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Wednesday, 6 July 2016

Thoughts

These last few days have been rather ghastly for the world. Ghastly, and a little relentless.

Today, on a walk down windy, rain-washed streets, I thought: Is this the Earth's way of mourning? Does it keen through these gusts in continuing sorrow and drizzle unstoppable tears?

I was comforted by the poetry in those thoughts, a little to my chagrin. Am I shallow to be so easily comforted? Shallow and selfish? Then, I realized that it was merely a release through expression that consoled me. 

Besides, what can one do in retaliation but live? Live boldly, our flames burning brighter against the darkness in exultant defiance and painful knowledge of the uncertain brevity of life. No matter what monsters seem to descend amongst us, they cannot wipe out life and joy. 

A year and a half ago, when the world was shocked at the brutality unleashed in Peshawar, I wondered if compassion could survive in such a world. I wondered how human beings could unleash such terror. 

But as we hear of more and more that could make us doubt our humanity, I become conversely convinced of the true goodness that lies in our hearts. Human beings can be extraordinarily compassionate. Most of us continue to lead regular lives, laughing and loving, and clutching those closest to us closer still when we hear of tragedy. In my own life, I have faced nothing but kindness. Perhaps this is my good fortune, but I cannot be convinced that we are selfish, not kind within. Some intuition tells me otherwise. Something tells me that we can be inspired to become our best selves, to soar to unbelievable heights, as much as we can be goaded to the basest of crimes.

I hope and pray that our faith in humanity is not further tested. If it is, as I am afraid it is likely to be, I hope we prove to be up to the task.

May the souls of those we lost rest in peace.

Thursday, 30 June 2016

The Return of the Prodigal Blogger, now a B.A. in Economics

Me and my dad, who has given me every opportunity and allowed me to diverge from the beaten path. Love you, Nanna. Notice the spectacles in my right hand.

      Since my slightly premature birth, this is the first time I've ever been early for anything. I'm that friend everyone has who has no conception of time. This very post is more than a month late. It's not that I ever intend to be late to anything, and I'm an eternal optimist. It is just the way of things. Fate.

However, when I do something, I evidently do it in style. So I graduated an entire year early, much to my own shock. I lived in denial for a few months, coming up with dozens of alternate plans that involved me staying in college longer. Ultimately, the prospect of not being a student after fifteen years (not even counting my Montessori days) was too tempting. Deciding to switch from my Honors English major to an English minor was considerably harder, but the right decision for me. Donning that gown a year earlier than my fellow juniors was strange - it was rather lonely on that stage. Apart from my family being there, the whole ceremony was rather underwhelming. There was no grand commencement speech, no 'this is it' moment. I even nodded off during one of the speeches after the stress of finals week.

But just like college is more than the sum of its academic parts, graduation is more than the ceremony and certificate. It's a huge milestone.

Graduation means facing a world without timetables, exams, classes - without an overarching structure to fall into - for the first time since we were three or four years old. This love-hate relationship with the restrictions of academic life turns into alarm at the sudden liberation from mandates. Unless you plan to go directly to graduate school (I don't), the freedom that seemed so delightful when paper deadlines were looming suddenly becomes rather threatening. What am I if not a student?

It's time to find out.

Stay tuned to this space for more.

Saturday, 12 September 2015

Argon Desaki's Report From Earth by Alan Walworth

Source: http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/41H3yvUo7ZL._SX311_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg


In the interest of full disclosure, I proofread this book this summer and am proud to know its author. I have, however, tried to be as unbiased as possible.

           Argon Desaki’s Report from Earth defies easy categorization. It starts out as sci-fi, with an alien named Argon Desaki crash-landing on Earth. What follows is Desaki’s doctoral dissertation for ‘Stellar University’ in Pelonia, his home planet, on his findings regarding intelligent life on Earth. This is an effective plot device to describe our planet’s various issues from the point of view of an outsider. Desaki’s Report is a very strange book with an interesting and rather unique writing style that is often an asset but is sometimes a little distracting. Many of the book’s chapters are devoted to one or more issues related to the future of humanity, such as ignorance, apathy, wishful thinking, evolution, war, etc.
           
            I think the first few chapters could have flowed a bit better, and would have benefitted from a better structure. The author sometimes digresses from the plot into poetic or philosophical ruminations. Though many of these are interesting in content and style, I felt that they interrupted the action and were distracting, as in the case of ‘Wondering down a pleasanter pensive path, pursuing and perusing precious pastiches of times past, I recall our wonderful wandering before the crash…’ At first I was incredulous about this style of writing and the excessive use of alliteration, but I got used to it eventually and realized that it was intended to be humorous. There is also a lot of wordplay that is not always immediately obvious. For instance: ‘To tell you the truth, in my opinion people who think it makes sense to pay to hear what psychiatrists say have something wrong with their heads.’ My immediate response to this was to take offense, until I got the joke. I thought such double entendres were genuinely funny and enjoyed them.       

