Category Archive: Miscellaneous

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.

Civilization and Savagery

It was one of those routine bus trips back from Guwahati city to IIT campus late in the night around 13 years ago. I remember sitting at the left side rear window and noticing an elderly lady a few rows ahead. Apart from her the bus was full of students, most of whom were friends from my own class. These students were loud and unruly like young students tend to be especially when they are rounded up in close quarters and I have no doubt that I myself had at other times, participated in the sort of unruliness that I am talking about. However this time, with that extra person on board, I remember feeling a distinct sense of discomfort at the obnoxious loudmouthedness, the excessive cursing, and the general savageness of the atmosphere. I remember feeling ashamed on behalf of the person and a sense of anger at the insensitivity of my friends to my imagined discomfort of this person whom I did not even know. This emotion has since manifested itself a number of times, most recently at a concert at the Chicago symphony orchestra where I took my parents for a rendition of Mahler. A couple sitting in the row in front of mine could not keep their mouths shut for the duration of the concert. They were sitting a few columns away from me which prevented me from interrupting their interruptions. However, my rage was complete at their indecorous behavior which seemed to be ruining the experience for my parents and others who were trying to listen. However, the interesting thing about this emotion of mine, of feeling uncomfortable on behalf of others, is the fact that it might have no legitimacy at all. The old woman on that bus that night might have been perfectly fine with her surroundings and my parents and others, for all I know, might not have cared at all during the concert. It's possible, perhaps even likely, that others have thicker skins than I attribute to them. Moreover, the idea of being ashamed on behalf of others rests on a very slippery slope for it is the same impulse which tries to legitimize all sorts of censorship. People have made a hobby out of getting offended on the behalf of others. They get offended on behalf of their children, the religious, moral, and ethical sentiments of their communities, on the behalf of minorities, so on and so forth. And it is a short trip from feeling offended on the behalf of others to trying to suppress speech, behavior, and opinion uncomfortable to one. Of course people who do get all tied up in such a fashion are only more ridiculous than those whom they dislike so much.

And yet, there was something personally wrong with the couple who sat whispering in that concert and with the behavior of those students on that bus. I can, in a very private way, take issue with them but the offense must be personally owned in order for it to have any sort of meaning in my own eyes. The thread which unifies these two incidences together with the many others which I have experienced is perhaps an elitist one. I dislike unruly behavior as I see it primarily as being uncivilized (and not as being morally wrong). I prefer civilization over savagery, deliberation over red-blooded passion, and intellect over emotions. I prefer refinement over brutishness and I, therefore, prefer Tennis over American Football! So when the couple sat whispering and when my friends brought down the roof, they had, to me, incarnated as uncivilized brutes. Their behavior was something that civilization and common sense was supposed to have put a check on. The fact that it had failed to do so was and still is, in my eyes, the failings of certain people the company of whom I steadfastly try to avoid now. However, the real kicker is that I realize this as a deep personality flaw in myself, in that my leanings are so heavy. I'd have liked to strike a certain balance which one sees in a passage by Russel but it's not there yet.

