Tuesday, December 30, 2008

A momentous oppurtunity for change

Here, right now, as I type these words, is an incredibly opportune moment for us to witness the change that we have been hearing from Barack Obama. For someone who came to power on the promise that he is going to bring change to Washington politics and reverse the damages and disastrous policies followed by the Bush Administration, he could not have bargained for a better time to show the world what he was sincere. As Israeli shells pound the Gaza strip is what is unquestionably an obscene display of excessive force against a decidedly weak opponent, we have a situation that calls for unreserved and strong condemnation.

Most importantly, everyone is waiting for the signal from America. Indeed, there are commentators arguing that this whole episode was a demonstration to the incoming President about how Israel is going to deal with this longstanding dispute. And we are still waiting for a comment..... No, Mr. Obama, dodging questions by saying that there is only one President at a time is not good enough, and that is certainly not what people in the world expected to hear. You can say more, even if you cannot do much, like the strong words you chose when responding to the congratulations from Mr. Ahmadinejad. Evidently there is only one person running the White House and we all know that the President in waiting cannot order an intervention, but a less ambiguous reaction would have gone a long way in changing the face of geo-politics in the Middle East in months to come.

And yet, nothing is coming from the man who stood for change. I understand how entangled American interests are in the special US-Israel relationship and I am not naive enough to have believed that the new President would supply tanks and ammunition to Palestine on arrival, but there was definitely a hope for a relatively more even-handed approach to the resolution of conflict. And nothing, not even the financial mess, could have presented a golden opportunity such as this to ascertain Mr. Obama's real intention of bringing change and improving the image and global standing of America.

And, we are still waiting....

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Society and human behavior

I am a vegetarian. I also happen to be raised a vegetarian. Up until now, I have maintained a certain distaste and even disgust for the sight and smell of meat. But I have also come to realize that vegetarianism is significant from an ethical point of view too. My primary concern here is animal welfare since there is ample evidence to believe that sentient beings are put through some of the most horrifying conditions one can imagine before being slaughtered.

I am often shocked by how people don't seem to care too much about this at all. How is it possible they don't realize the inhuman treatment that animals are subjected to for the trivial benefit of satisfying their palate? I find their flippant attitude inexplicable, especially so when is many cultures, cruelty to dogs would be condemned in the sharpest way possible (and can even be punishable). However, I am not going to be discussing the ethics of vegetarianism here, even though I have several opinions on the issue. Maybe, I can post it sometime later. Besides, there other sites that discuss this including Wikipedia. No, here I am going to use this fact as a starting point to launch into a more general argument that, when a certain behavior is acceptable in society, however despicable it may be, there will be many people who would not refrain from indulging in the same.

I was completely shocked when I learned about how the Red Army marched into Germany when the tide of the war swung in the favor of the Allies, and then raped and molested all the women they could find. They ravaged and destroyed the towns and did not even spare some of the 'liberated' death camp prisoners. I was equally taken aback when I heard about the anti-Sikh riots in northern India by Hindu extremists in the aftermath of the assassination of Indira Gandhi. That rioters just picked on innocent Sikh men, dragged them out of their homes, and brutally attacked and murdered them was something I could not believe. Maybe it was my sheltered childhood, but the fact that normal people were capable of such barbarism went beyond my comprehension of humanity.

Of course, I have grown up now and am aware that these incidents are far from being isolated cases of violent atrocities. War crimes follow virtually instance of a warfare or regional strife, and this has been the situation throughout recorded history. However appalling Abu Graib or Guantanamo Bay may be, it is not particularly unique, even for the US Army (though this is no justification for their continued existence). It is not just horrendous acts perpetrated by armies and other combat groups that are guaranteed presence in all of human history, but so are other forms of injustices and cruelty entrenched in wider society during better times of peace and prosperity.. Slavery, colonialism and imperialism, racism, oppression of women, casteism, trafficking are all examples of human behavior, that viewed from the perspective of modern "civilized" world, appears as wholly deplorable. And yet, they were acceptable at one point. Widespread, almost unopposed acceptability has existed/still exists with regard to the practice of just these same human indignities in societies. Today, in most parts of the Western world, slavery would be perceived as completely abhorrent, but less than 300 years ago, there were several educated, intelligent and otherwise decent human beings who participated in the practice and held various flawed beliefs to justify it. Some of the leading philosophers and thinkers in the generations past have lent their credence to the idea that Africans are fundamentally inferior and hence deserve the treatment they get.

A similar justification was made, based on the ideology of "White Man's burden", for conquering and ruling other nations while impoverishing and depriving them of their resources. Not many in the oppressive community/country back then expressed a tenth of disgust that the majority would now do,looking at the past. How is this possible? Obviously, there is no inherent change in human beings over a few hundred years. There is also no reason to believe that each generation is born with certain unique inherent traits. In other words, if the same child were to be hypothetically transported across time to a different era, the whole outlook that he/she develops would be spectacularly divergent from what it is now. But, if such is the case, would it not be reasonable to argue that this is nothing more than a generalized version of "cultural relativism". Clearly, that is not how people understand it today, otherwise we would be hearing a lot more along the lines of "Who are we to judge what someone did in a different period when public morality was so different?".Much like when we hear a lady is being stoned to death for alleged adultery in Iran, few would take the stand that it is all fair and reasonable from their(Iran's) cultural standpoint. No, we believe, correctly or incorrectly, that these are wrongs and must never happen anywhere or anytime. Once we claim such absolutes in ethical judgments, we need to go back and revise our opinions on why so many participated in and encouraged what was so obviously WRONG. The answer, according to me, is simply that it was acceptable in society then whereas it isn't so anymore now.That is the sad truth of the world we live in:we are capable of doing just about anything so long as it is acceptable in society. So much for peoples' righteous moral outrage! Alter this argument a little and replace society by a group or institution, and we can explain everything from the Holocaust to human-rights violations in North Korea. The group is the one that has authority and power - the men in charge of implementing official policy of torture and abuse.

A microcosm of the same phenomena can be witnessed in the whole ragging issue in colleges across India. Students, barely past their teens, mostly growing up in regular middle-class families and seemingly introverted, somehow get transformed to something quite vicious and sadistic. The abuses inflicted on the freshmen in certain colleges, can take many forms, including repeated beatings and sexual humiliation. It is interesting though that in these cases, those in the vicinity witnessing the initiation ritual, see nothing odd about two people simulating sodomy. This is particularly striking when contrasted with the overall attitude of the broader Indian society when it comes to similar issues. How come those nurtured in a closed environment like this, in less than a year, turned to doing something that is not only in poor taste, but is also outright illegal?
It is equally interesting to note that the same people who were in the thicket of organizing the ragging drill would not have much of courage to do anything even a little daring in an environment where such behavior would not be acceptable. In other words, timid individuals who seem incapable of standing up and being bold can turn into monsters when they know that their actions would be regarded as normal, however disgusting these actions may be in a more standard setting.

