October 27, 2018 § Leave a comment
Gilgamesh: A New English Version (Mitchell, Stephen, tr.)
The Persian Empire reached its zenith under the rule of Darius I. He counted the people of 24 nations among his subjects: the world lay at his feet. “This is what I did…in one and the same year after that I became king,” he wrote, “Nineteen battles I fought; by the favor of Ahura Mazda I smote them and took prisoner nine kings.”
But Darius was not content. These achievements were ephemeral: at some point, he would die and with his death would vanish the memory of his grandness. So he did something that no king had done before him: he wrote an autobiography, a detailed account of his reign in all its glory, leaving out not one single triumph or accomplishment. And because he was emperor of the civilized world, he wrote his autobiography in a way no king after him has done: he had it inscribed in three languages, on the side of a mountain, at Behistun, overlooking the ancient thoroughfare that ran from Babylon to Ecbatana, so that travellers would read it and remember him with respect. Indeed, he was quite clear about his wishes, ending his story with a stern admonition.
“Underling, vigorously make known how great I am and how great my skills, and how great my superiority… Underling, let not that be made trifling to you which has been done by me. Let not the king have to inflict punishment.”
Perhaps the inscription was too high up on the mountain, perhaps the surroundings were too picturesque to focus on the words, but there is something Ozymandian in what happened next. Within a century of Darius’ death (a few decades before an upstart Macedonian smashed through his empire), a Greek visitor to those parts saw the cliffs, asked the locals about the writing, but nobody knew what it said, who put it there and why. O quam cito transit gloria mundi.
Many centuries later, in 1835, Henry Rawlinson was able to decipher one of the three scripts: it was Old Persian, a phonetic alphabet not too dissimilar to other Indo-European scripts. Using this, scholars raced to decipher the second script, Akkadian, a complex one with 300 cuneiform characters. It was a Semitic language, of the same family as a series of tablets discovered during excavations of the library of Ashurbanipal, in Nineveh. In 1857, the code was cracked, and the tablets of Nineveh could be read, and what was on the tablets was a story, a strange and moving story, a story written down 3500 years ago, at a time when both the Mahabharata and the Iliad were probably accounts of battles that were yet to take place. Today, across all mankind, we know of no story that is older.
It is the story of Gilgamesh.
As I read Stephen Mitchell’s version of the Gilgamesh (it isn’t a ‘translation’, but a poem that he has authored after comparing several authentic translations), I was overcome by the atavistic reverence one feels in the presence of very old, fragile, precious things. On every page, I could hear ancient murmurs, echoes from around the world; and the hair stood on the back of my neck.
October 18, 2018 § 2 Comments
This is one of the few occasions where I devote a second post to a book, and it is to keep a promise I made. I had complained in my previous post about how the translation I owned, of the Periya Puranam, was woefully inadequate. The lives of 63 Tamil Saivite saints were recounted in the book, and they had, between them, experienced 70 or more miraculous episodes. The three most prominent saints had led eventful miracle-filled lives, but for the sixty others, the miracle described was the event of their life, their entire case for sainthood. Out of all these lives and episodes, there was exactly one story I found so moving that I felt robbed of a great reading experience, even perhaps a spiritual or cathartic reading experience, purely because of the quality of the translation. I decided to re-write the episode as the logical conclusion of my reading effort, as a way of scratching a persistent itch.
Into the small dusty village of Nindravur rode the soldiers one morning, all shiny in their armor, looking this way and that, wrinkling noses in contempt at the squalor they saw. They made inquiries, and were soon conducted to a hovel, more dilapidated than even the rest, and on the porch sat a grubby unkempt man in rags, staring out into the distance with wild eyes, until they intruded on his reverie.
“Is your name Poosalan?” they asked.
“Yes,” he said, startled. People didn’t usually come looking for him.
“Poosalan of Nindravur?” They wanted to be sure.
The small crowd of curious village folk that had gathered around assured the soldiers that this was indeed the man they wanted. What business could they possibly have with him?
The circle of soldiers parted. One among them jumped down from his horse and strode forward towards Poosalan. He examined the villager’s face closely, then turned his eyes to the hut behind and the untidy undergrowth around. He gave Poosalan another quizzical look.
“We are told you have built a temple,” he said, briefly. “Show us this temple.”
