Wednesday, December 31, 2008
I along with my wife and kid made a short trip to Yelagiri, 200+ kms from Chennai yesterday. It is a quaint little hill station. Nothing much to visit there except for a park and a small lake where one can do boating. Sharing some of the pictures I took on my digital camera.
Monday, December 29, 2008
Wednesday, December 24, 2008
Don't go searching for these words in your dictionary. These are all new words coined very recently. English language is amazing in its elasticity and sponge-like character of absorbing new words quite often.
By the way, myco-diesel is diesel fuel manufactured from a fungus. Punditariat as it implies is the collection of pundits. Returnment is the act of returning back to work after having retired. icrime is theft of a personal media device, particular an iPod or iphone.
Happy Christmas to one and all. Let me paraphrase great writer H.G. Wells "The doctrine of the kingdom of Heaven, which was the main teaching of Jesus, is certainly one of the most revolutionary doctrines that ever stirred and changed human thought. It is small wonder if, the world of that time (and of our time, if this writer may add)failed to grasp its full significance, and recoiled in dismay from even a a half apprehension of its tremendous challenges to the established habits and institutions of mankind."
Thursday, December 11, 2008
(Photo courtesy Wikipedia)
Today, December 11, is legendary Tamil firebrand poet Subramanya Bharathi's 126th birth anniversary. His dazzlingly brilliant output amazes and rouses legions of readers. Let me just illustrate it with one of his very popular poems, first in Tamil and then its English translation ( courtesy http://melancholetta.blogspot.com)
தேடிச் சோறுநிதந் தின்று
பல சின்னஞ் சிறுகதைகள் பேசி
மனம் வாடித் துன்பமிக உழன்று
பிறர் வாடப் பல செயல்கள் செய்து
நரை கூடிப் கிழப்பருவம் எய்தி
கொடுங் கூற்றுக் கிரையெனப்பின் மாயும்
பல வேடிக்கை மனிதரைப் போலே
நான் வீழ்வே னென்று நினைத்தாயோ?
Scavenging for their daily rice,
And wagging chins on various insignificant fibs
Dejected in spirit, and toiling in vain suffering
Performing deeds that scathe fellow-men
Aging with greyed hair (in due course)
Burdened to hear noxious bile (churned of them)
Like these risible people (who live in vain)
Did you think I would fall suit
And be Struck down?
That being the translation in literal, following is the message in spirit....
Did you think, (Oh Time),
that i too would give up and fall ,
like these risible fools who -
in search of food,
in useless gossip,
in speaking ill and while spoken ill of
get older and die ?
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
This award was given generously to me by Artnavy http://abouttimenow.blogspot.com/
This award is given to a blog that invests and believes in PROXIMITY - nearness in space, time and relationships! These blogs are exceedingly charming. These kind bloggers aim to find and be friends. They are not interested in prizes or self-aggrandizement. Our hope is that when the ribbons of these prizes are cut, even more friendships are propagated. Please give more attention to these writers! Deliver this award to eight bloggers who must choose eight more and include this cleverly-written text into the body of their award.
Here are the eight bloggers that I am passing this award to:
Tinkoo - - he blogs almost exclusively on my favorite genre - science fiction. He is Mumbai-based prolific blogger.
Mavin - Mumbai-based voice of reason
Gopinath - Mumbai-based blogger, humour dripping posts
Mitr - US-based HRD pro who blogs on interesting topics
Neha - blogger par excellence.
Space Bar http://spaniardintheworks.blogspot.com/ Literary blogger
Hari http://thirtylettersinmyname.blogspot.com/ Another US-based blogger
You deserve it ladies and gentleman!
Thursday, December 4, 2008
"I’ll talk about what’s happening in Bombay in the next few lines, but first, before you read any further, I want to ask you, I want to plead with you, to keep the faith with India and the city I love, Bombay. If we continue to visit the country and meet the people, if we spend our time in the beautiful chaos and chaotic beauty, if we spend our money in the bazaars and hotels, if we buy the books by great Indian writers, listen to the music by brilliant Indian composers and musicians, marvel at the splendour of Indian dancers, watch the captivating movies, wonder at the art galleries – in other words, if we go on opening our hearts to the best that India teaches us, the people who did this violence can never win".
Yes, we should refuse to be cowed down by these acts of senseless violence while at the same time strengthening our defenses. Incidentally Shantaram novel was written by the author over beer and dansaks at Cafe Leopold attacked by terrorists.
Tuesday, December 2, 2008
En Peyar Escobar – Pa Raghavan
At the outset, I have to thank Kizhakku Pathippagam, Badri Seshadri and Haranprasanna for providing me this book for review.
Pablo Escobar ! The name may not ring a bell now but his name was on everyone’s lips during the 1980s and early 1990s. This drug warlord virtually ran an empire inside the South American city of Medellin, Colombia and gave sleepless nights to Colombian government and judiciary. Author Pa Raghavan (PaRa) traces Escobar’s growth from a small time car thief to a big time drug czar. The way he graduates from petty criminal to a big time drug smuggler is described in a rather pithy prose. The murder of Colombian presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galán, the bombing of Avianca Flight 203 and DAS building bombing in Bogota in 1989 are all explained in good detail. One marvels at the intelligence and audacity of Escobar in executing and planning his crimes. His rivalry with another deadly drug cartel;. Cali cartel, is also dealt with in great detail.
It is chilling to read the way Escobar equipped and financed the 1985 storming of the Colombian Supreme Court by left wing guerillas of M-19. This resulted in massacre of the half the judges of the court. The way he utilized the leftist revolutionary movements in Colombia for his own ends makes mockery of so-called socialist ideals the left wing movements were fighting for. Reading these senseless acts of terrorism in the backdrop of our own Mumbai terror unleashed by Lashkar terrorists over a period of 60 hours a few days ago (November 26th to November 28th) makes our blood run cold and agonize over these inhuman acts of violence and the meaninglessness of the acts. The most audacious of all is how Escobar surrendered to Colombian government on his own terms and ensconced himself in a plush private prison, La Catedral and continued to guide his cartel in its nefarious acts. Author details American complicity in drug rackets in South American and how later CIA helped Colombian government in killing Escobar in 1993 by providing radio triangulation technology in tracing his whereabouts.
PaRa’s style is quite breezy reminding one often of iconic writer extraordinaire Sujatha. It is indeed difficult to grip reader’s attention when talking about some criminal in a remote South American nation, but author manages to accomplish this quite effectively. The way he engages light humour peppered with sparkling wit is quite enjoyable.
The way he goes about evoking Tamil film lore, sandalwood smuggler Veerappan, Vijayakanth do add pep to the narrative. The pace is never flagging. I managed to finish the book (220 pages) in just three sittings of about 30-45 minutes each.
I cannot help but point out minor mistakes. On page 63 author says Norwegian nations when he must have meant Scandinavian nations. On page 73, Colombian politician Bonilla is wrongly transcribed. In Spanish, it is pronounced Bo-nee-ah. Yes, these are very minor irritants in an otherwise well-written book. Author is very thoughtful in listing out the books and web sites he researched for this book and has listed them out at the end of the book. After reading this version, one cannot wait to lay hands on books like Mark Bowden’s Killing Pablo.
