Tuesday, December 30, 2008

A thousand apologies

I haven't been posting for a while. And it isn't that I've been inordinately busy. It's much worse. I'm missing my muse. If you find her, please return.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

India - I

This new series of posts catalogues a recent trip to India. The agenda was simple - I was going to take a wife.

Mine own, preferably. Oh, i keed, i keed.

The backstory is like my bank account, eerily void. There's no pressure on me to marry, not from family, nor from my peers, nor is it vedic (no grihastha ashram ideas in my head). I live in a foreign country, which used to be a plus, now it's just a hiatus. I work in a recession-afflicted industry, and my job's as insecure as a kid with a new baby brother. My world-view is limited to tv, postcards and advertisements for vacation deals, but it's itching to be let out of its confines.

So, the real driver for this urge to wive is circumstance. Minimal savings and wanderlust make a heady cocktail and I'm drunk on it. The economics of the situation drive me to where my $ will squeeze out a life. That I haven't explored India's oli-golis (english: alley-galleys...) yet, makes her an attractive destination.

And I want to breathe in India. I want her smell to permeate every pore of my skin, and her lifewater to drench me from the inside out. And I can't afford the luxury of spending my time and money, and coming out unaffected.

So I think to myself, I'd like to marry in India. In the span of a few weeks, I will meet the salt of India's earth, woo her, grow to love her, her to love me, and marry her. In so doing, I'll have made sweet love to this country.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Goodbye Blue Sky

*It's my fault. I turned the other cheek one time too many...

Last night, as I stood naked before you, proud that I could,
you speared me and spared none.
Worse still, you cut me from behind,
you cut me down, even as I smiled, even as I shined

You've scared me before, but I've gathered myself and ploughed ahead.
You've killed mine own before, and I've forgiven.
fool that I am, I thought your bloodlust was over
I'm so much to blame. I hadn't realised how different your blood from mine

This past night, when you shot me through the heart,
grinned maniacally,
did you not stop to think what next?
When you killed innocents, did you not kill innocence?
When you went down for the last time, I hope you didn't smile to yourself
I hope you didn't really think your own would have a better tomorrow.

If you did, I suppose that's my fault too.
When I forgave, you'd thought I'd forgotten
When I ploughed ahead, you thought I'd left the bodies behind
When I shone, you thought luck had polished my dullness.
I didn't warn you that the shine outside was really a fire inside

Tomorrow, when my spittle turns to venom,
It's going to remain my fault, because
I still won't know how you did it -
how you cast me so far away from you
and yet made me so much like you,
all in one moment

Now that you're drunk on my blood, go ask mother if we're still both her children.
She might say yes, but my bloodhaze says no.
Pray it lifts, pray it lifts quick so you may live.

*And I'll pray we still eat from the same plate tomorrow

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Portraits - III

And just when you think you've seen it all.

Near where I live in Bangalore, there's a Muslim neighbourhood that comes to life at dusk. Little hole-in-the-wall eateries turn on yellow lightbulbs and fire up charcoal grills. Sheek-kabab skewers lie on these grills like pyres at a cremation ghaat. The smell of charred meat cuts through the air, knifing the day's pollution.

The tea-house culture in these neighbourhoods, where they serve syrupy tea in tiny glasses, helps dissolve the ills of the world into the sorrow-hole of the community, and the joys of life are passed around like saltines.

The story began at one of these tea-houses, when an elderly gentleman walked in and plopped himself onto a chair. He was flushed and out of breath, but spared a genial smile for the boy that brought him his tea. Judging by the regulars' askew glances, this was the man's first time here. Each little clique exchanged salaams with him and went back to their conversations. Even as the gentleman's glass of tea clattered to the ground, it's possible that some in the crowd knew he'd had a heart attack. Credit this to that brief lag between knowing something and realizing it.

A search of the old man's pockets revealed nothing. A party of men was sent in different directions to see if anybody could help identify the man. Meanwhile, the neighbourhood Imam who'd been called in declared the man dead and instructed that the body be moved away from the crowd. And so it was, the body was carried to the back of the tea-house so that business could resume. As dawn approached, it was time for the tea-house to close, but there was no news about who the person was or where he came from. Had he relatives in the city? No one knew.

As per Islamic custom, the body needed to be buried within a day of death. It was beginning to stiffen, and would start to rot not long after. The police weren't going to be called in. The owner of the tea-house had had his share of run-ins with the law, and the body wouldn't help matters. All he cared about now was getting rid of the body, and no, he wasn't going to spring for a hearse.

An autowala who'd slept the night in his vehicle in the next bylane was woken up by the ruckus from the tea-house. Something about a body needing to be disposed of. A couple of voices demanded the body be buried, but a louder, gruff voice said he'd have none of it. More than the noise, it was the crassness, like a draft of cold air, that woke him up. The autowala made his way groggily to the shop. The situation was simple - there were rituals and rites to be performed, but there was no one that'd shoulder the responsibility or the body.

The driver carted the body onto his shoulders and into the back of the auto. It lay propped up awkwardly between the seat and the floor, wedged into place by a sack of potatoes that the driver found outside the tea-house. The autowala knew he couldn't afford to bury the body himself either. Custom called for the body to be washed by relatives first before being wrapped in a white shroud. The next problem was going to be arranging for a grave site, which needed to be in a Muslim cemetery, not just because of what it would cost, but because the autowala would be harassed about who it was that he was burying, how died he, about obtaining a death certificate, and then getting an Imam to recite the janazah prayers.

And he couldn't just ride a dead body in an open auto through the city - the police would swarm all over him. It wasn't just that the law wouldn't let him pass, even the culture of our country would be offended. Death is scary, possibly impure, and definitely confusing. The populace won't accept death easy. They'll question, they'll argue, they'll fight, even though it's no business of theirs. That's probably why dead bodies are transported in processions. Strength in numbers. If you have a problem with such and such person being dead, you can take it up with the procession collectively. That might also be why we make such a racket with the drums and the dancing when escorting the body to the ghats. A war cry to scare off not just the malevolent spirits, but also the uber-curious public. Here the autowala was by himself, weaving his auto through the city.

You've seen Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron. You know then that the only way to transport a dead body through a city is to dress it up, cap, goggles, unlit cigarette, the works. Moreover, if you've seen an autorickshaw driver in Bangalore, you've probably sensed the frustration that his khaki uniform causes him. These accessories are consequently always on hand for when the opportunity presents itself. And none more apt that this. So the old man's body, ridiculously outfitted, stared soulessly into the traffic as it was chauffeured to the outskirts of the city.

The driver stopped the auto at one of the lakes that dot our city's boundary. There were three hindu families there, each with a dead relative of their own. Three pyres had been built along the shore, and the bodies were being hoisted onto these. The solitary priest there was sprinkling ghee on the first of the bodies. A fourth pyre, unattended, was still aglow, all embers and ash. An earlier body must have burned there not minutes ago. That was probably the instant that religion and frugality melded into one. How lowly the obeisance to rites and rituals within religion, when stacked up against a last sacrament, against a sincere farewell to the dead? Win who then, religion or humanity?

The autowala left his vehicle metres from the pyres and walked up to where the priest was chanting his mantras. A metal bowl containing sandalwood paste lay not far. The paste had crusted over.

Three years later, as the head priest of the crematorium-by-the-lake, the muslim autowala chanted shlokas as he sent another body from this world to the next.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Portraits - II

It's well past midnight, and the skyscrapers in the city's downtown financial district have their lights on, pretending as though there are bankers and brokers still at work on each floor, balancing the world's markets. Personally, I think they leave the lights on so that TIME and Google Earth can take satellite shots of how vibrant the city is, and then recycle the notion that this city is among the world's best places to live. All noble endeavours.

I'd miss it if I didn't know to look for it, but the lights on the topmost floor of one of these buildings are off, and I can feel myself being summoned. I fly through the night, undecided if I want to enter the floor through the glass windows, or through the stone walls. That feeling of passing through glass is decidedly weird, but it'd only last a second. On the other hand, the stone walls are cold and comfortable mostly, but there's something about opacity that scares me even after all these millenia.

Once in, I'm surprised to find that the entire floor is one continuous unpillared space. It's dark, and the air feels stormy, even within the building. I'm being pulled towards the farthest corner of the floor, where I can hazily make out a light glow around a seated figure. As I draw closer, I'm able to make out a tapasvin seated on the floor, back to me. The light aura around him tells me he's been at it for at least three weeks now, if not longer.

