May 2013 Takeaways

Selfish women, fatally unarmed, normal Americans, Arrested Development and creepy doll twins.

This month’s review is a bit different. Rather than a list of forgettable headlines juxtaposed with ridiculous stories, I share with you a few items from the concluding month that deserve a bit more attention.

Women breadwinners are destroying society.

The men at Fox News are shocked and appalled that in 40% of American families, women are now the breadwinners. To them, this is a sign that “society is dissolving” because “having moms as the primary breadwinner is bad for kids and bad for marriage”. This is yet another example of folks wishing they could go back and live in some sort of Norman Rockwell painting that never actually existed. God forbid they get a woman’s opinion on that panel.

Tsarnaev friend killed by the FBI was unarmed

Even if Ibragim Todashev was a murderer and/or terrorist, this shooting is cause for concern. He was shot seven times, once in the head. The FBI is conducting its own internal investigation while the Council of American-Islamic Relations is calling for an independent investigation. A lot more people should be asking questions when an unarmed man is shot seven times and killed. This is not an Islamic issue – it’s about the relationship between individuals and state authority. 

But where are you really from?

Most non-white people living in the US (the entire Western world even) have encountered this at some point or another. The most interesting thing about this video is the guy’s use of the word “regular American”. As the demographics of the US point towards a country without a majority race or ethnicity, it remains to be seen whether or not we will lose this idea of what it means to be normal.

A new media platform comes of age

It’s easy to take things for granted in the digital age. In a few years, we probably won’t think twice about Netflix as a producer of original content. When Arrested Development was cancelled several years ago, millions of its die-hard fans were hurt and confused. How could a show with such a loyal following get cancelled? Network television needs mass viewership, whereas Netflix has a different model – high quality niche products. The strangest thing about the new season is that all 15 episodes were released at once, which meant that fans could binge on them. It seems Netflix is trying to adapt to the needs of viewers who are already so accustomed to illegally streaming and downloading their shows all at once. Following the success of Lilyhammer, House of Cards and now Arrested Development (success measured by viewership, not reviews), expect many more shows from Netflix and other non-traditional companies.

American Girls dollsAMERICAN GIRLS

There have been creepy dolls before. There have been creepy little girls before. But when Ilona Szwarc decided to photograph girls with their customized lookalike dolls for the New Yorker, she, perhaps inadvertently, captured the creepiest combination of girl-doll imagery I have ever seen. I smell a slasher movie in the making. The full slideshow is available here.

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Russian Interests in Syria

The Cold War is over but Russia has found a new way to stay relevant, and it largely depends on the US not getting involved.

Assad and Putin

A decade after the invasion of Iraq, we look at conflict in the Middle East with a weariness that suggests that America is no longer willing to lead. This is a welcome change for a part of the world that is equally weary of American leadership.

Surely there are many in Syria, rejoicing that the US has decided not to liberate them just yet. But we would be remiss to assume that intervention is opposed by all. There is always intervention. Sometimes it manifests itself with troops on the ground. Leading up to that though, there is the scripted international dance of multilateral talks, negotiations, sanctions, no fly zones and air strikes (now with more robots!).

When Mubarak was deposed, a green light from the US Government, his greatest benefactor, certainly helped. Western European countries took the lead in arming and supporting the rebels who overthrew Gaddafi. Encouragement and sympathy for the revolutions from the external powers may irritate the entrenched regimes in the region, but it is the foreign money and bombs that often topple these governments. While North America and Europe dither (or butt out, depending on your preference), the survival and ruthlessness of Assad’s government can be credited, in no small part, to Russia.

The decade following the dissolution of the USSR was embarrassing for Russia. Having lost territory, population and prestige, it scrambled to consolidate what power it could still maintain. Increases in petroleum exports injected a new sense of wealth and power, albeit one tempered by new expectations. Whereas Moscow contended to be the capital of the greatest power on earth just decades ago, it finds itself taken seriously mainly because it has lots of fuel and big bombs.

For a country that once had proxies all over the world, any chance to flex its muscle in a smaller country’s war is a welcome opportunity, especially one in which the US has been vocal but otherwise uninvolved. That America’s hands are tied (both in terms of domestic appetite for intervention and international credibility) is music to Russian ears. The longer the war persists, the longer Moscow remains relevant, by supporting a regime that would otherwise have already fallen.

Russia has found a war that no other Western power is willing to touch (yet). It’s a sort of super-power-vacuum. Granted, they are not publicly happy about their weapons being used to kill civilians, but by posturing as the facilitator of diplomatic negotiations and the protector of national sovereignty, Russia is hoping to recover whatever it can in terms of international influence. The Cold War is over, but old habits are hard to quit.

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More to come on the involvement of Hezbollah and Iran in Syria.

Lost in Indian English

You may speak English, but probably not Indian English.

My name is Cyriac and I am balding. For the past few months, I have been getting every haircut with my upcoming wedding in mind. I usually shave my head, but the lady and I agreed that I still have just enough hair to justify growing it back for the big day. We were hoping that years from now, we could sit down with the kids and look at pictures of daddy when he had hair.

