Friday, 29 March 2013

When Worlds Collude - 6 (Sufi Syncopation, Coke Studio Pakistan and Modjo's Mojo)

A strain of music, the origins of whose unique characteristics I have strained to unravel, is that of the Sufi tradition. [And that was a rather strained attempt at humour.]

Sufi music has many fans around the world, even as it has earned the opposition of fundamentalist Islamists who frown upon music itself. I'm not going to talk about the religious/spiritual aspects of Sufism here, merely its music.

Quite apart from its devotional aspect (a trait it shares with the music of Hinduism's Bhakti movement), I've found its style to be repetitive (in a good sense) and hypnotic. One website says "Sufi spiritual music is often highly-syncopated and hypnotic", and Wikipedia defines syncopation as a general term for "a disturbance or interruption of the regular flow of rhythm"; a "placement of rhythmic stresses or accents where they wouldn't normally occur."

I love this scene from Jodha Akbar (itself a movie about worlds colluding - a Hindu Rajput princess marrying a Moghul emperor) where a group of Sufi singers (who later in the clip show themselves to be "Whirling Dervishes") cause the emperor Akbar to go into a trance and join them. Incidentally, the Whirling Dervish tradition is itself an example of worlds colluding, because it originated in Turkey, among the followers of the Persian mystic Rumi. And to add coincidence to collusion, the actual name of both emperor Akbar and Rumi was Jalal-ud-din Mohammad.

Watch for Akbar's trance between 5:00 and 5:40.
(I couldn't find a clip with English subtitles that was also high-definition. If you want subtitles and don't mind poor resolution, try this instead.)

In more recent times, we have had the opportunity to hear Sufi singers from Pakistan, thanks to the platform provided by Coke Studio. A very pleasing example is this duet by traditional Sufi singer Arif Lohar and pop singer Meesha Shafi, with a great cast of supporting singers and instrumentalists.

 Alif Allah ("A is for Allah") - Another devotional song with a hypnotic quality. I managed to find a clip with the original Punjabi lyrics as well as an English translation.

In 2000, Modjo came up with their hit single "Lady". Although not devotional by any means, it has the same repetitive, hypnotic quality of Sufi music. Thirteen years later, I still haven't tired of this song. [After "Lady", Modjo seemed to have lost their mojo, and they just faded away.]

Suitable for atheists - hypnotic music without the spiritual overtones

Sufi music remains one of my favourite genres of music, although I don't claim to understand it. I attended a concert of Indian Sufi singer Kavitha Seth when I visited Vadodara (Baroda) in 2011-2012 and blogged about it.

To paraphrase Monty Python:
Apart from algebra, algorithms, astronomy and navigation, advances in optics, the round earth theory, horticulture (coffee, cotton, oranges), medical and surgical techniques, cuisine, cosmetics, architecture, art, calligraphy and Sufi music, what has Islamic civilisation ever done for us?

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Startup Culture Meets Legalese

I received an email today from someone who works at a startup. This is what his email signature said:

       C      O
      NFI    DEN
      TIA   L i
      nfo  rma
      tion in
    only for t      he addressee(s).
  If you are not the intended recipient, empl
 oyee or agent responsible for delivery to the
  intended recipient(s), please be aware that
   any review, dissemination, use,distribut
     ion or copying of this message and its
       contents is strictly prohibited. If
      you receive this email in error, ple
    ase notify the sender and destroy any
   paper or           electronic copies    immediately.

Startup culture infects even legalese, I'm happy to see. Happy Easter :-)

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Four Fallacies That Fail Feminism

I don't call myself a feminist because I consider myself a humanist, and I believe humanism subsumes feminism. But obviously, I have no quarrel with feminists because I've found that the issues that outrage them outrage me as well, and for the same reasons. However, I've observed that some of the women who call themselves feminists (feminists predominantly tend to be women) sometimes conduct their arguments in a manner that doesn't serve the cause very well.

