Sunday, November 30, 2008

War and Peace

by Stanley Moss

The trade of war is over, there are no more battles,
but simple murder is still in.
The No God, Time, creeps his way,
universe after universe, like a great snapping turtle
opening its mouth wagging its tongue
to look like a worm or leech
so deceived hungry fish, every living thing
swims in to feed. Quarks long for dark holes,
atoms butter up molecules, protons do unto neutrons
what they would have neutrons do unto them.
The trade of war has been over so long,
the meaning of war in the O.E.D. is now “nonsense.”
In the Russian Efron Encyclopedia,
war, voina, means “dog shit”;
in the Littré, guerre is “a verse form, obsolete”;
in Germany, Krieg has become “a whipped-cream pastry”;
Sea of Words, the Chinese dictionary,
has war, zhan zheng, as “making love in public,”
while war in Arabic and Hebrew, with the same
Semitic throat, harb and milchamah, is defined
as “anything our distant grandfathers ate
we no longer find tempting—like the eyes of sheep.”
And lions eat grass.

Source: The New Yorker

Friday, November 28, 2008

Mumbai Attacks

The siege in Mumbai's Taj Hotel just ended a few minutes ago. My thoughts and prayers go out to the people in Mumbai. May you find strength and hope to recover from this extreme act of terrorism.

The Special Sting of Personal Terrorism
It is ironic that last week, in the New York Times' 'Week in Review' there was an article about American-born-Indians choosing to work in India, their ancestral country, because of America's failing economy, and India's emergence as one of the fastest growing financial centres. But in the Mumbai attacks, we saw that the terrorists cherry picked their targets. Unlike the previous attacks, the terrorists had a close encounter with the victims. They asked the hostages their names, and decided their fate based on their nationality and religion.

At times like this, it is crucial that we keep in mind that scapegoating people of one particular religion will not help us in solving the epidemic of terrorism. We really need to put aside our bogus differences, and really need to work together to fix the problems our world is facing. I know, I sound like a broken record.

What They Hate About Mumbai

As this article points out, the attacks may have originated in Pakistan, but it will be India's Muslims who would have to endure the backlash.

“The Second Coming” - William Butler Yeats

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Mirror Mirror, who's the fairest of them all?

Imagine a species that can challenge our claim of being the ONE and ONLY species of the Highest Order.

What does that species look like?
Does it look like us?
Or does it look something like E.T., a friendly alien from Steven Spielberg's movie E.T., with inflated and elongated head and protruding eyes?
Or does it look more beautiful than us?

A recent discussion with my sister got me thinking that as humans we are very resourceful, creative, and generous when it comes to giving ugly attributes to say a friendly alien, or a mutant. But unfortunately we cannot imagine a single biped, extraterristial or earthly, which is better looking than us.

Thomas Huxley, a 19th century anatomist, pointed out, only egocentric species, such as humans, could deny having similar anatomical traits as primates. Maybe if our closest genetic relatives, chimpanzees and orangutans, were LESS hairy and a bit MORE "attractive", naysayers would be more than willing to accept the reality of evolution.

Also, if you look at computer generated images of our early ancestors, they look less attractive than us. The most recently discovered ancestors of ours, Homo floresiensis, were nicknamed Hobbit by the popular media. Maybe there is some pleasure involved in outgrowing one's ancestors, but that is hardly a politically correct way of referring to our genetic progenitors.

In science fictional accounts, aliens are either less attractive than us, or they take our anthropomorphic forms. We often hear that our imagination is limitless, but my imagination fails me to come up with a species (earthly or martian), which trumps our attractiveness. I am not talking about enhancing our own human characteristics, or eugenics. I am referring to our collective high self-regard, and limited creativity, which fails us in imagining a bipedal species which is better looking than us.

A couple of weeks ago, evolutionary biologist Olivia Judson in her blog entry "Wanted: Intelligent Aliens, for a Research Project" pointed out, humans usually rate themselves high when it comes to being more attractive, funny, intelligent, and reckon themselves to be below average when it comes to "bad" traits such as, racism, dishonesty, and so on. So our personal bias dictates that we are far more intelligent and attractive [1]; and far less dishonest than we actually are. Maybe it is this personal bias that stops us from imagining a species far more attractive than us.

