August 28, 2008

Let us not wallow in the valley of despair

Per my own advice, I went and heard the entire speech .....and indeed, my hair stood on end.

I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow jail cells. Some of you have come from areas where your quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality. You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive.

Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed. Let us not wallow in the valley of despair.

I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal."

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.

This is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the South with. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.

This will be the day when all of God's children will be able to sing with a new meaning, "My country, 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim's pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring."

And if America is to be a great nation this must become true. So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania!

Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado!

Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California!

But not only that; let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia!

Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee!

Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.

And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, "Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!"

Hold them accountable

Charles Blow writes:

On the eve of Barack Obama’s acceptance speech this evening, comparisons between him and Martin Luther King Jr. are flying fast, particularly since King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech 45 years ago to the day. I ’ve heard more than one person say that Obama is the manifestation of King’s dream, because had King lived, he would have been elected president himself. What? President Martin Luther King Jr.? In your dreams.

King is a towering figure in American history, and his struggle helped to make Obama’s journey possible. But his steadfast and uncompromising focus on improving the plight of blacks rendered him too polarizing a figure to win the presidency (there’s also no reason to believe that he would have wanted it).

It turns out that a year before King was assassinated, Gallup asked Americans if they would like him to be president. Only two percent said yes.

(An interesting point of reference: according to the 1960 Census, blacks made up 8 percent of the population.)

But King didn’t need to be president. His position in the annals of history is above that of most presidents anyway. In many ways he stood above politics.

During the primaries, when answering the question “If Dr. King were alive today, why do you think he’d endorse you?” Obama responded: “I don’t think Dr. King would endorse any of us. I think that what he would call upon the American people to do, is to hold us accountable.” That’s right.

It's best to hear the speech (below) but you can also read the transcript, if you so please.

And here is an interesting article about the mood the day before. Time for Obama's speech soon.. I can't wait!

How Fiction Works

Have been hearing really good things about a recent book by James Wood called How Fiction Works ($14.40 only at! already available at 40% discount from publisher's price!). If you google it, you will find many reviews of the book (for example, see links below)... but it also came highly recommended from Amit Varma, whose literary tastes I trust.

Also, in addition to Virginia Woolf's great book on the art of fiction, Mystery and Manners, which I read a chapter from recently, E.M. Forster's Aspects of the Novel is also a good book to read on the subject. And there is Francine Prose's more recent book Reading Like a Writer.

So much to read...where's the time to write! hah! :)

I had compiled links to reviews of Wood's book ...though instead of reading all these reviews, I'm going to try to get hold of the book and read the book itself. Be more instructive and constructive! ;)

NY Magazine
Bold Type
Christian Science Monitor
Independent, UK
International Herald Tribune (originally published in the NYT)
Times, UK
Guardian, UK

Also, I had compiled a list of reviews of another book that is also about writing (not a how-to manual but thoughts about the process of writing) - Haruki Murakami's What I Talk About When I Talk About Running . Like the Boldtype review says:

For acclaimed Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami, the act of running and the act of writing are inextricably linked — like two sides of the same track-shaped Mobius Strip. Murakami stresses the importance of training in both disciplines, debunking misconceptions about the writerly life as he goes.”


The book artfully marries two topics that many people don't often see as going together — sports and creativity. The result is a fantastic read with broad appeal; beyond just runners and writers, What I Talk About holds inspiration for anyone who's passionate about an athletic or creative endeavor.

Seems like worthwhile reading, though I do not run and since my writing workshop ended, I have gone back to my lazy ways and not attempted writing either! Its a lot of work and needs the kind of discipline that I lack!
In Murakami's words:
"The whole process (of writing) — sitting at your desk, focusing your mind like a laser beam, imagining something out of a blank horizon, creating a story, selecting the right words, one by one, keeping the whole flow of the story on track — requires far more energy, over a long period, than most people ever imagine."

Like the Boldtype review says at the end:

If you're resting on your laurels — or worse yet, your daydreams — What I Talk About will come as a rousing reminder that there's no substitute for hard work. Indeed, practice makes perfect.

Hmmm.. no laurels to rest on here - just me and my daydreams! Or as a friend calls it 'khayali pulao'.

In any case, reviews of Murakami's include:

Economist review
New York Sun review
Bookslut review
LA Times review
Telegraph review
Herald Tribune review
Complete Review
The Slate review
Newsweek review
Guardian review
Times Online review

Though I recommend that you skip the reviews and just read the book! Or go running... get some fresh air (like I need to after being at the computer the whole day!)

The ghazal in the garter

Found this article in the Boston Globe about the The Burlesque Poetess via the New Yorker book blog.
When Jojo Lazar bursts onstage, she's usually clad in velvet and satin, her glamorous 1920s getup accessorized with evening gloves, a fancy hat, shiny baubles, and, well, quite a bit of original verse tucked into her lacy underthings.