Let me list four of the ways in which poor arguments can undermine the feminist cause:

1. Women-are-superior smugness:

I'm not referring to the light-hearted jokes about incompetent husbands that do the email rounds from time to time. I enjoy them as much as the next person. What concerns me is when the same attitudes are expressed in all seriousness. A recent example is a blog post on the LeanIn theme, which goes:

This is one of the many points in my life where I was grateful to be a woman: My natural ability to handle ambiguity enabled me to tackle the challenges of setting up something from scratch [...]

Seriously? Has the ability to handle ambiguity been scientifically proven to be a gender-linked trait? If not, isn't this opinion just sexism? With what face can we then argue with men who claim to be naturally more logical than women, better leaders or better drivers?

We don't want to topple the Patriarchy just to replace it with a Matriarchy. What we should be fighting for is an egalitarian society where everyone is treated as an individual, with no gender-ascribed qualities that either elevate or oppress them.

2. Sisterhood-loyalty trumping fairness:

You read a news item about a woman who has accused a man of some misbehaviour. No independent evidence has yet emerged in the case. It is literally a case of "He said, she said". You often find that the comments section is filled with conclusions based on opinion alone, - not just the predictable patriarchal view that the woman is either lying or must have provoked the misbehaviour, but the equally unjustified calls from women for stringent punishment of the man.

Whatever happened to the principle of "innocent until proven guilty"? I am not making an argument in defence of men here. This is an argument in defence of fairness. If we don't know the facts of a case, we must withhold judgement. The most that we can demand is for an investigation to be conducted with due seriousness.

It becomes hard to argue against sexist comments directed at a woman when there are equally unsubstantiated conclusions being drawn about a man. We need to value fairness and justice above all. Once again, it's about individuals. Innocent individuals shouldn't fall victim to gender stereotypes in a gender war.

3. Friendly fire, or Those-not-with-us-are-against-us:

Human society isn't one of perfect clones, and there can be honest differences of opinion even among similar-minded people. We need to tolerate minor differences, or at least address them gently, when our overall viewpoints tend to agree. Insistence on adherence to a purist line, with immediate, public and merciless excoriation of those who stray from that line, risks turning a noble ideal into little more than an authoritarian ideological cult. This is a constant lurking danger in online battlegrounds where sympathetic men often wade in in support of a feminist cause.

I have myself faced unexpected "friendly fire" from feminists when engaged in a heated debate with male chauvinists. It was often some woman who took offence at a minor point I made and proceeded to lash out at me, undermining the larger battle we were both having against more obscurantist opinions.

What I would say to such people is, if you feel someone's views are on the right track but not quite where you think they should be, nudge them along rather than attack them. Vituperative attacks against people supporting your cause constitute bad tactics, for two reasons. One is that such infighting is a distraction from the larger argument that is being made by both. The second and more serious reason is that it causes the target of your attack to lose face with his gender compatriots (against whom he had courageously argued), and considerably reduces his willingness to wade into battle for similar causes in future.

Moral: Don't shoot your allies. You need them.

4. Callousness towards other forms of discrimination:

Some feminists seem to believe that gender-based discrimination is the only one that counts, or at least that it is more serious than other forms of discrimination. Let's call this meta-attitude "genderism". In my opinion, the term "feminism" is itself evidence of genderism. Why aren't we all "humanists" instead? Don't we also oppose other forms of discrimination, such as racism, homophobia, casteism, ageism, religious prejudice, etc.? Who is to say these other forms of discrimination are milder or less pernicious? Just ask someone who has been a victim.

The greatest disservice to feminism comes from feminists who are racist, casteist, homophobic or religious bigots, and there are plenty of these around. It's breathtaking hypocrisy to oppose one kind of discrimination while practising another kind.

There really is no choice for feminists but to be humanists as well, and to be seen as such, otherwise their support of the necessarily narrower cause of gender equality can and will rightly be questioned. As a matter of topical interest, it is heartening to see that feminists are by and large supporting the marriage equality cause, but this support is by no means unanimous.

In sum, these are the four attitudes that I believe hobble the fight for gender equality.

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Why I Hate The Patriarchy

This seems a rather strange thing for a man to be writing. Why, I should enjoy the perks of being the privileged sex, shouldn't I? It's a man's world and all that.

Two reasons.

