Saturday, July 30, 2005

Do me a favour and pass the marijuana

Back when I was in middle school, there was this major media campaign against drugs. Every day you would get these ads on TV, featuring misguided young men who destroyed their lives by Saying YES to Drugs, ads that invariably ended with a red skull that had a small puff of smoke drifting out of its hideously grinning teeth (you have to remember these were the good old days of public programming on TV - before cable came in - so that these ads were often the most exciting part of the evening's television watching). Personally, I don't think these ads helped much - for one thing, by clubbing all narcotics under the general rubric of 'Drugs' they allowed people to make the dangerous assumption that there was no difference between smoking the occassional joint and doing LSD or Ecstasy - a slightly more balanced perspective may have been useful. More importantly, though, they helped create an excitement around drugs that I, for one, was unlikely to have felt otherwise. In my entire adolescent life, the only person who ever offered me drugs or suggested I try them was that leering drug dealer on TV. Those ads left me with the distinct impression that the proper thing to do when one was at college was to get together with a bunch of friends, put Dum Maro Dum on the stereo, and snort something that looked suspiciously like talcum powder up my nose. The fact that I never managed to meet a single person in my college who actually did drugs remains one of the more serious disappointments of my teenage life.

More importantly, though, I feel these ads completely ignored the most pernicious of all narcotics known to man - kindness to total strangers. You know how it is. One day you're hanging out with friends and someone (not someone you really know too well, mind you, just some guy) has a favour to ask. Before you know it you're stepping forward, volunteering. He tells you what it is, with this half-sceptical, half-intense look in his eyes, as if daring you to back down now. You really don't want to do this, but you go ahead anyway. You figure it's just a little thing, it can't hurt. It's not like you're going to make a habit of doing this or something. You do it. You feel good. The world seems brighter, more lucid. Next thing you know you're hooked. Every time there's a favour to be done, you're there. It doesn't matter who it's for anymore - friends, neighbours, total strangers you meet on the road. You don't care - you're just looking to score. You spend days in a frenzy of doing good deeds, like a boy scout on speed, like a Good Samaritan with the fast-forward button on.

After a while you realise you're going too far. You try to stop. That's when the guilt hits you. You know how easy it would be to make someone else happy. You now how good you'll feel afterward, even though it's really painful while you're doing it. You can't stand the thought of all those favours you could do going wasted. You stick it out for a few days, trying not to meet the eyes of others for fear of the appeal you'll see in them. Then one day you break down and help a blind man cross the road. That's it. You've fallen off the wagon. Next thing you know you're helping that fat PhD student down the street who no one will talk to finish her dissertation. Before you know it helping other people has taken over your whole life. You don't work anymore, you have no other interests. All you do is go around doing good to other people. Pretty soon people are avoiding you in the street. This only makes you more desperate for them to like you, so you start doing even more favours. Before long you're chain-helping - going from one favour to the next without even stopping for a breath in between. You're not a person anymore, you're just a doormat.

The thing that makes kindness so deadly a drug though, is that it must be the only addictive substance on the planet which doesn't just get you hooked on it, it also gets hooked on you. Think about it. You do some random person a favour because it's easy and the blogspot server is down. They thank you profusely - you accept their gratitude with good grace, shrugging it off to show how humble a person you are. It was nothing, you say. Next thing you know they actually believe this. They're coming to you with every trouble they have. If it's not their term papers, it's their mother's sciatica. Or their complete absence of a sex life. Or a job for their fourth cousin twice removed. You can't just fob them with a simple 'sorry, I don't have the time' any more (which is what you should have done right at the beginning) - now they EXPECT this of you. Worse, they DEPEND on you for this. If you tell them you might not be able to talk to them for more than an hour about their curtain designs because you have a major surgery scheduled tomorrow and you need to make a will before it, they will look at you in this hurt way that says they're disappointed in you, you've let them down. After all, it's not like they're asking you for anything major. Just a simple little thing. You've always done it before. What's wrong this time? Have they done something to offend you? Don't you like them anymore? At which point, of course, you cave in and say, fine, fine, I'll come and hold your hand while you have "I love Momma" tattooed on your left buttock. No, that's all right, never mind about the opera tickets. This will be just as much fun.

Of course, people will tell you that there's joy in giving, that one mustn't think only of oneself. I completely agree with this. And I'd be quite happy, on the whole, to make sacrifices for people I truly love or care for - to help them out in any way I can, even if it means a significant inconvenience to myself. Ironically, though, these are precisely the people who are the most reluctant to take advantage of me - they approach me for help only when there's no other way, they're careful not to make a habit of it. It's complete strangers (or people I actively abhor and therefore make it a point to be excruciatingly polite to) with whom the simplest little good deed gets instantly magnified into a lifelong commitment of bonded labour. And that's what I object to.

Looking back, I probably would have survived the occassional joint. God knows I've been sozzled out of my mind with alcohol often enough - I don't suppose the occassional drug high would have done me that much harm. If there's one temptation I truly regret giving in to, it's this urge to do random acts of kindness. So the next time someone offers you a drag, think about it (though if he's offering it to you freely he's probably a narc in disguise). But the next time someone comes up to you and asks you for help - Just Say NO.

Friday, July 29, 2005

The Price

It was past closing time. The coffee shop was almost empty. One man sat on a corner table, trying to gulp his coffee down too fast, burning his tongue in the process. The lights had been dimmed. The boy in the apron who'd served them was clearing up now, turning the chairs upside down and placing them carefully on the tables, legs turned up to the sky like some grotesque dead animal. Somebody had turned the door sign over, so that seen from inside it now said (in bold orange letters) 'Open' - which meant, of course, that it was closed.

One door closes, the other opens, he thought. But what if it's the same door, just seen from opposite sides? Was it really that easy? Could you just flip your heart over and shut the world out? Could you reverse time so it would read the way you wanted it to?

They were sitting across from each other, clutching their seperate coffee cups as though they were regrets. Hers was a tall latte with too much sugar as usual; his was small and bitter - an espresso. He started to take another sip, then realised there was nothing left. That's right, he thought, I have drained the cup to the bottom. I wonder why I'm still holding on.

The girl at the counter was looking at them anxiously now. Hoping they would leave soon. Why were they still here anyway? There was nothing left to say. Was it just that the lateness of the hour had made of the table some sort of rite, obscene but necessary? Was this part of the dance then - a spotlight, a fire that they warmed their hands against before vanishing forever into the darkness? Between them now the silence was a sugar bowl, filled with white sachets of accusation that they fingered absently, but would never open, never need. It was just as well.

It was only when she got up to go that he realised how much he loved her, how much he could hate her. There was anger there, but also a sense of relief. After all, someone had to leave first, he thought, better her than me. He watched her take out her purse, count out her share of the tab, leave it pinned under the saucer. He waited with impatience for the last thing she would say. When she finally raised her eyes to his, though, he realised that this too was unnecessary, and he nodded and let her go; the words she had opened her mouth to say were left unsaid. She nodded back, then turned away. He watched her leave, experiencing again that feeling of barriers, transparent yet unbreakable, between them - that sense of observing each other from two equal but alien worlds.

She did not look back. When she had disappeared around the corner, it occured to him that they would probably never meet again. The idea seemed impossible somehow, yet also very real, like a photograph of himself from a place he couldn't remember visiting. The waitress was hovering behind him now, he could feel her impatience like the beat of wings coming closer. He should go. Get some sleep (if sleep still existed in the world, if there were still beds and pillows and nightlights; he wasn't sure). He was catching the early flight.

On an impulse, he picked up the cash she had left, sat staring at the note for a minute. Then, very carefully, he tore it exactly into half. Then he put the two halves together and tore them into two more halves - again with the same careful precision. Then he put the four pieces together and tore them...

Someone had told him once that there was a physical limit to how far you could take this. Eight tears, he had said, and then the whole thing becomes too thick, it's true, it doesn't matter what paper you take. Or was it that you couldn't fold a piece of paper more than eight times? He couldn't remember. He wondered how many times you could fold a man, how small you could make him? He looked at the pieces of the note in his hand - nothing but scraps of worthless paper now - and let them trickle into the ashtray.

The waitress was watching him nervously. She thinks I'm going to be trouble, he thought. She thinks I'm not leaving because I don't want to pay. How ironic. The truth is I'm not paying because I have nowhere to go. She's coming over now. She's going to say something. Better to pay now and get out.

Yes, I will pay. I will pay all of it, every last cent. And she will never know.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

You've got to be kidding

What exactly is the deal with proud parents anyway? I mean what are they so proud about? Okay, so you went ahead and got yourself a 20 pound piece of raw, blubbering steak. That's fine with me - I'm a tolerant person, I don't judge. What you do in the privacy of your own home is none of my business. But you could at least be suitably ashamed of the little monstrosity, keep it hidden away at home, in the garage maybe, next to the beer empties and the spare tire. What's with all this celebration? If all you want is something that goes off at all the most inopportune times, wakes you up at night, embarasses you in public - then get a cellphone without a silent mode, for God's sake.