            For me the book really began to get interesting when Desaki started detailing his observations about the human race, even if I didn’t agree with all of them. Various important points were intriguingly presented, such as: ‘It took over a hundred thousand years for the Earthling population to first reach a billion in 1804. After that it took only 123 years to add the next billion. By 1987, adding another billion took only 12 years.’

            Many of Desaki’s opinions are controversial. For instance, he suggests that since it seems that people today can only afford one or two children as opposed to many more in earlier times, there has been a “serious decline in prosperity.” I think that the opposite is the case, as research shows that more highly educated individuals and more developed nations tend to have fewer children.

            Desaki’s views are not necessarily shared by the author, who mentions in the introduction that when he read a draft of Desaki’s dissertation, he didn’t agree with all of it. Although I also didn’t agree with many of these views, I found them intriguing and wondered whether the author was being intentionally provocative in passages like:

“ Once males desire females, their naked attraction is apt to prove problematic. An attracted male in the presence of an attractive naked female may act in ways she could consider – at least if unwelcome – harassment or worse. (On the other hand, if males giving possibly unwelcome attention to attractive females is the norm, how is a female they ignore supposed to feel?)” 

            I enjoyed the sections on opposition to knowledge and anti-intellectualism, which is definitely a dangerous trend (look where Bush’s gut got us). I also liked the section on Apathy and was gleeful when Desaki disparaged Ayn Rand’s enthusiasm for greed. However, some of Desaki’s arguments seemed strange, even illogical. For example, he posits that

‘Conservatives opposed to Darwin’s theory of evolution often in practice uphold social Darwinism’

and that


‘So many who say they believe in evolution seem not to truly believe in it, for if they did they should act differently…Liberals believe in evolution; they insist the theory of evolution is true. But…it appears that many believers in evolution would like to make sure everyone, however disadvantaged or defective, has an equal opportunity not only to survive but also to reproduce. Survival of the fittest is considered an unfortunate state of affairs from which people should be thankful they’ve escaped.’

There seems to be a confusion here: Desaki seems to think that believing in the right to life implies endorsement of that right, and that believing in the existence of evolution implies endorsement of a similar system in human society; however, believing in evolution simply means recognizing the reality of it, and does not entail endorsing it. So believing in evolution is entirely consistent with wanting to advance beyond brutal survival of the fittest. Again, I wondered to what extent this was Desaki’s alien perspective rather than the author’s real opinion.

            Similarly, Desaki’s arguments in support of eugenics are unconvincing. Arguing that eugenics is tainted by its association with Nazism, he defends it by observing, “You could settle for not letting defective people reproduce. There’s no need to kill them....” However, where would one draw the line? Who would decide who would be allowed to reproduce?

            I also disagreed with some of Desaki’s comments regarding the possibility that human intelligence is decreasing. Asking ‘Has Earthling intelligence, on average, already declined?,’ he cites ‘towering intellects’ in 5th century BC Athens, the ‘Age of Pericles’ – Aeschylus, Themistocles, Sophocles, Protagoras, Herodotus, Euripides, Socrates, Thucydides, Aristophanes and Plato. Then he asks rhetorically ‘How many Earthlings of such stature arose in the last century in America? How many Americans of the last century will be considered so great, or even remembered 2500 years from now?’ Desaki argues that because America’s population is far greater than ancient Greece’s, it should have significantly more intellectuals as outstanding as those historical figures, and he claims it does not. My question is, how can one be certain it does not? ‘Towering intellect’ is an unquantifiable criterion. Whether today’s smartest people are as intelligent as the intellects of yore is very hard to determine. When science, philosophy and related fields were in their infancy, it was comparatively easy to determine outstanding or extraordinary individuals in those fields. But now that such fields are so much more advanced, does the role that giants such as Socrates, Hippocrates, Newton and Einstein played even exist any more?  Is there still any possibility for an individual to be a ‘Father’ of anything? Perhaps, because advances in these fields are now more incremental, we are less able to recognize genius. It is also possible that in today’s culture, we are less likely to revere our leading figures.

            I enjoyed later sections of the book most. The chapter on ‘War’ is spot-on with regard to excessive defense spending, the military-industrial complex and war mongering. The chapter on ‘Business and Politics’ does a good job of exploring the pitfalls of unbridled capitalism. It also contains an interesting discussion about the role of luck in politics. An enjoyable chapter on the unreliability of memory follows. Memory is far less trustworthy than is commonly supposed. It has become increasingly clear that witness testimony is far from foolproof, for example.