The first is a simple sense of justice. The recent media focus on rape and the problems faced by women has rekindled my outrage at the patriarchal societies that dominate virtually every country in the world. The attitudes that blame victims of rape and molestation, that celebrate the sexual escapades of men as somehow heroic even as they condemn the slightest violations of norms of dressing and behaviour by women as "sluttish" and "asking for it", all of these attitudes provoke my anger. Feminism has long ago analysed this societal malaise. It's called the patriarchy, and it's fuelled by the unconscious fear of female sexuality and the tendency to place restrictions on it (with those impulses stemming from the biological fact that a child's mother can be provably identified, but fatherhood has always been a matter of faith).

However, I now realise that it is not just an impersonal sense of justice that underlies my outrage. Every war is personal, and I have my own deep resentment against the patriarchy. It's because of imposed gender roles.

My wife, empathetic to the core, once remarked to me, "It must be hard to be a man. You have to work without a break till you retire."

That insightful remark deserves its own quotation marks, so let me repeat it.

It must be hard to be a man. You have to work without a break till you retire.

Yes, tell me about it.

I've been out of work on two occasions, once when a startup I was working for closed down during the 2001 dot-com crash, and again in 2011 when an insurance company I was working for faced unexpectedly heavy claims and retrenched a big chunk of its staff to cut costs.

I'm relatively sanguine about losing my job, by the way. For some strange reason, being out of work is not a stressful situation for me at all. (Neither is public speaking. I must be wired differently from the rest of humanity.)

What does bug me is the gradually increasing concern from my circle of friends. Oh, don't get me wrong. I absolutely appreciate it when people pass on tips about job openings they're aware of, or the contact details of recruitment agents they know. What bugs me are the questions, the insinuations that my situation is "abnormal" and must be rectified as quickly as possible. A man without a job is a diseased person who must be cured and sent back into the workforce as quickly as possible. "Get well soon" is what everyone is really saying.

Women don't get this sort of pressure at all. That's the flip side of the coin when you consider all the obstacles career women face. A woman can chuck her job at a whim and decide to stay at home, and no one bats an eyelid. But let a man just try the same thing, and watch the social vultures descend. "Have you found a job yet?" "Have you started looking?" And the oh-so-subtle "How's the (job) market these days?" (Translation: Get back to work, you lazy bum!)

Retiring at 65 is OK. Retiring before 65 when you've made a pile is positively envied. It's being out of work when you're not yet financially free that gets you. And the focus is only on the man.

I ask, if a family is not yet financially free, shouldn't both the partners be under equal pressure to work, in terms of social expectations? Why is it the sole responsibility of the man?

This is the pointy end of the patriarchy as I've personally experienced it, and I can tell you I hate it. I would love to be able to say, as many women do, that I've quit my job to "spend time with my family", and have people admire me for it.

Like that's going to happen.

I could go on, but I've got a bus to catch. There's a meeting at 0900, and I can't afford to be late.

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Guilt By Association - A Fallacy We're All Guilty Of, By Association

When I have been asked during these last weeks who caused the riots and the killing in L.A., my answer has been direct and simple: Who is to blame for the riots? The rioters are to blame. Who is to blame for the killings? The killers are to blame.

- Former US Vice-President Dan Quayle after the 1992 Los Angeles riots 

But much as we may laugh, Mr Quayle actually had it right! No one but those who commit crimes are ever to blame for them - not any group they belong to, and certainly not other individuals.

A Sri Lankan Buddhist monk was recently roughed up in Tamil Nadu, India, for nothing more than the crime of being a Sinhalese Buddhist. The mob that did this obviously believed that it was quite all right to punish an individual for the actions of other individuals who shared the same faith and ethnicity, even if the individual in question had nothing at all to do with the actions that they objected to. In this case, the mob was protesting the treatment of Tamils in Sri Lanka, and the monk who happened to be visiting India and hence within reach, paid the price. 

And in a response entirely oblivious to irony, one of my Sri Lankan Facebook friends condemned the incident, saying, "Shame on you, India".

Yes, shame on all 1.2 billion of you! How dare all of you gang up and assault an innocent monk?

Shame on me?! Eh? What's a srilanka?

