of him by the community, meekly and subserviently.

This brings us full circle. Wilde's ideas in Dorian Gray are those of a man drunk on youth and arrogance. While flawed, they do point honestly to the truth. His eventual surrender is unfortunate and serves only as a reminder, at least to me, that his later ideas need not be taken seriously.

Lenovo x240 sucks

This post is in part a tirade against a specific Lenovo laptop and in part the illumination of a general rule of thumb. Lenovo's Thinkpad x240 is supposed to be a high end, professional laptop and being that it is from the glorious Thinkpad line, it is supposed to be a highly reliable machine. I purchased one in February last year and it died today. I'll need to send it in for repair and I'm sure they'll fix it but if one pays north of a grand and a half for a laptop, one expects it to not cop out in less than a year. This is not the only problem that I have had with this laptop but it is the one which has pushed me beyond the edge and forced me to write this.

I don't completely blame Lenovo here. They are merely a symptom of a deeper malaise: the absolute crapness of new technology and how it produces disposable objects which are lacking in quality and durability. It does produce shiny objects with tons of features that nobody needs. It produces objects of desire which send people insane periodically and leaves them salivating as they peruse them in shop windows and on websites. Have you seen their dead fixated eyes as they drool over that latest and greatest gadget or that expensive dress? What are they purchasing from all that money that they have painstakingly accumulated working too many hours at jobs which completely suck the life out of them? They buy fancy, expensive shit and then they buy more fancy, expensive shit to go with what they bought earlier and to protect their earlier shit. A good example is a phone. Nobody needs all the features of the modern phone except in case if they expressly desire to turn into walking zombies. But they go to terrible lengths, including signing up years of their life on contracts or paying ridiculous sums of money up front, to buy what are essentially higher meaningless numbers. More pixels, bigger screens, faster processors, more RAM. And then they use it all essentially to fire up facebook and share on it the ridiculous selfies they have taken or their mindnumbing photos of food. Nobody needs 3 GB of RAM for photos of food! But there they have it, all that power and all that shiny metal and shiny screen and it all needs to be protected now with a case which must be as nice and fancy as the phone it protects. The phone breaks down in a couple of years because it packed all those extra functionality which nobody needed in the first place but which provided more points of possible failure. And the cycle starts again. More hours at a dead job, more salivation, more desire for higher numbers, a new phone, a new case, a couple of years of life, ad infinitum.

I am writing this on a HP laptop that I bought many years ago for 300 bucks. It has never failed me and has given me absolutely no issues. With this 1 data point, I'd like to extrapolate a bit. All fancy, expensive things suck. They suck because they are fussy and because they are liable to failure in more ways than a simpler alternative is. And they suck at a deeper level. Nobody needs them but everybody wants them and they sell their life and soul in their eternal pursuit. It's a rotten business inside and out.

Liberty or Equality

I have, of late, become fascinated with trying to understand the American experiment in the context of my Indian upbringing. In this quest I have seen myself moving past the simplistic logic of people like Jon Stewart on the left and Bill O'Reilly on the right, and on to some real heavyweights of thought and logic. In this quite different plane lie people like Charles Krauthammer and Noam Chomsky. The former has a very high regard for the principles that America stands for and believes that the principles are honorable enough so as to deserve a kind of state proselytizing. This is the traditional logic and the beginning assumption of those who are identified as conservatives in this country. Chomsky, on the other hand, thinks that American exceptionalism is nothing but yet another ruse to keep people in line. In other words, he thinks that it's an efficient strategy of control and, therefore, there is nothing inherently honorable about it. Both agree at a very deep level, at the question of liberty which is enshrined in the American idea. Krauthammer seems to think that that idea of personal liberty gives America a special place under the Sun which is worth fighting for and Chomsky thinks that that idea of personal liberty is lost precisely when such an argument is made because it sets in motion systems which are much more powerful, much more omniscient than a puny individual. An individual is hopelessly deluded and lost within a machinery vastly more complicated than he can comprehend. Both have very good points and arguments and one can appreciate either side when one begins with the understanding that the fundamental axiomatic assumptions on either side of the debate are essentially arbitrary.

