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Philosophy with an Absurd Twist: Reflections on Existential Issues

Last Build Date: Fri, 16 Mar 2018 11:23:28 +0000


The Toxic Narratives of Slavery and Gun Ownership in the United States

Sun, 04 Mar 2018 19:04:00 +0000

Narratives are not only the stories we tell ourselves and others, but they also comprise stories that are built and construed around the existence and development of countries and nations. Narratives are powerful themes that often define us and highlight our relationship with others, including our identification with our respective cultures and nationalities.As we are continuously surrounded and, in some cases, even bombarded with certain narrative strains and trends, we come to not only accept and embrace them but often identify with them without thinking. This can be problematic in various instances.Narratives take place in various forms and dimensions and have different effects on its proponents and recipients, but I shall focus or limit my views here merely on the nation known as the United States. Since the citizens in the early days of this nation had to contend with constant fear of their safety, certain strains of narratives took hold and cast a spell on them and led them down a path quite different from citizens of other nations.Historically, the United States had to fend off its territories and would fight against its original inhabitants, the indigenous people. In such cases, there loomed the constant threat of potential attacks from Red Indians onto the newly established settlements.Furthermore, to have, refine and even redefine their own national identity and independence, the settlers also had to fight against British rule through the American revolution and hence create their own separate and distinguishable identity. This double threat of original inhabitants and controlling colonizers made it important for the settlers to ensure not only that their freedom was guaranteed and intact but also to propagate the ability to protect themselves against any kinds of threats to their lives and ideology.In fact, to accept and face and deal with the brutality of the Wild West, there were two narratives that needed to be reinforced as a nation to bind and unite its citizens. The first one I simply call the cowboy mentality. In fact, this is essentially an Us versus Them approach to daily life. Yet beneath this approach lies the juxtaposition and the implicit ideology of good versus evil. Put differently, the settlers used morality as a means to justify the usurpation of the land and the slaying of the indigenous people. Since the pioneers regarded themselves as more civilized and, ipso facto, morally superior, they believed that their actions were right and guided and approved by divine forces. Politically, this ideology has also continued and is known as the manifest destiny of the United States that - at least in the eyes of its own citizens - makes even objectionable and questionable actions morally right. The cowboys then are regarded as good and pure and as upholders of the faith, whereas others – be they Indians, communists or terrorists - were assigned indiscriminately to the THEM bulk, that is, they were immediately and automatically stapled as threats to their ideology and, by extension, the American way of life. This is also the moral backbone and justification for the fact that the United States often acts as a police state and takes the liberty to interfere globally while aiming to ensure that their own needs and interests are met. This would also explain the penchant for celebrities and presidents who espouse such sweeping views, be it John Wayne or President Ronald Reagan (an ex-actor who played cowboys as well), both seen as prototypes of American stamina or even the current sitting president Donald Trump who uses rhetoric of harsh force and retaliation mirroring the language of Gung-ho cowboys.Yet the narrative of moral superiority has led to various dangerous and morally ambiguous interpretations, among them the existence and practice of slavery. This is due to a misconceived and downright racist view of African people, which allowed slavery not only to exist in the first place but to actually thrive and flourish in the United States; in fact, worse, slavery endured ev[...]

Why I Heart Logotherapy: Thoughts on Viktor Frankl's Book and Theory

Sun, 07 Jan 2018 16:31:00 +0000

Although I have been intrigued by psychology for various years and have studied it academically, it was only about three years ago when I first encountered logotherapy. Yet Viktor Frankl’s theory turns out to be the most fascinating and effective form of therapy.Hearing Alfried Längle, the main voice and spokesperson of current logotherapy practice, talk about his views on various topics and issues has been both a constant source of pleasure as well as a learning experience for me. I was so impressed by his lectures that I finally decided to read the quintessential work Man’s Search for Meaning by the founder of logotherapy Viktor E. Frankl. Logotherapy, as the English title of the book underscores, is about finding personal meaning in one’s life. This form of therapy is surprisingly open-minded and open-ended as it is not limited or restricted by specific dogma. There are no pre-conceived sets of meaning and no right answers. While psychoanalysis as a form of depth psychology is focused on digging up the past to make sense of the present and thereby manages to shed light upon the present states and formation of neurosis, logotherapy is more interested in ensuring that the person finds meaning in their lives both in the present and beyond. As Frankl himself states, this can be achieved via three different means: a) One can find meaning and vocation by a work or by doing a deed. This may be having a job that fulfills our sense of mission in life or be a spokesperson or activist regarding an issue that is close to our heart.b) One can experience something or encounter someone that has deep meaning to the individual. This can be profound experiences ranging from religious beliefs and convictions to falling in love with someone special and unique. It can also be having and being devoted to a family one loves and supports with all one’s heart.  c) One can find meaning by one’s attitude towards unavoidable suffering. In this case, one encounters suffering but instead of resigning and giving up or escaping it through different protective mechanisms, such as substance abuse or avoidance, one decides to face the suffering head-on. Now of course, Frankl makes it clear that one should not seek out suffering per se since that would be merely masochistic. But if one is faced with intense suffering, one should retain personal responsibility and not lose sight of one’s freedom and will in the process.Considering Frankl’s own harrowing and unspeakable personal suffering as a prisoner at concentration camps and his loss of various friends and family members, all of which is detailed in the first half of the book, this viewpoint becomes much more poignant and relevant. Frankl himself claims that even in the most abject and horrendous of conditions, one has control over one’s attitude towards the situation. There are parts of our lives we cannot control. Life or fate may deal us bad cards, but whatever this may be, one needs to face those challenges directly and not let them distort or affect one’s personal responsibility and freedom of choice.This may sound quite stoic in nature, but I think he takes it a step further though. When Frankl was facing the worst of human nature, he claimed that many gave up and either committed suicide or allowed their bodies and minds be ravaged by disease and death. There were far too many who were not given a choice at all as they were killed, but even then, there was a manner of facing their imminent deaths that would make them beyond heroic as they “entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord’s Prayer or the Shema Yisrael” on their lips. In other words, although by all accounts and purposes, their death would seem futile and in vain, some would still find a sense of meaning in their unfortunate lives and their ensuing deaths.As I was reading Frankl’s account, I was reminded of what Nelson Mandela had once said regarding his sense of freedom. Mandela claimed that although they could physically lock him up and even torture him, there was a p[...]

Psychomagic or How Alejandro Jodorowsky Healed my Life

Mon, 01 Jan 2018 00:04:00 +0000

Here’s something I surely did not expect to happen: the director of El Topo and The Holy Mountain and the would-be director of a mind-blowing Duneadaptation Alejandro Jodorowsky would help me heal my life. Now I do not claim to say that he changed my mind or got me to see the light singlehandedly (there were various other conscious and unconscious life-long processes at work) but I can firmly state that it is with his help that all the myriad pieces have finally come together and clicked so-to-speak.But to provide much-needed context, let us rewind to the dawn of this year. 2017 is a year I sometimes jokingly but half-earnestly call a veritable crapfest. It ranks high among one of my most uncomfortable years to date. I am not (only) talking about the world at its current state with all its political turmoil constantly and incessantly swirling around us but more about my own mini-world, the micro-fabric of my existence, also known as my personal life. To put it bluntly, it was not good (but of course it goes without saying that it could have been worse). My year began with gum / teeth pain on two separate locations of my mouth, both of which had become infected and had to be extracted, as a result. It is painful to lose one’s teeth; as a teenager I had to endure numerous extractions among which there were four adult teeth that needed to be sacrificed in order to make room for the other ones; yet now, there appeared two other much more visible gaps in my mouth (but thank God they are on the less noticeable back-row sections).It was during the same time perhaps caused by my infection or perhaps even being the very causeof my infection that my blood sugar skyrocketed making me prediabetic / diabetic since then (the marking line between the two I find rather confusing). That on its own would have been enough to make my hair stand on end but add to that problems in the form of unjust treatment at work, all of which culminated in my loss of extended health benefits (ironically when I needed them most).This dangerous cocktail sent both physical and mental health down the drain. This all-out stress was hard to bear, and my sleep took a temporary dive; there were days where I had to function on a few hours of sleep and in some extreme cases with no sleep at all! It was with immense discipline, patience and stamina that I managed to get through my tasks successfully despite all the storms around me both within and without. I hung in there like a lost and dazed kitten praying and yearning for better times.It was the advice of the wise Tarot (which I have been duly and diligently using and practicing for almost three decades now) that gave me strength through these somber and anxiety-inducing days as I was promised better times ahead; the cards spoke of a time where I would be better able to handle my stressors and get (more or less) regular sleep. They also told me that I would be vindicated and that with patience I would be able to right the wrongs that had occurred to me at work and would, as a result, achieve a peaceful mind.This did indeed happen later this year and helped me to overcome and clear the hurdles and the harmful gossip that had accumulated over time. It was a profound sigh of relief. I felt much better overall but had also made the conscious decision and promise to take my health more seriously and more firmly into my own hands.I started to portion my meals, walk almost daily for close to an hour, exercise in the form of dance (don’t ask) and over the past few months I managed to shed some five kilos. It is a drop in the ocean, but it is at least something to hold onto and to continue over the next foreseeable future. On one of my semi-idle days (which was rare but I had an unexpected break between two classes) I ventured into the main municipal library and browsed through the French section. I was looking for the essays of Michel de Montaigne, some of them I had studied during my grad years with great interest and I felt that they could help me to im[...]