My hypothesis was strengthened when I learned about some famous experiments that were carried out to test similar potential possibilities in normal people. Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram devised a famous test where participants were supposed to administer electric shocks to a "victim" whenever he/she answered a question wrong. The order to do so was to be provided by a a stern authority figure who sat in the same room as the participant. And with every wrong answer, the voltage was incremented. The results were astonishing -many of the participants triggered shocks greater than 200V and only one participant refused to do so beyond the 300V threshold. 65% of the participants were willing to go up to 450V although many of them expressed reservations and were uncomfortable to do so. Interestingly, this was three months before the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi operative considered to be the architect of the Holocaust. Basically, the experimenters wanted to determine if ordinary Americans were capable of doing what the Nazis had done. (By the way, the analysis of Eichmann's personality is also noteworthy.)

Ten years later, an even more disturbing psychological experiment was carried out. The Stanford Prison Experiment involved selecting a bunch of undergraduate students, randomly assigning them "prisoner" and "guard" roles that they are supposed to enact for a period of 14 days in a real prison. The whole arrangement was setup in a manner that would simulate a real prison environment as accurately as possible: from the baton that the "guards" carried around to the chains tied to the ankles of "prisoners". The lead experimenter Professor Philip Zimbardo was himself playing the prison superintendent. The experiment had to be shut down in 6 days because the whole situation got out of hand very soon. Guards began to beat the prisoners, denied them food, and routinely humiliated them. Some of the prisoners were thrown into solitary confinement. The prisoners are said to have been psychologically traumatized at the end, having undergone serious stress during the progress of the experiment. To be fair, the experiment was criticized by many (though not criticisms are convincing) and the BBC conducted its own Prison Study in 2002 and the results this time were definitely less dramatic than SPE. The difference seems to lie in the fact that in the conditions were less harsh and hostile in the BBC commissioned study than in the SPE. That is not to say it did not have any incident involving tyranny and abuse of power. My own interpretation is that the inferences that can be drawn from all these psychological experiments are in line with my overall opinion of human nature and behavior.

When we go by this hypothesis, we are able to better understand various barbaric events in history and also societal attitudes to and (in some case )participation in various horrors, from mild injustices like denying equal rights to women to applauding brutal Gladiator fights. So long as everyone around feels the same way, it reinforces the idea of normalcy in such behavior and people will engage in them without any compunction. Or, they are unlikely to realize what their actions would be judged harshly in the future or by a society with different norms. Thus every time I hear about some horrible violence somewhere in the world, I am inclined to believe that the perpetrators are living in a place and time where such activities are deemed acceptable . It is a truly disturbing thought indeed.

(i) It is important to remember that most of the experiments that I have described here were not designed to study anything directly related to what I am interested in. Instead, they mostly concerned the willingness of normal people to simply follow instruction in the presence of an authority figure, however much it went against their perception of what is right and what isn't. In their own right, they are quite surprising. The results from the BBC Prison Study are particularly well reasoned out and analyzed. I also do not claim that my conclusions based on these experiments have been obtained in some perfectly-justified purely rational arguments. I just see a strong connection between them and my own hypothesis of human behavior. Also,in no way am I desperate to find evidence-weak or strong- to prove my point. Far from it, I actually wish I could be proved wrong.

(ii)Same goes for various incidents I have highlighted. It is certainly possible that the underlying motivation to commit violent crimes may been have vastly different in these cases.
(iii) Irrespective of the idea you may get away with on reading this, it was by no means written to drive home the imperative for converting to vegetarianism.
I cannot however deny that I feel the same logic applies to the whole issue of vegetarianism though.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Some facts

The events that have been unfolding in the aftermath of the horrible attacks in Bombay are quite unprecedented. Public discontent over perceived lack of adequate security provided by the government has lead to widespread protests , condemnation of those in power, and a great sense of betrayal and disillusionment. As we speak the uproar is raging in several places, through different mediums and channels and at various levels. Both the volume and extent of involvement by the public surpasses any response we have seen so far in earlier tragedies.

No doubt, it was indeed a ghastly series of events and there can be nothing said or done that would make those who have lost a loved one feel better. I will not pretend to understand what they must be going through.

However, not being so close to the disaster should help others look at the attacks in a more objective manner and take note of a few relevant facts and statistics that may be missed during the heat of the debate. Before I go on to list them, I must make it very clear that this is not meant to make the horror of this tragedy, or any of the related developments in international politics since, less significant. The idea here is to put things in their right perspective.
Here we go:
(I) The number of casualties from accidents every year in India is about 100,000. That is close to 300 deaths per day
(II) The number of Indian casualties in the deadly 2004 Tsunami is close to 12,000. I'd be interested to know the status of the rehabilitation efforts.
(III) The number of people of who die every year in Bombay Suburban Railway accidents is more than 3000.
(IV)Since these attacks, there has been a bus explosion in India that has resulted in 63 deaths.
(V) 5 people have been killed so far in terrorist attacks since then. These were associated with the Naxalite movement.
(VI) If you would like to have an idea of the frequency of terrorist attacks worldwide, here is the list for 2008.

Aside from this, it is important to consider the death toll arising from malnutrition in India. Preventable Diseases?

Should we also not care about those innocent citizens who are being arrested and inhumanly assaulted in prisons to elicit a confession?

Amidst the media obsession and sickeningly excess coverage, it is important that we never forget the basic facts involved and lose sense of balance that is so crucial in a precarious situation like this.

Note:Edits made to original post.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Dislike for the mainstream

What is common to the following: McDonalds, Coca Cola, Amheuser Busch, Hollywood blockbusters, MTV music, Windows, Walmart? Compare and contrast this with with their corresponding opposites : craft breweries , independent films, underground music, local farmers produce, Linux. There is a certain general statement that can be made about the former category and the adjectives used to describe them would include poor taste, culture of the masses, dumb, lowest common denominator, shallow, absence of complexity and sophistication. And the latter would be characterized as catering to niche audience, high quality and artistic merit, high culture, greater freedom and independence to experiment. Yes products and culture today fall into distinct classes and two broad ones that can be defined in this respect would be mainstream and well (for lack of a better word) non-mainstream. Ignoring whatever postmodernists have to say about recognizing such a division, we can all confidently say that such a distinction exists, rightly or wrongly, and it has been in our consciousness independent of how much we accept it.
The reason I started this article is because, while searching for the perfect beer to savor, I came across this interesting product from Stone Breweries that immediately drew my attention. It comes in a dark 22-ounce bottle, and has a monster picture in front and goes by the name of "Arrogant Bastard Ale" . Well, with such an aggressive, upfront title, it is naturally bound to make anyone curious. On looking at the details on the bottle closely, you see this warning :

"This is an aggressive beer. You probably won’t like it. It is quite doubtful that you have the taste or sophistication to be able to appreciate an ale of this quality and depth. We would suggest that you stick to safer and more familiar territory — maybe something with a multi-million dollar ad campaign aimed at convincing you it’s made in a little brewery, or one that implies that their tasteless fizzy yellow beer will give you more sex appeal. Perhaps you think multi-million dollar ad campaigns make a beer taste better. Perhaps you’re mouthing your words as you read this."