This line of thought led me to the question of liberty vs. equality, because these ideas are inherently at odds with each other. America was founded on the principle of liberty and equality was, in my opinion, added half-heartedly under the influence of Christianity. Still, the society here never seems to have taken equality very seriously and has, more or less, only ever paid lip service to the concept. With the decline of Christianity it appears that the sorry effort at trying to establish equality will also fade away because the arguments of equality from a non-religious point of view are very hard to justify. After all, why should people be equal if they were not created equal by a God? Equality, from a non-religious point of view, must necessarily take a subservient position to freedom. This is how it works in evolution and this is the inherent nature of human beings under evolution. Interestingly enough, while Christianity taught the equality of all people and this is how it affected the American experiment, Hindu philosophy taught the inequality of people through Manu-smriti and led to the establishment of the caste system. Under modern standards of behavior though, this centuries old set of principles is now being challenged. Indians are now being dragged, screaming and kicking, into contemporary expectations of modernity. What do I think? I think that the Hindu philosophy deserves credit for being so ruthlessly logical and for those who are immediately offended by this statement, I'd like to ask them to really think about where they derive their own justifications. I think liberty and inequality are the founding facts of life. These are principles which do not contradict each other and in fact are two sides of the same coin. But the society that they would give rise to would be an unpleasant one for all but the luckiest. This one sees in the Indian experiment and how incredible discrimination was dished out to so many for such a long time. Therefore, equality, as sort of an arbitrary principle and in an ad-hoc way, needs to be imposed on society for it to become reasonably pleasant. Indians are trying to do it and it is right and proper for them in the current age. However, there is a cost involved in this transformation and it should be kept in mind.

Degeneration

Coming to India is always very educational and it becomes more so every time I visit. It goes without saying that India is an entirely different world than the US is and it serves to wake me up from the stupor that is the easy precipitate of the well structured American life. Things are still very chaotic here and I can go on and on about how that chaos has a certain seduction to it and how it is, in some sense, the very essence of life. The life whose color, vitality, unpredictability, taste, and brutality has been tamed, domesticated, and reduced to the question, 'What ethnic food do we fancy today?' in America. I can wax eloquent as to how the external chaos which exists in India has been cynically channeled into utter commercial servitude in the US but let's not be so simple minded shall we. The truth is not black and white and the glass most certainly is half full. But we shall take it as half empty because there is nothing quite so entertaining as a little polemic.

One contrast that draws my attention is the difference in the means of popular delusion in both places. America is a young country and it was created on ideas which, in principle, were very noble. It could afford to do so because it was not burdened by the weight of 5 millenniums of history and culture. The noblest principle of them all was perhaps the implicit idea of personal freedom but freedom, writ large, doesn't sit very well with a structured and domesticated society. It's a great idea but nobody who is in charge likes it very much. However, it could not just be wished away because people, however shortsighted they may be, generally would not give it away if asked simply. The solution was to cloud up the issue, to create diversions and to dangle all sorts of carrots in front of the collective consciousness. The solution was to create all sorts of races which would keep everyone occupied throughout their entire lives. Race to the top, to success, to beauty, to lose weight, to health and fitness, to salvation, to personal improvement, to a respectable and quintessential American dream. And an entire population was thereby straitjacketed into a brilliant deception. Perhaps there was a time when freedom of choice really did exist in America and I am sure that was a chaotic and interesting time. Now, however, there is merely an illusion of this freedom, at least for most people. The incessant materialistic run is Americas delusion and the 21st century religion of atheism fits neatly into this scheme. It is the perfect religion for the shallow, materialistic, and entirely superficial idiot of the modern world.