An Evening and Master Class with Atom Egoyan

Sat, 11 Nov 2017 23:00:00 +0000

Most unfortunately, I could not attend the annual Quinn Memorial lecture at UBC this year! The main reason was problems with scheduling as I would have had to cancel my classes in addition to finding a suitable substitute and all this would have been even more work than simply going to work. My apologies for that and hopefully I can re-arrange my commitments so that I can attend, ruminate and blog about this wonderful event come next year.In lieu of this, I had the opportunity to attend another UBC event, the Master Class with renowned Canadian film director Atom Egoyan. When I first received the email of the upcoming talk, I did not hesitate and bought a ticket immediately. I marked the day on our kitchen calendar many days in advance. I could not believe that I would not only be in the same room with this esteemed director but also perhaps be given the chance to ask a question, shake his hand and get a selfie and / or an autograph. The latter I realize is more or less passé these days, a circumstantial relic of the non-technological past.As it turned out, I arrived early that evening. This allowed me to get a rather good seat; yet to my slight dismay, the first and half of the second row were already reserved. As this was a special opportunity for film grad students to see and meet the iconic Canadian film-maker, they were immediately and conveniently assigned the best seats of the house, so-to-speak. Notwithstanding, my seat was not too bad as the (hastily taken) photo above can demonstrate for our intents and purposes here.The evening began with a couple of (redundant?) speeches and a showcase of the centennial celebration of UBC with a brief video of some sorts. My focus throughout was on the man sitting in front of me who was close enough to be poked. Yes, this actually crossed my mind! I considered it something one could cross off one’s eternal bucket list, namely to poke a Canadian legend. Believe me, at one point I did lean forward with my hand still idly lying beside me. What would be the worst that could happen to me? I would sincerely apologize to him and explain the reason for my poke. Depending on his level of humility and sense of humor, he might even smile or perhaps use it as an anecdote at another of his upcoming talks. I would be indelibly entwined in his memory as the man who poked him at UBC. Now why would I go to such length and effort of poking Atom Egoyan? Let me tell you that he is among my Top 40 directors of all time. It may not sound like much, but you should see the list of these world-renowned directors. Exotica (1994) was my introduction to his oeuvre and what an introduction it was indeed! That movie blew me away and I would say it is tied with Arcand’s Jesus of Montréal (1989) for best Canadian movie I have ever seen!Furthermore, I quite enjoyed his Adjuster (1991), a film that was decidedly different from other types of films I had seen. Felicia’s Journey (1999) impressed me as well but not so much due to its erratic and rushed ending (that is, if memory serves me right) and his most celebrated film to date The Sweet Hereafter (1997) failed to impress me much. Ever since then, for one reason or another, his more recent movies fell under the radar; in addition, I had read movie critics feeling let down by this undoubtedly talented director. Yet my most recent film of his was Remember (2015) with Christopher Plummer, a film that was expertly made but proved to be problematic on different levels. One day I shall put my thoughts on it in writing in the form of a movie review.Yet back to the evening and sorry for the diversion. To make a long story short, I did not poke. He was then (finally!) invited to the podium and delivered his speech. It started off on a notably false note for me. He alluded to the sexual allegations that are haunting Hollywood these days and that he felt disgusted about it. Of course, I completely agreed with him but unfortunately, there seemed to be no connection or relation with[...]

Existential Burden: On Guilt and Innocence in The Fall by Albert Camus

Tue, 07 Nov 2017 16:15:00 +0000

In the words of his fellow French philosopher (and often rival) Jean-Paul Sartre, the novel The Fall (1956) by Albert Camus is "perhaps the most beautiful and the least understood" of his works. I love the cautionary disclaimer of “perhaps” thrown in there for good measure because Sartre at the time was still at odds with his one-time friend who had tragically died in a car accident. Notwithstanding, the other parts of the sentence certainly ring true as The Fall is not as read nor hotly discussed and debated as opposed to the more known and celebrated works of Albert Camus, such as The Stranger (1942) or The Myth of Sisyphus (1942).In my view, The Fall is not his best novel; that honour I would bestow upon the exemplary The Plague (1947), but I found the ideas expressed in his last work of fiction to be of great interest and relevance for existential philosophy. There are many themes that are dealt with in the form of dramatic monologues by Jean-Baptiste Clamence, a self-proclaimed judge-penitent who has fallen from grace. Once a reputable lawyer who (supposedly) used to help the poor and widowed, he ends up sick and lonely in an apartment in Amsterdam.  When Clamence started off helping widows and orphans, he was highly respected by his peers and society in general. However, he did not lead an authentic life. He may have helped the blind cross the street and shown many other good deeds in front of others, but deep inside he had done so only for attention and acknowledgement. His actions were self-interested and, worse, they hardly reflected his true inner disposition and feelings, which in fact tended towards its opposite direction, ranging from disinterest to even disgust of his fellow beings.One night, while walking down the streets of Paris, he notices a young distraught girl by the Seine. He pays her no notice. She jumps and cries for help but instead of coming to her rescue, he quickens his steps and deafens his ears; he even refuses to read about her fate the next day in the papers. Yet this event remains in his memory and literally resurfaces a number of times in the novel. The most persistent haunt is an indiscriminate laugh (the derisory voice of conscience) that he hears on various occasions, which he feels is aimed at him. In such a way, he carries with him his share of guilt over his refusal to act and potentially save the girl’s life.Actions are an important part of existential philosophy; they are meant to propel us towards engaging with life in a chaotic and desolate world. After the indelible horrors of World War II, people had lost faith in traditional forms and pillars of meaning, such as God and religion, while humanity, warts and all, had come into sharper focus. Valuable and veritable action existed in helping others and it was considered a manner of alleviating suffering and injustice both of which abounded in the world around us.  Moreover, actions served as standards of judging and evaluating a life; a good and decent person was not one that merely prayed to the heavens or asked God for forgiveness, but one who physically made the world a better place. In that sense, morality should be expressed in tangible forms and not serve as mere thoughts or an empty mouthpiece; put differently, ideology ought to be enmeshed with actions.Essentially, we are free but that comes with a price. We need to take responsibility for our deeds and we will be judged by others as well as judge ourselves in the process. The problem is that we all carry guilt with us and none of us are innocent, according to Camus. The fact that the world cannot give us pre-packaged bits of truth and meaning but that we have to figure it all out for ourselves makes the whole endeavor more difficult and cumbersome.That is the reason, why Clamence is a judge-penitent. He judges both himself and others, while he repents his own actions and lack thereof. The other issue that complicates matters is that peop[...]

Philosophically Speaking: An Interview with Amy Leask

Fri, 25 Aug 2017 01:40:00 +0000

Philosophy – you can’t live without it and, in fact, you shouldn’t! If life is bread, then philosophy is your butter. To spread (!) this metaphor a little more, the butter melts and unites with the bread and they transform into one indistinguishable oily substance. Put differently, I think philosophy is deeply entwined with life, and vice versa. When teaching philosophy, my first question is whether philosophy is relevant to life. It is, of course, a rhetorical question but since my students might be inclined to mischievously say no, I have added the subsequent appeal: Please say Yes! The follow-up question is to explain how or in what ways, philosophy is relevant to life. I have thought to commence a series of interviews on the very topic of philosophy. In fact, I have had the pleasure to pose some philosophical questions to Amy Leask, who is, among many other things, a philosopher, writer and interactive media producer. What I find most impressive about her is not only her passion for philosophy but also the desire to apply it to life and to communicate this to everyone. She teaches children, young adults, parents and educators about the value and importance of philosophy.In fact, one of the problems with philosophy is that it is often misunderstood or is simply equated with convoluted academic thinking. Yet philosophy has and should have its footprints plastered on our daily life as it is a critical skill for survival and success. It is something everyone can benefit from and it can be applied to many different fields, including film, music, literature, and politics. In order to appreciate the breadth and depth of philosophy alongside its more playful aspects, here is Amy Leask’s interview in full:1. What do you do for a living? Why?I’m a children’s interactive media producer. I create eBooks, cartoons, apps and games that teach philosophical questions and critical thinking to kids, so “Why” is my bread and butter. Before I got into this space, I spent over a decade teaching young adults philosophy, and was concerned that learners weren’t learning to argue, or reason their way through information, both of which are vital skills. It seemed like they couldn’t disagree with each other without getting angry, and there were so many amazing questions they’d never thought to ask. My present work allows me to explore different media as a writer, which is challenging and wonderful. There’s really never been just one kind of thinker, and I love coming up with new ways to reach a diverse audience. I love the community of creators I get to work with, I love our audience of precocious, funny kids, and I love going to bed at night knowing that I’ve put something positive out there. 2. What three adjectives would you use to describe yourself?Curious, quirky and unrefined. I don’t think I could do what I do for a living if I didn’t have these qualities. 3. What’s something that has always amazed you as a child? Does it still amaze you?When I was little, I was blown away by words and how powerful they were. I marvelled at how big people could use them to do phenomenal things. If you choose your words correctly, you can make people laugh, or get enraged, or want to get up and change things. I don’t think I’ve ever outgrown that fascination. I still read things that blow my mind, and consider it an accomplishment to write or present something that sounds just right. When someone tells an amazing joke, I want to hug them. When someone utters the perfect insult, well, officially I’m offended, but secretly, I want to high five them for their craftsmanship. I can’t sleep after reading something truly inspiring. I find myself looking for evidence of language in other species too, and wonder if they get the same kick out their words as we do out of ours. 4. How would you personally define philosophy?When I was in first year philosophy, our professor described phil[...]

