Nomological Net

Stray thoughts from here and there. The occasional concern for construct validity. No more logic. Fish.


faults in the clouds of delusion

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Odd sods and even stevens

As often happens, the combination of old friend + alcohol produces things worth thinking about.

I've had conversations with friends who dabble in economic psychology and/or behavioral finance, and one question that keeps coming up is -- why do people simultaneously hold savings / investment accounts and credit card / other debt? The larger questions of rationality and time-consistency are naturally relevant here, but the crux is that no one's really figured out a simple answer. So in the meanwhile, out of left field, comes this perspective -- an old friend's (supposedly) alcohol-ridden musing on personal debt in the context of a life's progression.


Thursday, July 27, 2006

Nah nah Nassputin

Separated at birth vol. 2.

(Vol. 1. here.)

Friday, July 21, 2006


"You know, TR, none of this happened due to lack of technology. It was all due to plain ignorance."

-- A top cog in the Indian technocratic set-up, and a close family friend, when quizzed about the blogspot fiasco over lunch today.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Inure Face

What is special about being a human?

I've been doing an uncharacteristic amount of non-work-related reading lately. A memoir/biography about two people who find their lives entwining together in the thirties; a hair-raising travelogue written by a non-conformist in Communist China in the eighties; a debut novel recreating the Afghanistan of the last forty years; a personal integrative overview of a life's work in geographic genetics; a description and comparative analysis of failed civilizations over the last two thousand years or more. And about a couple of hundred innocent people pulped during their daily commute. And a couple of hundred more excused from their mortal coils as reparatory consequence and counter-consequence of a kidnapping.

Turns out there's a common thread through these seemingly disparate pieces. I may call it worrying. More prosaically, I will call it upsetting -- in the more immediate present. Here's a selective review that is not for weak hearts or stomachs. (Or, I can't help adding, livers. Read on.)

The first book listed above is Two Lives, by Vikram Seth. It starts with the time he, as a young man of seventeen, went to live with his Indian-origin uncle and German-Jewish-origin aunt, in London. It wends its way from personal memoir to being a biography of these two interesting people who had met in Germany in the early 1930s and who fled to England before the war. It follows the trace of their lives, and reconnects eventually with his own, merging into a lived-and-experienced journal of his attempts to write this book - in the 1990s after one of them had died. These latter stages are particularly interesting since we get to discover what the author discovers, and react to them for ourselves.

The emotional core of this journey is, naturally, the Holocaust. Seth's aunt escaped, but she lost her closest relatives. His attempt to recreate the events of the past took him all the way from the micro level of the letters written by those so condemned to the macro level information stored at the Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. The events at Birkenau take on a very different nature when personalized. (Six million is a statistic; Sophie's choice is something we still feel.) Here's one thing that Seth says:

One of the casualties of the process of exploring the material for this book was my pleasure in the German language. ... [about his favorite poet] ... Even Heine I could no longer read. It did not help, strangely enough, that Heine was, partly in his own eyes and certainly by the Nazi definition of things, as much a Jew as Christ was, and would, like Christ, have been exterminated as vermin. The stench of the language in which I had read the phrases from the Gestapo letter clung to his words as well.

But it's hardly that simple, is it? A hundred pages on, he examines the other side of it.

Partly as a result of writing this book, so much of which deals with the question of Jewishness, I have tried to work out my own views on that most salient manifestation of postwar history, the Jewish state. ... Various justifications for the foundation and maintenance of Israel as a specifically Jewish state have been adduced; none of them takes into account the concomitant injustice to the Palestinians. ... After Hitler came to power in Germany, it could [also] be maintained that there was a humanitarian imperative for the Palestinian Arabs - as for other people all over the world - to share space with the cruelly oppressed Jews. But that the Jews could then carve out their own state in Palestine does not follow. ... In the fearful calculus of terror, where impulse and response are difficult to distinguish, many more Palestinians have been killed than Israelis.

The coda to this section:

The litany at the end of the German prayer-book of 1893 reads:
Judaism teaches: 1. the unity of mankind.
It commands us therefore 2. to love our neighbour, 3. to protect our neighbour and his rights, 4. to be aware of his honour, 5. to honour his beliefs, 6. and to assuage his sorrows.

Thus ends this little digression in this wonderful book. Hope? Or delusion? To answer this, I leave the Middle-East for now, and take you to China. Red Dust is another incredible book - a travelogue written by a non-conformist painter named Ma Jian, at a time in China when non-conformism meant death. Ma Jian is upbraided by his bosses for some minor indiscretions, and rather than submit to authority and write a 'self-criticism' in the Campaign Against Spiritual Pollution, something snaps inside him and he makes his way to interior China. He spends three years wandering around the cities, villages, and deserts as a vagabond, all the while observing and recording and dead-pan commenting on the strange goings-on in a closed and macabre world.