Earlier today I went down to my local barber. He sits on the side of the road and shows up every day, even when it’s 46 degrees C (115 F) outside. He’s a nice fellow that speaks broken English comparable to my broken Hindi and we get along well.

Months ago, when asked what it is that I do, I had no clue how to say communications consultant in Hindi so I told him I do writing on the computer. Upon my next visit, he called over his friends from the chai stall a few meters away to meet his engineer friend. I protested that I wasn’t an engineer to which he replied “but you said you work with computers”. OK I said, submitting. My mother would have been proud – at least someone thinks her son is an engineer.

I had decided this morning that it was finally time to get rid of the six weeks of scruff I had on my face. I sat down, held my face with both hands and said the only words that mattered – “shave clean”. He ran his fingers through my hair and asked if wanted anything done up top. I said no and that I didn’t have enough time. “No tension. Twenty minutes only. Finishing only”. Once again I submitted, figuring that it wouldn’t take too long if all he was going to do was do the finishing touches on my hair – a basic cleanup I figured.

He tilted my head down and I felt two scrapes across the top of my head. I leaned forward and touched up top to feel the smooth baldness of my scalp. I looked at him with concern and asked “what is finishing?” “Everything gone. All clean” he said. And then I understood why he said it would only take twenty minutes. At that point I had no choice but to finish my finishing.

So a warning to all those visiting India – if a man with a blade asks you if you want finishing, say no, unless you wish to lose all your hair.bald mrcyriac

The question now remains, can I grow enough hair in the next 47 days…

Infinite Jest

Infinite Jest BookIt’s been almost a month since my last post. I have not been ill – not physically at least. The last few weeks of my life have been consumed by completing and digesting one book – David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. It’s safe to say that I have now recovered, but before I move on with the rest of my life, allow me to share with you my thoughts.

First, a brief plot summary. Some time in the near future (the book was published in 1996, and scholars agree that that future is more or less now), mostly in the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment (years are no longer numbered but offered up for corporate sponsorship), the Organization of North American Nations (a sort of NAFTA on steroids) is fighting a clandestine war with les Assassins des Fauteuils Rollents (the wheelchair assassin terrorist group pursuing Québécois independence), among others. Both parties are pursuing the original copy of a film made by James O. Incandenza, the mad genius physicist, film maker and founder of the Enfield Tennis Academy who killed himself by sticking his head in a microwave (sounds impossible but James the genius was able to figure out a way). The film, referred to as “the entertainment”, is the ultimate weapon of mass destruction because it is so good that anyone who views it falls into a state of catatonic bliss, out of which they can never recover. The viewers entertain themselves to death, shitting their pants and starving their bellies along the way. The terrorists are targeting America at its Achilles’ heel – our endless appetite for entertainment. The novel mainly takes place at the Enfield Tennis Academy and the Ennet House, a drug recovery center, where the main characters and their relationship to the entertainment emerge.

Had the story concerned itself with this overarching satirical story, the novel could have been the best read of my life. Wallace was a brilliant writer. There were countless instances in the book when I was simply in awe with his powerful wordplay.

“I do things like get in a taxi and say, “The library, and step on it.”

‘What if sometimes there is no choice about what to love? What if the temple comes to Mohammed? What if you just love? without deciding? You just do: you see her and in that instant are lost to sober account-keeping and cannot choose but to love?’…Marathe’s sniff held disdain. ‘Then in such a case your temple is self and sentiment. Then in such an instance you are a fanatic of desire, a slave to your individual subjective narrow self’s sentiment; a citizen of nothing. You become a citizen of nothing. You are by yourself and alone, kneeling to yourself.’

Molly Notkin often confides on the phone to Joelle van Dyne about the one tormented love of Notkin’s life thus far, an erotically circumscribed G.W. Pabst scholar at New York University tortured by the neurotic conviction that there are only a finite number of erections possible in the world at any one time and that his tumescence means e.g. the detumescence of some perhaps more deserving or tortured Third World sorghum farmer or something…Molly still takes the high-speed rail down to visit him every couple of weeks, to be there for him in case by some selfish mischance he happens to harden, prompting black waves of self-disgust and an extreme neediness for understanding and nonjudgmental love.

The problem with his genius as a writer is that it is too often interrupted by the level of detail he wishes to employ. It’s almost as if he didn’t have an editor who was willing to stand up to the literary giant and tell him to chop sentences, pages, paragraphs and entire sections. Perhaps he had an editor who, like many, were unable to finish the book and just gave up and and approved it for publication. A 1996 review of the book in the New York Times stated “While there are many uninteresting pages in this novel, there are not many uninteresting sentences”. Infinite Jest is a lot like Melville’s Moby Dick – most readers agree on the quality of the work but lament the unnecessary tedium that connects the more meaningful parts of the narrative. 

The novel goes on for 981 pages and includes 388 end notes, some of which are dozens of pages long. A long story is not, in and of itself, bad. But when an author complicates the narrative in order to make the reader work harder, one can’t help but feel a sense of condescension that the reader is being treated like a child. The best parts of Infinite Jest were the simple ones. It reminds me of the feud between William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway in which Faulkner said of his rival “He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary” to which Hemingway responded “Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words?”