Kieslowski’s Dekalog: The Father of TV Miniseries

Fri, 18 Aug 2017 20:50:00 +0000

Some thirty years ago, the great Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski decided to make a TV series based on or rather inspired by the Ten Commandments. About a week ago, we decided to watch it in its entirety. Thankfully, my wife was willing to give this series a try and remained my patient screen companion throughout all this artsy binge-watching. The issue with my wife, however, was less related to art movies but more with the subject and content manner, the series being, at least nominally, related to religion, which she, for better or worse, does not have a very positive relationship with.If that is your only deterrent for staying away from this magnificent series, rest assured that it should not pose any impediment. Sure, the Vatican has applauded it but Kieslowski is not a religious fanatic, far from it. In fact, he is not didactic but presents us with moral dilemmas that will make us think about the subject matter. Yet in all of this, we, like his characters, appear to have free will to embrace and accept the ideas or not, and we are encouraged throughout to draw our own conclusions.  In fact, the series is rather loosely based on the Ten Commandments. Most of the times, the Biblical connection highlights some of the issues raised in the given episode, but at other times the link seems a bit far-fetched. Yet throughout, there is one thing that can definitely be agreed upon: The whole series bristles with creativity and makes us reflect on these religious and spiritual matters. In fact, there is so much thought and reflection crystallized and condensed into each episode that one ought to follow the advice of film critic Roger Ebert and watch only one episode at a time, then spend the rest of the night discussing it with friends.Almost all the episodes are filled with nostalgic and melancholic sentiments that are underscored with the beautiful haunting score by Kieslowski’s regular composer Zbiegniew Preisner, but the series opens on a decisively sad and tragic note. It is the first commandment of not having any gods before God. In this case, it is amplified to the human fallacy of trusting technology a little bit too much.The series was shot some thirty years ago where computers were the exception not the norm, so it is interesting how Kieslowski foreshadows and predicts the advent of and dependence on technology. At one point, the professor alludes to Artificial Intelligence and claims that at some point in time it will have its own likes and dislikes and hence be more and more similar - if not equivalent - to human beings. In the first episode, the computers are used not only to compute and offer predictions but they are also programmed to switch lights on and off and to turn on the water faucet. At a crucial point, the computer is used to calculate the thickness of ice and to decide whether it is safe to skate upon the nearby frozen lake. His ten-tear-old son Pawel wants to try out his new ice skates for the occasion.His father is adamantly, one might say even blindly, embracing technology at the expense of any kind of spirituality. His sister, Pawel’s aunt, however, is pious and wants to inculcate religion into her nephew, which the father despite his personal beliefs does not object to. The boy himself is curious about life and death and has started asking difficult questions. What happens when we die, Pawel asks his father. What will remain of us? His father’s responses seem limited to the boy’s understanding of the world, whereas his aunt offers answers to soothe his inquisitive soul.In the end, the calculations end up being wrong: the ice breaks and the boy drowns. The father rechecks his numbers and cannot understand how this could have happened. It can serve as a reminder that we cannot be certain of anything and that there is an indeterminate and mysterious variable in all our life’s undertakings. Call it a freak accident o[...]

Silence as the Absence of God’s Voice

Thu, 03 Aug 2017 17:33:00 +0000

What makes Scorsese’s movie Silence (2016) brilliant is not what it states but what it implies. Although many have hailed it as a testament to faith and by extension an appraisal of Christianity and its values, the film offers more questions than answers. If you approach it from different angles, you may spot troubling messages regarding faith and religion.The movie is set in feudal Japan where the government has decided to ban Christianity and it is persecuting Christian missionaries alongside many recently converted and faithful locals. Under the leadership of the Japanese Inquisitor, the Christian priests and their followers are given a chance to apostatize: If they stamp upon - and in other cases spit on - the image of Christ, they shall be spared. Various missionaries cannot do so and are ready to go through immense suffering and to sacrifice themselves as martyrs hence becoming pillars of the Christian faith. Others break down and reject their religion to continue living. When rumors hit the Vatican that the renowned head priest Ferreira has apostatized and publicly denied the Catholic Church, two of his idealistic disciples, two Jesuit priests reject this as mere gossip and hearsay and decide to head to the dangerous territory to find out for themselves and see it with their own eyes. If they can prove that this were untrue or even better that the priest had died for his faith, it would be a great boon for Christianity across the world. The opposite, however, would destabilize the strength and fortitude of the religion and plant seeds of doubt among its adherents. The Jesuit priests soon realize that their religion has many persecuted followers among the simple Japanese country people, many of whom are to ready to die for harboring these two priests. Eventually and it was merely matter of time, both priests are caught; one of them, Rodrigues ends up meeting his pale-faced mentor Ferreira who in a cruel ironic twist of faith encourages his pupil to apostatize as he has done. In fact, Ferreira has even acquired a Japanese name and identity and is known for publishing anti-Christian writings. The world of the young priest Rodrigues falls apart and he ends up rejecting his faith publicly. On the other hand, the other priest Garupe, who was stricter and sterner in his beliefs, dies in his attempt to save Japanese Christians.All this set up provides us then with an important array of thoughts and questions. First off, the most relevant one would be the problem of evil: how can God allow his followers to suffer such torment and never intervene on their behalf? Priests and Japanese Christians endure horrific methods and sequences of torture and abuse by the hands of the Japanese and it seems that throughout all of this, God guards His silence.In fact, the Jesuit priest Rodrigues claims he has not heard God’s voice since youth and complains why He has not made himself heard to his ardent worshiper. Doubts begin to fill his mind and it is only towards the end of the film where we appear to hear the voice of Jesus telling him that he was there with this priest all this time suffering by his side. At the end of the movie, the priest’s death is followed by Japanese funeral procedures but a close-up reveals him secretly clutching onto his cross.The ending can be interpreted as a reinforcement of faith and that despite lifelong suffering and continuous eroding doubt, the priest has never actually denied his faith. That is a valid reading; yet there is no certainty in this. We do not see him arrive at the Gates of Heaven, which for obvious reasons is avoided as it would reek of kitsch. In other words, we never know whether all his pain and suffering was worth it and that his was indeed the true religion.One of the indications here would be the title itself: Silence. This applies to an absence of not only sound but of God’s own existe[...]

Woody Allen’s Match Point: A Meditation on Chance and Luck

Mon, 17 Jul 2017 21:09:00 +0000

The opening sequence of Woody Allen’s Match Point sums up not only a crucial point about the game of tennis but serves also as a metaphor for life’s (seeming) coincidences. The tennis ball balances on the edge of the net and there are two potential options: either the ball falls back into the player’s court and the match is lost or it will creep over to the opponent’s court and mark a win. A whole match could be decided in the blink of a moment and at that point, expertise or experience take a backseat because it is all in the invisible hands of the tennis gods.This may seem haphazard but as an avid watcher of tennis matches in my youth I can vouch for the importance of the balancing act of the net. There are more than a handful of games that were decided by it. One of the most memorable ones was an early round series of the US Open between the unseeded but terrific Derrick Rostagno going up against the seasoned tennis champion Boris Becker. An upset was on the lips of commentators and spectators as the champ was facing a couple of match points against himself. As I recall it, Rostagno was about to hit the winning volley to end the game but, lo and behold, the ball clipped the net and flew higher than expected. In the heat of the moment, Rostagno’s reflex was to quickly hit the ball and it ended out of bounds. This tilted what would have been a sure win for the newcomer to a heart-breaking loss. In fact, Boris Becker won also another match, the ATP final against Ivan Lendl where the rally in the tie-breaker seemed to go on forever until the German was lucky once again; this blond tennis-god favored superstar won the championship as a result.So Woody Allen indeed hits a raw nerve of any tennis player, professional or amateur. The net becomes the blind line of chance, a random stroke of luck. In the movie, the main character, the occasional tennis instructor Chris Wilton makes an important personal contact at a tennis lesson; he meets Tom Hewett. By chance, he gets invited to the opera during which this ambitious young man meets Tom’s sister Chloe who, as luck will have it, happens to fall in love with him, head over heels. Suddenly, Chris has the golden opportunity to gain access to sudden wealth; through his relationship with her, he manages to land a job that comes with a personal chauffeur as an enticing perk, and thereafter, marriage formally secures and binds him to a life of continuous wealth.  Yet then there is the curveball in the curvy shapes of Tom’s fiancée, the sexy Nola Rice. Against all odds and reason, he is immediately taken by her and indeed lusts for her. His desire is so strong that he throws caution to the wind and his persistence finally pays off: He manages to make love to her on a stormy day. But that seems not enough, so he continues to pursue her while she is giving him mixed messages. When his friend Tom breaks off the engagement, Chris happens to run into her again and seizes once more and even more tempestuously this new situation and opportunity with Nola.It is all a matter of luck to him. It was a coincidence that he ran into her after her break-up, so he wastes no time. She gives in to him after a while and he has his way. Yet as she is both unstable and penniless, a struggling actress who simply does not seem to land any gigs, he has no intention of leaving his wife Chloe for her. As he explains to a friend, he has gotten so used to the life of luxurious comfort that he cannot imagine himself being without it anymore.The irony of it all, fate always has the last laugh, is that his mistress Nola becomes pregnant. It is ironical because he and his wife Chloe have been trying very hard for a child, mostly on the latter’s insistence and his lover gets impregnated during a single misstep. That only time Nola was not protected leads to this - in his eyes [...]