Pa Raghavan has several books to his credit, the most famous being Dollar Desam – political history of USA and Nilamellam Ratham dealing with Israel – Palestine conflict. He is a prolific writer and has written books on various terrorist movements ranging from Aum Shinrikyo in Japan to our current nemesis Lashkar-E-Toiba.
All in all, I heartily recommend this book to anyone interested in world affairs, terrorism and any lay person interested in reading a good book.
Book Title: En Peyar Escobar
Author: Pa Raghavan
Publishers: Kizhakku Pathippagam
33/15, Eldams Road
Alwarpet, Chennai 600 018
Fax : 044-43009701
To purchase the book online click here
To know more about latest books of New Horizon Media type START NHM and SMS to 575758.
Sunday, November 30, 2008
Why is that we are often victims of terrorism that any other nation in the world, except perhaps Iraq ? Are we ultra-soft state that terrorists take us for granted and attack us with impunity ? Is our moral fiber so weak that anyone and everyone can be bribed or suborned ? M J Akbar writes in Times of India "We should have been world leaders in the war again terror, for no nation has more experience. Instead, we are wallowing in the complacent despair of a continual victim." Unless punitive action is taken against the emirs who fund rolled and equipped the desperadoes who unleashed this mayhem, terrorists are going to attack us again and again. We need to hit them again and again where it hurts. It is high time we begin to emulate Israel. We need to go in for a severe image makeover and project ourselves as a nation which would not hesitate to stand up to the terror warlords come what may.
Saturday, November 29, 2008
As the story of the carnage in Mumbai unfolds, it is tempting to dismiss it as merely another sorry episode in India's flailing effort to combat terrorism. Over the past four years, Islamist groups have struck in New Delhi, Jaipur, Bangalore and Ahmedabad, among other places. The death toll from terrorism -- not counting at least 119 killed in Mumbai on Wednesday and Thursday -- stands at over 4,000, which gives India the dubious distinction of suffering more casualties since 2004 than any country except Iraq.
The attacks highlight India's particular vulnerability to terrorist violence. But they are also a warning to any country that values what Mumbai symbolizes for Indians: pluralism, enterprise and an open society. Put simply, India's failure to protect its premier city offers a textbook example for fellow democracies on how not to deal with militant Islam.
The litany of errors is long. Unlike their counterparts in the West, or in East Asia, India's perpetually squabbling leaders have failed to put national security above partisan politics. The country's antiterrorism effort is reactive and episodic rather than proactive and sustained. Its public discourse on Islam oscillates between crude, anti-Muslim bigotry and mindless sympathy for largely unjustified Muslim grievance-mongering. Its failure to either charm or cow its Islamist-friendly neighbors -- Pakistan and Bangladesh -- reveals a limited grasp of statecraft.
Finally, India's inability to modernize its 150-million strong Muslim population, the second largest after Indonesia's, has spawned a community that is ill-equipped to seize new economic opportunities and susceptible to militant Islam's faith-based appeal.
To be sure, not all of India's problems are of its own making. In Pakistan, it has a neighbor founded on the basis of religion, whose government -- along with those of Iran and Saudi Arabia -- has long been one of the world's principal exporters of militant Islamic fervor.
Bangladesh also hosts a panoply of jihadist groups. As in Pakistan, public sympathy with the militant Islamic worldview forestalls any meaningful effort against those who regularly use the country as a sanctuary to plan mayhem in India. America's unsuccessful Pakistan policy -- too many carrots and too few sticks -- has also contributed to a fundamentally unstable neighborhood.
Nonetheless, the reflexive Indian response to most every act of terrorism is to apportion blame rather than to seek a solution that will prevent, or at least minimize, its recurrence. Even Indonesia -- a still-poor Muslim-majority nation where sympathy for militants runs deeper than it does in India -- has done an infinitely better job of recognizing that the protection of citizens' lives is any government's first responsibility. A superbly trained, federal antiterrorism force called Detachment 88 has ensured that country has not suffered a terrorist attack in more than three years.
By contrast, India's leaders -- who invariably swan around with armed guards paid for by the taxpayer -- can't even agree on a legal framework to keep the country safe. On taking office in 2004, one of the first acts of the ruling Congress Party was to scrap a federal antiterrorism law that strengthened witness protection and enhanced police powers.
The Congress Party has stalled similar state-level legislation in Gujarat, which is ruled by the opposition Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party. And it was a Congress government that kowtowed to fundamentalist pressure and made India the first country to ban Mumbai-born Salman Rushdie's "Satanic Verses" in 1988.
The BJP hasn't exactly distinguished itself either. In 1999, the hijacking of an Indian aircraft to then Taliban-ruled Afghanistan led a BJP government to release three hardened militants, including Omar Sheikh Saeed, the former London School of Economics student who would go on to murder Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl.
More recently, the BJP, driven by tribal religious solidarity and a penchant for conspiracy theories, has failed to demand the same tough treatment for alleged Hindu terrorists as it does for Muslims. Minor parties, especially those dependent on the Muslim vote, compete to earn fundamentalists' favor.
In sum, the Indian approach to terrorism has been consistently haphazard and weak-kneed. When faced with fundamentalist demands, India's democratically elected leaders have regularly preferred caving to confrontation on a point of principle. The country's institutions and culture have abetted a widespread sense of Muslim separateness from the national mainstream. The country's diplomats and soldiers have failed to stabilize the neighborhood. The ongoing drama in Mumbai underscores the price both Indians and non-Indians caught unawares must now pay
Thursday, November 27, 2008
Terrorist threats predicated by ideology
Of a sick mind who worships idolatry
Cowards disguised as martyrs
Who destroy and slaughter
Who worship under steeples
Terrorism is not a war
It’s fear from those we abhor
Religious epithets and ethnic slurs
Produce a monster like swine before pearls
Hearts not yet hardened
Terrorism will not be defeated
Until nations unite against those conceited
Misguided souls propelled by delusion
That life is but an illusion
Governments cannot win this war
But each person must face this chore
Terrorism is part of our history
Since Abraham, it’s not a mystery
Inhumanity and humanity co-exist
Between the precipice and the abyss
For we reside between heaven and hell
Where will you be when He rings the bell?
Wednesday, November 26, 2008
There is no frigate like a book
To take us lands away,
Nor any coursers like a page
Of prancing poetry.
This traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of toll;
How frugal is the chariot
That bears a human soul!
Tuesday, November 18, 2008
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
1 - At the end of the day
2 - Fairly unique
3 - I personally
4 - At this moment in time
5 - With all due respect
6 - Absolutely
7 - It's a nightmare
8 - Shouldn't of
9 - 24/7
10 - It's not rocket science.
What is yours ?
Wednesday, November 5, 2008
I just watched President elect Obama's victory speech in Grant Park, Chicago live on TV. His speech was quite moving and promised better days to come for USA and the world. I earnestly hope he makes good his promise and prove to be a great leader for United States and the rest of the world.
