Diplomacy in the age of glacial relations

Today, I saw a column in the Sunday Times of India on Indian foreign policy by none other than Indian novelist, Chetan Bhagat.  Mr Bhagat takes a very hawkish line in a whiny tone after the collapse of the India-Pakistan peace talks between SM Krishna and Shah Mahmood Qureshi. If it now acceptable for non-experts to write on international affairs, then I’m happy to oblige. I know next to nothing about the topic, but I do know a thing or two about human nature.

So, what options are really available in responding to a crisis through the proper use of diplomacy? Sir Humphrey Appleby gave the most brilliant exposition on diplomacy in the second episode of Yes, Minister that I’ve ever come across:

Sir Humphrey: Well, Minister, in practical terms we have the usual six options:

One: do nothing.
Two: issue a statement deploring the speech.
Three: lodge an official protest.
Four: cut off aid.
Five: break off diplomatic relations.
And six: declare war.

Hacker: Which should be it?

Sir Humphrey: Well:

If we do nothing, that means we implicitly agree with the speech.
If we issue a statement, we’ll just look foolish.
If we lodge a protest, it’ll be ignored.
We can’t cut off aid, because we don’t give them any.
If we break off diplomatic relations, then we can’t negotiate the oil rig contracts.
And if we declare war, it might just look as though we were over-reacting!

In the episode, these option were laid out with respect to a crisis created by the head of the fictitious African state of Buranda, but with a little imagination they can be made to fit most international crises.

But even this fictitious scenario can’t hold a candle to the most surreal event in the history of India-Pakistan relations. Siachen Glacier holds the dubious distinction of being the world’s highest battlefield -where more soldiers are lost on either side to the elements than to enemy fire. While reading up on how both sides got involved in this intractable conflict, I came across the following passage in the New York Times:

By the early 80’s, both armies were sending expeditions into the area, and suspicions accumulated like fresh snow. In late 1983, the Indians became convinced the Pakistanis were about to seize the glacier, [India’s] General [M.L.] Chibber said. This was inferred from intercepted communiques. If further evidence was needed, he said, it came when India sent procurers to Europe to buy cold-weather gear. They ran into Pakistanis doing the same shopping.

In other words, Indian and Pakistani military officers were shopping for high-altitude gear at the same shop at around the same time and this may have contributed to the outcome of future events.

Now, I know both countries have creative writers. I challenge them to come up with fiction resembling our warped reality.

© Text, 2010-2012, Anirban

Dreams, the “subconscious”, and Inception

Christopher Nolan’s Inception is an exceptionally ambitious film about the journey of thought-thieves who enter into the dreams of others. The film intertwines multiple story arcs into one viewing experience.

The main character in the film, Dom Cobb, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, is a thief adept in the art of extracting thoughts from the dream-state of individuals as required by his business clients. Inception, is a film about his last assignment which requires him to do the exact opposite – to insert an idea in the mind of a young business tycoon.

At the heart of the film is a reinterpretation of the old-fashioned heist movie filled with car chases, gun-fights, and resplendent pyrotechnics. These sequences are wondrous spectacles unlike anything I’ve ever seen. In a particularly dazzling progression of scenes in the second half of the film, Nolan splices layer upon layer of difference visual sequences to Hans Zimmer’s mesmerizing soundtrack. What is most audacious about the endeavor is that these sequences are layered in the alternative reality of dreams.

On another level, Inception is a film about emotions, perception, and reality. Cobb brings a lot of emotional baggage to the table, and the film is as much about his perception of reality and the emotional bonds he shares with others as it is about the mind of the people he enters.

Finally, in order to build the framework for examining dreams, Nolan also spends a substantial amount of time in Inception building a set of rules for dream examination and extraction. While plot structure, attention to detail, and character are central to the experience, these components of the film have been dealt with in detail elsewhere. Because Inception is purported to be a thinking person’s film and because the director’s invests significant time in explaining the theoretic underpinnings of thought-capture in the film, it is constructive to examine them in detail.