I couldn't care too much for my taste to be vindicated, but nonetheless I did add this one to my haul that evening.

Anyway, it has got me thinking ever since. And it is not the first time I have come across such elitism for the rare, the strange, the under-appreciated and even the unpopular. Heavy Metal Music is one department where you are likely to encounter some of the most haughty, smug bastards. An ardent fan of the art form, I know the feeling when people say that most music distributed widely has no intensity , no soul and no honest artistic expression. And it is equally true that we are being perpetually bombarded with silly, bloated, Hollywood excesses that we crave for something real and gritty. This particular case becomes an overkill if I introduce those awesomely innovative film industries in India.
A similar statement can be made on any of the other issues I mentioned at the beginning. What all this does to the 'superior',' better-informed, sophisticated' individual is to create a sense of contempt for everything commonplace and enjoyed by the majority in society. This is part reality, part cynicism, part a simple need to nourish the ego but whatever the cause may be it is sort of impossible not to feel that way when you turn on the TV and watch some mind-numbing sitcom that has millions of fans and has raked in profits several times that figure.

Here, I wish to argue that such a generalization about the worthiness of masses is totally wrong. In fact, the more I have broadened my horizons and learned about society, people, politics, history, culture and revolution , the more I have come to the conclusion that the masses are powerful, capable, perceptive and productive. I fact, I wish to completely abolish describing people with derogatory expressions like "masses". Yes, I say this after 47% of people in the most dominant nation-state on earth voted for an imbecile who understood foreign policy to mean geographical proximity.
It is a question of what aspect of civilization we are looking at and and its overall significance on people and society. What I have expressed my dislike for are things of a particular nature, ones whose impact is limited and those whose quality is really not a real life-and-death concern for people. On the other hand, consider the following: science, academia, literature, sports, jurisprudence. On any of these fields, what is regarded as mainstream and popular, and individuals held in high-esteem by the public is nearly coincident with opinions of better-informed people. For instance, Olympics are the biggest and grandest sporting extravaganza in the world but no one will argue that the best of talent is not represented there. In science the areas of research that follow mainstream scientific practices and procedures are always more likely to be accurate and be accepted in the future. In fact, there is a high probability that people not publishing in peer-reviewed journals are likely to be crackpots who make outlandish claims. Isn't it amazing that the mainstream scientific community that gets funded by taxpayer money is so structured that it weeds out fools and idiots and advances only those who observe the scientific method. I know there are several specific counter-examples to this but we need to take a broader look at the history of science and evolution to appreciate how the mainstream is always either (a) correct (b) eventually concedes to holding the wrong idea and corrects itself. In other words, it is far from obvious that the entire discipline was not sabotaged at some stage by crackpots (or creationists) to the point that the public understanding of science and budgetary allocations by government was based on their work. To a lesser degree the same applies to people who are working at NASA or inventing new weapons technology. These are multi-billion dollar projects but they involve the best and the brightest minds.
What about literature? Isn't Shakespeare considered the greatest playwright of all time? And who else but him occupies popular imagination of a literary genius. Majority of literature well-regarded by the critical establishment is also quite well-know to the public. In fact, even when it comes to something like music, no one is going to regard Britney Spears as a precocious wonder. Nor is a Rajnikath film going to win the Palm D'Or anytime soon. Or dethrone Satyajit Ray as a pioneer of creating a real movement in creative film-making in India.
Jurisprudence is another area where the best in the field come together to reach a consensus on contentious issues, resolving ambiguities, establishing precedents and protecting the highest ideals of the system. World history, anthropology, evolutionary biology, linguistics or any other academic research is an attempt to discover the facts of the world and it is usually free of any "mainstream biases" or influenced by political leanings.
But beyond all this, the most important example of the strength and importance of mainstream views and ideas is in the world of politics. Yes, the world inhabited by Bush and Palin.To understand why, stop for a moment and think of all the extremist political ideologies of radical organizations that exist everywhere on the planet. Political groups disguising their Fascist intents in more benign and acceptable expressions of nationalism that always receive support from certain circles that regard mainstream society as a bunch of misguided idiots. National Alliance, a White supremest organization in the United States, was headed by a theoretical physicist. Its members are usually people from of upper-levels of American society -scientists, lawyers, doctors, businessmen. And closer to home, aren't there Hindu intellectuals who have sympathy for RSS assertions of India being a Hindu nation? And this feeling is no less strong amongst plenty of Indian diaspora living in United States. (Why the fuck are they here?). What about the sober Bengali and Keralite communist intellectuals who, if given power, would not just put India out of the international stage but unleash vast destruction and carnage eventually adding another name to the doctrine's stellar gallery of exponents from Stalin to Kim-Jong-il. Imagine what would happen if the larger society had no voice in a system where "intellectuals" and privileged members had more political leverage. Dictatorship, totalitarianism, communism and all such ruthless regimes will take root. However brilliant and level-headed the individuals may be,inordinate power will ultimately result in authoritarian rule that clings on to this power by whatever means it can.Despite its many flaws and contradictions, democracy and equality are the greatest ideals in modern politics and for that to function mainstream opinions has to be given the maximum importance.

Apart from all this rationalizing, I must all also mention that from a standpoint of pure humanity, it is quite dogmatic to regard intelligence,appreciation of art, philosophy or any other attribute as being something so prized that it endows those people with special rights and privileges. Does being a decent human being not count as something admirable if it not accompanied by erudition or cultural sophistication? Besides, I am sure a run-of-the-mill Shah-Rukh-Khan film buff is more likely to be useful in practical situations than stiff, pretentious art-collectors. Or beer connoisseurs!

That brings me back full circle to the Arrogant Bastard Ale. Did I appreciate its depth? Was I worth it? Unfortunately, no. I thought I enjoyed bitter ales but this was so overwhelmingly hopped that it pretty much destroyed every other flavor in the beer. It got a little better towards the end but I had some difficulty in finishing it. Verdict: I am not sophisticated enough.