A tapasvin is one who performs tapasya, i.e. one who channels unrest and anger (tapa) into meditation. This tapa, directed well, obligates higher powers to douse the flames of the tapa by quenching that which gave birth to the tapa in the first place, i.e. the cause for the tapasvin's unrest

I'm floating in front of the jiva now, and am studying his face. He sits erect, eyes closed, ash smeared across his forehead, arms and chest. His face betrays no malintent, which is unusual. Tapasvins, for all their discipline, can't hide the ill they want to inflict. The jiva looks young. 60 man-years, I'd say. The veins on his forehead are throbbing now, a natural consequence of my proximity. I expect he'll wake momentarily. I wonder what he wants me to destroy.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Four years later

October 2012

Joe, plumber

"Mornin' sir, I'm here to fix that faucet you called about."
"No it's okay, I'm used to people looking at me all funny. You remember me from TV three years ago."
"Yep, my own show, 'Leaky bastard'. I flew all over the country solving people's problems, all far outside my own domain of expertise, faulty faucets."

A discussion with a friend
Me? Run for President? Saar, I pale in comparison to the red candidate.
*Yes, choke and splutter. I'm bad with homophones but glad I'm out of arm-swipe reach from you.

Bradley's sorrows
"Perhaps this time they'll vote like they said they would. I wish Obama'd try again. "

*Update - Nov 5, 2008: I've obviously reverse-psyched the zeitgeist to steer it back towards Obama. You and he are both welcome.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008


This winter's going to be a rough one. And I don't need weathernetwork's long-term forecasts to know. It's not yet November and I've had to bring out the big guns - woollen socks, mufflers, toques, etc. I leave home all wrapped up, looking very teddy like (more bear, less roosevelt) and with all the dexterity of a deaf bat... So I really have to ask: Why do we put up with winter?

There was this one year when I collected signatures to petition the weatherman for a milder winter. It didn't work. I shoulda got more signatures.

But winter's just part of the seasonality. Four seasons, each very different from the other, changes things up when you're bored of the view outside. It gives me a sense of the passage of time*. In Bangalore, when each day felt just like the one before or the one after, I had to rely on the newspapers to know how far into the year we were. Here, in Toronto, the colour (or the absence) of leaves helps me find my bearings.

And it makes us appreciate each season that much more, knowing it's going to be a good while before similar conditions visit us again. I suspect this is why sunburns happen. When the sun comes out, I feel like a grad student at an expensive AYCE, stuffing myself silly because it's going to be a while before I can afford the extravagance again.

The other plus about winter is that you can resort to the evergreen conversation fallback - "Man, some weather, eh?" - without it seeming wholly unintelligent.

In Bangalore though, this'd be a little silly *any* time of year - "Wow, it's crazy out there, again in the 27-32 range, eh?"

*Update - Nov 2, 2008 - I wrapped this one up prematurely. I meant to hold forth on the nature of time, and how, even within the context of its inevitable march (day-night and the seasons themselves, i.e. rotation and revolution), there's concepts that we as a species append to it.

Because of our mortality, we feel the need to divide time into past, present and future. We use the concept of a calendar, where though the days and months continue to recycle themselves, we can't extend that luxury to the year. And that's a good thing. Imagine if our hypothetical immortal selves had decided on a binary year calendar, one that reset itself when four seasons passed. The concept of history would get addled..Our schools might have had to do away with the subject entirely..and in some part then, the concept of memory..then, that of nostalgia..and so, a large part of emotion.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Portraits - I

They'd run out of orange wedges and fortune cookies at this rundown restaurant in chinatown thirty years ago, and Lourdes wouldn't leave until they'd given her something to wash down the chopsuey with. They asked her if she'd take a baby. How the baby got there, I don't know. Lourdes agreed, and a few minutes later, boarded the bus with a box of General Tao/sticky rice in one hand, this chinese baby cradled in the other.

It was past midnight by the time she got off the bus and walked the remaining three blocks. Her apartment building was boarded up from the outside, except for a retractable metal gate at the north-eastern corner. All three tenants had their own keys to this gate. She set the baby and the chopsuey down on the pavement as she jiggled the key to the gate. A cone of orange light from a buzzing street-lamp lit the area. The gate opened noiselessly. The tenants took turns keeping the gate oiled. You couldn't have it jam when there was trouble on the street. Oiling the gate was also a mirror of how they lived in that neighbourhood - smoothening edges, beating the rust.

That was thirty years ago. This past week, when Lourdes died, her son couldn't afford to bury her. His skin itched, flies swarming about the dried blood on his body where the skin had cracked open. The desert heat sizzled off the concrete roads where he lay, his mother's body beside him, under a cover of tattered cardboard boxes. She probably died of old age, though she couldn't have been more than sixty. When the mind gives in, the body soon follows.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

On Holiday

For those of you that have stopped by over the last couple of weeks and seen nothing new, my apologies. I've been soaking my feet in the mothersoil, will be posting starting next week (week of Oct 20).

Friday, September 26, 2008

Drum Circle - IV: The last of us

Drum Circle I, Drum Circle II, Drum Circle III

I'm not sure how I want to dazzle this crowd. Should I do my version of the Tandav, yknow, to microcosm the duality of creation and destruction? Or perhaps the cliched rhythm evolution, from morse code to music.....Or maybe I should just say something first.

I'm at the front of the stage now, crouched down so that the stage mics on the floor can pick up my voice. I've got sweaty palms, but something tells me I can do little wrong tonight.

"When You and i
see eye-to-eye, there's a third murmur
that escapes the heart"

A soft bass begins on the kpanlogos - 3rd beat in a bar of 4

"And when we dance,
we immerse ourselves, into all that's bliss
all that's bliss"

The cajons join in, a snare-like 4/4

grace our dance,
drink and sing,
become one with us"

Nora's seen the grin on my face, and I'm not sure how but I can tell she knows where I'm going with this. She'd left me halfway through the second verse but is back now with a mic in hand.

Nora: "So we're dancing now?"
Me: "I hope so. Do you want to start us off?"

The drums all stop. One count, two counts, three counts, four.

Nora taps her naked left foot on the stage. The bells on her ankles and the hollowed woody sound of the stage twist together in my head. It feels like a distant, cosmic sound dopplering past me, each tap lasting an age, each tap still so transient.

"We're lucky if we dream
while we sleep, we're luckier
if we sleep without a dream" *1*

"That's when you lose the 'I'
become king and pauper, all at once
That's when you peek into every life,
every mind your own, every song, every dance" *2*

I suspect I've lost the crowd by now, but I can't help myself. Nora and the drummers have been down this road with me before, and they don't have trouble slamming along.


"Last night, I died again,
woke up this a.m.,
older, wiser and

hungry as heck. " *3*

By now, we've gotten a groove going with the toms and djembes pitching in solos. The crowd doesn't care what's said as long as the groove holds. A couple of people are on the floor, doing some exotic snake dance (solidarity with the brown guy on stage).


"It feels like I've been fighting,
fighting maya all my life,
so why do I care now
if maya says goodbye?" *4*

And he follows it up with a fast ditty on the crash. Crash, silence, crash, silence, crash.

It's not smooth... The loudness there creates a silence in my head. The lights seem to dim two shades. That isn't where I wanted to go. It'll take some doing to bring back the sunshine now, keeping the meter and the rhythm..so we don't bother. Nora remains at the front of the stage, dancing with the crowd, and the rest of us build the beat, rising and falling, in tempo and volume, like the sea over many nights.

Eventually, the jam grinds down to a low background patter, and there's a brief round of applause. The crowd slowly makes their way to the door, and we begin to collect our instruments. Our jam wasn't a sizzler but we're content with the awkward set we've played. I'm just hoping the lounge will let us in again next week.

*1* The upanishads describe dreamless sleep as that state where our consciousness withdraws itself from the mind, and the entity that comprises each person can retreat into what's best described as a Jung-ian collective subconscious.

*2* This state, of ego withdrawn from the unique ID called the mind, leaves us equal in all respects, and every thought in this subconscious state is a shared one.

*3* In fact, the very concept of sleep is thought of as similar to death, where our seven-sheathed personality temporarily strips itself down to the core. This frees us of the trappings of the illusory world. Possibly the all-time best segue in any situation - "Broke eh? Ah well, everything is maya anyways.." The next morning though, the hangover arrives, or worse, it's a Monday, and we have to deal with life as this outermost sheath of our personality perceives it.

*4* Maya straight up, is illusion. And reality as our senses perceive it, is not different from illusion. When even little electrodes hooked up to the brain can confuse our senses, it's conceivable that our perceived reality is illusory, whether solipsistic or perhaps just part of a giant computer program where 'destiny' is a state machine input. So why worry when the soul exits the sheath?

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Drum Circle - III

None of that's helping right now though. Why don't we just play a canned set and end this? Why this pressure to bring down the house? Where did it begin?

Nobody's backing down on intention, I can see that. We're all leaning forward in our chairs. I'm beginning to understand the problem, and oh, how I'd love to get away from here right now so I can light up and deconstruct how we need to tackle this. Break the problem into emotion, history and anticipation...or skill, need and conflict...

But I have no such relief. It feels like we're sitting around a fire, a really hot fire. And I can sense something's about to give.

