on Books. Again

It is not surprising that as I have grown older I have inherited from the immutable laws of the inevitable accumulation of experience such traits which are very distinct to it: in sum, a great cynicism and a growing reluctance with putting up with annoying people and useless things. What is surprising perhaps is how tender of an age, in the greater scheme of things, has this transformation occurred. I'd have liked to wait till forty at least. But one cannot do much about these things so onward we head.

Books are something I think about a lot because I have gained so much from them. Interesting people are very scarce in this world and interesting people with half a brain are scarcer still. The chances of running into one of them are so low that one cannot depend upon this possibility for one's own mental satisfaction and development. In an atmosphere which generally lacks intellectual stimulation from external agencies, books, good books, are dependable sources for the same. Not only can they be very satisfying in the moment, they can also provide one with the kind of perspective which is essential to maintaining one's own happiness. I think of myself as a reasonably happy and satisfied person. Part of it has to do with the fact that I like my work but there is another, deeper reason to it. With the qualification that there are many who are much better read than I am, I can safely say that I am better read than most people I know. It doesn't make me a better person but it provides me with a strong defense of utmost practical importance in this world. With deep conviction and as a matter of principle, I can and do disregard most things which people say, do, and advise. This deep conviction results from the central tenet in my worldview that most people have absolutely no clue and since they have no clue they need not be taken seriously in matters of importance. This immediate and relentless filtering which happens at a subconscious level prevents me from dealing with the incredible amount of noise that is out there. This noise is philosophically of the following substance: people think that they are important but they are not, they think their issues are unique but that isn't true either, they also think they have a good grasp of the world around them, of their issues, of their career, relationships, convictions, humanity, and religion but this could not be farther from the truth. Good books help one develop this attitude of indifference by laying bare the circular patterns of behavior and of history itself. This attitude might be seen as either good (by rational people) or bad (by emotional ones). I see it as being very healthy and have never regretted it.

Ode to Joy

I heard Beethoven's Ode to Joy at the San Diego Symphony once and it was one of the most amazing and stunning experiences of my life:

 

Selfie

There's an article in New York Times today which rekindled a thought process that I last had in Paris. There I saw hordes of people clamoring around the major tourist attractions, selfie sticks in hand, in a frenzied effort to shoot that perfect snap which, as I imagined, would gather the maximum number of likes on Facebook. Although technology apologists try to excuse this behavior by saying that it allows one to share the valuable moments of one's life with those who one cares about, I think this is a weak argument, although not without a certain amount of truth to it. The stronger drive behind the selfie craze, unsurprisingly and quite obviously, is a combined cocktail of two rather perilous human traits: narcissism and insecurity. And an individual's participation on the various social platforms (Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, Snapchat etc.) is also primarily a manifestation, in different degrees, of these two traits. To the lofty arguments of the simple-minded idealist, this is a realist's (my) counter-position.

The need to establish an elevated social status in comparison with our peers is as old as civilization itself (see Veblen). What social media has done is that it has supercharged the mechanisms through which this status can be manipulated, projected, and interpreted. And it is has done one other major disservice by shrinking social relations and making the boundaries of society extremely fluid and arbitrary. What I realize as fundamentally unachievable for me also does not figure into my deliberations very much. It does not lead to feelings of insecurity and inadequacy. However, those things which are deemed worthy by my peers and which are within my reach if only I jumped the required hoops are precisely the ones which carry the greatest potential of engendering such feelings. Social media, by cheapening the socially admired values and by bringing a large number of people together, has created the conditions wherein the average participant is constantly being bombarded by a bevy of attributes which, if achieved, would elevate his social status among his peers. There is no end to this enticement and this race precisely because of how easy and how cheap it is to gain such attributes and to gain the approval of others. This cheapened style of existence, as I see it, is absolutely catastrophic for individual self-esteem, however, it works brilliantly for the companies whose products are those very people who are the enthusiastic participants in the brave new world.

I am interested in the logical next steps in this process. People have long been turned into commodities and the process has only accelerated in the age of the internet. People, on the other hand, have more than happily acquiesced to the state of things converting themselves, in the process, into walking billboards, zealous fanboys, and selfie-stick wielding insecure narcissists. Where does it all go from here? I have a large bag of popcorn ready!

