Election Notes

This is going to be short and bittersweet.

What we can hope for:

  1. An end to patronage politics (for poor and middle class people, I mean. Ending it for rich people will probably take a whole while longer.)
  2. An end to Rahul Gandhi’s political ambitions.
  3. A more rational economic regime (which, yes, basically means more free markets).
  4. A government that functions without having to appease a million competing coalition interests, and therefore more efficiently.
  5. (ADDED) A Uniform Civil Code. I honestly have always thought this was a good idea! How did we live with this mess of religion-specific laws for so long? Implementation will be an issue, obviously.

What we shall pray against:

  1. (Even more) Second-class citizen status for Muslims (and also Christians, Sikhs, Jains, Parsis and all the rest; but at least they have not been targeted as much)
  2. Nuclear war with Pakistan
  3. Touch my beef and I will cut you.

What we shall be resigned to:

  1. An inescapable wave of chauvinistic triumphalism

The Amateur Web

A few weeks ago, I read an article (that I can no longer find) on the end of the amateur web. The author was talking about how he was trying to do a routine sprucing up of his personal blog, changing the theme and the design elements and so on, when he suddenly realized that it was no longer fun, no longer the easy tinkering that it used to be, now that he has to make sure it looks good not only on every browser and OS but also on every mobile device and app that readers will use to access your site. Writers, he concludes, should stick to writing and leave the design, upkeep, promotion and marketing to the professionals. This is the solution that sites such as Medium offer, and his prediction was that more and more writers will embrace these solutions and gradually abandon their personal blogs.

As I was reading this, though, the more pressing question on my mind was, “what do we have to say, anyway?” Amateur journalism is certainly a thing that exists, and the power and reach of amateur opinions online has been widely praised (and criticized). Most amateur writing on the web, though, is not journalism, or advocacy, or even substantiated opinion. Most writing on the web is, in fact, nothing but the barely coherent musings of people who feel that they have something to say but are not entirely sure what it is. (There are of course exceptions: as a rule of thumb, the more focused a site is, the less expansive an area it targets, the more it has to say. This also has exceptions.) I have written before (as have others, and better, which is basically my point) on how much of our online presence essentially boils down to identity performance. We all -with varying degrees of effort; you might not feel like you’re doing this, but only a little self-reflection should be required to see it- construct and project an image that reflects only what we want others to see. For most of us a successful performance is one that we wear as a second skin, comfortable enough that we never have to take it off. The difficulty arises when it no longer wears snugly, when it begins to suffocate us, when the dissonance between the mask and the confusing mess within begin to grate.

There exists, as an antidote that is always available to the writer, the obsessive honesty of Hemingway or the nearly fetishistic transparency of Karl Ove Knausgård. It is the cost of this antidote that frightens me, because of course Sartre’s statement was quite incomplete: Hell is not other people. Hell is what you see of other people through their masks, and hell is also the fear of what might be behind your own.

Aside

Proust is annoying . I mean, it’s not JUST that he goes on at such
ridiculous length about such mundane things, it’s that it doesn’t
even make any sense! Ooh, I wake up and I have no memories! I
have no idea where I am! Then I still don’t know where I am but at
least I start to remember all the other rooms I’ve ever woken up in!
I’m too sleepy to move so I have to figure out from the way I’m lying
and how my arms and legs feel where all the walls and furniture in
the room are… Proprioception is my only sense, screw normal ones
like vision. And I’m immediately going to think I’m a child and in my
childhood home again, because of course I do.

I just started reading Swann’s Way and have no idea how people
get through this stuff.

If you really want to hear some truly epic digressions on all manner
of things that, nonetheless, has an actual story to digress FROM,
then go read The Baroque Cycle by Neal Stephenson. It narrates a
fictionalized history of the “pre-Enlightenment”, the dawn of the
Scientific Age. It prominently includes a lot of the real drivers of
history – Newton, Hooke, Leibniz, John Wilkins, Christopher Wren,
Louis XIV, William of Orange, just to name the major ones- and
introduces several fascinating original characters in the
Stephensonian mold. The series contains 3000 pages set in the late
17th- early 18th century, and ranges all the way from England to
France to Denmark to Vienna to Algiers to the Caribbean to Surat to
Malabar to the Arctic to California to Boston and back, with several
additional back and forths along the way. It is gripping throughout,
frequently hilarious without trying very hard, and always manages to
pull you back just when you think it’s safe to put it down.

It has now been 38 days since I came to this rig, and my manager
has finally said I can get off next Tuesday, which will make it 44,
which is more than enough time for anyone to spend on a metal
structure in the middle of the ocean. Hopefully, at that point my tone will become a lot less cranky.

