Thursday, 4 April 2019

Thoughts On Culture, Friendship And Hospitality

A female colleague of mine travelled to Melbourne with me on work. I stayed the night at a hotel, while she arranged to stay with a friend. Neither of us had eaten since lunch, but I managed to grab a bite to eat after I checked in at the hotel. I assumed she would have dinner at her friend's place.

When we met for breakfast at my hotel the next morning, she revealed that she hadn't actually eaten anything since lunch the previous day. She had reached her friend's house at 10 PM, and the kids were already in bed. It was a school day the next day, and they weren't to be disturbed, so the friend had asked her not to ring the doorbell but to call her on her mobile when she arrived. Apparently, the two of them had sat up for about an hour talking quietly and catching up over a cup of coffee, and then my colleague went to bed -- without dinner.

I was frankly shocked when I heard this, but didn't say anything to her. It once again brought to my mind the often stark cultural differences between groups of people. My colleague is a white Anglo Australian.

I cannot imagine a situation where I might land up in the house of an Indian friend at night, and be allowed to go to bed without dinner. It's just not done in Indian culture. The first thing I would be asked even before I set down my bags would be, "Have you had dinner?" and if it turned out that I hadn't, I would be stuffed to the gills before I was allowed to go to bed. Even if I answered in the affirmative, I would be urged to have some dessert at least.

I realised then that the commonly-invoked Sanskrit phrase "atithi devo bhava" ("the guest is god") to refer to Indian hospitality, isn't too far from the truth.

It isn't just Indian culture. Chinese and Middle Eastern people are notorious for feeding people too. A common Mandarin greeting, I'm told, is "nǐ chī fàn le ma?" ("Have you eaten (rice)?"). Enquiring about whether the other person has eaten is common among Italians and Greeks too, communities sometimes disparagingly referred to as "wogs" by Anglo people. It's the Anglos who seem to be the exception among civilisations.

To be sure, Anglo culture abounds in social niceties of etiquette, such as respecting queues, being on time, and saying "thank you", "please" and "excuse me", but these are just the trappings of civilisation. When it comes down to it, there is a human core that seems to be missing. I periodically receive rude reminders that Anglo culture is impersonal to the point of being callous.

I'm a great believer in cultural cross-pollination. I think Western civilisation, especially the Anglosphere, has taught the rest of the world a great many things. The notions of democracy, individual freedom, human rights, the separation of church and state, the primacy of reason, etc., have been invaluable contributions that have civilised the world. It would be great if some civilising influences flowed the other way too.

Sunday, 17 March 2019

5 Things I Liked About Captain Marvel (And 2 I Didn't)

[Warning: Plot Spoilers below]

I grew up as more of a DC Comics fan than a Marvel one. However, I find that Marvel movies in general are of uniformly high quality, and better on average than their counterparts from the DC Universe. My recent favourites have been Black Panther and Ant Man and the Wasp.

This review is of the latest Marvel movie that I saw and liked - Captain Marvel.

Brie Larson in the title role of Captain Marvel (Click to expand)

I was initially nonplussed by the name "Captain Marvel", because I had never heard of this superhero before. I guess my confusion was justified, because the name has been handed from DC to Marvel, and applied to various people, from Shazam, through a male version, to the final one in the form of Carol Danvers. This page attempts to clear up the confusion.

Just who is Captain Marvel?

I'm not going to post a blow-by-blow review of the movie's plot points, whether it's the "war" between the Kree and the Skrull, the various worlds where the action takes place, such as the Kree homeworld of Hala and Planet C-53 (Earth), or even the main character's journey of self-discovery.

You can see the movie yourself to discover and enjoy these, and there's plenty to enjoy. This post is about what I liked and disliked about it.

What I liked about this movie were the messages it contained:

1. Don't make snap judgements based on appearance

It's easy to take sides with "people like us", and to demonise people "different from us". But good and evil aren't that easy to tell apart. 

The Kree - "Noble warrior heroes"

The Skrull - "Shape-shifting aliens"

When the real truth is revealed to the protagonist, it's an important lesson to the audience as well:
Don't be taken in by appearances. Examine your own prejudices.