“No venue’s too small for me to take off my trench coat and say, ‘Choose your own adventure. Shall it be the sonnet in my brassiere or the ghazal in my garter?' ”
Now that's one way to popularize poetry. Take note, Charles Simic. :)

P.S. Oops. Didn't realize Simic's year as Poet Laureate of the US was already over. Its Kay Ryan now - a name I was not familiar with before today. How time flies! It feels like it was just yesterday that Simic took over from Donald Hall!

To quote our current poet laureate then...
"Poems are transmissions from the depths of whoever wrote them to the depths of the reader. To a greater extent than with any other kind of reading, the reader of a poem is making that poem, is inhabiting those words in the most personal sort of way. That doesn’t mean that you read a poem and make it whatever you want it to be, but that it’s operating so deeply in you, that it is the most special kind of reading."
So..go forth and inhabit those lacy underthings ya'll! :)

hat tip Lahar Appaiah

Lives of quiet rectitude

I read three or four pieces from Louis Erdrich's Love Medicine earlier this summer and was very impressed by her voice. I learned at the same time at the writing workshop I attended that she has a new novel called The Plague of Doves, which sounds like something I should read soon.

Like this reviewer in the NYT writes:
In “The Plague of Doves,” Erdrich returns to familiar territory, the stark plains of North Dakota, where the little town of Pluto sits beside rusting railroad tracks, slowly dying. What’s killing it? Old grudges, lack of opportunity, long-haul trucking, modernity itself. A civic-wide aversion to ambition doesn’t help.


Pluto’s modest citizens live lives of quiet rectitude punctuated by outbursts of lust and crime, the one often precipitating the other. These folks don’t need closets to hold their skeletons, they need storage units. Not that carnal desire and embezzlement — and kidnapping and vigilante murder and sweet-justice murder and death by bee sting — are such bad things, but the people of Pluto wear the history of these acts like heavy overcoats. They can’t escape their own past, or their grandfathers’ past. No wonder the kids are high-tailing it for the bright lights of Fargo.
(You can read an excerpt from the first chapter here but there was also a piece in the New Yorker a few years ago by Erdrich by the same name.)

I'm going to have to read the book later this year -- too many other books on my nightstand already. But the life of the Indians in the Dakotas is a foreign world to me...and it is for that very reason, more than for the author's wonderful writing, that I want to read more. For we read to go where our lives would otherwise not go, to hear stories that we would otherwise not hear, to experience feelings that we would otherwise not feel, and to realize, through this "interaction" that in the end human feelings and failings are the same everywhere. (Though I would hardly say my life is one of "quiet rectitude punctuated by outbursts of lust and crime." :))

Uncertainty and Ambiguity

Amit Varma writes:

...I can embrace ambiguity, and follow threads. More and more, I feel myself drawn towards the latter—it makes me more certain of myself, if that makes sense.

I kinda understand and identify with that feeling. For the most part ambiguity is unsettling and discomforting to most but there is also a certain level of comfort in ambiguity. I myself never voice any strong opinions (just not my temperament) and its not all for the good since I am sure I suffer from it too at times. However, when people make broad conclusions and voice strong opinions, they often comes across as know-it-all's, which is rather off-putting. My aversion to religious wingnuts likely stems from the same discomfort with certainty. By its very nature, the unconditional nature of religious belief demands that certainty...but I would rather see shades of gray than black-and-white absoluteness. I mentioned to someone earlier this week that I am kinda tired of books like Freakanomics too that pose as if they have all the answers to understanding society and human interactions. That aversion is likely another manifestation of the same discomfort with certainty.

P.S. the above, I saw the 2nd word "kinda" and took it out. Then thought... no... it should stay. It says I am not 100% sure I understand and identify with Amit's feeling. Let that uncertainty remain. :) Kinda hate books like Freakanomics too. Am not completely shying away from reading such books again but I read them with a pinch of salt; like one should read everything, I suppose. :)

Undeserved blessings and spontaneous remissions

Per old records, I had read 3-4 stories from Runaway by Alice Munro in August 2005 and although I do not remember the stories, I do not think "Silence" was one of them. I just read the story, included in the 2005 Best American Short Stories compilation and was reminded of why readers everywhere (and critics, based on how many times her stories from the New Yorker make it to the Best American Short Stories series) love Munro's short stories. Despite her prolific writing, she manages to deliver a punch every time. Like the author Mona Simpson wrote about her, she..

“understands reality in a complex, capacious way, leaving intact its dimensions of dream and wonder, its shadings of the fantastic.”

Or as another great exponent of the short story genre, Lorrie Moore wrote in her review of Runaway,

There are no happy endings here, but neither are these tales tragedies. They are constructions of calm perplexity, coolly observed human mysteries. One can feel the suspense, poolside, as well as any reader of The Da Vinci Code; one can cast a quick eye toward one's nine-year-old on the high dive and get back to the exact sentence where one left off. The thrilling unexpectedness of real life, which Munro rightly insists on, will in her hands keep a reader glued -- even if that reader is torn by the very conflicts (work to do, kid on the high dive) dramatized therein.