SD reredux

My second trip to SD after moving to Chicago completed recently. And while the last one resonated with long walks alone on lovingly remembered streets, this one ended up being about the amazing people I know there. It has been several years since I graduated from UCSD and SD is not the place which most people think of as their career base. Yet, and yet, I found myself entirely short of time when it came to spending it with those whom I'd have liked to. I had the feeling, however, that this was the last time when the tremendous variety that moves me was to be found preserved there. People have plans and many will disperse before I have the chance of going back again. Which is perfectly fine in the cold and reserved sort of way that life works. However, in the emotional and nostalgic light through which I gaze that Sun drenched city, the place would lose a certain magnetism and the people, perhaps, would too. We are primarily contextual, our essences tied faithfully to the settings of certain memories. We are not remembered so much as being endowed with this or that quality but as being lively contributors to some strong remembrances which were made memorable through equal contributions from others and from the settings in which their memories are placed. Once removed to alien surroundings we run the risk of becoming pale shadows of our past. It is, therefore, always with a deep sense of trepidation that I meet someone whom I have very fond memories of in surroundings which have nothing to do with those in which those memories were formed. In those moments, since what I am really trying to do is to figure out how much of the old person still remains, I feel deeply conflicted between the desire to find permanence and the rational thought process of allowing and accepting its absence. Perhaps this hankering of mine for reexperiencing some memory of the past is the reason why I have found myself being utterly disappointed by the medium of photography as well. While what I have in my mind is live and mutating and full of beautiful visions, what a photograph provides is merely a pathetic approximation to these feelings. I find its dead, soulless, sledgehammer approach to memory insulting to what is otherwise intriguing, nuanced, and multicolored. As an extension, I find those who are obsessed with capturing life within the borders of a 4 by 6 or, even less romantically, in the cemetery of a zillion electrons, amusing at best. While they are utterly absorbed with their ridiculous cameras and ridiculous lcd screens, the feathered seraph that is life unfurls its beautiful wings and soars against the patterned clouds.

I have very few photos of SD but it is alive in my mind in a way that a place can never come to life in a photo. There are absolute characters of life I know there but their brilliance owes something to my own imagination as well. In my mind, in the heady drifts of my mnemosyne, I have filled in empty spaces with psychedelic colors and silences with strange reverberations. I have bent the elastic essence of reality, slightly here and a little there; in my mind SD lives on in vivid colors.

The bluishgreen Almirah

The book that I am reading now is Salman Rushdie's very well written and very famous Midnight's children. The story of Saleem Sinai who, by the act of being born at the stroke of India's independence, became intimately intertwined with her destiny. Among the many virtues of the book the one that immediately stands out to me is Rushdie's amazing talent of molding the rich tapestry of Indian life into stories of great muted sadness and comedy. More than anything else the book is a testament to the potential of brilliant stories which resides in the Indian culture, a culture whose logic is entirely its own and which fails to be adequately quantified in typical Western measures. I do not claim any special greatness inherent in the culture. I merely claim its stunning, almost mind-boggling intricacy. When all is said and done the American culture is merely unidimensional, all its facets chiseled by the same inevitable forces of efficiency and selfishness, all its products minor variations of the same essential mold. By comparison the products of the Indian culture, because it offers so little and it places such curious constraints on them, are weird tragicomic specimens both heroic and hapless in the situations they find themselves in. There is hardly ever the go-getter devil may care attitude among them which is perhaps just as well. One can never meet too few of those despicable characters in life.

In the book I came across the word almirah which refers to a sort of metal cabinet used to keep valuables. I am not sure if it is still in fashion but it sure was when I was growing up. In my home it was referred to as an almari, perhaps an indianisation whose roots are now difficult to trace. Like Proust's Madeleine and tea, the word took me sailing into the past, to the touches of that bluishreen almari which was part of our household for as long as I can remember. Like the oval wooden dinner table and the glass center table, like the ornate dressing table and the heavy sofa, that almari came into our home with the marriage of my parents and it still is going relatively strong after 33 years. The sofa has been replaced and the glass table broke at some point, the dinner table was also eventually deemed too wobbly and worn out but the almari remains. It remains with its signature metallic creak and its chipped paint. It survives with its silvery pointy handle whose cold touch I remember with more clarity than I remember many things which happened yesterday. There were other storage spaces in the house but the almari was always used for the most precious things, my mother's expensive sarees, important documents, money, and jewelry. There is a curious way by which images of nostalgia assume a proportion much larger than reality. I now remember that almari being much bigger than it really is. I now ascribe to it the human emotions of pride and grace which accompany a life of tight-lipped service in the line of duty. I now see in its closed doors barriers more insurmountable than suggested by the mere rotation of its handle. There indeed is something very human about its memory. It grew with me and through daily touches and sights, through being a passive spectator during a couple of decades, it has precipitated in my conscious as a living benevolent presence. It, along with certain other objects which survive through the ages, is a dusty, musty reminder of a childhood spent in relative security and happiness. These reminders are not vocal but by being silent they are perhaps more poignant. They also serve a much larger purpose than starting points for personal nostalgia. The fact that that object was preserved through all those years even when means were available to replace it with something better functioning and newer says something about a culture. Beyond the superficial level where reside qualities such as making do with less and a certain modesty, perhaps it point towards deeper traits as well. The traits of not being afraid of permanence and of being more or less satisfied with the present. And I cannot help but be propelled, from the innocuous little memory of the bluishgreen almirah, to make comparisons between the two cultures which have dominated my life so completely.