The End of Silence: Back from a Hiatus or Stress-filled Interval

Thu, 13 Jul 2017 18:20:00 +0000

My apologies for not having posted for quite some time. Even during busy times, I would usually manage to sneak in a post or two every month but the past six months have been quite something, to put it mildly and euphemistically. Some parts I am personally responsible for, while others have been thrust upon me unawares.First off, since Christmas I had been ailed with intense gum pains, which eventually led to the extraction not of one put two of my teeth! Fortunately, they are not front row teeth but losing two generally healthy teeth is hard to swallow. Both cases were due to irresponsible if not downright careless actions by two different dentists: the first one had done me a root canal but managed to leave a souvenir in the gums, a tiny broken piece of equipment; the second one did not put in or fasten my crown properly leaving room for bacteria to enter on the sly, which led to a subsequent infection and copious amounts of pain. I had to be treated with antibiotics for one of the abscessed teeth, while the other one remained a borderline infection case and that meant that I had to refrain from drinking wine for a whole two weeks in a row!My wine-drinking habit started about a couple of years ago when I was facing a heavy workload and the precious red liquid helped to ease and deal with the stress. While drinking wine I have come to appreciate it not so much as an alcoholic beverage but rather as an art form in and by itself. It is not just used to drink my sorrows away but to replenish myself with life and vitality whilst discovering and developing a certain palate or taste bud for this nectar of gods and goddesses. I am far from being a wine connoisseur but I have picked up a thing or two along the grapevines.But somehow even wine could not prepare me for what was to come. I took in a heavier load than normal and ended up working pretty much non-stop. No holy sabbath or idle Sunday for this middle-aged man! I was tired and weary, and family time or any other time of quality for that matter had to be reduced and downright sacrificed for the sake of work. All work and no play, well you can imagine and fill in the rest.Yet I am one who can generally deal with constant stress, or so I thought. It turns out that by continuously living in survival mode and not giving your body time to recover and to regenerate can only lead to more serious problems. The workplace that used to give me joy and encouragement and that appreciated and valued my intelligence and creativity had undergone some unfortunate changes in management (and possibly ideology) and became instead a blind and deaf place where choices were limited to either their way or the highway, so I was forced to put on my wandering boots.As a result, my stress levels skyrocketed and were much higher than usual. I suddenly suffered symptoms I had only heard or read about: I could not sleep well; I felt troubled and tormented with occasional panic attacks, and highly unusual for me I just did not feel at peace anymore within my skin. I realized that many people suffer on a regular basis from these symptoms and they – the symptoms not the people - are truly unpleasant and overwhelming; I felt affinity with them and their suffering. Especially now, I get angry at people who do not see this and assume that insomnia or episodes of stress can be treated by simply relaxing or closing one’s eyes. It cuts much deeper than that.As usual, I try to see the positive side of things although this optimistic side of me had been stifled and comprised within me. I had support from colleagues and friends and I am entirely grateful for that. A few words here and there and a hug felt like balsam on my soul. It is often in times of need that one realizes how much love and care there is in people, which then manages to come to the forefront. It cre[...]

Honesty is a Lonely Word: Lies in Personal and Professional Lives

Wed, 04 Jan 2017 17:31:00 +0000

Everyone is so untrue, Billy Joel complains in his song. It does seem that honesty is lacking in today’s world. No matter where you look, you see that dishonesty is gaining ground. This is not just limited to celebrities and politicians and the media circus surrounding them, it is firmly embedded in daily life.Its more harmless expression in form of white lies is socially accepted and in some cases even encouraged. But the problem is that these smaller feats of dishonesty appear to signal the message that lies are and ought to be part and parcel of daily interaction and that it is normal and healthy to do so.Take for instance, people on a first date. That is the breeding ground for lies. We lie to impress the other; we hide (lying by omission) unpleasant facts or details about our lives. Yet in the end, we are deceiving the other person and to an extent ourselves. We show them an image that does not correspond with our inner reality. Sooner or later, once this house of cards collapses, disappointment ensues and this may be another reason why break-ups are so common-place. People lie to each other, create false impressions and promises and are then disappointed once they realize that they had been led on all this time.But lies are not limited to our personal lives. They also invade our professional world. From the onset, we lie on our resumes and CVs. We omit the unpleasant facts or weaknesses and expand on our assets. When the interview comes along, we embellish our strengths, lie about or slyly cover up our weaknesses, and in many cases, people claim they have experience and expertise where none of that is existent or grounded in fact.The employers, it seems, like getting lied to or they are or at least pretend to be naïve in taking all the words at face value. When an honest person comes along and offers them the truth on a silver plate, they ignore him and offer the job to somebody else. Modesty is immediately dismissed as weakness, while lies and gossip are taken as valid truths because that is what people prefer to hear.This is not limited only to the interview process but continues throughout. Those who spread gossip and hide their lack of abilities by consistently claiming that they are more than qualified and competent, they indeed end up getting promotions. The ones who quietly work away and who are talented and competent get the short end of the stick.This is worrisome from many points of views. First of all, justice is not served when people get ahead through lies and manipulation; the carefully groomed appearance and persona do not correspond with the inner reality. It also means that people will find themselves in positions they cannot handle in any effective manner. Their decisions are going to be harmful to others working under them and would lead to the demise of the company itself. It backfires, but once the employer realizes this, it may be too late and the damage has already been done.This is across the board and in a variety of businesses and practices. Those who are elected to positions also benefit from their inflated appearance; they lie and smear their rivals and more often than not end up victorious. They may even be the least competent, but they have the gift of the gab tied with the ability to lie through their teeth.The other problem is that this constant concern about appearance will mold and influence the person and they will end up losing touch with their real selves. They will come to believe the role they are playing and not only lie to others, but also deceive themselves. A culture that values putting one’s best foot forward and that is concerned with saving face and one’s image ends up encouraging lies and discouraging truth and honesty.This is the common complaint about people being phony or not being genuine.[...]

Book Review of Philosophy: A Path to Peace

Wed, 28 Dec 2016 18:31:00 +0000

Who does not want peace? I know this is a rhetorical question and I am also aware that there are a handful of people out there who as a rule do no like peace. But for the rest of us, peace is the ideal state we are striving for but why is it so incredibly hard to attain?Part of this is because we live in a rapid world where we want everything and we want it now. I remember when Internet and computers were a new thing (yes, I am that old) and we had dial-up connections. That meant that websites loaded at a crawling speed; the top part of the image would appear and then the rest of the website came into full view after three to fifteen minutes of anxious and anticipated waiting. There it is, we would shout out with glee!Today we see people cringe and roll their eyes when the infamous loading sign appears. Patience is one of the virtues we have lost mostly thanks to modern technology. Everything is faster, more immediate and in your face. So when we speak of peace, we want it right now, not days, months or, God forbid, years down the road!Therein lies the problem because peace is something that needs to be fostered and must be given room to grow within ourselves. For a basic set-up of such a state and the steps you need to take, you can consult P. Jey’s book Philosophy: A Path to Peace, which shows you the ropes in a simple, clear and brief manner.Jey’s book draws heavily on Buddhist thought and practice and in this I completely agree with him. It may seem to be (and in fact is) based on common sense but more often than not we eschew the simple answers for more complicated ones. Yet the simple is often more difficult to do.The first half of the book consists of direct self-help advice and guidance with Buddhist precepts. One thing that Buddhism and many philosophers stress is to keep everything in moderation or as Jey puts it to have nothing in excess. He gives the example of a self-confident person; this person neither draws too much attention to themselves unlike an arrogant person or a braggart nor does she shy away or hide her own capabilities.Then, Jey extends his nothing in excess stance to everything in life and that is where he will meet resistance among many people. Why make more money than is needed for our sustenance? Why chase things we do not (really) need? Why overindulge ourselves in work and making money by neglecting or hurting other vital parts of our lives, such as our own well-being or quality time with family and friends?His ideas seem in conflict with the notion of ambition. We strive for success and that is something we are good at or at least we have been programmed to do most of our life. But in the whole process we devote significant amounts of time and energy to achieve this. It is our driving force but it is also both directly and indirectly a possible source of suffering. If we are content with what we have, not too much, not too little, then we would be much more content. That would help us also to cease or at least diminish our expectations (another source of suffering, especially when they are not met). We would suddenly get rid of stress and take it easy and focus on the more important things on our life, such as establishing and fostering relationships with ourselves and others. Ambition in itself is not bad, but when it becomes the overriding factor in our life or the sole measure of success, then it can be rather harmful. Success can be measured in other currencies than money and may take many different forms. Certainly, money can serve to increase our happiness and without it, we would have no peace and calm, but once we have a sufficient amount, we need to also focus on other aspects of our life and not neglect or dismiss them for the sake of a fatter bank account.As Jey aptly puts it, o[...]

