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Philosophy with an Absurd Twist: Reflections on Existential Issues

Last Build Date: Thu, 30 Mar 2017 09:35:58 +0000


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. Instead of speaking their mind or showing themselves as who they are, people like to build fences around themselves and stuff them with commonplace expressions and socially accepted but empty jargon. More often than not they will go with the current streams of mainstream o[...]

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, overthinking is another problem that interferes with peace and calm. In other words, we worry too much. I find myself guilty of this. When somebody is late for an appointment, many thoughts float through my mind. I come up with scenarios what could have happened, what it co[...]

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 sleep AND have no coffee in the morning. It takes me slightly longer to find the appropriate expressions and sometimes words seem to elude me. In other situations, I may have the right word but in the wrong language. And occasionally I dream in all my languages and wake up r[...]

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 relationship and that causes overwhelming stress. I may either reject parts of myself or feel rejected by others or by society in general; either way it is a frustrating experience.This leads to psycho-dynamic reactions. In moments of stress, we may revert towards older, m[...]

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 that is the very essence of art, to make others feel something profound, and I certainly felt that way with this outstanding concert.The second phenomenon was more related to the content, the music and its colorful influences. Here we had a perfect blend of longstanding cul[...]

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 crime is the main reason why the town and its captain would do anything to not only catch this band but to hang them. In fact, while Charlie is on his way, there is a strong desire to whip Mikey for his crimes; in fact, they want to flog him a hundred times. This would ki[...]

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 at 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 Tomas 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 were property-less were not allowed to vote or participate in town meetings. Apart from the aforementioned blacks and slaves (freed or not, plus there was also a small proportion of white slaves among them), Indians (whose very land was occupied by the colonists to begin wit[...]

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 measured. Part of the problem is to find the right fine-tuned tools.For instance, the space-time curvature actually makes a sound, as crazy as that may sound! Gates Jr. compared it to a creaky floor in an old house and these sound waves leave traces and can be recorded by equi[...]

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 two 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 bomb would, according to US authorities, 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 through the Nazis and the subsequent defeat of their so-called 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 decade-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 possible factors could be the study of the after-effects of the bomb. What would it be like to unleash this mega-bomb on a real city with civilians? The second plutonium-based bombing provided additional cases and data with which Americans could study more close[...]

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 Sex is available for purchase for only $1.99 at Smashwords as well as at a number of retailers, including iBooks! If you have a couple of extra bucks 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 fictitious but somehow I feel a close affinity with him and decided to bring him back to life for a hopefully larger audience this time around. This is why I have put together a more definitive version as my e-book here; in fact, I am planning to write a sequel that[...]

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, not cure, ended up the dreaded and feared CPAP therapy. The CPAP machine, short for Continuous Positive Airway Pressure, is supposed to provide me with constant air pressure throughout the night. It detects episodes and provides the additional air to prevent them from becomi[...]

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. This needs to be done in a clear and impartial manner. Those who have committed crimes need to be brought to justice; some have, but many others have not. Merely wearing a uniform does not give people the right to break the law. The police union needs to stop supporti[...]

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, most likely you will be seen as demented and may even be taken away in a straight-jacket to be forcefully re(de)fined.In that situation, artifice would definitely come in handy. You can learn about how to flirt, read and memorize inside out the helpful and useful lines of Ov[...]

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.   We humanize our technology, especially when we make statements like my computer does not seem to like me today alongside the assumption that they purposely sabotage our endeavors, or worse, that our computer has died (do they have an afterlife after all?). We imbue th[...]

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 ass – writing process and it made it much more challenging to produce, store and distribute my own writing in the era before word processors and blogs. Moreover, I remember once my bus broke down and I was not able to contact my date (it was a first date too!) and that the[...]