India, on the other hand, has its own very interesting collective delusion which is again a watering down of the high principles where the country finds it roots. The country itself is a recent invention but its philosophy runs deep in history. It is a highly sophisticated philosophy in front of which the sorry philosophies of the Abrahamic religions appear crass and entirely unsophisticated. Too bad then that almost nobody in India seems to know what it is. What they do seem to know is merely a badly done caricature of the same. There are temples galore where I see a lot of people standing in lines to look at what is otherwise just a stone. They live their lives by a set of principles which is a gross simplification and distilling of the original spirit of imagination and inquiry. They proudly proclaim it their culture and get in line with flowers in their hands and prayers on their lips. Dimwits peddling ridiculous superstitions infest the popular consciousness and they are caricatured in embarrassingly simple minded ways by the popular media. There is no sophistication to be found in either the practice of the faith or its ridicule. What a fall from grace for a people of such illustrious intellectual history! Perhaps there was a time when the popular discourse was informed by the brilliant philosophy of the Hindu religion. When it encouraged them to ask the real questions of life and to face its many challenges with courage and vitality and not with delusion and cowardice. This isn't that time, however.

So what do we have here? Here we have two societies which had very different beginnings. In some ways, very noble beginnings. Both societies have degenerated, at least in my inconsequential and humble opinion. But they have degenerated in different ways and it is entertaining for me to compare and contrast the two. The merchants of drivel, it seems, have customized delusions for sale to suit the needs of all ages. And it sells them to people who just want to sleep and dream.

Yossarian

The other day I was reading some particularly funny passages from Catch-22 for the umpteenth time when my mind wandered off into many different useless directions, finally settling on to a point which I thought was quite interesting and worth elaborating upon. Yossarian, it seemed to me, was a particularly notable hero in the pantheon of fictional heroes, quite on par with the majestic dude from the venerable movie the big Lebowski. Catch-22 is not the greatest book ever written and the big Lebowski is not the greatest movie ever made but Yossarian and the dude are, in my opinion, the greatest heroes which were ever created. For those unfortunate souls who have not yet read the book, Yossarian is a fighter pilot in the second world war whose sole aim is to survive the war at whatever cost it may require. And for those who haven't seen the movie, the dude is an utter slacker whose concern revolves around a rug that was soiled by some vandals as he is dealt one blow after another throughout the movie. Not exactly the kinds of characters that one has come to associate with the word hero but then the characteristics that one does associate with the word hero are heavily clouded by the surreal logic of the tragicomic world that we live in.

We associate the qualities of courage, self-sacrifice, honorable conduct etc. with the word hero but it is not hard to see how these only apply to a rather limited worldview and become absurd when one asks some difficult questions. As an example courage, as evidenced in wars, is the easiest to bring down from its high and noble pedestal and I'd quote a few lines from the book to draw home the point:

What is a country? A country is a piece of land surrounded on all sides by boundaries, usually unnatural. Englishmen are dying for England, Americans are dying for America, Germans are dying for Germany, Russians are dying for Russia. There are now fifty or sixty countries fighting in this war. Surely so many countries can't all be worth dying for.

Courage, if it exists at all in the form that we instinctively think of, must be denounced on purely rational grounds as it only serves to extend conflicts. In other words, if everybody was a coward, perhaps there wouldn't be so many wars and conflicts. But we unfortunately do not live in a world where people are cowards. We live in a world where intelligent people make less intelligent people believe how great it is to be courageous so that the latter can fight and die to preserve what is essentially the private property and influence of the former. Nationalistic songs are written where the motherland is praised, religious sermons are given which egg people on, paintings glorifying wars and conquests are commissioned and immense sculptures are created in national capitals. Many people take all this very seriously and buy bumper stickers which say how they support their soldiers which of course I find  extremely amusing. Sometimes I see beneath the veneer of equanimity on the faces of reasonable people, a tinge of self-righteousness in matters of historical and contemporary conflict; as if these conflicts were really anything more than a struggle for survival between arbitrary entities. If courage is to be assessed under a rational light then it must be praised only to the extent that it helps us prevail over them but there is neither morality nor sentimentality in this view. In this view courage is a very useful quality which I'd like others to have and I'd like for them to exercise it when the time comes. This is essentially what the expectation from the word is in our world but it is rarely expressed like that because it runs so counter to some of our most cherished ideals. Yossarian gets it and has too much intelligence and honesty to pretend otherwise. What he cannot understand is how others don't seem to see his point. He is caught in this arbitrary war between arbitrary entities and all he is trying to accomplish is the one thing that nature intended him to do, survive. He understands that the structure which is erected to prevent him from doing so must necessarily be self serving and deceitful. Others, however, do not see the incredible deceit and buy into the stories that they have cumulatively told each other. They are operating in a world of mirages where the ideals which drive these essentially good and honest and hardworking people are nothing but useful characteristics which a system much bigger than them demands of them. The system needs to survive and it is unsympathetic and it doesn't care. Yossarian is the true hero to me because he is the only one who operates in the world of reality. He is the only sane man among the madmen around him. Dude, obviously, is the other guy who gets it but I'll leave him for some other time.