I was reminded of several other such incidents, and human history is surely littered with millions more. We (and I'm generalising here) tend to generalise about groups of people based on the actions and behaviour of individuals. I'm sure this is an aspect of the survival instinct we owe to evolution. If a big, striped, furry animal attacks and kills some of your tribe, then you must quickly learn to drive off or kill any other big, striped, furry animal you come across from then on. We don't have to worry about unfairly attacking the odd vegetarian tiger. The stereotype works well in this case.

In the modern world, such conflation from an individual to a group and subsequent transference of responsibility for their actions to other individuals in that group is not just arbitrary and unfair, but has the potential to create never-ending strife.

In October 1984, two bodyguards from Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's security detail shot her dead. They were Sikh. One of them was killed on the spot by other guards. The other was arrested, tried and hanged later on. But the matter did not stop with these two individuals who pulled the trigger, nor even with those who were part of the plot (another conspirator was also tried and hanged). Oh, no. Over the four days following Mrs. Gandhi's assassination, mobs, organised and directed by her Congress party, systematically targeted and killed about 3000 other Sikhs in the capital, New Delhi. [The leaders of that pogrom have been identified and their names are common knowledge, yet they have never been convicted, and the wound festers in the Indian psyche.] Where was the need to punish anyone other than the individuals actually responsible for the assassination? 

In 2002, some unidentified persons set fire to a train carriage in the Indian state of Gujarat, an act that resulted in the deaths of almost a hundred people. The victims were Hindu, and it was believed that the perpetrators were Muslim. Interestingly, none of the individuals involved in that crime was ever investigated, caught or punished. Instead, in a chilling reprise of the 1984 reprisal, mobs, organised and directed by the state government of Gujarat, systematically targeted and killed about 2000 other Muslims across the state. None of these people was even remotely connected with the train fire. Yet they were deemed guilty by association, and suffered mob justice. It would have been bad enough if the mob had taken the law into their own hands and lynched those individuals responsible for the fire. It could have been considered vigilante justice. But the horror of the reprisal lies in the fact that entirely innocent third parties were victimised for no fault of theirs. [Some of these rioters and organisers, including a senior minister, were later tried and convicted, but most continue to evade justice.]

In 2012, an American gunman shot and killed 7 people at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin. He had developed a hatred for people of a certain kind after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. When he saw people wearing turbans and beards (never mind that they were of a different ethnicity, language and religion altogether from the 9/11 terrorists), he considered them similar enough to be worthy of killing. 

Later in 2012, an American woman in New York pushed a man onto the path of a train and to his death. Like the Wisconsin gunman, she had developed a hatred for the people responsible for 9/11, as she admitted later. But the man she killed was Indian and Hindu. 

Two levels of conflation were at work in these latter cases. Not only were completely different individuals targeted, the victims only bore a very superficial cultural resemblance to the group that was being hated. [It's also ironical in that Hindus and Sikhs have often fought against Muslims during the long history of the Indian subcontinent, yet are often taken to be the same people.]

If we are to progress at all as a civilisation and to enjoy the peace that comes with the rule of law, we must overcome the primitive tribal urge to generalise from the individual to the group. We have to re-learn the ability to see individual acts purely as individual acts. The rational response must be to hold individuals accountable for their actions. Transferring accountability for an act from one individual to another, or conflating from the individual to a group, or from one group to a superficially similar group, leads not to justice but its very opposite.

As a contribution towards a fairer and more just world, let's all resolve to avoid the fallacy of guilt by association. The educated among us must lead the way.

A Diplomatic 'Own Goal' By India

In the latest twist in the case of the Italian marines who killed two Indian fishermen, the Indian Supreme Court has set aside the Italian ambassador's diplomatic immunity and prevented him from leaving the country.

I believe this is a mistake unbecoming of judges who ought to understand the law better than the average blogger.

Yes, the ambassador reneged on his undertaking to the Supreme Court that the marines would return to India after voting in elections back home, but revoking diplomatic immunity is untenable.

What the Supreme Court should have done was initiate contempt proceedings against the Italian ambassador for his breach of assurance. When he (inevitably) invoked diplomatic immunity, the court should have instructed the Indian government to declare him persona non grata and force him to leave the country.