A ripple of laughter shook through the village folk that quickly stopped when the newcomer looked sharply up at them. The village headman said, “Sir, you have been misinformed by some practical joker. Our Poosalan cannot show you his temple.”
“Why not?” snapped the newcomer. “Where is it?”
“It’s in here!” said Poosalan suddenly, eagerly, his wild eyes flashing. He pointed at his head.
The visitor furrowed his brow. “What do you mean?”
“For twenty years I have had it here,” cried Poosalan, wildly. “Twenty years! Even when I was a boy at school, all I ever wanted to do was to build a temple to Sivan. I thought of nothing else, I spoke of nothing else. When I grew up, my classmates became scholars and scribes, but I went from door to door, seeking money to build this temple.
“But not one copper coin did I get for my troubles! The cruel ones laughed and called me mad; others told me that building temples was for kings and emperors; the kind ones bought me a meal and bid me worship at the local village temple instead. For years I persisted, in vain, until I realized that I was never going to raise money and build a temple. And it was then that the idea came to me.
“Alone, with no money and no help, there was only one thing in my control in this world: my own mind. So I decided to build this temple HERE, in my MIND.
“Twenty years it has taken me, sir!” Poosalan cried. “People said, how tough can it be to imagine a temple. You should be done in the blink of an eye. But no, sir, not MY temple!
“I didn’t want to picture another temple in my head, I wanted to BUILD my own. This was the thing I was born to do. My ONLY possession in the world. My own way of honoring God. It had to be PERFECT.
“I mentally summoned an architect, I sat down with ‘him’ and imagined my designs and blueprints. That took months, but I was in no hurry. Brick by brick, I mentally conjured up all the material I needed. I stacked the bricks lovingly, one at a time. I laid the foundation first, exactly as laid down in the ancient books that prescribe these things. All day and all night the effort took up, and in my heart I knew they were right who called me mad, but I didn’t care any more, because I was blissful in my madness. One by one, I built every column, every archway, every wall, floor and ceiling, from the basement to the tip of the dome.
The dome took a long time, you know: it had to be the correct shape, exactly according to the cubit-ratios defined in the scriptures. I imagined every tiny sculpture on it, every god, goddess and gargoyle, some turning this way, some that, some looking angry, some calm; the figurines depicted stories from our books, and every story I imagined sculpting in imaginary limestone. I erected a flag-post on top, and when the cool breeze blew I could almost see the Lord’s banner fluttering proudly; I could close my eyes and hear the peel of my imaginary bells, I dug a tank around the temple and erected a high gate of great architectural beauty (if I say so myself). Twenty years is a long time, sir! But now the labor of my love is complete. Today, finally, I am about to consecrate the altar: you, sir, have come at an auspicious time.”
The villagers laughed, and this time the soldiers joined in, too. The simpleton laughed with them, delirious in his delight and oblivious of their scorn. But the man who had questioned Poosalan did not laugh. He stood in silence for a while.
“I am your king, Kadavarkon the Pallava,” he said. “I congratulate you on this temple you have built.”
As he turned on his heel to leave, he mumbled, “I, too, built a temple once.”
Then he got on his horse, and galloped away at the head of his soldiers, never to return. For hours they rode in silence until they returned to his capital, the bustling and beautiful city of Kanchipuram – a city that is still beautiful today.
There, amidst the markets, towers, waving palm trees and busy thoroughfares, there stand many beautiful temples. The oldest, and one of the most spectacular of them is the Kailashanatha temple, built by Raja Simha Kadavarkon between 685 and 705 AD. Elephants had brought the granite for its foundations and the sandstone for its walls from far away. Countless slaves had laboured over the 58 shrines in the temple, the many layered roof with the intricate carvings, the ornamental statues and the idols of gold and silver. The taxes of a dozen defeated nations had been squandered on the gems and diamonds that lit up the sanctum sanctorum. But outside the temple, on one of the exterior walls, the last things to be built, there is a commemorative slab, with 12 Sanskrit verses, dictated, they say, by the king himself.
