Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Once upon a time . . .

. . . children's fiction consisted of tales of faries, elves, brownies and well behaved little boys and girls who got rewarded with goodies and treats. They had all sorts of fun and adventures, along with their friendly unhuman friends - they were courageous anmd truthful (in most of the cases) and saved the world - like the heroes that they were.

Sounds a lot like the collected works of Enid Blyton, doesn't it?

And then there was Roald Dahl, I suppose, at some level, it was his work that made a little-bit of the dark side acceptable in literature for children. I suppose that has now reached a certain level of fruition with the best selling works of avada kedavra and other interesting adventures such as those of Percy Jackson and his Olympic escapades. (Yes, literature for kids is something I read and enjoy for somewhat similar reasons as I enjoy watching Tom and Jerry cartoons!!)

When I first read the immortal works of J K Rowling, a little after she started Rowling in money . . ., (yeah bad pun, I know, but I could not resist that one . . ), I noticed certain parallels between her works and those of other fictioners who had consumed much ink before her. I remember thinking, when I first read "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone"", that it felt like a cocktail of Enid Blyton's bedtime fairy tales, the Addam's Family chronicles and the big daddy of the fantasy genre - Tolkein's Lord of the Rings.

And yes, I am a big fan of LotR, I can't help intoning in deep slow tones -
Ash nazg durbatulûk, ash nazg gimbatul,Ash nazg thrakatulûk agh burzum-ishi krimpatul.

I cannot but feel a sense of awe and respect at Tolkein's creative genius. And traces of Sauron are unmistakable in Voldemort.

The horcruxes though are interesting - as a kid I recollect hearing tales where wicked wizards or ogres hide their 'life'in some other object so that they are unkillable by conventional means, so the concerned Prince Charming has to deploy unconventional tactics to rescue the distressing damsels.

The parallels between the burden Harry and his friends experience when wearing the locket horcrux, and the burden of the Ring bearer are also unmistakable. A pity poor Frodo (or more likely the practical minded Samwise) did not think of sticking a Basilisk fang into the One Ring instead of trudging all the way to Mount Doom!!

Anyway, I will now conclude this meaningless rambling deconstrution, and resume my routine vacation programming!!

Cheers all!!

Sunday, August 07, 2011

And the Bankers lived happily ever after . . .

No, this is not a Wall Street saga of government bailouts and astronomical bonuses. It is a dull review of a work of fiction.

Ravi Subramanian
Category: Fiction
Number of pages: 264
Published in: 05/01/2007
Available in: Paperbound
ISBN_PB: 9788129111470
Perhaps the title should have been "And the Bankers lived happily ever after". Perhaps the title derives from the Indian proclivity for apotheosis of the saintly and honest and the virtuous protagonist is the 'God' referred to in the title. Apart from this tenuous rationale the narrative does not connect with the title.
As such the plot is fairly common place, and a similar tale could have been told in the setting of any multi-national corporation. Why banking?
Then again, where as the narrative is well paced, the characterisation is weak. A more skilled novelist might have been able to make the characters more true to life. As such they lack depth and complexity. The polarisation of the two main protagonists as paragons of virtue and weakness respectively is too simplistically black and white. So where as the basic idea of the novel has potential, the way it has developed doesn't do it justice. In the hands of a Jeffrey Archer or a Sidney Sheldon - better still a Jhumpa Lahiri or a Vikram Sheth - this novel could have been memorable work of modern fiction, perhaps even a master-piece.
Yet for a first novel and from the pen of one who is not a professional writer - this could have been worse. In fact, I see in it the seeds of a fairly decent Bollywood flick! Ram Gopal Verma, Madhur Bhandarkar, Ashutosh Gowarikar - are you people listening?