Are We Safe? Review of Todd Haynes’ Safe

Tue, 26 Apr 2016 15:59:00 +0000

After watching the much acclaimed Carol (2015) by Todd Haynes, I decided to watch one of his earlier movies Safe (1995) with the great (and at the time aspiring) Julianne Moore. Although I thought Carol was pretty good, it did not thrill me as much as I had hoped and expected, at least not like the brilliant mini-series Mildred Pierce (2011), which I had seen previous to it.The movie Safeis about a young married woman incidentally also named Carol (!) who seems to have a safe albeit dull well-to-do life in the San Fernando Valley. The movie opens with a drive home at night and then a scene of love-making with the focus on her face. She, unlike her groaning husband Greg White face unseen, does not enjoy the sex very much as her facial expressions do not change and definitely do not show any kind of pleasure gained. At the end of their intercourse, she merely taps her husband lightly on the back.Her life is filled with boredom. They have a Mexican servant who fulfills all the everyday necessities including the care of her stepson, while she is in charge of some of the interior decorating of the spacious house. She is upset that the new furniture is not the color she had ordered and complains about this to the factory.Apart from that, she meets with some of her female friends at the gym. Those women seem superficial and are interested (one might say even obsessed) with their looks and appearance. One of them urges Carol to try out a new diet fad that includes the sole consumption of fruits, and she accepts.Yet gradually, her health begins to deteriorate. She has a very persistent coughing fit one day when driving home from work as she was forced to tailgate a truck emitting substantial amounts of exhaust fumes. Then she has a serious asthma attack at a baby shower of her friend, not to mention an ominous nosebleed at the hairdresser’s. Her doctor, however, insists that she is physically fine and suggests for her to see a psychiatrist.None of these remedies work for her. She is then sent to an allergy specialist who determines that she is highly allergic to milk. Yet cutting out dairy products and returning to a regular non-fruit diet does not alleviate her symptoms; in fact, over time her symptoms worsen and she even faints at the dry-cleaner.Then she hears of a group claiming that many people are allergic to their environment and that they are suffering from what they term multiple chemical sensitivity or the Twentieth-Century Disease. Curious about this group, she goes to one of their meetings and finds people who seem to have similar symptoms. Slowly, she becomes convinced that the reason for her malaise lies in her environment, a dangerous cocktail of chemicals and pollutants that can even potentially kill a receptive and sensitive person like her.Soon enough she joins some of these more extreme group members in a retreat in a deserted area where they sing songs, hold hands and are given motivational speeches by Peter Dunning, the author and so-called inventor / discoverer of this disease and its so-called cure. The cure, he insists, lies in positive thinking and to shelter oneself from all the evil that happens in the world, including violence and pollution. The retreat Wrenwood then becomes their “happy” and “safe” place.As we witness this group, we are reminded of both New Age philosophies as well as religious cults. Although the members are not openly religious or Christian, there is a lot of overlap there. We can sense that at first Carol is not comfortable in this place, but soon she comes to accept it as a possible alternative to her ills.Curiously enough, she keeps getting worse until she decides to [...]