How do you insert an idea into someone’s head? Let us consider the idea presented in the film first. According to the film, in order to have a successful inception of an idea, it must be planted as a “seed” or a vague notion in the subconscious and allowed to grow into a full-fledged idea. To gain access to the mind, it must be inserted when the subject has his or her guard relaxed: the best way to enter the mind of a subject is when he or she is dreaming because it is at this time that it is exceptionally vulnerable to the power of suggestion. Why can an idea not be planted through the power of suggestion in a wake subject or through hypnosis? Well, for one there would be no science-fiction blockbuster woven around this simple, yet true explanation. Nolan tries to hammer across the notion that “ideas” are “parasites” that elicit a reaction similar to an immune response in the brain. This is untrue, and there is an inherent paradox in the explanation. We know that very few behaviors, mostly associated with survival, are instinctive. However, if an idea is not innate, then by definition it has external roots and it is susceptible to the power of suggestion – dream state or otherwise. In other words, most ideas do come from outside the mind and are subject to constant modification. This paradox does not detract from the narrative, but it is worth bearing in mind.

Law enforcement officials and magicians have known for years the relative ease by which false memories can be implanted. Psychologists have studied many of the ways by which memories can be changed in alert individuals without their conscious knowledge. Recent studies have affirmed that when there is mismatch between a decision and its outcome, subjects retrospectively rationalize choices they never made in the first place. Clearly, the mind is a place ripe for tricking!

Also, as we all painfully know, the act of forgetting is also a common occurrence. For many years the general assumption was that once a memory had been consolidated and turned into part of a long-term memory system, it was maintained indefinitely. Recent research has demonstrated that even consolidated memories are susceptible to decay. Whenever a memory is retrieved, it is prone to change. In other words, every time you recall events from your childhood, you change these through reconsolidation. Over time, these events add up so you either remember incorrectly or even forget.

There are additional preconditions to the foundations of the plot. First, is the assertion that dreams influence conscious decision-making in individuals. Second, is the corollary that that the rules of conscious decision-making apply to dreams too. Both are required to believe the premise of the film, even though neither has been scientifically substantiated.

Nonetheless, setting these preconditions aside, the dreams in Inception are vivid, though for the most part, linear. Even the most creative filmmakers are constrained by the limitations of their imagination and their art. I suspect that Nolan knew that it would be foolhardy to even try to replicate an actual dream, so he broke dreams down into two fictitious components. The first is the architectural structure that is created by the thieves and somehow uploaded into the mind of the dreamer. The second is the people that populate these hollow architectural structures which he calls projections in the film. Both are ingenious devices that allow Nolan to rein in dreams so that they resemble recognizable locations such as street corners in Paris.

Nolan also uses a very early Freudian notion of deep layers of thought, which has since fallen out of favor. At one stage, Cobb perpetuates the “we only use a part of our brain” fictitious meme. His use of “subconscious” (which has no concrete scientific meaning) throughout the movie to the more commonly used “unconscious” is also likely deliberate in order to put forward the idea that there are layers below the conscious. This comes into great effect in the final act when there are layers of “subconsiousness” which can be controlled and navigated like different levels of a video game. The denouement may also leave some viewers exasperated. However, given the complexities of the plot it was one of only few resolutions logically possible.

So is Inception worth watching? Definitely. Is it rooted in the current understanding of how the mind works? No, but that should not detract from the viewing experience. Inception is a thoughtful and beautifully-shot film. In addition, how many other commercial films can claim to ask us to delve deeper into the recesses of our own minds?

© Text, 2010-2012, Anirban

A series of open letters

It is the season for ranting. Actually, every season is the season for ranting. Not wanting to be left out, I’ve decided to post a few open letters to choice individuals. Every situation is true unless it it addressed to you (in which case the resemblance is purely fictional).

____________________

Dear Paul:

I appreciate your taking a keen interest in Indian cuisine. Contrary to Western customs, most desis do not eat samosas with a knife and a fork. I also have to warn you about the cooking DVD that you recently rented. You might be slightly disappointed when you find that Sholay does not have any recipes for curried chickpeas.

I’m sure you also know that “Hindus” refer to people and “Hindi” to the language (unless of course you’re talking about Varun Gandhi who is a Hindi who speaks Hindu).

Thanks,
Your Indian Friend

____________________

Dear IT Colleague:

You’re making a horrible mistake. It wasn’t me that looked at those sites. I may have downloaded some programs, but I am 110% sure that this has not impacted my efficiency or that of my computer. Also, please find a small token of my gratitude in your mailbox.

Thanks,
Anxious Coworker

____________________

Dear Isabella:

Thanks for replacing the soap in the hotel bathroom. I’m storing them and will gift to relatives when I visit India. Before I arrived I had no clue what “white ginger” was, but I certainly smelled like one at the Expo. Tomorrow please provide towels that are not white. White does not go well with my bathroom walls.