And what price the smugness? I mean if I spent my time wandering about the city carrying something that was a cross between a car alarm and mashed whale blubber I'd either get arrested by Homeland Security or put in a strait-jacket by those nice men over at the local nut-house, right? Except everywhere you look there are these glowing mothers pushing their prams about, and no one so much as bothers to stun them with Mace. Even when they invade our offices we smile at them indulgently, when they thrust their little ghouls in our faces, we manage to restrain our instinct to hit them with our wireless keyboards (purely in self-defense, of course). How lovely, we say, just what I needed to make my cube more fun - a drool machine to slobber all over me! Now I don't have to build my complex analytical models in silence anymore, I can do it to the accompaniment of caterwauling puppy fat! What's that? You want to use the conference room to change the baby - go right ahead, that's what it's for. Think of it as your own personal diaper altar. We just pretend to have meetings in there every now and then so no one will suspect. (And while we're on the subject - what is it about diapers that makes changing them a quasi-religious experience for women. I mean, would you like us to all come stand around and watch while you went to the bathroom? Is there some biblical precedent for this sort of thing? Was the first thing Princess what's her name did for the baby Moses after she pulled him out of his basket of bulrushes to get him a fresh diaper? Did the three wise men stand around in wonder, clutching their precious gifts, while the virgin mother changed the infant Jesus?)

Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that parenting is easy - I recognise that being a good parent is one of the hardest things in the world (and something I'm way too chicken to try). But what's so tough about having babies? I mean, okay, so if you come and tell me you're proud of your daughter because at 16 she's over at John Hopkins finding cures for cancer and setting the text of Dante's Inferno to a piece for solo violin-cello in her free time, then I can see why your pride may be justified. But if all you've managed to do is procreate, I don't see what the big deal is. It's not like you've suddenly become model parents. This little monster you're dandling about is probably going to turn out to be a psychotic axe murderer, or (even worse) a Britney Spears fan (you can see it in its face already).

So where does this sense of achievement come from? And it's not just self-delusion. Other people buy into this. There I'll be at a family get-together telling everyone about the seminal contributions I'm making to business strategy, or trying to have a conversation about Hegel's dialectics, when some stupid cousin of mine will walk in with his wife and three month old baby and instead of telling them to can it, everyone will cluster around them cooing in incomprehensible voices, and casting sly glances at me that say "Why couldn't you be like this? Why are you such a failure? Where did we go wrong?". I don't get this. I mean, look, I'm the one with the Ivy League education, I'm the one who's read all of F Scott Fitzgerald's books, I'm the one with four different recordings of J.S. Bach's Art of Fugue on my iPod; this guy has some dead end job as a sort of glorified help-desk, he reads books for the illustrations, neither he and his wife could hold a conversation if it fell into their laps - and he's the successful one? Why? Because he figured out how to get a woman pregnant. What a discovery! The world will never be the same again! I can see the Nobel Prize committee rushing to the phone to call him and give him the good news. Yup, anyday now.

Oh, and if all this wasn't bad enough - we have to be nice to these people? Make way for them as they walk slowly out of the auditorium making cooing noises because the baby started crying in the middle of Beethoven's Sixth Symphony (again)? Sit at the table next to them at a restaurant and listen to their brat howl without sticking your fork into it or at least pouring some tabasco sauce into its eyes? (Why is it that more restaurants will ban dogs and not babies / little children? I'm okay with dogs. Dogs are decent and well-behaved and if they trouble you too much you can always shove them away; if a fiery Doberman comes up to your table and bares his teeth, it's okay for you start back in panic and ask the owner to keep him under control and no one says, "Oh look! Little Adolf made a new friend! Aren't they cute at that age!") Give up our seats on the bus / train to them? (you get to have sex and I have to spend a thirty minute journey on my feet? Great.*). They get tax breaks for inflicting these horrors upon us? Why don't we just let the Martians take over - at least they reproduce through cloning.

Personally I think this whole parenting thing is one big consolation prize. The basic idea is that any given point of time some 90% of people are going to be losers, so if you don't want total anarchy you have to give them something that will let them feel a sense of achievement. Hmmm..let's see, what is it that it takes no intelligence, no talent, no taste or maturity or education? How about making babies? Yes, that's a good one, let's go with that. Never mind if you can't spell, are hooked on your old ABBA recordings and have the street-smartness of a piece of roadkill. You too can be a REAL GROWN-UP! Just as long as you don't manage to figure out how to use a condom.

*I'm convinced, btw, that half the women riding the Philadelphia transit system with babies had the damn things for the express purpose of doing me out of a seat

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

The Parable of the Desert

Sigh. Okay, I promise this is the last pseudo-philosophical post I'm putting this week. It's just that I've been having a couple of discussions on this stuff, and I just couldn't resist.

Anyway, here's a piece I wrote a long while back to a friend - it still expresses better than anything else how I feel about life.

In the Myth of Sisyphus (you really MUST read it) Camus makes this whole point about the absurd life being a life without appeal. I think one of the simplest ways of looking at it is as a life emptied of consequence (in all senses of the term). The cornerstone of all absurdist reasoning is precisely this - that no matter what we do, it has no effect on the human condition or the ultimate outcome of our own life which is death and oblivion. Understand that this is not fatalism. We are not saying that no matter what you do, your destiny will not change - we are saying that you can change your destiny, but that your destiny itself is trivial: strong gusts of wind can bear the falling leaves farther from the tree, but this does not make a strong gust of wind meaningful or 'good'. The gust of wind, like existence itself, merely is; and while its presence has consequences, no significance can be attached to them.

This then is the accusation - a meaningless farce of survival with the persistent bad habit of death at the end. And if we are to deny consequence to everything we do; if the courtroom is empty and the judge and jury that we imagined are only planks of wood and the glassy sunmica of the backs of chairs, then there can be no hope of appeal.


But this is not the absurdist argument proper, this is only the preface, the statement of the problem. The challenge for the absurd man is really to accept this causal vacuum, and to maintain, even in the featureless face of its cold impartiality the haughty visage of man's dignity - not because man is deemed important, but because knowing only ourselves, and therefore certain only of our own consciousness, we have nothing to hold on to but existence.

To illustrate this a little better, allow me to introduce the parable of the desert. Imagine that a man wakes up one morning and finds himself in a desert, without water. He could then convince himself that water lay in such and such a direction, and go on travelling in that direction certain of finding it, ceding only at the point of death, still convinced that water lies in that direction and hopeful of finding it someday (not realising that such a day can never come). Or he could choose not to search for water at all, choosing instead to accept that there is no water but that this doesn't matter - something else does, say building sand castles (either because he believes in sand castles, or simply because he enjoys building them). Or he could sit down and die. The absurd man's challenge is to do none of these - neither to delude himself with hope of any kind nor to surrender. The absurd man must accept that there is only the desert, that nothing he can do in the desert is of any merit - he can neither find water that would allow him to survive in the desert, nor can he build monuments in sand that will survive to tell his Ozymandiacal tale to those who follow. In short, he must accept that there is no difference between doing something and doing nothing. And having accepted that (and this is the real test) he must then choose action over surrender. His task is a difficult one, because it is to choose to hang in limbo between belief (which he cannot aspire to) and suicide (which is beneath his dignity), it is to accept defeat and all its bitterness and not be defeated.

But if there is hardship here there is also a great triumph - the only one possible to man in an absurd universe. Knowing that reprieve is impossible, the absurd man has chosen to attend every sitting of his trial, to listen to every imprecation that is heaped on him and to go through all the necessary paperwork (have you read Camus' Outsider? This is more or less what happens there) without ever trying to defend himself or making a plea for justice. And this 'conscious scorn' is the only means by which man can assert his dignity.

Reading about the absurd challenge, it would seem that the whole philosophy is rather similar to the Geeta's concept of karma. This is untrue. Because what the Geeta is advocating is action without the hope of reward; what the absurd argument talks of is action with the certainty of no reward. The difference is significant. Karma is a surrender into the hands of a higher power, the hope of reward is replaced by a belief in a just eternity that renders the hope redundant. Absurdism, on the other hand, is the outright rejection of hope and an espousal of action in deliberate and futile spite of an impersonal and ephemeral existence. Caught in quicksand, the ordinary man would thrash about because he hoped to escape. The Karmic philosopher would thrash about knowing that he could not escape on his own, but believing that the effort itself would become a virtue. The absurd man would thrash about knowing that he could never escape, because he still had the strength in his muscles to do it and it was an insult to his dignity not to.

This may seem like a petty victory - it is. But it is the only victory possible to man, the only victory that man can achieve. And it is a victory not because it proves something to someone else (there is no pomp in the quiet scorn of the absurd man) but more because there is a sense of achievement in having done something so hard, in having pushed yourself to accept the dichotomy between action and consequence. The absurd man is not trying to prove anything to the quicksand, he is trying to prove to himself that he is capable of simultaneously knowing that he is to die and of continuing to put in his best effort to escape and that though he recognises that this knowledge and this satisfaction is trivial and will die with him, he also recognises that there is nothing else that existence offers him and is content.