Friday, October 31, 2008
‘Like a white stone in a well’s depths’
Like a white stone in a well’s depths,
a single memory remains to me,
that I can’t, won’t fight against:
It’s happiness – and misery.
I think someone who gazed full
in my eyes, would see it straight.
They’d be sad, be thoughtful,
as if hearing a mournful tale.
I know the gods changed people
to things, yet left consciousness free,
to keep suffering’s wonder alive still.
In memory, you changed into me.
London buses may advertise 'there's probably no God'
LONDON (AFP) — London's iconic red buses could be plastered with the slogan "There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life," in an atheist advertising campaign responding to a set of Christian ads.
Comedy writer Ariane Sherine, 28, objected to the Christian adverts on some London buses, which carried an Internet address warning that people who rejected God were condemned to spend eternity in "torment in hell".
She sought five-pound (7.80-dollar, 6.25-euro) donations towards a "reassuring" counter-advertisement -- and received the backing of the British Humanist Association (BHA) and atheist campaigner Professor Richard Dawkins.
The campaign has already smashed its 5,500-pound target and the slogan is planned to hit the side of several London buses in January.
"We see so many posters advertising salvation through Jesus or threatening us with eternal damnation, that I feel sure that a bus advert like this will be welcomed as a breath of fresh air," said BHA chief executive Hanne Stinson.
Dawkins said: "This campaign to put alternative slogans on London buses will make people think -- and thinking is anathema to religion."
A Church of England spokesman said: "We would defend the right of any group representing a religious or philosophical position to be able to promote that view through appropriate channels.
"However, Christian belief is not about worrying or not enjoying life.
"Quite the opposite -- our faith liberates us to put this life into a proper perspective."
A spokesman for Transport for London told AFP they had not received such an advertisement application and would wait to view it before deciding whether it met their advertising guidelines.
"No advertisement of this kind has been submitted to TfL at this time," he said.
"If approved, then it will appear on our network."
Wednesday, October 29, 2008
Here is a short gem of a story by great science fiction writer Fredric Brown. He wrote many short stories with humour and shocking endings. I give below one such story. Please read and give your comments.
EARTHMEN BEARING GIFTS
By FREDRIC BROWN
Dhar Ry sat alone in his room, meditating. From outside the door he
caught a thought wave equivalent to a knock, and, glancing at the door,
he willed it to slide open.
It opened. "Enter, my friend," he said. He could have projected the idea
telepathically; but with only two persons present, speech was more
Ejon Khee entered. "You are up late tonight, my leader," he said.
"Yes, Khee. Within an hour the Earth rocket is due to land, and I wish
to see it. Yes, I know, it will land a thousand miles away, if their
calculations are correct. Beyond the horizon. But if it lands even twice
that far the flash of the atomic explosion should be visible. And I have
waited long for first contact. For even though no Earthman will be on
that rocket, it will still be first contact--for them. Of course our
telepath teams have been reading their thoughts for many centuries,
but--this will be the first _physical_ contact between Mars and Earth."
Khee made himself comfortable on one of the low chairs. "True," he said.
"I have not followed recent reports too closely, though. Why are they
using an atomic warhead? I know they suppose our planet is uninhabited,
"They will watch the flash through their lunar telescopes and get
a--what do they call it?--a spectroscopic analysis. That will tell them
more than they know now (or think they know; much of it is erroneous)
about the atmosphere of our planet and the composition of its surface.
It is--call it a sighting shot, Khee. They'll be here in person within a
few oppositions. And then--"
Mars was holding out, waiting for Earth to come. What was left of Mars,
that is; this one small city of about nine hundred beings. The
civilization of Mars was older than that of Earth, but it was a dying
one. This was what remained of it: one city, nine hundred people. They
were waiting for Earth to make contact, for a selfish reason and for an
Martian civilization had developed in a quite different direction from
that of Earth. It had developed no important knowledge of the physical
sciences, no technology. But it had developed social sciences to the
point where there had not been a single crime, let alone a war, on
Mars for fifty thousand years. And it had developed fully the
parapsychological sciences of the mind, which Earth was just beginning
Mars could teach Earth much. How to avoid crime and war to begin with.
Beyond those simple things lay telepathy, telekinesis, empathy....
And Earth would, Mars hoped, teach them something even more valuable to
Mars: how, by science and technology--which it was too late for Mars to
develop now, even if they had the type of minds which would enable them
to develop these things--to restore and rehabilitate a dying planet, so
that an otherwise dying race might live and multiply again.
Each planet would gain greatly, and neither would lose.
And tonight was the night when Earth would make its first sighting shot.
Its next shot, a rocket containing Earthmen, or at least an Earthman,
would be at the next opposition, two Earth years, or roughly four
Martian years, hence. The Martians knew this, because their teams of
telepaths were able to catch at least some of the thoughts of Earthmen,
enough to know their plans. Unfortunately, at that distance, the
connection was one-way. Mars could not ask Earth to hurry its program.
Or tell Earth scientists the facts about Mars' composition and
atmosphere which would have made this preliminary shot unnecessary.
Tonight Ry, the leader (as nearly as the Martian word can be
translated), and Khee, his administrative assistant and closest friend,
sat and meditated together until the time was near. Then they drank a
toast to the future--in a beverage based on menthol, which had the same
effect on Martians as alcohol on Earthmen--and climbed to the roof of
the building in which they had been sitting. They watched toward the
north, where the rocket should land. The stars shone brilliantly and
unwinkingly through the atmosphere.
In Observatory No. 1 on Earth's moon, Rog Everett, his eye at the
eyepiece of the spotter scope, said triumphantly, "Thar she blew,
Willie. And now, as soon as the films are developed, we'll know the
score on that old planet Mars." He straightened up--there'd be no more
to see now--and he and Willie Sanger shook hands solemnly. It was an
"Hope it didn't kill anybody. Any Martians, that is. Rog, did it hit
dead center in Syrtis Major?"
"Near as matters. I'd say it was maybe a thousand miles off, to the
south. And that's damn close on a fifty-million-mile shot. Willie, do
you really think there are any Martians?"
Willie thought a second and then said, "No."
He was right.
Tuesday, October 28, 2008
This is one of the Zen stories I often come across. Reminds one of Amitabh pulling this coin trick on his buddy Dharmendra in the greatest curry western of all time - Sholay.
During a momentous battle, a Japanese general decided to attack even though his army was greatly outnumbered. He was confident they would win, but his men were filled with doubt. On the way to the battle, they stopped at a religious shrine. After praying with the men, the general took out a coin and said, "I shall now toss this coin. If it is heads, we shall win. If tails, we shall lose. Destiny will now reveal itself."
He threw the coin into the air and all watched intently as it landed. It was heads. The soldiers were so overjoyed and filled with confidence that they vigorously attacked the enemy and were victorious. After the battle, a lieutenant remarked to the general, "No one can change destiny."
"Quite right," the general replied as he showed the lieutenant the coin, which had heads on both sides.
