Friday, August 17, 2012

Reflections: The Stuff of Thought

This was my second audio-book. My experience with this one was actually markedly different from the first audio-book. I was more interested and invested in this book than the first one - the subject matter is inexplicably closer to my heart, so I was more riveted to the narration. Secondly, I heard it during a couple of terribly long flight journeys, so it was ideal to just plug my earphones, close my eyes and concentrate on the content. For me, audiobooks seem to work best while flying. I can take notes in a separate book, doze off for sometime, refresh myself, and continue listening. I’m glad to have discovered this.

The narration of this book could have been better. I expected Steven Pinker himself to have narrated it (since I love his presentations), but it was a disappointment that he didn’t. The narrator seemed hurried and rushed in the initial chapters. There wasn’t much emotion or even respect for punctuation, as he just droned on and on. But the style improved in the subsequent chapters - he was more patient, measured, and even entertaining in a few places.

Onto the book itself - Steven Pinker meticulously analyzes how Language and its constructs play a complex role in our understanding of reality. He starts by delving into the ambiguous process by which the human-brain conceptualizes language and puts together grammar and semantics to communicate, and make sense of the world. He demonstrates that our verbs and prepositions reflect the innate ways in which the human-brain is wired. The semantics (meanings and definitions) that we develop through language and consequently, our experiences, influence our perceptions of Reality. Grammar, Verbs, Conjugations, and all the tedious linguistic structures - in any language -  are formulated by the innate process by which we dissect the world into its particulates - its objects, geometry, space, dimensions, time, and action.
For example, it can be argued that both sentences below are theoretically grammatical:
A: Water is poured into the jug
B: The jug is poured with water

Yet, those who are fluent in English, would hardly use sentence B. People who might use B would most likely be native-speakers of another language, and they might be literally trying to translate the sentence from their language to English. This is because, innately, our mental imagery struggles to agree with a Jug - a geometrically stable and solid structure, being poured - an action that indicates fluidity and movement. The verb Pour, and the action Poured, are associated more with the Noun Water, than with Jug. The innate knowledge and understanding of Physics, objects, space, and actions, is the reason why one mental imagery agrees more than the other. Speakers of another language would surely have their semantics and grammar aligned accordingly in their native language, but translations might affect the representation of their actual imagery in a foreign language. One might be quick to therefore conclude that our language, or rather, semantics and grammar, determines the kinds of images we have in our heads. Not exactly, and not always.

This is popularly noted as the Whorfian Hypothesis which basically states that Language can influence cognitive processes, due to the ways in which the linguistic structures shape one’s understanding of the world. Steven Pinker vehemently argues against this hypothesis of Linguistic Determinism. Through multiple experimental results and cogent arguments, he attempts to debunk the notion that Language determines structure of thought. I was initially in disagreement with some of Pinker’s arguments, but in the end we converge on essentially similar ideas. Language might influence, but does not determine thoughts. I do believe Language is integral to Thinking and Reasoning. It does play a vital role. But, I have come to agree that a particular Language doesn’t completely determine one’s thoughts and ability to reason or form newer thoughts. One language isn’t better than the other to make sense of the world better. In our head, we don’t necessarily think grammatically. Our thoughts are not stored or formed through the words or linguistic structures of any particular language. As a bilingual person, I can attest that I don’t think in one language or two languages. I might reason on pen and paper in English, but I don’t believe my thoughts are framed in any particular language. Anyway, this is a highly debated topic amongst Linguists. According to Pinker, Words are represented as far more richer and abstract clusters of thought. When we try to define the Word -  the clusters of our Thought - through Language, the linguistic structures might limit or influence our articulation and the many interpretations we might have of the Word. But within our heads, Language doesn’t determine our core cognitive processes of thinking or reasoning.

