Nomological Net

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


faults in the clouds of delusion

Friday, June 15, 2007

Ear-ie, ear-ie

Off on a plane again tomorrow and I haven't gotten around to talking about the books I read while in transit last time. Both absolutely fascinating. The best part about being ignorant is the joy of finding out! Although I have to say that none of this was light material -- squeamish people, skip to the NYT right now.

Did you know that the Japanese made a strong play for India during WW2? I'd like to say I hadn't remembered, but, put more honestly, at the time of reading I had no idea. I'd known that Subhash Chandra Bose had flown off to join them, but I'd had no idea that they had come this close. The dense jungles of North Burma was where the seemingly unstoppable Japanese surge through Southeast Asia was finally slowed. However, having thrown the Brits out of Burma back into India, the Japanese made a concerted attack on Imphal and Kohima -- the two major eastern cities -- during the first few months of 1944. At stake was more than a bit of territory. These two cities, and with them the strategically vital railhead of Dimapur, controlled access to plentiful stocks of grains and provisions. The Japanese, in their whirlwind conquests, had over-extended themselves. Their invincible army was winning battles while dying of starvation. They needed this food. Donovan Webster's The Burma Road details this critical yet neglected face of WW2 in gripping detail.

On the afternoon of April 6, 1944, Lt. General Kotuku Sato's 31st Division had Kohima encircled in a vice-like grip. Further south, Imphal, better defended, was also cut off from supplies. Sato communicated with Lt. General Reyna Mutaguchi of the Fifteenth Army, and they agreed on the next step to be taken. As Webster puts it, "With the British off-balance, the time was right to strike forty-six miles northwest of Kohima and take the railhead at Dimapur. Once the rail yard was captured, severing the flow of supplies and ammunition, the Brits and Indians would being to weaken daily." They communicated this plan to their superior, General Masakazu Kawabe, the man in charge of all the Japanese forces in Burma.

Kawabe disagreed. The plan was "not within the strategic objectives". He vetoed it.

In the end, the aborted attack on Dimapur may rank as the greatest missed opportunity in Japan's invasion of India. With the Dimapur railhead left open--allowing the flow of weapons, soldiers, and supplies to Kohima and Imphal--the potential for the overwhelming Japanese invasion of India was lost. And possibly the successful Japanese invasion of India was lost as well.

Who knew? All because of one man's insistence on sticking to the book. I wonder how he felt the morning after he found out? I wonder what he thought.


From the uncannily providential to the grotesquely whimsical. The Japanese army was unstoppable during the first few years of WW2. Part of the reason was their strategic brilliance, another part was their overwhelming force applied at incredible pace. A third part was the savagery with which they fought. The story of the Rape of Nanking has now had many retellings that stand testimony to Japanese brutality. The Burma Road highlighted another - possibly more positive - aspect of this.

The Brits were unable to stop the Japs as they swept all the way up from Singapore to India. However, even after they managed to turn the tide at Kohima and beat the invasion back, it was not as if they won Burma back in a stroll. They had to fight for every inch, like I said, even against an opponent who was starving to death. Japanese soldiers had performed their funeral ceremonies at home before leaving to fight. They were not scared of death. Of every company of a hundred, the British had to kill ninety-eight. Usually individually. And the last two would embrace each other, hold a grenade between their swollen bellies, and pull the pin. All the way across Burma, as the Brits followed the Japs through the murderous jungle, they had to fight in this manner mile by sweltering mile.

Indeed, reading the descriptions in this book made me see for the first time the logic behind dropping the bomb. I still don't agree with it, but now at least I see it. The bomb was only the second time during the entire war that the Japanese lost morale in any sense.

The first was in Burma.

Here's the story.

May 1942, the Allies were beaten out of Burma in the most ignominious manner possible. Lt. General Joseph Stilwell, a three star general and commanding American officer of the WW2 China operations, was chased along with a few dozen comrades for three weeks on foot westward into India. For the next two years, the only Allied presence in Burma was that of a handful of spies co-ordinating covert operations. One of the most successful of these counter-occupation forces was the Northern Kachin Levies. The Kachins are a tribal people. The NKL was formed to harass the Japanese occupation forces. They would come up on the Japs in the jungle, unseen, and only engage them if they were sure of winning -- greater numbers and the element of surprise. They made it a point to take no prisoners. They would kill their victims. And, according to their tribal custom, they would cut off their victims' ears.