Sunday, May 08, 2011

On what ‘marriage’ is and whether it can be ‘gay’

Much debate, often fiery,  on “gay marriage” is being waged on various fronts – in courts, the media and of course on the ubiquitous ‘internet’. It is a surprisingly emotive issue for parties on either side of the debate and for many the very concept of marriage is at stake – and that is indeed a very grave matter. Personally, my views on the matter have tended to be ambivalent. However a dispassionate un-emotive analysis of the issue and its wider implications are essential before any reasoned stand can be arrived at. And one of the most useful techniques of doing so is to touch base with the first principles – what is a marriage – what is the purpose of a marriage? One can then look to conceptualise what a ‘gay marriage’ would constitute – and try to answer how it would differ from a ‘traditional marriage’, and whether a ‘gay marriage’ can serve and enhance, or at least, not impede, any useful purpose that ‘traditional marriage’ serves.

So then to start – what is a marriage?

The description as provided by the Encyclopaedia Britannica is quoted in the following paragraph. I have underlined some of the key attributes which need to be looked at closely. Highlighted in red is the qualifier which we are trying to examine. The description also enumerates some of the basic functions of marriage which will be useful for our evaluation.

“a legally and socially sanctioned union, usually between a man and a woman, that is regulated by laws, rules, customs, beliefs, and attitudes that prescribe the rights and duties of the partners and accords status to their offspring (if any). The universality of marriage within different societies and cultures is attributed to the many basic social and personal functions for which it provides structure, such as sexual gratification and regulation, division of labour between the sexes, economic production and consumption, and satisfaction of personal needs for affection, status, and companionship; perhaps its strongest function concerns procreation, the care of children and their education and socialization, and regulation of lines of descent.”

marriage." Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopaedia Britannica Ultimate Reference Suite.  Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica, 2010.

To look at the attributes of marriage then.

It is a legally and socially sanctioned union –  In most modern jurisdictions, marriage has definite legal articulation as a consensual ‘contract’ between two adult individuals which imparts them certain legal rights with regards to each other and with regards to their off-spring. Typically the marriage contract is can only be dissolved through a legal procedure – divorce. The legal sanction of marriage crucially extends into a legal basis for inheritance – for the partners as well as for their off-spring. The social sanction for marriage is wider in scope. Traditionally in human communities where ‘family’ has been the basic unit – a marriage constitutes the creation of a new family unit as well as an extension of the existing extended family unit. Often the social sanction of a marriage derives from the kinship ties within and without the extended family. The legal and social elements than translate into regulations and prescriptions.

  1. regulated by laws, rules, customs, beliefs and attitudes – the contractual nature of marriage is touched upon above. The rules, customs, beliefs and attitudes are spectacularly diverse – but often the absolute core consists of rules concerning incest taboo. Then there are rules concerning endogamy – the social, economic and / or ethnic ‘in-group’ within which it is ‘permissible’ to marry, and exogamy – the marrying outside a specified group – often a kinship group, and thus in many ways an extension of the incest taboo. Attitudes of course are often driven by social and cultural expectations – but at individual levels can be surprisingly subtle and mutable.
  2. prescribe the rights and duties of the partners and accords status to their offspring – the rights and duties of the partners are often extra-legal and pre-legal in the sense that they been in force and in practice before formal legal frameworks evolved or were legislated. As a matter of fact some of the core ‘rights and duties’ of the partners and the ‘status’ accorded to off-spring are out-right pre-historic – pre-dating the advent of civilisation.

This pre-historic attribute if often left out of definitions of marriage, but that may be on account of the singular arrogance of our species in trying to place itself at the pinnacle of the phylogenetic scheme of which we are a part. Marriage after all is at its core pair-bonding – a partnership between a mating couple that lasts at least through one mating season, serving primarily in the cooperative rearing of young. In humans it is observed to, and as recorded in literate communities, has been known to, last a life-time.

The neuro-harmonal, and hence ultimately genetic, basis of pair-bonding has been indicated in several studies; which seem to hint at three kinds or levels of ‘love’ that might be involved in pair-bonding.