After much back and forth, though,  I still feel that there is some grain of intuitive truth to Linguistic Determinism. I’m not an extremist of the theory who would go all the way to state rigidly that one language might help in certain cognitive processes than the other... that German is a better language to learn math and science than another language etc. It’s not true in such specific, micro-level examples. Culture, environment, and so many other aspects might affect cognitive development in a certain country/place.  I believe that in the macro picture, the structure of a language does influence the abstract networks of thoughts we form. The imagery and metaphors in the language surely seem influential in how we interpret, imagine, and create newer thoughts. Speaking from the perspective of programming languages, I am aware of multiple experiments and studies that have evaluated the link between the syntax of the language and the eventual ways in which a programmer reasons to solve a problem or construct an algorithm through the language. The syntax and rules can sometimes inhibit certain kinds of thinking, and consequently affect the creative reasoning of a problem - it doesn’t affect one’s core intelligence or cognitive processes, but it does seem to be an agent in terms of how the processes are triggered. I know, this is also a hairy subject, so I will move onto another topic in the book.

Most of the book explicates each linguistic structure in detail - verbs, prepositions, tense, etc, to demonstrate that these structures were borne out of our mental conceptualization of Quantity, Amounts, Space, Geometry, Spatial relationships, Temporal relationships, and of course, Causality. Causality was an interesting chapter. In here, there are multiple examples of how a sentence structure can sway our logical perception of a situation (see, language does influence our logical thoughts). It’s all about how the situation is framed. It leads to multiple pitfalls in Logic and Fallacious interpretations.
* If widowhood follows marriage, then does marriage cause widowhood?

With so many variables abounding in every complex situation, navigating to the Cause from the Effect is tricky. It is even trickier when we begin to use Language, and its rules alone, to get to the Cause. This is probably why Lawyers make so much money on linguistic technicalities.

But then, I liked the part where Pinker shows that we are so inherently steeped with a moral sense that we can most often make our way out of ambiguous and sticky representations of a morally-dubious situation that’s cloaked in clever Linguistic acrobatics.

I also liked the chapter on Metaphors. There are many theories that Language by itself is a huge set of metaphors to our abstract thoughts. But that aside, metaphors and imagery help us grasp abstract concepts much better. Abstraction is diluted much better through relatable imageries and concepts. This is because the natural way of our thinking is through Metaphors - we constantly make connections of neural networks, relating one concept with the other. We therefore find it easier to imagine and relate.

Further, an entire chapter is dedicated on the subject of Social Niceties and Courteous Language. Why should we say “I was wondering if you could look at my document?”, instead of just saying, “Take a look at the document”, that’s precise and to the point. Language is to communicate direct requests and thoughts, after all. But all the hedging and polite rules are to conform to social protocol. It satisfies the bigger picture of basic human evolutionary requirement - communal cooperation. We insist on using euphemisms even when everybody understands the inferences, we force ourselves to be politically correct despite the other person being aware of it, etc. In the end, we feel far more worse, far more hurt, to hear the brutal truth, the callous sentences, than recognizing a forced-politeness. Most of us can deal with the latter better than the former brutality. We do appreciate the fact that the other person at least respects our feelings a tiny bit to frame their unpleasantness in a polite manner. And hence, we have devised language structures to suit this need - to maintain a measure of fragile harmony.

Finally, do names, even those without an actual meaning, evoke some abstract meaning in you? Does “Tom” conjure a different picture than “Jim”? Why are there trends in names? Why do some names sound older, newer, cooler, sweeter, bolder? Pinker goes into a whole chapter analyzing the motivations behind Names and parents’ naming ideologies. This wasn’t a very interesting chapter to me, but it served as a nice break from all the heavy academic content from the previous ones.

Well, truth be told, I was expecting some content on Language and its correlation with Personality and an Individual's Nature. Along the lines of addressing these questions - Do adjectives, sentence structures, noun phrases etc. reflect a person’s inherent personality or character traits? Can one’s nature influence how they use language while writing versus talking? Can the use of language predict a person's innate nature? Etc. See, the phrase “Window into Human Nature” (from the title of the book) had a whole slew of meaning to me, inside my head. The way I interpreted it, the way my thoughts came together to understand it, was different. Steven Pinker concentrates on the broader aspects of Human Nature and Cognition, and not on individual personality. And the book has helped me appreciate this much better.

To summarize this rambling post, this was an interesting and educative read on linguistics and psycholinguistics. The human brain is far too complicated to arrive at definitive and conclusive facts about how exactly language and thoughts interweave and influence each other. But the book provides ample arguments and scientific experiments to help the reader slowly make sense of at least a part of the puzzle. 

