On languages and identities

Each one of us carries within ourselves a number of identities. Some identities, like our lineages, are inherited. Others are acquired and can be shuffled around like credit cards in a wallet. Because we use languages to communicate, our linguistic identities– whether they arise purely by accident or as a result of conscious choices– are particularly dear to us.

Languages are a beautiful invention. They are are inclusive and inviting, even when individual speakers are not. Becoming fluent in a multitude of languages gives us wondrous new vistas into the mind.

The first words I remember from my childhood were in Bengali. It was the language my parents and grandparents spoke amongst themselves. Very early on in life, it was the language I exclusively spoke in as well. It was only when I turned four and I was transplanted to a new country that I first began to hear English. Spending many of my formative years in a country where it is the language of communication, English quickly became my primary language. Bengali did not vanish altogether, but rather became a language of conversation – a home, in which I found my own name pronounced properly in the voice of those who loved me most.

Over the next few decades, I picked up bits and pieces of other languages that I stitched together into new identities. Every language I encounter opens a window into the minds of the people who use it. I discover new words that have new meanings and are not perfectly translatable into languages I knew before then. Sometimes, I still cannot find the right word to express myself in any language. And often during those times, I have been astonished to find that the right words to express my own thoughts are in the writing of another. I am grateful to writers who were born before me- Rabindranath Tagore, Bertrand Russell, and Octavio Paz – for this.

It is true that we judge others by how well they speak languages we know ourselves. Quite often we automatically consider someone attempting, but unable to speak, a language we know well to be unintelligent. I have been in the midst of people whose primary language I did not know, and have found myself in that situation. There is a feeling of helplessness in not being able to stay attuned to what others are saying around us.

Languages evolve over time. Some languages lose their prior status. My ancestors had a working knowledge of Sanskrit. I never got around to learning more than a few words. By not making a reasonable attempt to learn Sanskrit, I cannot help but feel that I’m losing something that I should’ve made more of an attempt to hold on to. I am reminded of Ayapeneco, a language spoken in a village in Mexico. As the story goes, there are only two living people who know that language. When they die, the language, Ayapeneco will die with them. That linguistic tradition of a people will be gone forever.

I have been thinking about language-based identities for another tangible reason. My son recently graduated from the language of made-up words to conventional ones. My wife and I make every effort to communicate with him in Bengali, but we’ve noticed that he already shows a preference for English. For my son, living in the United States, the pressure to learn English in order to be able to communicate with his peers is immense. Conversely, the incentive to learn Bengali, the language of his parents and grandparents, is minimal. He already knows that my wife and I are multilingual, and just as likely to respond if he speaks in English.

It took me a while to understand just why I was alarmed that my son was showing an overwhelming preference for English over Bengali. One of the key identities that a first-generation immigrant holds on to is language. It feeds the illusion that he has never actually left, and that, if necessary, one day he can return. Naturally, the immigrant wishes to pass along this key identity to his offspring, so that he bequeaths an unbroken chain to the old country.

I have come to terms with the thought that my son might never understand or love Bengali as much as I do. That is fine. But as part of his inheritance I would like him to learn at least a few words in the language of his parents. I would like him to have the option to fall back on it and think that his mother and father are talking to him, even when we are not around.

In return, I am ready to learn the meanings of new words in languages my son decides are worth learning on the path to adding new identities.

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(Reposting a short piece I wrote for Dukool).

10 observations from the group stage of the 2014 FIFA World Cup

The group stage of the FIFA World Cup is over. Here are 10 random observations from me about the sport known as football or soccer:

1. The best goals are the ones that almost get scored.

2. The outcome, like life, is seldom fair. You can attack well for 1 minute out of 90 and win (USA vs. Ghana) or defend poorly for 1 minute and concede the victory (USA vs. Portugal). You can lose and still qualify. And it might make you sick in the stomach or jump for joy, but that is how it is.

3. This game is always about mistakes: it is all about human passions. If people played like robots, we would have 0-0 draws every time.