As reports of victim tolls started growing, Stilwell started questioning the figures. In his diary, he reported his first meeting with a Kachin. "How can you be so sure?" In response, the Kachin pulled out a bamboo tube and, unplugging one end, dumped a pile of "small, blackish lumps" on the table. "The blackened lumps resembled bits of dried fruit, apricots perhaps, or peaches." Japanese ears.

So why did this freak the Japs out? Not because they were being taken by surprise. Not because of the vast numbers of casualties. By freakish coincidence, this struck a chord with Japanese superstition. It was part of the belief system of the vast body of the Shinto/Buddhist soldier population that dead bodies are pulled to heaven by the ears. The unseen ghost enemy in the steaming jungles of Burma had hit unerringly at the core of their superstition. That's what it took to shake the Japs -- that, and the bomb.


I am now also extremely interested in knowing more about the Japanese. Throughout history they have been an isolationist race, leaving others well alone. Interclan rivalry and samurai movies notwithstanding, also a peaceful one. What caused the sudden explosion of WW2? Out of character behavior?

Speaking of interclan rivalry I also learned a lot from the other book I read: The Shia Revival by Vali Nasr. I'd been wanting to read this ever since I saw the NYT review last year, and was glad to find it in paperback last month. Not going to talk about it in detail -- just going to say it gave me *heaps* more understanding of the mess that is the Middle East. Well-written and all, of course, plus it personifies history and that's always nice. Very highly recommended.

Also speaking of interclan rivalry, I may be offline till the end of this month. Am headed to one of my least favorite place-times on earth, and for a wedding at that. It's TPB's younger brother - call him Junior, "getting spliced" (as my hysterical father put it) with a PYT. TPB, all well-meaning no doubt (and well-inspired to boot), wants me to blog about it. However she also tells me there's no decent internet connection yet at Junior's new apartment. So maybe I'll just do something else instead.

I've heard that's possible.

And these streets
Quiet as a sleeping army
Send their battered dreams to heaven

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Someone's got it in for me

... They're planting stories in the press...

Much of this last week I've been captivated once more by Blood on the Tracks. A passing thought made me pull it out from my shelves. I realised that I had bought a new SACD copy over two years ago to celebrate my new rig, but never opened it. After all, I know every scene by heart; all the songs. There was no tearing hurry. I'm the type that saves for a rainy day.

Well, it's been raining cats and dogs since I got back here last week and one day I just needed to hear Idiot Wind. I can't help it if I'm lucky.

I popped it in and sat back to savor. This is a brilliant album. I was half my current age when I first fell in love with it, and it's only grown better with time. Listening to it now, it struck me that it's an album about love. Every song in this album is about a different face of love. Not just the obvious ones like Tangled Up in Blue and If You See Her Say Hello, but even the others such as the tangential story told in Lily, Rosemary or the post-apocalyptic wildfire of Idiot Wind. They're all about love.

The priest wore black on the seventh day and sat stone-faced while the building burned.
I waited for you on the running boards, near the cypress trees, while the springtime turned
Slowly into autumn.

Everybody please note that the springtime turned into autumn. I think that makes my point.

Revisiting this treasure, I fired up Google to search for something. Instead I got distracted by this review. Jon Landau, in the Rolling Stone, 1975. Aha!

Mr Landau, you got an awful lot right in your time, but I'm afraid this one you got wrong. The review started off interestingly enough:

Bob Dylan may be the Charlie Chaplin of rock & roll. Both men are regarded as geniuses by their entire audience. Both were proclaimed revolutionaries for their early work and subjected to exhaustive attack when later works were thought to be inferior. Both developed their art without so much as a nodding glance toward their peers. Both are multitalented: Chaplin as a director, actor, writer and musician; Dylan as a recording artist, singer, songwriter, prose writer and poet. Both superimposed their personalities over the techniques of their art forms. They rejected the peculiarly 20th century notion that confuses the advancement of the techniques and mechanics of an art form with the growth of art itself. They have stood alone.