I get off my chair and walk towards Nora. The crowd's eyes follow me. Nora and I are now in the center of our stage and I take her hand. She's inordinately pretty, and I feel like I must let her know but that isn't why I took her hand. I actually need someone to hold onto as I begin tonight's last jam.

Drum Circle - II

All six of us come from different schools of drumming, and when we aren't playing for crowds, we like to talk about these systems of percussion. It help us understand the cultures we represent, and how those cultures permeate into our soundplay. For instance, Latin American percussion, while parts of it can be subtle and layered, is mostly loud in its impact on the listener. Loud in colour, performance and presentation, and loud in the way it dominates a musical performance. Extremely enjoyable. You could re-read this paragraph pretending I was talking about the region and the people, and not much would be amiss.

And a good Indian percussionist can make love to a crowd. The parallels begin with the foreplay of an alaap, and extend to that shocked silence at the end of a rela, before the crowd unwinds itself with applause, like a Gold Flake in bed. But there's the other idea that Indian percussion can create a sense of harmony. It sets things right and the mechanics are simply explained. The basis of any beat in the indian system is circular. At the completion of the pre-defined notes that make up the taal, the beat returns to the sam, the initial note that started off the taal. The sphericality of this return to the origin lets us know all is well with the world.

We discuss these and other systems not just in the contexts of culture, but also in terms of the underlying math, the techniques, the allowed improvisation and the boundaries of where the sound can go before it breaks the rhythm system and becomes part of some other system, new or not.
But the discussions have a shallower purpose. We want to know where each of us is coming from so that we can tell where each of us is going to go, and in no metaphorical sense :) If Chris is the one soloing, with his clean-cut rock background, there's going to be no syncopation surprises when he ends his solo, and I know easily at what point in time I'll need to pick up when he leaves off.

Drum circle - I

Six of us are hunched around our individual drums. There are djembes, kpanlogos and an assortment of toms and cajons. Nora is in the centre of the circle, wearing a loose blouse, tied in a knot below her chest, her midriff encircled by a thin gold ringlet. It's a bellydancing essential she tells us. She has ghungrus on both feet, and they look heavy, they look like she's about to dance up a storm.

She caught me smiling at her as she was putting them on a few minutes ago. She finished lacing them up and walked up to me slowly, and asked if it was just the ghungrus that caught my eye. Nora..ah Nora.. :)

All of us drummers want to make this next jam a spectacular one. We feel the electricity of intention as we look at each other, but nobody wants to start a beat we can build on. I think we're all scared we might play something we've played before. Nora can always be counted on to start us off, a few vigorous shakes of the bells on her feet and she gets a rhythm going, but she's quiet too. Like the rest of us, she feels the sizzle in the air, and she's worried she might douse it.

Rob begins to take off his shirt. I think we all saw that coming. He has this idea that his salon-waxed chest, his machine-sculpted arms and that manufactured tan will bring out a tribal fervour in all of us. He gets the collective glare. Shirt remains on.

The silence since our last piece has been long enough that we're beginning to worry. Though the crowd hasn't had to pay to hear us, they're still expecting something. The electricity we felt a couple of minutes ago is threatening to fizzle out.

We've had false starts in the past. Like everytime Rob's disrobed, or the time I decided this drum circle needed vocals. This time's not like that. We're looking at each other, and I can see the anxiety in each eye. Nora's eyes linger on my fingers and I want to say that's when the rapture struck, but it wasn't.

There's a whistle from the crowd. It's followed by some muted applause. I know how this sort of thing goes down, and I can feel my face flush. It begins. Somebody at the back shouts "it's easy! A wimba weppa wimba weppa" People laugh. But we've just played a good set, so the respect hangover stifles what would have become a good heckle from the crowd.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008


Every so often, I have the urge to buy a yo-yo, but then it goes away.

I remember the first time I got on an elevator. After it dropped me off on the 32nd floor, I wondered what they'd call it on my way down.

I've painted bars on the top left corner of my cell-phone. Now I'm reachable wherever I go.

I bought 32 toothbrushes yesterday.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Grandmaster Ki

The great Wing-Chun Sifu, Loo Yung Ki, is distraught that his latest movie has failed to create ripples at the box-office."I sweated blood for the stunts in 'Omelette without Eggs'. I cannot believe how empty the halls are!"

We are sitting in his monastery in LA, where Ki's students, a hundred eager monks, shuffle in and out silently as they go about their training exercises and daily chores. Ki's been a recognized kung-fu Grandmaster for over twenty years now, ever since he won the '88 kung-fu monkathon in the city. He recalls the competition vividly. He was going neck-to-neck with Xao Woo up until the 'Show me your qi' round.

Woo was hooked up to an voltmeter, and he delivered some off-the-scale electric shocks that impressed the judges. That didn't deter Ki, who, sitting off to the corner knew this round was going to be his. He walked up to an area that had bells strung up. After a few moments of intense concentration, the bells began to ring. The judges had never before heard a qi-bell version of 'when the saints come marching in'. Ki took the lead right there, later sailing through the 'Fly stiffly through air' and 'Zen me to sleep' rounds.

Ki still regrets how he rubbed it in to Woo, as he recounted telling Woo off at the end of the event - "My Zen crescent-kicks your Zen's ass! Who da man now??". He shakes his head "I brought shame upon my dojo....but it felt so good!".

I hear a stifled cough and turn to find a gaggle of monks sidled up beside me. They're carrying trays of steaming hot food - soup, dumplings, shrimp sticks and what have you. They move silently, these monks. In a moment, they've laid out the food and disappeared, leaving me to fumble with a pair of chopsticks. I wonder how we're ever going to finish all they've brought. It's then that I notice, even under the billowing robes, the traces of an ample paunch on Grandmaster Ki.

'Omelette without Eggs' is not a revolutionary movie. Grandmaster Ki admits sheepishly that they used wires. "Old Dojo dictum, do not use Kung-fu for profit. Even so, you know that scene where I break the egg and a chick appears? No special effects, I used finger kata to transport the yolk to a future state. They do not appreciate these things anymore."

Perhaps that's a sign of the times. Intricate art forms like these are fast being lost, because we, the audience, can no longer tell what's real and what's not. I leave there wistfully. I'm not worried about Grandmaster Ki, he has his own Dojo and is doing well for himself. I just feel sorry for the movies he won't get to make. It's you Grandmaster Ki, you da man..

Sunday, September 07, 2008


Through every awful joke I've shared with baba and every mile that's separated us, there's been a force that's cocooned us together, loathe it or love it as we will. This force is definitely the dna we share, that great pre-programmed life-chalker, but I've learnt now that the dna's less than half the story.

Baba's always been a writer. I'd heard this earlier, and I see it now, as he's writing and publishing more often. I'd done some writing myself as a kid, but it was from within so many confines that I'll be the first to discount it. I was caged by my age, by my schooling and by the compulsion to write instead of being freed by actual moments of inspiration.

Baba's latest work, a novella, creates a pause when you're done reading. I've only heard an excerpt myself, but I'm told that the work is significant. In this excerpt, he'd drawn parallels between his days as a kid and mine. I suspect it's the interesting vs. the not-so-much :) but that there's this minor unification between our lives, dissimilar as they are, makes me sit up and take note. I'm stunned that two lives, separated in time, can share the noosphere while accounting for their wholly different settings. If these were two unconnected lives we were discussing, we 'd call it coincidence. When it's father and son, my vocabulary fails me.

And this biophysics was only a small aspect of the novella. The work, I hear, is balls-to-the-wall witty, and at the end, pregnantly poignant. Plus, that it's me plugging his work, despite the flak this will draw, distinguishes the effort.

I'm going to exploit this to the fullest. I've asked him to write, write till his keyboard crumbles, so that genetics and legacy combine and, using the same wormhole that governs the parallelism of our lives, infuse me with writing prowess beyond my blinkers.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008


I'm always going to have some distance to go before I'm comfortable with my intellectual capacity, like that bunny/frog problem where it can only hop half the distance to its goal each time. To nevertheless hurry the process, one of my favourite exercises is to pick a system that's on the fringes of said intellect, and to then chip away at it, hopefully coaxing it into some form of submission where I can unravel every last thread of this system just as easily as I can roll it back into its original tangled-mess form.

'System' here refers to any object, physical or non, that requires a level of analysis before it's understood. It could be an emotion, perhaps a piece of prose that has an nth degree of meaning between its lines, or just something wholly new (i.e. limited a priori baseline in our consciousness to compare this 'new' with).

Thankfully, the successful conquering of a system leaves just as many systems to choose from for my next assignment, because I've conquered so little. At the same time it does aid the process of sharpening thought and of understanding how to apply dimensions of intellect to deconstruct these systems.