A Case of Exploding Mangoes (Mohammed Hanif)

Image

I had bought this book and kept it on the virtual shelf for a while before I went ahead and read it, because I wasn’t quite sure if it would be depressing or funny and I wasn’t quite sure what sort of book I wanted to read. It turned out not to matter since it was both, and neither – every review of this book I’ve seen has made the Catch-22 comparison, but it’s very well deserved! it is all the more raw for being set in Pakistan in the mid-80s, and recognizable and disturbing for that very reason.

The central event of this book happens on August 17, 1988, when the plane carrying the dictator General Zia, the US Ambassador and several top generals crashes. The story covers the months before and flits between General Zia, increasingly paranoid about attempts on his life, and Ali Shigri, a cadet at the academy who harbours suspicions on the manner of his father’s death. It describes the increasing Islamisation of Pakistan under General Zia, the attendant absurdities and hypocrisies, and the frustrations of a certain Saudi construction company representative known only as “OBL” at the US Ambassador’s faux Afghan tribal barbecue.

It’s a book that relies more on atmosphere than plot, but there are genuine moments of reveal, doled out almost nonchalantly, and I don’t want to spoil it for anyone, so: Read it.

Asian Values

Click for explanation

World Values Survey Cultural Map of the World (2005-2008)

Any real discussion involving the concept has to start with the realization that it’s a profoundly silly term. I mean, what are Asian Values? Other than the “obvious” idea that such a thing exists and is superior to the “moral depravity” of the West, most people find it difficult to enumerate precisely what they are, or how they came to be common across such a range of countries, cultures and religions. Wikipedia suggests that the term came about

“to justify authoritarian regimes in Asia or to defense from the politically designated western concept of ‘human right’, predicated on the belief in the existence within Asian countries of a unique set of institutions and political ideologies which reflected the region’s cultures and histories”.

It then lists a bunch of values which seem rather designed for that purpose.The list is not worth reproducing but largely reduces to the elevation of the collective (family, clan, firm, country) over the individual.

The problem is, calling these “Asian values” obscures the fact that these were almost universal values for thousands of years! Insofar as the West has de-emphasized the collective and emphasized the individual (and this is by no means a universal characteristic of the West, either), this has occurred purely in the last 300-400 years, since the Enlightenment, and particularly coinciding with the sudden growth of their economies during the Industrial Revolution.Perhaps the following is a better description of what most people consider Asian Values:

TYPE *B* folks travel less, and move less often from where they grew up. They are more polite and care more for cleanliness and order. They have more self-sacrifice and self-control, which makes them more stressed and suicidal. They work harder and longer at more tedious and less healthy jobs, and are more faithful to their spouses and their communities. They make better warriors, and expect and prepare more for disasters like war, famine, and disease. They have a stronger sense of honor and shame, and enforce more social rules, which let them depend more on folks they know less. When considering rule violators, they look more at specific rules, and less at the entire person and what feels right. Fewer topics are open for discussion or negotiation.

Type B folks believe more in good and evil, and in powerful gods who enforce social norms. They envy less, and better accept human authorities and hierarchy, including hereditary elites at the top (who act more type A), women and kids lower down, and human and animal slaves at the bottom. They identify more with strangers who share their ethnicity or culture, and more fear others. They are less bothered by violence in war, and toward foreigners, kids, slaves, and animals. They more think people should learn their place and stay there. Nature’s place is to be ruled and changed by humans.

That is simply Robin Hanson’s list of “farmer values”, as opposed to forager values, which (as he notes) maps rather well to the conservative vs liberal divide in most of Western politics. There is nothing uniquely Asian about Asian values. There is nothing inherently wrong about them, either, aside from their tendency to lose out against forager values (do read that post) as people tend to get richer. But any argument -particularly amongst Asians- that attempts to draw its strength from “Asian values” should be well aware of the origin and limitations of the concept.

The View

Somebody stole the new phone I still wasn’t done drooling over (barely 2 weeks after I bought it) the first day that I got to this rig, and we managed to bend the pins inside one of our tools in the process of loading batteries and we are still not ready for the job that, thankfully, keeps getting pushed back due to issues that have nothing to do with us, but right now I don’t want to talk about that. I also don’t want to talk about how it takes about ten tries to flush the “efficient” toilets that I have to share with 7 other people or how the temperature in the accommodation is kept just a wee bit too warm for comfortable sleep. No, right now I want to talk about The View.

The View is what you get standing on a helipad just after midnight with the wind so strong you feel like you could blow away if you stretched your arms wide enough. The View is a gibbous moon reflected in the choppy sea and 3 other brightly lit rigs competing for your attention against the horizon. The View is feeling that barely perceptible bit of heave that the compensator lets slip through. The View is wondering if that oddly shaped assortment of lights off the coastline to your left is yet another rig or a surprisingly large town in the middle of the otherwise quite rural countryside*.