Or in Munro's own words from an earlier story, that Moore quotes from in her review:

Unconnected to the life of love, uncolored by love, the world resumes its own, its natural and callous importance. This is first a blow, then an odd consolation. And already I felt my old self—my old devious, ironic, isolated self—beginning to breathe again and stretch and settle, though all around it my body clung cracked and bewildered, in the stupid pain of loss.

I have long wanted to sit down with a book of Munro's short stories and hope to do just that starting this Friday into the long weekend. Right now, I feel the urge to get Runaway again and read the other two stories "Chance" and "Soon" that narrate earlier stories from the life of the central character of Silence, Juliet but what I will be reading is some of her earlier work, compiled as Selected Stories in 1996. Another compilation of her stories will be published later this year with a foreword by Margaret Atwood - Alice Munro's Best: Selected Stories.

Speaking of her recent work, you can read her most recent story in the New Yorker, Deep-Holes here. (What's with hyphenated story titles. Just heard last month of a good Jhumpa Lahiri story from the New Yorker called Hell-Heaven, which I believe is included in her recently published 2nd collection of short stories, The Unaccustomed Earth.)

P.S. The title of this post comes from the last line of the story:

She hopes, as people who know better hope for undeserved blessings, spontaneous remissions, or things of that sort.

P.S. S. I did not realize that Alice Munro is 77 years old!

August 25, 2008

It's a dog's world - 6

Phew.. what can I say... s*** happens, even in a dog's world! :)

Flying piece of art causes museum chaos in Switzerland

A giant inflatable dog turd by American artist Paul McCarthy blew away from an exhibition in the garden of a Swiss museum, bringing down a power line and breaking a greenhouse window before it landed again, the museum said Monday. The art work, titled “Complex S(expletive..)”, is the size of a house. The wind carried it 200 metres (yards) from the Paul Klee Centre in Berne before it fell back to Earth in the grounds of a children’s home, said museum director Juri Steiner. The inflatable turd broke the window at the children's home when it blew away on the night of July 31, Steiner said. The art work has a safety system which normally makes it deflate when there is a storm, but this did not work when it blew away. Steiner said McCarthy had not yet been contacted and the museum was not sure if the piece would be put back on display.

"Is it plastic? Is it magic?"

I am glad NBC seemed to have toned down the sappy saccharine feel-good background stories of the athletes during the recent Olympics but this one is worth highlighting (not sure NBC covered it - if they did, I missed it.)

I was beginning to wonder who this time's Eric the Eel would be. (See the video of his swim from 2000, with some buffoons commentating!
How can one not cheer for the underdog and instead laugh at him, in such a case!)

Somalia's Samia Yusuf Omar probably takes that spot and deserves her few minutes of limelight on the international scene.
Quite a different and harsher return to reality for her than for any of the other Olympians, huh!
Samia Yusuf Omar headed back to Somalia Sunday, returning to the small two-room house in Mogadishu shared by seven family members. Her mother lives there, selling fruits and vegetables. Her father is buried there, the victim of a wayward artillery shell that hit their home and also killed Samia’s aunt and uncle.

This is the Olympic story we never heard.

It’s about a girl whose Beijing moment lasted a mere 32 seconds – the slowest 200-meter dash time out of the 46 women who competed in the event. Thirty-two seconds that almost nobody saw but that she carries home with her, swelled with joy and wonderment. Back to a decades-long civil war that has flattened much of her city. Back to an Olympic program with few Olympians and no facilities. Back to meals of flat bread, wheat porridge and tap water.

Read more at the article. Like she says: she does not need our pity. Quite condescending to even highlight her story like this in some ways. But in my mind this is what the Olympics are and should be about - people from all over the world coming together to give their very best and compete hard.

It's a wrap

In a distinct contrast to my reactions after the opening ceremony, which blew me away, I am not raving in awe after the closing ceremony. It was a let down of sorts -- maybe because I expected too much, or maybe I tired of all the traditions (raise this flag, raise that flag, shut the flame, pass this on, pass that on, give some Brit musicians some TV time, etc.), or maybe because of too many ad interruptions (more frequent than any other Olympic coverage or at least felt like it) . Overall, there were some great moments but it just didn't capture my attention and was disappointing in many ways.

However, I'd still like to take this occasion to link to's amazing pictures from the two week extravaganza. London's definitely has a tough act to follow:
We now know what can be accomplished by a nation of 1.3 billion people imbued with nationalistic pride and governed by a no-nonsense leadership.

Such a nation can run the most efficient, if not necessarily the most joyful and spontaneous Olympics yet known. Such a nation can trot out an endless stream of blue-shirted volunteers (at least three people for every one that was needed and three more behind them, just in case). Such a nation can send out battalions of skilled and dedicated athletes in more disciplines than any previous country ever had mastered. Such a nation can justify its presence on this earth to itself, while announcing to everyone else, without specifically saying so, that it is the future and the 21st century will inevitably be theirs.