Saturday, October 25, 2008
I chanced upon this when reading one of my favorite haunts on net Churumuri. Let me reproduce some extracts from the article by T.S. Nagarajan:
Spencer Tunick is a New York photographer who prefers to be seen as an artist, not a photographer. He convinced 18,000 Mexicans to take their clothes off for him. The volunteers posed for Tunick at the Zacalo square in Mexico City on a Sunday morning, last year.
“I just create shapes and forms with human bodies. It’s an abstraction, it’s a performance, it’s an installation.” he says.
He has photographed over 75 similar installations in which hundreds of people posed in the nude in artistic formations at various locations all over the world. He calls his work “flesh architecture”.
Thursday, October 16, 2008
[This is a piece I wrote for India Today but the version that has appeared in the magazine is an edit that I did not agree to. It's not clear to me how that happened since I edited the longer article down to this final version and sent it in to them. But the magazine is out and I am both angry and saddened at their careless editing of ideas that are particularly under siege at this point of time.
So, here is my edit and I would be glad if it was circulated widely on the net - more widely than the magazine!
Being Muslim means many things to many people
by Samina Mishra
Not far from L18, in the posh part of Jamia Nagar, is a house on a tree-lined avenue that will always be home to me. But my life, with all its easy privileges, could not be more different from Atif and Sajid's, the two young men shot as alleged terrorists at L18. I contain multitudes, Whitman so eloquently said. But we live in a time when even multitudes are forced to lay claim to a singular label. And so by writing this, perhaps, I will forever be labelled the voice of the liberal secular Muslim. A voice that is accused of not speaking up. Ironically, it is this very tyranny of labels that grants me this space in a mainstream national magazine.
As someone with a Muslim first name and a Hindu surname, I suppose I have always swung between labels - a poster girl for communal harmony or a confused, rootless individual, depending on who was doing the labelling. I went to a public school and have never worn a burkha. I might escape being thrown in the big cauldron with "Islamic Terrorists" but I will certainly be added to the one for "misguided intellectuals" . While there is no mistaking
that it is zealous nationalists who seek to light the fire under the first cauldron, the other is a bone of contention between those who seek to define for me how to be Indian and those who seek to define for me how to be Muslim. My condemnation of the demolition of the Babri Masjid, Imrana's rape or the media circus around Gudiya will always be seen in the context of my
privileged background, my gender, my religious identity. Perhaps, it can be no other way.
In this rhetoric of binaries of "us and them", it is difficult to find the space to create a new paradigm of discussion. And so, in conversations that throw up Islamic terrorists, rigid religious beliefs, Pakistan and madrasas, the response is inevitably another set of questions - why is the Bajrang Dal not labelled a terrorist outfit, why is the growing public display of Hindu festivals like Navratras and Karva Chauth not considered rigid religious beliefs, why should Muslims in India be answerable for what goes on in Pakistan, what spaces other than madrasas are available for thousands of believing Muslims who choose to get educated and still retain their Muslim-ness. As a Muslim in India today, not only are you fighting to shrug off the label of fundamentalist- if not terrorist - but you are also succumbing to a paradigm of dialogue which has been set for homogenous communities with clear markers of identities.
But how does one fight that when shared cultural spaces, other than those created by the market, shrink? How does one speak of the diversity of being Indian when Diwali is celebrated in schools and Eid just in Muslim homes? How does one avoid a singular label for experiences that are diverse and yet have a common thread running through them - the experience of a tailor in
Ahmedabad whose Hindu patrons have stopped giving work to, the butcher in Batla House who couldn't get a bank loan, the software professional who will now have to watch every single byte that leaves his computer.
Being Muslim in India today means many things to many people. But how easy it is to forget that one fundamental reality. How easy it is to say, as someone said to me after the Delhi blasts - "These are all educated Muslims. Don't they know that their bombs can also kill their own?" As if everyone with a Muslim name is a terrorist's very "own".
In the India Today
Friday, October 10, 2008
They peer from the
Panes of locked cupboards,
They stare longingly
For months we do not meet
The evenings spent in their company
Are now passed at the computer screen.
They are so restless now, these books
They have taken to walking in their sleep
They stare, longingly
The values they stood for
Whose ‘cells’ never died out
Those values are no more found in homes
The relationships they spoke of
Have all come undone today
A sigh escapes as I turn a page
The meanings of many words have fallen off
They appear like shriveled, leafless stumps
Where meaning will grow no more
Many traditions lie scattered
Like the debris of earthen cups
Made obsolete by glass tumblers
Each turn of the page
Brought a new flavor on the tongue,
Now a click of the finger
Floods the screen with images, layer upon layer
That bond with books that once was, is severed now
We used to sometimes lie with them on our chest
Or hold them in our lap
Or balance them on our knees,
Bowing our heads as in prayer
Of course, the world of knowledge is still there,
But what of
The pressed flowers and scented missives
Hidden between their pages,
And the love forged on the pretext
Of borrowing, dropping and picking up books together
What of them?
That, perhaps, shall no longer be!
Tuesday, October 7, 2008
Here is the link for an old story on him in Outlook magazine:
I salute him and wish we had such noble souls in my state Tamil Nadu too.
Friday, October 3, 2008
Friday, September 26, 2008
Thursday, September 25, 2008
Wednesday, September 24, 2008
Partha Dasgupta. This is really heartening news. Let us wait with baited breath until October 13 when the winner will be officially announced. It will really be a shot in the arm for our country passing through inflationary crisis and boost our sagging morale.
Friday, September 19, 2008
Not all feelings and thoughts can be captured perfectly in words. Beauty transcends words. We always feel it when we use phrases like we are running out of adjectives, etc.
Tuesday, September 16, 2008
These are the words of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, the French author and aviator, on leadership. I like this quote very much. The saving need of the hour in our country is sagacious leadership. Every time bomb blasts rock a city, there are accusations all around. People blame politicians, politicians blame each other. There seems no end to the blame game. Media runs amok harping on intelligence failure, disgruntlement, etc. Home minister issues a statement that perpetrators will be punished. But we see nothing happening. How long we people are going to face the brunt of these senseless attacks ?
Wednesday, September 10, 2008
The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner
From my mother's sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.
Tuesday, September 9, 2008
A Low Temple
A low temple keeps its gods in the dark.
You lend a matchbox to the priest.
One by one the gods come to light.
Amused bronze. Smiling stone. Unsurprised.
For a moment the length of a matchstick
gesture after gesture revives and dies.
Stance after lost stance is found
and lost again.
Who was that, you ask.
The eight arm goddess, the priest replies.
A sceptic match coughs.
You can count.
But she has eighteen, you protest.
All the same she is still an eight arm goddess to the priest.
You come out in the sun and light a charminar.
Children play on the back of the twenty foot tortoise.
Wednesday, September 3, 2008
Saturday, August 30, 2008
I have been listening to radio right from my young age. Belonging to a generation in which television entered into the drawing rooms slowly, I was fortunate enough to enjoy listening to radio before satellite TV spread its tentacles far and wide and almost pushed radio to the brink. Thanks to FM, radio is once again finding favor with many sections of the population.