Entering the World of Rainer Werner Fassbinder: A Berlin Alexanderplatz Review

Fri, 22 Apr 2016 17:53:00 +0000

When it comes to Rainer Werner Fassbinder, his reputation exceeds him. He is known as the enfant terrible of the New German movement. He was openly gay. He was openly self-destructive. He was a workaholic and a drug and sex addict. He made about forty films before he died at the young age of 37. He left an undisputed legacy, while critics, regardless whether they like him or his work, acknowledge his important contributions to the art and world of cinema.My first encounter with Rainer Werner Fassbinder happened more than a decade ago with the bizarre Beware of the Holy Whore (1971). Having heard so much about the director and not having been exposed to any of his films before (strange considering my German upbringing combined with my steady and steadfast love for cinema) I watched this particular movie with great enthusiasm and expectations.  And I was let down. I would definitely not recommend this film as an entry to the world of Rainer Werner Fassbinder. It felt for the most part pointless and there were only two scenes that made an impact on me. One, if I remember correctly, had the director of a movie, Fassbinder casting himself as the director, fall in great despair to the ground and ask for five (or more) Cuba libres. The other scene was a strange and quite inventive fighting scene towards the end and it was acted in slow motion and on replay. Everything else did little to impress me, and I discarded Fassbinder for the time being and did not approach him again until a number of years thereafter.Then within the past year or two, I decided to give him another shot. This time I was more strategic and hunted down the movies that were among his most celebrated and known. So I watched The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979) and Ali or Angst essen Seele auf (1974). The first one I thought well-made, but still did not understand why there was so much fuss about this film-maker. The second one I thought very well done and again, with the exception of a few idiosyncratic directorial touches and flourishes here and there did not see anything truly outstanding or unique.And that is exactly what draws me to a specific director or artist in general. It is not just craft, but something that makes the director truly different from others. It is not unlike falling in love with someone; they may look and be similar to everyone else on the surface level, but there is something extraordinary or special about them, and we feel ourselves inexplicably drawn towards them. Yet until we notice that particular quality which the French (of course!) render best with je-ne-sais-quoi (and not everyone has it in fact), there is little to attract us.So I decided to give Fassbinder another try and this was an experiment and a significant investment of time and probably effort: I tackled his magnum opus Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980) based on Alfred Döblin's Ulysses-like novel. It is purportedly one of the longest movies in movie history clocking in about 15 and a half hours. I was apprehensive, nervous and thrilled to embark on this cinematic adventure.The very first minutes were great. The main character, an unassuming rather sympathetic Franz Biberkopf was released from prison for the manslaughter of his wife. Yet he hesitates to leave the prison grounds, scared about leaving behind his accustomed confines and worried about the world he might find outside. Then followed about half an hour of bizarre events and I was getting worried that I would not be able to continue, but it got better; I vowed come what may I will finish this a[...]

US vs. Them: The Perceived Threat of the Other

Thu, 31 Dec 2015 20:49:00 +0000

Beginning in our infancy, we instinctively learn to separate the self from the other. The infant notices that there is indeed a physical separation between them and their mother. With time, this separation of the self increases and crystallizes into a unique identity.This separation is encouraged more in certain cultures like the West with its focus on individuality and reason, while Eastern culture with its collectivist outlook may prefer harmony and unity over the fragmentation of the self. Be it as it may, one can analyze what the separation consists of alongside its inherent criteria as well as its possible consequences. Physically speaking, where does my body end and the body of the other begin? This seems to have relatively clear marked lines as I can claim that this pound of flesh is mine and is visibly separate from yours. To protect my own body I may ask the other, among other things, to give me some physical distance, which may be broken by loved ones.Poetically speaking, we overcome or annihilate the physical separation with our lover, an act that is often portrayed as a mystical union in Sufi tradition, for instance. In that sense, the touch of the lover will connect my body with hers. It is only in love-making where physical distinctions completely blur and the body becomes one. Put differently, the body of the one merges with the other, becomes indistinguishable and creates a new unified entity.But separation does not exist only on a physical level; there are also various types of psychological separation. This can still exist within those same aforementioned lovers where each holds onto a separate identity. But in psychological terms, we may identify with particular groups and as a result extend ourselves beyond the self. For instance, we often see those who belong to our family as part and parcel of our identity.This circle can be extended to include friends and acquaintances and social, national and religious groups. Moreover, I may identify myself with my city, my country, my religion and even my local hockey team, that is I perceive a connection between me and all the others who belong to those groups. During hockey games, fans tend to easily set themselves apart through their clothing and paraphernalia, while in other situations people carry around pin-flags or wear crucifixes.Groups serve a number of functions. They can be a way of escaping ourselves and our sense of loneliness. We feel as islands upon ourselves, but the extension of the self towards others helps us alleviate some of those lonely feelings. This can also be a manner of protecting ourselves both physically and psychologically. By being one within a group of people, we sense strength and support, and people are more likely to help someone they perceive as similar to them than a complete stranger. And in these situations who can be seen as a threat here? The enemy is, in fact, the “other.” In that sense, anybody or anything that represents something other or something different from us can be perceived as a threat. For instance, imagine a family party in which there is a person who does not have any ties to your family. That person, due to his difference, may be looked upon as suspicious; although he can never fully become one with the family (unless he chooses to marry one of the other family members), he can manage to override the differences by showing everyone that he is, essentially, either similar to them (culturally, professionally etc) or that he is, despite his differences, not a threat to the status quo.The desire to create and belong to groups has been existent since[...]