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Reflections: The Art of Hearing Heartbeats

Julia wakes up one day to find that her father, a renowned Wall-Street lawyer, has disappeared. Just like that.  Rigorous detective traces lead her father’s journey until Bangkok, and then there’s nothing. After a few years of grappling with this mystery, Julia comes across an old unsent letter that her father had penned to a woman in Kalaw, Burma, before marrying her mother. Hanging onto the few details of the letter, Julia finds herself in Kalaw, eager to find answers. In the little mountain-village of Kalaw, she learns about her father’s deepest secrets. Her father’s story awes and comforts her, helping her make peace and gain some insight into the Eastern philosophies of life. 

It is the notion of most spiritualists that the intellect is far more superior to the senses. Debates rage in the scientific and spiritual community over which is better. The most common answer is – both. One leads and informs the other. The intellect cannot develop without the senses, and the senses are empty without a processor. Although the bulk of the book is about a poignant, tender, idealistic romance, the aspect that elevated the book was the portrayal of the development of some of our basic senses to reach deep within one’s heart and soul. A nuanced sensory skill does enhance the intellect or one’s intuition – provided, the body and mind are in-sync. This insight gives one the clarity to understand the world, and everything and everybody on it, a little better. 

The story infuses basic Buddhist principles, most of which are widely accepted by most schools of thought. Seeing is not always believing. It is true that our senses, especially the sense of sight, often muddles our deeper visions. The superficial is more visible than the valuable truths that lie coiled inside layers of the superficial. It takes a special kind of training to tune the senses, to collaborate with all the other senses, to sensitize our probes, to penetrate through all the layers and uncover the essence of everything. Julia’s father learns to see right through to the essence. He uses his senses in the most optimal manner to enlighten his mind and travel to a different place. He shows that the art of intuitive perception can be honed with our army of limited senses. 

But this book is not overtly philosophical. The book’s essence is a beautiful love story. It speaks of a mystical, magical, transcendent love that doesn’t drain or inflict misery, despite any number of pangs and pains. It speaks of a completely unconditional love that only uplifts and multiplies true happiness. Is it possible for such unearthly love to exist between two people? Is it possible that the love that we dig deep within ourselves to enlighten and brighten our inner-selves, can be found through another individual? Could another individual truly complete us – down to our core? The tale says, yes. Once you perceive the essence of love – the true warmth and happiness that it provides, you don’t need to be bound to your rudimentary senses to remain happy. The happiness that you gain is permanent within you, radiating you with energy and good-will.  It is a love without strings attached, but with another kind of deeper, soulful attachment that doesn’t depend on the senses to be activated.  Although it is hard to achieve such a state in our worldly relationships, the story brought back my tucked-away idealism to the fore. And I reveled in it, at least briefly. 

The writing is simple and beautiful. It effortlessly streams with lucidity and insight. It gracefully paints the story and the settings. And the characters are surely memorable. But (there had to be a but), there are questions that are left unanswered, and the questions are significant enough to nag the reader. Why did Julia’s father decide to get married to her mother, is one such a question. Why did he not return to Burma earlier, if he had the clarity and courage to differentiate between social mores and the ways of Nature? Some things don’t add up, especially since the story is set in so much idealism. It taints Julia’s father in a shroud of tarnished uncertainty and cowardice, taking away some of the beauty of the story. 

Despite the nagging questions, I really liked the book. I really thought this would receive my highest rating, but a few things didn’t align themselves in the end.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Reflections: The Help

Skeeter (as she is called) is an aspiring writer in the small town of Jackson, Mississippi. It is the early 1960s, a time of much social awakenings and upheaval in the United States. Skeeter agrees with the socialist movements, in principle. Everyday she witnesses her clique of snooty white friends settle deeper and deeper into their rigid and narrow ways - insulting, segregating, and oppressing their African-American maids, focusing their time and effort to scale social ladders through superficial parties, and perpetuating the notion that women, that too white women, are too precious to do any hard work. Skeeter finally picks up the courage and determination to write a book from the perspective of African-American maids, with the hope that the book shall bring to light the pitiable lives of such maids and the dynamics between them and the white families they serve. With sharp characters and engrossing writing, this is an honest, simple, and heart-warming story of racial prejudices and social pressures that affect sincere, innocent lives.