The song featured "Video Killed The Radio Star" by The Buggles exemplified the takeover of video generation. "Koi yahaan naache naache" from Disco Dancer is a dead lift from "Video Killed the Radio Star" - Bappi Lahiri blatantly lifted everything from the robotically sung verse melody to the unmistakable "oh-wa-oh"s.
I heard you on the wireless back in Fifty Two
Lying awake intent at tuning in on you.
If I was young it didn't stop you coming through.
They took the credit for your second symphony.
Rewritten by machine and new technology,
and now I understand the problems you can see.
I met your children
What did you tell them?
Video killed the radio star.
Video killed the radio star.
Pictures came and broke your heart.
And now we meet in an abandoned studio.
We hear the playback and it seems so long ago.
And you remember the jingles used to go.
You were the first one.
You were the last one.
Video killed the radio star.
Video killed the radio star.
In my mind and in my car, we can't rewind we've gone to far
Video killed the radio star.
Video killed the radio star.
In my mind and in my car, we can't rewind we've gone to far.
Pictures came and broke your heart, put the blame on VTR.
You are a radio star.
You are a radio star.
Video killed the radio star.
Video killed the radio star.
Video killed the radio star.
Video killed the radio star.
Video killed the radio star. (You are a radio star.)
Friday, August 29, 2008
Monday, August 25, 2008
I am reproducing below the report:
After launching MetroNation in Delhi last September, NDTV Group plans to launch the city-specific channel in Chennai by October-end.
Prannoy Roy-promoted NDTV Ltd is floating a joint venture company with The Hindu Group to launch a Chennai city-centric channel.
NDTV will hold 51 per cent in the JV while the Hindu Group will have the balance 49 per cent. The JV will launch MetroNation Chennai, marking Hindu's foray into television news broadcasting.
"We are setting up a joint venture company with The Hindu Group where we will hold 51 per cent. Hindu is a reputed brand at the regional and national level. It was a natural gravitation towards each other," NDTV Group CEO KVL Narayan Rao tells Indiantelevision.com.
The relationship will also extend to content-sharing with the most popular English newspaper in Tamil Nadu. "We aim to launch MetroNation Chennai in the next 3-4 months," Rao says.
Friday, August 22, 2008
Thursday, August 14, 2008
I like to think (and
the sooner the better!)
of a cybernetic meadow
where mammals and computers
live together in mutually
like pure water
touching clear sky.
I like to think
(right now, please!)
of a cybernetic forest
filled with pines and electronics
where deer stroll peacefully
as if they were flowers
with spinning blossoms.
I like to think
(it has to be!)
of a cybernetic ecology
where we are free of our labors
and joined back to nature,
returned to our mammal
brothers and sisters,
and all watched over
by machines of loving grace.
This was written by American writer Richard Brautigan in late 1960s. He envisages a future where computers, humans and animals will co-exist in a peaceful manner. This poem exudes rosy optimism in stark contrast to dark futures foretold by many a book in which computers take over the world and even supplant us human beings.
Monday, August 11, 2008
As our 61st Independent Day is fast approaching, let us pause a moment and think about the immense sacrifice of people like Khudiram Bose and do our bit towards making our motherland proud.
Tuesday, August 5, 2008
Tamil Sangam literature is cherished for its richness. Though I have just nibbled at the edges of its vast richness, the following sample will suffice, I think, for its greatness. See the usage of the metaphor of red earth and pouring rain for lover's longing. I have given the poem in its Tamizh original and its English translation by inimitable A K Ramanujan.
Incidentally I remember reading elsewhere that this vintage Tamil verse became the first (also the only Asian and Indian) poem in a set of six, displayed on the London subway through June-July 2001.
குறிஞ்சி - தலைவன் கூற்று
யாயும் ஞாயும் யாரா கியரோ
எந்தையும் நுந்தையும் எம்முறைக் கேளிர்
யானும் நீயும் எவ்வழி யறிதும்
செம்புலப் பெயனீர் போல
அன்புடை நெஞ்சம் தாங்கலந் தனவே.
Red earth and pouring rain
What could my mother be
to yours? What kin is my father
to yours anyway? And how
Did you and I meet ever?
But in love
our hearts have mingled
as red earth and pouring rain
Translated by AK Ramanujan (Kuruntokai - 40)
A poem from the Eight Anthologies Collection.
Monday, August 4, 2008
He has broken new ground on the blogosphere. Twenty-eight-year-old journalist-blogger Mayank Austen Soofi, 28, could become the youngest Indian to be published in a Pakistani textbook.
Soofi’s blog Pakistan Paindabad aims to shatter stereotyped Indian perceptions about its neighbour. “People treat Pakistan as a country of terrorist camps, but there are swanky cafes, pretty girls, galleries, writers… a very Khan Market crowd. I wanted people to see that it’s as normal as India,” he says.
Samuel Ray, editor, Oxford University Press, Pakistan, recently wrote to Soofi showing interest in using material from his blog for an English textbook for class XI students. “It’s great. Nothing’s finalised yet, but if I’m published it will be a slap to all those people who think Pakistani publishing is all about India haters,” says Soofi.
The excerpts being sought are from a series called ‘Five Best Things About Pakistan’, wherein Soofi got writers, activists and common people from Pakistan or of Pakistani origin to pick their top five.
On his first visit to Pakistan in 2006 for the World Social Forum, Soofi fell in love with the country. His travelogue on Heera Mandi, Lahore’s red light district, has garnered interested from Sanjay Leela Bhansali. “But he doesn’t want me to talk about it yet,” he shrugs.
The assistant editor with Hindustan Times has five blogs that he updates regularly. And if you are wondering how the nomenclature came about, he is officially Mayank Singh but his passion for Jane Austen and Sufism made him denounce a sectarian identity.
It is indeed heartening to know that he is doing his bit towards friendship with our neighbor. We , Indians, should realize that not all Pakistanis are terrorists hellbent on destroying us. An average Pakistani is as much peace loving as we Indians are.
Wednesday, July 30, 2008
Those famous brothers have the wrong name
Dostoevsky's last, longest and possibly greatest novel has been known for nearly 130 years in English as The Brothers Karamazov. Sadly, this is wrong. It should be called The Karamazov Brothers. At least, so argues Ignat Avsey in his translator's note for the Oxford University Press edition of the book. "Had past translators been expressing themselves freely in natural English, without being hamstrung by the original Russian word order," he writes, "they would no more have dreamt of saying The Brothers Karamazov than they would The Brothers Warner or The Brothers Marx."
He is doubtless right, but I still kind of like the very wrongness of the earlier title. The Karamazov Brothers sounds like a firm of surly plasterers; the Brothers Karamazov sound like a madcap trapeze act - which, as I (mis)read Dostoevsky, is what Ivan, Dmitri and Alexei were.