1965: Tariq Ali on How The Times Are A-changin'

Tue, 29 Dec 2015 00:09:00 +0000

In the fall of this year I had the unique chance and honor to attend a talk by Tariq Ali, the renowned British-Pakistani journalist and film-maker. His talk was hosted by the Simon Fraser University in a series highlighting the revolutionary year of 1965. The main impetus was also to celebrate and raise awareness about the university that was turning fifty, having established itself in that particular groundbreaking year.When the Simon Fraser University was founded, in those years of social and political upheaval, history was considered a controversial subject. Many were reluctant or had become hesitant to adopt a grand narrative, a lens with which to interpret historical events partly due to the eroding effects of postmodernism. At the same time, some popular outlooks, such as the Marxist view, were fragmented, and later in shambles or re-boot mode after the Fall of the Communist party. But as Tariq Ali points out, we must see events in their context. The traditional Marxists had in the heydays a number of flaws and deficiencies, one of them being the exclusion of women and persons of color.Notwithstanding, Marxism was the grand narrative for quite some time, and SFU in the 70s was a refuge or breeding ground for those same Marxists. Marxismin its different hues and shades is still (or perhaps even more) relevant today in a world that is seeing its paradigms shift towards globalization, the new all-embracing and overriding single narrative.All this has occurred due to the history of capital that has, in turn, led to today's uncharted capitalism. This type of capitalism is not bound by the state anymore, but it is, on the contrary, strictly controlled and reinforced by state power. Do we really need democracy then, Ali asked the crowd of most likely different generations and hues of Marxists in attendance.The question is, of course, rhetorical, if not downright cynical. Our current elected politicians and their respective political parties are nothing but puppets whose influence and impact are limited to unimportant or generally insignificant issues; anything they decide or vote upon will not affect or haunt the rulers at the top. Ali has written extensively on Bush and Obama, and one of his main claims is that despite our mainstream perception to the contrary there is indeed rather little (or not enough) separating the two leaders from each other.Why are people not asking for better living conditions? For example, in the past, especially in Europe, there was a political and social ambiance that had unchangeable projects and a clear philosophy at its core. There seems to be a widespread amnesia now regarding these social topics but in the past people were not ashamed or afraid to ask for free public education and public housing.That we see it as normal and commonplace nowadays that education will cost us money and that many people in the world who do not have money are excluded from this privilege, hence making education an effective monopoly, that is, another form of capital control, all this is something we have come to accept without doubt or hesitation. But it does not and should not have to be this way. Another problem of the political project of globalization is the fact that these ideas and feelings of helplessness are transported and implemented into other countries changing their structure and ideology. The media is in decline and at the same time front and centre of all of this. In the past, notably during the Vietnam war, the media was functioning as a legitimate voice, and opposition was often expressed. Astonishing and shocki[...]