APJ Abdul Kalam

Past president of India and one of the most brilliant scientist/engineer that the country ever produced, APJ Abdul Kalam, died of a heart attack today. As to many other youngsters who grew up in the 80s and 90s, Kalam was a deep inspiration to me as well. It's a sad day and the country has lost an acute, inspirational, and utterly irreplaceable citizen.

on Cities

While walking around among the concrete houses in a posh neighborhood in Ahmadabad I came across a seed of a thought which soon germinated into something quite interesting. I noticed rows upon rows of houses made mostly of bricks and concrete with little windows to peek out on to the streets which were filled with bicycles, motorcycles, cars, trucks, and pedestrians. And then I dipped gingerly into my shallow bank of early memories to discover a large ancestral house, since sold, in a much smaller town in North India. It exists in my memory within a quiet setting, one where I could still clearly make out the Milky way in the night and one where I could step out during the day and experience such natural elements which have been so efficiently removed from the urban setting. Domesticated animals of all sorts, ponds, trees, and rivers. Compared to that setting and that time almost everybody I know in India has moved to places which, in my opinion, are worse in almost every respect.

Big cities in India, like big cities in the US as well, have accommodated an immense concentration of human beings by driving out those very elements of nature, in relation to which humans become aware of their humanity. In these modern metropolises the average human is surrounded, for the most part, by dead things - walls, furniture, and electronics - and he is surrounded, for the most part, by artificial noise. He breathes polluted air and puts up with congestion, traffic, and a general loss of identity. He spends significant portions of his days in long commutes and spends much of his waking hours in jobs which further suck the life out of him. Unfortunately he has little choice in this whole scheme. Power has a tendency to centralize and productive power in the industrial (and post-industrial) age centralizes in large cities. Young people move to these areas out of a necessity to find decent jobs and the older ones, at least in India, tend to follow their children into these nightmare cities. The cities, on the other hand, do what they were meant to accomplish in the first place - efficiently convert human beings and their labor into commercial products (shit which nobody needs, as I like to think). These cities are dehumanizers par excellence.

US is not much better in this respect, although there is still a little more freedom of choice mostly owing to a much reduced pressure on resources compared to India. NYC, the prototypical American urban center, is a despicable and detestable place from the point of view of  a human being and his relation to nature, from the point of view of his humanity. However, it can still boast of harboring culture even though the average person living in the city can hardly be called cultured. The other great urban center in the US, the silicon valley, sadly cannot even call itself cultured. As the center of the tech juggernaut, however, I think it is very appropriately mechanical. Other urban centers fall somewhere along this spectrum. They are all similar to each other in their merciless dehumanizing effect on people.

on Movies

With every passing time that I visit India I get to see some of its character in more detail, especially when compared against the US. We went to see a new movie in the theater which is about a young Pakistani girl who happens to find herself lost in India. The story is about the protagonist's quest to take her back to her family in Pakistan. One would think that would simply be a matter of getting a visa, boarding a train, and job done. But in true Bollywood fashion there are twists and turns enough for the simple premise to stretch over 2 hours. The movie is fun in a very Bollywood kind of way. In a certain sense it is also very characteristic of the society here, but then as they say, art does imitate life.

There is an undercurrent of activism here and I have noticed it in several other Bollywood movies. The central premise is the following: those who wield the institutions of power are corrupt and it takes for people to come together to get things done and to improve the general lot. The institutions of power include, but are not limited to, police, government, even religion. The response to the unfair powers is, in typical Bollywood fashion, idealistic where, in the end, not only are the primary objectives achieved (the common man prevails) but these objectives are achieved in most moral of fashions. The entire suite of virtue is upheld in this fictionalized rebellion of sorts and this idealism, in essence, is the idealism of Ramayana (as opposed to Mahabharata) where there is much suffering emanating from the requirement that to an ideal person suffering is preferable to immorality, pain preferable to short cuts. This idealism unfortunately has no place in the real world where heinous injustices are often inevitable by-products of the pursuit of high minded goals.

