Category Archives: misc/personal

Saints and Sinners: The Science of Good and Evil

People who are emotionally secure, who view life’s problems as manageable and who feel safe and protected tend to show the greatest empathy for strangers and to act altruistically and compassionately. In contrast, people who are anxious about their own worth and competence, who avoid close relationships or are clingy in those they have tend to be less altruistic and less generous. Such people are less likely to care for the elderly, for instance, or to donate blood. Full article here.

“Le Pélican” de Robert Desnos

Le capitaine Jonathan,
Etant âgé de dix huit ans,
Capture un jour un pélican
Dans une île d’extrème orient.

Le pélican de Jonathan,
Au matin, pond un oeuf tout blanc
Et il en sort un pélican
Lui ressemblant étonnament.

Et ce deuxième pélican
Pond, à son tour, un oeuf tout blanc
D’où il sort, inévitablement
Un autre qui en fait autant.

Cela peut durer pendant très longtemps
Si l’on ne fait pas d’omelette avant.

attacks in mumbai, on thanksgiving…

thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays. the idea of getting together with family and being thankful for all that we have is apt and beautiful. but this thanksgiving has been marred by the horrible terrorist attacks in mumbai.

this violence is the latest in a series of terrorist attacks in both pakistan and india and deserves the condemnation and opprobrium of all. the perpetrators are not yet known, but they have been described as islamic militants. by donning the mantle of islam to cover their political, ideological and territorial objectives, these people have sullied the name of islam and muslims. the killing of innocent men, women and children cannot be justified by any ideology, and especially by islam, which is a religion of peace and compassion.

violence this random is too surreal to comprehend. the world is complex and scary but one thing i know: the more violence we put into the system, the more violence will come out. murder and mayhem are not the answer. could it be something totally different?

Reading Naomi Shihab Nye’s “Kindness” – A Practice for the Anniversary of 9/11, by Roger Housden

“Poetry humanizes us in a way that news, or even religion, has a harder time doing,” Naomi Shihab Nye wrote in her email response to the 9/11 tragedy. With its unique ability to capture the significance of what the ordinary imagination cannot grasp, poetry took on a heightened value for the culture during those dark weeks. Poems circulated all over the Internet. Nye’s poem “Kindness” was sent to me soon after September 11. Reading poetry like this is a spiritual practice.

In this rending yet redemptive poem, Nye reaches down to the roots of our humanity, which lie in the great heart where we all cry together. Nye, an Arab American, has been writing poetry since she was five. She has published six books of poetry and several chilren’s books. Born of a Palestinian father and an American mother, she has lived her life between those two cultures.”

by Naomi Shihab Nye

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes any sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

proud to be american!

november 4th 2008 will go down in history as the day when america reasserted its leadership role in the world, by living up to its promise and showcasing the full force of democracy. a door was opened and we leapt into the future – a future unencumbered by skin color and genealogy and energized by youth and diversity. the differences between what had been and what could be were clear. you just had to look at the crowd that booed mccain’s concession speech and that which was assembled at grant park – we were saying no to racism and small-minded, parochial nationalism by making it irrelevant.

but this is no time to rest on our laurels. harry belafonte said it best on tavis smiley and i quote:

“well, i think of all the people in this country who have earned the right to celebrate, none have earned that right more than the african american community. however, it is not a standalone community, and i think that we have been here before. when slavery was overthrown in the great civil war and we went into the post-civil war period and elected black officials to our congress and our senate, it was not too long after that that we introduced 100 years of apartheid – the cruelest and the most oppressive segregation system known to the world was introduced, and lingered.

we’ve had other occasions when at the end of the second world war, when we all came back with a great sense of hope for america’s future and the fact that we’d defeated fascism and that white supremacy should have no place in the mix of civil society, we went into this period of mccarthyism and emmett till and all the violence and all of the pain and oppression that evoked the need and the hope for a dr king, who came to service.

so i think that although we’ve earned the right to celebrate and we should celebrate, i think we must also understand that we’ve been here before, and now is the time when we are most required to be vigilant and most required to stay the course, because this thing that we have just achieved could be easily taken away from us.