Humor and Misery

A thought occurred to me the other day, the worst winter Chicago has seen in the last 30 years failed to make me feel too crappy. Maybe I was still under the spell of novelty, the white city to me still glistening under the soft white blanket of snow. Maybe the years of living in San Diego, under its ever benevolent Sun, had equipped me with a certain reserve of fortitude which I might have dipped deep into to withstand this winter. Or maybe it was just the fact that I didn't have to shovel my car every morning as a matter of routine. Life must really suck for those who did have to shovel. However, the real reason is probably more interesting than any of these. I think the real reason why I didn't feel too bad about the winter was that the winter seemed to be so much more harsh on everybody else. We, as human beings, almost always derive our happiness and sadness in relation to others. We would never be miserable about all the things we do not have if it were not for those pesky neighbors of ours who seem to have them. Similarly we are never entirely unhappy about the misfortune of others, especially of those who share proximity with us in terms of social order. The heavy hand of culture teaches us that these feelings are wrong but I suspect that for most people these are very instinctive. And if something is instinctive it cannot really be wrong, at least not in my opinion. It may be curbed for pragmatic reasons but that's another issue.

So this winter was pretty harsh on a lot of people. There was no end to people complaining about the record freezing temperatures and about how water was freezing up in their eyes as soon as they stepped out. Talking heads on unfortunate television channels were going ape crazy converting real temperatures to 'wind chill' factors. The music on the radio was glum, just like the overcast sky outside the window. While walking about on the roads, I could see on the faces of those who did venture out, looks of absolute death and gloom. After the first 4 months of bitter winter it seemed as if they had finally given up any hope that spring would ever arrive. Needless to say that all this constant complaining by everybody was a constant source of joy to me. Not because I'd like to see others being miserable (I'd like to see them exactly as happy as I am in fact.) But because all this fake misery is quite hilarious. By fake misery I don't refer to the misery of those who might have had real issues in this severely cold weather. People with very limited means for instance. There's nothing light hearted about their predicament. I am, however, referring to those who have an otherwise comfortable life and only had to venture out into the elements for short durations. I have always been amused by the complaints of those who have a much better life than a vast majority of people around the world. Not only do they seem to lack a certain kind of perspective which would let them see how fortunate they are (at least in specific matters), they also seem to make their lives and experiences worse by giving undue weight to the little problems that they do have. The final outcome of it all is a vicious circle where their misery runs amok in the absence of any check from perspective. Their problems, it appears to me, are largely made up in their own heads and because these problem are largely imagined, they can legitimately be milked for their comedic potential.

This brings me to another important point here. Where does one legitimately source humor from? Humor can never be sourced from the misery of those who have real misfortunes to deal with. There is nothing funny about the sorrows of Werther, to quote a fictional story, or about Turing's demise, to refer to a real one. There is not even satisfaction or happiness to be gained from those whose lives are so significantly worse than ours. Humor can be gained either from the self, in which case it is self deprecating, or from those whose miseries are fake-ish miseries in the larger scheme of things. I feel that both avenues should be exploited for all that they are worth in order to maintain one's own sanity.