My approach to this exercise involves picking the system, and then analysing the challenge presented by it. I choose between the following paths (because there's only so much time I'm going to give a particular system):

(i) This system I've picked - what type of understanding should I gun for, so that it benefits me?

For instance, let the system be the complex emotion when someone close dies. I have little to gain by detached high-level observation, analysis, rationalization, painting a snapshot, etc. These would be good academic understandings. Thesis-worthy even, but really, the type of understanding I'm looking for is one that'll help ease the pain.

(ii) What the challenges that the system poses are, and so, what the methods of analysis should be -

The answers to this question always annoy me. The methods I settle upon take me wandering into some narrow, unlit entrail in the underbelly of the system. Once there, I've understood the entrail well, but am never sure if this understanding's important. And so I backtrack, and head into a new nether region, same odds of meeting the same end.

At other times, these methods will lead me into the big-picture dilemma, where I'm outside the system, holding it up to the light, looking at it from various angles. I'll realise then that I'm not seeing all of the picture, and that I perhaps need to hold the system a little further away, and then a lot further, until 'big-picture' becomes 'bird's eye-view' accompanied also by a bird-like understanding of the system. From way up here, the term 'big-picture' becomes an oxymoron.

Over time though, I'm hoping I'll learn which methods are best applied when, and that it'll become instinct. The gain then isn't just understanding these systems, but doing so efficiently.

Like when Bruce Lee's surrounded by ten thugs :)

Did you see the kung-fu angle coming?

Tuesday, September 02, 2008


There's a lot of talk about quantum entanglement these days, where a particle influences its 'entangled' counterpart when any sort of measurement is attempted on it. The particles are entangled in a way that their spatial separation doesn't matter when it comes to one particle influencing the other.

[My references to 'particles' favour the omnipresent, multi-purpose photon of course :-) - Two entangled photons can be created by a process called 'parametic down conversion', where a photon spends a romantic evening with an atom from a beta-borium-borate crystal, and nine picoseconds later, said atom decays and pops out twins, or rather two entangled photons].

Einstein and two of his students, Podolsky and Rosen - in that order (E.P.R), if you want the best google results - conceived a famous argument to question the completeness of quantum theory. A salient component of this argument had Einstein considering the hypothetical example of gunpowder that was intrinsically unstable (i.e. could explode as a result of forces/reactions from within the gunpowder system). He applied Schrödinger's equation to it to determine the state of the gunpowder after a year and determined that the equation would give him garbage (of course, Einstein put this result across very politely to Schrödinger).

The culture of physics in these quantum echelons is such that Schrödinger could respond to Einstein with his cat experiment (strikingly similar to Einstein's gunpowder) and though the result gave us little concrete understanding, we still applaud the response.

In these rarefied clouds of opinions and philosophies on the nature of particles, it's refreshing to see these theories actually put to use in real-life:

One such application of quantum entanglement is in cryptography. The parties involved are Alice and Bob. Each of them have two distinct bit-measuring machines. Alice sends Bob the entangled dual of a piece of information and both of them proceed to measure the bits comprising the information. The trick here is that they each choose a random machine to measure individual bits.

The key to this encryption: Alice and Bob then share with each other information about which machine they used to measure which bit. This information can be shared across a public channel and it won't help an eavesdropper. Instances where different machines were used are dropped, because the results, even if identical, do not confirm entanglement. The remaining bits are condensed and of these, Bob and Alice again compare, publicly, a random sample to ensure that the information they have is identical bit-for-bit. If yes, keep, if no, discard.

Simplistically, the probability is high that an eavesdropper would alter the information while trying to spy on the communication. The more information that the eavesdropper gathers about the key, the higher the likelihood that Alice and Bob will realise they're being snooped upon and will try the communication anew.

Possibly the most foolproof cipher :)

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Get there faster

Most main streets have a co-ordinated traffic light system, timed to allow vehicles that have hit one green to pass through uninterrupted for as long a stretch as possible.

That said, if as a driver, your route involves turning onto a side street, your luck with the lights gets scrambled.

The timing of the lights is usually pre-programmed and in phases, accounting for variables such as offering independent lefts, rush-hour, etc. There are newer real-time reactive systems that account for unexpected traffic volume and the like, but for the most part, the lights have a state machine controller that pre-accounts for several traffic-related variables before spitting out an optimal light-changing schedule.

Given such a case, how about feeding the timing sequence of these lights into your GPS unit? That way, when mapping a route to your destination, the unit would consider the posted speed limits on all of these roads, traffic conditions (another real-time GPS input easily available these days) and how far you are from the next traffic light. The unit would then map a route that would take you through the most green lights, even if it meant a bit of a longer distance, with the goal being either fuel economy or a shorter drive time.

There you go, more $$ I've just given away :)

P.S. On a tangential note, I'd read UPS delivery trucks have routes mapped out for them that have no left turns so that the truck never gets stuck at a light. Saves a lot of time, PLUS the driver doesn't have to worry about explaining the shorts to whoever pulls up alongside at a light.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

My low-key Kung-Fu - II

This post centers on movement. I'm condensing a couple of concepts here, so I hope you'll forgive the abrupt tone.

The moving mind

We're all trying to push mountains, whether it's in combat (or conflict - not necessarily physical), towards some collaborative effort, or simply an individual effort to become a better people. All of these mountains are easier moved when we can understand what's on the other side, i.e. what's
(a) stopping the mountain from moving and
(b) where we want the mountain to finally end up.

To do this, consider being able to dance around the mountain. The notion here is that the mountain isn't insurmountable. As far as obstacles go, the mountain exists in fewer dimensions than we can look beyond. Here are some of the dance styles you might consider -
(i) The possibility to physically dominate the mountain
(ii) to intellectualize a tunnel through the mountain or
(iii) to wear it down through will-power

*Note that will-power is not a fixed-quantity commodity. It's very muscle-like. Exercise it to depletion, and over a realizable period, it'll nourish itself back to where you began and then some.

Degrees of movement

The idea here isn't necessarily physical movement. Here are some of the degrees.

(i) Hum
This is code for 'faster than the mind can perceive', producing a low hum. Muhammad Ali, Usain Bolt, Einstein, Tagore, they're all hummers, whether it be in the form of their world record sprints or just the magnitude of their achievements, measured by volume and impact.

(ii) Skeet
This movement form is seen in a winning street fighter - move more effectively than your opponent. You don't have to be quick, this degree of movement is viewed relative to the context.

(iii) Slide
This movement form enables streamlining. Flying a kite, growing older gracefully, paying your taxes - all of these are examples of the slide, where movement is in keeping with the immediate environment, causing the least disruption while allowing natural flow.

(iv) Dam
Ahimsa's a good example - where you stand upright against the wind. In doing so, you begin to discover your center of gravity, and adjust your stance accordingly. This stillness takes the most toll on your body, and has the least impact on your conscience.

Monday, August 25, 2008

My low-key kung-fu - I

Over the last couple of weeks, I've tried to initiate myself into the world of combat by auditing some wing chun kung-fu classes. Initially, the idea was to get in another form of physical activity, and if as a side-effect, I achieved some mystical, oriental tranquility in the process, I'd take it. The idea's begun to evolve already, and hopefully in the days to come it'll become part of my philosophy. Here are the seeds.

When someone bumps into us on the street and doesn't apologise, our senses flare up. There's anger, confusion, sadness -we were just minding our own business, being conscientous of our manners and taking care not to spill any bit of ourselves onto others on the street so why did we just get roughed up like that? By a stranger, no less...Surely we didn't deserve it?

All this emotion for a simple shoulder bump.

What then if we're actually assaulted? It's disturbing if you seriously picture it, and a lot more scarring when it actually happens to you. You don't see it coming, but you suddenly feel the shock of physical pain, inflicted purposefully, and there's little about it that's friendly. It was meant to cause some degree of trauma. The why isn't important here, just the act and its repercussions.

I know I'd be reeling from a punch long after my body had forgotten about it. This is because I wouldn't be able to distance myself emotionally from the attack. Ego, personality and injury would all tie into an indistinguishable lifeless form, dragging me down with it.

These kung-fu classes (boxing classes would've worked just as well - no oriental philosophy yet) have started to teach me how to physiologically react to assault. The differences between this class environment and the street assault scenario are (a) the surprise component is low here because we're expecting to be attacked (this is the downside) and (b) there's no underlying malintent. You start to separate personality from the action.

Of course, I'm not kung-fuing to win. I just really love my noodle soup.

More to come on how far I get with my kung fu zen.

Friday, August 22, 2008

News - Friday Aug 22

*I'm going white-water rafting and cliff-jumping today. I obviously haven't learnt my lesson. I'm praying I return in one piece. I'm also praying that something slightly untoward happens ;-), stay tuned*

Update (Aug 24) - All of it went by the script. Each rapid, each wave played out its role. The raft obliged, taco-ing up on itself each time. I jumped off a cliff as well, and managed not to face plant. By the end of it, I was drenched to the bone, but left feeling just a tad dry. Nirawsh.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008


A close friend posted recently that he'd begun to feel old.