Movie Review: Battle of Algiers

Successful independence movements invariably involve great turmoil, desperation, individual courage and sacrifice , carnage and even ruthlessness. The Algerian War of Independence which lasted over a period of about 8 years was one of the more violent and bloody efforts that resulted in collapse of the French rule in the country. Occurring nearly a decade after the Second World War, the battle was raged when public attitudes and the political landscape made it difficult for open repression and dominance by colonial powers. Nonetheless, as clearly shown in this incredibly powerful film The Battle of Algiers , the war was savage and brutal. It also manages to capture the spirit of the struggle, the opposing viewpoints,an element of reasonableness amongst key players on both sides involved in the conflict and a collective human drama that unfolds as naturally as it is disturbing.

Released in 1965, only 3 years after freedom was declared for Algeria, this movie does a splendid job of recreating the atmosphere of discontent, violence and a growing sense of nationalism. An Italian production featuring one of the members of the FLN (National Liberation Front) playing a similar role, the film was banned in France for portraying the French policy and tactics in a less than noble way. This fact should not surprise anyone after watching the film. Remarkably even-handed as it is, it does not flinch one bit from chronicling the atrocities committed by both sides.

Shot in black-and-white in a way resembling a documentary, Battle of Algiers is a hyper-realistic, stark and unforgettable experience. The images of the ramshackle buildings,the narrow alleys, the rampant poverty and the street urchins that populate the screen are stunningly real. So is the determination on the faces of women as they plant deadly bombs in areas not far from small children.

The opening scene sets the tone for what it to come. An intensely frail, emaciated man with sunken cheekbones, is sitting on a chair baring his scarred chest in a room, as a few uniformed men surrounding him express regret that he had not "talked" earlier. He is helped to his feet, after the commanding officer enters the room, and as he struggles to maintain his ground, he is asked to put on the military uniform so that he is not easily identified. As he is about to be taken with the troops, he makes one last desperate but utterly hopeless effort to run away screaming "Nooooooo" but it takes only a few beatings and some threatening words to convince him to co-operate- in informing the French about the hideout of Ali-La-Ponte one of the leaders of FLN.
The FLN, as Lt. Colonel Matthieu explains to his soldiers, is like a tapeworm. Unless you destroy the head, it is always going to be regenerating its body and creating further problems. Col. Mathieu is given charge of combating the rising insurgency in Algeria and maintaining the French rule in the country. He understands that FLN is the greatest threat to French control, and wants his men to get rid of the organization altogether. He describes the protocol observed by outlaws when recruiting new members, and the complications that it entails for the French forces. While not explicitly stating it, he does indicate what is required of an "interrogation" to extract information from prisoners. The torture scenes are painful to watch but no one would question its honest inclusion in the film. Yes, the hideous establishments of Guantanamo Bay and Abu Grahib come to mind just as so many events in this war uncannily resonates with contemporary political scenarios. It raises questions about the justification of terrorism by the weaker side. Is killing of innocent civilians acceptable if that happens to be the only mode of effective attack available for people fighting against oppression? However one has to be careful about interpreting Battle Of Algiers too- it was war to end colonial rule and as such drawing close parallels to other conflict zones may be improper.

Battle Of Algiers does not follow all the events in the war and focuses on the uprising in Algiers. While it depicts the violent activities of the FLN and French attempt to implement counter-insurgency methods to thwart them, there are some lead characters through whom some of the story is developed to provide a personal element to the narration. Many of these are either real individuals taking part in the struggle or are based on other real characters. Ali-La-Ponte is one of them, a disgruntled, illiterate , juvenile offender, he develops a violent dislike for French authority in Algeria and joins the ranks of FLN. Young and impulsive, he does not hesitate in slaying cops or Algerians he considers as traitors. His fiery personality takes takes him higher-up in the organization and he leads the way in staging public protests and carrying out lethal attacks.
The head of the FLN is El-Hadi Jafar, a character that is based on Saadi Yacef and played by himself. Jafar appears more controlled and thoughtful but he is just as radical not only in retaliation and destabilizing the French control, but also in his intolerance for his people who are victims of common weaknesses -alcohol, drugs, prostitution. While we sympathize with the Algerians for their battle against an external presence we cannot ignore the draconian impositions they enforce on society.

Ali-La-Ponte and others initially assault cops and others directly involved in nation's administration and law-enforcement, but after a bomb attack by an extremist French reporter that leaves several people dead, including children (I cannot over-emphasize how some of those images are disturbingly real), they increasingly target civilian French population.
The FLN runs a nationalistic propaganda to convince more people to enter the organization and support their goals. Their efforts to create discontent amongst Algerians is as important as their involvement in destabilizing French control through attacks. Another brilliant stroke of Battle Of Algiers is portrayal of the striking contrast between the poor living conditions of the Algerians, their slovenly attire and the swanky coffee-houses and bars frequented by the French. There is area in the city referred to as "European Quarters" where native Muslims are not permitted to move freely and I assume this was a common fixture in all European colonies. And yet that place is infiltrated by dangerous Muslim women - an entry facilitated by their change in attire more resembling the French . These women had resolved to carry out horrifying attacks and follow through they do with definite anxiety but little or no guilt (if only Hollywood was bold or honest enough to show simple truths like this, we would not be so shocked).

When random attacks increase and create considerable problem for the authorities, the French decide to bring in a military battalion to suppress the revolt. Leading the way is Mathieu, another character based on several French officers,- a suave, charismatic leader who draws enormous admiration and respect for his sense of balance and understanding, even though he does not countenance Algerian uprising and authorizes torture to capture the leaders of FLN. His charm, wit ,elegance and control can never be missed even when as he tackles tough questions from left-wing French media. Far removed from a monster caricature, he is simply a faithful soldier who does what is necessary to impose rule of law and protect French citizens. That does not stop him from publicly expressing admiration for some of the captured extremists, their courage and their principles. Some of his remarks, along with those of Ben M'hidi (the ideological voice of FLN) represent the simple but extremely profound truths about the nature of the confrontation and its ultimate objectives. These truths are simply laid out bare in the film, without any pontification or melodrama. Musical score is rare, but it is used to great effect in some of the dramatic moments like troops storming buildings or while depicting large-scale protests.

In the end, the military cracks down on most of FLN operatives but a few, including its leaders, are still at bay. One by one, they are brought down but not before the face-off results in maximum carnage. On their part, the French rank-and-file display racial and cultural arrogance in their sheer contempt for Algerian natives, often denigrating them as "Dirty Arabs". The Algerian fighters, on the other hand, are so disenchanted with the French that they relentlessly inflict as much damage as possible without any sign of remorse. The FLN is finally destroyed, when the remaining leader Ali-La-Ponte along three others hiding behind a wall are blown to bits after they refuse to surrender for a fair trial.