4. Never get into debates about how a star player is performing with someone of the same nationality as the player.

5. The goalkeeper and the talented striker are the two most important players on the team.

6. There is a correlation between teams that traditionally don’t do well and how much they complain that the dice are stacked against them. Correlation is not causation.

7. Refereeing decisions tend to go in favor of teams that traditionally do well. Correlation is not causation.

8. There are no permanent enemies or friends in football. Except in derby matches.

9. The better side wins. Always. But ONLY if you believe the logic that the side that wins is better.

10. You can try to mask your emotions, but there are no neutrals when a goal is scored. Your allegiance will show when the ball crosses the line.

A godless life

If you are reading this, then chances are you know me well enough to know that I lead a godless life, by which I mean that I do not believe in the assumed power of gods and goddesses (either in the singular or plural) to exert any control over anyone’s life. The perceivable world is chaotic, but deterministic. The underlying quantum framework may or may not be. We do not know yet. But to me, life exists solely and completely within the realm of physical laws, chemical reactions and biological imperatives. I find no evidence to convince me that there are any preordained moral hierarchies holding the universe in its place.

I also respect those who do not agree with my view. Most of the people I have met in my life are religious. And most of the people I have met, irrespective of whether they are religious or not, are good people. For most people, religion is needed to fill a void. Others, like me, who do not believe in divine powers, have quite different philosophies to address the void. What is common to the human condition is the void that needs filling.

I accept as reality that this life, of finite duration, is all that I have. I cannot honestly believe in an afterlife. It is that simple. You simply cannot fake what you believe in by going through the motions. You may think that all of this is a form of nihilism, but I think the opposite is true. Life is precious, precisely because it is finite. We are the ones that almost never made it. Yet despite the inconceivable odds, we are here, and this is life, happening right now. And life will continue to happen as we search for and give our own meaning to it, or abandon any hope of finding one. It is a sobering thought: that although we are tiny in the grand scheme of things, we must take responsibility for our own actions, because there is no one else who can.

On your second birthday

Two.  I love the way you say it as you rattle off numbers from one to ten. The number itself does not mean anything to you yet, just as your birthday carries no special significance in your mind. For us though, the passing of another year of your life is a cause for celebration. Your birthday is inordinately more important to us than ours. Grant us this: we need the bright balloons, sugary cakes, and silly, conical hats more than you do.

As I reflect over the last year, memories surface indiscriminately. It has been a momentous year, indeed!  Now, you can build with blocks and paint with fingers. You have precise expressions including vocabularies of refined gestures and words. You recognize symbols including letters and numbers. You have developed tastes for certain kinds of food and preferences for specific activities. And then there are the myriad puzzles and games!

We have found onions in the washing machine and crayons in the sofa cushions. I used to find peanuts in my shoes, until one day you decided you needed to wear them more than I did. With my hat covering your eyes and my gloves on your hands, you looked like a hard-boiled private-eye from a Raymond Chandler novel.  After that moment nothing was quite noir anymore.

We ignored the smudges on the television or the trail of Cheerios on the just -cleaned carpet. One day I asked your mother, “Why is one of my CDs in the bathtub?” She looked at you. You looked at the teddy bear. The bear had no alibi. Was there was a miscarriage of justice that day? I cannot say that the thought weighs very heavily on my conscience.

Early on, you used to say “hi” into the remote-control. We thought that it was cute. Not anymore. You know what all the important buttons do (and even I don’t know what some of the buttons do… set off a nuclear device, perhaps?) We had to hide the remotes until we could no longer find them ourselves. Now we just watch whatever is on the last-known-channel.

A few months ago, I had to enable a passcode on all my mobile devices.  It wasn’t because of thieves, it was because of you. It was fine as long as you were sending out blank calls and tweets on my behalf. One time, you nearly emailed my boss. I shrugged. What can a little boy do, after all? But I had to draw the line when you deleted an app with high-scores I had been working for months to get. No fair, buddy.