During the last year of our teens, I'd wished him a happy birthday as best I could sitting in a different country, and without a credit card. I was hopeful the "thought-that-counts" would go a long way :)

Anyways, here's a letter I sent him, it's obviously fairly personal, and dripping adolescence (which in my case may just be a terminal condition).

You turn twenty soon. Older than me.A year. Not that much of a difference really. Not agewise, not otherwise either. I'm sorry I'm not around for that monster hug. Only email sending possible. Could've sent an e-card also, but that's not worth even the thought.

Maybe on this day, we could've gone to Angeethi, and settled ourselves in for a stuffing the likes of which the manager's never seen before. Maybe we could've gone to watch the James Bond flick after that..Of course, we'd drown the movie with our snoring. And at the end of the movie, we'd be back out on the streets..Normally, we'd just get out our respective modes of transp. and head homewards (Marvel and yamaha 100cc)..But not this time..Bday doesn't come every month. This time, we'd draw up a list of chaps from school or elsewhere (max of three), and then buy bus tickets to Kodai. Give call to old uncles/aunties, let them know we'll be back in three days. So, no luggage, minimal amount of money (definitely enough for return trip), three other chaps (optional), and we're Kodai bound by nine pm sharma travels bus. Reminiscent of that Jaguar trip last year? well, what to do? I'm just real predictable..

But this isn't any distant future..this is happening now. We polish off dinner at some darshini, and get on the bus, with only the clothes we're wearing. We're pretty gung-ho about having some major discussion through the night, but we're asleep by ten..wake up at 5:00am, bus is climbing some weird hills..it's still dark outside..not black, but maybe a deep blue...some retard left his window open in the front of the bus..bloody cold..Sharma's given each passenger a thin blanket..wrap yourself up well..through the window, you can make out the silhouettes of stunted mountain trees..you can see the valley down far below..and you can see misty clouds enveloping the rocks, the way sleep's enveloped the other passengers.
Wake me up..Wake up other guys if there are any..all have terrible breath...For a moment, we're a little stunned, as to why we aren't in our bedrooms..then it comes back. And we realise how young we are, and yet old enough, so we can chill..It's all good, all good.

Bus stops at small tea stall, for driver to take a leak, and a sip of tea. We trundle out too..He's surprised..didn't expect anyone to be up this early..Nothing like overboiled tea leaves in a syrup of milk to drive away the sleep. Three rupees..each..highway robbery.. People around the stall busy themselves over their kadai-s, pumping up their small gas stoves, heating the oil to start frying the morning bondas..pretty cold at this altitude..We're still celebrating your birthday, so we get the first order of fries...even the locals are wearing sweaters and monkey caps..we've only got thin blankets..but the hot batter fried stuff does wonders for our chilly insides.

And this, saar, is just the journey..We haven't even gotten to the party. We will. Real soon. Happy Birthday man.

It's been a few years since, and we still haven't gotten around to it. We're at that age now where we think we've outgrown this teen/tween sentimentality. I hope we haven't, but we'll know for sure only when we actually get on that bus.

Saar, you listening?

Rain today

Beautiful article at the link below on how america (or those who can afford it) pursues happiness at the cost of doing away with the opposite end of our emotional spectrum.


The article talks about our obsession with eliminating melancholia, and finding happiness in every walk. Each life an individual shangrila. Not isolation, but happiness all around. We try to do away with sadness and pain, and so injure the muse. Happiness slowly becomes the norm and everything else is an aberration that needs treating. And so we have pills to make us happy.

*Like the author of the article, I'm not knocking the seriousness of clinical, manic depression. I'm just talking about the lighter variety.*

Happiness is a broad term though. There's that question "wouldst you dance in the rain or be free from pain?". Romantically, the answer's obvious. Practically, it's the latter. Not that the choice has been offered, but ideally, you should want to enjoy dancing even if you are in pain.

And finally, there's the danger of losing our definition of happiness if we constantly try to do away with the baseline reference of unhappiness. There are parts of this article I don't subscribe to but I'd like to project here - I hope our capitalist mentality helps us preserve the concept of 'degrees of happiness'. This'll help us come to peace with our stock (because we know it can always be worse).

This stillness against the race for happiness is another kind of tranquility, one that helps a new kind of happiness blossom.

*Update* - I realise I started this post by plugging that melancholia article, but the forecast called for sunshine today.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Culture club

In trying to decide whether I need an iPhone, I was confronted with several questions about my sense of identity that I thought I'd buried (the questions, not the sense of identity) when I emerged out of my teens.

The first had to do with why I wanted the iPhone. I'm still convinced it's only because my little Ericsson has caused me enough grief, and the frustration I've borne deserves a reward. Thing is though, by ascribing to the iPhone culture, I also join a club (no longer exclusive, given volume of iphone sales).

I'm averse to joining clubs for the sake of joining them. The problem is that this non-club joining mentality (sure, call it non-conformity) drops me right into another club.

The other trouble, again cutting to my pith, has to do with this pressure to be an early adopter - whether of technology, ideas, lifestyle or anything in between. (Have you read Fassbinder? NO?? Oh, but you must! He's the Goethe of our times!..No, he hasn't published yet, but here's the address of his blog).

That I've considered the iPhone only just now reveals I haven't given in to this culture. But the pressure's been there.

And it only gets worse. By the time (if ever) I end up owning an iPhone, it's going to be on its way out. And not just technology-wise. I won't draw a parallel to fashion because that monster 180s on itself all the time. But I'd be like the guy that's just bought a Hummer. I'd draw sneers of reproval even if the instrument worked well for me.

Eventually, after I come to grips with being an early adopter, I'd have to evolve into an early discarder. It's that fine line between "I want one because everyone else has one" and "Everbody has one, I need something else".

I think you know how I'm going to wrap up this post.

My crappy Ericsson lives to fight another day.

Saturday, August 09, 2008


I went kayaking this past weekend, at a place not far from this millwheel on bracebridge in northern Ontario (http://www.panoramio.com/photo/9847). It's a pretty sight here, and I'm just glad I've lived to tell the story.

It was my third time kayaking. They'd vanned us out to a point from where it was to take us an hour to get back via kayak. It was mid-afternoon, we were on a winding stream with a gentle current.

After lazing a while, letting the current do the work, I decided to put my back into it, and pulled ahead of the others. The vistas changed with every bend in the stream, beginning with open country on either side of the stream to a more wooded landscape as the current began to pick up. The faded dry-green facade quickly changed into a deep, pulsating forest-green. With the water speeding up, rocks sprung from the water-bed, and the earlier light gurgling of the stream gave way to animated arguments where water met rock.

I hadn't realised it, but I'd missed the sign that asked kayakers to dock. The aerodynamics of rowing with the rapids took up all of my mindspace. Insert the oar's blades into the water at an angle that least disrupts the kayak's lines. Don't push the water, pivot the boat using the oar as fulcrum. Accelerate the blade rapidly (m/s^3) so that the oar builds on the kayak's momentum instead of subtracting from it. I was creating my own little Beijing.

It was possibly an hour past the stopping sign that I realised I'd probably missed it. By now, the stream was a river. A shallow one, but one that looked remarkably like the picture above. Beautiful, and alive. Far be it from me to claim any kayaking expertise, but I was having the time of my life dodging rocks, and ducking under ash-white branches that were drawn towards the river. Each new bend, each rapid was a mini-challenge. There was a point that I perfectly jumped a five-foot straight drop waterfall in my kayak. I learnt later that I wasn't supposed to have been that lucky. Rather, that my kayak should've tipped and that I should've hit my head against some rocks. I'd have been easily found then.

By now, I was looking for a spot that I could lodge my kayak, realising that the further I went, the higher the chances I was going to get lost. The river goaded me on some partly by how beautiful it was, and partly by sheer dominance.. The rapids were in no mood to help me break my journey.

Three hours into this my kayak finally lodged itself in the branches of a dead tree that had fallen across the river. I was unhurt, and quickly got out of the kayak as water gushed into it.
There was forest on either side, and I had little knowledge about the geography of the area. I hadn't seen any signs warning of bears, but then, with it approaching dusk, my delicate urban sensibilities would've been ruffled by any carnivore. I decided I was better off making my way upriver rather than trying my luck in the woods. The river was wider than I've managed to show in this picture above, but it gives you an idea of the forest on either side.

I walked along the sides of the river, so that I could clutch onto the underbrush to help push against the current. My sneakers were soaked, but with every step into the water, I felt like I was redefining the concept of saturation. The river bed was not just slippery because of the moss, but at various points, it'd suddenly change depth. Here a foot deep, and there, five. I broke off a long, unwieldy branch that seemed to have extended itself for the purpose, and poked at the rocks on the bed to see if they were truly part of the bed, or if they were just playing possum until I stepped on them. I fell a few times and the current pushed me back some meters, but I was making positive overall progress against the current.