Thanks,
Hotel Guest

____________________

Dear Client:

Thank you for your quote. I am currently lying on a beach in Maui exploring options to optimize efficiency and cost-benefit using a forward-thinking approach. I did notice that your email was tagged with “High Importance”. Obviously, I am going to drop this Mai Tai to go the nearest phone-booth to change into my superhero costume.

Warm personal regards,
Your Personal Financial Advisor

____________________

Dear Suzanne:

The food was inedible and the service was non-existent, but because you drew a goofy face on the bill and wrote “Thanks”, go ahead and expect a 25% tip. Or maybe, I’ll tip you for the service I expect next time.

Cheers,
Customer

____________________

Dear Coworker:

Please perform an appendectomy to remove the 5 appendices in this project proposal. I’ll only read the “the meat of your argument” anyways. Also, please pick up the landscape photo of your trip to Coney Island with a unbelievably young lady which I found next to the network color printer.

Finally, missing a spot shaving was a calculated ploy to allow you to fixate on my face instead of spooking me with your usual shifty glances. Now, I can stare at the mole on your face with a clear conscience.

Best regards,
Smarter Colleague

____________________

To Whoever Stole My Bose in-ear Headphones:

As you know by now, I have earwax.

Happy listening!
Music-lover

____________________

Dear Magazine-Delivery Man:

Thanks for stealing or forgetting  to deliver my copy of The Economist for 2 months. I read it on the Metro over people’s shoulders anyways.

Grateful Reader
____________________

Dear Motivational Speaker:

I have polydipsia and polyuria which means that I drink a lot of water and go to the bathroom every fifteen minutes. So, don’t take it personally if I have to leave in the middle of your exciting talk.

Apologies in advance,
Client

____________________

Dear Charity-worker:

I understand that raising awareness of the obesity epidemic is a wonderful cause. Can I help it by buying two boxes of glazed donuts?

Greedily yours,
Fatuous Fatso

____________________

Dear Idiotic Acquaintance from College:

Calm down, dude! If I ignored you on Instant Messenger, I have every right to be angry if you think I am ignoring you. How were you supposed to know that I wasn’t out to lunch?

Please don’t send the following message to my work email address: “One ppl send this msg he make million doller. One not send he feel bad. Plz u send msg 2 d 15 ppls on ur list n 30 min or u died in 2010.”

Finally, I don’t have any answer to the question you posted on Facebook, namely: “Kis dufar ne mera lappy spamity se infract kiya?”

Take care,
Your Fraand

Disclaimer: I have floated some of these ideas on Twitter too. The two quotes in the last letter are actual comments.

© Text, 2010-2012, Anirban

Apologizing means never having to say you’re sorry

(With apologies to Erich Segal)

As you probably know, Joel Stein wrote a piece entitled “My Private India” for the July 5 issue of Time that created a lot of anger in the desi community. To put it mildly, Stein brusquely stated his beef with the fact that so many Indian immigrants had decided to settle in his former hometown, Edison, New Jersey. In response to the ensuing outrage, Time put out this apology:

We sincerely regret that any of our readers were upset by Joel Stein’s recent humor column “My Own Private India.” It was in no way intended to cause offense.

This apology got me thinking. What does it mean to actually say you’re sorry?

“It is easier to ask forgiveness than to get permission,” as Grace Hopper reportedly said. But there are also ways to look like you’re apologizing without actually doing so. My personal favorite is the “IF-THEN (ELSE)” conditional statement common in psuedo-apologetic syntax. “I didn’t mean to, but IF I hurt your feelings, THEN I’m sorry” is a commonly-used version of the “IF-THEN” which isn’t necessarily as heart-felt as “I am sorry I hurt your feelings.” The unsaid part of the “IF-THEN” construct is, of course, the “ELSE” condition. In other words “IF I hurt your feelings, THEN I’m sorry (ELSE I may not actually be sorry at all).”

This can be taken to annoying, condescending extremes as I recently witnessed in a disclaimer for the Bangla film,  Aamra. The film, a rather somnolent bore,  had a number of scenes shot with hand-held cameras, a defiant, non-apologetic apology and a word of advise* before the starting credits. Translated into plain English, it is as if the filmmakers wanted to say, “We shot this film this particular way on purpose. All the cool people are doing it. We’re sorry if you’re an idiot who doesn’t appreciate it.”