2. Don't blindly believe justifications for war or the narratives in support of it

This point is related to the previous one. There is a well-known meme that captures how the same situation can be spun in different directions to weave completely opposite narratives. "We" are the noble ones, and the "other" is evil. It's perfectly obvious why "we" must fight and destroy "them".

How media can spin an event to push a desired narrative

One of the heroes of this story is the Kree renegade Mar-Vell, played by Annette Bening. She sees the injustice of the war she has been told to participate in, and she revolts.

Mar-Vell/Dr Lawson wants to end the war, not to win it

There's a lot of war mythology being spun in our own world as we speak, complete with evil enemies and our own noble soldiers. It's considered disloyal to even question these narratives, but question them we must.

We are all the same. Our emotions are no more authentic than those of other people. Never demonise others to the point that you cannot feel their pain. That's when you become a monster yourself.

Mar-Vell and Captain Marvel discover the truth for themselves, and strike a blow for justice within the Marvel Universe. (Meanwhile on Planet C-53, Julian Assange remains a fugitive and a virtual prisoner.)

3. In a diverse world, everyone deserves representation

I guess it's a disconcerting time for those who want to see the superhero universe continue to be dominated by white men. Half the world's population is female, and more than half is non-white. Movie studios can't afford to ignore potential new markets, and so the superhero universe has to evolve to accommodate characters with whom other people can identify.

It's the trend that made Black Panther and Wonder Woman such superhits. And that dynamic continues to work with Captain Marvel too.

Can't think of a stronger role model for young girls than a female fighter pilot

Repeat, for young girls of other ethnic groups

Whether by colour or gender, the lead characters are all non-traditional

It stands to reason. Walk down a city street in any major metropolis, and you see all kinds of people, of every race and gender. Why should superhero movies not exhibit the same diversity?

4. Superheroes are defined by their heart, and true strength is about getting up after being knocked down

It seems a little counter-intuitive to say that what makes a superhero are not superpowers, but that is actually true. A superhero movie that relies only on special effects will fail to move its viewers. To connect with the audience, the superhero has to be strongly human. Superman connects emotionally with his millions of fans, not because of his powers, but because he cannot stop helping people.

The secret to a superhero's popularity is their secret identity. That's who they really are. The mask and costume are colourful, but they hide rather than reveal.

Carol Danvers the human being is very likeable. She's a genuinely nice person who is fair, loyal and brave, and she has a sense of humour. That's the hook on which the character of her superhero persona hangs, not the photon blasts or the ability to fly.

Niceness is an underrated superpower

Is she infallible? On the contrary, she falls down whenever she attempts something, at every stage of her life. But then...

She keeps getting back up

To my mind, this was the most powerful message of the movie:

Life will keep knocking you down. Keep getting up.

5. Play to your strengths, and don't accept arbitrary limits laid down by others

Early on in the movie, there is a training scene where the protagonist's supposed mentor is trying to teach her how to fight and win. He criticises her emotionality, even her sense of humour. He tries to get her to distance herself from everything she is.

It isn't mentoring when someone tells you not to be your best self; it's a form of gaslighting designed to keep you weak. Fortunately, Captain Marvel gains the confidence to use her powers whenever she wants to, not when she is permitted to.

Mind games. Don't fall for them

Those photon blasts are pretty cool

This too struck me as a very important lesson for children:

Understand your strengths and exploit them. Recognise when other people try to limit your potential.

Having said all that, there were a couple of things I didn't like about this movie:

1. An "overpowered" superhero

Towards the end of the movie, Captain Marvel develops so many more powers that she begins to run the danger of being "overpowered". This is a criticism that used to be levelled at the Superman of the comics, at a certain stage in that character's development. If a hero becomes so powerful that nothing is a challenge anymore, their stories fail to be interesting.

What is it that Superman cannot do?

Superheroes need to have some limits to their powers. They need to struggle a bit, both to keep them human, and for their stories to be interesting.

2. An overemphasis on superpowers

This is related to the previous point, and counteracts the fourth positive I listed earlier. Superheroes are defined not by their superpowers but by who they are. They also inspire by their courage and humanity. If they can do virtually anything, then not only do their stories become less interesting, they also become less inspiring. One can aspire to be brave and kind like a superhero, but there is no point in aspiring to achieve the feats that he or she achieves through their powers. Beyond a point, one is no longer inspired; one gives up. 