There were times when branches hung so low over the river that the only way to get past would be to take a deep breath and swim below them, against what was quite a rough current. It wouldn't be as much swimming as much as using these same branches to pull my way past them. At other times, I'd turn back and head to a uniformly shallower part of the river so that I could swim-crawl on all fours to the other bank, hoping I'd have better luck moving upriver on that side.

I could no longer see the sun, and though there was still some light, the green of the woods was fast changing into a darker, deadlier colour. I had already called out for help a couple of times without any real conviction, as though it was just a step towards my rescue. Now, I realised how much hope and desperation my next call would have. And as I shouted for help, I knew I wasn't going to get a reply, it was that densely wooded and that remote. And all of it felt so primal. This base instinct for survival tempered with an illogical attempt at dignity. Articulated in a foreign language, limited to a single word. "Help". Not "HELP!!!!". I hope I haven't let on I'm scared. It'd be funny if they find me and say, "Hey, don't you know there's a path behind that oak there? leads right to our cottage. We're having a barbeque. Join us?"

But as the minutes ticked by and with no help to be had, I found instincts I didn't know were in me. Instincts, not courage. Courage is a choice, instinct is your subconscious taking over. I'd scraped the skin off my thumbs a little while earlier and when I grabbed onto a log to stop me falling, I felt a shock, a sting so intensely painful that I cried out. I'd normally have dropped everything to treat it, but my instincts had prioritized things for me. The sting was secondary. Survival primary. I needed to get to a vantage point, and if there wasn't one on hand, I needed to find a dry spot to spend the night on before it got too dark to see.

I was crawling back across the river to the other side when I heard a shrill whistle. I looked up to see a canoe rounding the bend, two men pointing excitedly at me.

I'd known it wouldn't be hard for them to find me. I'd kayaked a finite number of hours downstream. I was making my way back going the most logical search path any rescuers would take. But I'd be lying if I said I hadn't seen this playing out in some other ways as well.

Later, when my feet were on land, I looked at my thumb, wondering why such a clean patch of scraped skin would sting as much as it did. A tiny worm emerged from under my skin. It had made pincer-like holes in my flesh at a few points, from which an oily secretion flowed. Later this just turned into tiny droplets of blood. Blood I know. Blood I can deal with.

A friend asked me if I felt stronger for the experience. I didn't know what to tell him.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Lean to the right

I'm convinced there's beauty in asymmetry too. It gives me a hint of something unnatural that went before, or that there's layers and nuances within.

In numbers - a portrait of something solitary, the third person in a crowd of three and so on.

In a face - a scar, a lazy eye.

In music - a 7th chord, the one baton a conductor uses, the third tenor, shikar taal.

In food - I can't think of how asymmetry applies here. Perhaps in how sashimi doesn't need to be washed down with a salad. Here, I'm thinking asymmetry in nutritional content. Or maybe I'm just hungry.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

The intelligence paradox

There are a few paradoxes surrounding the general concept of intelligence. Most of them are academic constructs, making no notable points. I've listed a couple here. The second one is a good take-away, and possibly something to reflect on as we go about building our lives following markers that society defines as measures of intelligence and success.

1. The un-PC paradox: Yes, I've named it myself. It's a throwback to a pet topic, Darwin's theory of evolution. Ideally, as we tend to infinite time, the selected random mutations in our DNA should make us supermen. This conceivably includes our becoming super-intelligent as well. The paradox however is in the reality of our times, economic and social. Those of our species considered to be elitely intelligent tend to have way fewer children than the lesser-blessed crowd. These are raw statistics. The intelligence gene pool is skewed towards devolution. Random dna mutations vs a lesser number of intelligent pro-creators.

And then there's

2. The intelligent life -

Society pushes the more intelligent beings of our species to take up jobs that demand they use this intelligence to the fullest capacity. As a result, an intelligent person ends up becoming a lawyer juggling five corporate cases, or an investment banker paying meticulous attention to her commas and zeroes. This leaves them with fewer mental cycles to exercise their intelligence for themselves, having sold most of it off to the highest bidder.

The blue-collar joe then becomes today's thinker. A big step for joe, a smaller step for mankind.

As a result, the sum total of our intelligence is hard-pressed to grow. Call it the devolution of intelligence, or just the paradox that holds us back.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

My rain run

I saw two remarkable old men today. I'd have been content to just appreciate the mental postcard they presented, but they'd decided they were going to be written about today.

It was at a parkette, not far from home. They sat on a bench, a chess set between them.

I'd stepped out for a run, my route carefully mapped so that I could take in all the greenery this part of the city had to offer. It was overcast for most of the day, and I could've won good money betting it'd rain as soon as I left home. That's just how it works with me and the weatherman.

Anyhoo, I made my way past these quaint houses, not the sort with the manicured lawns - these were more the wild creepers, vines, stout tree-types. Sort of like dragon-boating through kerala's canopied backwaters.

I stopped near this parkette to catch my breath and wipe the water off my glasses when I realised the sun'd come out. The men must've only just gotten there. They had their set-up laid out, and white had moved to e4. Suddenly the man in the hat looked up and said "Hey, yknow who I like? That Gibbins. He's a heck of a guy."

The other gentleman stuck out his left hand and knocked the hat off his friend's head. "Gibbins is dead."

I picked up the hat for the first gentleman and saw a grin escape his face. I knew then that they hadn't thought out the script for their little show beyond that point, so I thanked them and jogged back the way I came. Good run today.

Thursday, July 17, 2008


I'd gotten home last evening and in the daze that follows from two hours on Toronto's public transit system, walked through the front door and onto my sofa, putting my feet up.

I think it was James Joyce that wrote about this family man, who worked long hours at an oppresive factory to feed his family. He'd squeeze his large feet into shoes that were two sizes too small. It increased the agony immeasurably in the heat of the factory. But when he got home at a late hour (when the night had grown thin), sheer relief would course through him as he took off the shoes. It seemed to set the world back into its orbit.

I felt much the same.

This morning though, just as I was about to step out to work, I realised I was missing the keys to my apartment. I'd let myself in with these keys a few short hours ago, so I knew they had to be in the apartment somewhere. I searched all the usual spots but didn't find anything. The short of it is that I spent a good quarter-hour turning everything upside down, but the key was nowhere to be found.

It was really early, around sunrise actually, that I was scrambling for these keys. The keys to the apartment were lost in the apartment itself. And while I wasn't on anything, the situation seemed to be crying out for a metaphor.

Matryoshka doll? no, perhaps more like a white dwarf collapsing on itself...almost, but not really.

And I milked the extrapolations for all they were worth. The situation grew maniacally dire when I tried to see it as a bystander from the outside would. Here, the very means to enter (the key to the apartment) was swallowed by the thing needing to be entered. There was a blackness to it all. And tiny beads of sweat formed on my forehead.

The starkness threatened to envelop my work day before it had even begun, when I suddenly decided to pick up an obtuse third cushion from the sofa. And there it was. Shiny, gleaming, just a little shy, but overall beautiful in that early morning haze that wafted into the living room.

The story closed on itself. I had the cool key in my palm, and dawn's mist flowed in through the windows to chill the back of my neck.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Staccato love

I'd planned to write a post called 'Yesterday' in this space. I promise to get around to it soon.

For now, here's a short film called Staccato Love. It's based on an incident that happened in Calcutta.

The boy loved her, and what's not to love? She's classical in her sensibilities and rasta in style. She cooks like a chef's daughter (in that she doesn't) and wears outlandishly bookish glasses. She's painted a tattoo onto the small of her back, so she can scrub it off the day she's outgrown it. She can't see a thing through those glasses she wears. And she can sing. [Scrap that. She likes to sing, but can't].
She didn't need to be beautiful, not for him, nor for the film, but if you've already seen her in your head, you can decide for yourself.

The boy - he wore this and he looked like that. He spoke soft somethings in a gravelly voice, and could whip out a kurta-jhola ensemble from his gym-bag anytime the going got smart. He liked to read and ride, knew monet from manet, impressionism from post, but in some ways, he was a mushroom. There was a lot of surface and not as much beneath.

He loved her sharply though. He'd probably seen all the right movies about love. His idea of love was conservative, its expression liberal. They'd met first at a library or maybe at a lounge. She looked hard at him where he sat, and he grew immediately uncomfortable. His breathing turned clunky when she walked over and stood in front of him, hands on her hips. She then simply raised an eyebrow at him. It stripped him naked. He'd had on his 'thinker' look, eyes vacant, hoping he looked smarter than he was. She of course felt sorry for him, which is why she walked over.