That would have kept up the diplomatic pressure on Italy while staying on the right side of International law. By refusing to respect the notion of diplomatic immunity, the Indian Supreme court has not only weakened India's argument in this case, but has also set a precedent that could be used by other countries against India in the future.

Monday, 11 March 2013

When Worlds Collude - 5 (The Power of Tea)

When I checked Facebook this morning (sometimes I do this before brushing my teeth!), I came across this very interesting video documentary about an anti-racism initiative in Norway, where Muslim immigrants invite native Norwegians into their homes for a cup of tea. As a result of this simple interaction between groups of people who normally never cross paths, the level of anti-Muslim feeling in Norway has reportedly plummeted.

It's definitely true that it's hard to hate a group of people when you personally know and like some people who belong to that group, so governments should perhaps look to create opportunities for people of different groups to meet and talk. In Australia too, anti-immigrant sentiment seems to be rising as economic times toughen. Currently, the ire is aimed at illegal immigrants and "boat people", but if things get worse, virtually any ethnic-looking person could be fair game.

Tea as a social lubricant

Later this very morning, I was myself part of an interaction involving someone of another culture, and cups of tea.

I was in the office pantry getting myself a cup of tea. Following the advice of health gurus, I only drink green tea between meals. As I dipped a bag of green tea in a cup of hot water, I became aware of a familiar aroma. The guy next to me had opened a box containing masala chai powder. I looked up at him, expecting to see another Indian face.

He was Chinese.

He looked at my green tea. I looked at his masala chai. We both smiled.

But not all cultural interactions involving tea are so harmonious. A TED talk by researcher Sheena Iyengar exposed quite glaringly the rigid cultural barriers around the way tea is consumed.

Tea as a social abrasive

I'm not an advocate of cultural relativism. I think the Japanese in this example were just being pigheaded. I could think of similar situations where I personally disapprove of someone else's choice but wouldn't dream of interfering. For example, I don't think much of the practice of Westerners drinking wine at an Indian restaurant along with their meal (because Indian food is not consumed along with wine), but if that's the way they want it, so be it. He who pays the piper may call the tune.

Saturday, 9 March 2013

Those Delightfully Wicked Nestle Yogurt Ads

Last week, my Yoga teacher brought an electronic chime to class, and it had the nice, light sound of a meditation bell.

That literally rang a bell for me.

I remembered the Australian ads for Nestlé Yogurt from about a decade ago. They feature Bruno Xavier as an Indian guru, with a strong ethnic accent and mouthing stereotypical phrases ("Your body is like a temple"). The thin-skinned might take offence at all this, but I thought it was good fun.

There were four ads in the series, each with a particular take-off on the Indian guru theme. Here they are:

"Your body is a temple"

"When you practise the Yoga daily..."

"And if you want to know the meaning of life..."

Some Yoga teacher - struggling to bend!

Nostalgia, yum!

Friday, 8 March 2013

Notes On English From A 'Non-Native Speaker'

(Apologies in advance if this post comes across as being snobbish. I can't help wincing at poor English spelling and grammar. If it's any consolation, I'm equally hard on myself, and am quite grateful to have my mistakes pointed out (once I overcome my mortification), such as when a friend recently informed me that there is only one 'f' in aficionado.  In any case, listing out the common mistakes that irk me has been cathartic, so I'm glad I did this.)

A recent article on LinkedIn, "Common Grammar Mistakes That Make You Look Dumb", has attracted hundreds of comments. Some of the comments touch upon the issue of native versus non-native speakers of English, but only a couple of them make the point that the mistakes made by the two groups tend to be quite different.

The kinds of mistakes made by non-native speakers of English are legion, and I can't afford to go into them in detail here. Just a couple of examples from my home country (India):

This is a Maharashtrian classic: "If I would have known, I would have told you" instead of "If I had known, I would have told you".

These phrases instantly identify the speaker as a North Indian: "Until it doesn't happen...", "Until I don't tell you...", etc. These are literal translations of the Hindi idiom "jab tak yeh nahin hua..." which uses the negative form of the verb.

Non-native speakers of English also have trouble with English phrases and idioms. Another Indian colleague once said, "I should not slip up this opportunity," instead of using either pass up or let slip.