But then it all fell away. I cringed when I read the following lines:

- ...if the unit of rock & roll art were only what survives on vinyl, exclusive of anything else and undivided into its component parts, then I don't believe that Bob Dylan would qualify as a great rock artist.
- The record itself has been made with typical shoddiness. The accompanying musicians have never sounded more indifferent.
- the snarl he resurrects from "Like a Rolling Stone" in order to sing "Idiot Wind" sounds like a shadow of his former self
- To compare the new album to Blonde on Blonde at all is to imply that people will treasure it as deeply and for as long. They won't.
- Blood on the Tracks will only sound like a great album for a while. Like most of Dylan, it is impermanent.


A shadow of his former self? To me, with the benefit of *years* of hindsight, of course, this is the best album in an unparalleled catalog. Where Like a Rolling Stone was the uninhibited snarl of a twenty year old, Idiot Wind is much deeper. It's that snarl grown up, weathered, lashed, given body, insight, and penetrative power. He's a big girl now.

I been double-crossed now for the very last time and now I'm finally free,
I kissed goodbye the howling beast on the borderline which separated you from me.
You'll never know the hurt I suffered nor the pain I rise above,
And I'll never know the same about you, your holiness or your kind of love,
And it makes me feel so sorry.

Sorry. Yeah, right.

Take that.


Unrelated But Splendiferous Good News Section: Garaj Mahal is on the road again!! With a sackload of new tunes! (Including one called "Low Self-Esteem" written for GWB :-)

Here's Massive (streaming MP3, takes a bit of a while to get going but when it starts it's serious as ever) from 5/18/07, and
Gulam Sabri (ditto) from 6/02/07. If you've ever wondered what the frontier between Hindustani classical, trance, and jazz-rock looked like, or if such a place even exists, it is this, it is this, it is this.

It's a trip.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Hound Dog Translations

Barreling down the highway en route to this breadful encounter, there was a moment when it seemed to me as if there was a chance we'd lose control of the car. That moment came due to the completion of a collaborative thought begun the previous evening. I'm talking about a Hound Dog Translation -- reproduced below in the original for your benefit, and followed by the first few recruits that suggested themselves.


Tu kuchh nahin sirf kutta hai
Rota rehta hai
Haan tu toh kuchh nahin bas kutta hai
Ro-ta rehta hai

Tu-ne kabhi khargosh nahin pakda

Tu mera koi yaar nahin hai


Ek yeh ladki hai jo mere dimaag pe hai
Har ek pal, susu diyo
Oh oh
Ab woh mera naam nahin jaanti

Lekin mujhe lagta hai woh mujhe utna hi pasand karti hai
Susu diyo

Oh oh


Ab jab main tumse sab kuchh haar gaya hoon
Tum bolte ho tum kuch naya shuru karoge
Aur mera dil toot raha hai tum ja rahe ho
Bacche, main shok mana raha hoon

Lekin agar tumhe jaana hai achha sambhal ke rakhna

Asha hai tumhare paas bahot saare achhe kapde hain

Lekin bahot saare achhe cheez bure ban jaate hain wahan

Ooh bacche bacche yeh ek jungli duniya hai...


Tum is baar zyada door gaye ho

Lekin main chaudah fervari par naach raha hoon
Main bol raha hoon koi pange le raha hai
Mere mauke ke saath khatre ki rekha par
Main us pul ko paar karoonga jab main use dhoondh pa-oo
Ek doosre din khade hone ke liye - oh
Ooncha samay tey karne ka samay nahin hai
Ki main madad karne wala haath dhoondhoo - oh

Isiliye kyo-o-o tum use istimal nahin karte

Kaushish karo use na chot pahunche
Samay khareedo mat khona use

Pratikriya, ek iklauta baccha hai, kar raha hai bageeche mein intezaar…


Registani pyaar tumhaare aankhon mein poori rah
Agar main tumhaare jhooth maanoon tum kya bologe
Main ek aadmi, bina vishwas ke
Main ek aadmi, jo jaanta nahin
Kaise bechte, ek virodhaabhaas
[Yes, I looked it up]
Tum aate aur jaate ho
Tum aate aur jaate ho

Karma karma karma karma karma rangeeli chhipkali
Tum aate aur jaate ho
Tum aate aur jaate ho
Pyaar karna aasaan hota agar tumhare rang mere sapne jaise hote
Lal, sunehri, aur hari-ii

Lal, sunehri, aur hari


Feel free to add to the kitty in the comments section.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Why golf needs to be played over such a large area