[…] america has always been in a place of great dichotomy. the very inception of this nation, founded by the founding fathers – what a magnificent document they wrote in the creating of the constitution. how ironic that the very same men who wrote that constitution and spoke so passionately about democracy and governance should have been the very same men who were the holders of slaves and who supported the slave tradition.

it was a split in our character, in our personality, in our morality. and all through the years, america’s shown this duplicity, has shown this double standard. i think we’re still the same america with the potential to go wrong very much in our midst. it is up to us to learn from that history and to know that we have another opportunity knocking at our door to turn this country around and to make the world the place the world very much wants to be.”

let’s stay the course this time and live up to our full potential!

tom morello

just discovered tom morello on the tavis smiley show. i had obviously heard of “rage against the machine” from the dude, my brother who plays the guitar, works in nyc and worships all things rock.

however, i had no idea morello was such an electrifying political activist. he’s articulate, passionate and insanely talented. interestingly enough his mother is white, his father’s kenyan, he was born in harlem, raised in chicago’s suburbs and graduated from harvard. sounds familiar?

but morello is the real deal. after working briefly for senator alan cranston he decided to pursue music rather than politics. he felt that music would allow him to be himself, to say what he means and not have to compromise.

uncompromising he is and therefore absolutely magnetic. it is so rare to hear people speak the truth, fearlessly – going all the way, instead of slipping into platitudes and neutering the very essence of their principles. i was instantly hooked. yahooed him (btw i prefer yahoo to google – check out the difference one of these days) and saw him on youtube.

morello of “rage against the machine” and “audioslave”, records solo under the name “the nightwatchman” – his political folk alter ego. i immediately ordered his two solo albums “one man revolution” and “the fabled city”. can’t wait to listen to both and write about them.

tom morello

jeff scher’s joyful art

my friend sarita sent me a link to jeff scher’s “the animated life” in the new york times. in today’s all-encompassing negativity when all news is bad news, jeff scher’s artwork provides much needed relief. it is gorgeous, lighthearted and life-affirming, in the most unpretentious of ways. simple things like snow or a kiss or the gentle sound of rainfall are easy to miss yet lofty enough to change our perspective on life. check out jeff’s website and watch his animated films.

jeff scher’s artworkjeff scher’s artworkjeff scher’s artwork

“raj, bohemian” and questions of taste and identity

read this fiction piece in the new yorker, dated mar 10, 2008. it’s called “raj, bohemian” and it’s by hari kunzru.

the story revolves around this group of urban taste-makers who in the “midst of [their] social gyrations, … liked to do something for one another”, like go to their friend sunita’s cool parties. on one such occasion the narrator/protagonist of the story meets raj for the first time – “Are handsome men doomed to become skin-care obessed dullards simply because no one talks to them about serious things?”. but raj is charming and harmless. he pours shots of a new vodka he’s discovered and which is incredibly smooth. he takes pictures with his cellphone. those pictures turn up on the internet and it’s discovered that raj’s “… whole conversation had been a sales pitch”. this incident sets off a deep personal crisis for the protagonist: “something precious to me had been violated, something i’d been holding on to. a secret pleasure that i hadn’t wanted to throw into the big commercial vat with all the rest of the stuff”. however, his friends don’t seem to get it and are quite comfortable with their “placements” and their need to “monetize [their] social network”: “you’re actually so old-fashioned, like some kind of communist. i have the right to perform acts of rational consumer choice: our ancestors fought wars for it. and i think i’m clever enough to filter a little bit of spin, don’t you?”

the narrator’s fears are not allayed: “i found parties increasingly traumatic: the bombardment of messages, the pitches coming at me from every side. […] people seemed to zone in and out of existence. sometimes they were fully present, animated by something original and real. but mostly they were zombies, empty vessels operated by corporate remote control”. his entire sense of identity is shaken: “my taste had been central to my identity. […] now i realized that what i thought had been an expression of my innermost humanity was nothing but a cloud of life-style signals, available to anyone at the click of a mouse. […] what was i? a sorting device. a filter. a human bivalve, culture accreting in me like mercury deposit.”

but he soon comes to his senses – “this was the world, just the same indoors and out, a place of total nullity. unless you manage to keep your head underwater, to immerse yourself in the endless metonymic shuffling of objects, it would be intolerable” – and gets a contact number for the next cool party in town!

terrifically written and about one of my favorite subjects: the beauty of being controlled by pleasure vs fear, of being caught in an interminable cycle of over-consumption and bonded labor and mistaking it all for “rational consumer choices”!