Add to these examples the uniquely Indian words "prepone" (used as the opposite of postpone) and "updation" (used as the noun form of "to update"), and the phrase "revert to" (used to mean "reply to"), increasingly encountered in offices around the world as corporate India flexes its outsourcing muscle.

The mistakes made by native English speakers are quite different. But before I say anything further about these, here's a pet peeve - I don't like being referred to as a "non-native speaker of English" or a "person for whom English is a second language", as some of my Australian colleagues have occasionally done. I've been speaking English since I learnt to speak, so I certainly don't consider myself a non-native speaker.

Besides, I had the advantage of having had very good (read pedantic) English teachers as a child. One of them was my own mother, who was my English teacher for three years in primary school. An incident from those days remains in my memory. In a spelling test, I had misspelt the word "independence" as "independance". The test papers were handed back in class without comment, but I received an earful at home. When I protested that other kids had made the same mistake, my mother said simply, "My son cannot make mistakes in English." That sense of perfectionism and fierce pride rubbed off on me, and I think it's fair to say that I've grown into a pedant too.

When I migrated to Australia fifteen years ago, I was shocked at the spellings and grammar I encountered in the emails and notices written by my Australian colleagues. And with the advent of the borderless world that is the Internet, I can see for myself that the malaise afflicts other nominally English-speaking countries as well. I wasn't too surprised to encounter poor English from Americans, since I had been influenced by British prejudice right from my childhood ("There even are places where English completely disappears. In America, they haven't used it for years." - Professor Higgins in My Fair Lady). But it shocked me to see poor English from English people. Clearly, in the years since World War II, Great Britain has lost more than just an empire.

Why can't the English learn to speak?

Inspired by the LinkedIn article, here's my compilation of the commonest mistakes I've seen made by "native speakers of English". Interestingly, many of these mistakes seem to be exclusive to this group, because I had never encountered them during my years in India. Perhaps the reason is as former Indian Foreign Minister VK Krishna Menon put it to an English lady, "You merely picked it up. I learned it."

Lest this descend into mere finger-pointing, let me be constructive in my criticism. I've added examples that should illustrate the distinction between different terms.

1. You’re versus Your

You're worried about your children, aren't you?

2. They’re versus Their versus There

There go the Robinsons. They're showing off their new car, as usual.

3. Lose versus Loose

If the mooring comes loose, we could lose the boat.

4. It’s versus Its

It's ironical that celibacy is its own punishment.

5. To versus Too versus Two

This is too hard for one person to do alone. You need at least two people.

6. Then versus Than

Rather you than me. First you, then me.

7. Lie/Lay versus Lay/Laid

Dorothy laid the child down on the bed, then lay down beside her.
You must lay the bed if you want to lie on it.

8. I Couldn't Care Less versus I Could Care Less

"I couldn't care less" means I don't care at all.
("I could care less" just means I don't care at all - about English!)

9. Should Have versus Should Of

Writing "should of" indicates that you should have paid attention in English class.

10. Effect versus Affect

You've tried to effect change, but your efforts have had no effect. Your colleagues will affect great concern, but don't let that affect you.

11. You and I versus You and Me

You and I have had our differences, but between you and me, I'd rather work with you than with Jim.

12. Principle versus Principal

That's the main consideration. You could say it's the principal principle.

13. Accept versus Except

I'll accept your advice except when it concerns my private affairs.

14. Less versus Fewer

There's a lot less traffic after 10 pm, because fewer people want to go out at night.

15. Complement versus Compliment

You and your husband complement each other perfectly.
Thanks for the compliment!

16. Here, Here versus Hear, Hear

Where should the government be spending our tax dollars? Here, here! In this country!
Hear, hear!

19. Discrete versus Discreet

I have two discrete guest lists for the wedding, and only the first group is invited to the main ceremony. So be discreet when you talk to my friends about it.

20. Using 's to form plurals

Here's baby's milk bottle. After baby's had his feed, rest him against your shoulder and pat him gently. Babies need to be burped after a feed.

The New York Times has come up with a list of more subtle errors that their authors made (and their editors let slip).