An interesting allegory I read in school was about the "four weapons" that society uses to resist social reformers. The first three are apathy, derision and violence (assassination). But the fourth is the subtlest and most effective. It's homage. When people place moral leaders on too high a pedestal, they're implicitly saying, "This person is too great for me to emulate. I'm excused if I remain my flawed self and fail to improve."

Captain Marvel needs to become a little less powerful, not more, if she is to remain an effective role model.

Forget it. This is beyond me.

Other tidbits

There are echoes of "Star Trek - The Motion Picture" when the Kree version of the protagonist gets the name "Vers". That's because only the latter part of her name tag "Carol Danvers" remains after a crash. It's redolent of the Star Trek scene when "Veejur" is revealed to be "Voyager VI", with many letters obliterated by meteorites (V***ger **).

In conclusion

All in all, Captain Marvel is a great movie. It's very watchable, and its protagonist one of the most likeable in recent times.

Overall rating: 3.5 stars out of 5.

Friday, 15 February 2019

On Being A Bigot Myself

[Mahatma Gandhi wrote a book called 'The Story of My Experiments with Truth'. This is a tiny chapter that I could call 'The Story of My Experiments with Hatred and Bigotry'.]

I have always prided myself on my social liberalism. I believe myself to have no prejudices regarding race, nationality, gender, age, or sexual orientation. Even on the subject of religion, while I may look down disdainfully at religious people, considering them to be gullible believers in fairytales, I do not hate them. Contempt and disdain are much milder than hatred.

But something happened last week that shook me out of my smugness. I realised that I could feel hatred.

Mind you, I don't claim to be devoid of hatred. When I come across a jerk, I often do hate them for their behaviour. But that is purely at an individual level. I believe I am evolved enough in my thinking not to hate a group of people by association.

Until last week.

I was returning from a trip abroad, and was taking the airport shuttle home.

There were two other passengers in the shuttle with me. One of them was an Indian doctor who had been living in Australia for the last 30 years. The other was an American woman who was visiting her daughter in Sydney.

It was still very early in the morning, and I hadn't slept well on the flight, so I closed my eyes and tried to get some more sleep. But I couldn't sleep because my two co-passengers kept talking throughout the trip. I didn't really mind as long as I didn't have to participate. I listened idly to their conversation.

It turned out that the American woman's daughter was studying, not at a regular University, but at the Hillsong College. I smiled sardonically to myself. A churchie! And not just any random churchie, but a cult follower. The Hillsong Church is a notorious cult just a notch below the Church of Scientology on the charlatan scale.

Mind you, that factoid didn't make me hate her. It just triggered a slight sardonic curl of my lip.

She spoke about the time her daughter attended a camp organised by the Hillsong Church. The good doctor naively asked if the church had paid for the camp. I grinned to myself. The Hillsong Church never pays for anything. You pay the Hillsong Church. That's how the model works.

Then the topic turned to health, weight-watching and dieting. I refrained from pitching in about the 5:2 diet that I follow. I just listened with interest.

And that's when it happened.
"What's your weight?" asked the American woman.
"84 kilograms," replied the doctor.
"Kilograms? What's that? I only know pounds," she responded.

In that moment, I felt a surge of anger that snapped my eyes open. I didn't say a word out loud, but my mind was shrieking hysterically.

What the #@^%@&! is wrong with you Americans??

I was surprised at my own sudden, involuntary anger. In that moment, I hated Americans. Hated them for not following the metric system, and not even knowing what it was.
Kilograms? What's that? I only know pounds.


Meanwhile, back on the shuttle, the conversation was proceeding entirely calmly and normally.

"Oh, one kilogram is 2.2 pounds. So 84 kilograms is a little under 200 pounds," explained the doctor patiently, and the woman went, "Oh, all right."

It was no biggie, really. If you don't understand what a kilogram is, someone can readily convert the number into pounds for you, and then you understand. That's all there is to it.

But that, as Obama would have it, was a teachable moment for me.