Compare this to the typical American narrative where the powers that be are incompetent (and not corrupt) and, therefore, there is hardly any case to be made for rage and rebellion on a social level. This is why the typical American movies and the typical American obsessions are isolationary and individual with little regard for issues larger than one's own. To Americans, the war is being fought somewhere in Asia whose carnage is continuously being cleaned up and packaged in neat little statistics so as not to offend anybody. The kind of poverty which is seen in India is largely not an experience in the US and, therefore, its stories are not about overcoming it and general unfairness. However, it doesn't mean everything is great in the US. There exists a kind of existential meaningless there which is absolutely debilitating and that is why, I think, the American stories are so escapist. Escapism in comic books and their movie adaptations, escapism in the kinds of movies typified by need for speed, escapism in a general extended adolescence which stretches all the way into the 40s and 50s, and escapism in fairy tail stories such as Harry Potter and LOTR. Movies there are symptomatic of a general cultural trait: there are no real issues, at least, none of the same caliber as those found in a third world country like India, however, there's a terrible issue within oneself which nobody knows how to solve so let's just run away from it.

The neoliberal debacle

Perhaps it is a sign of all times that the truth underlying the average reality appears bleak to those who can take a moment to tear away from the opium of the age. The opium famously used to be religion for people both rich and poor but the opium of our age, especially for the middle class and up, is consumption. Consumption of gadgetry, of entertainment, and of material goods. And the cost that is paid for this consumption is more than just monetary. It constitutes the very human soul.

I have been following the Greek economic crisis with keen interest wondering whether there are lessons to be learned from it, whether it points to deeper trends in the human journey. The crisis is perhaps exacerbated because of Greece's inability to devalue its own currency under the monetary union but the general chaos, I think, is indicative of larger trends. It is the post-2008 world which has finally begun to show us the ugly side of unfettered capitalism whose seeds of destruction were laid all the way back in the 70s with the dismantling of the Bretton Woods system. The monster was given more than a helping hand by the extreme deregulatory emphasis of the Reagan-Greenspan era, supported by the theories of the fine sounding academics in the World's most famous economics departments, most notably in the University of Chicago where Milton Friedman and his steady stream of proteges created a mathematical model of real world economics which abetted and supported a system which has led to the present chaos. What is the human cost here? Figures suggest that income inequality now is as high as it was after the great depression and that the real wages of average workers in the US is below what it used to be in the 70s. What lies in the future? The future, at least in the near term, looks pretty dismal to me for reasons that I have talked about earlier. With increasing mechanization and reach of technology, humans will slowly be displaced from any and all forms of occupations. It's only a matter of when and not if. During this time we will see more extreme levels of inequalities, poverty, misery, and lack of opportunities essentially because of one reason. Human beings will become less and less competitive and for no fault of theirs. However, this will not prevent the game of victim-blaming from those who have benefited from living under a more benign economic climate. They will proudly say, well, you should have worked harder. Hopefully these idiots will die away before it's too late.

The reason I say before it's too late is because I do think that there is light at the end of the tunnel but it is not clear how society would get there. There is already a surplus of goods and services in the World and yet we see extreme levels of poverty and misery. How can a rational person, in good conscience, justify this level of absurdity? In the future, goods and services will be plentiful and a mechanism will need to be designed which redistributes this surplus without any expectation of work. This might be done through powerful central mechanisms but, more interestingly to me, it may also be done through highly decentralized initiatives which will become feasible as the required knowledge and technology will essentially become free. The Greek crisis is a small act in this long term tussle because it essentially represents the painful cries of a people rendered highly noncompetitive through mechanisms outside of their control (the common currency in this case). And the only solution, as the IMF indicates, is through what is essentially a fiscal transfer. We are hearing the usual recriminations from those in power (Germany), that the Greeks should have worked hard...