The FLN in Algiers may have been successfully suppressed and things seemed to be under control for a while but disquietude was most certainly going to grow one way or the other. In the last ten minutes or so, we are taken through a quick roundup of what happened in the following years. The limited random insurgency eventually gives way to massive widespread demonstrations, a collective desire for freedom and a national awakening to the possibility of complete independence. With only a small force battling against a large population, the situation becomes untenable for the French and they eventually concede.

(Algeria gained its independence in 1962 after a plebiscite organized by DeGaulle resulted in an overwhelming support for independence)

Sunday, October 26, 2008


It is simply astonishing how long the US Presidential elections run. Campaigning for the major candidates in this year's election are said to have begun more than 20 months ago. They gathered momentum towards the end of last year and received copious coverage on the national and international media. The primaries and the Caucuses kicked off sometime in February after a series of long, aggressive rallies in different states and some very decisive debates that were widely publicized. The nomination process dragged along painfully from state to state for well over 3 months. It went all the way down the wire even after a flurry of results are declared following Super Tuesday for the Democatic nomination amidst great drama and excitement. Each of these primaries made headlines on every media outlet in the country, and there are thousands of them if you include the radio stations and local broadcasters. It is not just the final outcome that is reported, but the events leading up to the vote, the impassioned speeches, the sentiments of people, opinion polls, pre and post analysis , statistics and a slew of other things aimed at expanding the viewership. Remember this is nearly one full year before the incumbent bigot would leave the White House.
In this intervening period, Russia, Italy, Pakistan,Canada and Austria have all gone to the polls and elected their leaders. Those countries are from the top of my head and I bet there are dozens more that went ahead without creating more than a ripple in the international media . I also bet that the majority of people, including myself, who were aware of US primaries knew little or nothing at all regarding the results of the general elections in any of these countries. What can possibly explain this drastic difference in awareness? Media is the culprit surely. It seems that the more apropos question would be to ask why ? Why is there such a staggering excess of focus on electing someone to the Oval Office when others are almost ignored. Is it because journalists believe in the overwhelming importance of the elections? It is beyond question that the Chief Executive of United States has unparalleled power and privilege, but the sheer volume of campaign news makes most of it utterly devoid of new content. Or is it because the American media is the largest and also the most advanced? Could all this simply be the direct consequence of news reporting being a for-profit enterprise that just turns the race into a thrill ride for those following it closely, not unlike football games. Perhaps, but it certainly cannot explain why these elections are followed in other countries and by foreign networks. I can clearly recall watching a news report on BBC in 2006 about a small rally held by Hillary Clinton. Yes, that was 2006, less than 2 years after Bush was sworn in again. Remember how well Barack Obama was received when he traveled to Europe and gave a speech in Berlin? Most in Europe, both governments and people alike, seem quite definite in their choice of Obama for President. In India, The Hindu which usually does not concern itself with foreign affairs and internal politics has been carrying articles on the various candidates right from the start of the campaign. The only conceivable reason for this disproportionate interest is do with the unfortunate reality that what is important is decided by the extent of coverage given to it by the major media networks. While undeniably high quality and content is often rigorously maintained in newspapers like New York Times, it appears that there is always the pressure to feed reader's obsession with information surrounding events such as elections. Take a look at Washington Post or Slate during the last few weeks and you will find countless opinions on the campaign. And these are some of the best news sources in the world. It strikes me as an utter waste of journalistic talent especially when that talent can be put to use in dozens of other crucial issues around the world that desperately cry out for some media attention. Such issues exist in this nation itself and there are several more in other parts of the world, particularly in areas of constant conflict and instability.
To be fair, for many of these media organizations, the ultimate source of money comes from circulation/viewership and being completely oblivious of their audiences' expectations cannot make their business very successful. They are forced to maintain a balance between high standard and satisfying their patrons. I could have made a good case defending this unproductive excesses were it not for the extraordinary amount of space devoted to Sarah Palin. It did not take me more than a few hours following the announcement of her candidacy to conclude that she was the most incompetent ignoramus to be on the verge of sitting in the White House. Lampooning her is inevitable and it is hard to resist the temptation. But despite all that, it is quite unfortunate that such a huge chunk of all articles and opinions in major newspapers have been devoted to flaying her tirelessly. Even the financial crisis did not receive as much attention. I suspect it is because it is so much easier to bash Palin than even reckless corporate executives.
As I write, there is a very serious crisis in Congo where the lives of thousands of people are under imminent threat. Most people in the developed world have little awareness of it since it is unlikely to make the headlines anywhere. And even if it did, not for too long. There is plenty of more exciting things to be covered.

Finally, I cannot help but imagine the magnitude of travesty, if after 20 months of campaigning, worldwide following, several panels of experts , hundreds of statistics , thousands of smart, capable journalists and millions of dollars spent, John McCain becomes President and Sarah Palin a breath away from the Office.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Is the most powerful man in the world just like any average guy?

As the race for the White House heats up, I cannot help but notice the complete contradictions in the nature of the ambitions involved and the stated personal attributes of the candidates. This point sunk in deep as I was listening to the speeches delivered at Democratic National Convention. Throughout the campaign, Barack Obama has been repeatedly insisting that he is a common man who can relate to the problems and grievances of regular middle-class, blue-collar Americans. In his attempt to woo the voters, he has often appealed to the common dreams and goals he shares with millions of fellow citizens. He often talks of his family and the way in which the little experiences of a modest background have shaped his perspectives. He professes his love for his children at every opportunity as a way of connecting with parents across the nation. And then there is the whole faith issue - about how his personal religious beliefs have helped him through life's upheavals and been a constant source of guidance and inspiration. No doubt all this appeals to common people because of their simple nobility and honest-to-goodness. At the Convention, it was his wife Michelle who was doing most of this appeal to the "common thread" that supposedly runs through the lives of all Americans. That was a damn good speech of hers I should say. That is, if you does not carefully consider the real content of her speech. Because if you did, you would realize quite instantly that there really isn't much of one to speak of. Aside from what is merely a regurgitation of the above points her hubby makes every time on stage, there were just enough descriptions of her own past thrown in to show how parallel their aspirations in life are.
Consider this - Barack Obama is running for the most powerful office on this planet, one so excessive that it can basically change the global military, economic and political situation irrevocably in less time than it takes to prepare that Convention speech. And we have witnessed nothing less than that from the nightmarish two terms of George Bush. Occupying a seat of such enormous power, importance and influence is no meagre task even if you are guaranteed certain immunity from removal or accountability -another aspect we have watched in abundance during the last 7 years. Given the importance, the person is always under national and international spotlight, every single decision, statement, gesture and action studied in great detail and interpreted and commented upon extensively. Such an individual is perpetually besieged by an endless array of press conferences,meetings with advisers and Cabinet, committee hearings, diplomatic missions ,appearance at formal gatherings, speeches and a whole lot of other nagging businesses. While all this is generally true of any national leader, given that the Constitution of the United States entrusts Executive power solely in the hands of a one man (atleast for now I don't have to be PC about gender unless grandpa McCain gets elected and pops off), it is all the more a relentless stream of activity. And like it or not, the President has to put up a pleasant, smiling face through all that. With so much involved, do you want me to believe even a normal politician, let alone a common man, would seek such an office. No fucking way. The need for absolute power can come only with excessive greed, boundless ambition, self-aggrandization, a sense of supreme confidence bordering on narcissism and a complete disregard for the few people you may have just trampled over along the way. Anything less than that and some minimal stability would convince anyone to steer clear of the hot seat. This is true about anyone running for Presidency, however well-meaning you may believe he is. And even if he a billion times better than his opponent, as is glaringly obvious in the case of Barack Obama.
Yet, we will have to endure Obama - and all other power-zany politicians across the globe - talk about how they are a typical representative of their countrymen.
Despite it being such an outright lie, it goes down well with the people and always has been and always will be. In fact, anything that strays ever so slightly from such an angle is deemed elitist and a certain vote-loss. No matter how accurate and honest that position may be.
This hypocrisy has to go away. Clearly someone worthy has to occupy such a powerful position. Once we accept that, we also need to also understand and tolerate all the egomania that comes with it - something that is as essential to the position as anything else. When we acknowledge this simple truth, then there would be no need for power-addicted politicians to pretend that they are like average people. They could just go on to more substantive issues that concern the nation instead of talking about how much their family means to them.