In a sense this is the Promethean way, and the way of Satan in Paradise Lost. Remember Milton:

"Hail horrors! Hail,
Infernal world! and thou, profoundest Hell,
Receive thy new possessor -- one who brings
A mind not to be changed by place or time.
...Here at least
We shall be free; the Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence;
Here we may reign secure, and, in my choice,
To reign is worth ambition, though in Hell;"

Suggested Reading:

1. Albert Camus The Myth of Sisyphus (obviously)
2. Albert Camus The Outsider
3. Franz Kafka The Trial
4. Franz Kafka The Hunger Artist (short story)
5. Jean-Paul Sartre Being and Nothingness
6. Arthur Schopenhauer On Pessimism

P.S. This argument does leave open the question, of course, of what man is to do once he's decided to continue existing - but the point is precisely that that is a trivial question once you've seen the truth and decided to go on living.

Another day, another opinion

People are always telling me I'm opinionated. Personally, I think that's just their opinion.

A friend was reminiscing the other day about a prof back at business school who claimed he (my friend) didn't have the right to an opinion about some business question because he'd never had any work experience.

This (in my opinion) is an entirely illogical point of view. On the contrary, I would argue that all opinion deals with things that we haven't experienced or don't know about. Whatever you know for certain / can prove objectively is not opinion - it's fact. It's precisely what you haven't experienced / known that remains in the realm of opinion.

To understand this better, consider first what the professor really means when he says he 'knows' what the real world is like. Has he worked for every organisation in the world? Is he currently working for a business firm? What he really means when he says he knows about business organisations is that he knows about a handful of organisations that he personally has worked with at a specific point of time. However, every organisation is different and organisations change over time, so it's entirely possible that all the past experience he has is completely irrelevant now. In fact, learning theorists would argue that by using his limited experience to theorise about the world, the professor may actually be doing himself a disservice. Research has shown that people with limited experience have a tendency to blindly apply learnings from these settings to other situations where they may not be relevant. As a result, they do more poorly than those who come in with no pre-conceived notions*. A little learning really is a dangerous thing.

But there is a larger issue here - one that deals with the very nature of truth. What do we mean when we say something is true? Karl Popper, building off the work of Hume, argues that the continuity of truth is an illusion - that we cannot objectively know anything about the future from what we have experienced in the past. We may believe that gravity will still operate tomorrow, because it is our experience that it has operated day after day for centuries now - but we cannot prove that this will be so. As Heraclitus would say, you cannot step into the same river twice. Popper therefore concludes that we cannot scientifically claim that anything is true - at best we can only claim that it has not been proved false yet.

A parallel arguments applies to objects and situations. The key point here is that all categories are creations of the mind and therefore opinions. What do we mean, for instance, when we say that two pens are identical? What we really mean is that within the limits of our perception we are unable to tell them apart. Yet in actual fact two 'identical' pens are actually completely seperate entities - made up of separate particles of matter - which have nothing to do with each other except that we happen to have characterised them along dimensions of our own choosing as identical. Existence (or being) is the only 'fact' - everything else is merely opinion**.

People will argue that there is such a thing as informed opinion - but what does this mean exactly? Only that in our opinion, there are certain sources of information that can be trusted / that make sense. I remember attending a Bible reading once (don't ask - I got dragged there by my then girlfriend) where this young woman told me that what she loved about the Bible was that it was all completely true. So what to me is merely opinion (and fairly quaint opinion at that) is to her objective fact. It follows that all truth, all objectivity, is nothing more than a collective delusion. The whole world is opinion - it's just that whatever everyone (or almost everyone) believes is a special class of opinion that we call truth***. All empirical reality is only triangulation.

It always amuses me, therefore when people say things like, "that's just your opinion, just because you think so doesn't make it true" (which is probably what you, dear reader, are thinking about this whole theory right about now). If you really eliminate all opinion, all we are left with is feeling (and undefined feelings at that - the moment you tried putting them into words they would cease to become facts - statements like "I love you", for instance, are merely matters of opinion). And that's a world we could hardly survive in for long (although, of course, the idea that we should survive is only really an opinion by itself).

Notes:

* For research on this in an organisation setting - see Haleblian and Finkelstein (1999), 'The Influence of Organisational Acquisition Experience on Acquisition Performance', Administrative Science Quarterly, where the authors find that prior experience of the acquirer is negatively related to acquisition performance; and Tushman & Anderson's seminal 1986 paper 'Technological Discontinuities and Organisational environments' where the authors argue that radical change will tend to come from new entrants who are not constrained by prior learning

**For a more detailed (and much, much better written) treatment of this idea see Sartre: Nausea (extract here) and Being and Nothingness.

***As an aside, the notion of applying democratic notions to truth is fairly ridiculous. Majority opinion is usually the worst barometer of truth, partly because most people do not think clearly and partly because majority opinion represents what is comfortable or convenient to believe. See, for instance Ibsen's An Enemy of the People (e-text here)

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Recipe for a Melancholy Evening

Take one part Chekhov.

Add Haruki Murakami's South of the Border, West of the Sun.

Blend in Schubert's Violin Sonata in A minor D 385 (preferably with all the lights off)

Add Walcott to taste.

Garnish with a light sprinkle of Miles Davis, just for the aroma.

Serve warm.

What was it Keats said:

"No, no! go not to Lethe, neither twist
Wolf's-bane, tight-rooted, for its poisonous wine;
Nor suffer thy pale forehead to be kist
By nightshade, ruby grape of Proserpine;
Make not your rosary of yew-berries,
Nor let the beetle, nor the death-moth be
Your mournful Psyche, nor the downy owl
A partner in your sorrow's mysteries;
For shade to shade will come too drowsily,
And drown the wakeful anguish of the soul.

But when the melancholy fit shall fall
Sudden from heaven like a weeping cloud,
That fosters the droop-headed flowers all,
And hides the green hill in an April shroud;
Then glut thy sorrow on a morning rose,
Or on the rainbow of the salt sand-wave,
Or on the wealth of glob├Ęd peonies;
Or if thy mistress some rich anger shows,
Emprison her soft hand, and let her rave,
And feed deep, deep upon her peerless eyes."

Vanya-ty

"SONIA: What can we do? All we can do is live. Yes, we shall live, Uncle Vanya. We shall live through the long procession of days before us, and through the long evenings; we shall patiently bear the trials that fate imposes on us; we shall work for others without rest, both now and when we are old; and when our last hour comes we shall meet it humbly, and there, beyond the grave, we shall say that we have suffered and wept, that our life was bitter, and God will have pity on us. Ah, then dear, dear Uncle, we shall see that bright and beautiful life; we shall rejoice and look back upon our sorrow here; a tender smile--and--we shall rest. I have faith, Uncle, fervent, passionate faith. [SONIA kneels down before her uncle and lays her head on his hands. She speaks in a weary voice] We shall rest. [TELEGIN plays softly on the guitar] We shall rest. We shall hear the angels. We shall see heaven shining like a jewel. We shall see all evil and all our pain sink away in the great compassion that shall enfold the world. Our life will be as peaceful and tender and sweet as a caress. I have faith; I have faith. [She wipes away her tears] My poor, poor Uncle Vanya, you are crying! [Weeping] You have never known what happiness was, but wait, Uncle Vanya, wait! We shall rest. [She embraces him] We shall rest. [The WATCHMAN'S rattle is heard in the garden; TELEGIN plays softly; MME. VOITSKAYA writes something on the margin of her pamphlet; MARINA knits her stocking] We shall rest."

- Anton Chekhov 'Uncle Vanya'

But what if we don't have faith, Sonia? What if, for reasons of outrage or heroism or just plain old fashioned stubbornness we refuse to believe, refuse to be cajoled into happiness by the prospect of that belief? What if we would rather be disappointed in ourselves than disappointed in God?

What if the trouble is different - what if the problem is not that one has a life without joy but that one feels joy without a life? What if all these feelings are only images dancing on the surface of a river while the water slides by underneath?

You say we must do the accounts. Very well. But what if, when all the tiny little details have been added together, your life refuses to balance? No matter how many times you check them, the figures simply don't add up? What if the trouble with your life is not simply a miscalculation, an error - what if there really is something missing? How do we make that up, Sonia? Can we just make up a number called God and make our lives balance that way? Wouldn't that be stealing?

But look how I'm rambling now. Just listen to me whine. Or better, pay no attention to me. What do I know? I'm only Vanya, Vanya the fool, Vanya the has-been. I am like a man who paces around a deserted house looking for a way in. Forgive me. I am trying to remember how to be kind to you. I am trying to remember how to be kind to myself. Don't you dare believe a word I just said, Sonia. Cling to your burden because without that you are just a tramp without baggage, bound for nowhere.

Enough talk. You're tired now, my dear, I can hear it in your voice. Go to bed. We can tally it all up in the morning. Go to bed and try not to think about today. Don't worry about the lights - I'll turn them off when I'm done. It's the least I can do after all you've been through. Go now. Goodnight.

[she leaves]

Yes, it's the least I can do. There's always someone who has to do it, isn't there? Someone who has to turn out the lights and grope his way back to his bed all alone in the darkness. It might as well be me.

Monday, July 25, 2005

World's Worst: Is there anything you'd like to know?