Rise of the Machines

In general I shy away from any sort of futuristic fantasy book but there is one that I think I'd very much like to read. I think it would be really interesting to read about a time in the future where machines have become sentient and taken over the world. Movies like Terminator come to mind here but I am looking for something vastly more imaginative. In my kind of book on this subject, the machines would be vastly superior to humans both in physicality and intellect. Humans would be, in fact, merely an evolutionary misstep which the machines would be only too happy to do away with. So somewhere within the first few chapters all humans on the Earth would have been eliminated and there would be absolutely no human comeback. Then we would come to the real interesting part of the book. This book would have as its central thesis the absolutely nonhuman characteristics of the surviving machines. This would not be because the machines are stupid but because they are of much superior intellect than the humans ever were. In the book the machines would have thought through the various psychological, social, economic, and philosophical problems which human societies have faced through the ages and have come up to very good solutions to them. It is rather interesting to wonder about what those solutions might be and one cannot help but coming to the idea that it would involve the complete elimination of all emotions. These involve our desires to love, hate, feel angry, reproduce, succeed and others. After all there is no reason why such emotions which ultimately seem to hurl us into eternal whirlpools of misery should be part of a new society if one were given the power of imagine it. This would be a dreary society according to our present standards but that is no good reason why it cannot be a viable society. In fact, I wonder if this is precisely what I do not like about a lot of futuristic fantasy in general. Futuristic fantasy tends to be neither futuristic nor very imaginative. It is far too sentimental and far too humanizing whereas the future need not be so at all. It is, therefore, very interesting to think about a future from which humanity has been completely removed and then wonder about what sort of motivations and "lives" would the succeeding "life" forms have. Such a society would trivially eliminate our obsessions with a God and would strike far too close to the real uncomfortable questions of the meaning of existence. This unsympathetic book would strip away the useless ideas which we like to use to cloud out the real issues of life. I would read that sad, imaginative, depressing book with utter enthusiasm and relish.

Parable of the Madman

This is an age which seems special in a particular sense. It appears that atheism, especially in the Western societies, has become popular enough to be considered a mainstream belief structure, rivaling the popularity of traditional religions. I don't think this was nearly the case even in the last generation in the West, just like it is not so currently in India. However, I am quite certain that the Indian society would also move away from religion just like the rest of the world seems to be doing. This superficial departure from the traditional belief systems will neither abate nor diminish and we are most certainly moving towards a world where less and less people will believe in a God. At this point when atheism is becoming increasingly mainstream, it is rather interesting to consider the following question: where is the catch in all this? Because there must be a catch. So many people, when thinking alike, must necessarily be shortsighted. Massive herds of people, united in a single belief system, share one characteristic across historical lines: an appalling lack of intelligence.