Lifelong Bilingualism and its Effects on the Brain: UBC Quinn Memorial 2016

Sat, 12 Nov 2016 19:42:00 +0000

It was that time of the year again for me to attend the next Quinn Memorial Lecture at UBC. This annual event is filled with distinguished key speakers and the 2016 version presented us with Dr. Ellen Bialystok, the Distinguished Research Professor of Psychology at York University with a lecture entitled “Lifelong Bilingualism: Reshaping Mind and Brain.” Considering that I myself speak five languages fluently and that my son is growing up immersed in two simultaneous languages, English and Spanish, I was personally most interested in learning about the consequences and the beneficial and / or possibly harmful effects of bilingualism.In fact, I am so dedicated to this wonderful series that I tried my utmost to battle against my own fatigue and budding migraine to physically make it to this talk. It was a busy day as I rushed quickly home to have a quick early dinner and then headed out to UBC to make it there on time. Arriving at UBC, I was slightly at a loss vis-à-vis the recent structural changes and ongoing, seemingly everlasting constructions, and I must admit I felt a little embarrassed of temporarily not knowing my way around despite having spent more than eight years at this great university. But its face and façade have become almost unrecognizable due to the demolitions of older buildings and creations of new modern architecture, and I sincerely miss the look and feeling of my beloved university. But let us get back to the lecture. It seemed less attended than previous talks, and I was able to seat myself firmly and visibly in the second row, which was almost empty. I awaited with keen interest the arrival of the guest speaker, and the whole lecture started surprisingly on time and included fewer opening sessions and diversions but rather jumped right into linguistic matters.The overall theme of the talk was neuroplasticity, which refers to changes in structure and connectivity of the mind and brain. Language learning is an experience that leaves footprints on the brain and changes the efficiency and automatic processes of the mind. In fact, language learning is intense and based on the whole brain; put differently, there is no specific language switch mechanism operating in the brain turning from one language to another since languages are jointly activated.Hence, the brain needs to select the target language, and selective attention is required for this. It is not a language switch but rather a spotlight model where the brain must focus its attention and resources or shine its light on a specific domain. This, in turn, leads to changes in some regions of the brain and strengthens and increases efficiency on certain tasks.However, Bialystok first let us know of the disadvantages of bilingualism; they are indeed few, but there are certain limitations. The main one is a reduced linguistic representation, meaning a lack of words and vocabulary in each language. It makes sense that a person who knows only one language, a monolingual may generally have more words at their disposal than someone who is storing words and information on two or more different languages.This reminds me of a conversation I had with a young Swiss woman years ago. Back then, I was gently bragging about my language skills when she countered to my multilingual mind that it may be so but that it also meant I could not speak any of them as well as a person who knew just one single language. To my shock and surprise, science and research is on her side, at least broadly speaking. The second disadvantage is a lack of verbal fluency. If you are bilingual, it gets worse with multilinguals, you tend to speak more slowly as you need to focus on the given target language. This is true of myself, especially when I lack sl[...]

Existential Analysis on how to understand and deal with Aggression

Wed, 28 Sep 2016 04:20:00 +0000

It was time for another enlightening talk by Alfried Längle held at Vancouver’s St. Paul’s hospital and this time around he was going to share with us his insights on aggression. The questions that were on my mind were what causes aggression and how can it be best dealt with. And Längle, whom I have affectionately nicknamed the Dalai Lama of psychotherapy, would naturally provide the answers to both of my questions.He started off with the quotable phrase that we are happier than we think and that, contrary to many people’s opinions, the environment alone cannot give you happiness. You can be staying at a beautiful tropical island or living in a mansion but if your mind is not at ease, you will not enjoy it at all.The most important key to happiness is an inner yes. That means that we are in tune or in agreement with what is happening around us. If you like the job you have and you give yourself to it whole-heartedly, then you are content and at peace. If you love the person you are with, you say yes to him or her, then you are happy and enjoy your relationship.The problem is when there is no inner yes to either yourself or towards your outer situation, i.e. the world around you. In fact, suffering, an avoidable and generally unpleasant aspect of life, cannot and should not on its own destroy your inner fulfillment. People who accept themselves and are in tune with who they are and what they are doing will find ways to deal with upsetting events. We know that we cannot escape them and must deal with suffering as we are subjects of time, both physically and psychologically. Life is a constant flow, which means that we cannot stop or block it but must go with it and the best we can do is to harmonize with the ebbs and flows of time. We are living entities that travel through spacetime and must eat and work and deal with reality; at the same time, we can also see life as a challenge and an opportunity to discover ourselves, to find out what moves and touches us and what we like and dislike. It is a constant journey of self-discovery.For my whole existence, I have to be me and cannot be anybody else. I cannot be divorced from myself but need to be aware of myself, of the person I am here and now. If you are outside of yourself or if you feel that you cannot develop or discover yourself, then you basically “lose” yourself.This means that you will feel alienated, feel outside of yourself. If you are not the productive author of something special in your life, you may feel continuous suffering and get depressed. But if you have something valuable in your life, that could be your work, a child or any project that excites you, then you will experience a valuable context around you and most likely feel connected with others and the things that surround you.For example, some people may see forms of activism as a meaning-filling activity. The fact that they are contributing to some positive change, for instance, helping to preserve the environment, will give them a necessary boost; they are doing what they care about most and they approve of their own actions. To my knowledge, and for better or worse, money on its own cannot give us that type of self-satisfaction unless it is tied to a way of sharing it with others or helping those who are less fortunate. This may a reason why there are many (but still not enough!) philanthropists among the wealthy, such as Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, to name a few.All of this preamble leads to one of the main sources and causes of aggression, which is rejection. This means that for whatever reason I do not give consent to that which surrounds me; I may feel and perceive to be trapped in a hostile environment or in an unfulfilling job or [...]

Lalun: Music out of this World and the Quest for Peace

Tue, 06 Sep 2016 00:13:00 +0000

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of attending a concert entitled “Lalun – Dreams from Andalusia and the Silk Road” at the Vancouver Playhouse. I was intrigued by this musical ensemble as they advertised themselves as a globe-trotting world music group that was influenced by music from Europe, Asia and the Middle East.The individual members and their instruments looked equally eclectic; there was Liron Man who is originally from Israel but living in Spain and he was playing hand pans (?) as well as Lan Tung from Taiwan / Canada playing the erhu, a type of Chinese violin, and, last but not least, Canadian Jonathan Bernard on (various types of) percussion.    I had a certain amount of expectations as I generally enjoy and often listen to world music. Entering the concert room, my family and I were lucky to find front-row seats. After a bi-lingual introduction (English and Chinese) that included a seemingly endless list of sponsors, basically a long string of Vancouver restaurants, banks, businesses and what-have-you, the musicians took over the stage and wasted no words but jumped right into the music.And I was immediately floored, meant in the best way possible! Their music was astonishing from the very beginning. The hand pans were basically strange-looking but beautiful sounding large bowls with apparent holes in them. The Chinese violin had a wailing sound to it evoking dreams and images of Asian landscapes. In fact, after hearing her play on the erhu I was reminded of the handful of Asian movies (Raise the Red Lantern (1991), In the Mood for Love (2000), to name a few) I had seen and felt inspired and compelled to watch more of them in the near future.The percussion, which included hand drums and the occasional cymbals thrown in for good measure, added an interesting rhythm to the whole scene. Although I had initially thought that the band’s description was a little bit far-fetched and exaggerated, I must say that even with the first song, they covered more global terrain than I had expected.This music in all its splendor also felt close to home. Being myself born in Iran, I felt there was a nod to Persian music, which was, in fact, the case. But it was even more than that because the tunes and instruments added different cultural hues to the whole undertaking. One of the odder choices, their final song of the day, ended up being a traditional Persian song, translated into Chinese, that the erhu player was singing and playing to, but again somehow and against the odds it actually worked.The music was perfect fodder to my imagination and I could picture it as soundtrack to various scenes of movies that were playing in my mind. Yet, in addition to that, I felt a certain sense of peace and calm. I attributed this to two different phenomena.First, the music did not only have deep-seated roots and foundations, but it was also played and presented with passion and love. It was during this performance where I felt that the musicians were in various ways baring their souls. This feeling usually occurs when I am in the presence of what I consider genuine art. In movies, literature or music, this means that I am presented with something very special that deeply resonates within me. It strikes chords in me and I feel that the work of art is not meant to merely please and entertain, not meant to rake in profits and fame, but was rather a type of personal expression or even confession, a desire that is deeply felt and true to the heart.  As I was listening, I was mentally going through my own art, my writing that I have created and longed that somebody somewhere would equally feel the love and passion I have poured into it. To me t[...]