And even as she walked his way, he was hoping she'd be unsmart, or at least taken, so he wouldn't have to worry about keeping from falling in love. Something about long-distance pheromones that'd already begun their magic. But then she spoke, and the voice was perfect, the tone, the notes, the lilt, the cadence. As though in an instant he was back in his mother's womb, and all the right sounds made their way into his subconscious. [I'm hoping this Freudian angle on love is legit]

The love grew wildly. [I can't graph it]. It hit him from nowhere and swept him away, but for her, there was a logic to her love. It's the sum of a hundred different components, like a jigsaw puzzle.

The elements that constitute love trooped in on cue. For her, these were (chronologically) that base maternal need to right a man, that the man in question was the moldable sort, that he loved her unabashedly, how old-fashioned he could be, and that he validated her eccentricities by being the properer of the two. I suspect this is as deep as one needs to get to engender love. If not, throw in a love for the same style of theatre, and perhaps a divine connection in the stars as well.

I think Love is a binary condition. There's no in-between state. Atleast that's how all of my romantic movies are going to be. Digital. No, I make bad joke. My vision of love is that when it's there, it's end-of-the-earth absolute.

And that's how it was here. So when he didn't pick up his phone today, Tuesday, she was concerned. She turned worried when she tried him 10 minutes later with the same result. She realised then why this script introduced her in the present and him in the past tense.

An older voice answered on the tenth try. 'Yes, hi...This phone's been lying here for some time now. I didn't know what to do when I heard it ring all those times.'
'That's right, there has been an accident here. By the tracks. The area's been cordoned off.'
'This is the Sealdah station.'

It took her a half-hour to get there. Barefoot, and indecently dressed for the time of night. She wanted to see the body, but nobody'd let her. It was neither procedure nor a pretty sight. She pleaded with the police and then followed them to the autopsy centre. She'd heard whispers of 'suicide' back on the platform.

She sits stoic through the night. I'm not sure how she doesn't break down and into little pieces. I think she's in shock, but that's taking away from her. Maybe she's reflecting...by breaking down and into little pieces the love that's been taken away from her.

I let a week pass. Her folks keep a judicious eye on her, dusting off the kid-gloves. But one never knows what to do at a time like this. If only she'd speak, vent, rant, rave, .. cry. She spends an afternoon getting her hair straightened. The next day, she's laughing with the neighbour's little boy, and the day after that, she's feeding her grandpa at the hospital.

She's hung herself from the fan today. She knows better than to look forward to a reunion with him. She knows her parents will be inconsolable. She knows she needed to be there to look after them. She knows she isn't solving anything, that she's only being selfish. Then why?

Blame it on that absolute, end-of-the-earth love.

The film finishes here, leaving close to no questions unanswered. In the film format, I'd stretch out the staccato part of their love more. It's an ideal picture I have of the emotion. Like a tap dance sawaal-jawaab. When two people share quick exchanges that are witty, spontaneous, exciting. Like a little switch flipping on and off rapidly. On-off-on-off-on-off. Binary.

Monday, July 07, 2008


I'd left off on my future shock series of posts at a point where I hypothesized that the future may be predictable. The idea behind the posts was only to introduce the concepts related to that school of thought (determinism, that Demon thing etc).

That said, the first concept that could do with some clarity is what might happen when the Demon acts to change the future she's foreseen. There was a movie about this sort of thing, called Next, starring Nicholas Cage. Anyyyways... The paradox that immediately plays out is very simply this:

The demon foresees being hit by a car at a spot x, at a time (t+t1) in the immediate future. Being averse to the whole car-accident thing, she steps to one side at the exact moment, and in so doing, avoids being hit by the car. The future she'd seen is no longer true. In fact, what's to say it was true in the first place?

Two points about this scenario:
1) It's not quite as damaging as the grandfather paradox (where if you were able to travel back in time and defertilize your gramps, you wouldn't be born...and so wouldn't have been able to go back in time) because this construct interferes with the concept of time travel, but as a thought experiment, you're atleast able to go so far back as to visit your gramps before you begin the defertilization ritual.

--> Read the post above - "Yesterday"

2) What if the demon did not act to change the future and did indeed get hit by the car? Then the future she saw at time t was correct. This means that for any value of t, the future at t+t1 for an incremental value of t1, is a series of possibilities (she could've been hit, she could've avoided being hit, etc) rather than being a pre-defined path.

On point #2

As good a time as any to make reference to the concept of unitarity (wiki: "the sum of probabilities of all possible outcomes of any event is always 1. This is necessary for the theory to be consistent.") This simply means that the future must occur, or that time will continue its march, much like the flawed 2nd law of thermodynamics.

Consider then that our demon, Billie, has an evil twin sister, Jean. In our movie (surely there's a movie? atrocities like Cage's Next or Denzel Washington's Déjà Vu can't be our only mainstream tributes to Q.physics), where Billie is pitted against Jean, this clash will result either in a fantastic series of near-death escapes for both or the driest movie since wall-e. These extremes (near-death escapes or nothing interesting happening) follow from the concept of unitarity, but warrant a longer discussion than in the scope of this post.

The chance that Billie or Jean has of foreseeing a future that will happen have dropped to 50-50. If there are more such demons, each interfering with events they've foreseen, the chance that the future seen by any of the other demons will unfold drops further. That then reduces my fascination with Laplace Demons. If all they're able to do is make a guess about what might happen in the future, they're doing no better than us non-demons.

About determinism then: It seems that if at a time t we begin to observe the past (say an event at a time t-t1), all that happened was truly the result of what went before it. The past is definitely deterministic. The future though is an infinite number of possibilities. We can change it by doing what we will. We'll reap what we sow, and our will remains free. Amen.

P.S. Apologies for the Billie Jean angle. It was that or the cross-dressing siblings, Eleanor and Rigby.

Thursday, July 03, 2008


What this post isn't: Examples of rhythm in nature, a treatise on how life parallels rhythm or how rhythm is where music began

What it is: An appreciation of rhythm

Take a metronome pulsing at a fair clip. Add a second metronome that beats at half the speed, synced with the first and you have your basic 4/4 going. Turn this system on and leave it by a kettle of water on medium heat. Come back in 6 minutes and look at how the bubbles in the boiling water react to the sound.

Fine, so there's no relation...but there could've been.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Future Shock - IV

That bit in my last post, about Maxwell's coup de grâce to Laplace's Demon, was only a prelude to the quantum stuff below.

Laplace's hypothesis was based on principles of precision in nature. In keeping with classical mechanics, the overriding assumption was that it is possible to know simultaneously the position and momentum of a particle exactly. This was critical to the Demon to enable computation of the data. What drove LD out of a job though was Heisenberg's uncertainty principle.

In quantum mechanics, the position and momentum of particles no longer have precise values. The best assertion one can make about a particle is that there's a probability it exists at a particular location, or has a particular momentum. Heck, at the particle level, this becomes obvious when we consider that an effort to observe a particle will involve shining light (a stream of photons) on it. These photons themselves are particles (yes, yes, they're waves too) that will disrupt the peace of the particle we're trying to observe.

Schrödinger's cat:
It's at this point in the Q.physics-101 lecture that even the jocks at the back of the class wake up and listen - A cat is placed in a sealed box along with a flask containing cyanide gas. In addition, a tiny amount of a radioactive substance is placed in the box, alongside a Geiger counter. The amount of radioactive substance is small enough that in an hour, there's as much chance of it decaying as not. If the Geiger counter detects radiation, it triggers a mechanism that releases the cyanide gas.

In the real world, if we were to look in the box after an hour, the cat would either be alive or dead. Binary. In the quantum world though, the cat is simultaneously alive and dead, in a quantum superposition of these two states. It's at this point that the Laplace Demon hypothesis falls off the rails. The demon, at the particle level, cannot know for sure positions and momenta. An error in approximation at the particle level will blow up when extrapolated to the level of objects at the human scale.

The short of it is that quantum physics throws a wrench into the Newtonian/Laplace Demon machine and messes up the impetus that the determinism juggernaut had built up.

The long of it though is where it's most interesting: Heisenberg's postulate is unproven when we consider that the precise observation of a particle isn't possible because of human limitation. It is our inability to observe or measure a particle's characteristics without disturbing it that lead us to conclude that the particle's position is hazy within a probability cloud.

What do we know about the particle at a moment when we aren't observing it? Could it be, is it possible that the particle is at point x, y, z exactly? What if the demon knows this particle and its every last characteristic? The future won't be much of a shock to LD then.

Future Shock - III

The argument practically extends itself - What's keeping us from reading the future then? If what will happen is essentially a measurable function, then given our current state of computing prowess, there must be some events (small ones, like coin flips) that we should be able to predict.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Determinism is closely coupled with all things Newtonian, where matter, position and energy (force, pressure) are distinct ideas. F=m x a, v = u + at, etc.