You say it's your best guess, a "ballpark figure"
But we both know it's just a blind shot in the dark
Because, the way the world is, the bigger
the balls are, inevitably, the smaller is the park.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Shelf life

Over the last few days, I re-read a couple of books, both after at least a dozen years. The first of these was Changing Places by David Lodge. It's about two professors of English, one at a hotshot West Coast university and the other at a drab English university, who go on exchange for a semester to each other's departments. I remember liking it a lot when I'd read it first - oh - when I was in the eleventh or twelfth grade, I think. I'd got it from the British Council library, and that was the time I used to go there frequently (and try to figure out what was funny about Punch).

I thought I should read this book again partly because I remember enjoying it the first time round, and partly because I'm now in the profession, so to speak. I thought I might enjoy it even more. Funnily, I didn't. I found myself putting the book down every few minutes, every five or ten pages. It was still very good, I think, and very clever and everything, but it just seemed forced. I wonder why -- it's not as if I have anything against cleverness (more on this below) and I'm not even a huge fan of linearity as I realised while walking away from watching Das Leben der Anderen. (Yes, I finally got to watch it. It was very good, but a little too linear, don't you think? And what was with all those "two years later" bits?) I thought it might be due to my (not so) newfound underwhelmedness by what I was recently castigated for calling "storybooks". Makes me wonder: there's so much wild stuff that's gone down in the world, there's so much to know about -- that seems to be my rationale for preferring to not read storybooks given the opportunity to read. (Also explains my suckerishness for bookstores -- I ended up buying five new ones over the weekend :-| So much for travelling light.) I guess films work as entertainment because in general they're so much lighter than books. You sit back, you absorb for a couple of hours, and then you're done. "Heavy" films are either the deep-meaningful types, usually with telling profound stories with lots of dark and negative feelings, or they're the meaningless-on-the-surface ones, which critics can spend fifty years delving into constructing "meaning". (I'm thinking about Bunuel here.) These are generalities, I know. And I sort of lost the point that I was trying to make, but it's something to do with fiction versus non-fiction in books, versus fiction versus non-fiction in films. If someone can find that point, let me know.

The second book I got back in touch with was one that was very close to my heart for years and years. There were three books that I read as a kid that made me want to become a physicist. The most critical one was The Structure of the Universe by Jayant Narlikar. I got it for my birthday, and a few days later an elder cousin visited and saw the book and dismissively remarked that I'd never understand it. So of course I had to. I spent seven years chasing it. The second was The Dancing Wu Li Masters by Gary Zukav. Where Narlikar's book communicated the macho-ness of physics, in spades, I might add, this book reinforced its coolness. A coolness that died many years later, when I learned about all the mysticism crap that this stream of thought had led towards.

The third book was Surely You're Joking, Mr Feynman. I'm definite that there's a generation - if not more - of young Indian geeklets who've grown up idolising Richard Feynman. I mean, who wouldn't, after reading this book? Well, I learned quickly enough when I lent it to a neighbor who was a dozen years older and a sociology student to boot (and we all know what Jim Hacker has to say about that). This person returned the book saying she was put off by Feynman -- he just seemed too full of himself. I was aghast at the blasphemy and discontinued the conversation post haste.

Which is why it was interesting to me that, so many years after having interacted with all parties concerned, one of my first reactions to the book was indeed that Feynman was making too big a deal out of himself.


Reading through, though, I began to change my mind. The guy really was a genius and he was just telling it like he saw it. Self-effacingness isn't the greatest of American virtues anyway, and this was an American who really was an exceptional person who had so much to tell the world. One image that had stuck with me all these years was that of a comment by one of his students in the introduction to either this or one his Lectures. That student had said something about how it felt great to just walk into a class with Feynman. He'd be standing there, smiling to himself, playing with a piece of chalk. In his book he talks about the delight of communicating the joy of physics, and I'd held on to that thought. A good teacher doesn't just communicate the content, s/he also communicates the joy of knowing the material. A lot of human knowledge is just really cool. And anyone who can communicate some of that coolness is doing the world a favor.

Which sort of brings me back to what I was trying to say about fiction versus non-fiction in books.

Much as I did when I was fourteen, revisiting Dick Feynman made me revisit my ambition to be the best I can as a communicator.