The American woman was different from me in a number of ways, but none of those differences caused me to hate her. She belonged to a different race and gender, and followed a (different) religion. But the fact that she followed a different system of measurement was what caused me to blow my top. Worse, she displayed complete and unforgivable ignorance about the One True System of Measurement that all True Human Beings should unquestioningly follow. That was blasphemy.

So you see, we are all bigots under a very thin veneer of beatific tolerance. It's just that we have different buttons that have to be pushed for that bigotry to break through the surface.

Epilogue: After a few minutes, I recovered from my flush of anger. The driver turned around at one point to mention in an incredulous tone that the temperature in Sydney had touched 41 degrees the previous week.

"Fahrenheit?" asked the poor American woman, struggling to comprehend why that would be considered terrible.

"No, Celsius," said the doctor, without even a hint of a smile.

I chuckled to myself and was satisfied that my liberal and tolerant self had returned.

Wednesday, 23 January 2019

The Leisure Society Will Be Built, Not By Labour And Capital, Not From Atoms And Bits, But With Energy And Intelligence

According to Marx, civilisation has been built by Labour using the tools supplied by Capital (with the proceeds going disproportionately to Capital).

Labour and Capital, the "factors of production", have long been a useful way to think about the world.

After the Digital Age began, Nicholas Negroponte observed that everything of value in the modern world was made up of either Atoms or Bits.

Indeed, at that point, "software", the intangible combination of logic and data, had become as important as physical objects (hardware).

Labour and Capital. Atoms and Bits. With each of these simple and elegant intellectual models, we were able to make sense of our world anew. 

And now, I believe that a useful way to look at the coming Leisure Society is to think of it in terms of two new and different entities - Energy and Intelligence.

Abundant and free energy is only a few years away

Robots and AI will soon replace humans at virtually every blue-collar and white-collar job

To produce anything in this world, we require a combination of Energy and Intelligence. Every process is driven by Energy and guided by Intelligence. Even matter - raw material - can be expressed as a combination of Energy and Intelligence. It takes energy to extract matter from the earth, energy to transform it into more useful forms, energy to transport it to where it is required. And it takes Intelligence to guide each of those processes. If Energy and Intelligence were free, raw material would be free too. In other words, we can discount matter in our analysis. it's only Energy and Intelligence that we need to think about.

We are approaching three "singularities" in our lifetimes, and I wrote about these earlier. The two basic ones are particularly important. The Energy Singularity (my term) will occur when the marginal cost of energy production falls to zero. The Technology Singularity (a term coined by Ray Kurzweil) will occur when artificial intelligence surpasses human intelligence. More importantly, the Technology Singularity will practically occur when artificial intelligence can be distributed and applied at a fraction of the cost of hiring human intelligence for the same task, a cost which will continue to plummet even as its quality improves.

I believe that we are putting in place the building blocks of the coming Leisure Society. We think we're saving the planet by replacing polluting fuels by renewables. We're actually doing much more than that. By harnessing "renewables", we're reducing the marginal cost of energy production to virtually zero. In other words, we're bringing the Energy Singularity closer. In about 15 years, I predict that the world will be producing 100% of its energy requirements from renewables, and when the setup costs of that energy infrastructure are finally amortised, energy will begin to be free.

The cost of Intelligence is falling too. Soon, both disembodied AI in our networks and embodied AI in devices and robots will be available to us virtually free of charge.

When virtually free robots and AI begin to run our farms and factories, using virtually free power and virtually free raw materials, and intelligent transport infrastructure is able to deliver goods to us virtually free of charge, we will have arrived at the Leisure Society.

Tuesday, 16 October 2018

A Model For The Probability Of Guilt In The Age Of #MeToo

The case of journalist-turned-government minister MJ Akbar in India got me thinking about the probability of guilt when a man is independently accused of sexual harassment by a number of different women. At last count, 16 different women have come forward as part of the #MeToo wave sweeping India, to accuse Akbar of various kinds of sexual misconduct.

At the time of writing, Akbar has chosen to brazen it out by filing a criminal defamation suit against the first woman who made her accusation public.

This case has since become a cause célèbre in India, with commentators taking various positions on it.