  1. lust or sexual passion (independent of personality of a partner) – the most basic and observable in the mating behaviour of many non human animals as well
  2. romance or limerence (dependent upon a particular personality), – tending to short term attachment (few months to few years), and usually also has a strong element of sexual desire (lust or sexual passion)
  3. attachment (pair-bonding over extended time) – tending to long term, even life-long attachment; often seen to commence as limerence,

Limerence tends to be more common amongst adolescents and young adults as compared to mature adults – there may also be a gender difference with men being more likely to enter into short term pair-bonds as compared to women. This is significant when we consider that the other large terrestrial primates – the gorillas and chimpanzees – do not form pair bonds and the dominant male in the troupe tends to monopolise coitus with ovulating females. These great apes also display much higher levels of sexual dimorphism.

However mate selection by the human female seems to value not just dominance and aggressiveness in males, but the proclivity to form longer term attachments – which implies much higher levels of participation in parental care and child-rearing (protection and nourishment) – seems to have been positively selected for. Two interesting clues seem to reinforce this conclusion – the prevalence of male-child bonding (affection) which is largely absent in the other great apes is one. The other is the quirk of hidden ovulation in the human female – which has the consequence of necessitating more frequent coitus to achieve insemination. This is significant because coitus is known to stimulate activity in the dopamine system and oxytocin and arginine vasopressin systems – which reinforce mate preference (preference accorded to the mate over other males/females); hidden ovulation could therefore significantly serve to encourage pair-bonding.

As such, long term pair-bonding as outlined above seems to have the distinct characteristics of the male-female union described as marriage in humans. But this type of human pair bonding, with the associated man-child bonding has the ancillary effect of the father knowing the identity of his child and the child knowing the relatives of its father. Pair-bonding in context of the ‘social group’ of humans leads to the identification and establishment of kin-ship ties. From which derives the status of the off-spring and promotes kin selection. The distinctly social attributes and functions of ‘marriage’ start to emerge from mate selection and pair-bonding.

What then are we to make of the ‘gay marriage’?

Let us begin with pair-bonding. As humans, gays should ordinarily be quite capable of forging long term pair-bonds. The increased tendency amongst human males to engage in short-term (limerence) pair-bonds may tend to make marriages amongst gay men less durable – but then increasingly ‘durability’ is no longer a commonly observed attribute of traditional marriages either. Furthermore, the if legal sanction were to be provided to gay men to ‘marry’ and start a ‘family’ through adoption – the man-child bond, and the mate-preference induced by frequent coitus afforded by the marital alcove could have a salubrious effect on the durability of such a union. Legalising gay-marriage then may dampen promiscuity amongst gay men, which in turn will have its own benefits in terms of potentially lesser incidence of sexually transmitted diseases.

Legal sanction for gay marriages should also be relatively straightforward to establish – legal templates are already evolved to govern traditional marriages and to a large extent the same can be employed. Contractual obligations around marriage, the rights and responsibilities of the gay spouses, nuptial agreements, joint ownership of property, inheritance and right of ‘survivor’ benefits in the event of bereavement, status and inheritance for any adopted children, and tricky as it may seem, gay divorce and alimony-palimony laws, can all be framed with only slight modification to those applicable for traditional marriages.

It is when we start talking about social sanction for gay marriages – with all the trappings of custom, tradition, religion, beliefs and attitudes – that things become rather tricky. Social recognition for gay marriages has to evolve and emerge gradually – it can neither be legislated nor brought about by fiat. Questions such as – will a gay couple be welcomed to a neighbourhood, will they be accepted in the PTA at the schools of their adoptive children, can a lesbian take her partner along for a with-spouses party at work (well she can, but will she and her spouse be welcome and accepted), will a family be comfortable leaving their young boys in the care of a gay teenaged baby-sitter (yes, paedophilia is not known to correlate highly with gayness, but we are talking feelings not fact here), the answers to all these questions will wary greatly from person to person and situation to situation. And yet, I think (though I have no data to establish it), for a while at least, even in some of the most ‘liberal’ societies, the answers to these questions will be distinctly more uncomfortable for gay couples than for traditional couples. May be, at differential rates in different societies, the critical mass amongst the general population will give the ‘liberal’ answer to the above questions – but till such time, gay marriages cannot be said to be socially sanctioned, for whatever that is worth.