In it, the king speaks of the construction of the temple at vast expense, how important it was to him, how he considered himself a servant to God rather than a king, how the temple was the very pinnacle of his legacy and that of the great Pallava dynasty he belonged to. It talks of his emotions when it neared completion, when the astrologers and priests drew the charts and decided on an auspicious date to consecrate the temple; and his state of excitement the night before, in anticipation of the next morning’s festivities. When he fell asleep, he says, he dreamt a dream, and in it, he heard a heavenly voice.
‘I’m afraid you’ll have to change the date for the consecration of your temple, Kadavarkon,’ the Voice said. ‘I have to be away in Nindravur, where my devotee, Poosalan, has chosen the same date to consecrate his temple, and I have no choice but to be there tomorrow.’
What else is left to say? It goes on, to narrate the incident that I have already described, when the curious king went in search of the temple that was more important than his, and of the man who built it.
A voice in the head of a king: what kind of miracle is that? As miracles go, it is a pretty tame one, a garden or common variety of miracle if you will. I feel silly wasting your time with this story. Other saints brought dead children back to life, walked through fire, or made parchments float upstream. Sixty three lives, seventy miracles, and this is the one that left a lump in my throat. I feel a bit like Poosalan, having built a story up in my head, and perhaps not able to explain adequately why I find it so beautiful.
October 15, 2018 § 4 Comments
Periya Puranam is an epic poem that describes the lives, deeds, miracles, songs and sacrifices of 63 saints (collectively known as the “Nayanmar”) of the Tamil Saivite denomination of Hinduism. Its author, Sekkizhar, was a 12th century Tamil poet and the prime minister of king Kulothunga Chola II.
There was a period, several centuries before Sekkizhar’s time, when the kings of the Tamil nation had favoured Jainism, and the heretical faith had a powerful hold on the society and culture of the Tamils. The revival of Saivism took several centuries. It found powerful patrons in the Chola kings, who ruled between the 9th and 13th centuries, but it was the songs and legends of the Nayanmar that captured popular imagination and swayed their belief. Legend has it that Sekkizhar saw his lord and master get drawn towards a Jain book, the Civaka Chintamani. Worried that the Chola might start patronizing Jainism again, Sekkizhar wrote the Periya Puranam to convince the king to stay firmly on the Saiva side.
If the legend is true, Sekkizhar was successful way beyond his limited objectives – not only was Kulothunga’s faltering faith restored, Sekkizhar was hailed a saint, and his book celebrated not just as a literary success but as one of the canonical texts of the Saivite religion; centuries later, the Cholas are relegated to historical textbooks, the Jains constitute less than 1% of Tamil population today, but the Nayanmar legends are well-known across the Tamil-speaking world, at least until one generation ago.
September 30, 2018 § Leave a comment
Thinking, Fast and Slow (Kahneman, Daniel)
Daniel Kahneman’s core proposition is that human thought can be modeled as occurring in two distinct modes. He calls them System 1 and System 2, and describes them in detail. System 1 is “fast”, intuitive, all about establishing causal connections; it “jumps to conclusions”, weaves narratives, glosses over details, “sees the big picture”. System 2 kicks in when “slow”, concentrated analytical effort is involved, it tends to look closely at each detail, relies on logic, looks for evidence at every step. Without System 1, we would plod through life staring in wonder at every tree we encounter, knowing every fold in its ancient bark, and unable to visualize the forest it stands in. Without System 2, we would see causal connections and patterns everywhere, and a scowl on the face of the stranger you bump into in the street would be sufficient to convince us that he evades his taxes, like your great-uncle from long ago who had the same expression.