Have you ever had the experience of sitting in a job interview and just as you're beginning to relax and think that things are going well, the interviewer turns to you, says "Do you have any questions for us?" then leans back in his chair and watches sadistically as you sit there, squirming like a performing seal who's just run out of hoops to jump through. It's as though you went to sell your soul to the Devil and he started offering you instalment plans.

What is it with these people anyway? They're going to be doing these interviews all day - you would think they could go to the trouble of having enough questions for a lousy twenty minute interview. Did they run out or something? (Were my answers too short? Was I talking too fast?) Haven't they ever heard of division of labour? Listen, buddy, you ask the questions around here, see?

If you're really naive you might think of this as a 'nice' gesture. Like asking someone if they want a blindfold before you bring out the firing squad. Do they seriously think that I'm sitting there, thinking "All right! This is the right, non-threatening setting to ask all the questions about this place that have been bothering me!". I mean forget about the judgements they're going to make about you based on what you ask*. Do you really think you'll get an honest answer - think about it - if they want to hire you they'll lie through their teeth to get you, if they're not interested, they're hardly going to give you the opportunity of turning them down.

Personally I think the whole point of this question is that inside every sour-faced interviewer is an anxious young interviewee just bursting to break loose. Like my mother when she's teaching me how to cook, these people aren't content to just stand by and watch - they feel the need to demonstrate how good they are at it, thereby shattering any vestige of self-esteem you might have left - "See! That's how it's done. Wasn't that simple? Now you try it again."

Of course, there's also the fact that these questions provide considerable fodder for subsequent gossip and amusement - I call this the Rumpelstiltskin effect (what a catchy name, no?) - letting people try something purely for the amusement of watching them fail spectacularly. I remember how back at the Firm** we would have all these young starry-eyed applicants asking questions about work-life balance - we would fob them off with some faff about flexibility and setting your own priorities, then laugh ourselves silly at the water-cooler afterwards (picture Macbeth's witches after he left and you'll get the picture)

Anyway (and this is the point of all of the above), here are:

The Ten Worst things to say when the interviewer says "Do you have any questions?"

1. "You talkin' to me?" ("Hey you! I asked you a question. You deaf or something?")

2. "You're seriously thinking about hiring me?" ("Does this mean you're okay with the fact that I have no experience and my degree is a forgery?")

3. "Why do we exist? Is there a higher meaning to life?" ("Are you my mommy?")

4. "Err...is it normal for planes to be flying this low around here?" ("Just how soon can I get my signing bonus?")

5. "Are you wearing any underwear?" ("I just wanted to be sure you were properly briefed.")

6. "What's the difference between a job applicant and a professional spitter?" ("One gets the job and the other jets the gob.")

7. "Do you have any special medical benefits for people with degenerative psychoses?" ("Not that there's anything wrong with me, you understand, at least there wasn't until those aliens came and took me away to experiment on (sob!)")

8. "So let me get this straight - I get to handle millions of dollars of company money, and if I disappear one Monday morning, it'll be five days before you find out that the money's missing?" ("I just wanted to make sure. And while we're about it, what is your policy on office supplies? Can I order whatever I want?")

9. "Is it okay if I put my clothes back on now?" ("I really think working with you will be great exposure for me.")

10 "So do you want the pizza or not?" ("And after all these fool questions, there'd better be one heck of a tip!")

Notes***:

*Actually, this sort of reverse questioning involves a number of really tricky trade-offs. To begin with there's the basic trade-off between actually asking a question (and getting the "THAT's what you want to know?" look) or not asking a question (and ending up seeming arrogant, uninterested or just plain dumb). But there are many other trade-offs, for instance:

Compensation vs Lifestyle

Do you
a) Ask about compensation ("Assuming I make the median bonus for last year, adjusted for salary inflation, of course, and invest 40% of my post-tax income in fixed income bonds at a 5% yield, will I make more than $ 132,516.34 which is what the other job offer I have will pay me?") and come across as a shallow prick or
b) Ask about lifestyle ("So what are work-hours like? Do you guys usually get weekends off? Will I have time to spend with my family?") and seem like a lazy wuss who's already thinking about taking time off.

General vs specific

Do you
a) ask something hopelessly general and generic ("So, if I join the equity trading desk, will I have to deal with, like, shares and stuff?") thereby making it clear that you've never looked at the company's website or
b) ask something incredibly detailed ("So I read the report you guys published on the Oncological biotechnology sector, I was wondering whether you thought the market will finally succumb to counter-inflationary pressure from the rapidly improving yeast supply situation in East Nicaragua, or whether, on the contrary, business in that sector will continue to boom following the recent legislation by Congress on the use of carcinogenic air freshners?") and risk getting it wrong and making an even bigger fool of yourself (Ans: "No.")

Big-picture vs. detail

Do you
a) ask something suitably global and abstract ("What would you say are the four great qualities that the Firm instills in each of its employees") and risk falling asleep halfway through the answer (not to mention having them think - this guy seriously believes in this stuff?) or
b) ask about some practical, everyday thing ("So is it okay to wear a tie of any colour to office or are there specific approved Firm colours?") and come across as a hopeless worry wart.

Starting-off vs Exit Options

Do you
a) focus on near-term profile ("Do you do some training in the first month or am I just supposed to know all of this?") making it clear that you are completely incapable of seeing beyond your own nose or
b) talk about long-term exit options ("where do people who leave the firm typically end up?") thus telling them that you're already thinking about quitting.

Presumptuous or defeatist

Do you
a) assume you're getting the job and start settling down to details ("So could I get the corner cubicle on the 22nd floor, the one with the view of the outside world if you stand on tip-toes on your chair") or
b) give up ("So if I don't get the job, will we ever see each other again")

** A period in my life when I actually had a proper job, also known as "my life as a suit"

***Boy, that first note turned out really long.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Wolfgang!


Find of the day:

A 6 CD recording of Mozart's Symphonies No. 21 to 41 by Sir Neville Mariner and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields.


Such joy!

P.S. Don't you think Academy of St. Martin in the Fields is just the most evocative name imaginable?

After the storm

He woke up and knew instantly that she was dead and it had stopped raining. To his half-awake mind the two facts seemed to merge together, to exist as gestures in the same abstract dance, like feathers falling in the wind. There was a sense of relief, yes, but it was confused by a premonition of dryness, of some terrible emptiness to come. The sky glimpsed blue through his curtains seemed like a negation of memory, a barefaced denial of the night's lightning. As if the clouds had never been there, as if he had only imagined them. There was a sense of finality that filled the silence of his room this morning, making it seem more exact. Absence, he thought vaguely, should not be so alive.

What had happened? Struggling into his slippers, he tried to unjumble the thoughts in his head. Was it she who had disappeared in the night and the rain that had died? Or the other way around? He went out into the living room, dialed the number of the hospital. The voice of the night nurse as she told him what he already knew was a shaken window. "Don't worry", he told her, when he couldn't find anything else to say, "the storm has passed."

When he put down the phone he became aware that what had been calling him all along was something else entirely. Distance, perhaps, or merely the opening of doors. So much to do. The tasks of the day like some table to be carefully arranged, in preparation for a feast he understood the dimensions of, but could not taste yet. First, a quick survey of the damage the storm had done. Maybe a climb up the ladder to make sure the roof was alright. Then the rosebushes would need replanting - they always got torn up in a storm. And there would be the endless phone calls, visitors, telegrams - all the little intrusions that the rain leaves behind it, like earthworms squirming into the open.

No, it wouldn't do to leave the water standing today.

Slipping into his dressing gown he stepped out onto the porch. Instantly the sunlight attacked him, blinded him. He hadn't expected this. The empty sky, yes - but not the terrible brightness of the sun beating down on him, not the sweet, seductive freshness of a newly indifferent world. He winced, stepped back a little, his progress halted. As he stood there in the doorway, eyes shielded, waiting for his gaze to adjust to the day's new light, it occured to him, for the first time, that this was going to be a long, bitter summer.