Saturday, July 26, 2008


A bit of my minimal reading background is in order here. It has been many years now since I put down a finished novel with a sense of satisfaction that comes with having done something worthwhile. It is partly this sense of not doing something useful that has kept we away from fiction for along time. I do not get very excited about the plots, development , twists or even the denouement in the novel. My response is less positive after I have labored through several hundred pages. Compound this to the fact that I am a really slow reader and my lack of any enthusiasm for novels can be immediately understood. However, it is also possible that the few books that I did read recently were probably not the the best suited to my current tastes. In any case, since the total number of fiction works that I have completed reading in the last 10 years or so is less than 15, it is pretty clear that I could not have explored all the different genres that could potentially be of interest to me. Anyway, one thing is certain - thrillers, action novels, and whodunit plots are some of the styles that don't appeal to me any longer. And since the last adventure that I finished was Da Vinci Code, I pretty much gave up on the idea of reading long novels for entertainment.

But after watching the incredible Brazil , I discovered that a lot of people were comparing it to George Orwell's Nineteen-Eighty -Four. On learning further about the basic themes explored in the book, I was convinced that I needed to give this a try. I ordered it from Amazon but didn't bring myself to begin reading it for a long time. When I did finally start, I read intermittently not being all that impressed with the world that was depicted. I found it far removed from reality to draw my admiration. However, when I went beyond the first 80 pages or so, it became increasingly clear that I could not have made a better choice for rekindling my interest in books. This was exactly what I wanted to read, learn from, ponder over and relish. It must certainly be one of the most terrifying and yet real visions of the future. Its universe is horribly bleak, one where escape is virtually impossible and seeking change is dangerous even if only contemplating it . The conditions that people are forced to live in is truly disturbing, the mechanism by which the Government exerts complete control is revolting as is the very meaning of life and happiness that people are made to believe. Most importantly though, the reason it evokes such a strong reaction where many other darker pictures may not, is because the author builds a convincing case for such a situation that it is hard to deny the possibility of such a dystopian future in the real world.

The outline of the novel can be summed up shortly : Oceania (basically Britain and North America) , one of the three super-states in existence sometime around 1984 (the book was written in 1948), is ruled by an omnipotent oligarchy (The Party) that imposes absolute control over its citizens. It takes the totalitarianism and despotism we know from dictatorships, ruthless Communist regimes, and Fascists to the next level. Freedom is non-existent in a very literal sense. That includes the freedom to write a diary, speak to oneself , display eccentricities or even show inadvertently a mild deviance from expected behavior, or to even think a forbidden thought . In fact, the English language is being continually updated to eliminate such words that could be associated with notions of liberty, independence, objective reality and freedom. How well can you develop opinions on such concepts when you have no way to frame them in language? The members of the Party, even the most loyal and dedicated ones, are under perpetual surveillance, achieved through various means not the least of which is the presence of giant telescreens at all places. Telescreens that can watch you all the time and can catch you red-handed while committing unofficial infringements like sulking. The idea of absolute control is combined with the the need to create a situation where everyone loves and admires Big-Brother ( the symbolic figurehead of the Party in whose name all actions are sworn by ) on their own accord. It is a system where the Party manages to convince the vast majority of its members to fall in line on their own will, and those who don't , disappear, uh..em ,don't exist anymore. Which brings us to the most frightening aspect of this creation, that the past is alterable. How? Simply because the past is what exists in records -newspapers, pamphlets, photographs, sound clips, video , testimonies, painting, or any other documentation, and when these records are systematically destroyed or altered what concrete evidence is there is to support the claim that a particular event had taken place? The memory retains the event of course, but it is highly unreliable and subjective. Besides, when all hard evidence has disappeared, it is not impossible to imagine that memories also become distorted and inconclusive.
Here in such a world, inhabits one Winston Smith, a member of the Records department in the Ministry of Truth who is involved in the process of record-falsification. While he does not openly rebel against the Party (he would end up dead even before he begins) there is a growing awareness in him about how the Party manages to stay in absolute control by spreading lies, destroying records, brainwashing people, restricting freedom of thought, enforcing a blind collectivist mindset and even altering the nature of human relationships. He teams up with one of his co-workers, Julia, with whom he has a secret affair (sex is strictly forbidden amongst party members except in the context of procreation, where it is practised in a dehumanized ritual-like manner) . She too hates the Party and resents lack of freedom, but her rebellion is limited to issues that are concerned with her life directly. However, while they enjoy their brief time together and toy with the immature idea of subverting the Party's control, they are eventually captured before they can even bring out the tiniest of change. The most horrifying part is not that they fail miserably, or that they have to undergo barbaric torture but what ultimately happens to Winston. That is the story in a nutshell.