Kiarostami's Close-Up: Masterful Weaving of Fact and Fiction

Sun, 13 Dec 2015 19:15:00 +0000

When approaching a film by the internationally acclaimed Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, I am generally very cautious. His films are known for being very, very slow (imagine a snail in slow-motion) and generally uneventful in terms of plot (watching paint dry is more action-filled). Notwithstanding, there is a deep and profoundly affecting humanity contained within and revealed through his films that can be even life-changing. In other words, his films may be at times hard to sit through, but in the end, we are more often than not left amazed and grateful for the experience.With this cautious but hopeful mindset, I entered his 1990 movie entitled Close-Up. I decided to watch it because it is hailed and celebrated by known film-makers around the world, including Martin Scorsese and it did make the cut as one of the 50 greatest movies of all time by Sight and Sound in 2012. Up to that point, my favorite film of Kiarostami had been Taste of Cherry (1997), which had been curiously panned and even hated by renowned film critic Roger Ebert on its release although later he adopted a somewhat softer tone, while one of Kiarostami's more recent (abroad) efforts Copie Conforme(2010) had been interesting but not as impressive as his Iranian films. Yet even the latter film showed some of the director's trademarks. There are long conversations often filled with poetry taking place in a car as well as a continuous interest, if not obsession, with the blurry lines between fact and fiction, or rather cinema and fiction. The title itself Copie Conformemeaning “Certified Copy” directly references this theme; that is, the film is a copy or replicate of reality (and incidentally his latest movie is called Like Someone in Love (2012): although I have not yet seen the film, the “like” part of the title shows us that it must include the recurrent theme of reality versus appearance). But if cinema is a copy of real life (and love), it is at the same time morereal than life in that it expresses a wide range of experiences that are often not visible to the naked eye of ordinary life.Indeed Kiarostami's philosophy of cinema is not as far-removed but equally dense as, for example, the opera. In fact, traditional operas from their well-known Italian masters, most notably Puccini and Verdi, often serve as a magnifying glass that enlarges life and exposes the vivid and colorful emotions and passions underneath. The opera (and Kiarostami's movies, as a rule) are rather self-conscious about these acts; the music swells and the singers / actors swoon to (over)expose human sentiment and passion, and the viewer and the composer / performers are fully aware that this is merely a stage of actors. In Kiarostami's films, there is almost always the reminder that this is a film we are watching when he deliberately exposes himself and/or his crew. The fact that the cinematic world is artificial does not, naturally, take away from its often life-affirming message about our daily lives.So it came as little surprise that Kiarostami would be interested in the real-life case of a so-called swindler or impostor who decided to pose as the famed Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf and who was hence sued by the swindled family and was to be tried for his acts. Kiarostami must have loved the fact that we have here the double of impersonator versus the real director. The reason why he was (mis)taken for the director was their physical resemblance. But why would this man do something like that? What was his motivation? Money? Fame? Or both?To[...]

Canadian War Hero Romeo Dallaire and the Fight for Social Justice

Mon, 12 Oct 2015 21:46:00 +0000

Recently, I had the honor and opportunity to attend a keynote address by retired Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire. I had been invited by my dear colleague and filmmaker Leigh Badgley to attend the Allard Prize for International Integrity in which the following short film Allard Prize for International Integrity 2015 Finalists of hers was being showcased. More about the prize a little later, but my focus is mainly on the speech by Romeo Dallaire and its impact. I first got a glimpse of him as he entered the stage with the prize committee all of whom were dressed in colorful academic robes. As he was sitting there, he looked somewhat stiff and slightly uncomfortable. He was about to receive his honorary degree and as the announcer introduced him, I realized that he was the Canadian officer depicted in the movie Hotel Rwanda. In Rwanda, he had disobeyed his UN orders and had followed his own ethical guidelines to ensure the safety of the African citizens and to stand up against genocide in that country; Dallaire is credited with saving the lives of more than 30,000 people. Already we see two traits here, one, a person who is not tied to blind obedience and discipline, and second, a person who is rooted in deep morality. Dallaire did not speak immediately after receiving his honorary doctorate, but came back a little later for his keynote speech. This was a good idea because when he returned he had taken off his academic cape and wardrobe and looked much more human and comfortable as a result. Right after his first words, we sensed that he had a sense of humor. He had some words for his daughter who was studying at UBC for her MBA and bragged to her that he had already received his doctorate just like that.Then, he shared his love for public speaking with us and the fact that he likes to show slides; it was the first of over 126 slides, he joked, and this was already the cut-down version. Yet he was not there to clown around or to merely entertain us; in fact, he had a lot of interesting observations to make. He shared some of his personal stories and ideas, which ought to be heeded and followed by us all, citizens, politicians, and military personnel alike.First off, he looked at the question of humanity. Many times we overlook the humanity of others, particularly when it comes to our opponents. In our mind, whether consciously or not, we strip them bare of their humanity and see them as monsters or perpetrators of evil. One of the biggest and saddest issues that concerns Dallaire - and he has devoted significant time and energy towards this - is the continued use of child soldiers. This should not happen and children should not be viewed or treated as enemy soldiers. While adults may have their disagreements, children should not be dragged into these conflicts and not be sent to the front lines with weapons in their hands.He gave us a personal example when he was in Rwanda. They were driving on a narrow strip, a no man's land marked between the Hutu and Tutsis, and they encountered a young boy of six or seven at the crossroads. They had heard of potential ambushes that used this method of distraction. The boy had a protruding belly of hunger and looked demarcated and innocent, but Dallaire and his fellow soldiers quickly got off the jeep and searched the surrounding areas for hidden attackers.Yet they found nothing but empty huts filled with corpses. Then when they had cleared and secured the area, they returned to the road and found that the boy was missing; he was not at[...]