Saturday, July 23, 2005

The Justice of Thy Plea

Why are we so willing to judge other people? Where does this urge come from - this need to sit in judgement over our fellow beings - to sum them up in a phrase, a word, a life sentence. If I gave you a gun and said you could shoot anyone you wanted to at point blank range would you do it? Yet everyday, we press the barrel of our judgements against the beating heart of total strangers and have no compulsion in pulling the trigger.
Understand that this is not a screed against personal judgements. I do not believe in the naive notion that all people are equal or essentially the same, I am quite happy to make snap judgements about people. All I object to is the elevation of these judgements to a moral plane - an elevation that leads inexorably to intolerance and prejudice. Oscar Wilde once said "There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written." (very few people realise this, but under all that sparkling wit, Wilde was both a very serious thinker and a truly moving poet). I believe the same should apply to people. People are either interesting, or they are not (or put differently, since all judgements are subjective anyway, people either interest you or they don't). You're welcome to decide that you have no desire to interact with another person, without having to prove that he's somehow wrong / evil.
What, you may ask, is the difference between personal judgements and moral ones? First, personal judgements are less emotional - you do not hate someone because he's uninteresting or annoying - you may avoid him, but you wouldn't kill him*. The danger of moral judgements is precisely that they give sanction to actions that would otherwise be unjustifiable, as the bombings of the recent weeks will testify (most people miss the point about these bombings, btw, the real issue is not whose moral judgements are right - who's good, who's evil - the real issue is that people should not be allowed to kill others in the name of moral judgement - this applies as much to the US invasion of Iraq as it does to the bombings in London**). Second, moral judgements are more static and absolute - you can like this or that about a person (and you can change your point of view the minute new information comes to light), but you don't necessarily make a judgement about his / her character as a whole. Third, personal judgements are judgements of the individual and as such are seen as being opinions, while moral judgements take the form of universal truths, so that we feel compelled to get others to agree with us.
(Ghalib writes:
"Haan, voh nahin khuda parast, jaao voh bewafa sahi;
Jisko ho din-o-dil aziz, uski gali mein jaye kyon?"
Roughly:
"Yes, he (she) is not god-fearing, Yes, he (she) is faithless;
But if you care so much for faith and honour, why do you go to visit him (her)?"
Sorry. He doesn't translate well.)
An Error of Judgement
Why do I think that moral judgements are wrong?
First, because I feel that they take too dispositional a view of human beings. We are all creatures of circumstance, all products of an infinite combination of social forces and individual events in our past. This does not mean, of course, that we should be allowed to evade responsibility for our acts; only that even as we condemn the act we must recognise that it is not the result of some 'character flaw' but merely the logical outcome of a sequence of situations stretching way into the distant past. This is one reason why personal judgements are easier to change - we are willing to make room for the possibility that under different conditions the person might behave differently***.
Second, as I mentioned earlier, moral judgements see the individual as a single entity, rather than as the vector of different qualities that I believe people truly are. Suppose, for instance, that someone you're close to and whose company you enjoy hurts or betrays you in some way. This is good reason not to trust that person again (assuming of course that there were no extenuating circumstances) but it's hardly good reason not to continue to enjoy that person's company. Yet a moral view of the world would instantly condemn this person as being immoral (or a jerk) and would suggest that you have nothing more to do with him / her.
Third, I feel that many moral judgements arise out of a confusion between causes and consequences; between intentions and outcomes. Moral judgements tend to focus on a person's intent rather than on the effect of his actions. In the absence of the ability to read human minds, however, the intent itself can only be inferred from action (or from statements, which are ultimately a form of action themselves)****, and such inferences are merely a way of obfuscating the truth of what we see / experience and introduce considerable opportunity for subjective manipulation and error. More critically, however, the use of intention rather than outcome as the relevant metric seems illogical - what do I care why the person is doing something as long as I know how it makes me feel and am reasonably certain of being able to maintain it? So on the one hand people will continue to carry on with unhappy relationships because they feel that he / she means well. On the other hand, there's this person I was having a discussion with the other day who said that he really enjoyed poetry but had stopped reading it because he felt that it was all just egoism on the part of the poet. Both of these points of view are just stupid.
Fourth, implicit in all moral judgements is the incredibly arrogant idea that there is one single answer to the universe, one 'right' moral code and that it happens to be the one that you believe in. To begin with, it's not clear that there is such a thing as a moral code at all - whether life has any meaning whatsoever. Even if there is a solution to the system of equations that life represents, it's not clear why that solution is unique - there may be many paths to salvation. And finally, even assuming that there is one path, what are the odds that you happen to be the one person among some 6 billion who understands it? I'm quite willing to live with the possibility that everything I believe (including everything I've said in this post) is error - but since I have no way to prove / disprove this (or any other assumptions I were to make) I figure I may as well carry on with these assumptions as long as they make me happy. I'm quite willing, therefore, to let other people have their own lifestyles, as long as they don't inflict them on me. I'm never going to have any respect for people who listen to hip-hop or spend time watching football on TV, but I'm willing to make room for the possibility that they're the ones going to Heaven (assuming there is such a place) and I'm the one on my way to Hell (although, of course, you could question why I would want to go to heaven where everyone sits around drinking Budweiser and discussing the latest score).
My final argument against moral judgement comes straight out of the Bible - remember that bit about 'he among you who is without sin casting the first stone'? Only if we are willing to have moral judgement passed against us, should we be ready to judge others the same way. Or, as Shakespeare puts it (Merchant of Venice, IV.1 - the source that the title of this post comes from) "Though justice be thy plea, consider this, / That in the course of justice none of us / should see salvation." You could argue, of course, (and rightly at that) that one may be willing to live with the absence of salvation, may be willing to condemn and to be condemned (I've always wished someone had done that in the Bible - said, "let me stone this woman to death and afterwards you can do the same to me. I don't mind") but that's not usually the point of view of those who make moral judgements.
Why do we do it?
Why then do people make moral judgements so readily?
First, moral judgements are a logical consequence of a bad habit of sense-making that we are all afflicted with. Because we need to believe in a) human agency / free will and b) a coherent universe, we have no choice but to ascribe meaning to everything and classify the world into categories - of which good and evil, right and wrong are merely a subset (Nietszche argues in the introduction to Beyond Good and Evil that the history of philosophy is the history of the search for the answer to the question what is right or wrong, without ever questioning why the distinction matters). We need to believe in a consistent, unequivocal world; and discrediting other people's certainties is the surest way of becoming more certain of our own.
Second, I believe (conveniently enough) that moral judgements are a sign of insecurity - they are both a way of seeking external validation for our ideas by breaking them down to crude values that allow us to connect to other people, and a means to lash out at other people and thereby express our superiority over them. In other words, they are a means to self-justification; the more we judge others the more we cry out to be judged and accepted, the more we cry out to connect to those around us, even as we withdraw (ironically) further and further away from them.
Third, moral judgements may arise out of sheer reciprocity. Not passing moral judgements is hard because even once you recognise that they're meaningless, it's still difficult for you to always be the bigger person and let others judge you without judging them. Sooner or later, like a child who's been pushed around too much on the playground, you push back.
Finally, moral judgements are easier to integrate into the larger social system. Society recognises moral judgements, provides templates for them (this is virtually the entire point of religion, for instance). To shy away from such judgements is to require a concentration of imagination and intelligence that few (if any) of us are capable of. Moral judgements are easier because they numb us, make us animals who will docilely follow the herd. To forge our way out alone into the world, without the mob to steer us, is more than our courage is usually capable of.
Not, of course, that I'm anyone to judge. :-).
Notes:
* Of course, Durkheim would argue that it's precisely this emotional nature of moral judgements that brings society together - human collaboration is made possible not by love or by rational benefit but by the outrage we hold in common between us.
** Amos Oz writes (I misquote, but whatever) "In a conflict between the right and the right, the only value that matters is life itself".
*** This links closely to the notion of fundamental attribution error - the idea that people will blame their own faults on circumstances and the faults of others on their dispositions - he's always late for meetings; I just happened to get stuck in traffic.
****Always assuming that there is such a thing as intent at all. Behaviourist theory would argue that we are all merely emitters of conditioned, unthinking responses; Karl Weick argues that rationality is retrospective - that we act and then make sense of our actions, rather than the other way around.

Friday, July 22, 2005

Words to love by

"I used to be a hopeless romantic. I am still a hopeless romantic. I used to believe that love was the highest value. I still believe that love is the highest value. I don't expect to be happy. I don't imagine that I will find love, whatever that means, or that if I do find it, it will make me happy. I don't think of love as the answer or the solution. I think of love as a force of nature - as strong as the sun, as necessary, as impersonal, as gigantic, as impossible, as scorching as it is warming, as drought-making as it is life-giving. And when it burns out, the planet dies.

But today, when the sun is everywhere, and everything solid is nothing but its own shadow, I know that the real things in life, the things I remember, the things I turn over in my hands, are not houses, bank accounts, prizes or promotions. What I remember is love - all love - love of this dirt road, this sunrise, a day by the river, the stranger I met in a cafe. Myself, even, which is the hardest thing of all to love, because love and selfishness are not the same thing. It is easy to be selfish. It is hard to love who I am."

- Jeanette Winterson, Lighthousekeeping

My apologies for the soppiness - hangover from evening spent drowning in Winterson (which is the only way you can read her - see review of the novel on Considerable Speck) followed by two and a half hours of Tristan und Isolde. Like taking an emotional sauna, only with all your clothes (thoughts) still on.

the world just keeps getting stupider

This just in - more evidence of the world's fundamental stupidity:

The administration of my office building have decided to re-do all the rest-rooms in the building. Since they can't do them all at once (that would be too much work), they came up with a really neat way of dividing the work - they'll first do all the women's rest rooms and then all the men's!

Is there a test you have to fail somewhere to be a building administrator?