Installing python/numpy with ATLAS support

The reason MATLAB is so efficient at matrix operations is because it uses highly optimized fortran libraries which have been developed over the last 3 decades. The most basic of these is the BLAS (Basic Linear Algebra Subprograms) library which is a set of functions to efficiently evaluate simple matrix operations like the multiplication of a matrix with a scalar. LAPACK (Linear Algebra Package) is another library which builds upon BLAS and implements more complex matrix operations such as LU-factorization. There are many different ways by which the fundamental BLAS/LAPACK libraries can be implemented. Intel has a proprietary implementation called the MKL (Math Kernel Library) which is optimized for Intel's own processors. So if you have MATLAB on your system and if your processor is from Intel, chances are that MATLAB is using MKL for fast matrix calculations. There are several open source alternatives to MKL such as OpenBLAS and GOTOBLAS. ATLAS (Automatically Tuned Linear Algebra Software) is another such implementation particularly suitable for clusters and high performance computing over distributed nodes. Coupling ATLAS with python/numpy, therefore, turns out to be an open source alternative to MATLAB+MKL. I have recently had to learn how to install these and thought that it would be a good idea to list the steps required for doing so. These steps are appropriate for a linux CentOS cluster:

Installing Python: Python 2.7.6 can be downloaded using the wget command:

wget https://www.python.org/ftp/python/2.7.6/Python-2.7.6.tar.xz
and extracted using the tar -xvf command. In the absence of root access it can be installed in a specified directory using the --prefix command. It is also advisable to generate the dynamic shared libraries using the --enable-shared command. So doing something like:

./configure --enable-shared --prefix=/path to directory where you want to install python/
make install

will do the trick.

Obviously for this command to work you would need to be in the directory where python has been extracted to. Two further changes to the environment variables would make this installation of python the current installation:

export PATH=/path to the directory where you installed python/bin:$PATH
export LD_LIBRARY_PATH=/path to the directory where you installed python:$LD_LIBRARY_PATH

Installing ATLAS: Before installing numpy you would need to install the ATLAS library. The following commands can be used for the installation:

wget http://hivelocity.dl.sourceforge.net/project/math-atlas/Stable/3.10.1/atlas3.10.1.tar.bz2 (Download)
tar jxf atlas3.10.1.tar.bz2
mkdir atlas (Creating a directory for ATLAS)
mv ATLAS atlas/src-3.10.1
cd atlas/src-3.10.1
wget http://www.netlib.org/lapack/lapack-3.5.0.tgz (It may be possible that the atlas download already contains this file in which case this command is not needed)
mkdir intel(Creating a build directory)
cd intel
cpufreq-selector -g performance (This command requires root access. It is recommended but not essential)
../configure --prefix=/path to the directory where you want ATLAS installed/ --shared --with-netlib-lapack-tarfile=../lapack-3.5.0.tgz
make
make check
make ptcheck
make time
make install

The whole process of configuring and installing ATLAS can take several hours.

Installing numpy with ATLAS support: With Python and ATLAS installed and the PATH variable set to point to the newly installed version of python, numpy can now be installed. It is assumed that these commands are issued from the directory where Python is installed:

wget http://sourceforge.net/projects/numpy/files/NumPy/1.8.1/numpy-1.8.1.tar.gz
tar -xvf  numpy-1.8.1.tar.gz
cd numpy-1.8.1
cp site.cfg.example site.cfg

Now site.cfg needs to be modified to make numpy aware of where ATLAS is installed. Adding the following lines in the beginning should suffice:

[DEFAULT]
library_dirs = /Path to the ATLAS installation directory/lib
include_dirs = /Path to the ATLAS installation directory/include
[atlas]
atlas_libs = lapack, f77blas, cblas, atlas
[amd]
amd_libs = amd

Finally numpy can be installed using the following:

python setup.py build --fcompiler=gnu95 (or gnu depending upon whether ATLAS is built with g77 or gfortran compiler)
python setup.py install

Hopefully now you have a free open source alternative to MATLAB. Python is pretty amazing in how easy it is to learn and how extensible it is. And how free it is!

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