Religion, tradition, custom and culture – deeply intertwined as they all tend to be – will probably be the most formidable obstacle; these are the most difficult to change. My own religious tradition – the Hindu family of religious traditions – are so deeply enmeshed in ritual, tradition, custom and culture, I find it impossible to visualise a gay Hindu marriage. What mantras should the priest chant when consecrating it? Which of the two ‘fathers-in-laws’ will perform the gift of the bride (kānya-dān)? Will acquiring a gay ‘bride’ afford the gay Hindu the right of yajna? Who amongst the gay couple will perform the role of the ‘lady of the house’ and place yoghurt on the palm of the deity prior to immersion – visarjan? Will the gay husband wear the double sacred-thread while the gay wife wears none? Who amongst the gay couple will anoint his husband’s fore-head with vermillion and perform ārti on Diwāli? Who amongst the gay couple will place the nose-gay and gold ring he is wearing for Lakshmi Pooja? Trivial and anachronistic these questions will seem to many – yet they are not irrelevant because they are illustrative of the gap that needs to be bridged; that may perhaps never be bridged.

In terms of the functions of marriage, it is fairly straightforward to check which ones are discharged effectively by a ‘gay marriage’

  1. sexual gratification – I expect a gay marriage should ordinarily be able to secure this for the persons concerned
  2. regulation, division of labour between the sexes – this can be tricky, where in traditional marriage the woman tends to be the nurturer and care giver and in many societies the home maker while the man is the protector and in many societies the sole bread-winner; however these distinctions are increasingly blurred in most ‘modern’ marriages, which then becomes an easier target for gay marriages to achieve
  3. economic production and consumption – difficult to visualise how a gay marriage would differ from a traditional one on this matter – except perhaps to the extent 2 above is not clarified
  4. satisfaction of personal needs for affection, status, and companionship; – again like 1 above, gay marriages should probably achieve this at least as well as traditional ones
  5. procreation, – this then is the clearest short coming, yes a gay couple can adopt, but unlike a traditional marriage, a gay marriage, at least presently cannot procreate a meotically recombined offspring with a genome composed entirely of two random halves of its parents genomes
  6. the care of children and their education and socialization, – unclear how this can be evaluated, clearly the mother-child bond triggered by the oxytocin rush induced by a suckling infant will probably be difficult for gay men to replicate, less so for a lesbian couple perhaps. However the existence of relatively strong and as compared to other terrestrial primates a far more nurturing father-child bond, coupled with the significant neuro-plasticity of the neo-cortex should enable a gay couple to care for, educate and socialise their children if they are so resolved
  7. regulation of lines of descent – inheritance for adopted children should be relatively straightforward, complications could arise if the property is ancestral and the inheritance is challenged by kin (though the same can happen in traditional marriages as well);  as far as acceptance of any adoptive offspring into kinship ties with the extended families of the gay couple is concerned, that would remain a factor of whether the gay couple were able to maintain those kinship ties themselves. In any case, with increased incidence of nuclear families, and corresponding rise of extra-familial social support networks would tend to significantly reduce the need for kinship ties anyway

To sum up, gay marriages seem to display some of the key attributes and can probably discharge many of the functions to extents comparable with traditional marriage. Some of the significant attribute gaps being the ambivalence of social sanction, and the near total absence of religious, ritual, and custom or tradition based framework governing gay marriages. In terms of functions – the inability of gay marriages to constitute a procreative union and the potential concerns around, kinship ties, and unchallenged inheritance for the off-spring are the two notable gaps.

Consequently, it may seem appropriate, at this stage for nation-states with suitably ‘liberal’ polities to enact full legal equivalence of ‘gay marriage’. This should pave the way for increased social acceptance of the institution gradually.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Book Summary: Your Brain at Work – Part 1

By David Rock

HarperCollins Publishers

(The summary is mine based on excerpts, the graphics are not from the book).