Avsey, though, makes a worrying point: if translators can't get the title right, can we trust them on the rest of Dostoevsky's 1,054 pages? On this, it's worth thinking about what the great American philosopher Willard van Orman Quine wrote of the indeterminacy of translation: this doesn't mean there is no such thing as a good or a bad translation, but that fidelity to the spirit of the original may mean betraying it at a literal level. CK Scott-Moncrieff may have been thinking along these lines when he gave his English translation of A la recherche du temps perdu a title the author hated, namely Remembrance of Things Past (which riffs on a line from Shakespeare), though why he left out Proust's rudery is less clear. Only 70 years later, in 1992, did Chatto put out an edition with the more literal title In Search of Lost Time and favour English readers with the smut.
As anyone trying to flog new foreign fiction to English readers knows, the choice of title is sometimes the handmaiden of marketing. Eyebrows were raised when Michel Houellebecq's first novel, L'Extension du domaine de la lutte, was published here in 1998 as Whatever. But the elegant French title sounds dreadful when transliterated as The Extension of the Domain of the Struggle. What's more, the English title at a stroke got Houellebecq down with a pseudo-cool nihilist demographic on this side of the Channel - something Dostoevsky's publishers have not yet tried to do.
Monday, July 28, 2008
Today is my son Nikhil's 9th birthday. As he steps into his ninth year, I am reminded of these sagacious words of Kahlil Gibran:
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children
as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with His might
that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let our bending in the archer's hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
so He loves also the bow that is stable.
Wednesday, July 23, 2008
Sunday, July 20, 2008
Wednesday, July 16, 2008
|Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird|
|by Wallace Stevens|
| Among twenty snowy mountains,|
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.
Tuesday, July 15, 2008
Friday, July 11, 2008
Swiss firm brings back the dead - as diamonds
At the end of their days, most people end up six feet under or up in flames, but some are spending eternity as sparkling diamonds, thanks to a peculiar chemical transformation.
For a fee, a company called Algordanza in the eastern Swiss canton of Graubuenden offers a service to turn ashes into precious stones.
Every month it gets 40 to 50 commissions - some from as far away as Japan.
Rinaldo Willy, 28, one of two co-founders of Algordanza, said 500g of ashes was enough to make a diamond, while a human body leaves behind about 2.5kg of ashes.
Potassium and calcium, which makes up some 85% of the ashes, are first separated from the carbon. The carbon is then subject to extremely high pressure and heat - 1 700ºC - a process which compresses it into graphite, a carbon allotrope, or structurally different form of carbon.
More pressure and heat are applied to the graphite to turn it into diamonds. The entire process takes six to eight weeks, hardly a fraction of the time it takes for the formation of natural diamonds, which takes thousands of years.
"Each diamond is unique - the colour varies from dark blue to almost white," said Willy. "It's a reflection of the personality."
Sunday, July 6, 2008
"Dave, stop. Stop, will you? Stop, Dave. Will you stop, Dave?” So the supercomputer HAL pleads with the implacable astronaut Dave Bowman in a famous and weirdly poignant scene toward the end of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Bowman, having nearly been sent to a deep-space death by the malfunctioning machine, is calmly, coldly disconnecting the memory circuits that control its artificial brain. “Dave, my mind is going,” HAL says, forlornly. “I can feel it. I can feel it.”
I can feel it, too. Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.
I think I know what’s going on. For more than a decade now, I’ve been spending a lot of time online, searching and surfing and sometimes adding to the great databases of the Internet. The Web has been a godsend to me as a writer. Research that once required days in the stacks or periodical rooms of libraries can now be done in minutes. A few Google searches, some quick clicks on hyperlinks, and I’ve got the telltale fact or pithy quote I was after. Even when I’m not working, I’m as likely as not to be foraging in the Web’s info-thickets—reading and writing e-mails, scanning headlines and blog posts, watching videos and listening to podcasts, or just tripping from link to link to link. (Unlike footnotes, to which they’re sometimes likened, hyperlinks don’t merely point to related works; they propel you toward them.)
For me, as for others, the Net is becoming a universal medium, the conduit for most of the information that flows through my eyes and ears and into my mind. The advantages of having immediate access to such an incredibly rich store of information are many, and they’ve been widely described and duly applauded. “The perfect recall of silicon memory,” Wired’s Clive Thompson has written, “can be an enormous boon to thinking.” But that boon comes at a price. As the media theorist Marshall McLuhan pointed out in the 1960s, media are not just passive channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.
I’m not the only one. When I mention my troubles with reading to friends and acquaintances—literary types, most of them—many say they’re having similar experiences. The more they use the Web, the more they have to fight to stay focused on long pieces of writing. Some of the bloggers I follow have also begun mentioning the phenomenon. Scott Karp, who writes a blog about online media, recently confessed that he has stopped reading books altogether. “I was a lit major in college, and used to be [a] voracious book reader,” he wrote. “What happened?” He speculates on the answer: “What if I do all my reading on the web not so much because the way I read has changed, i.e. I’m just seeking convenience, but because the way I THINK has changed?”
Bruce Friedman, who blogs regularly about the use of computers in medicine, also has described how the Internet has altered his mental habits. “I now have almost totally lost the ability to read and absorb a longish article on the web or in print,” he wrote earlier this year. A pathologist who has long been on the faculty of the University of Michigan Medical School, Friedman elaborated on his comment in a telephone conversation with me. His thinking, he said, has taken on a “staccato” quality, reflecting the way he quickly scans short passages of text from many sources online. “I can’t read War and Peace anymore,” he admitted. “I’ve lost the ability to do that. Even a blog post of more than three or four paragraphs is too much to absorb. I skim it.”
Anecdotes alone don’t prove much. And we still await the long-term neurological and psychological experiments that will provide a definitive picture of how Internet use affects cognition. But a recently published study of online research habits, conducted by scholars from University College London, suggests that we may well be in the midst of a sea change in the way we read and think. As part of the five-year research program, the scholars examined computer logs documenting the behavior of visitors to two popular research sites, one operated by the British Library and one by a U.K. educational consortium, that provide access to journal articles, e-books, and other sources of written information. They found that people using the sites exhibited “a form of skimming activity,” hopping from one source to another and rarely returning to any source they’d already visited. They typically read no more than one or two pages of an article or book before they would “bounce” out to another site. Sometimes they’d save a long article, but there’s no evidence that they ever went back and actually read it. The authors of the study report:
It is clear that users are not reading online in the traditional sense; indeed there are signs that new forms of “reading” are emerging as users “power browse” horizontally through titles, contents pages and abstracts going for quick wins. It almost seems that they go online to avoid reading in the traditional sense.
Thanks to the ubiquity of text on the Internet, not to mention the popularity of text-messaging on cell phones, we may well be reading more today than we did in the 1970s or 1980s, when television was our medium of choice. But it’s a different kind of reading, and behind it lies a different kind of thinking—perhaps even a new sense of the self. “We are not only what we read,” says Maryanne Wolf, a developmental psychologist at Tufts University and the author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. “We are how we read.” Wolf worries that the style of reading promoted by the Net, a style that puts “efficiency” and “immediacy” above all else, may be weakening our capacity for the kind of deep reading that emerged when an earlier technology, the printing press, made long and complex works of prose commonplace. When we read online, she says, we tend to become “mere decoders of information.” Our ability to interpret text, to make the rich mental connections that form when we read deeply and without distraction, remains largely disengaged.