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Geek Pride

The other day a friend put a post on her blog, claiming that, contrary to popular belief, she wasn't really a geek, and providing some fairly lame arguments to 'prove' this fact. The post saddened me - it was an excellent example of how societal pressure can force us to deny our natural inclinations, making us pretend to be other than who we are. It's shocking that in a world that prides itself on its liberated and inclusive attitude to alternative lifestyles, being a geek should still carry the social stigma that it does, causing young people to be confused about their own intelligence, trying desperately to repress their most normal and natural needs[1]. This friend of mine is quite clearly a geek, so it's painful to see her in denial about it.
Personally, I think geek is the new gay. Think about it. They are a secret sub-culture of people who have lived hidden away from society's eyes for centuries (historical accounts show evidence of geekiness in many ancient cultures - in ancient Greece for example, being a geek was considered a sign of nobility and some of the greatest philosophers of the day - Plato, Aristotle - were confirmed geeks; there are even people who claim that even here in America, President Lincoln was secretly a geek), forcing themselves to appear 'normal' - getting married, showing enthusiasm for sports, pretending that the computer is just a little black box they use to check e-mail, rather than the pulsing heart of their very existence. And all the while a secret yearning has been hidden away in their eyes, that tiny spark of connection when they meet a fellow geek (geeks have extremely sensitive radar for other geeks - a geek sitting in a bar will recognise another geek instantly, no matter how well disguised he is), the sense of being somehow unfulfilled by the 'good' life, the longing that takes over them every time they pass by another geek's cubicle and see his spreadsheet lying open. Then there are the little tell-tale signs that give them away: the way they dress, their tendency to talk in equations, their fondness for math and computer languages, their horror for anything physical. And if you think having sex with someone of the same gender is unnatural, how about having sex exclusively with yourself?
Recent years, have seen a heartening tendency towards openness about geekiness. More and more people are coming forward and openly declaring that they are, in fact, geeks. Geeks are finding increasing acceptance in the popular media, spurred no doubt by the number of prominent geeks in the real world (such as Bill Gates) who serve as role models to young people coming to terms with their geekiness. There is finally a sense that the geek lifestyle, though inexplicably alien to the average person, is a valid personal choice and that society needs to embrace its geeks, not shun them. Geekiness is even starting to become cool - just check out the popularity of the Matrix movies.
As geeks everywhere continue to fight for greater integration into the larger social structure, I foresee (and call for) an increasing solidarity among geeks. There will be geek pride parades and geek bars (these already exist, of course, but more as an open secret than as an explicit fact). Women will increasingly turn to geek men for friendship - appreciating the twin benefits of being with someone who's never going to get around to making a pass at them and who can help load programs onto their laptops and understands wireless networks. You'll see more openly geek couples in the parks, at shopping malls. Eventually geek rights will become an important political issue. Advocates of geek marriage will propose the setting up of large national database along with a compulsory dating draft so that geeks can hook up with other geeks, while the Republican party will wax eloquent about the threat such a move comprises to life, liberty and the American way of playing football.
Bottomline, sister: don't be ashamed of your geekiness, embrace it.
As a first step, towards this better, more open society, let me start by freely admitting (for the benefit of those of you who haven't figured this out yet) to my own geekiness. Yes, Mom and Dad, I'm a geek. Don't tell me you never suspected this. Didn't you ever wonder why I never dated any women in college? Why, when all of my friends were out playing cricket on the society lawn, I was indoors reading a book or messing about on the computer? Haven't you ever noticed how every time I go shopping I come back with four exactly identical shirts because I needed four shirts but couldn't be bothered with making more than one decision about something as trivial as clothes? Don't you know me at all?
Not convinced? Here is the list of ten things that prove I'm a geek:
1. At the age of 8, when other kids would happily lend their toys / books to each other, I had a detailed cataloging system for all my books - they were divided into six categories and within each category a book had a single letter identifier followed by a unique numerical identifier (remember I was 8, I'd never heard of the Dewey Decimal system, I came up with this all on my own). Kids who wanted to borrow books from me had to enter the code number of the book they were borrowing (they were on the inside back cover of the book, in blue felt pen) in a register I kept for this purpose and then sign their names against it. They were given a receipt.
2. Possibly my favourite way to relax is to arrange bookshelves. I will go from house to house, surreptitiously changing the order of people's books. If someone actually lets me arrange their bookshelf for them I'm happy for days. Back home, I have a bookshelf with literally hundreds upon hundreds of books, but I can tell with a single glance if even a single book is out of sequence. If I ever need a book from the bookshelf I can tell you, sitting halfway across the world, its exact location among my myriad bookshelves. (By contrast, it takes me an average of 6.5 minutes every morning to find a matching pair of socks - just in case you thought this was just about being neat and organised)
3. I use Excel for everything. Recently, I got a brochure from the Philadelphia Orchestra listing the different subscription series for their 2005-06 season. I fed all of this information into an excel sheet, then built a spreadsheet model to help me find the optimal portfolio of subscriptions that would give me the maximum benefit (I put in ratings for each concert on a 7 point scale) per unit cost
4. Check out the July 15th post about the contents of my iPod. Can you imagine anything more geeky?
5. I used to write my (now) ex-girlfriend love-letters in Microsoft Word, Times New Roman 10 pt 1.5 paragraph spacing. With footnotes. And, if required, a list of references at the end [2] (you begin to see why ex-girlfriend, right). In order to make these letters more intelligible, I also had a system of brackets - basically different types of brackets I would use for different types of comments: say [] for random witticisms, {} for sentimental / soppy asides, () for general comments, etc.
6. I must be the only person in the world who's disappointed with the new Harry Potter book before he's even read it. The reason? It doesn't confirm to my regression equation of the length of Harry Potter novels [3] - based on that model, the book should have been around 1050 pages long (give or take 50 pages), instead it's only some 650 pages. What a letdown!
7. Before I start a book, I will sneak a quick look to see how many pages the book is. At any given point in the book then, I can tell you exactly what % of the book I've read so far, to the closest 5%. If it's a long book and I don't plan to read it all in one go, then I will have a schedule for reading it - say it's a 1000 pages and I don't feel I can manage more than 250 pages a day (assuming 70 pages an hour, 3.5 hours a day) then I will keep track of when I'm sneaking up to the 25% mark and stop as soon as I get to it (or sometimes, if it's really gripping, at the next section / chapter break)
8. My walking route to office is optimised to minimise time on a probabilistic basis. This means that I've studied the time for which each traffic signal on the way (there are four of them) stays green in every direction and worked out what is the best route to take so that the expected waiting time at a traffic signal is minimised. The only way I will swerve from this route is if I hit a red light and calculate that the conditional probability from that point onwards makes some other route optimal.
9. The other day I took a survey of consumer preferences sent to readers of the New Yorker. The first section was men's apparel and included a list of some three dozen clothing brands. I didn't recognise a single one. The second section was the same type of thing for men's toiletries and personal care items. Ditto. The third section was electronics and tech products. I ticked every second box.[4]
10. I'm obsessed with putting things in lists of 10. For instance, I don't have any other evidence of my geekiness to offer[5]. But I can't stop at nine, because that would be a violation of the order of my life. So I'm typing this in. If I had 11 points to make (see comment to[5]) I would drop one just because I can't go over ten.
Notes
[1] While there is little research on whether geekiness is genetic or is a result of the way a child is brought up, it is clear that being a geek is an integral part of the person's life by the time he is an adult, a fundamental tendency that cannot and should not be changed.
[2] Like this.
[3] 5 data points: 309, 352, 448, 734, 870; time series model fit (no constant) R-squared: 0.985, F-test 269 (sig. <.0001 ).
[4] There was also a question about Internet usage. "On an average, how often do you surf the Net?" The highest bracket here was Daily. I laughed.
[5] I'm skipping all the obvious things here - the fact that I spend inordinate hours in front of my computer, my complete lack of interest in any sport, (well maybe F1, but that's only for the thrill of figuring out the combinations of results that would ensure that Ferrari lost and the probabilities involved), my inability to drive and my preference for sitting at home reading a book rather than going out or (shudder! shudder!) meeting people, my tendency to talk in bullet points (I habitually start conversations by saying "Three things")

Anybody home?

Yet more evidence of the innate stupidity of the world:

The management of the building I live in came up with the bright idea of printing a one page flyer exhorting residents to be especially security conscious in these summer months when building occupancy is low and incidence of break-ins is known to be high. They then slipped these little missives under each residents doorstep, with the result that all you have to do now to figure out which residents are away is to walk down the corridor and look for the telltale sign of a white sheet peeking out from under the door.

Smart, huh?

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Losing one's head

When you cut someone's head off, what happens to their brain? Does it shut down instantly, the minute the neck is severed? Or does it go on working for a while (not long, you understand, but maybe a minute or so) feeding off the blood that's still in the head, its last thoughts like the twitching of a squashed cockroach?

And assuming that it does go on, what is passing through it in that last minute? Does it simply flood with a blind, numbing pain so that any last thoughts it might have had are lost in a final orgasm of suffering? Or is there no pain at all, just the acute numbness you feel after you cut your finger with a knife, but before it starts bleeding? Perhaps the brain doesn't even realise what has happened, and simply goes on pretending that the blow is still to come; perhaps the subconscious is smart enough to prevent it from recognising the truth; perhaps the mind simply cannot adjust to this most outrageous of absences, and continues to experience, like an amputee, the sensations of its missing body. (How ironic if the victims last thoughts should be an illusion! And how apt).

Do the organs still work - the eyes, the ears - does the severed head see the stain of its own blood spreading slowly towards it, hear the sudden intake of the crowd's breath and, afterwards, the sound of someone beginning to cry? Does it feel the first fly settling on its cheek? Or, most frightening of all, is the mind truly clear in those last seconds, apprehending the whole truth of its situation? How does the consciousness deal with the reality of its own extinction when it is no longer possible to escape into hope? How does something alive accept that it is already dead?