Forget the app. I confess that it is been a losing campaign to baby-proof the world (or rather to adult-proof yours). You mastered the skill of opening doors and chocolate wrappers. Of tiptoeing to pinch items off progressively higher shelves. Of staging an impromptu sit-in the middle of the toys-section of a shopping mall.

Speaking of toys, I was very excited when we got you Lego building blocks, model miniature cars, and comic-book action figures. Excited for you, of course. I put that out there, in case you doubt my parental gravitas.

We’ve had our share of adventures this past year.  We have visited Mayan ruins in Mexico and Jain ruins in India. We have gazed at waterfalls and loafed on beaches. We have waved at strangers and have slid down chutes. We collected acorns and ran through piles of raked leaves. We read books together. We laughed at dinosaur replicas in museums and then ran in horror from the vacuum cleaner at home.

I have to ask. My child, what do you think of when you smile in your sleep? Licking rocks? Petting trees? Wiggling toes in water? Unrolling toilet paper?

We graduated from peek-a-boo to hide-and-seek. You would hide behind a row of trousers in the closet. “Where are you? I can’t see you,” I would say with a serious expression on my face. You would emerge with a triumphant smile from behind aforementioned trousers. Although we kept playing the game, despite my competitive streak, you always beat me. I never got any smarter.

Every morning I have noticed your urgency in trying to prevent me from leaving for work despite the flabbergasting 2/7 chance of success. There are many concepts besides work that I have been unable to explain to you this year – business-travel, private property, illness. On the other hand, there is much that I have learned this last year. Not just about you, but about myself and about your mother. (Here’s a secret you don’t have to tell your mother and she’s not going to read this: be grateful that she is your mother). In trying to teach you patience, over the last year, I have tested, crossed, and expanded the limits of my own, and taught myself.

So much changes in a few years. You were born only two years ago. One year ago you walked. Now you can run. As you’ve grown over the last year, you’ve started to develop a mind of your own. As a parent I’ve had to wrestle simultaneously with two contradictory observations: you’re growing up too fast, and you’re not growing up fast enough. It is humbling to think that the balance will one day shift overwhelmingly in the direction of the first.

That is the way of the world. Children grow up. As Tagore has said so eloquently- “the river runs swift with a song, breaking through all barriers. But the mountain stays and remembers, and follows her with his love.”

Stay well, my son. When you wake up from your nap, we will all have some cake.

Why context is important

Earlier today I saw the following tweet sent by the account of one of India’s preeminent newspapers:

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The fact that 1 in 4 people in the world’s most technologically advanced country had no knowledge of one of the primary tenets of science came as a shock to me, as it did to everyone else reading it. To get a bit of context, I searched for the original data obtained through a questionnaire on general awareness by the National Science Foundation of the United States. It is available as part of a very interesting report here.

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I haven’t had time to digest all of the data yet, but it seems that a very large proportion of people worldwide who are literate (by the standards of the general definition) are scientifically illiterate. It turns out that Americans, or at least those surveyed did not do as poorly on many questions as those in other parts of the world.

To me at least, what seemed most worrisome with respect to the United States were the two questions in which it fared the worst – tied to evolution and the acceptance of the Big Bang theory. I’m not aware of any conservative organization in the US which promotes geocentricism, but I know of many in this country which take the immutability of the humans species and the creation stories of the Abrahamic religions at face value.

Is objectivity in science possible?

Most scientists will tell you that the fashionable field of philosophy of science has failed spectacularly to influence how practicing scientists work or to provide any clues to the operation of any part of the universe. Nowhere has the clash been as obvious as on the battlegrounds of epistemology, which is concerned with the nature and possible extent of knowledge. Leading philosophers have taken, for lack of a better term, a philosophical stance that the true extent of knowledge can never be known; they remain skeptical that a scientific framework for integrating the physical laws of nature (especially those concerning quantum mechanics and relativity and gravitation) or for understanding consciousness in purely physical will ever be feasible. Regardless of what we think of individual theories, I think it is important to consider, in broadest possible terms, what exactly is the extent of knowledge:

Recently, in reading Nobel Prize-winner, theoretical physicist Steven Weinberg’s excellent book Dreams of a Final Theory, I came across the following passage:

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Basically, what Weinberg is  saying is that the laws of nature are independent of the mode of discovery and that there actual is such a thing as objective knowledge.