While it may be argued that such a future, as perfectly regimented as this one could rarely exist, most of the ideological basis for implementing the schemes and methods by which the Party maintains power and unites its members in its support are incredibly accurate.
For instance, not only is there no freedom but that people are made to believe that such a state of existence is better for their lives and moreover, the ultimate aim of the Party is to create an environment where such a vision as freedom does not exist at all. This is first done by convincing the people that Party is always right and beyond reproach. Then it generates an elaborate propaganda to create an impression that it is providing the best for the people and it has never fallen short of achieving the goals it has set for itself. Then it sets out, using all the power and resources it has at its disposal, to annihilate every shred of information that might imply the contrary. It makes the people feel strong and triumphant and even invincible when they align with the Party and its doctrines. Alone, they are powerless and defeated. When they give up their identity and merge with the Party, they stand together as a single force to be reckoned with. As the book explains, the Party slogan "Freedom is Slavery " is far from some contradiction or wordplay. It is a terrifying truth about life. Furthermore, with each new update of the NEWSPAEAK (the official language of the Party), the words that express free spritedness, deep feelings and independent thought cease to exist. The language is progressively deformed to a structure which can either express approval of the Party doctrines or its exact opposite. In that way, everyone's postiton with respect to the party becomes clear: either they stand by it or oppose it in which case they get easily spotted. That leaves no room for some complex criticism or any ambiguous thought which may be detrimental to the Party.

Much like this, we learn a lot about political power and how it should be obtained and then maintained. Society, says Goldstein, the supposed leader of the rebel organization, has always been divided into three groups: the ruling elite who always want to retain power, the middle class who have want to wrest the power from the ruling class but preach liberty and equality to gather the support of the proletarians, who are last in this hierarchy. The proles have no way of partaking this power and their conditions barely depend on who is ruling them . However, for this to happen, the proles have to be deliberately stupefied by drudgery and impoverishment. They should be made to endure hardships all the time so that they don't get any leisure or security which would allow them to grow awareness and become intelligent, something that is dangerous to those who are in power. The proles should always remain occupied with their daily lives to even consider such a heretic thought as displacing those in power. In order to do just that, there are wars which creates a necessity for increased production. The war is intended for the sole purpose of keeping proles in all super-states busy . It did little to affect the structure of the society and there was no other advantage for any of the countries involved to be fighting the war other than keeping the proles out of political process.

What is the point of all this? The answer is simple - power is not a means to an end but the end itself. Power for power's sake, power to torture and humiliate, and power to maintain status quo. This is the point in the novel that is utterly devastating. It is the sort of nihilistic, meaningless world which cannot be comprehended in a standard rational sense. For me though, I believe there is tremendous truth in this seemingly absurd objective. Power is something that is desirable for its own good. To many this is unsatisfactory because of the feeling that there has to be a grand rationale behind all this even if it is an evil one. Not me. I do not reason beyond this point and so the book to me is philosophically sound and consistent.

Finally, I have to add how much I appreciated the writing style. The author uses a simple, direct and extremely clear language to express everything. This is a very easy and natural narration that always makes one focus on the grimness, isolation and irredeemable nature of the world.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Assignments and deadlines

When was the last time that I uniformly distributed a lengthy assignment over the entire duration that was available before submission. Seems like an occasion so long ago that I am unable to recall it. Or more likely, the answer is a simple no, never. For every time I knew in advance that I had to turn in an homework or write up a summary of an article before a deadline, I have never worked on it at a uniform pace. In fact, I have never even come close. It would be more accurate to describe a typical scenario of this sort as work that begins with fits and starts, hardly makes any progress at the half-way point in time, drifts around without any definite direction or clarity for a while, then enters a phase where the magnitude of the task ahead looms large and some of the early parts to it (roughly 25% ) is done with some seriousness and a sense of purpose, then strangely enough slows down again after which, the the leftover fraction appears like a mammoth challenge of race against time. This final stage is the most frenzied period that is characterized by a desperate sense of urgency that leads to desperate means to achieve the goal. Sleepless nights (as if insomnia does not screw me over sufficiently), lots of caffeine (mostly a distraction and less of real benefit), rapidly flipping through notes and texts for hints, exchanging status-of-progress-information with others stuck with the same problems, handwriting getting more illegible with every word, lots of vague guesses thrown in, writing out solutions that are either incomplete or so strange that I have no clear idea of what it all means are some of the several complex responses that are generated by an infallible defence mechanism. Ultimately, I'd be barely satisfied with my effort and even on the best days I probably would have glossed over a dozen doubts that would be propped-up in my head while working it. I have to confess that this activity has more in common with last-dash to meet deadline in corporate world than in an academic setting where one professes seeking objective truth and knowledge. What a shame! Despite all promises to myself that the situation would be dramatically different every time, the events unfold in an eerily identical manner. It reinforces my belief certain aspects of life always remains the same. Always.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Problem with units

After spending nearly three-quarters of a year in US, I am still finding it difficult to place quantities expressed in pounds, inches, miles, ounces, pints, quarts, fahrenheit, etc. Every time I encounter them in a grocery store or a liquor shop, I have to do the arithmetic. It is simple but I hate the fact that I have to do the conversion to get a sense of the magnitude.
I have never quite understood the reluctance of the Anglo-Saxons to accept metric system. Especially so in the States, where there is a lot of emphasis given to practical convenience in everyday life. That being the case, it is quite strange that people prefer units are related by unwieldy constants as compared to the simple ratios in powers of 10, that characterizes the metric system. When you can revamp the language and make modifications to both the spelling and pronunciation of words on the grounds that it is more natural, why the hell would you not change this inconvenient and confusing units to something simple and direct? It is true that people have become used to it but should you not make the switch when it is a better option.
Most parts of the world have adopted the metric standard . And what's more, even in Britain, there is a law that requires all products to carry the metric units as well. Now, that makes the continued insistence on using "English Units" another example of American Exceptionalism.

Friday, March 28, 2008

A Bias for Success

Ever since I was young, I have come across several fascinating accounts of great individuals and their remarkable achievements. These come in various forms (biography, quotations,anecdotes, aphorisms, a short segment of life) and from different sources (newspaper articles, television, textbooks). Great leaders,wise men and philosophers, brilliant scientists, spiritually enlightened souls that guide humanity, selfless social workers, intrepid soldiers and physically disabled people who showed great strength at times of adversity. In my case, given the academic background, it is no surprise that most of them that made a mark on me were either physicists or mathematicians. Newton, Hawking, Einstein, Archimedes, Feynman, Leibnitz and Godel were all legendary and storied about. Anyone doing physics would point to one or several of these were icons as sources for inspiration, particularly during their early years.