Civilizing the Land: The Australian Western The Proposition

Sat, 27 Aug 2016 18:59:00 +0000

The Proposition (2005) is written by alternative rock musician and occasional novelist Nick Cave and is directed by John Hillcoat, perhaps better known for his later atmospheric yet quite depressing movie The Road (2009). At first glance, the movie may appear like a typical revenge western flick albeit set in the Outback of Australia instead of the Wild West of the United States. It has the components of a generic western, a sheriff (in this case the British officer Captain Stanley) who is chasing a band of outlaws led by three brothers.Yet from the get-go, the mood and situations become already more morally complex compared to any other traditional Western fare. The movie opens with the lines of apology that the following images of indigenous ancestors may be offensive to some and then sets the tone with the beautiful and heart-wrenching background hymn of “There is a Happy Land” sung by the innocent voices of a children’s choir. Yet there is neither in this rugged sun-drenched terrain, no happiness and even less innocence. The theme of land and religion is interwoven into this movie yet do not combine to create the peace and harmony they apparently so desire; they only make matters worse.   After the opening credits, we are immediately thrown in a shoot-out followed by an arrest of two outlaw brothers, Charlie and Mikey Burns. In its aftermath interrogation, Captain Stanley makes an indecent proposition to Charlie. The law enforcer decides to keep the younger brother Mikey, who seems the most innocent and naïve of the bunch, as leverage in custody and asks Charlie to find his older and much meaner brother Arthur and kill him. In turn, Stanley gives his word to not hang the younger brother of the gang; he even promises to give them both pardons. Evil is supposed to be stopped by an even more evil and heinous act, the killing of a sibling, but in the eyes of the captain the means end up justifying the end.One must add that Charlie does not like his older brother Arthur very much and he is a kind of caretaker of Mikey (a nickname purposely underscoring his young age) and the reason they were not hanging with each other was because of growing ideological and moral differences between them; in other words, Charlie and Mikey are in comparison much more decent guys than the mean-spirited Arthur. So Charlie goes out on his mission; he is given nine days and his deadline is fittingly Christmas Day. The reason the British officer risks letting Charlie get away is that Arthur is the hardest to pin down. He is hiding in caves and seems literally untraceable. At the same time, the bandit seems to be protected and feared by the aboriginals around him and they somehow admire him for his lack of conventionality. This man is different from the “civilized” people who disperse the natives and look down on them and who are in the meantime slyly stealing their lands and livelihood. Outlaws and the native people have something in common; they are both rejected by the colonizing white class and have to hide themselves. In fact, in the eyes of the aboriginals, Arthur becomes a kind of mythical beast; they do not think of him as human but call him the “Dog Man,” a rabid and smart being that is impossible to stop.We are then slowly given clues of how cruel Arthur really is. Although Charlie and Mikey seem the “nicer” criminals with at least a scruple or two and something akin a conscience, Arthur and the other band member Samuel Stoat are pure undiluted evil. They are mostly responsible for the slaying of the Hopkins family, which included a pregnant woman who had been brutally raped.This horrible and vicious[...]

The American Founding Fathers – Heroes or Swindlers?

Sat, 20 Aug 2016 19:56:00 +0000

For some time now I have been quite fascinated with early American history, including the founding fathers of the Revolution, the Declaration of Independence, the US Constitution and the first presidents of the United States – in short, the global experiment that was to become the United States of America, a nation that has managed to propel itself to a global superpower in its relatively short existence.I am also surprised with the admirable level of individual liberties in its heyday, which can be contrasted with its apparent lack or restrictions of freedoms throughout its own history. How can the land of plenty and of dreams and opportunity at the same time systematically conquer and oppress its own denizens as well as foreign lands? How can both freedom and lack thereof be a symbol and trademark of the same nation?In search for such answers I decided to look for America’s founding moments and used, for the main part, Howard Zinn’s national bestseller People’s History of the United States as my reference point. Some may immediately dismiss this work as being rather biased or too focused on its own political motivations, but I shall disregard that since the same can be said about traditional history books and other documents on this era; they also tend to distort and omit information and facts for their own convenience in assistance of their own particular political motives.So let us start with the American Revolution. Now it had been my impression that this was a case of budding national identity and conscious independence from the occupying British forces. This was presented in my mind as a somewhat romantic revolt of the oppressed against the oppressors similar to and predating the French storming of the Bastille with its glorious (at the time quite revolutionary) slogan of Fraternity, Liberty, and – most importantly – Equality.But there were other unseen factors at work when it comes to the Boston Tea Party. The American revolution was, in fact, propagated and propelled by relatively wealthy residents (most of them English) who were adverse at being controlled, bossed about and taxed by the British Empire. At around 1770, the top one percent of the population consisting mainly of property owners controlled 44 percent of the wealth in the American colonies. (As we are acutely aware, current statistics have even worse showings.)England at the time had its own shares of wars on the new continent mostly against the French, and although merchants were able to rack up fortunes in this situation, for most people it meant higher taxes, unemployment as well as poverty. With the Stamp Act in 1765 the British Empire taxed the colonists to pay for the French war, which elicited uprisings here and there and culminated in the Continental Congress, an illegal government, that favored separation. This committee adopted the Declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson on July 4, 1776, declaring not only independence of England but also stating that all British law was to be null and void, which would, of course, include the hated Stamp Law or any future taxation imposed upon the wealthy elite of the colony.Now I tended to see this declaration of independence as a revolt of the masses against the British occupying forces, but this was not necessarily so. First, many Americans were omitted from the get-go, including Indians, black slaves, and women. When the founding fathers proudly proclaim that all men are created equal, that linguistically not only excluded womenin their point of view, but also all white men who did not have any property to their name. As a result, all those who[...]

Intimate Relationship between Astrophysics and Arts

Wed, 17 Aug 2016 23:00:00 +0000

One of my constant and recurrent joys is to attend the exquisite lectures of the Unveiling the Universe series presented by TRIUMF and held at Science World. Last night we had the pleasure to see S. James Gates Jr., a renowned American scientist who has investigated such awesome and awe-inspiring astrophysical concepts, such as supersymmetry and string theory, who looks a little like Morgan Freeman and sounds a little like Denzel Washington (only somewhat higher-pitched) and who serves on President Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.The title of the talk included bits in Italian (L’arte della fisica), but the lecture itself did not contain any words in that language; nonetheless, it was still confusing as it seemed to be about the Art of Physics yet at the same time to deal with how to access one’s creativity app (whatever that meant). I remember having previously read a somewhat similarly titled book The Tao of Physics: An Exploration of the Parallels between Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism by Fritjof Capra and being quite impressed by it.Towards the beginning of the lecture, Gates Jr. promised math-phobic folks like me that there would be little mathematics involved, but then he showed us slides and slides of mathematical equations. It was quite distressing indeed, while his blunt claim that you cannot be a serious astrophysicist if you do not have the necessary mathematical qualifications was a bit of a downer for me. So much for my own (dashed) hopes of being a hobby-horse astrophysicist in my spare time.Yet at that moment, more than ever, did I realize just to what degree mathematics is similar to a given language. It has its own symbols and notations as well as grammar structure and it is understood only if you have sufficient background knowledge and experience. Gates Jr. compared it often to a musical score (another language of its own); a musician would turn it into sounds in their head whereas a layperson would merely scratch their head over the scribbles and ants crawling up and down the lines.One of the most surprising connections in this lecture was the relationship between physics and the arts. He showed us images and short animations that were representations of some of the equations he had shown us previously. Not that it was any easier to comprehend, but it showed us that the two disciplines could be closely linked and related. I found it most stunning to hear that Schoenberg’s twelve tone technique was just another type of representation of the mathematical Vierergruppe!Gates Jr. also made a point that religion was indeed involved with science to some visible degree. In fact, many are not aware (myself humbly included) that the first proponent of what later was to be known as the Big Bang theory was presented by the Belgian Catholic priest / astrophysicist Georges Lemaître. Initially, he called his theory “hypothesis of the primeval atom” with the even cooler tag of “Cosmic Egg”! Interestingly, his theory of an expanding universe was erroneously (!) contested by Einstein. Although science and religion have had their fair share of shared accomplishments, each side is more often than not wary of the other. This might be perhaps due to the fact that their methodology is rather different. Science is more of a path, with many crooked sideways, while it gets things more often wrong than right. However, when science does it get it right, it is worth all the effort and sweat. Science, overall and in Gates Jr.’s words, is less interested in truth but more in accuracy, while the latter is something that can be meas[...]