Nazi atrocities, however horrible, have an explanation of sorts. I found no way in my mind to account for passages such as this:

The peasant I stayed with lent me a musty blanket he brought back from the Korean War. Thirty years of body odours clung to me like a wet skin, it was impossible to sleep. I thought of the students in the neighbouring village who butchered their teacher in the Cultural Revolution. To prove their devotion to the Party, they cooked his chopped corpse in a washbowl and ate him for dinner. They developed a lust for fresh offal, so before they killed their next victim, they cut a hole in his chest, kicked him in the back, and the live liver flopped into their hands. Local villages were able to consume an average of three hundred class enemies during those years.

Words failed me.

Then I started thinking -- one very common way to react to such things is by distancing oneself. "It's them, it's not me." They do things like this. I never would. It's them -- the Communists, the crazy Chinese, the Nazis, the Taleban, the terrorists, the Israelis, the "other community". But never me.

Then I read The Kite Runner by Khaled Husseini. This is a work of fiction - unusual for me - but one that cuts very close to the bone. Again, not recommended reading for the weak of heart. But over and above the intensity of the story and the quality of the writing, what struck me was the passing mention of the massacre of Mazar-e-Sherif. This is something that happened within the bounds of my own living, awake, sentient, alert, news-consuming existence. Thousands of people being wiped out at one go. But I had not even a memory of it.

What was I, if not inured?

Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza is one of the world's leading experts on genes and human migration. His terse yet fascinating book "Genes, Peoples and Languages" deserves and will get more detailed attention on this blog in the future. But here's a passage that summarizes where I'm leading today:

Nature controls an excess of human births in three ways: epidemics, famines, and war. All of these brakes seem to be at work today: AIDS, an epidemic we still cannot control, is raging; extreme malnutrition affects more than a billion people; and an unprecedented number of civil and religious wars is shaking the world. So far, atomic bombs have not been used in these conflicts, but nothing should prevent us from worrying that a Russian scientist or engineer, reduced to unemployment and hunger, or a group of religious extremists working for a fundamentalist government, could place the human species at the risk of a global Hiroshima.

(... Or anyone else with the opportunity, of course. It's a little harsh to single the Russian scientist out on that one.)

Jared Diamond starts out making a very similar case in Collapse, but then the latter part of the book veers off into purely environment-related issues. But the point remains. Stripped of the "human" element, the Third Chimpanzee is just an animal. And today, across the world, across contexts (Germany, Israel, China, you want to say 9/11? You want to say Guantanamo? Bombay? Kashmir? Rwanda? Darfur?) we are either busy spinning our beastly ways to mutual oblivion, or busy being inured by it all.

If they say why, why?
Tell 'em that it's human nature
Why, why?


I just had to get this off my chest before I leave for India tonight. India. The land of the blocked ISP.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Limin' wid de Chutney

It's been a long time since there's been any music on this blog.

There's some Wonderland left in me still, so I thought I'd share a little chutney -- something that got missed out in the previous posts. Chutney (as opposed to any of the several phenomenal varieties of pepper sauce, all of which go by the name "pepper sauce") is the name given to the music of the people of Indian origin in the Caribbean. I walked into Clive's, probably the only legal CD store in Port of Spain, and took my chances with a couple of disks. I loved what I heard -- infectious, irreverent, recognisably Indian, and a whole lot of fun. So here's to limin', and here's some chutney.

Larki -- Terry Gajraj

Yeah I really want a larki
but afraid to get marry
The gal dem nowadays
they wear out your face
ruck up your ways
And put you in your place.
Shaadi na shaadi na shaadi na...

Nowadays de gal dem only love to lime
You have a hundred dollar
Dey wan' ninety-nine.

You marry a young girl
you live your life in hell
Though you have a wife you have a mother in law as well

Nowadays you married
you have to learn to share
Tom, Dick and Harilal keeping you out there
She sure to have a sweet man
hornin' you out there.

A few others:

Rum Shop -- Dil-e-Nadaan (a band recommended to me by the guy I sat next to at the Queens Park Oval, the one who treated me to six alcoholic drinks during the course of one afternoon)
Basanti -- Adesh Samaroo
Dadiya Mory Lay Lay -- Babla and Kanchan
Dhal Belly Indian -- Videsh Soohoo

And if you liked any of these, there's more where that came from. Wine on!

I'm mortified that I missed out on linking this one -- compulsory listening for every fan of classic Bollywood.

Listen Mr. Shankar
You say this guy's a drunkard
You don' wan' me to marry yer daughter
But you're doin' me a favour
Coz I don't wan' your daughter
She jam up the elevator
(Morerumforme morerumforme morerumforme)
-- D'Hitman (Neshan Prabhoo)

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Horror, Madness, Hordes


Horror. The Mumbai blasts. Shocking, senseless, and intensely worrying. Thankfully, my brother-in-law was traveling on work. Other relatives, and friends we have contacted, are okay. But the fact that the blasts hit the Western line - where I spent so many miserable hours of my formative years - and that too the first class carriages, makes me very uneasy indeed. Very close to home. How many hundreds of people would have died, rocking home from their lifeless corporate existence?