If we could understand what the severed head is thinking in that last minute, we would, I think, be much closer to understanding the meaning of life.

Disclaimer: This post is inspired by reading brilliant, brilliant Nabokov novel called 'Invitation to a Beheading' (for a review of which see Considerable Speck: http://considerablespeck.blogspot.com/2005/07/off-with-his-head.html). I have not been going around cutting people's heads off.

More Walcott

Narrative originates in the heart, time's
pendulum and apostrophe, until the heart's scales
are swung to a standstill, to a breathing balance,
a light meridian of the hemispheres -
saying to the sea and Europe, "Here I am,"
division swayed by justice, poetry
unbiased to an absolute pivot, that is my sword's
surrendering victory over myself, my better halves.

- Derek Walcott 'The Prodigal'

Sigh. You can think you can write and then you come across something this achingly beautifully, so breathtakingly perfect and you think "Who am I kidding? I could never, ever write this. Not if I lived to be 200 years old."

Mediocrity is a very hard thing to deal with at all times, but it's especially difficult when it's your own.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Messiah

Everyone in the village really loved Father Bloom. It wasn't just that he was a diligent priest, dedicated to helping others, always there when you needed him. It was also the dignity of his presence - his shoulders firm but gentle, his eyes liquid with kindness, his voice as soft as the wind over autumn fields. Strolling through the village on his morning walk he would stop to greet every passerby, and always with a smile, or a kind word, or (if the situation demanded it) a look of quiet concern. And yet, let tragedy strike and Father Bloom would be among the first on the spot, using his calm manner, his delicate touch to bring solace and grace to the bereaved.

He never interfered, did Father Bloom, he gave you his sympathy without judging you. Judgement, he said, was in God's hands - he was only here to help. Yet for all that he was a source of good, practical advice. A combination of mature temperament and many years of experience with human ills had given him shrewd judgement - and he was one of those few priests who would think of what was best for you before he would think about what was fitting for God. It follows that his advice was much sought, and the refrain "Have you spoken with Father Bloom about it? What did he have to say?" became a common one for anyone with troubles in the village.

If there was one fault that Father Bloom had, though, it was a tendency to optimism. Usually a sober and somewhat resigned man, the good Father could be moved by fortunate events to a frenzy of unjustifiable hope, of almost ecstatic belief. It was almost as though at the first sight of great good fortune, the Father saw his way clear to all the promised miracles of the world, and believed with all his singing heart that things would turn out right because God would make them so. At such times, his advice, usually so sage and sound, took on an altogether naive quality. In the fit of religious passion, he would exhort people to trust in the Almighty, leave it all to Jesus and other such meaningless platitudes.

The villagers soon grew to be wary of these moods. After all, they didn't go to Father Bloom with their troubles only to be fobbed off with a few lines from the Bible and a vision of future happiness that they could see no way to achieve. They went to him seeking practical suggestions on everyday matters, trusting his judgement and his intellect. If it was simply a matter of praying for their loved ones they could manage quite well by themselves, thank you, it was in the hope of finding some more effective way of dealing with the world that they went to Father Bloom.

At first the villager's distrust of the Father in his happy moods extended only to avoiding him at such times. People seeking an audience with the Father would first consult with his housekeeper to make sure that he wasn't in a good mood that day. On mornings when the Father rose singing from his bed, his eyes shining, the word would go out and the villagers would studiously avoid the path that the priest would take, for fear of meeting him.

It wasn't long, though, before someone came up with the idea of not telling the Father about the good things that happened to them. It started innocently enough - perhaps there was a patient who recovered miraculously, and though his family went to the church to thank God, they didn't mention the reason to the priest for fear of exciting him; perhaps a farmer walking in his fields had a sudden epiphany of contentment, feeling himself bathed in the warm sunlight of grace, but he didn't tell Father Bloom about it. Soon the whole village was drawn into the conspiracy. Couples madly in love with each other would marry, but would pretend to be indifferent to each other in front of the Father. Reformed drunks would stagger in the street when the priest passed, so he would mutter a prayer under his breath for them. Once when a young boy recovered from childhood lukemia, his family packed him off to boarding school rather than have him stay and be a constant reminder of God's miracles to the Father. On the other hand, even the smallest misfortune was immediately related to the priest, usually with exaggerated accounts of the pain suffered or sorrow borne.

In a year or two the light of joy faded out of Father Bloom's life. He began to stay up nights, wondering at the misery of the world around him. In the morning, his eyes would be bloodshot and he would walk through the town with his shoulders stooped, afraid to meet the eyes of passersby and see the pain that was sure to be there. As time passed he raised his voice louder and louder against the injustice of the world, until his funeral services sounded as if they were shouted directly at heaven; but the more insistent his voice grew, the emptier his heart felt. Surely, he thought, there must be some relief, some sign of God's mercy - but none ever reached him.

Eventually, the long hours spent thinking on the sorrows of the common people, doling out advice with the desperate dedication of a hunted man, praying for a hope that never came, took their toll on the Father's health. He weakened, grew sickly. A fever of despair raged through his body. He spent weeks trying to fight it off, but in the end it was too much for him, and he died in his bed one silent summer afternoon, still thinking of the world's hardships.

When he finally came face to face with God, he bowed his head in shame, and said, "Forgive me, Lord, for I have failed you. There on earth, I had long ceased to believe in you with my heart, though your name never left my lips. I have not kept faith; I have proved unworthy. But tell me, Lord, why do you foist such misery on the people? Why will you not let them see the slightest hint of your greatness, your compassion? It was this that undid me - I did not think even you could be so heartless".

It was then that God told him the truth - how it was not God who had been heartless but the very people who he had showered his love on, who he had sought to advice and protect. It was they who had tortured him, they who had hidden from him all signs of God's presence. "But never fear", said God, "I have seen and judged you; your way to Heaven lies clear."

Father Bloom looked up through the tears that were streaming from his eyes "And what of my people?" he asked.

"For what they have done to you, they will naturally be damned", God replied.

Hearing this, Father Bloom got slowly to his feet. "No", he said, shaking his head, "I cannot let that happen. It is my place to suffer. It is theirs to enjoy happiness at my expense. That is the bargain we have made. I cannot go back on that now."

"It's not your decision", God told him, "it is I who must judge them. You know that."

"Yes," the priest replied, "but even if you send them to Hell I can at least be there to comfort them, to help them as best I can."

"But what can a man of God do in Hell?", God asked. "They will remember the trick they have played on you and make fun of you. You will be a laughing stock"

"I will be their jester", said Father Bloom. "So be it. Is that not what I have been all my life?" And he walked slowly away.

Monday, July 18, 2005

The hole truth

Have you ever wondered what the deal is with bagel sandwiches?*

I mean why would someone go to all the trouble of making a one-inch hole in a perfectly respectable piece of bread (and rounding it off along the edges) if all they were going to do was use it to make a sandwich with a square slice of cheese and a flat, square meat patty of some sort? Didn't someone tell these people that the round peg, square hole problem works the other way around as well? Or is it just a way of making sure that the cheese has enough room to breathe (because otherwise they'd have a mob of angry protestors from the Society for Prevention of Unusual Cruelty to Dairy Products outside their door)? And if they really want to use bagels to make sandwiches (to use up old stock or whatever), why not just get the cheese companies to make ring-shaped slices and the poultry farms to grow circular chickens? That way in a couple of hundred years or so we wouldn't need our two front teeth at all (they'd have nothing to bite down on) and evolution could take its course.

Personally I think the guys who designed the bagel sandwich are the same guys who designed the Death Star - you know, the ones who always leave a neat little opening that goes straight to the heart of the ship's reactor so that enemy fighters don't actually have to bother with all that heavy armour.

*I'm not entirely sure how mainstream bagel sandwiches actually are - though I know of at least two places around my school that serve them. In case you haven't ever eaten a bagel sandwich, it's basically a sandwich made with a bagel (you'd never have guessed would you?).

Words to live by...

Sunday, July 17, 2005

World's Worst: Auto Reply

Is it just me, or are auto replies the most irritating thing on the planet? You know how it is - you need someone to do you an urgent favour, you take an hour out from your already hectic day to compose this mail to him / her with the wording just right, you click on send, two minutes later there's a mail from them in your inbox, you hold your breath, cross your fingers, you're wondering if it's going to be yes or no. And then it turns out that it's neither! It's not even from them! It's just some stupid computer somewhere sending you this smug message informing you that while your career is going up in smoke the person you mailed for help is trekking the steppes outside Vladivostok, but it's okay, because if you really need help (and weren't simply sending out messages for the joy of typing them) you can always contact the High Lord Flabberguts of the Kingdom of Elbonia, who may just be able to help you.

Or even worse, you'll be the one who gets this urgent cry for help from someone and being the nice, conscientious person you are you'll send them a prompt reply, and instead of a simple 'thank you' you'll get a mail saying they're on a short space shuttle trip to the outer moons of Jupiter but should be back sometime in the next 20 years. And this is the same person who just sent you a mail asking for your help!