I personally believe that the weight of credibility is on the side of Akbar's accusers, but I was wondering whether there was a way to approach such a situation more objectively, even quantitatively. After all, each individual accusation could be dismissed as a case of "He said, she said", but put together, the accusations build up a more compelling argument.

How compelling?

Let's start with the simplest case. A man is accused of misbehaviour by a woman. He denies it. Neither of them has any evidence, or any witness, to back up their claim. Prima facie, both of them seem equally credible. What should an objective observer think?

With no further input and with no biases, an objective person would have to conclude that there is a 50% probability that the woman is telling the truth, and therefore a 50% probability that the man is guilty. The corollary is that there is a 50% probability that he is innocent.

Now, this obviously contradicts the legal principle that an accused person is 100% innocent until proven guilty, but this is not a court of law, where evidence is required beyond the shadow of a doubt before an accused can be convicted of a crime. This is a thought experiment. We are trying to compute what we can adopt as a working hypothesis, based on the balance of probabilities.

In graphical terms, this is what the picture looks like when a man is accused by just one woman:

Now let's make this more interesting. Let's say a second woman steps forward to make a similar accusation, based on an independent incident. And let's say he denies this accusation too.

Does our view of the man's guilt change? Do we still think it's just his word against his accusers', and therefore that he's no more guilty than we thought before? Or do we start to doubt him a little more now? If so, by how much?

My model is that each subsequent accusation halves the probability of his innocence. And so, this is what the picture should look like:

It's important to note that we are not treating the three claims as completely independent, and assigning a 33.33% probability to each. That's because the claims of the two women, while independent, nevertheless reinforce each other. The accusation of the second woman halves the probability of innocence that we granted him after the first accusation. So we assign a probability of only 25% to his innocence now, not 33.33%.

What happens when a third woman steps forward? It's easy to follow the logic now:

With three independent accusers, the man's probability of innocence reduces to 12.5%, notwithstanding his protestations.

Stated in mathematical terms, the probability of a man's guilt when independently accused by 'N' women is given by

Pg = 1 - (½)N

When N = 1, Pg = 0.5, or 50%
When N = 2, Pg = 0.75, or 75%
When N = 3, Pg = 0.875, or 87.5%

Let's apply this model of guilt to the MJ Akbar case. The number of his accusers now stands at 16:

1. Priya Ramani
2. Ruth David
3. Majlie de Puy Kamp
4. Saba Naqvi
5. Ghazala Wahab
6. Shutapa Paul
7. Shuma Raha
8. Kanika Gahlaut
9. Suparna Sharma
10. Prerna Bindra
11. Harinder Baweja
12. Anju Bharti
13. Malini Bhupta
14. Kadambari Wade
15. Swati Gautam
16. Tushita Patel

What's the probability that Akbar is guilty?

Pg = 1 - (½)16 = 0.999984741210938, or 99.998%

In non-mathematical language, he's toast.


Update 17/10/2018: MJ Akbar has resigned as Minister of State for External Affairs, after 20 women expressed their desire to testify in court against him. Three of them were from the original list (Tushita Patel, Kanika Gahlaut and Suparna Sharma), but the other 17 were all new, bringing the total number of his accusers to 33.

17. Meenal Baghel
18. Manisha Pande
19. Ramola Talwar Badam
20. Kaniza Gazari
21. Malavika Banerjee
22. A.T. Jayanthi
23. Hamida Parkar
24. Jonali Buragohain
25. Sanjari Chatterjee
26. Meenakshi Kumar
27. Sujata Dutta Sachdeva
28. Hoihnu Hauzel
29. Reshmi Chakraborty
30. Kushalrani Gulab
31. Aisha Khan
32. Kiran Manral
33. Christina Francis

Don't even bother calculating the probability of his guilt now.
(If you're curious, it's 99.99999999%.)

Friday, 12 October 2018

Light And Dark Supernatural Teen Dramas - "Sabrina The Teenage Witch" And "Buffy The Vampire Slayer"

[Some spoilers ahead]

I've been enjoying watching Sabrina The Teenage Witch, and as I near the end of Season 3, I'm struck by some remarkable parallels with another serial I saw not too long ago - Buffy The Vampire Slayer.

Two shows with an intended audience of teenage girls have been strangely fascinating to a middle-aged man...