Presenting itself to the world with a stupendous opening ceremonies that told the story of its honorable and ancient civilization in the most modern of technological ways, China put on an Olympics that will not soon be surpassed. Who else will commit $43 billion to the cause?
And yet, there was something lacking and something lost in all the clockwork efficiency and rigor - more in terms of the performances by the Chinese athletes, which I followed closely on TV across various sports than in the organization of the Olympics, which I have read was exceptional. Until the closing ceremony, I do not think I saw Chinese athletes celebrating and smiling, with not more than a cursory smile or a brief exultation by the Chinese gymnasts after a great routine. The Chinese divers were supreme and so much better than the rest of the competition but perhaps under the pressure and expectation set to win all 8 diving golds (they won 7; with an Australian upsetting them in the last event - the men's 10m platform), they never broke into even the cursory smile we saw in the case of the gymnasts and other athletes after winning medals! I'd take the joie-de-vivre of participating and not winning over the pressures of winning that seemed to bog down many Chinese athletes any day!

Anyways, to wrap it up, here's a list of 36 facts about the Olympic medal count (scrambled out of order by me)

12) India has 17% of the world's population. They won 0.31% of Olympic medals. (ouch! don't rub it in, dude! - sanjeev)

13) China: 19.8% of population, 10.4% of medals.

14) United States: 4.6% of population, 11.5% medals.

15) Jamaica: 0.041% of population, 1.15% medals.

7) Per capita, China won one gold medal for every 25 million people in the country. The United States' per capita rate was one gold for every 8.5 million. The tiny island nation of Jamaica, which won a staggering six golds in Beijing, had a per capita rate of one gold for every 450,000 residents. Had China won at that rate, the country would have earned 2,889 golds.

29) From 1980 to 2008, Jamaica won three Olympic golds. In a span of six days in Beijing, Usain Bolt won three.

16) Iceland was the least populous country to win an Olympic medal.

17) Pakistan was the most populous country not to win an Olympic medal (164 million residents, sixth-largest nation in the world).

18) Michael Phelps would have finished tied for 9th in the gold medal count, ahead of countries including France, Netherlands, Spain, Canada, Argentina, Switzerland, Brazil and Mexico.

19) The rest of the world won seven golds in men's swimming events. Phelps, of course, won eight.

20) The United States won the most golds (7) and most total medals in the track competition (23), despite having what was widely considered a disappointing meet

Later in the list is another PATHETIC attempt to trivialize the Chinese medal wins by discounting and separating out golds at 'judged' events as not being 'real' golds... but let me not get started on that kind of nonsense in the US media. Lets celebrate the winners - from all countries - instead of whining about other people's wins for once! Despite a sub-par track and field performance, the US did very well, I think and ended up with almost a record tally of total US medals. In addition to all the much celebrated swimming and gymnastic wins, there were some great team performances in basketball, volleyball, beach volleyball, softball, and even water polo and women's soccer.

A museum of mediocrity and foolish aspirations

Hmm.. sounds like me and my writing*! (emphasis mine)
"Alas, Fausta had told the truth: everything was left exactly as it had been on the day I went away. One seemed to be poking one's nose into the study of one of those long-dead writers whose rooms have been transformed into museums, which are visited by people reverently and hat in hand. Except that there was a difference: those writers whose rooms have been transformed into museums were for the most part real, genuine writers; or were, in their lifetime, sublimated artists of the first water, and their studies are faithful mirrors of their sublimation. I, on the contrary, am desublimated, and my study was clearly a museum of mediocrity, of approximation, of self-didactism, of foolish aspirations, of the near miss, of amateurishness." - from The Two of Us, by Albert Moravia
* Actually, the tragedy is that I have not even taken the time to write much and so do not even know if it is mediocre and desublimated or something worth reading! Foolish aspirations or "Khayali pulao", as a friend would call it!

And so it goes...

Of emphatic locutions, platitudes, and cliches.

Just finished Albert Moravia's well-written novel Conjugal Love, a short and delectable 142 pages, though I ruined some of the fun by reading it in many sittings over a month!

Here's an excerpt from the novel, gleaned from a review by Michael Dirda in the WaPo.
"A malignant force was driving me to accumulate repetitions, solecisms, unclear limping formulations, uncertain descriptions, emphatic locutions, platitudes, and cliches. But above all I felt that my prose lacked rhythm, that regular, harmonious breathing that sustains flow, just as meter sustains and regulates the motion of poetry. . . . I stumbled, stuttered, lost myself in a tumult of discordances and stridencies."
I won't be writing a review but all I can say is that the novel suffers from none of the above ills and was very enjoyable, even in translation. The much-acclaimed novel, Contempt (made into a movie by the French new wave director, Jean Luc Godard) is probably the next Moravia novel to read. Or maybe Moravia's other acclaimed novel Conformist, which was made into a movie by Bernardo Bertolucci.