The Mars One Mission: One-Way Ticket to Space

Thu, 01 Oct 2015 18:22:00 +0000

Something fishy is going on here. There are a number of films that deal with distant space travel involving humans (Christopher Nolan's Interstellar and The Martian directed by Ridley Scott come to mind) and then there are a number of NASA space missions that constantly bring us news about the red planet, including the recent discovery of water on Mars. When there is so much focus on one thing, especially in the media, I become suspicious and look for a hidden agenda.A possible objective could be possibly to raise and drum public support (and funding) for further NASA missions to Mars. Or else it could be a slick way to advertise for the Mars One Mission. I had not heard about this latter mission until I attended a wonderful and informative talk by one of my colleagues, Commerce instructor David Crawford. At first, I listened incredulously as this seemed the stuff of science fiction movies and novels, but slowly I realized that this was meant for real. The overall plan was to colonize Mars, which is at the same time a running theme of various current films on the big screen. In order to colonize Mars, they needed a number of volunteer astronauts to go to space on a One-Way mission.Why one way? Well, as travel time is both long and costly, it would save money that way. You can get to Mars, but not come back. David then showed us the criteria used to recruit people from the general population. In terms of characteristics, they were rather on the vague wishy-washy side with sought attributes like resiliency, adaptability, curiosity, ability to trust, and creativity / resourcefulness. These are very general characteristics, but it shows also the psychological profile they are targeting. In other words, ability to trust would ensure that the person is not paranoid about intentions or hidden agendas, but has a warm and accepting attitude towards others telling them what to do. Resiliency is a no-brainer as you have to survive and get by with little to no resources (hence also the addendum of creative resourcefulness).But as I was listening to all of this and thinking that this was a mission of no return, I wondered (and worried) about the psychological profile of somebody willing to undertake such a - to put it less bluntly - suicide mission. Who would be willing to risk their life in order to try to colonize an uninhabitable strange land? What was the pay-off for the individual?Such thinking is often counter-attacked by those who love adventure and who would like to further their causes of the so-called development or progress of humanity. They claim that such thinking would have hindered the early settlers to explore the Earth and to discover new continents. My response was, yes, but at least we were talking about the same planet, not some mysterious planet far off in space that will most likely pose a number of threats to our physical and psychological well-being.It boggles my mind that someone in their full sanity would undertake such a mission, no matter how adventurous you may be or this trip may seem. You would probably get candidates who are generally dissatisfied with life or people who are never satisfied with what they have and want something more out of life. Anyhow, there must be some sort of lack that such a mission would fill in their personal or professional lives.In a video of the selected astronauts, a selection process that by the way does not restrict or discriminate regarding age (basically anyone above 18 in good health was eligible to apply[...]