Racism is the main subject of exploration in the book. But the parallel exploration that interested me was the relationship dynamics between a maid and the family that she serves. Maids, or rather Domestic Helps, are still part of most households in India. In many families, the Help is an indispensable part of everyday functioning. From cleaning the house, to helping in the kitchen, to running errands, to taking care of children, they are part of all the core elements of the household. In my own family, our Help has been with us for close to 20 years. She has grown to be one of my mother’s closest friends and support systems. Having seen me grow, I am more like a granddaughter to her. Despite such heartwarming closeness, I am aware that there is still a boundary that is drawn on either sides - define it with whatever term, color it with whatever emotion - I can’t articulate the right words for it. The dynamics is dotted with hiccups - of social hierarchy, financial status, educational differences, and overall differences in lifestyle. Perhaps it is unrealistic, given natural work boundaries, for a Help to be fully integrated into a family, but the book makes you wonder and give it more thought. Why doesn’t she ever sit with you at the same table to share a meal - nobody prevents her, there are no official rules or contract - but an implicit set of antiquated rules always hangs in the air. It is sad that in many households this is still a matter of deep-seated prejudice - the rules are imbued very seriously, with the upholders presenting thin, but vehement justifications.

As much as I hate to say this, most times the justification is presented in the name of hygiene. The book brings up this same “justification” and revolves a story around it. It shows that such rationalization is a blow to basic dignity, especially in these times. The characters in the book make an appeal to adopt more progressive attitudes.

The characters themselves are starkly black or white - good or bad. Except for Skeeter’s mom, many of the characters lacked complexity - they were simple, but beautifully portrayed. Despite the wealth of characters, each has their unique voice. Sometimes, it is nice to read stories with such simple characters that tell a basic story of injustice; a refreshing break from the world of greys we live in. The bad pay their dues, the good get blessed with a break. But life is not an ideal fairy tale, even in the most simplest of stories. The characters’ lives fork, twist, and turn, and some renew their faith and goodness to carry on, while some contently resort to their old, rusty ways. In that sense, there is a lot of realism in the story.

The wide array of memorable characters, the thread of suspense, the bristling injustices and prejudices, the rooting feminism and social liberation, make the book a straightforward success. I couldn’t put the book down, despite its length. No wonder a movie was promptly made!

Friday, August 10, 2012


We are each victims of Life. In our own little bubble, we are victimized by the world, by circumstances, by mean people. We cry out for justice, justify our anger and actions, and victimize someone else in the process. In this vicious cycle, it is easier to feel victimized at every turn, than to see ourselves as perpetrators. The cause is always something sinister that hounds us, that makes us fall prey every time.

So, if the whole world is a stage of victims, who are the perpetrators?

Sometimes it helps to stop perceiving oneself as just a hapless victim. It might help to understand that most often, both the perpetrator and the perpetratee are both victims. Victims of different demons, but victims nonetheless.

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Reflections: The Ground Beneath Her Feet

This is a saga of love, tragedy, and quite simply, life. I have been tapping my keyboard for 15 minutes wondering how to summarize the book and the tale. I don’t think I can satisfactorily do so. At the heart of it, it is an intense story of relentless love that two men have for the sensual, angelic singer, Vina Apsara. Ormus Cama is a musical genius, and Umeed Rai is a talented photojournalist. Both are friends, and both love the same woman, but she loves only one. Their lives are entwined from their young days in post-colonial Bombay, all the way to New York, where Ormus and Vina create a rock sensation of their own. The tale is about passion and the depths to which arts such as music and photography can sink into our soul and meld within us.

The novel is about so many things that surround a simple love story. Its about life’s hypocrisies, injustices, cruelties, and all the million ironies and unpredictabilities. Salman Rushdie writes evocatively and passionately. What impressed me the most was his insouciant and seamless style of loading a single sentence with so many divergent but related thoughts and topics. He spans a wide breadth of subjects with just a few casual sentences that are most of the time, deep and powerful. His details are sharp, almost pungent, and they kick and punch you with their vividness and imagery. The lines that stayed with me the most from the book are:

“A photograph is a moral decision taken in one eighth of a second, or one sixteenth, or one hundred and twenty eighth. Snap your fingers; a snapshot’s faster. Halfway between your voyeur and witness, high artist and low scum, that’s where I’ve made my life, making my eye-blink choices.
Long ago I developed a knack for invisibility. It allowed me to go right up to the actors in the world’s drama, the sick, the dying, the crazed, the mourning, the rich, the greedy, the ecstatic, the bereft, the angry, the murderous, the secretive, the bad, the children, the good, the newsworthy; to shimmy into their charmed space, into the midst of their rage or grief or transcendent arousal, to penetrate the defining instant of their being-in-the-world and get my f****** picture.”
“In the beginning was the tribe, clustering around a fire, a single multi-bodied collective entity standing back-to-back against the enemy, which was the rest of everything-that-was. Then for a little while we broke away, we got names and individuality and privacy and big ideas, and that started a wider fracturing, because if we could do it - us, the planet kings, the gobblers with the lock on the food chain, the guys in the catbird seat - if we could cut ourselves loose, then so could everything else, so could event and space and time and description and fact, so could reality itself. Well, we weren’t expecting to be followed, we didn’t realize we were starting anything, and it looks like it’s scared us so profoundly, this fracturing, this tumbling of walls, this forgodsake freedom, that at top speed we’re rushing back into our skins and war paint, postmodern into premodern, back to the future. That’s what I see when I’m a camera: the battle lines, the corrals, the stockades, the pales, the secret handshakes, the insignia, the uniforms, the lingo, the closing in, the shallow graves, the high priests, the non-negotiable currencies, the junk, the booze, the fifty year old ten year olds, the blood dimm’d tide, the slouching towards Bethlehem, the suspicion, the loathing, the closed shutters, the pre-judgments, the scorn, the hunger, the thirst, the cheap lives, the cheap shots, the anathemas, the minefields, the demons, the demonized, the fuhrers, the warriors, the veils, the mutilations, the no-man’s-land, the paranoias, the dead, the dead.”

There are better lines in the book, but I don’t know why these bleak, harsh, and strong words (or their essence) stayed with me. This is a long (575 pages long) book that tells a complicated, yet simple story. Too many references, mythical and real, are drawn from mythology, theology, the music industry, the rock movement, history and politics to weave this web of a saga. The one thing that I didn’t much understand the need for, was Rushdie’s typical inclusion of something absurd and fantastical, eerie and magical. The tale could have done without his touch of magical realism. I often don’t get it.

I should also mention something about the zillion characters that show up in this tale. I find it fascinating that Rushdie’s characters seem like caricatures on the surface - very little physical or outward descriptions, but the few descriptions that he gives are so potent that you instantly draw a sketch of them in your mind. With each character, he brings out a persona - a whole range of clustered mini-characters within one gigantic one. He gives the characters a cartoonish absurdity, but this ridiculous absurdity sticks and frames the characters. And of course, the dialogues and slangs and wordplays he incorporates through his characters, are witty and ring true. My favorite character (for his portrayal) is Piloo Doodhwala. His introduction sealed the character in my mind:

“On this golden afternoon or another, bronzer p.m., at this instant or that one, the celebrated Mr. Piloo Doodhwala and his famous “magnificentourage” marched forth on to Juhu’s sands. I was wholly ignorant of his growing citywide renown as a “character” and “coming man” and statewide purveyor of milk; I had no idea that his real name was Shetty-but nobody called him that anymore, because, as he himself liked to say, “milkman by fame, Milkman by name”; I had never heard of the term he had coined to describe the intimate clique of family members and servitors with which he liked to surround himself - a term gleefully taken up by the local rags and much satirised (“magnificentestine”, arrogantourage”, etc.); but Piloo Shetty alias Doodhwala was impervious to satire. I simply beheld a small, plump, white-kurta-pajamaed man in his middle twenties, a young man with so great a sense of his own value that he already looked middle-aged, a fellow with a strutting walk like a peacock’s and plentiful dark hair so sleekly plastered down with oil that it resembled a sleeping mongoose. He carried himself like a king, Caligula or Akbar, monarchs who entertained fantasies of being divine.”

This is an interesting, but a very long, dense, and powerful read. Parts of it are engaging and intense, but other parts are far too deep. Nothing propels you to pick it up and read it, but when you do start reading, Rushdie’s words pull you into his world until their power sucks your energy out. And then, you would put the book down and watch it gather some dust, until one fine day something in you (perhaps your library reminders) urges you to finish it. It took me 2 months to finish the last 100 pages, but a couple of days to finish the first 300. The book’s charm waxes and wanes, but in the end, it emerges as an interesting read. 


Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Reflections: Death by Blackhole and Other Cosmic Quandaries

This was my first audiobook. My husband and I finally reached an equilibrium to engage in a shared activity during long road trips. Arguably, when it comes to books (as with anything else), our margins of intersection are pretty thin, but still, we optimistically settled on our common ground of Science, and downloaded this book. It is an achievement in and of itself that we both read/listened to the same book from beginning to end. Hopefully this isn’t the first and the last one!

The book is a compilation of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s essays on Cosmology and Astrophysics. It covers a comprehensive breadth of fundamental topics in Physics, or rather Astrophysics. Most of the chapters were part of our high school textbooks, so in that sense, I don’t think I learned any brand new theories or concepts, but it was a good refresher that helped me internalize some of the harder concepts. I also enjoyed listening to some of the scientific studies that were conducted over the years. My favorite chapters were the initial and the final ones. Tyson knows how to engage his readers/listeners. His initial essays convincingly emphasize on the need for Scientific studies, analytical thinking, and rigorous reasoning to help us understand the unfathomable Universe. He instills the need to inculcate humility and acknowledge our limitations, and to be as open-minded as possible in our studies. The fact that Astrophysicists still haven’t deciphered a major chunk of the mysteries of the Universe is a telling sign of our limitations. But, that doesn’t mean we resign and give up, and attribute everything to something far too intelligent. The more humble and open-minded we are, the more analytical tools we employ, the more we advance in our quest to augment our knowledge and fill our ignorance. I appreciated this stance that threads through all his chapters. I expected a little more from his final chapters - especially the ones on Culture and Scientific Exploration, Science and Religion, but he merely scratches the surface of such topics.

Both my husband and I are interested in Cosmology - while I’m mostly curious of some of the fascinating theories and philosophical aspects of it, my husband is more interested in the mathematics and the hardcore physics behind it all. So, the impressive part of the book is that it managed to keep us both engaged due to the manner in which Tyson has framed the essays. Also, I’m a novice to Cosmology, and my knowledge of Physics is pretty basic, but my husband’s stronghold is Physics. So, it was interesting that the book appealed, in some respects, to both of us.

However, we both thought that there were too many repetitions of topics. Since these were formally essays, each one would work good as a standalone, but there were quite a few overlap between the essays, making the continuity of the overall book a little strained. Some of the essays didn’t flow together either. The repetitions also made our short attention spans drift off.

Now, onto my thoughts on the audio-format. Understandably, it was very hard to concentrate after a couple of hours of listening. We were distracted by the driving or would just nod off. And if there were parts of a paragraph that I didn’t quite understand, the rewinding feature didn’t help me much. I am used to mulling over difficult or thought-provoking sentences and concepts by either repeatedly reading through the words slowly, or writing/sketching something out, or by just referring to a previous chapter/page/paragraph and thinking over everything. I could have perhaps done all this with an audio book as well, had I been at home and next to a paper/pencil, and had the patience to rewind multiple times to get to a specific sentence. But while driving, if you miss something, or don’t understand a few sentences, it’s quite hard to retrace to a specific sentence or paragraph. I couldn’t underline, or highlight, so the interesting sentences and pages could not be marked, and consequently not remembered. These issues wouldn’t surface with Fiction. But with books dealing with more complicated concepts, audio-formats may not work well all the time.

In addition, the narrator plays a tremendous role in how well the book is assimilated. I loved the narration of the book! It was brilliant. Till the end, I thought the narrator was Tyson himself, for the voice betrayed the same baritone and clarity, but I was totally surprised when I heard it was Dion Graham! Wow, Dion Graham did a phenomenal job narrating the book. He captured the enthusiasm, the sarcasm, the wit, the humor, the excitement, the sophistication, the emotions, and the knowledge of the author. The narration made the book so many more times entertaining and engaging. One can just listen to the excellent voice and tune out everything else - which is what I did every time the 2 hour threshold hit!

Well, to summarize, this is a wonderful collection of essays that is sure to appeal to anyone who is interested in the basics of Astrophysics and the debates surrounding the concepts. Experts might enjoy Tyson’s way of elucidating the concepts, and of course, his wit and humor.