August 24, 2008

Polar bears

Earlier this year, Newsweek had a good article about the difficult future faced by polar bears, which I have mentioned in a post about penguins and another about gorillas ... but hey.. polar bears are cute enough to deserve their own post! :)

Well.. an opportunity presents itself with this report today of polar bears swimming in open water.
Ten polar bears, an unusually large number, were seen swimming in open water off the northern coast of Alaska recently, some heading for shore and some heading toward the retreating ice in the Chukchi Sea, two U.S. government officials confirmed on Friday.


Polar bear sightings in open water were infrequent until about 2004, Miller said, but rising temperatures have melted much of the ice platform on which they live and hunt for seals. In May, Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne put the U.S. polar bear population under the protection of the Endangered Species Act, primarily because of the loss of its sea ice habitat.

"It's not unusual for bears to be swimming," Miller said, "but depending on their condition and how much time they're spending in the water, this could be problematic. It's going to cost them more energy to swim through water than travel on land."

In addition, more bears have been sighted on land in July and August than in the past - a possible result of the retreating of the sea ice. But "it's not a clear-cut situation," Miller said, noting that most bears captured by biologists this spring on the ice in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas have been in good condition. So have several bears caught on land this month.

Polar bears in open water may or may not be a bad thing in and by itself but there is no doubt that the Arctic ice shelf and the Antarctic ice melting away is not a good thing.

Also these news report in the last two days:
In northern Greenland, a part of the Arctic that had seemed immune from global warming, new satellite images show a growing giant crack and a 28.5sqkm chunk of ice breaking off a glacier.

Two of Greenland's largest glaciers lost more ice to global warming over the past month, US researchers said today. Glaciologists at the Byrd Polar Research Centre at Ohio State University observed the break-ups by monitoring daily NASA satellites images as well as time-lapse photography from cameras monitoring Greenland's glaciers.
And so it goes...

August 23, 2008

An echo of the spheres

Cleansing the undertaking this evening, so to speak, with the amazing voice of Salif Keita (interview) The track's called Folon. (This version has subtitles translating the words too, though I would rather just listen to the voice, even without understanding what he is saying.)

Next is Cape Verde's Cesaria Evora - the Queen of mornas - singing Mar de Canal.

And last but not least, one group that I hope to see live some day - Tinariwen, playing here with Carlos Santana!

Lots of music from Africa on idamawatu's channel on youtube.
Music cleanses the understanding; inspires it, and lifts it into a realm which it would not reach if it were left to itself. ~Henry Ward Beecher

There's music in the sighing of a reed;
There's music in the gushing of a rill;
There's music in all things, if men had ears:
Their earth is but an echo of the spheres.
~Lord Byron

August 22, 2008

War - what is it good for?

Unlike with Greek and Roman history, I know which book I need to get to read about the American Civil War - Shelby Foote's 3 volume set The Civil War: A Narrative; considered by most to be the definitive book on the subject. Some day I hope to get the time and drive to read it but in the meantime, I really enjoyed an interview with the author on Book TV on CSPAN2 yesterday. This was a re-run of an old interview from 2001 and was part of "In-Depth" - Book TV's three hour live call-in program where they interviewed Shelby Foote at his house in Memphis, TN sitting in the very room and at his desk where he had been writing since 1966.

You can watch the entire program here.

Flipping channels during one of the innumerable ad breaks on NBC during the prime-time Olympic broadcast, I arrived at Book TV at around 9-9.15pm and never went back till the program was done at 11pm. I know almost nothing of the different wars and battlefields of the Civil War and yet for almost two hours, I was suckered into listening to Shelby Foote and his answers to calls from various people around the US. Bob Costas, baton-dropping American sprinters, and NBC's Olympic coverage be damned... I had to get my fix of history for the day! ;)

I love reading history but almost never war history. So, it was surprising to me that I was so struck by the interview. Perhaps it was because the narrative and discussion presented the human face of war. Also, there was something very captivating about Shelby Foote's cadence and style of talking. Maybe it was the Southern accent and his way of talking, which others have referred to as a "drawl so mellifluous that one critic called it "molasses over hominy"". Shelby Foote himself had this to say about the Southern voice at the end of the above interview, albeit not regarding his voice but in response to an email about his wife's lovely voice:

People always talk about Southern voices - the Mississippi delta and Memphis voices. It all comes out of having had what we call colored nurses when we were growing up. We get this from the blacks. That's where it all comes from. Practically everything we got - at some point in my life -- by the time I was twenty-one years old, I realized that every morsel of food I had ever eaten, every piece of fabric I had ever had on my back, ever hour of education, came out of black labor. It was all that when I was growing up. There was a woman who raised me. ... meant more to me than my mother or my aunts and uncles put together. It's all the black experience. I go down to the Delta today and it just breaks my heart to see it. It's like the place isn't there any more because all the blacks have left. That's was the Delta was. I was raised in a black society, really. They were not running it but they were doing it.
Coming back to the topic of war: While it is always good to read about history, the reasons why things transpired as they did, the follies and the heroism of people, I fear that a reasonable section of people are intrigued not by the human side of these wars but by the guns used, the planes, the patriotic feel-good sense that comes from being on the 'good' (and winning) side, and so on. I have never understood such fascination with wars - especially WWI and WWII, which, if the number of coffee table books I have seen on the subject are anything to go by, seem to be really popular. Lately of course, the Revolutionary War and the American Civil War have been popular in the US because of a number of good books on the wars and the people involved in them. And then there are any number of fine books on the Vietnam war, though sometimes I wonder if any lessons were learned at all from that disaster. Or to quote another Southerner (Mark Twain), "History does not repeat itself but it does rhyme a lot."

War, huh, yeah
What is it good for
Absolutely nothing

- War, Edwin Starr

August 21, 2008

Pictures on silence

Date: 8-21-2008
Time: 12.50pm, EST.
Location: my car
Radio Station: WHRB
The song: "I'm so lonesome i could cry" by Bill Frisell (guitar), Ron Carter (bass), Paul Motian (drums). (You can listen to it through Rhapsody.)

For just a few minutes, there was nothing else but me, the music, and a little bee I sighted buzzing around a solitary white flower nodding along in the wind. Now I know what Berthold Auerbach meant when he said: Music washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.

And Longfellow said it more poetically (though this was not night, for a few minutes, the infectious cares did steal away.
And the night shall be filled with music,
And the cares that infest the day
Shall fold their tents like the Arabs
And as silently steal away.
~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, The Day Is Done
A painter paints pictures on canvas. But musicians paint their pictures on silence. ~Leopold Stokowski

August 19, 2008

Pain, Love, and Freedom

Having just listened to Jim Morrison, I ran into a few quotes by him, which I thought I'd add to my blog.
“People are afraid of themselves, of their own reality; their feelings most of all. People talk about how great love is, but that's bullshit. Love hurts. Feelings are disturbing. People are taught that pain is evil and dangerous. How can they deal with love if they're afraid to feel? Pain is meant to wake us up. People try to hide their pain. But they're wrong. Pain is something to carry, like a radio. You feel your strength in the experience of pain. It's all in how you carry it. That's what matters. Pain is a feeling. Your feelings are a part of you. Your own reality. If you feel ashamed of them, and hide them, you're letting society destroy your reality. You should stand up for your right to feel your pain.”

That's what real love amounts to- letting a person be what he really is. Most people love you for who you pretend to be. To keep their love, you keep pretending- performing. You get to love your pretence. It's true, we're locked in an image, an act.”

“Expose yourself to your deepest fear; after that, fear has no power, and the fear of freedom shrinks and vanishes. You are free.”

“The most important kind of freedom is to be what you really are. You trade in your reality for a role. You trade in your sense for an act. You give up your ability to feel, and in exchange, put on a mask. There can't be any large-scale revolution until there's a personal revolution, on and individual level. It's got to happen inside first. You can take away a man's political freedom and you won't hurt him- unless you take away his freedom to feel. That can destroy him. That kind of freedom can't be granted. Nobody can win it for you.”

Rock on!

From Indian classical music to something completely different. Rock music by Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison! (Yeah... just listening to various kinds of music on youtube this afternoon!)

First up, Hendrix - this should tell you why they deify him like they do! See him play the Star Spangled Banner on guitar at Woodstock (August 1969)

Voodoo Chile also from Woodstock (there's also another longer version.)

Purple Haze, live in Atlanta, 1970

Foxy Lady - 1968

and here some rare footage of him jamming with the Stones!

Top class stuff...even though I usually am more a fan of the blues guitarists who influenced him -- B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Albert King, Elmore James, Howling Wolf, etc.

Here's one video of Santana, also from Woodstock and a link to an amazing piece by Santana with Clapton (who, as we know IS God.)

And just one video from The Doors - Light My Fire, my favorite of their many classics. (Though many may remember this rendering of the song, when Jim ticked off Ed Sullivan by not replacing the word "higher" with something less innocuous!)

Enjoy! Enough music for now, though I am not done. I'm going to go get ready for some classical music tonight - a free concert, thanks to the City of Boston, featuring the Orchestre Symphonique des Jeunes de Strasbourg.

Indian classical music

And following up from Shakti, here are three videos to introduce you to the beauty of Indian classical music - something I have unfortunately not covered so far in my posts on music. African music, jazz, blues... but no Indian classical music so far!