The Limits of Embodied Simulation and Piaget's Schemata

Thu, 24 Sep 2015 19:38:00 +0000

It was that time of the year again for me, time to attend the latest (10th) Quinn Memorial at UBC and to write and reflect on the issues raised. This time around we had the pleasure of seeing Dr. Susan Carey, a Harvard professor, talk about concepts. The title of the talk was “Concept Acquisition: Beyond Logical Construction and the Building Blocks Model.”Susan Carey was introduced by UBC's Head of the Psychology department Geoff Hall who enumerated all her distinguished awards and accomplishments and summarized her view as one that gave more credit to infants' minds than Piaget had done previously. In fact, her views were also opposing a number of ideas propagated by Locke and Berkeley.All this sounded interesting and aroused my curiosity. I have often felt that Piaget had generally underestimated the rich and resourceful mind and the mental and other capabilities of children, but it would be much better to actually hear it from someone who was an expert on the matter. Yet as so often happens, I was disappointed at first. What she was talking about mostly had little to do with what I thought she was going to talk about. In fact, it seemed initially that she was not showing us how children are smarter than we think, but that they, in fact, deceive us!But first thing first. Susan Carey asked us the simple but poignant question of why understanding can be at times easy and at other times hard. The general view is that we are born with a set of innate primitives. This is basically our knowledge base that can increase its content but not its processing capacity. In other words, we are operating with an 18-month processor.According to this view, our learning cannot increase our expressive power. Put differently, we are rather limited in terms of learning and understanding new primitives since we have already acquired the necessary linguistic and semantic blueprint, a set that is somewhat set in stone. But Susan Carey disagrees with this view since new primitives can be learned.She gave us an example of certain migrating birds. They travel over long distances and do so at night. How do they know where to go? Is it based on a set of innate primitives or do they learn and adjust? Or in that specific case, how did the birds know where to go in the dark?One theory is that they may have used the North Star Polaris. But how did they know which one is the right one to follow as following an erroneous star could take you - or rather the birds - to the wrong place? Also, what is the North Star for us now has not always been so due to the Earth's rotational axis; in fact, about 14,000 years ago, it used to be the star called Vega (and it will become Vega again in 12,000 years or so). This cannot be information passed on genetically from bird to bird generations. There must be some learning involved, that is the ability to create new primitives. That is when the computational primitives come in. This is not just using your processor, but also making it more powerful through the power of arithmetic.How does this knowledge happen and does it apply to humans as well or is it simply for the birds? There are two methods we apply to learn about numbers. One of them is the Parallel Individuation Model. This means that we learn and count each number at a time, and see each number as distinct and separate from other numbers.Yet there is also a process called the Analog Magnitude Model. In this case, we process chunks of information at once and see them [...]

Hubris of Unlimited Power: Gods, Gangs, and Narcos

Sun, 13 Sep 2015 19:23:00 +0000

What would it be like to have unlimited god-like power? I am not talking about being a vigilante / superhero like Batman or Superman who use their skills and powers to right the wrongs in the world. I mean to have power that exceeds the reaches of nature and to be suspended beyond the tentacles of the law and the limitations of morality; hence, to be a Zeus-like entity that often engages in a self-absorbed, shamelessly and unapologetically narcissistic show of power.To be someone to be reckoned with. Perhaps the most tangible and vivid image that comes to mind would be the God of the Old Testament. He is filled with wrath and the power to destroy and demolish anything he so wishes, be it individuals or whole towns. He is basically ready to eliminate anything and anyone that do not please him or do not abide his bidding. There are no limits to his reach and nowhere for you to hide since he can track you down, find you and make you pay for your sins and transgressions.The closest example that comes to this power on Earth would not be the American president but rather somebody like a ruthless dictator or a scrupulous drug pin like Pablo Escobar. The problem with the president is that his powers are limited in scope and reach. As we often see, despite having executive orders, there are many things that the president in the Oval Office cannot do, such as scrap guns or close Guantanamo. Elected presidents are bound by laws and morality (to a certain extent at least), which may limit what they are able to say or do. They can circumvent these limitations by using doublespeakor by changing and distorting facts and events to their advantage, but few of them have the guts to downright speak their mind. Again the only ones that do not mince words and have the power to back it up are dictators. They are free to act as they please, be it for good or bad (mostly it is the second as absolute power does corrupt).Yet somebody like Escobar and his fellow narco counterparts today are the closest we come to absolute power. I have been watching the brilliant and addictive series Narcosand it shows us an astute and cunning businessman at first who becomes a megalomaniac shamelessly abusing his power in his latter years.One of the strongest traits of this drug lord was his extensive network. He had information, and that gave him power (I suppose the NSA is trying to copy that kind of network, but this is better left unsaid). In one of the early scenes of the Netflix series, Escobar intimidates a group of boastful military police officers at a road check by enumerating not only their names, but detailed personal events in each of their lives, such as one of their mothers being sick in a hospital or so-and-so having a beautiful wife. Having all this intimate knowledge coupled with the power that money brings and affords him, he is indeed invincible. If anybody dared to oppose him, no matter who it was, they would feel the wrath and fire of this man. He could kidnap their children, torture their relatives, and, at the last instance, assassinate them at a whim. At the same time, he is untouchable because of a sort of unofficial and unspoken immunity nor can he be found or located, let alone arrested due to his multi-faceted connections. The mention of his name alone only induces fear.Who would not sometimes dream of having this type of power? Not to have to run to the Godfather in times of emergencies so that they can take vengean[...]