            Although the sections on ‘Moron Problems’ and ‘Insanity’ are interesting, I found an out-of-context quote from Dr. Nassir Ghaemi’s book A First-Rate Madness confusing. The last few chapters lay out unique and thought-provoking ideas about how to resolve the many problems described in the book, and flow more smoothly than the earlier sections.

            While the book is evidently a work of fiction, nearly a third of it is endnotes, many of which demonstrate that much of the work’s content is factual. Some of these endnotes offer helpful elaboration, while others felt unnecessary.

             On the whole, Argon Desaki’s Report from Earth is an intriguing book that I feel could have been improved by brevity in some areas and elaboration in others. Some of the arguments seemed fallacious, but that may be consistent with the book’s intent to be thought provoking rather than a straightforward presentation of facts. While Report from Earth is by no means an easy read, it raises important questions and is rewarding. Essential points about current affairs and the state of humanity are presented in a very intriguing and palatable manner, leaving the reader with many things to think about.

You can purchase the Kindle version of this book at: http://www.amazon.com/Report-Earth-Alan-Walworth-ebook/dp/B00HWMQCNS (Kindle books can be read on a laptop or PC with the Kindle app, even if you don't have a Kindle).

You can check out some of the author's work and ideas at:
The YouSA communities are easy to join and rewarding to use, and the Realistic Idealist publication on Medium is open for essay submissions. 

Saturday, 15 August 2015

Happy Independence Day - but we're not free yet

I'm all for nostalgia and celebrating past achievements; but while it feels somewhat arrogant, I feel compelled to get on my little soapbox and join in the voices admonishing us not to get too self-congratulatory. Patriarchy, objectification, that strange beast - 'culture', an outdated need for moral policing, a tendency to take offence at just about everything; some of these are perhaps issues only those of us among the urban affluent can afford to worry about; but there are plenty of 'real' issues out there as well. Uninclusive growth, abject poverty, farmer suicides, infanticides, child labour, child marriages...I could go on but I don't need to, because I'm sure every Indian knows exactly what I'm talking about. The problem, see, is that we'd much rather pretend that the progress we've made is shiny and unsullied by the popular image of slums beside high-rises. You run the risk of being called a wet-blanket if you attempt to bring up such things, and perhaps it is inappropriate to remind everyone of how behind we are when the goal of such celebrations seems to be to commemorate how far we've come. Have we, really, though, and doesn't such a discussion deserve airtime? I'm not going to pretend that I am doing something unique by bringing such a discussion up because newspapers and magazines do bring these discussions up, and perhaps I shouldn't generalize what dinner-table conversations look like everywhere from the dinner-table conversations I know of (and I'm not trying to imply that my friends and family refuse to discuss these things; I'm merely stating a general observation about what these discussions tend to steer towards in the absence of prodding in that direction).

I would be a hypocrite if I claimed that I don't want to pretend everything is sunshine and rainbows too. I have as much fondness as anyone for slideshows with swelling music that inspire patriotic fervour - and spread through Whatsapp like wildfire. I am not egoistic enough to believe that I know better than anyone; after all, who am I to say or even attempt to say that 'this' is what we should be talking about? Perhaps all I can say is that I think we should be mentioning this at least in passing so that the 70% of our population that isn't enjoying the fruits of the progress we all love so much isn't lost in the grand chorus of our patriotic song.

Thursday, 16 July 2015

A Culture of Shame

I'm sorry to keep linking to other websites here, but I'm still new to Campus Diaries, and not sure whether I can use the same content I publish there, here. I think this is an important article, however, and so will share it here. A Culture of Shame @ Campus Diaries

Monday, 8 June 2015

Oxymorons

I haven't written a poem spontaneously in years. So here is my rusty muscle:

Have you ever felt a searing pain?
Have you ever felt a searing joy?
Have you ever felt wistful and lonely?
Have you ever felt plain and homely?
Have you ever felt a rightful gladness?
Have you ever felt overwhelming wrongness?
Have you ever felt light and insane?
Have you ever felt thoroughly sane?
Have you ever felt flighty and reckless?
Have you ever felt staid and weightless?
Have you ever felt truly restless?
Have you ever felt a beautiful mess?
Have you ever felt an ugly mess?
Have you ever felt an insatiable lust?
Have you ever felt well and truly bust?
Have you ever felt ridiculously complex?
Have you ever felt a broken reflex?
Have you ever felt, felt, felt             I feel too much?
                                                         I think too much?
                                                         I am too much?
                                                         I shall combust?
                                                         What can contain me?
                                                         Who can contain me?
                                                         Will I be contained?
                                                         Should I be contained?
If I am not, shall I not bleed all over the ground?
If I am, shall I not destroy myself?
Then have you seen yourself in the mirror,
Looked at the sky,
Realized how insignificant you are and
Laughed it off?