All that's not to say that there's nothing we can learn from this. CNN, that august source, tells me about something I hadn't known of till today:

The Western Railway system -- which 4.5 million people use daily -- was shut down and Mumbai's subway system put on high alert after the blasts.

Subway system. Cool.

Madness. In other news, Syd Barrett also dies. Farewell, friend of my childhood.

I've got a bike you can ride it if you like it it's got two wheels and a handlebar to make it make it look good
I'd give it to you if I could, but I borrowed it

Hordes. My last post on the Zidane incident got picked up by desipundit (thanks, KM!) and, interestingly, That post has garnered over 700 hits in the 24 hours till now -- people checking in from places as dispersed as Peru, Japan, Bahrain, South Africa, and my favorite, Trinidad! And France. But not a single Italy. Good grappa, eh.

Very sobering.

Monday, July 10, 2006

The Butt

No, not Salmon.

The last few days I’ve been thinking about mental blocks – why people have them, where they come from, and, most interestingly, why it is so hard for someone who recognizes that s/he has one to do anything about it. My head’s been resonating with Grace Slick’s call, dying to scream it out

Tear down the wa-hall, dah-dah-duhduh
Tear down the wa-hall.

And then last night I saw it happen again. Those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about (Hello, America!) need to pop over to my friend sudo phish’s to check out the vid. One moment there was a game on, another pregnant attack pricked by the astuteness of the Azzurri back five. The ball was sent upfield, and the camera wandered behind it. The next moment, it was a blur of confusion with an unidentified blue defender collapsed on the turf and the goalkeeper Buffon charging like a crazed Italian from the referee to the linesman and back.

A peripheral camera was called into action, and we all now know the sequence of events as it appeared. Zidane on the right wing, embraced maternally by Materazzi. Attack thwarted. Zidane and Materazzi trot back. Zidane’s wry look at yet another half-foul going unnoticed. Materazzi drops out of the frame, just at the crucial moment. Zidane abruptly stops, turns, and gores the matador to the ground.

Why did he do it? Driblets of gossip will doubtless ooze forth during the days to come. The French have already condemned the Italian, guilty until proven otherwise. The French team has a history of having to face racial taunts. Zizou has a history of irascibility. And although, in my analysis, the sending-off may not have made that much of a difference to the final outcome of the game, the question remains – why did such a man, such an experienced player, at such a critical time, not know better?

The psychologist John Bargh claims that over 99% of every person’s actions are “automatic”. (He also claims that that’s an understatement.) Bargh talks about “the four horsemen” of automaticity – automatic acts are involuntary, unintentional, uncontrolled, and effortless. Automatic reactions are adaptive, in the sense that they have been honed to the point where every person knows exactly what to do in response to practically each and every one of the millions of stimuli that impinge upon their senses every passing moment. If we started actually thinking about every step required to answer the phone, our voicemail would brim over very soon. Such procedural knowledge comes of learning – the first time we heard the phone ring, we hadn’t a clue what to do with it. Watching someone answer the thing, once, twice, multiple times, then mimicking their actions, eventually leads us to that ultimate joy gained of conversing with telemarketers (in Cantonese). Very similar sequences of operations take place for most learned activities; and as each one gets learned, it moves from being conscious and effortful, think about driving, to what we call automatic pilot.

Such processes of learning also happen when we try to unlearn existing responses, hoping to introduce new dominant responses in their place. The ‘thank you’ that springs to ones lips when addressing waiters in New York must be supplanted with a ‘merci’ in Paris, or else you get extra cheese on your croissant (or so I’ve been told). So we train ourselves to say the merci, steel ourselves for the crucial moment, and spring it self-consciously when the time comes. And congratulate ourselves on having done so, then hoover off to do it again, and again, and again, until the day we smoothly impress the friend who visits us a few months down the line.

Yet that is no guarantee that some day, in a hurry, or in the middle of a conversation, the pagan thank you will not slip from our merciless lips again.

Because the learned response is not always the dominant one, especially in times of stress.

Which is why I feel sorry for Zizou. He fought his demons, but couldn’t tear down the wall when it mattered.

Update: Buddy bandafbab presents the most magnificent alternative explanation.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

A million mendacious mendicants

A phrase that popped into my head randomly some time a few days ago. Sounds good, even without a context.

Last week I read From Amritsar To Lahore by Stephen Alter. Then I read Two Lives by Vikram Seth. Tonight I will start Red Dust by Ma Jian.

And the tune in my head is Plaisir d'Amour. I have an internal controversy over the lyrics to this song. Do the two lines rhyme or not? Better if not, methinks. That's my recollection anyway.

And no, I don't feel like posting any links right now.