Untethered

In moving from India to the US at the time that I did, I, more than perhaps others who came before me, inherited in my heart a vacuum whose depths I have been trying to plumb quite unsuccessfully for the last ten years. In moments of stillness when I can muster enough courage to weigh a life in balance, I become aware of the existence of a loss whose essence appears impossible to communicate. In brief disjointed flashes of arbitrary cuts of memory a scene from a movie Koshish comes to mind (and why I remember this inconsequential scene is as incomprehensible to me as why I remember the movie at all). A sunny day on a beach, a clenched fist, and sand slowly draining from between the fingers. The harder the fist clenched, the faster the sand drained. Some poignant dialogue, I am sure, followed but I do not remember it. I do not need to, because I feel its real, alive context in my nerve endings; I understand, in the deepest of ways, the metaphor of the slippery sand. Unlike most Indians that I have known, I do not have a place where I could fix my past to. There is no single city where I could authoritatively place myself in, there is no set of alleyways which exists in my memory as the definitive labyrinth of childhood, there is no special set of friends whose company I can trace back through the decades. In the absence of these concrete markers I think I was inadvertently forced to create surrogate connections to more abstract ideas, to rest my nostalgia not on the foundations of a certain house which might appear with soft edges in the mind's eye but with vague symbols which stood for certain values which were deeply Indian. A particular set of Ghazals, for example, which remind me of nothing concrete at all from my past but make me aware of a lovely, idealized crystallization of what meant to be Indian, if only in a childish, innocent sort of way. The sum total of these nostalgic markers indicate to me a world which actually might not really have existed outside of my idiotic, easily led, imagination. I was an idealist then which explains why I am a cynic now. Back then, however, I searched for Malgudi in the real world and, unfortunately, I found it too. Now that I go back to India, I am deeply dismayed to see that my metaphoric Malgudi hasn't stood the test of time, that it has shriveled and disintegrated against the onslaught of money, ambition, greed, and, well... reality. It's as if I woke up one day and found that my past was extinguished. All that remained was a faint whiff of smoke and a dark, slightly warm wick.

Technocalypse

I came across a very well written and comprehensive article which deals with an issue that I have also been interested in. It is an issue which seems to be getting a pass in the popular discourse even though whose repercussions, in my opinion, will be tremendous not too far in the future. Many of the effects can already be felt. The issue is one of the steadily creeping and all engulfing reach of technology in our daily lives and the effect it has in the short and the slightly longer term. By technology I refer not only to all the different gadgets that we use everyday but also to the sinister grip of algorithms which drives so much of our current lives from behind the scenes.

It is clear to me that the short term effect of this increasing technological reach is positive but it is positive only in the sense that the effect of a narcotic is positive. It provides increasing comforts on an individual level but for every comfort that it provides, I cannot help but feel that a longer term nail is also sharpened and readied, to eventually be used to close the lid on the literal and metaphoric coffin. A case in point is Uber but there is nothing special about it as the tech industry in general will faithfully follow the story. Uber makes it exceedingly easy to hire a taxi through a smartphone and it is, therefore, not surprising that it has zealous, almost fanatical, support among the many who use it. That it tramples over the existing taxi services not through direct competition but mainly by avoiding regulations is conveniently overlooked by its supporters. "Evolution of transportation", "inevitable disruption", and other similar revolutionary phrases are heard coming from the doyens of silicon valley and their rabid followers. Uber may very well be the future but let's not deceive ourselves by thinking that a fair game is being played. Let's also not be under the delusion that the shared economy of which Uber is, in some sense, the flag bearer will be a benevolent one. Uber, like many other services, is amassing huge amounts of money which will only be used to push those very users who use it out of a livelihood. Today it is the taxi drivers but in the not too distant future it will be the Uber drivers who so enthusiastically support it. This is already evident by the significant research investment that Uber has made in self-driving cars. In the larger perspective the people who so vocally champion the tech companies of today (Uber, Google, Apple etc.) will eventually be pushed aside. This turn of events would be humorous if only it was not so tragic and ironical because, in a sense, humanity is digging its own grave. We are not only parting with our privacy today but we are actually parting with our tomorrow. It's bad enough without even mentioning the other elephant in the room which is fed by tech, surveillance, and the philosophical degeneration of such deep ideas as freedom that it leads to.

I don't think there is a large scale solution to this because the collective foresight is too short, the collective resolve too weak, and the collective greed too high. Perhaps all one can do is to rebel in a small personal way and I find it not hard at all to cultivate the dislike which must form the basis of it. I dislike groups and I hate their homogenized thinking and there has not been a greater and a more brutal homogenizing influence than the ascension of tech.