Think of them as two police detectives in a TV show. System 1 is always awake and alert, looking around nervously, judging people compulsively, building back stories and making predictions based on superficial knowledge and little evidence, keeping up a steady monologue with his many preconceived notions. System 2 is usually not paying any attention to any of this. She lets System 1 take the lead in every conversation. Usually System 1’s is the only voice we get to hear, but as soon as something really important or unexpected comes up, System 2 takes over. She shuts System 1 up so that she can think for a second. She uses only facts and rational thought. (System 1 thinks he does, too – and he’s wrong) But while she has all the evidence and inference, and he’s the one just shooting his mouth with little to go on, he’s the super self-confident one, and she is the one wracked with self-doubt. She keeps checking the validity of her logic. Plus, she can’t focus on more than one thing at a time, while System 1 can multi-task without effort. He doesn’t stay silent for too long. His supreme confidence overawes her, and she sometimes ends up meekly looking for ways to corroborate what he’s saying, rather than for data that can independently test the truth in his words. At other times, she does stand up to him: she is, after all, the only one who can influence him. After working at comical cross-purposes through the episode, the partners get their wires straightened out in the last ten minutes: System 1 finally takes a look at System 2’s painstaking analysis, and cries, “Eureka!” and the case is cracked. System 1 takes all the credit, of course. The episode ends with him smugly taking away an erroneous generalization of what happened, as the key lesson from the matter, a generalization that he will use in a future episode. Meanwhile System 2, who did all the hard work, has gone back to ignoring him…
This is clearly the billion-dollar abstract for a blockbuster Netflix original – it is also, according to Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, what goes on in your head every day. Not just at home, with friends or in a shop, but at your job, your field of expertise.
Experts have better situational judgment than others at the thing they do, but their professional instincts are nothing more than pattern recognition, honed over years of experience. Unfortunately, when a complex question is put to us that doesn’t have an exact match with the patterns we have stored away, our System 1 steps in confidently and substitutes a different, simpler pattern that DOES exist in our head, and answers THAT question instead. This happens particularly when we’re not paying full attention: when we’ve put our System 2 to sleep, or to work on some other problem.
This, to me, is where Kahneman’s (and Amos Tversky’s) Two Mode theory gets really exciting: its applicability in cognitive processes, in matters of public policy or private enterprise. All leadership decision-making is by instinct, a wise man once told me, and all education and experience just ways to hone and fine-tune those instincts. In Kahnemannian terms, they are ways to get System 2 involved in defining the precise rules for pattern matching, so that System 1 can, in the future, make fewer mistakes in picking the right one for the occasion.
It isn’t uncommon for an Economics Nobel Laureate to write a book based on his life’s work. Yet it isn’t common for such a book to be an off-the-charts bestseller. Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow has done exactly this. It is a tribute to his simple and jargon-free writing skills, but also to the easy accessibility and universal applicability of his subjects: behavioral economics and cognitive biases of normal people doing everyday things. It’s a slow read, but a fascinating one, and I rapidly became a fan, even while taking a month or more to finish it.
July 8, 2018 § 3 Comments
John Berger was an art critic, novelist, painter and poet, who wrote and compered a BBC series called Ways of Seeing in 1972. This slim volume of essays was published as a companion piece to the series.
Berger’s objective, as stated in the first few seconds of the first episode of the TV series, was to “question some of the assumptions made about the traditions of European painting.” Unlike any other author on European art that I have read, Berger says little about the paintings and even less about the painters. He focuses instead on the effect the art has, or is intended to have, on its viewer.
Perspective, after all, was the biggest innovation that European oil painting introduced. For the first time in the history of art, the viewer was brought into consideration. He was a stakeholder – in fact, he was the central stakeholder, because it is from his viewpoint that we see the painting. And the viewer – the ideal spectator assumed by the European painter – was definitely a HE. This is clear, Berger points out, from the way women are depicted in oil paintings, as ornaments draped on it, and typically nude (not naked, mind you, because, “to be naked is to be oneself. To be nude is to be seen naked by others and yet not recognized for oneself”) The female body is typically “arranged in the way it is, to display it to the man looking at the picture. This picture is made to appeal to his sexuality. It has nothing to do with her sexuality.” This blatantly sexualized objectification is unique to the European art tradition, says Berger: in other cultures, even if “the theme of the work is sexual attraction, it is likely to show active sexual love as between two people, the woman as active as the man.”
Yet women are not the only ‘objects’ celebrated by the oil paintings: “If you buy a painting you buy also the look of the thing it represents”. Thus the paintings were richly furnished with material possessions: gleaming jewelry, expensive trinkets, satin surfaces, acres and acres of scenic farmland, and “vacuous” mythological or historical subjects painted with a view to conferring some intellectual or moral heft upon the owner of the art.
Berger’s historical canvas is broader than misogyny alone. Oil painting was not the only world-changing innovation that developed in 15th century Europe. Berger points a finger directly at another – capitalism – as the single biggest influence on the way European oil painting evolved. To Berger, it was “a way of seeing the world ultimately determined by new attitudes to property and exchange”, and it soon found its visual expression in the new exciting field of oil painting.