Often it happens, especially when directed at a broad audience, that the portrayal of these giants of humanity is so constructed that it conveys an idea to the reader that such a level of greatness can be attained without requiring any superhuman efforts. It is understandable that most people would not consider following the footsteps of great men if doing so is shown to be arduous, painful and drearily long. In order to make these immortal lives more accessible to the average Joe, the magnitude of accomplishments and the unusual qualities that made them possible are all carefully masked by some generic, oversimplifying statements.The achievements are presented in an incomplete and narrow way without proper context or historical background and that way that makes appear quite attainable. This strikes me as being a sham that manages to create an inaccurate picture of the reality involved and leads the young impressionable-mind to form opinions and make assumptions that are entirely misguided.
My principal criticism has to do with the fact that, people are falsely lead to believe that absolutely fantastic feats in life can be performed by just following some simple guidelines and this is made convincing and appealing by using a renowned person as an epitomizing example. So, when importance of determination and will-to-succeed is stressed we hear stories about Tenzig Norgay just as we do Edison when it comes to dogging persistence, and Newton for having childlike curiosity to understand the world. What we are never told are the innumerable cases where such virtues have not resulted in the commensurate success but rather left people much worse-off. We never hear about the lives of the bold men who died trying to conquer the highest peak, the thousands who tried hard and failed at inventions, and dozens of exceptionally gifted minds for whom childlike curiosity did not lead to anything very noteworthy. I certainly do not deem such instances to be failures in life but isn't it only fair to expect that one gets to know about these less-than-great people who appear (on the surface atleast ) to possess those same attributes that are extolled as the basis for extraordinary feats. Instead, we are repeatedly informed about the select few who did accomplish. It is important that one stops and asks what this "few" really implies. In other words, what is the fraction of those who attained the rare and celebrated distinction to the hundreds or even thousands who had attempted but failed. I would bet that his ratio would be a disappointingly tiny number. If developing certain positive traits is all it takes to elevate normal people to the plane of greatness, then I am sure many of those less-than-accomplished, unheard-of people who happened to fall short of grand success would possess some of the same qualities to a great degree and in specific cases even more.And yet they never made it. If such cases received greater exposure one would possibly be able to truly appreciate what distinguishes the great from the excellent, the good and the commonplace. Not just that, it would also ring a cautionary bell in people who are trying to emulate the success of remarkable individuals. They ought to know beforehand of the several instances where people have attempted that with earnest commitment and yet , never achieved anything quite comparable.
All this may seem like I am advocating a very negative approach. It is certainly true that if cases of failure or even limited and unspectacular attainments becomes more widely known, many would be discouraged at the outset and never aim for anything so big. It can also be argued that even those who are likely to go through with the challenge would be intimidated right at the start and never try. This is certainly possible but considering how one-sided the current trends are, I still feel that it is important to give a more balanced picture of what the reality is like. The positive effects of such an honest examination can be plenty. It would lead many to ask searching questions about whether they are prepared to embark on a notoriously difficult quest that several have quit or failed in the past. One has to have the courage to accept the challenges ahead. After all, it would be required in great measure once the arduous path begins. Besides, it is better to have a more balanced view at the beginning than be disillusioned later on. The idea is not to discourage but to inform, not to intimidate but to warn, not to dampen spirits but question how far the motivation can an individual.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Top 10 lists

It seems to me that everyone loves ranking lists. Top 10s, Top 20s, Top 100s and why, even Top 1000s. Almost everyone uses them at one point or the other to determine their choice in regards to various things, be it movies, colleges, books, holiday getaways, digital cameras or gift shops.. This seems like natural thing to do when you are looking for some guidance and there is a sea of options in front of you. I do agree that when it comes to products and consumer goods, it may be good idea to use these rankings but however, I believe it is incorrect to apply it to judge something like art, individual careers, relative accomplishments and other more subtle aspects in life.

Take the example of rankings of music artists or records. While drawing up comparisons and distinctions between two musical works can be an interesting, instructive and meaningful exercise , the need to always rigidly rate one above the other occurs to me as being quite unnatural. Why assume that two separate creations, each to be viewed in its own context, possessing different merits, dealing with disparate subject matter, can be placed one below the other on some linear scale? The experience one derives from two sources can vary greatly and stimulate different responses. After all it is not like our brain functions though a single neuron with different intensities. Why then are so many obsessed with finding out what is the best when no such thing is well-defined? The idea that this is always possible has an effect both on the individual who compiles the list and those that depend on them. For the former, the motivation to make a list will lead him/her to forcibly make value judgements based on a ill-defined and arbitrary criteria. And for the latter, especially the one who seeks such Top 10's , the mere fact that there are ranks rigidly setting two things apart can give rise to false assumption on their relative worth. For example, consider a ranking of Top 100 movies of all time. It is very likely that the precise rankings would significantly depend on the time and mood of the individual(s) involved in deciding those ratings, and for someone going through the list, the movie listed at the top would be assumed to be much better than the last entry when in fact, the distinction may be far less considering how selective a list of 100 movies in history of cinema is.

Another problem I have with Top 10s is about the constancy of the total number in all editions. I mean, why should it always be Top 10 and not Top 13 or a Top 7 ? . What is the index of deciding whether some contender should be included in the list (besides the space constraints)? Is it the consistency in the total number of slots or consistency in quality of the choices made? The moment you see such a Top 10 list , a certain quality is always assumed right at the outset and that can be a terrible mistake. When a newspaper lists the important events in the previous year, why not include whatever the editor deems significant (again, due considerations given to available space) irrespective of whether it 11 or 9? The Time magazine has come up with best of 2007 under different categories and each of them of course is one of either Top 10, 50 or 100. When you first see such a set, you are likely to think that the 10th place in the television shows is just as good (or mediocre) as the counterpart in theater productions. Of course, that need not ever be the case. In their defence, it can be argued that these lists cater to audiences with different preferences and so cross comparisons are not taken into account. But I still believe it is necessary for a magazine with the reputation and global reach of Time to give readers the editorial choice of what is significant and worthwhile rather than trying to fill up some fixed column numbers. It is very much possible that entries in one category was far superior than the other in a given year and in those instances it would be more intelligent to provide it greater coverage than to insist on some ill-conceived 'democratic' idea of satisfying the lowest common denominator with equal representation.

That said, as I have stated earlier, there are several occasions when such lists come very handy. Staying on the same topics as books, if you have recently begun to read novels, looking up some Top 100 list will give you an idea of the supposed classics and can guide initial selections. Also, I believe it is important to draw distinctions between two works which are of unequal standards. How else can one assess quality if one is not allowed to make any judgement. What I find artificial is the necessity for absolute rankings. It is also fine if you are making assorted recommendations but the obsessive need to put them in order is unwise.

When the AFI made the list of Top 100 movies (which included all the usual suspects of course), one critic made a very pertinent point that it would have been so much more rewarding for the fans and the industry to have come up with a suggestion of 100 great films that were forgotten or went unnoticed and made an analysis of them and argued why they deserve a second viewing. Instead, the AFI not only made everyone complacent by placing their favorite choices but also made several secondary lists on silly categories like 100 villains, 100 thrills, 100 laughs and so on ... Neither AFI nor Time are exceptions in not realizing that what is important is to introduce people to things to significant things they don't know instead of creating a unnatural competition of things they do know. This seems to be a ingrained in everyone's consciousness and reinforced by the media-culture.