Personally, I think it's all a way of rubbing your nose in it - underneath that thin veneer of courtesy is the sadistic heart of a person who wants to make it extra clear to you that while he's in Aruba having suntan lotion rubbed into his back by a couple of beauties wearing nothing but coconuts, you're sitting in your crummy cubicle with nothing better to do than send him e-mails. So much for caring.

Anyway, here are the top 10 auto-reply messages I'd like to see

1. "I will be out of my mind starting from 6:00 pm on Friday July 15th until 9:00 am on Tuesday July 19th, pretending to be temporarily insane so as to get away with killing my wife. In case of an emergency, please feel free to contact my lawyer at slimything@undercoldstone.com - he can give you details of my visiting hours in prison."

2. "I'm afraid you're not hot enough for me to send a personal reply to your mails. For urgent assistance, please contact Melissa Scissors at melissa@hairrasingexperiences.com - she's really good at makeovers."

3. "I'm not really out, but I set up this auto-reply right after I sent my last message to you, so that my system would automatically send an auto-reply to your auto-reply. For assistance in dealing with the 105,632 new e-mail messages now in your inbox, call IT Support."

4. "I wasn't going to reply to your crummy e-mails anyway, so I thought I would set up an auto-reply to make you feel better. I figure if you needed urgent assistance, you wouldn't be e-mailing me in the first place."

5. "I will be in a meeting from 9:00 am today to what should be 11:00 am, but will probably be more like 5:00 pm given the way my boss blathers on. If you really need assistance, I suggest you find someone else because I'm going to be in one hell of a bad mood when I get back."

6. "I'm going to be out of Kansas from Sunday, August 2nd to Tuesday, August 11th. If you require urgent assistance, just double click on your ruby red mouse and tell yourself there's no place like home. Dorothy."

7. "I'm going to be looking away from my computer screen for two seconds between 10:31 hrs and 10:32 hours on Monday, July 18th. If you feel whatever's troubling you can't wait that long, I suggest you see a shrink."

8. "You will be in a hypnotic trance from the time you read this message to the next time you double click your mouse. When you awake from your trance, you shall proceed to refer to your boss as "that blithering idiot" in third person, while addressing him as "hey! Turd" to his face. You shall continue to do so until you receive a message from me with the Subject line: The Curse of the Jade Scorpion. Should you require urgent assistance in the meantime, you may take of all your clothes and dance the macarena while perched on the water cooler"

9. "I'm getting married on the 8th of March and will not be checking e-mail from then to the 22nd. The marriage wasn't really my idea, but the b**** got herself pregnant and then her old man showed up with a shotgun so I had no option. We're honeymooning in the Dominican Republic because apparently it's the best place to buy pink lace. My wife plans to do a lot of shopping. I plan to get laid on the side. You think you need urgent assistance? I'm having to move to the suburbs and pick out china patterns"

10. "I will be dead from the 4th of February to some indefinite time, and may therefore not be able to check e-mail regularly. If you need urgent assistance, try praying."

Why Potter?

Sequce: v. To draw away from proper course / to tempt or beguile by virtue of being a sequel of or otherwise related to something previously enjoyed.

I'm constantly being sequced. Everywhere I look there are sequels to books or movies that I've enjoyed or someone's decided to make a movie out of the book or write a book out of the movie or convert the book into a play so that they can convince someone to buy the movie rights, and before I know it I'm standing in line, grinning like an idiot, waiting to buy my ticket*. Take the new Harry Potter book, for instance - I know I'm going to hate it, I know it's going to be one whiny, predictable, trite little piece of sugar candy writing by an author who now spends more time thinking about studio executives than about children. And yet, like a small rodent caught in the glare of a cobra, I am drawn inexorably towards this horror - I will let its fangs sink into me, I will twitch and writhe in its excrutiating grip, but I will still see the damn thing through. This is the true miracle of the Harry Potter phenomenon - the fact that a hack writer can get together with a bunch of publisher's assistants and come up with a marketing effort that leaves an entire generation of sensible, erudite, street-savvy adults feeling somehow inadequate if they haven't read some crappy children's book.

But to go back to the fine art of sequction (n. the act of sequcing or being sequced). It all really began with the Matrix. Sure, there were sequels before that, but on the whole they were as good if not better than the original (witness the latter Indiana Jones movies and the 2nd and 3rd part of the REAL Star Wars movies - Empire Strikes Back and The Return of the Jedi). Wherever this was not true, the sequel bombed badly, and no one ever dreamed of coming up with a follow-up (the one exception I can think of were the Superman movies - but they started off being crap). Then Matrix 2 came out and it suddenly became obvious to everyone that the quality of the sequel was completely irrelevant - give people three-odd hours of soppy love interest disguised as pop-philosophy gibberish and interspersed with completely arbitrary action sequences and they would still show up, punctual as lemmings, to watch it. It's not even as if anyone actually liked the movie - they were there because they "had" to watch the new Matrix film. They had been sequced.

What followed is, of course, History (or maybe History part 2). The LOTR movies, the resurrection of the Batman franchise, the Hitchhiker's Guide movie, The Star Wars prequels, the new Herbie movie, a stage version of Midnight's Children, even (shudder!) a new Asterix! Like the Roman Empire before it, the entertainment industry now survives almost entirely on past glory - nostalgia, not pleasure drives the industry today. We have all become aficionados of masochism, gluttons for self-punishment; our constant motto is "We know it's going to be bad, but let's see how bad". How else do you explain Bush's return to power?

Coming back to the new Harry Potter, I'm still trying to decide whether I should read it or not.

Reasons not to read it:

1. Everyone else will (the same reason why I've never watched Titanic or read the Da Vinci Code)**
2. If the last book is anything to go by, it'll be more fun / relaxing to give myself a manicure with a blackboard.
3. There are at least two dozen genuinely good books I have lying at home that I haven't read yet.
4. If I wait long enough not to read it I can flick it off some friend or the other and save myself some money. For instance, I still have someone's copy of the Order of the Phoenix, which I borrowed a week after that book came out and haven't returned since. (If you're the person who lent it to me and are reading this, all I can say is in my defense is - sucker!)

Reasons to read it:

1. I really, really, really need to know what happens (suppose, just suppose Voldemort wins after all - I know it's a 0.0000000001% chance, but suppose)
2. J.K. Rowling could have bumped her perpetually fatter head against a doorpost and magically developed an ability to write crisp, lyrical prose (hey, it's more likely than the Voldemort thing)
3. I've read every book in the series so far, so NATURALLY, I have to read it. Never mind all that stuff about sunk costs.

Tough decision, huh?

* Aphorism for the day: If there's a line long enough, everyone will join it, no matter what it's for.

**The logic for not reading / watching things that everyone else does is:
a) It reduces the risk of my having something in common with OTHER PEOPLE. This makes it harder for them to bore me with their random conversations.
b) It provides a wonderful opportunity to crush these impudent wannabes who like to believe that they read / watch movies with the hob-nailed boots of my scorn. "Oh, you read, do you? How wonderful. What was the last book you read? The Da Vinci code? You LIKED that? No, I didn't read it. I hate to admit it, but I'm not really into cheap potboilers."[squish!]
c) If everyone can enjoy it it's probably not worth it anyway
d) It's good practise in resisting social pressure - a truly important skill to have if you want to be happy.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Shopping horror: A Rant

Very pained. Just tried buying some Schopenhauer from Amazon. Did you know that they don't have a single collected works available? All they have is:

a) Volume 1 of The world as Will and Idea (great! what do I do for the next volume? trawl for it in seedy Soho bookshops? Or just assume that the butler did it?)
b) an ABRIDGED version of The World as Will and Idea (what? did they put illustrations in it for the children? and take out all the difficult words?)
c) A couple of selected works (including one execrable thing called Schopenhauer in 45 minutes - if you hang the idiot who wrote that, how long do you think it would take him to die?)
d) A few of the individual essays scattered about (which means I'm now going to have to buy the damn things individually)

What sort of world do we live in where bubblegum tripe like Harry Potter is available from every third-rate e-marketer around, but I can't get something as simple as the collected works of Schopenhauer? Has quality and intelligence been completely replaced by commercial interest? Is everything just marketing now? If ever there was a case for Schopenhauer's pessimism about the world, this is it.

Don't know what I'm more upset by - the world's apparent indifference to one of the greatest philosophers of all time, or the fact that even Amazon has finally betrayed me. I mean in a world where there's no God anyway, who can you trust in if you can't trust in Amazon? Can feel the foundations of civilisation crumbling.

At any rate am depressed. Have this Shelley poem running through my head:

Rough Wind, that moanest loud
Grief too sad for song;
Wild wind, when sullen cloud
Knells all the night long;
Sad storm, whose tears are vain,
Bare woods, whose branches strain,
Deep caves and dreary main,
Wail, for the world's wrong!

P.S. Incidentally, think Schopenhauer is amazing (just in case you hadn't figured that out already). Can't imagine why I haven't read him before (what was I thinking?). My key epiphany for the day:

The optimist is someone who expects the glass to be filled to the brim, so is disappointed when he finds it's only half full; the pessimist is someone who thinks there is no reason for there to be water in the glass at all, so he's pleasantly surprised to find it only half empty.