raj, bohemian


ok. this is how i found this short film. i happened to google myself one day and was interested to learn that one of the first hits on the internet was a film called “bamboleho” – two of its main characters are called mara and ahmed. i was intrigued. i found a lot of reviews on the film especially on a website called POV – a danish journal of film studies. this was a couple of years ago. i looked for the film everywhere – on netflix, blockbuster online, i was ready to rent it or buy it, i just wanted to see it.

about a month ago i sent an email to richard raskin in denmark. he is the editor of POV. i got an instant response. he sent me luis prieto’s email address – the spanish filmmaker who directed bamboleho. i wrote to luis and he sent me his website where i could go and view the film online. i was so excited! “do you speak spanish?” he asked. i don’t. but i’d read so much about the film i had no doubts i would be able to follow the 20 minute short. plus my french always helps a little bit with latin languages.

here is some background on the film, in an interview with luis prieto.

to see the film, go to luis prieto’s website, click on reel, then click on bamboleho on the left hand side of the screen.

loved the film’s artistic elements – the daliesque visual feel of the opening, the poetic notion of living on rooftops, and how these elements contrast with the very raw and harsh realities of the characters’ lives.


the reluctant fundamentalist

here is a great interview with writer mohsin hamid about his new book, “the reluctant fundamentalist”. hamid was born in pakistan, educated in america and now lives in london. two things that jumped out at me when i heard him on npr’s fresh air:

1) his book is based on a monologue between a princeton-educated pakistani man and a mysterious american who runs into him at a cafe in lahore. the reason he decided to write the novel in his pakistani protagonist’s voice is on account of the staggering silence imposed on muslims by western media. he was playing with the idea of looking at the world not through dialogue with others, but based on a one-sided conversation.

2) hamid talks about how he is not viewed with as much suspicion in england as he is in america. he attributes this fear to american media which have made it their mission to alarm people by telling them that they will die in a terrorist attack. he then puts it in perspective. 3,000 people died on september 11. 42,000 americans die each year in car crashes. yet we do not fear getting into a car. i would like to add this. we have accepted domestic spying, extraordinary renditions, torture, guantanamo, unprovoked wars, blackwater, halliburton, injustice, corruption and the defilement of our name around the world for the sake of feeling safer and less likely to die in a terrorist attack. if saving american lives is what we are talking about (and not oil-money) it would be much more effective, cheaper and straightforward to enforce a national speed limit of 5 miles per hour!

mohsin hamid

is american naïveté a cop-out?

it is well known in the rest of the world that american media are neither critical nor incisive. this is why americans are often described as being naive. in a way it all makes sense:

(1) americans are the most overworked people in the industrialized world. they have surpassed the likes of japan (by two weeks per year) and germany (by two entire months per year)
(2) american public education is sadly deficient. as the gates have pointed out: “what good is it for kids to graduate in 2006 from a school system that was designed for 1956?”
(3) american healthcare has not only left huge segments of the population out in the cold, it is ranked 37th in the world in terms of quality even though our healthcare costs are astronomical – almost double the per-capita cost in canada (yet canada’s life expectancy and infant mortality rates are better than ours).

what do you expect from people who are overworked, under-educated and without decent healthcare? do they have the time or the ability to navigate multiple news sources (some domestic, some international), parse that information and make up their own minds? the capitalistic system is alive and well. the focus is on producing good workers and consumers, not good citizens.

but are we that helpless? is it that easy to infantilize a nation?

john stuart mill believed that people generally get the form of government they deserve – if laws they allow to go unchecked become the tools of despotic powers, they have only their own ignorance or apathy to blame. it is our responsibility, our duty as citizens, to maximize our intellectual potential in order to make the right decisions. how else can a democratic system be truly democratic and embody the voice of the people?

john stuart mill

les chansons de mon enfance

these are the songs of my childhood. like proust’s famous madeleine, these songs unleash such a vivid pastiche of memories that i’m transported to the heart of europe, early seventies, my mother in bell bottoms and giant sunglasses, my dad with long sideburns in a three-piece suit, my sisters hardly old enough to be in pre-school, my brother just a baby. i am overcome by nostalgia. this feeling of sadness washes over me – i feel like we have all lost something.

my favorite by far is gérard lenorman’s “michèle” which interestingly enough is about lost love, about how things seem simpler when we are young. it’s also very french – i too miss “les cafés joyeux, mêmes les trains de banlieue”. then there is “angie” by the stones.” and of course there’s elton john’s “goodbye yellow brick road.”

more in my next post!