Laplace's Demon:
Pierre-Simon Laplace went so far as to construct a demon, a hypothetical creature possessing an intellect that knew at any point in time about all forces that exist in nature, and the positions of all of those items that make up this nature. The demon, if it could compute this data, would then have a way to predict every movement of every body in the universe. To this demon, the future would be reduced to a simple continuum of the past and present.

The second law of thermodynamics:
The entropy of a system will increase over time to bring the system to equilibrium. This can be understood as all systems trying to become homogeneous over time.

This law definitely helped the 'demon' construct along, as a means of understanding how systems change with time.

*Note that James Clerk Maxwell showed that this law did not in fact apply across the board. Kick in the groin for L's demon. Maxwell did this by going back to the premise of Brownian motion, a basic model of how particles suspended in a liquid move randomly. It was already established that if this liquid was heated, the particles would move about faster, but still in a random manner.

In such a situation it was conceivable that the hotter particles at any one point in time could accumulate in one section of the liquid container (since the motion of these particles is random, this is a possibility). In that case, there would be a kink in the time-dispersal entropy-increasing graph of the system.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Future Shock - II

Determinism claims then that gambling can be reduced to a science. In the same vein, it refutes the concept of karma, confuses the theory of evolution and throws in a solipsistic twist to reality as we perceive it. Without trivialising the philosophy, this gives us an idea of what ascribing to determinism might mean.

As a note to the point on evolution theory, Darwin's primary postulate was that living creatures, over generations adapt at a genetic level to their environment (http://www.darwins-theory-of-evolution.com/: "As random genetic mutations occur within an organism's genetic code, the beneficial mutations are preserved because they aid survival -- a process known as natural selection").

Who's to say though that these mutations that caused our evolution from ape to man were random? What if the mutations are the result of our genes identifying the definite need to adapt and then doing the needful? In that case, while the theory of evolution remains whole, the idea of 'natural selection' of genetic mutations is refuted.

A final point on determinism - it says there's no such thing as free will. Everything we do is the result of something else. If we know those 'something-elses', i.e. those causal factors, we can predict what will happen, what the next person will do and what this week's winning numbers are at the 649.

Future Shock - I

In my last post, I discussed how looking at history as an input to a system can help predict stuff. This new series (Future Shock) expands on the idea. For the sake of continuity, skim through the post below first - "The macro on decision logic".

There's a school of thought, called determinism, that disregards the notion of randomness in any event. Every event that happens is the result of some causal factors or forces that went before it. Effectively, there's no coincidences anymore. Determinism says that if you've won the lottery on your birthday, there's a reason for it.

One way to rationalize this is by looking at the usual keystones of probability, rolling dice and flipping coins. Your rolling a six is usually considered to have the odds of 1 in 6. Obvious, right? But consider that the outcome (i.e. the 6 that you've rolled) was influenced by a bunch of different factors - the weights of the different faces of the dice, the force with which the dice was thrown, angle of impact, elasticity of the dice and contact surface, etc.

Hypothetically, if these factors had been been measured beforehand, then just understanding the interaction between these factors would mean that the rolled six could've been predicted.

Monday, June 16, 2008

The macro on decision logic

Decisions we take are either intuitive or based on a calculated risk. Decision takers include you and me, as also economists/bankers, politicians and gamblers (to define the spectrum of decisions that this post talks about).

Economists have their intricate mathematical models, politicians - their gauging of the collective sentiment and gamblers, their gut. All of these decision-making devices, fuzzy, neural, artificial, intuitive, etc are used on a daily basis to predict the future. That said, the world's population would all be paupers or trillionaires if any of these could boast consistency.

Given that such is not the case, i.e. there's only such a percentage of accuracy any decision logic machinery can claim, it's time to start looking at models that are organic - Letting reality and recallable (recent) history be the major inputs to your guesstimating. As an example, if the roulette ball lands on the 00 six times in a row, and you're unsure where to bet next ("hmm....even or odd?"), just go with the 00. Chances are the house is playing dirty. The Mahabharata would've been a shade less vengeful had Yudi figured this out before betting the kitchen sink.

Of course, this isn't revolutionary. It's part of any adaptive system in use today and all connectionist models rely on history (wiki this stuff). Here's another element to help focus the predictions - Your best guess for the future. Toss this element into the mix of inputs (i.e. along with what's happened already). An instance of where this might come in handy is with work flow automation at a call-center. If an extraordinary event has happened (an earthquake, discovery of a faulty part in the computers you sell, etc), it's safe to surmise that the future volume of calls will need more than the past week's call-volume as an input to forecast what's coming.

The last decision-making factor is the cornerstone of AI. Is there any information that can be derived from the interaction of your inputs? An instance of this is a loan officer assigning points to a prospective loanee based on standard criteria like their age (assume age directly proportional to points) and whether they rent or mortgage a house (assume renting gets higher points than mortgaging). This would mean that an elderly renter would be a better bet for the loan officer than a young house-owner. In the real world though, this is counter-intuitive, but you wouldn't get that from the discrete point-assigning system. And this is only two dimensional, the logical progression would be to extend this to n dimensions whose interactions can paint a picture.

My point though is to be able to spot patterns when theoretically none should exist - and to be an intelligent human, the macro-decider on when a decision needs to be made via an intelligent machine and when only in collaboration with one.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

My life-hacker/zen habits

Here are some lessons I've learnt well. Some of these have come as benefits-on-the-side with my advancing years, others from the burnt-finger chronicles of my biography, and the rest from that holiest oracle of all, the last word in fountainheads, Bollywood.

1. Remember that there are always atleast three cameras on you, one of them capturing every detail in slo-mo. As true in the corporate world as on a cricket field and as in the final confrontation with Mogambo. You never know who's watching, and to what detail they're interested in your performance. When under pressure, he who resists the nose-picking shall move up. Helps to know where the cameras are though.

2. The movie isn't worth making if the hero hasn't struggled. If you're down but fighting the odds, you'll come back up. That's most of what Bollywood's about. If you're up, realise that there's a new trend of sequels. You going down real soon. There's a discussion in here, waiting to be trashed out, about what's up and what's down. Gives me another post.

3. Don't sweat the small stuff. Instead, invest time finding the right person that will. If I had to learn real estate to buy a condo, do my CA exam before filing my taxes, get a many-hued belt in an obscure martial art form before I could leap tall buildings in my next movie, I'd really never get anything done. Instead, I figure my time's better spent if I can locate portly doubles to do all of these things for me. Task delegation is key. My responsibility is finding the right person to delegate to. Of course, the accountability remains mine too.

Monday, March 31, 2008

The arranged Lavalife

Lavalife, eHarmony, entrenous, ........, shaadi, bharatmatrimony

The spectrum above is distilled below:

Lavalife.com introduces arranged marriages to the west

shaadi.com introduces an online dating service to the east

Monday, March 24, 2008

How have newspapers survived?

For the wired crowd, newspapers are a bit of a novelty. Unmanageable sheafs of paper delivering news that's a day old at best. Like tv, the news too is sometimes just a break between advertisements. So when pitted against the instantaneousness of the net, how has the daily goliath survived?

  • News is almost always a day old, if not more, save some of the stop-press items
  • You don't get to choose the news in the paper. You can choose the sections you want to read though
  • With its 40 odd pages, each the length of a dinner jacket, the paper's unwieldy at best
  • Environment hazard


  • There's an editor
  • You don't get to choose the news in the paper. For some of us, if we did, the breadth of our awareness would be narrow
  • Tradition and routine. We're comfortable with news being a day old. It's the optimum amount of time that we're okay with, knowing that reporters aren't relaying hearsay and that they've had a chance to confirm stuff they're reporting on. Editors have given it the thumbs up after a careful review
  • To pack tiffin

To me, it seems like 'For' wins the day. At this time.

The bigger question is how much longer can the tradition of newspapers hold fort against all the other forces? In an article in the New Yorker, Eric Alterman says "newspaper companies are losing advertisers, readers, market value, and, in some cases, their sense of mission at a pace that would have been barely imaginable just four years ago."

The reasons are many, and chiefly to do with competition from the net. Editors on the net are savvy about the audience they want, and with a decent editor at the helm, loyal readership is easy to build. Content-specific blogs, where the writer is often the editor, do quite well for themselves. The new information junkie sets up rss feeds from her favourite blogs and is wired for the day.

There is a semi-bright spot though. Online newspapers, i.e. the websites of the major newspapers that carry a cross-section of articles from the days' papers, are a compromise. That a newspaper runs a corresponding website gives the paper a way to connect with the crowd that's drawing away. Sadly though, the revenue a site like this generates through ads and the like probably isn't enough to sustain the site, given the reduced profits from decreasing circulation and falling rates for the print ads. Coupled with the fact that the online newspaper still needs the same machinery (journalists, editorial staff, reuters contracts, etc) to back it up as the printed paper, it's a lose-lose situation.