American Use of Atomic Bombs to Show Power

Sat, 06 Aug 2016 18:11:00 +0000

On August 6 and August 9, 1945, the United States under Harry Truman and despite criticism from General Eisenhower and Manhattan Project scientists dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, respectively. The first explosion destroyed 90 % of Hiroshima and immediately and indiscriminately killed 80,000 people alongside tens of thousands afterwards due to radiation exposure; the second nuclear bomb killed 40,000 people in Nagasaki, according to the History.Com website.The official pretext for the dropping of the atomic bombs was to defeat the adamant and even suicide-driven Japanese army and to avoid or cut down on American casualties. Dropping the bombs, according to US authorities, would lead Japan to its knees and would accelerate their complete surrender, thus ending the war more quickly in the Americans’ favor.Although most of that is true (lives, on the American side at least, had been spared and the war came to a much faster conclusion) I believe that the main motives for dropping the atomic bombs are, in fact, comprised of other more strategic reasons. I think that the first and main reason was to show the rest of the world the power and might of the United States with its newly acquired arsenal of destructive weapons. The second reason was that this would serve as a type of real-life experiment on the effects and consequences of the atomic bomb both as a vivid and indelible warning to others but also as a type of research project using the Japanese as guinea pigs.Particularly after World War II, the United States was preparing to become a superpower and the capability and addition of nuclear weapons managed to reinforce that status. After the plight and chaos that had befallen upon Europe via the Nazis and the subsequent defeat of their Third Reich, the two powers that came into global focus were the United States and the Soviet Union, setting the stage and groundwork for the ensuing decades-spanning Cold War.   Although the US government claimed that the atomic bombs were a necessary evil to ensure the winning of the war against Japan, in reality, the war with Japan was not a significant threat to the US at that stage. In fact, Japan was already on the losing side and it would have been only a matter of time until they would have had to surrender anyhow. Yet this situation posed an occasion for the US to flex its muscles before the eyes of the world. This was the perfect opportunity to use atomic bombs without fearing any kind of serious or damaging reprisal by the enemy as Japan was weaker and had no manner of responding in a similar vein. In fact, the Japanese did not have access to any even remotely destructive weapons of that ilk. By utterly destroying Japan through the devastating use of nuclear weapons, the US would then be able to instill fear in all of its enemies and adversaries and would begin to dictate global politics.Yet my question has always been, why did the US drop two instead of one bomb and why in such successive fashion with a time span of merely a few days? There are claims that Japan was ready to surrender after the effects of the first bomb on Hiroshima, but that they were given little time to make this known or to respond. As the war was not that pressing from the point of view of the United States, meaning they were not cornered in any substantial way, why not wait at least a week before such devastating destruction. In fact, the first bombing would have sufficed, so why did they do it twice and kill additional Japanese civilians in the process?One of the [...]

Publication of my First Novel: Marcel Legrand’s Love Affairs

Tue, 02 Aug 2016 00:01:00 +0000

I am very excited to have my first novel published online! Love Affairs: Tales of Love, Romance, and Passion is available for purchase for only $0.99 (or less) at Smashwords as well as at a number of retailers, including iBooks! If you have an extra buck stashed somewhere or feel like taking me out for a virtual coffee, this could be a great way to spend your money!If you are the cautious or hesitant type, you can download the first quarter of the book for free and then see, reflect, and decide if you'd like to purchase it, after all. Either way I fully appreciate your interest!The only caveat is that you need to be 18 or older. Why, you may ask. Well, I think I would need to first introduce to you my French friend and alter ego Marcel Legrand.Marcel is the protagonist of the novel; he is a philosophical womanizer / romantic poet whose self-proclaimed nickname is machine d’amour! He talks candidly - with a grain of salt and handful of humor - about his romantic conquests and endeavors. There are four main leading ladies he tries to seduce at different intervals, in addition to a couple of one-night stands thrown in, here and there, for good measure.Although there is some sex involved, the prudish need not turn away necessarily. There's hardly any graphic or hardcore content here as this is more about romance and poetry and it is not erotica per se. When there is some "action" going on, it is dealt with a light touch and it is quite funny actually.An example is when his cute neighbour asks him if he has a monkey wrench, and Marcel ends up fixing her leaky faucet. She then proceeds to strip for him as a form of recompense (I suppose) and he notices that his “elevator” has reached the “penthouse.” Humorous? Enticing? Both? Why not?If you generally like Arash's World, you should enjoy this Frenchman’s random philosophical excursions and existential speculations and most likely be amused with some of his admittedly bizarre views on life and romance. His tales are semi-autobiographical, meaning exactly what it means: Half of the information is absolutely true, while the other half are just blatant lies.What can I say about his style? Well, if you put Shakespeare and Benny Hill in the blender, this work will be the end result. Or rather expect more Benny and less Will in the mixture. Or take a male character of every French film you have ever seen, mash them up, and you will have a sketch of Marcel Legrand.About 14 years ago I self-published a shorter version of Love Affairs. This was in the forgotten dark era before the existence of blogs and e-books. I say “self-publish” but actually am talking about a bunch of photocopies stapled together and given away for free to friends, acquaintances, and beautiful strangers on the bus.It was actually a great success back then, all things considered. My friends liked what they read and tried to speculate who I had or had not bedded in the process of writing this short novel! As if this was a research project. Fun times indeed!But I felt about my work the same way I feel about poetry: The main purpose is to get girls ... I mean their attention, of course. In fact, my main inspiration for writing it came from Truffaut’s brilliant film The Man Who Loved Women (1977) although I have to confess that I find my own protagonist somewhat more charming and endearing overall. But the general outline of both works is about the same.Anyhow, over the years I have come to miss Marcel, this affectionate and crazy French guy. I know he is[...]

Dealing with and Treating Sleep Apnea

Wed, 27 Jul 2016 23:54:00 +0000

More than a month ago I was diagnosed with moderate to severe sleep apnea. When it exactly started, I am not entirely sure, but I must have had this sleeping disorder for at least two years now.At first, I noticed that I would often wake up the next day feeling not refreshed and tired throughout the day. After nights of stronger sleep deprivation, I would end up forgetting simple things; once I could not remember the PIN number of my credit card (good thing that I had enough cash on me that day to finalize the purchase).What would happen to me was that I would occasionally stop breathing, which is the Greek meaning of apnea, with pnea standing for breath. This would result in strange suffocating dreams. I would see myself in tight places that I needed to crawl and climb through. This was basically my brain signalling me to wake up as it was not receiving sufficient oxygen.In other cases, I would wake up coughing and even gasping for air. This would be sometimes so strong that I would have to get up and walk to an open window to let the fresh air calm me. I attributed this to asthma, as I often find myself slightly short of breath even during the day, although thank goodness I don’t have asthma attacks and, in my case, it is on the milder side and does not leave me out of breath.But my wise wife had told me to get checked for sleep apnea. I discarded this – out of pride or foolishness, or both – until the month of June where I had my worst sleeping episodes in my life. I would hardly get a wink, and if I did, I would wake up coughing. Once I just could not get to sleep, no matter how hard I tried - or did not try – and, all in all, I had perhaps one hour of sleep!The next day was very difficult, not to say torture, but I am quite good at controlling my mood for the duration of my long workday. However, I would get home, completely exhausted and at times I felt even slightly depressed, which is generally quite an anomaly for me. This continued for a while, with me forcing my way through days that should have been easy and enjoyable ... until one day I could not remember Tom Hanks! I could not remember the actor of Forrest Gump! I knew then that I had to go to our family doctor for a check-up.As she heard about my symptoms and after asking some more questions, she concluded that I had sleep apnea and sent me to a clinic for a sleeping test. The test was at-home with an oximeter attached to a finger to check the oxygen rate of my brain as well as another device on my chest to check my pulse and heartbeat, I suppose. It was a doubly uncomfortable night, but at least it took place in the comfort of the home instead of an overnight stay at the hospital.The next day, I found out that I had had about 250+ episodes of apnea over that night, which broke down to slightly less than 30 an hour! This was definitely not good news, but it was at least something to work with. The sleep specialist checked with me one by one all the symptoms of classic sleep apnea: Yes, my weight gain over the years did not help the issue, my BMI was too high, my neck circumference was not good either; I did snore; I had trouble breathing through my nose; I woke up to go to the bathroom more than a few times at night; I had night sweats and occasional migraines the next day; I felt like shit.Now before the diagnosis I had experimented with a new cervical pillow, breathing strips, a mouth guard, and they may have given me some slight relief, but nothing major nor of substance. So the chosen treatment, no[...]