Two interpretations to the ending of Cassavetes' Opening Night

Sun, 06 Sep 2015 02:07:00 +0000

The following post is for those who have already seen the movie Opening Nightby John Cassavetes and are either baffled by the ending, understood it and are able to shed light on it (and offer a better interpretation than the ones proposed here) or simply are curious about the Cassavetes phenomenon. Even renowned film critic Roger Ebert was confused about the ending of this movie, so much so that he felt inclined to ask the director himself, but, unfortunately, Cassavetes had already passed away by that time. Being a novice to the John Cassavetes universe I do not claim to getit or to offer a final say on the matter. I am just sharing my thoughts and impressions on the movie and hope to provide food for thought and to elicit comments. Of the two interpretations I prefer the first one, but have provided the second one to give the whole thing a little bit of balance.Interpretation OneThis is the happier version of the two in which Myrtle has managed to exorcise her demons and has achieved success. Success comes not only in terms of fame and recognition, but more importantly includes acceptance of her age and self-identity. What is Myrtle's problem anyway? There is some speculation on that and as usual Cassavetes keeps it vague. Is it a mental disorder, alcoholism or a devastating midlife crisis? It might be a combination of the three (with additional elements thrown in for good measure), but it is not alcohol alone, as some have suggested.Myrtle, the famed and renowned actress has her doubts regarding the latest play. The doubts are manifold: First off, she may doubt her own abilities and /or she has concerns about fulfilling her audience's expectations. Secondly, she has concerns regarding the role she is supposed to play. The play called Second Womanmay be too close for comfort, meaning she may identify with the protagonist rather too closely.Finally, she disagrees with the play's take on women. It seems that the woman in the play written by an aging female playwright is continuously humiliated, while the notorious slap in the face scene is the crown of all that.Add to this the fact that Myrtle has just witnessed a fan of hers being hit and killed by a car. This fan who seems otherworldly and grotesque in the rain and whose face we do not see until she is dying on the street was rather obsessed with Myrtle. Myrtle may feel guilty about not only being the possible cause of her death, but she may agonize about the fact that the idealized person this fan was adoring was not her real self. This may be part and parcel of the actors' world. We may fall in love with certain of them because of the roles they are playing but will fail to see them the way they are in reality and in their real lives. It is the image and reputation that they may project, whether intentionally or not, and we take it as the real thing.So Myrtle might have realized that there is a great gap between how others see her and the way she is or rather the way she sees herself. Either way, not only was the young woman's death in vain but it happened for the wrong reasons. Myrtle was faking her way through it all whether on the stage or her own messy life.The issue of aging looms large and is often referred to in the movie. Myrtle senses that her opportunities are becoming scarce and she is afraid that once she plays an older woman like in the Second Womanshe will be typecast and never play a younger woman again. At[...]