Reading, explains Wolf, is not an instinctive skill for human beings. It’s not etched into our genes the way speech is. We have to teach our minds how to translate the symbolic characters we see into the language we understand. And the media or other technologies we use in learning and practicing the craft of reading play an important part in shaping the neural circuits inside our brains. Experiments demonstrate that readers of ideograms, such as the Chinese, develop a mental circuitry for reading that is very different from the circuitry found in those of us whose written language employs an alphabet. The variations extend across many regions of the brain, including those that govern such essential cognitive functions as memory and the interpretation of visual and auditory stimuli. We can expect as well that the circuits woven by our use of the Net will be different from those woven by our reading of books and other printed works.
Sometime in 1882, Friedrich Nietzsche bought a typewriter—a Malling-Hansen Writing Ball, to be precise. His vision was failing, and keeping his eyes focused on a page had become exhausting and painful, often bringing on crushing headaches. He had been forced to curtail his writing, and he feared that he would soon have to give it up. The typewriter rescued him, at least for a time. Once he had mastered touch-typing, he was able to write with his eyes closed, using only the tips of his fingers. Words could once again flow from his mind to the page.
But the machine had a subtler effect on his work. One of Nietzsche’s friends, a composer, noticed a change in the style of his writing. His already terse prose had become even tighter, more telegraphic. “Perhaps you will through this instrument even take to a new idiom,” the friend wrote in a letter, noting that, in his own work, his “‘thoughts’ in music and language often depend on the quality of pen and paper.”
“You are right,” Nietzsche replied, “our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts.” Under the sway of the machine, writes the German media scholar Friedrich A. Kittler, Nietzsche’s prose “changed from arguments to aphorisms, from thoughts to puns, from rhetoric to telegram style.”
The human brain is almost infinitely malleable. People used to think that our mental meshwork, the dense connections formed among the 100 billion or so neurons inside our skulls, was largely fixed by the time we reached adulthood. But brain researchers have discovered that that’s not the case. James Olds, a professor of neuroscience who directs the Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study at George Mason University, says that even the adult mind “is very plastic.” Nerve cells routinely break old connections and form new ones. “The brain,” according to Olds, “has the ability to reprogram itself on the fly, altering the way it functions.”
As we use what the sociologist Daniel Bell has called our “intellectual technologies”—the tools that extend our mental rather than our physical capacities—we inevitably begin to take on the qualities of those technologies. The mechanical clock, which came into common use in the 14th century, provides a compelling example. In Technics and Civilization, the historian and cultural critic Lewis Mumford described how the clock “disassociated time from human events and helped create the belief in an independent world of mathematically measurable sequences.” The “abstract framework of divided time” became “the point of reference for both action and thought.”
The clock’s methodical ticking helped bring into being the scientific mind and the scientific man. But it also took something away. As the late MIT computer scientist Joseph Weizenbaum observed in his 1976 book, Computer Power and Human Reason: From Judgment to Calculation, the conception of the world that emerged from the widespread use of timekeeping instruments “remains an impoverished version of the older one, for it rests on a rejection of those direct experiences that formed the basis for, and indeed constituted, the old reality.” In deciding when to eat, to work, to sleep, to rise, we stopped listening to our senses and started obeying the clock.
The process of adapting to new intellectual technologies is reflected in the changing metaphors we use to explain ourselves to ourselves. When the mechanical clock arrived, people began thinking of their brains as operating “like clockwork.” Today, in the age of software, we have come to think of them as operating “like computers.” But the changes, neuroscience tells us, go much deeper than metaphor. Thanks to our brain’s plasticity, the adaptation occurs also at a biological level.
The Internet promises to have particularly far-reaching effects on cognition. In a paper published in 1936, the British mathematician Alan Turing proved that a digital computer, which at the time existed only as a theoretical machine, could be programmed to perform the function of any other information-processing device. And that’s what we’re seeing today. The Internet, an immeasurably powerful computing system, is subsuming most of our other intellectual technologies. It’s becoming our map and our clock, our printing press and our typewriter, our calculator and our telephone, and our radio and TV.
When the Net absorbs a medium, that medium is re-created in the Net’s image. It injects the medium’s content with hyperlinks, blinking ads, and other digital gewgaws, and it surrounds the content with the content of all the other media it has absorbed. A new e-mail message, for instance, may announce its arrival as we’re glancing over the latest headlines at a newspaper’s site. The result is to scatter our attention and diffuse our concentration.
The Net’s influence doesn’t end at the edges of a computer screen, either. As people’s minds become attuned to the crazy quilt of Internet media, traditional media have to adapt to the audience’s new expectations. Television programs add text crawls and pop-up ads, and magazines and newspapers shorten their articles, introduce capsule summaries, and crowd their pages with easy-to-browse info-snippets. When, in March of this year, TheNew York Times decided to devote the second and third pages of every edition to article abstracts, its design director, Tom Bodkin, explained that the “shortcuts” would give harried readers a quick “taste” of the day’s news, sparing them the “less efficient” method of actually turning the pages and reading the articles. Old media have little choice but to play by the new-media rules.
Never has a communications system played so many roles in our lives—or exerted such broad influence over our thoughts—as the Internet does today. Yet, for all that’s been written about the Net, there’s been little consideration of how, exactly, it’s reprogramming us. The Net’s intellectual ethic remains obscure.
About the same time that Nietzsche started using his typewriter, an earnest young man named Frederick Winslow Taylor carried a stopwatch into the Midvale Steel plant in Philadelphia and began a historic series of experiments aimed at improving the efficiency of the plant’s machinists. With the approval of Midvale’s owners, he recruited a group of factory hands, set them to work on various metalworking machines, and recorded and timed their every movement as well as the operations of the machines. By breaking down every job into a sequence of small, discrete steps and then testing different ways of performing each one, Taylor created a set of precise instructions—an “algorithm,” we might say today—for how each worker should work. Midvale’s employees grumbled about the strict new regime, claiming that it turned them into little more than automatons, but the factory’s productivity soared.
More than a hundred years after the invention of the steam engine, the Industrial Revolution had at last found its philosophy and its philosopher. Taylor’s tight industrial choreography—his “system,” as he liked to call it—was embraced by manufacturers throughout the country and, in time, around the world. Seeking maximum speed, maximum efficiency, and maximum output, factory owners used time-and-motion studies to organize their work and configure the jobs of their workers. The goal, as Taylor defined it in his celebrated 1911 treatise, The Principles of Scientific Management, was to identify and adopt, for every job, the “one best method” of work and thereby to effect “the gradual substitution of science for rule of thumb throughout the mechanic arts.” Once his system was applied to all acts of manual labor, Taylor assured his followers, it would bring about a restructuring not only of industry but of society, creating a utopia of perfect efficiency. “In the past the man has been first,” he declared; “in the future the system must be first.”