The non-linearity that Wallace was hoping to achieve adds virtually nothing to the story. At best, it bestows a sense of satisfaction, as though one had just completed a literary boot camp. In short, the book is more complicated than it needs to be, and suffers as a result.

I was filled with excitement when I began reading/listening (I consumed the book through a combination of book and audiobook). I finished feeling cheated and angry, and maybe a little stupid¹. Wallace has an almost religious following in literary circles. Infinite Jest is the magnum opus of the man who is considered by many to have been the greatest American writer of his generation. His suicide only magnified his status as a deity. It’s easy to read online essays excusing the saint of the blatant and unnecessarily racism found throughout the book. Perhaps the most like annoying thing in like the book, like however, was like his incessant use of the word “like”.

I recommend everyone to read and enjoy Wallace’s other works, particularly, Consider the Lobster and A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. As for Infinite Jest, acquaint yourself with the story, read excerpts, but don’t waste your time. If you do decide to read it, do so in a group – a collective effort is certainly required to find the random detail on p.38 that is essential for understanding what happens on p. 894. But this runs the risk of wasting the time of multiple people, so proceed with caution.  In between the encyclopedic descriptions of various drugs and mundane activities, there is an utterly brilliant, hilarious story that deserved to be cut down to 500 pages.

I was told that Infinite Jest is like a modern day Ulysses. I guess this means I won’t be reading Ulysses.

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1. There is a strong possibility that I am, in fact, too stupid to have enjoyed this book. If you feel that you are exceptionally smart and capable of enjoying the jigsaw² puzzle that is this book, then by all means, give it a go!

2. When’s the last time you truly enjoyed completing³ a jigsaw puzzle by yourself?

3. And the story does not even complete itself, which isn’t even a problem. I merely wanted to clarify the usage of the term jigsaw puzzleso that I did not give the reader the wrong impression that Infinite Jest provides a complete narrative story. So much of the story is suggested and must be constructed as a projection into the future, following the completion of the novel’s last sentence.

4. Speaking of jigsaw puzzles, here’s a description of their history and development (now you can begin to see how annoying all the end notes are):

Most modern jigsaw puzzles are made out of cardboard, since they are easier and cheaper to mass-produce than the original wooden models. An enlarged photograph or printed reproduction of a painting or other two-dimensional artwork is glued onto the cardboard before cutting. This board is then fed into a press. The press forces a set of hardened steel blades of the desired shape through the board until it is fully cut. This procedure is similar to making shaped cookies with a cookie cutter. The forces involved, however, are tremendously greater and a typical 1000-piece puzzle requires a press that can generate upwards of 700 tons of force to push the knives of the puzzle die through the board. A puzzle die is a flat board, often made from plywood, which has slots cut or burned in the same shape as the knives that are used. These knives are set into the slots and covered in a compressible material, typically foam rubber, which serves to eject the cut puzzle pieces.

Beginning in the 1930s, jigsaw puzzles were cut using large hydraulic presses which now cost in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. The cuts gave a very snug fit, but the cost limited jigsaw puzzle manufacture only to large corporations. Recent roller press design achieve the same effect, at a lower cost. By the early 1960s,Tower Press was the world’s largest maker of jigsaw puzzles, acquired by Waddingtons in 1969. New technology has enabled laser-cutting of wooden jigsaw puzzles, which is a growing segment of the high-end jigsaw puzzle market.

Many puzzles are termed “fully interlocking”. This means that adjacent pieces are connecting such that if you move one piece horizontally you move all, preserving the connection. Sometimes the connection is tight enough to pick up a solved part holding one piece.

Some fully interlocking puzzles have pieces all of a similar shape, with rounded tabs out on opposite ends, with corresponding blanks cut into the intervening sides to receive the tabs of adjacent pieces. Other fully interlocking puzzles may have tabs and blanks variously arranged on each piece, but they usually have four sides, and the numbers of tabs and blanks thus add up to four. The uniform-shaped fully interlocking puzzles are the most difficult, because the differences in shapes between pieces can be very subtle.

Some puzzles also have pieces with non-interlocking sides that are usually slightly curved in complex curves. These are actually the easiest puzzles to solve, since fewer other pieces are potential candidates for mating.

Most jigsaw puzzles are square, rectangular, or round, with edge pieces that have one side that is either straight or smoothly curved to create this shape, plus four corner pieces if the puzzle is square or rectangular. Some jigsaw puzzles have edge pieces that are cut just like all the rest of the interlocking pieces, with no smooth edge, to make them more challenging. Other puzzles are designed so the shape of the whole puzzle forms a figure, such as an animal. The edge pieces may vary more in these cases.

The world’s largest commercially-available jigsaw puzzle was released by Ravensburger AG (Germany) in September 2010. It consists of 32,256 pieces and measures 544 cm by 192 cm. The world’s largest-sized jigsaw puzzle measured 58,435.1 ft² (5,428.8 m²), with 21,600 pieces. It was assembled on November 3, 2002 by 777 people in Hong Kong.