L. Shankar was part of Shakti, but his brother, L. Subramaniam is eminently renowned as a master violinist of arguably even greater repute. First up, a video from a recent performance in April 2008

Here's the internationally renowned (thanks to association with George Harrison and the Beatles) sitar player, Ravi Shankar (father of Norah Jones)

and here's Ravi Shanker introducing the tabla maestro, Ustad Allah Rakha on what appears to be a French program in the 1970s.

There may be other good videos featuring the famed father-son tabla maestros Allah Rakha and Zakir Hussain -- but this video is the best that I found on youtube and will serve for illustrative purposes of what the tabla maestros can achieve in jugalbandhis.
Also see this hour long feature featuring Hariprasad Chaurasia on the flute and Zakir Hussain on the tabla. (I have had the pleasure of seeing both of them live in the 1990s.)


And now a change in flavor from Miles Davis's cool jazz*...

..hear this amazing music from the band, Shakti playing at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1976.

* Though there is a link .... John McLaughlin was one of the musicians in Bitches Brew and was part of the group Shakti, where he played with 3 famous Indian musicians - L. Shankar (violin), Zakir Hussain (tabla), Thetakudi Harihara Vinayakram (ghatam).

Fewer chords but infinite possibilities

Yesterday, on WGBH's evening jazz program, I heard an excerpt of the track Fisherman, Strawberry and Devil Crab from the Porgy and Bess album by Miles Davis . Sublime!
The album features arrangements by Davis and collaborator Gil Evans from George Gershwin's opera Porgy and Bess. The album was recorded in four sessions on July 22, July 29, August 4 and August 18 in 1958 at Columbia's 30th Street Studio in New York City.
You can listen to the track via Rhapsody or via

Here's couple other great tracks by The Miles Davis quintet (Miles, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams) from 1967.

'Round midnight

I fall in love too easily

I love the above two tracks much more than the tracks (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6) from his much acclaimed album from 1969- Bitches Brew. (I just realized that
Teo Macero, who died earlier this year in February, produced Bitches Brew and Miles Davis's famous album Kind of Blue as well as another all-time great Jazz album - Time Out by the Dave Brubeck Quintet, which includes what is arguably my favorite jazz track - Take Five, which I had linked to in my first ever post featuring music.

The title comes from something Miles said about the Porgy & Bess album:
When Gil wrote the arrangement of "I Loves You, Porgy," he only wrote a scale for me... gives you a lot more freedom and space to hear things... fewer chords but infinite possibilities as to what to do with them. Classical composers have been writing this way for years, but jazz musicians seldom have.

Know your insects

An ant's social status

Whether an ant becomes a dominant queen or a lowly worker is determined by both nature and nurture, it turns out. A new study found that an ant's social status in its colony depends both on its genetic inheritance and the food it eats when it is young.

Earlier: Why ants rule.

No point to this post. Its not even blog-worthy perhaps. What can I say! Obviously, I'm just not as busy as an ant. Oh -- the phrase is 'busy as a bee', you say? Oh well -- different species, same order, wiki enlightens. (Wiki has a whole lot more information on ants, if they interest you!)

(Un)Happiness dissected and quantified

I have blogged about happiness a few times before -- 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 -- but it is amazing how many have tried to analyze, dissect, and quantify happiness, a state of being, in the last few years.

In the last few decades, people have tried to quantify happiness through Felicific calculus and indexing the happiness levels and quality of life in various countries through the Human Development Index and the Well-Being Index.

In the last couple years, the Freakanomics blog has had a number of 'experts' on the subject further dissecting data from these indices and from other surveys. I'll link only to the 2008 posts here; 2007 had its own share of posts that explored the link worldwide between
Health, Wealth and Happiness!

In April-May this year, Arthur Brooks, author of the recent book, Gross National Happiness, caught a lot of attention with his opinion that
Conservatives Are Happier Than Liberals, arrived at from his analysis of several sources of non-partisan survey data. In subsequent posts he explored the reasons for this large, persistent “happiness gap” favored the political right viz. religion* and where d view matters. Apparently, even Princeton professor Daniel Kahneman, who has pioneered happiness measurement techniques, thinks that conservatives think the world is fairer than liberals do, and this makes them happy.

a fourth piece, instead of bucketing people into liberal-vs-conservatives, Brooks looks at moderates vs. people on the extremes. The result of his analysis may surprise you.

A happiness edge enjoyed by the extremes persists even if we control for the other relevant forces like income, education, race, religion, and so on.

In a fifth post, he explored the reasons why zealots are happier than people with moderate views!

To review, then: Extremists may be the happiest people on both the left and right. But as a general rule, they don’t like you — unless you agree with them.

Being by no means extreme in any of my viewpoints, I now know the source of my apparent discontent. :) More seriously, I think this goes back to the paper I just blogged about and has to do with being content and ignorant in our biases and our perceptions of others but being supremely confident and arrogant about ourselves. If that is what it takes to be happy, no wonder I am anything but.