I have come across my share of religious people and atheists and I find it interesting that those who believe almost always appear better socially adjusted, less materialistic, and happier with their circumstances. The fashionable atheists, on the other hand, generally come out bitter, cynical, and not necessarily any more intelligent than the religious group. The atheists seem to be well versed in the latest scientific developments and they use each new one to point out to the religious people why they must be wrong. This constant pestering, of course, makes them absolutely insufferable human beings. Moreover, it is clear that their scientific knowledge is nothing more than a very neatly arranged docket of facts and doesn't amount to any real understanding of important issues which must surface when one removes a God from the picture. They have killed off the entity which provided meaning to the lives of humans and have tried to replace it with vague and pathetic evolutionary explanations. What they have actually replaced God with is not any acceptable explanation but with an utter obsession with materialism. The central problem of life is finding something which would keep one distracted from the eternal oblivion and meaninglessness which awaits us all. God is a great fictional character which fits the bill perfectly. However, there are other ways to distract ourselves in this life. They include obsessions with power, money, success, fame, fitness, sports, health and others. The general trick is to keep fretting about the small and unimportant things in life to the extent that one doesn't have time to think about the important questions and this is what God really has been replaced with. A simple obsession with crass materialism with all its moorings and pitfalls and this is the catch with the fashionable atheists of the present. They are right in understanding the fictional nature of God but they have nothing appropriate to replace the idea with. Perhaps there exist no adequate replacement. At least, I am not intelligent enough to figure it out.

Reminds me of the following by Nietzsche (parable of the madman):

http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/nietzsche-madman.asp

The myth of hard work

Looking at the pace at which technology is improving it seems that the only way in which humans would be able to survive acceptably over the next century and beyond is to relinquish a deep seated idea that has been ingrained in all of us. The idea that hard-work is a noble pursuit, while very seductive, is ultimately bullshit and I want to argue why that must be so. It might be a useful thing to do but there is nothing noble about it. It may not even remain very useful for long.

The fact that there is something noble about hard-work is immediately put in question when one considers that throughout history, the social classes which have been the most well off have not had to do much hard-work. This holds for the Western nobility classes up to the 18th century before the French revolution saw through the charade and it holds for the landowner classes in the East which led a good life not because they toiled hard on the fields but had others who did it for them. They led a good life because they owned property and not because they worked hard. In modern times the equivalents are owners of large companies who seem to get compensated wildly out of proportion for the amount of effort they put in. There is a certain amount of intelligence and hard-work which has gone into the makings of this super-rich class but their success appears more to do with who their parents were and which schools they could afford to go to. The idea that those who have had the short end of the stick have only to work harder in order to achieve the same kind of success is a great story that I would also cook up if I were to keep the general masses in line. I do believe that there are exceptions where hard-work and unusual talents do pay off but the idea itself is a myth on average. It is the same kind of myth which the nobility of morality is; just a carrot in front of the mule sufficient to keep it running ad-infinitum.

My thoughts on this topic were set in motion when I was watching a documentary on how Coca Cola makes its famous drinks. The amount of automation is absolutely breathtaking and there is no reason to think that the few people who still need to be on the factory floor will not be dispensed off in the future. Obviously this phenomenon is not just related to the Coke factory but we see this in all realms of life. We see that, generally speaking, increasing automation is resulting in fewer and fewer jobs where humans are required. While hundreds of people were required to till a few hectares in the past, one person can do it all by himself now. The army of people which were required to keep records in all sorts of companies and departments have been replaced by software. It appeared then that all jobs which did not require the application of the human brain and which were repetitive would eventually be replaced by automation and this is already seen to be true. However, what we did not realize that even jobs which required human brains will also be replaced by increasingly intelligent software. This is already seen to be true in the areas of publishing (software writing formulaic articles), surveillance, medical diagnosis and many more. I think it is a clear writing on the wall now that almost all jobs which currently require human input will eventually end up being automated and this includes both repetitive jobs and jobs which require, what we consider, creative inputs.