Making decisions and solving problems relies heavily on a region of the brain called the prefrontal cortex. This is the last major region of the brain to develop during human evolution and occupies a mere 4% to 5% of the total volume of the brain. The prefrontal cortex holds the contents of our minds at any one point; this is where we hold thoughts that are not being generated from external sources or from our sense organs.


Five functions make up the majority of conscious thought, namely:

1. understanding – holding thoughts / concepts in attention long enough to see how they connect to other thoughts and concepts

2. decision – where we hold two concepts / thoughts in our attention, compare them to one another and make a value judgment or choice between them

3. recollection – calling to attention thoughts / concepts from long term memory

4. memorization – to hold a thought / concept in attention long enough for it to get lodged in the long term memory

5. inhibiting – keeping certain thoughts / concepts from intruding into ones attention


Conscious mental activity involving a combination of one or more of the above 5 is extremely resource intensive and consumes metabolic resources at very high rates. This places limitations on the use of the prefrontal cortex – it is energy intensive and hence subject to fatigue. Prioritizing the use of this ‘thought engine’ is therefore very important. However, ‘prioritizing’ itself is a very resource intensive use of the prefrontal cortex because it involves imagining and moving around concepts of which we have no direct experience – since it deals with mental activities to be done at some point in the future. Also prioritizing makes use all the above 5 brain functions – understanding new ideas – tasks and projects, making decisions, recollecting, memorizing and inhibiting all at once! Prioritizing work in a knowledge economy involving conceptual projects can be very mentally taxing.

A few suggestions to making this more efficient and less taxing;

1. Using visuals: The visual cortex is activated when we see actual pictures or use metaphors or stories – generate a picture in the mind’s eye. Visuals are rich in information and yet relatively easier for our brains to manipulate

2. Writing: Getting some key concepts / information out of our heads and on to paper

3. Delegation

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Saturday, January 29, 2011

Of blogs and posts

There was a time when many things were blog-worthy. New concepts and ideas, strongly held opinions that had to be expressed in response to some bit of news, replies to questions, rejoinders to criticisms, lengthy essays and diatribes, and such like reasons for the wordsmith within to give expression to his craft. Often, as one went about ones day, an interesting column in the newspaper, a thought provoking passage in a book read while commuting, a conversation with a colleague over lunch, or even something novel one spotted in the street, would trigger the thought – “I must blog this!”

Not much has changed in the stimuli feeding into the cauliflower, newspapers and periodicals are still read (may be heard in some cases), books are purchased and read, and the work days is filled with myriad conversations with colleagues, the city streets are as colourful as ever – and still not much seems to inspire the urge to furiously hammer away ate the keyboard and shoot off a blog entry. And I am not entirely sure I can place my finger on the reason. Yes, insufficient availability of time is a factor – nevertheless it should be possible to squeeze out the time on weekends and may be even some weekdays if it comes to that. But it doesn’t. Things don’t seem as blog-worthy as they did some years ago.

One factor – which I suspect plays a bigger role than time – is that blogs increasingly seem like monologues. Social networking and such avenues have weaned away many millions of eyeballs from blogs. Even serious readers have less time for blogs as they are busy updating what’s on their mind and reading what’s on the mind of their friends. Comments and discussions that arose in response to blog posts are now generally far less lively than they were before. and this is important – discussing ideas tends to generate greater mental focus on the themes and concepts involved, which in turn helps generate more ideas. Merely thinking about ideas by oneself may not be as fecund a process. This is best observed in the work-place. Large meetings tend to be disorganised and confused when it comes to ideas – but smaller focus groups of 3-5 competent individuals are often able to think of innovative solutions an ways forward to workplace problems they seek to resolve. In any case, the point is, the weakening of meaningful and sustained discussions over ideas stems the process of generating new ideas and hence new blog posts. – the process of ideation slows and blogging becomes a less interesting and hence far less frequent pursuit. Unless of course, the blog is used not as a platform to share and review ideas and theories, but a listening wall where one unburdens ones mind transforming the blog into a diary or such-like personal chronicle.

I think this is the speed breaker that Cynical Ruminations has hit. Where as Dharmaraja’s Ashram is practically shut down.