Berger gives the example of an obscure Da Vinci work (The Virgin and Child with St. Anne and John the Baptist) that achieved sudden fame when it was sold for 2.5 million pounds. The quality of art, for the unschooled viewer, is defined purely in terms of its market value. It is this lure of the open market, according to Berger, that prompted artists (other than a few ‘masters’) to use their skills “cynically” – that is, to depict images not because a subject moved them emotionally and evoked artistic creativity, but purely for the purposes of titillating the senses of prospective buyers. Their intention was not to transport the audience to a new experience (the only honest objective of pure art), but to lazily use well-understood visual cliches to convey the owners’ success and wealth to the world. In that sense, Berger links European oil painting to modern “publicity images” or advertisements, that sell a certain future fantasy to its buyers (whereas the ownership of art serves as evidence of their present social and financial success)
So finally we meet Berger’s evil arch-villain: an exploitative, soul-sucking capitalism, that
survives by forcing the majority, whom it exploits, to define their own interests as narrowly as possible. This was once achieved by extensive deprivation. Today in the developed countries it is being achieved by imposing a false standard of what is and what is not desirable
John Berger was a self-professed Marxist. The term is understood today to mean an advocate for the violent overthrow of democratic governments, and an apologist for totalitarian communist regimes. But this is misleading, at least as far as Berger is concerned. He was no card-carrying Bolshie. He was merely someone who found Karl Marx’s framework of dialectical materialism useful for analyzing social history. He looked at history as an evolution, a set of socio-economic processes by which the past morphed into the present, and he analysed these processes in terms of the power structures and material motivations of the parties involved.
Now I do not pretend to be an expert on Marxian theory, but it seems to be as good a theoretical framework as any. It comes with pitfalls and blind spots, but which framework doesn’t? Frameworks, by definition, restrict one’s focus to a limited set of categories, and in doing so, they omit the impact of other categories. One obvious conclusion it is possible to draw from a Marxian analysis of history is an extremely dim view of human progress and achievement. Does that conclusion have any validity? It does. Is it the only valid conclusion possible? Perhaps not.
Perspective is what we learnt from European art. What we see is not THE truth, but A truth, out of many. And where we choose to stand and see things from is a deliberate, even political act. As Berger says, “we only see what we look at. To look is an act of choice. As a result of this act, what we see is brought within our reach”. Berger’s Ways of Seeing gave me a completely new way to look at European oil paintings.
July 2, 2018 § Leave a comment
Dona Wong has an impressive resume when it comes to data visualization. Edward Tufte, whose visually sumptuous book I reviewed not long ago, was her thesis advisor at Yale; she has been a graphics editor with the New York Times, strategic director for information design at Siegel+Gale (a brilliantly cool-sounding designation, I must say), and then was graphics director for the Wall Street Journal for several years, and at some point during this stint, she cranked out this book on the Dos and Don’ts of Presenting Data, Facts and Figures. It is a slim volume, slick, glossy, easy to read, well-presented (which is the bare minimum of what one expects from a book on visualization). To do proper tribute to the subject, I’ve decided that my review should be more visual and less wordy. So here goes:
Regular visitors to this site might have noticed that I have been reading a couple of books about statistics and data visualization techniques of late. You may have even guessed the reasons for this: yes, my work has managed to get in the way of my reading. But I don’t expect this trend to continue.
Yes, I usually read very different kinds of books: ones with lots of text, usually, and very little pictorial content.
For me, when it comes to books, visual appeal is all very well, but it doesn’t govern my reading experience – it’s the content that I look at closely.
Even Wong acknowledges this, in her very first page: “Ultimately, it is the content that makes the graphics interesting.” It is the content that needs to be thought-provoking, insightful and true.
Wong’s book mentions many rules for good graphic design, but I didn’t get wowed by anything I read in here – either because I already knew the rule, or because I wasn’t exactly convinced it was necessary.
In closing, I can’t help taking a crack at the venerable WSJ. It is not a publication I am particularly fond of. Wong is right, of course: content makes the graphics interesting, not the other way around, and graphics on objectionable content is lipstick for the proverbial pig. They may guide me all they want on graphics, but I wouldn’t want to be guided by them on much else.