Here is my favourite paragraph from the aforementioned article:

"Moreover, in our assessments of other animals, we are consistently surprised. My favorite example of this comes from a headline in Nature a few years ago that announced that 'sheep are not so stupid after all.' The reason for the re-evaluation of ovine intelligence was a series of elegant experiments that showed that sheep can recognize and remember other sheep. But sheep are social animals: they live in flocks. It would be astonishing if they could not do this. (A sheep newspaper would no doubt have run the headline, 'Humans Amazed Again!')"

[1] However, most people I know underestimate their looks.

The following video shows that our concept of beauty, just like everything else in this world, revolves around us. Accentuate a couple of facial features, make them symmetrical and voila you're beautiful.
"No wonder our perception of beauty is distorted."

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Safe Trip Home

I am a HUGE Dido fan. Her voice is very unique and soothing. I have enormous respect for anyone who writes their own lyrics. Dido, not only wrote the songs on this record, but was also her own band. She played the piano, drums, and this flutey instrument.

This record has a very post-breakup/self-awakening vibe. My favourite tracks, so far, are:
Track 2 - Quiet Times
Track 3 - Never Want to Say it's Love
Track 5 - It Comes and it Goes
Track 6 - Look No Further
Track 7 - Us 2 Little Gods
Track 10 - Burnin Love
Track 11 - Northern Skies

My all time favourite Dido songs in no particular order are:
Life for Rent
Here with Me (filmed in Toronto, I think; judging by the streetcar)
Sand in My Shoes
Stan (her collaboration with Eminem)
Thank You

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Garden State

Last night, I finally got around to watching Garden State by Zach Braff. I have been meaning to watch this movie for a while now, and had the soundtrack, which is amazing by the way. Since I am also reading Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises these days, I couldn't help myself from drawing parallels between the two.

Hemingway's semi-autobiographical The Sun Also Rises is about the expatriate lifestyle many American writers opted for in the Post-World War I era. But one doesn't have to leave his or her country to feel alone and lost, you can feel that even at your home. It is this feeling of dismal depression, Zach Braff's character finds himself in. Braff's character is a struggling desolate actor living in Los Angeles, who doesn't have his life in order. He returns home to New Jersey, the Garden State, for his mom's funeral, and during his short stay reconnects with old high school buddies.

Zach Braff, who also wrote and directed this movie, during the post-production said, we go through physical puberty in our teens, but our 20s are about mental emancipation. I think once school is done and you have achieved whatever academic goals you had set out for yourself, and you start to take your first steps into the real world, you get this sense of awakening. In some cases, it is the realization, is that what you were working so hard for, is that why you pulled all those all-nighters in university?

The other feeling that I have to deal with is this sense of lack of achievement. For instance, in my case there are still a lot of books that I have to read. So many authors I haven't read. Take Ernest Hemingway for example, he is a renowned American author, and this is only the second book of his I am reading. Or the fact that I still have to crack open my copy of War and Peace that I purchased a couple of months ago. I still have to read Homer's Iliad and Odyssey.

I had the same sense of under-achievement when I was reading Raphael's biography the other day. Raphael painted The School of Athens in his late 20s. I have had the pleasure of seeing some of his masterpieces in their original form, in my early teenage years, and now reading about his achievements reminded me of the ambitions I had then.

In the movie, Zach Braff's character says something along the lines that you can't wait for your life to happen you have to start living it now.

I am not measuring my achievements in the amount of books I have read, or the artwork I have seen. I have graduated with distinction from one of the best universities in the world, and in some people's eyes that is a big achievement. But, I personally don't see that as an achievement, I could be proud of. And, this is not a case of false humility. In terms of knowledge and wisdom, there is still so much I don't know. I still have to read and benefit from the literary masterpieces of great minds such as Tolstoy, George Elliot, George Orwell, Thomas More, I can keep going...