Both feature spunky teenage girls with powers out of the ordinary, and the serials show them dealing simultaneously with challenges from two worlds, the human and the supernatural. High school can be a fairly big deal by itself to a teenager, so the discovery of supernatural powers and the responsibilities that go with them is an additional burden. Yet the young ladies manage admirably.

Obviously, the two serials are very different in tone. Sabrina is pure lighthearted comedy. Buffy is darker, with a constant backdrop of evil, and many characters die, but it's not without some humour of its own.

The lead character

Sabrina Spellman (Melissa Joan Hart);
Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar)

Both serials are almost entirely carried on the diminutive shoulders of their heroines. Sabrina is a cheerful, upbeat girl with a quick wit and a ready excuse for every inexplicable situation she finds herself in. Buffy belies her tiny size and packs a deadly wallop in a fight, not to mention a sharp tongue in everyday banter.

The high school

Westbridge High;
Sunnydale High

I guess American public schools all look alike, with their classrooms, corridors and student lockers where most of the action in the serials takes place. Both schools see their share of strange happenings, although Sunnydale High, being situated right on top of the Hellmouth, is in an arguably worse situation.

Family / adult supervision at home

Hilda and Zelda Spellman (Caroline Rhea and Beth Broderick);
Joyce Summers (Kristine Sutherland)

Sabrina's aunts provide a nice foil to each other, with the elder Zelda being (or trying to be) the more responsible one, and Hilda being almost as irresponsible as Sabrina herself. Buffy's home situation is far less humorous, with single mum Joyce doing her best to be supportive and strict at the same time.

The best (female) friend

Valerie Birkhead (Lindsay Sloane);
Willow Rosenberg (Alyson Hannigan)

Sabrina had a BFF in Season One called Jenny Kelley (Michelle Beaudoin), who disappeared mysteriously and was thereafter replaced by the angst-ridden Valerie Birkhead. Her closest parallel in the Buffy serial is Willow. Willow develops some magical abilities over the course of the series, but Valerie remains purely mortal. Indeed, she doesn't even know that Sabrina is a witch.

The mean girl

Libby Chessler (Jenna Leigh Green);
Cordelia Chase (Charisma Carpenter)

I guess the high school experience for girls isn't complete without at least one mean girl. In Sabrina's case, it's cheerleader Libby with her constant airs and putdowns ("Freak!"). Buffy has to endure the snob Cordelia ("I mean, they promised me they'd take me to St. Croix, and then they just decide to go to Tuscany. Art and buildings? I was totally beachless for a month and a half. No one has suffered like I have. Of course I think that that kind of adversity builds character. Well, then I thought, I already have a lot of character. Is it possible to have too much character?").

But both heroines know how to give it back.

Libby (as Sabrina approaches her table): Looking for the loser convention?
Sabrina: I am...and look...I've found it!

Cordelia: You're really campaigning for bitch of the year, aren't you?
Buffy: As defending champion, you nervous?

Buffy: Well, that works out great. You won't tell anyone that I'm the Slayer, and I won't tell anyone you're a moron.

The vindictive school authority

Vice-Principal Willard Kraft (Martin Mull);
Principal R Snyder (Armin Shimerman)

Sabrina is shown to be a straight-A student, and such kids are usually favourites of their teachers and principals. But for some strange reason, her vice-principal Willard Kraft is unreasonably suspicious of her and keeps looking for excuses to give her detention slips. Buffy's principal Snyder probably has more reason for his extreme lack of trust in her. After all, she had started a fire in her previous school. [Later on, it turns out that Snyder knows much more about Buffy than anyone suspected.]

The portal to the supernatural realm

The linen closet;
the Hellmouth

For Sabrina and her family, stepping across to the "Other Realm" is easy. They just walk into the linen closet at home and close the door behind them. A crash of thunder and a flash of lightning from under the door tell us they've crossed over. Occasionally, unwelcome visitors from the Other Realm enter the house through the same doorway. Buffy's Hellmouth is a much nastier business, with vampires and worse crossing over to our human world with alarming regularity. The school is situated right over the Hellmouth, and this is taken as a matter-of-fact explanation for why many strange things keep happening.