There has also been a series of articles on the subject by Justin Wolfers but I do not have the time right now to read them all - so will just link to them here, if any one is interested.

Happiness Inequality #3: Putting It All Together
Happiness Inequality #2: Differences Between Groups
Happiness Inequality #1: The Facts
The Economics of Happiness, Part 6: Delving Into Subjective Well-Being
The Economics of Happiness, Part 5: Will Raising the Incomes of All Raise the Happiness of All?
The Economics of Happiness, Part 4: Are Rich People Happier than Poor People?
The Economics of Happiness, Part 3: Historical Evidence
The Economics of Happiness, Part 2: Are Rich Countries Happier than Poor Countries?
The Economics of Happiness, Part 1: Reassessing the Easterlin Paradox

Wolfers's recent research with Betsey Stevenson has been recently published as a journal paper, Happiness Inequality in the United States, and is downloadable here. The paper has been summarized here. (Justin and Betsey, who happen to be partners and are both economists at Wharton, have also studied and analyzed the institution of marriage through the lens of economics. You can read some of their Freakanomics posts on the subject, if interested. Happiness of married vs. unmarried people is a whole other topic, which I am not interested in getting into here.)

* On a related note, I found this in comments section of
a post at Econlog. :)

"atheists are disproportionately rich and educated, have higher intelligence, and are overrepresented among elites."

Aah...nice to know. I'm disproportionately rich and educated, very intelligent, elitist...and unhappy! ;)

Update: Forget everything I wrote about in this post so far. I just read something that has one sentence that probably is all we need to know about happiness.
Seth Godin
writes about destroying happiness:

A journalist asked me, Most people have a better standard of living today than Louis XIV did in his day. So why are so many people unhappy?

What you have doesn't make you unhappy. What you want does.

And want is created by us, the marketers.

Marketers trying to grow market share will always work to make their non-customers unhappy. It's interesting to note that marketers trying to maintain market share have a lot of work to do in reminding us that we're happy.

My post is not to highlight the unique way Seth Godin categorizes marketers but to highlight the italicized sentence (his emphasis) about what makes us (un)happy and what does not. It sounds cliched but actually encompasses a deep truism that many of us tacitly understand but likely find very hard to utilize in the way we live our lives.

Am I as Biased as You?

Seems elementary and cliched but there is a truism here. Emily Pronin, in a paper in the prestigious Science magazine in May this year, writes about how people see themselves differently from how they see others.
They are immersed in their own sensations, emotions, and cognitions at the same time that their experience of others is dominated by what can be observed externally. This basic asymmetry has broad consequences. It leads people to judge themselves and their own behavior differently from how they judge others and those others' behavior. Often, those differences produce disagreement and conflict. Understanding the psychological basis of those differences may help mitigate some of their negative effects.
You can read the above paper as well as many of her other related papers through her website.

August 16, 2008

Lightning Bolt

Twenty meters from the finish line, his celebration began. He relaxed his arms, looked toward the crowd and slapped his chest. And despite those theatrics, he still covered 100 meters faster than any man ever has.
Little wonder then that Usain Bolt is celebrating his country's first ever gold medal.

He was dancing before the race even began.

Shimmying in front of the starting blocks, Bolt struck a pose during pre-race introductions as if the race was over before it started. Turns out it was, and Bolt had post-race entertainment planned for the enthralled sellout crowd of 91,000.

It took him fewer than 10 seconds to run 100 meters but at least 10 minutes to complete his victory lap. He pulled off his gold spikes and held them aloft, wrapped himself in a Jamaican flag and clowned as if he were on stage at a karaoke bar rather than on the biggest stage of the Olympics.

“I like to have fun,’’ he explained.

Munching on a post-race snack during a press conference, Bolt said there would be plenty of time to test his limits and lower the world record. That’s the most mind-boggling part about it – what might come next.

And here is what he had to say when asked how fast he could have run if he had not eased up:
“I didn’t come here to run the world record because I am the world-record holder,’’ he said. “I came here to win.’’
Yah maaan! Came here for the gold. Got the gold. And how!

Unfortunately, thanks to an email from a friend, I knew the result of the 100m finals before I just saw it on NBC.
I had seen Bolt bolt ahead of every one in the heat yesterday, casually looking right-and-left as he relaxed after the first 60m or so and easily winding up first. Unbelievable that he relaxes once again with 15-20m to go and yet beats the world record again -- finishing at an unbelievably fast 9.69, with the silver and bronze medalists coming way behind at 9.89 and 9.91! This has to be the most dominating 100m run in years and should make the updated list of the top 50 greatest Olympic moments along with a few of Phelps's races!

I can't wait for the 200m finals now.
Here's Bolt in the 200m earlier this year - the lead he has on others is almost as good as Johnson's 200m in 1996. And though NBC won't make available the 100m finals from Beijing any time soon, you can see Bolt setting the 100m record in May this year.

Not one more refugee death, by Emmy Pérez

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