But, I guess this is what the 20s are all about. Finding our place in the world, and making sure we don't get lost in obscurity of the whole 9 to 5 quotidian.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Proposition 8

Proposition 8, the California measure that bans same-sex marriage, passed by a 52 percent to 48 percent margin. What reasons did people give for voting for it?

17% Always vote yes to everything
16% Marriages are already gay enough
11% Thought it would be last good opportunity to deny someone civil rights
5% Proposition was a lot of reading
4% Still trying to prove not gay after that one night with Sean
2% Unhappily married gay people too lazy to get a divorce
.001% Love and support their son Frederick, but didn't want to see him make a mistake by marrying that good-for-nothing Manuel

Source: The Onion

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Arbeit macht frei

War Crimes.

Who do you punish for war crimes? They are ordered by a political leader, and carried on by soldiers, who are just doing their jobs.

"But executioners don't hate the people they execute, and they execute them all the same. Because they are ordered to? You think they do it because they're ordered to? And you think that I'm talking about orders and obedience, that the guards in the camps [Nazi concentration camps] were under orders and had to obey?...An executioner is not under orders and obedience. He's doing his work, he doesn't hate the people he executes, he's not taking revenge on them, he's not killing them because they're in his way or threatening him or attacking. They're a matter of such indifference to him that he can kill them as easily as not."

The above lines are taken from the book 'The Reader', which I recently finished reading. The book is about relationships, and the morality of war crimes. It is very well-written and in my opinion is a must read. If you haven't read it yet, I can't recommend this book enough. The film adaptation stars Kate Winslet, and the movie comes out in December.

In the book, the narrator, who had an illicit affair with a former SS guard when he was 15 years old, struggles with the moral dilemma: What does loving a Nazi make him? The narrator also belongs to the generation that grew up in Post WWII Germany, and has to not only deal with his own moral predicament but is also burdened with his nation's guilt.

In the past, I have compared the Holocaust to the genocide in Darfur. But reading Bernhard Schlink (the author)'s description of the concentration camps not only reminded me of Anne Frank and the plight she went through, but also about our modern-day version of Auschwitz, Guantanamo Bay. Guantanamo Bay was commissioned by the Bush administration so those with "terroristic" inclinations could be sent away to Cuba, where they wouldn't have to be treated according to the Geneva Convention treaties. Its defenders say the treaties of Geneva Convention don't apply to the Guantanamo detainees because Al-Qaeeda and Taleban terrorists are not uniformed soldiers, they don't belong to any particular country's military. Yes, they are not legitimate uniformed soldiers, but they are humans. Shouldn't we be treating all humans with respect!

The much revered Western value, innocent until proven guilty doesn't apply to Gitmo suspects. Upon their arrival they are already considered extremely dangerous, referred to as "enemy combatants", and are put through extreme abuse. They are not only denied legal liberties, but also face extreme torture.

The only Western foreigner left at Gitmo is Canadian born Omar Khadr. He was sent to Gitmo when he was only 15, accused of killing a US soldier. He has already spent 6 years there, and is 21 now. I am not gonna speculate whether he willingly committed the crime or not, that's for the jury to decide. BUT, a vulnerable child shouldn't be housed in the same prison as other grown men. Not much has been done to provide him with the same rights he would have had in his birth country.

The guards believe that the detainees deserve the treatment they are graciously bestowed upon at Gitmo. President-elect Obama has said he would put an end to the atrocities that go on in Guantanamo. But the question is where would he send them? So far out of 225 prisoners (mostly Muslims) only 23 have been charged. The crime of other 204 detainees: They have the ultimate horror of having Muslim names.

Once Gitmo is eventually closed down, would the guards be persecuted, like their SS predecessors? Till this day we still don't know enough about what actually goes on at Gitmo. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Matthew Diaz was court-martialed because he publicized the names of Gitmo detainees. Humanitarian organizations, such as the United Nations and Amnesty International have been denied access to the camps and the interrogation rooms.

I think the reason Holocaust still effects us because decades after decades we keep repeating the mistakes of Nazi Germany. There's always some ideology that prompts its adherents to wage a political vendetta against innocent people, who are guilty of having the "wrong" pigmentation, or belonging to the "wrong" religion.