On the other hand, I do have to give credit to the filmmakers for not attempting to apologize for the actual content in this disastrous film. Genuine or fake, that one would never have been accepted.

______________________________________________________

*The disclaimer had “advise” instead of “advice”. My opinion is that if you’re going to look down on your viewers, at least be grammatically correct.

© Text, 2010-2012, Anirban


Are Indians Asians?

Well, are Indians Asians?

You’re thinking what kind of idiot poses this silly question. You look at a map or globe and point out India smack in the middle of a humongous landmass marked Asia. Indians are Asians and that is all there is to it. Or is there more?

You’re mileage may vary, Dear Reader, but I’ve come across at least three different notions of what constitutes an  “Asian”. The first and most obvious is the geographic argument that anyone hailing from the largest continent on the planet is an Asian. The second  is the close approximation of those who are politically-aligned to the major  cultural powers within geographical Asia. Finally, there are those who are considered to be ethnically Asian. These notions are neither clear, discrete, or completely overlapping.

Let us look at who is an Asian in greater detail. Is someone from Russia an Asian? Most of Russia is in Asia, but politically Russians can be considered aligned to the the rest of Europe. If a white Russian is born in Moscow the geographical argument would dictate that she should be considered a European, but this is also in line with popular political and racial notions. Now, what if this Russian is been born in Vladivostok, which is geographically in East Asia and thousands of miles closer to Tokyo than it is to Moscow? Or take the case of white Israelis born within geographic Asia. Do they fit the common political and ethnic notions of “Asians”?

The question of whether Indians are Asians is an interesting one. I’ve been told by many highly-educated individuals in the United States that I am  “an Indian and not an Asian.” When asked to elaborate, I’ve been informed that Asians have physical characteristics that resemble individuals belonging to the predominant ethnicities of South-East Asia and East Asia. On a related note, I have also heard Pakistanis referred to as “Middle-Eastern, not Asian”, and  that one clearly makes no  sense at all, even to me. Indian Americans are a subset of Asian Americans according to the US government, but the person on the street often does agree with this nuanced hierarchy.

Curiously, all I need to become an Asian is to take a flight across the Atlantic. In the United Kingdom, British Asians include desis from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh who form the predominant “Asian” community. East Asians are called “Chinese”. Also the word “oriental” does not have the racially charged connotations it does in most of North America. In short, if you believe popular definitions,  East Asians are either Asians or Chinese; and South Asians are either Indian or Asians depending on which side of the pond you ask the question.

© Text, 2010-2012, Anirban

Why Bollywood movies are better than racist Hollywood movies like The Last Airbender

The cable TV network Nickelodeon airs a popular animation series called Avatar: The Last Airbender. Last week, The Last Airbender, a cinematic version directed by Indian-American M. Night Shayamalan, hit theaters worldwide to nearly universal derision. Besides being critically panned for content, the film also ran into a storm because of the casting of white actors in characters that were non-white in the original series.

As Floating World notes in a lengthy write-up on race-bending in films:

Perhaps the greatest offense that the “heroic” characters are portrayed by lily white actors while the “villainous” characters are portrayed dark-skinned Indian actors in lieu of the fact that all the characters have distinctly Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Indian and Inuit characteristics regardless of their “good” or “badness.”

I felt bad reading that M. Night Shayamalan was a racist. He used to be the pride of the global Indian community. Which desi doesn’t remember when Sixth Sense was nominated for multiple Oscars including Best Picture and Best Director at the 1999 Academy Awards? Shame on you, Mr Shayamalan for putting us through The Village, Lady in the Water, and The Happening, and now for becoming a race-bender! You are a disgrace to the entire global desi community.

Real Chinese actors in a Hindi film

In any case, I don’t usually read up on the machinations of Hollywood media moguls. I get most of my entertainment from Bollywood Hindi films. It is lighter fare, yes, but in the Indian tradition of multiculturalism and tolerance towards all races, it is free from preferential treatment towards any particular community or race.

Real African actors in a Hindi film

In terms of casting, Bollywood films always cast the best actors for the best roles. Our films don’t indulge in the despicable act of whitewashing for audiences. Say what you will about Hindi films not being as polished as Hollywood blockbusters. At least the Hindi film industry is free from  racism.

White actors in a Hindi film

Fair-use rationale for images: All images are low-resolution and used only for purposes of demonstration for no monetary gain where a free alternative does not exist.

© Text, 2010-2012, Anirban