Race issues and Police Killings in the United States

Mon, 18 Jul 2016 17:38:00 +0000

The recent cases of police officers being ambushed and killed in the United States is very frightening and alarming, to say the least. The fact that officers who are there to serve and protect us and whose job it is to uphold the law are slaughtered in a brutal and cowardly manner is a dangerous portent of anarchy and is a reprehensible act. There is, as President Obama has put it, no justification in those acts.Yet although I fully condemn such atrocious acts, I can see how and why they have come about. Within the American police force, there are officers some of whom have abused their power and authority and have killed innocent black people. Unprovoked or exaggerated reactions towards people of color is nothing new, but nowadays thanks to current technology, it has come to the forefront; these incidents are unacceptable and completely out of place in any time period, but more so in our day and age.  Surely, I am not one to believe that acts of violence can ever have positive effects, but I understand the sense of frustration and impotence when facing these abuses of power. These officers are like school bullies, except that the school authorities seem to side with them in this case. As a result, the victims feel helpless and let down by the system as a whole. In a society where self-defense is accepted and in some cases encouraged, acts of retribution may fall within dangerous perimeters of possible tolerance. Innocent people have been killed on both sides of the spectrum and for those who believe two wrongs make a right, there may be a sense of vindication here. In fact, the shock and uproar over dead police officers is much more palpable and disproportionate compared to the continuous slayings of black people (there have been a number of documented cases in which the so-called perpetrators have been unarmed and even innocent).This is where the hypocrisy of the system can be felt and where it does seem that the state favors its own, the police force over the general black populace. This is why movements like Black Lives Matter need to occur since in everyday life, their voices are not given the weight and importance they should. If the state is interested in upholding a sense of justice and not merely protecting its flock or (inadvertently) sanctioning wrongdoings against the black population, something must be done in this regard. Put differently, if those who are supposed to protect the people (and that means all people not a select few of them), are not doing their job, then they ought to be punished under the full force of the law. If it ignores or justifies illegal proceedings and killings against a group of its citizens, then the state, as a whole, cannot be trusted or respected.To reiterate my point, all of this is careless and dangerous. It can lead to utter chaos and unnecessary racial conflicts. This is all happening under the eyes of the first black president, and it is undermining progress that has been made over the past decades. This is not to say that the civil rights movement has reached or fulfilled its goals; many of those promises have fallen short and true equality is far from ideal, but both groups, white and black need to step up and find a way to deescalate the tensions and to ensure that things do not get worse before they get any better.  There are three broad suggestions I would like to make for the state and the police force. I believe that first and foremost, we need to cleanse the force from its rotten apples. [...]

The Wonderful World of Pretense and Artifice: A Book Review of The Path

Thu, 26 May 2016 19:42:00 +0000

In the modern Western world that stresses the importance of being yourself and of keeping it real at all possible times, anything that strays from the mantra of authenticity, such as pretense and artifice is frowned upon and discouraged. So the title of my review may sound rather critical and you may be awaiting a scathing and blistering attack on the book in question - The Path: What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us About the Good Life by Michael Puett and Christine Gross-Loh – but, in fact, it is quite the opposite.Before I talk about the art of artifice, let us first take a closer look at a few concepts that we all claim to know and take for granted, such as being yourself. I have always wondered about this piece of advice given to people who feel distressed or confused in their lives and they are told just be themselves as if it would solve the issues at hand. This panacean reply is just as confusing as anything else one could say to a suffering person. How can I be anyone but myself since I cannot be you? And more importantly, how do I know who I really am when I find myself acting and reacting differently in different kinds of social situations?  And which one of my potential selves is the right one and how can I be certain that this is indeed the right and most genuine version of myself?The Pathclaims that most of what we see as ourselves is essentially and merely a series of patterned habits. I see myself responding in a certain way to a given situation over time and I assume that this is the most authentic response. It seems that being myself would be to act as naturally as I can; in other words, to act out what seems to me the most honest response at that moment.But is that really the best method? If I feel angry, should I vent it and perhaps throw a book (maybe even this one) in the direction of the person causing my fit of anger?  Should I be blatantly and unabashedly honest with my friends and with my colleagues and superiors at work and give them all a piece of my authentic mind? Would that be the golden rule to follow?The answer according to main Chinese philosophers, including Confucius and Laozi would be a simple no. Your fluctuating emotions and your patterned but limited perception of yourself is neither good for you nor for your surrounding and may not after all, be who you truly are. Yet one thing is for sure, that living on a steady whim and acting out your moment-to-moment desires cannot be constituting who you are. Or else we ought to be judging a toddler child not by their merits but by their tantrums.So the first solution here before being yourself is to “get a grip on yourself.” We need to be aware of our seething and random emotions (qing) and also learn to control them (yi). Now this does not need to be undertaken in a dictatorial way in which we kill off any potential vitality with the cold iron-blade of reason and logic. This simply means to be the proverbial captain of the ship and not be thrown hither and thither by the winds of emotion but to steer them in the desired and most beneficial direction. While doing so, a little bit of artifice (wei) may not be detrimental. Since you are refining yourself and your responses and interactions with the world, it would not be the worst to tame those wild feelings and passions of yours. Say, you literally feel passionate about an unknown person you have just had the pleasure to meet, and if you jump on them and cover them with wild kisses, mo[...]

The Human Side of Technology

Sun, 22 May 2016 17:36:00 +0000

In my previous post, I looked at how humans have become mechanical in their thinking and behavior, partly initiating and jump-starting technology while at the same time being influenced and shaped by technology itself in the process. A day after my post, I tried to turn on my computer of six years and to my surprise, nothing happened. Nothing whatsoever.This was the first time I was facing such a situation. Previously, my laptop had had its particular moods and needed a couple of attempts to initiate, but this time around, I got no response no matter how many times I tried. I ended up trying everything in the book or rather any somewhat reasonable remedy or solution I could get my fingertips on within cyber sphere (taking out the battery, removing the additional charge by pressing the power button for a determinate number of times etc.) and only stopped short of really wacky ideas of disassembling and then reassembling the computer or of putting the battery in the refrigerator or the even crazier and more dangerous option of putting the battery in the oven.All my measures were to no avail. I felt saddened and disappointed by the whole situation. My theory was that my old computer was sore with me because of neglect. I have recently acquired a newer model because the old one had started failing me with its somewhat shoddy Internet connection, which had become more pronounced ever since I had upgraded to Windows 10. It was a reliable but aging machine with parts that were not best suited for the modern times. I believe that five years in technological time represent decades in human lives. Many changes occur in that time frame.But I am not one to replace older models just like that. I am more loyal and sentimental in that respect. I tend to keep objects, anywhere from toys I used to play with as a child (I don’t play with them anymore) to photos of my female friends and of a couple of ex-girlfriends among them (objects to which my wife now and then objects). But everything to me has sentimental value, and especially something as fundamental and essential as laptops.If we think of it, nowadays we spend so much time with our computers, in some cases even more time than with humans, i.e. friends and family. The first thing I turn on in the morning is my computer; it is what I use for work, for pleasure, for writing and even for listening to music and watching movies. It is where I store my photos and ideas and it is my tool and gateway of knowledge. There is definitely a sense of gratitude I feel towards my computer for enabling me to do so much, and it has revolutionized and even shaped my process of writing, perhaps even inspiring it in many ways, not unlike the different models and styles of typewriters in Naked Lunch (the Cronenberg movie since I have not read the book yet).It comes down to the assumption or rather my personal belief that objects, and even more so sophisticated devices of technology have a certain set of peculiarities or characteristics and fall only somewhat short of autonomy and personhood, at least for the time being. It comes then as no surprise that we at times give our cars, phones or computers nicknames, that we occasionally talk to them or curse them. I am talking of personal experience again and in true Carlos Castaneda fashion have asked computers and printers for their support in critical situations and they have often (but not always) complied and pulled through.  [...]

Bored Robots in a Mundane World

Sun, 08 May 2016 00:22:00 +0000

It is common perception that we live in a world driven, shaped and molded by technology. It may seem that technology has made us become more automatic, that it is interfering and influencing not only the way we live, but also the way we think, feel and behave; in short, technology is changing our perception of and interaction with ourselves and the world.All you need is to watch people in the modern industrialized world. They are constantly and consistently connected to the Internet with their various shapes of devices ranging from phones to tablets to pads. Books are becoming obsolete as new hordes and generations of e-readers are replacing them. Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 needs to be rewritten and updated with the temperature at which chips burn (in a microwave perhaps?).But I am going to claim that it is – as almost always in life – a two-way street. It is not only that technology is affecting us but that we ourselves have brought technology into the foreground. We can look at this development of modern technology historically by tracing it back to the first machines: steam engines, mechanical ways of farming and defiant chess-playing computers.The brilliant mathematician Alan Turing saw the many possibilities of the computer and foresaw its next step / model (which we are currently in the process of refining), namely Artificial Intelligence. Whether a machine can think is the question he poses; in the meantime, we are trying to create rudimentary forms and versions of thought-machines bound and circumvented by our current standards of knowledge and know-how. But interestingly, before we look at electronic and automatic versions of human beings in the near or distant future, let us consider how mechanical we ourselves have become over time. In fact, I claim that it is us who have become robots even before the advent and modern advances of technology.Our lives have become more and more mechanical. Evidently, I do not have the experience and first-hand knowledge of how life used to be in the past and I am not here to glamourize the “good old days” (I am not old enough for that). But within my limited experience, I can see a growing trend in the direction of more mechanical ways of thinking and living and I find this both disheartening and frightening.I am living through interesting time periods of transitions and changes. I have experienced life without computers where television used to rule our daily life. Even until less than a decade ago, I was still able to walk and commute without any access to the Internet through smartphones, but I finally succumbed to the pressure of technology.I lived in a time period where we still used record players (although I never owned one) and cassette and video tapes, which I owned massively and in bulks. Then CDs appeared and I remember the excitement of putting in the first CD in a newly purchased CD player. Nobody had cellphones but some lucky and distinguished few brandished a beeper, a completely useless device by modern standards.But I do not regret any of those previous experiences. I still think that technology has given us a lot of conveniences, don’t get me wrong, but I am glad that I also happened to live in a time where we were deprived of technology or where it at least did not rule all the aspects of our lives. As a teenager I used to have a typewriter, which embodied a very cumbersome - not to say pain in the as[...]