In such a society where opportunity does not exist, what does hard-work buy you? In the intervening time between now and then, there will always be people who would peddle the same moronic idea that they always have. They will point to the exceptions who make it and say with a smug smile, if only you worked harder. However, what they won't realize is that the kind of hard-work and talent which was enough to make it for them in an earlier time will not be enough to make it for future generations because the opportunities will be far fewer. Taken to the extreme then I am imagining a society where there exist very little to no opportunities for most people to work but which still produces an abundance of goods and services. That society would collectively generate much more than enough for everyone to live comfortably but these goods and services would would not be made available (or made only grudgingly available) to the masses. This ridiculous state of affairs will become a reality if we keep on believing that hard-work is a noble pursuit and that one needs to work in order to deserve something. In fact, it would not even make much economic sense to keep believing in these notions since the producers of the surplus goods and services will find it impossible to find people who buy and consume them because they will not be part of the economy. To circumvent this nightmarish scenario it appears more natural to keep in mind what the real goal of a society is. It is to produce enough to live comfortably. It is not to work hard or to sacrifice ourselves at the altar of anachronistic ideals. And hard-work, most certainly will be an anachronistic ideal in the vacuum which will come to pass in the absence of opportunity.

Bassam cafe

It surprises me that I have never explicitly written about this cafe in SD. I am sure that in my myriad musings on great coffee shops, the prototypical place that has always been at the back of my mind has been cafe Bassam. I have no doubt that whenever, with clenched fists of anger, I have scoffed against the soulless and slick coffee shops which crop up with embarrassing regularity in this world, the one place against which I was measuring all others was Bassam. And, therefore, it is rather surprising that I have never thought of mentioning all of it quite so clearly. In this world which is so incredibly unfair to so many, what an amazingly ridiculous and pretentious enterprise it is to take one's cafes so seriously. But Bassam can only be understood against the backdrop of such an incredible folly. It's not great coffee shop. The coffee isn't even all that special. However, it is a poignant work of art, the culmination of the fantasies and dreams of one man who may or may not be clinically insane: the only kind of man who is capable of creating things which are beautiful and not just useful.

Bassam cafe sits in a location which is as much a puzzle as the fact that it exists at all in a city like San Diego. I lived not too far from it for a little more than a year and I hardly ever noticed much foot traffic in the area. I'd invariably walk over and spend my late evenings behind those large glass windows, reading a book, and listening to the same 30 songs which the owner (Bassam) seems to put on repeat everyday. The cafe is decorated with what can only be termed a bizarre, yet lovingly assembled, collection of paintings, portraits, glassware, antique furniture, cigars, wine bottles, teas, armoirs, hip-flasks, clocks, statues, marionettes, musical instruments, and of course, guns and rifles. The interior is illuminated with sodium lamps whose warm yellow light refracts through the mirrors, window panes, and glassware and lends a beautiful depth to the heavy dark wooden furniture. There are times when the pianola is playing instead of the recorded music and there are times when one of Bassam's many curious patrons takes to the grand piano and ascends into Beethoven and Chopin pieces. Then there are times when the cafe's chairs are pushed to the sides and the central area plays hosts to those who wish to tango. But often the place is simply a beautifully remembered memory of some reality which was created, bit by bit and painstakingly, into something which could not be made any more beautiful. There is that old familiar tune in the air. There's the sanguine glass of port. There are those pretty baristas chatting away behind the counter. There's Proust. And then there are those puzzling characters who swerve around the space loosening further the flimsy grip of reality. With the setting so perfect, the coffee almost doesn't matter.

I understand that this is a rather romantic description of the place and it misses some issues which go on behind the scenes but I'd like, for once, to maintain and embellish the illusion which takes flight in my imagination rather than take it down through vapid tangents. I see the cafe as a paean to the creative power of an individual, his flight from mundane reality into a fantastic world that is both enchanting and infectious. The owner appears to be a curious and troubled character but I'd expect nothing less from someone who is capable of creating such beauty. Very rarely do I come across anything comparable. Compared to Bassam I find the best cafes merely adequate and I find those which are trying to be cool and sassy, in hilariously bad taste. At best, the others sell decent coffee in a tolerable setting but often they are just soulless and tasteless*.

* One hilarious example that comes to mind is a cafe which has the gall to call itself cafe intelligentsia in Chicago. Its patrons are women in yoga pants and men who go to gym! I am stereotyping here with the understanding that there exist very rare exceptions.

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