Taylor’s system is still very much with us; it remains the ethic of industrial manufacturing. And now, thanks to the growing power that computer engineers and software coders wield over our intellectual lives, Taylor’s ethic is beginning to govern the realm of the mind as well. The Internet is a machine designed for the efficient and automated collection, transmission, and manipulation of information, and its legions of programmers are intent on finding the “one best method”—the perfect algorithm—to carry out every mental movement of what we’ve come to describe as “knowledge work.”
Google’s headquarters, in Mountain View, California—the Googleplex—is the Internet’s high church, and the religion practiced inside its walls is Taylorism. Google, says its chief executive, Eric Schmidt, is “a company that’s founded around the science of measurement,” and it is striving to “systematize everything” it does. Drawing on the terabytes of behavioral data it collects through its search engine and other sites, it carries out thousands of experiments a day, according to the Harvard Business Review, and it uses the results to refine the algorithms that increasingly control how people find information and extract meaning from it. What Taylor did for the work of the hand, Google is doing for the work of the mind.
The company has declared that its mission is “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” It seeks to develop “the perfect search engine,” which it defines as something that “understands exactly what you mean and gives you back exactly what you want.” In Google’s view, information is a kind of commodity, a utilitarian resource that can be mined and processed with industrial efficiency. The more pieces of information we can “access” and the faster we can extract their gist, the more productive we become as thinkers.
Where does it end? Sergey Brin and Larry Page, the gifted young men who founded Google while pursuing doctoral degrees in computer science at Stanford, speak frequently of their desire to turn their search engine into an artificial intelligence, a HAL-like machine that might be connected directly to our brains. “The ultimate search engine is something as smart as people—or smarter,” Page said in a speech a few years back. “For us, working on search is a way to work on artificial intelligence.” In a 2004 interview with Newsweek, Brin said, “Certainly if you had all the world’s information directly attached to your brain, or an artificial brain that was smarter than your brain, you’d be better off.” Last year, Page told a convention of scientists that Google is “really trying to build artificial intelligence and to do it on a large scale.”
Such an ambition is a natural one, even an admirable one, for a pair of math whizzes with vast quantities of cash at their disposal and a small army of computer scientists in their employ. A fundamentally scientific enterprise, Google is motivated by a desire to use technology, in Eric Schmidt’s words, “to solve problems that have never been solved before,” and artificial intelligence is the hardest problem out there. Why wouldn’t Brin and Page want to be the ones to crack it?
Still, their easy assumption that we’d all “be better off” if our brains were supplemented, or even replaced, by an artificial intelligence is unsettling. It suggests a belief that intelligence is the output of a mechanical process, a series of discrete steps that can be isolated, measured, and optimized. In Google’s world, the world we enter when we go online, there’s little place for the fuzziness of contemplation. Ambiguity is not an opening for insight but a bug to be fixed. The human brain is just an outdated computer that needs a faster processor and a bigger hard drive.
The idea that our minds should operate as high-speed data-processing machines is not only built into the workings of the Internet, it is the network’s reigning business model as well. The faster we surf across the Web—the more links we click and pages we view—the more opportunities Google and other companies gain to collect information about us and to feed us advertisements. Most of the proprietors of the commercial Internet have a financial stake in collecting the crumbs of data we leave behind as we flit from link to link—the more crumbs, the better. The last thing these companies want is to encourage leisurely reading or slow, concentrated thought. It’s in their economic interest to drive us to distraction.
Maybe I’m just a worrywart. Just as there’s a tendency to glorify technological progress, there’s a countertendency to expect the worst of every new tool or machine. In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates bemoaned the development of writing. He feared that, as people came to rely on the written word as a substitute for the knowledge they used to carry inside their heads, they would, in the words of one of the dialogue’s characters, “cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful.” And because they would be able to “receive a quantity of information without proper instruction,” they would “be thought very knowledgeable when they are for the most part quite ignorant.” They would be “filled with the conceit of wisdom instead of real wisdom.” Socrates wasn’t wrong—the new technology did often have the effects he feared—but he was shortsighted. He couldn’t foresee the many ways that writing and reading would serve to spread information, spur fresh ideas, and expand human knowledge (if not wisdom).
The arrival of Gutenberg’s printing press, in the 15th century, set off another round of teeth gnashing. The Italian humanist Hieronimo Squarciafico worried that the easy availability of books would lead to intellectual laziness, making men “less studious” and weakening their minds. Others argued that cheaply printed books and broadsheets would undermine religious authority, demean the work of scholars and scribes, and spread sedition and debauchery. As New York University professor Clay Shirky notes, “Most of the arguments made against the printing press were correct, even prescient.” But, again, the doomsayers were unable to imagine the myriad blessings that the printed word would deliver.
So, yes, you should be skeptical of my skepticism. Perhaps those who dismiss critics of the Internet as Luddites or nostalgists will be proved correct, and from our hyperactive, data-stoked minds will spring a golden age of intellectual discovery and universal wisdom. Then again, the Net isn’t the alphabet, and although it may replace the printing press, it produces something altogether different. The kind of deep reading that a sequence of printed pages promotes is valuable not just for the knowledge we acquire from the author’s words but for the intellectual vibrations those words set off within our own minds. In the quiet spaces opened up by the sustained, undistracted reading of a book, or by any other act of contemplation, for that matter, we make our own associations, draw our own inferences and analogies, foster our own ideas. Deep reading, as Maryanne Wolf argues, is indistinguishable from deep thinking.
If we lose those quiet spaces, or fill them up with “content,” we will sacrifice something important not only in our selves but in our culture. In a recent essay, the playwright Richard Foreman eloquently described what’s at stake:
I come from a tradition of Western culture, in which the ideal (my ideal) was the complex, dense and “cathedral-like” structure of the highly educated and articulate personality—a man or woman who carried inside themselves a personally constructed and unique version of the entire heritage of the West. [But now] I see within us all (myself included) the replacement of complex inner density with a new kind of self—evolving under the pressure of information overload and the technology of the “instantly available.”
As we are drained of our “inner repertory of dense cultural inheritance,” Foreman concluded, we risk turning into “‘pancake people’—spread wide and thin as we connect with that vast network of information accessed by the mere touch of a button.”
I’m haunted by that scene in 2001. What makes it so poignant, and so weird, is the computer’s emotional response to the disassembly of its mind: its despair as one circuit after another goes dark, its childlike pleading with the astronaut—“I can feel it. I can feel it. I’m afraid”—and its final reversion to what can only be called a state of innocence. HAL’s outpouring of feeling contrasts with the emotionlessness that characterizes the human figures in the film, who go about their business with an almost robotic efficiency. Their thoughts and actions feel scripted, as if they’re following the steps of an algorithm. In the world of 2001, people have become so machinelike that the most human character turns out to be a machine. That’s the essence of Kubrick’s dark prophecy: as we come to rely on computers to mediate our understanding of the world, it is our own intelligence that flattens into artificial intelligence.