Raghu

If I were to name the one person whom I met in my life and who resembled the mighty dude from the Lebowski movie more than any other, it'd have to be Raghu. Raghu was the diminutive flatmate I had in San Diego when I was living in a townhouse on Easter way. He was, quite simply, the most interesting person I ever met and he was interesting in precisely the kind of ways I thought I'd never find anybody interesting. I have always gravitated towards people who show some degree of intellectual sophistication but Raghu had none of it and he wasn't bothered. By saying this I mean him absolutely no ill-will. In fact to this day I stand amazed at how happy he was, how simple his life was, and I honestly feel that only those who cannot be happy must then try to go ahead and compensate for their loss by trying to develop sophistication, which more often than not, is petty and false anyway.

Himanshu and I had put up the third room (upstairs) in our house for rent and we were spending quite a bit of time meeting with those who were interested in renting it out. People would come, walk all over the place on both floors, ask an unreasonable number of questions about everything under the Sun, and then disappear never to return again. Needless to say it was all very frustrating for us and we waited with only mild hopes as one night a red mustang convertible pulled into our driveway. Raghu introduced himself to us as the three of us sat at the living room dining table (downstairs) and started talking about what each of us did. He said that he worked for Qualcomm as a testing engineer and he told us that he hailed from this small town called Bijapur in India. My initial impressions of him were not mercurial, I must say, seeing in him a stereotypical Indian who finds it hard to assimilate in the US, thus retaining a certain demeanor and a certain way of talking which belies his origins a little too bluntly. What struck me, however, was the fact that after about half an hour of chatting about things completely unrelated to the room which was being rented out, he took out his checkbook and wrote us a check for the desired amount. He never went up to look at the room and he never asked any question of much pertinence to the business at hand. Just like that, he had moved in. I remember being a little bewildered as the sound of a red mustang slowly dissolved into the distance. And thus began my short acquaintance with a most remarkable person, one who taught me some very fundamental things about myself.

During the time that Raghu shared the place with us, he remained a constant fixture on the living room couch, constantly watching the repeats of Two and a Half Men. He must have gone through the whole damn thing at least 10 times and I marveled at his capacity to laugh rapturously at the same jokes that he must have heard several times already. On coming back home from work, while cooking food, while working upstairs in my room, I was constantly aware of the sound of the show which, by now, even I had gotten memorized in parts. Every now and then I would plop down on the other couch and watch the damn show with him and wonder what the source of his seemingly endless joy was. Raghu was never a man to hesitate in matters of opinion. Facts were not important to him and he completely ignored as minor inconvenience his own utter lack of knowledge on questions that were asked of him. He would always give me an answer to anything I asked and he would do so with absolute confidence. I remember this one time when Rathina, Raghu, Nikhil, (possibly Himanshu), and I were sitting at the dining room table when I asked Raghu how Todi, an alcoholic drink famous in Kerela, is made. Rathina happens to be from Kerala and as it turns out he knows a thing or two about the Todi process (his father owns acres of coconut farms where Todi, among other goods, is produced). However, this did nothing to prevent Raghu from bursting forth into a most elaborate description of the Todi production process. It was a work of a singular genius, not a single word of which was correct. There were earthen pots in the process I remember, and I remember that those pots had to be buried underground. A precise time-frame was mentioned with the nonchalance of someone who has the facts on his fingertips and who is reciting them for the 15th time. Needless to say I found all this incredibly amusing and ended up deriving a tremendous amount of joy in asking him all sorts of things and then waiting for his imagination to uncoil. Not all my experiences with him were so painless and one specifically stands out. We had a small patch of land which the two of us decided to rake so as to be able to grow something useful. I wanted to grow either tomatoes or chilies but I deferred to Raghu. Raghu had expressed the desire of going back to India and starting a farm so I obviously thought that he knew what he was talking about in these matters. He said that we should grow peanuts and I agreed but not without a sinking feeling that something was not quite right. Peanuts in California literally are just peanuts. They are cheap as dirt. We planted them after which point Raghu conveniently forgot about the whole operation. To this day I shudder at the sight of those 30 peanut pods that I harvested from the piece of land that I had watered for several months. In retrospect, I feel that that might have been the most idiotic thing that I have ever done.

I think the sum total of my recollection of Raghu is one of a man with an extremely rare character. He was a simple man with simple, uncomplicated tastes and he was utterly happy in his simplicity. He finally did go back to India where, I hope, he has his farm already and which, I hope, is being put to better use than the little piece of land on Easter way. Unless, that is, his whole spiel about the farm in India was yet another one of his utterly charming and absolutely bullshit stories.

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