A few days later, I came across a diametrically-opposite viewpoint propounded by eminent philosopher, Nicholas Rescher, who has the view that there is no objective science. We only have “our science,” by which he means a human science, primarily lead by the Western scientific tradition. He further theorizes that any other science, and especially that of a possible intelligent civilization would be vastly different, because it would be “their” science.

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So, who is correct?

For what it is worth, there is really no way to disprove Rescher’s idea which uses deductive reasoning  or to prove to Weinberg’s idea  which uses inductive reasoning. Rescher’s thesis that there is another science  will always be feasible, because we will continue to be humans, and his underlying deductive principle that humans cannot know any other science will be valid. On the other hand, Weinberg won’t ever be able to prove that science is objective. Just because everything we know up to now seems to support our assertion of an objective truth, doesn’t mean that what we will learn later will necessarily support this theory. Note how Weinberg builds in a “fail-safe” to his argument: everything we know is part of current objective knowledge; however, as our own knowledge changes, there will be “tweaks” to our objectivity.

Of course, given the logical foundations of these two viewpoints, the jury might be out for a very long time on who is correct.

(OK, I’m not going to hedge my bet on this one, though that would be the safe and easy thing to do especially when the alternative involves contradicting a Nobel Prize winning physicist. But, you already know from my last blogpost that I prefer deductive reasoning to inductive reasoning.)

Perceptions are landscapes. Memories are works of art.

I was not feeling well. In a feverish delirium, and for no apparent reason, I began to recall a house I often visited in my childhood. I remembered that when I last visited this house, it seemed greatly in need of repairs. The family that lived there had fallen on hard times. It seemed that over the course of fifteen years of use, the house had worn down quite a bit. I was disappointed because I was remembering a place as it was and comparing it to an ideal vision deeply embedded in my memory. But what shook me the most was that the house seemed smaller than I had remembered it. How could that even be physically possible? Surely, the outer dimensions had not changed? Were there more people and objects inside making the dimensions seem different? Or had my own perception of it changed? Perhaps, both were true.

Memory is a hostile witness. I first saw the Grand Canyon on a cold morning when I was nine. It was a different Grand Canyon from the one I saw decades later, even though I could trace landmarks I had seen the first time. The basic assumption I make every is that the world changes interminably, but my memory is perfect. But where are the benchmarks to compare against? Proteins decay. Neurons find new connections. Memories are mutable. I change every day. How can I truly conclude that I’m even the same person after all these years?

And it is not just me. Stars exist as celestial bodies in three dimensions. We see stars in the sky in two dimensions in relation to other stars. We arbitrarily connect stars to form constellations. By finding patterns, we influence what others see in the sky as well. Meanwhile, the stars drift away. They burn out. The relation of memories to objectivity is similar.

Then again, what exactly is an objective world anyway? An objective experience cannot occur, since everything that happens must be subjectively compared to an earlier experience, either personal or learned, to make any sense of it. Every perception is filtered through senses and through the capacity for thinking. There are various wavelengths of light that correspond to what we call colors, but we cannot say objectively that colors exist beyond collective human thought. The other senses fair even worse. Henri Poincaré was singularly insightful when he said that objective reality was that which had been determined by the consensus of several thinking beings. In other words, there is no “reality” devoid of individual cognition and there is no “objectivity” apart from the rules which are agreed upon by our fellow humans. A frog in a well can know that the world is the well, but cannot know what lies outside of it. That is the sum of human experience.

But as sobering as this thought is, possessing a feeble intellect isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Even with an unreliable memory and limited capacity for thought, there is much to be learned. There are commonalities we can find with each other and with our planet. Every emotion is a gift. Perceptions are landscapes subject to shifts in weather. Memories are limited works of art. Endowed even with an idiosyncratic wellspring of consciousness, life is a beautiful thing.