The mentor

Salem Saberhagen (voiced by Nick Bakay);
Rupert Giles (Anthony Head)

This parallel may be a bit of a stretch. Salem is a "witch familiar", cursed to take the form of a cat for a hundred years, all for the crime of plotting to take over the world, an ambition he has never quite given up. Nevertheless, he comes to Sabrina's aid from time to time with advice based on his years of witching knowledge. Giles is Buffy's "Watcher" and is responsible for her training. While Giles takes his job extremely seriously, Salem would probably run from any such responsibility, sobbing in his trademark way if forced to take it on.

The (male) classmate and/or boyfriend

Harvey Kinkle (Nate Richert);
Xander Harris (Nicholas Brendon), Angel (David Boreanaz), and Spike (James Marsters)

There is no clean parallel between the Sabrina and Buffy serials in this department. Harvey is Sabrina's classmate as well as her boyfriend. Xander initially wants to be Buffy's boyfriend but ends up being just her classmate and friend. At various times, the vampires Angel and Spike end up being Buffy's boyfriends. The big difference is that Harvey remains innocent of the realisation that Sabrina is a witch, whereas all of Buffy's male companions know that she's a slayer.

I wonder how many of these parallels were deliberate. After all, both these serials were made and aired at around the same time. Sabrina ran from 1996 to 2000, while Buffy ran from 1997 to 2001.

Sunday, 9 September 2018

The Comics That Made Me What I Am (A Nerd In The Very Best Sense)

A few days ago, I received a pack of DVDs from an online seller that made me delirious with joy. The DVDs contained scanned comic books from the 60s and 70s (the so-called Silver Age), and among these were many that I had owned when I was a child.

Going through this set gave me many nostalgic moments, and I realised that my very way of thinking has been profoundly altered by their influence.

My favourite comics were not of the light, ha-ha funny kind. Many of my friends enjoyed reading Archie, Richie Rich, Donald Duck, Sad Sack, and the like. My favourites were Science Fiction and Superhero comics.

Being middle-class, my parents couldn't afford to indulge my every request, but they did occasionally buy me the comics I asked for, and these gave me so much pleasure that I read them over and over, memorising the dialogues even when they made little sense at the time.

In those days, Indian schoolteachers were strongly discouraging of comics. The received wisdom was that "comics spoil your English". Our teachers wanted us to read classics in book form instead. But I maintain that I learnt a lot more from comics. I not only built up an impressive vocabulary at a young age, but also learnt a number of scientific concepts long before they made their formal appearance in my classroom. That's why I would encourage all parents to give their children Science Fiction comics from a very early age, and indulge them in their fantasies. My father was quite indulgent, and often laughed along as I made up my own scenarios and dialogues using scientific and pseudo-scientific terminology.

Here are some examples of what I read:

Doctor Solar - Man of the Atom

One of my first SF comics, if not the very first. This was published in 1967, and I got my hands on it sometime in 1969, I believe. I was six years old then.

In retrospect, the Doctor Solar comics were a bit amateurish, because the hero's powers were not well-defined, and he could apparently do anything. Still, this comic familiarised me with a number of scientific terms that I would learn the meanings of only much later.

For a 6 year old, my vocabulary began to expand in strange ways.

"Outer Space" became a common word in my vocabulary, and this was not the only comic to use it

"Atomic radar vision"? Oh, well.

Germs, viruses, contaminated

An isotope of Uranium

The speed of light

Vaporized lead, orbits, spores

Atomic artillery, matter, energy


Molecules, absolute zero

High-frequency sound, airless void

"No sound can pass through an airless void"

Expansion can explode vessels like steam overloads a boiler

Cosmic storm

Looking back on this five decades later, I'm in awe of how much this one issue taught me. I was mesmerised by the story, the superhero and his powers, and all the scientific terms that were casually thrown about. I think this was the comic that laid the foundation for my later career choices in favour of engineering and computer technology, and my lifelong interest in science in general.

Magnus Robot Fighter

I had two comics of Magnus Robot Fighter, and both were mind-blowing. Looking back now, I realise that it was Russ Manning's visionary artwork that brought a future world to life in such breathtaking and convincing detail.

Bunda the Great

This was a story about a robot that grows too big for its own boots, even demanding to be treated as a god until Magnus brings it down.