Inside Guantanamo - Photo Essay
Inside the Interrogation of Detainee 063

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Racism in America

WASHINGTON—African-American man Barack Obama, 47, was given the least-desirable job in the entire country Tuesday when he was elected president of the United States of America. In his new high-stress, low-reward position, Obama will be charged with such tasks as completely overhauling the nation’s broken-down economy, repairing the crumbling infrastructure, and generally having to please more than 300 million Americans and cater to their every whim on a daily basis. As part of his duties, the black man will have to spend four to eight years cleaning up the messes other people left behind. The job comes with such intense scrutiny and so certain a guarantee of failure that only one other person even bothered applying for it. Said scholar and activist Mark L. Denton, “It just goes to show you that, in this country, a black man still can’t catch a break.”

Source: The Onion.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Yes We Can. Yes We Did.

friend says:
i think its official
friend says:
zany says:
the happiest day of my life
friend says:
i swear i worry for ur hubby
zany says:
friend says:
babe is this this happiest day of ur life (wedding)
friend says:
ummm......i can't say it is
zany says:
zany says:
no sorry
zany says:
my happiest day of life was back in november 08
zany says:
when obama won

In the words of Dr. King, "Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty we are free at last!"

I am so glad Barack Hussein Obama actually won the presidency, and I am alive to see this day. I can hear people blaring their horns, and this is in Canada. I can only imagine how people are celebrating in the States. His story is definitely one of resilience and hard work. People around the world were rooting for this guy, and that alone is a strong sign of leadership.

"Be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them." (Shakespeare, Twelfth Night)

Congratulations Mr. President, you are an inspiration to all of us. God Bless America! =).

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Alan Bennett: The Uncommon Reader

The Uncommon Reader is a modern day fairytale about reading. The author Alan Bennett toys with a very unlikely possibility: what would happen if Her Majesty became a voracious reader. The Queen of England starts reading the likes of Proust, Henry James, Nabokov, T.S. Eliot, among many others. Reading ends up making her more introspective, and she realizes, reading is like a muscle, the more you read, the more you learn to enjoy it.

Consequently, her staff is not too happy about her new endeavor. They are worried, her reading would further alienate her from her subjects. Their concern, she shouldn't be doing something which her subjects are not too keen on. Reading is seen as an elitist activity. This part reminded me of the US politics. Poor Obama has been criticized of being an elitist both by Clinton (in the primaries) and McCain, because of his intelligence and eloquence. Based on modern day political wisdom, we want our leaders to sound stupid.

Moreover, reading is a symbol of status. People are judged based on the books they read. A few months ago, I read this essay in the New York Times called, It's Not You, It's Your Books. Basically if a guy has to impress a girl with his reading, he shouldn't be mentioning the names of middlebrow authors such as Dan Brown. An avid reader of Russian authors like Pushkin and Tolstoy would be considered irresistible among the highbrow book-nerds. So the old saying, never judge a book by its cover, could be rephrased to, never judge a reader by the books he or she reads. I guess, the act of reading is not just about losing oneself to the world one is not familiar with. Or learning about people's experiences and stories. Or even finding comfort in the knowledge that our personal struggles are very universal, and not so unique after all. But our choice of books tells others something about us. I am a huge fan of Margaret Atwood, so maybe loving her books makes me a feminist. I also like reading books where the characters have conflicted-personalities. This doesn't mean I am conflicted (well, let's just hope not), but I just like complex characters.

This book, however, was not complex at all. It is a very quick read, arguing for the importance of reading. As the Queen mentions in the book, reading is an act anyone can do. It transcends cultural and social boundaries. All you need is a library card, and voila you have earned a free pass to an endless world of new adventures and knowledge. Reading is the least egocentric activity. However, the aforementioned article, contradicts this statement.

Reading to me is a personal experience, something we do alone. Most of us don't go to the movies alone, or watch the telly alone. But when we are reading, it is just us and the book we are flipping through. Sometimes these books make us cry and there are times they make us laugh out loud. I started reading Nick Hornby's 'Slam' last night, and the book has already made me snicker twice.

I don't know when reading became a status symbol, or why it is considered a boring and/or an elitist activity...