As I said before, the artwork in this series was simply spectacular.

The drawings were so detailed and consistent that one could form a mental picture of the future society called "North Am".

Magnus defeats the mighty Bunda that weighs four tons. It crashes to its death because it does not contain anti-gravity units!

There is an element of religion here, and perhaps my first exposure to the idea that religion is just quackery.

The birth of a new religion...

...and its debunking by science.

Robot Ghost

Another beautiful Magnus story was of a group of invincible robots surrounded by a force field, robots built by a scientist to exact revenge on society after his death. The robot Nadmot filled me with delicious chills. It became my favourite villain for a while. The only way to defeat it was by trickery.

Note the beauty of Russ Manning's artwork, and the imagery it conjures up.

Guard-robs and riot-robs

The guard-robs prove ineffective against the evil robots' force-field

I had memorised this sentence so well that older kids in my school bus would ask 7-year-old me to recite it for their amusement: "Even Magnus's steel-smashing strength is unable to penetrate the mysterious barrier that veils the evil robots"

Ultimately, Magnus fools the evil robots with an illusion...

...and sends them off on a one-way trip into deep space. Once again, look at Russ Manning's depiction of the world of the future.

Space Family Robinson - Lost in Space

Much later, I learnt that this was a futuristic take on the classic adventure story "Swiss Family Robinson". The issue I had was called "Attack of the Plant Creatures".

Once again, the artwork in this comic conjured up a very romantic image, this time of space travel in general. 

How lovely to be able to live in a home like this!

Ooh, laser pistols! And they can burn holes through a ship's casing unless you set them for close range!

The notion of vacuum has never been explained more graphically

How nice it would be to live in a space station! Sigh.

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea

Closer home, the adventures of a nuclear submarine called the Seaview captured my imagination. I had two comics in this series. The first was about an intelligent dolphin called Star that organised the creatures of the sea against humans.

The Emperor of the Oceans

The artwork here was fabulous, too, and it gave me chills.

It was scary to see whales hijacking a submarine. The reddish light in the submarine's cabin gave it an atmosphere of crisis.

The Life and Death of the Seaview

This issue was even more dramatic. It introduced something called the Moho fluid, believed to be responsible for all life on earth. But a subterranean explosion opens up an underwater reservoir of the Moho, and the Seaview is forced at one point to fill its ballast tanks with the fluid. That turns the Seaview itself into a living creature.

The artwork in this issue was nothing short of magnificent. I was by turns fascinated and terrified by the underwater scenes it depicted.

I wouldn't want to be caught in something like this!

Not to mention being inside something like this!

This was one of the most thrilling scenes for me - how the Seaview was taken back

And the thrilling race back to the surface, because there's a time bomb that will seal them in along with the Moho fluid if they don't make it out in time!

Admiral Nelson of the Seaview was one of my early heroes, and it gave me a thrill later on in history class when I learnt about the real Admiral Horatio Nelson

And the mandatory philosophy lesson right at the end.

I simply loved submarines, thanks to the adventures of the Seaview


The School for Superman Assassins

One of my aunts bought this issue for me, and I remember this with gratitude.

Superhero comics were a slightly different experience from Science Fiction comics, but there was still a great element of science fiction in them.

In those early issues, it was necessary to remind readers that Superman's secret identity was Clark Kent. 

Since this was my very first Superman comic, I certainly needed to be told that.

This was my first introduction to the notion of matter and anti-matter...

...and to the notion of time travel. I would read HG Wells's classic 'The Time Machine' only much later.

"Friction causes heat" - I learnt this from a Superman comic long before I heard about it in any science class

In-between some humour, a number of concepts were taught

Again, long before I learnt Newton's Third Law in a classroom, Superman had already taught me that "the physics principle behind rocketry is reaction"

This is just a sample of what my eclectic childhood was like. I grew up on a university campus, with academics for parents. I would never trade my childhood for anyone else's. And a large part of the magic of that childhood was thanks to the wonderful Science Fiction and Superhero comics I grew up with.

Once again, I would exhort parents to give their children the gift of this magic. Five decades later, I'm still tingling with excitement to re-read these beloved stories!