The oil industry does not tend to attract idealists. There are few humanitarians or do-gooders in there; plenty of people who are doing something they feel is necessary, something that’s “gotta be done”, perhaps, but at the end of the day, most oil field workers are mercenaries**. The money is what gets you mucking about in the grease in a dangerous environment, miles away from your friends and family and “civilization”, often for weeks at a time. But of course in the college recruitment speeches that bit tends to get played down (I assume because everyone already knows about it), and what they try and pitch to you is The Experience***. The Experience is what’s supposed to motivate you. The Experience is supposed to Build Character, Teach Life Lessons and Make You into a Better**** person. This is a different version of the same thing that the investment banks tell you, and it is mostly just a different version of crap. Most people will always do this for the money.

But. There are moments. The View might not compensate for the rest of it. But it is a rather unique fringe benefit.

*Checked in the morning, and it is just another rig, as expected.

** A (very non-Marxist, interestingly) friend of mine used “prostitutes”.

***also The Travel, but that part is actually kind of true.

**** I gather that this is supposed to refer to competency rather than ethics.

PS: No photo because well, as mentioned, The View isn’t just the view, but also because, again as mentioned, somebody stole my brand new camera phone.

30 Things Travelers Must See and Do Before They’re 30

This post on HuffPo would be far better as a blog meme than as a prescription, so here we go. In less than a year I will be handily past the halfway point of my 20s, so it’s a nice time to check.

1. Jump off something.
Whether it be a tree by the river next to your childhood home or bungee jumping from the Victoria Falls Bridge in Zimbabwe. Take the leap.

Status: Sure, I’ve jumped off trees and into rivers. I am hoping to go either sky diving or bungee jumping over the next year, though, so I’ll wait to properly tick this one off.

2. See one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

English: Great Wall, China

English: Great Wall, China (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is a tough one, because at 30, well, you still have the bank account of a 29-year-old. The good news here is that it doesn’t necessarily have to be one of the originals — go for the Golden Gate Bridge (modern world), the Grand Canyon (natural wonder), or the Mayan ruins in the Yucatán Peninsula (USA Today new wonder), an affordable flight from most U.S. cities.

Status: This is very ambiguous but at least some lists include the Taj Mahal, so I’ll tick this off as well. I really want to see the Great Wall of China soon.

3. Party in Las Vegas.
No person should exit their 20s without doing something they regret in Sin City. The place was basically built for us.

Status: Not yet! But I’ll probably swing by when I go to Houston in July.

4. Take a vacation that isn’t Spring Break.
You had your opportunity to drink beer upside down and insist you don’t need sunscreen while in college. Besides, you don’t remember anything from those trips anyway.

Status: This is weird, right? Who hasn’t?

5. Attend at least one large celebration.
Mardi Gras, Full Moon Party, Easter Mass — I don’t care, as long as you have to throw elbows to get to the bar, or the alter.

Status: Easter Mass yes. Random public New Year parties and India winning the World Cup (Cricket), yes. Full Moon party, not yet.

6. Hit up a nude beach.
If for no other reason, use the time to look around and remind yourself of how young you actually are.

Status: Hmm…..

7. Spend several days with only what will fit in a backpack.
If you can brush your teeth with river water and comb your hair with a tree branch, you can most certainly figure out how to stop turning all of your white clothes pink.

Status: Sure, traveling around and bumming off friends. Barely counts, though. Not sure I’m particularly interested.

8. Swim in the ocean.
This is a must.

Status: Totally a must.

9. Sleep somewhere where you have to light a fire to stay warm.
Kudos if you can do so without matches.

Status: Camping in the Himalayan foothills. We did use matches and propane lighters and all that, though.

10. Do some sort of adrenaline sport.
Raft a Class five rapid; mountain bike Whistler in the summer; surf a wave larger than your torso — meaning: do something that scares you.

Status: Definitely a to-do. I’ve gone rafting, I’ve biked in the mountains, but both in very safe, tame areas.

11. Hit up one of the Caribbean islands.
There are thousands to choose from. You’ll most likely visit more than one in your lifetime, get a good jump on it in your 20s.

Status: This is probably more of a must-do if you’re American, right? I don’t think I’ll set a deadline of 30 on this.

12. Take one ultimate road trip.
It can be with buddies, it can be camping, it can be on Route 66, Route 1, or the Blue Ridge Parkway. Double points if you have a reliable car to get there.

Status: There have been many road trips but none of them over 24 hours of driving, so no, and I am not a major fan of road trips anyway.

13. Go somewhere alone.
At 30 you should be confident and worldly enough to wake up in a foreign country and know how to get yourself home.

Status: Done, couple of times.

14. Take a train somewhere.
There are no hidden innuendos here. It’s just nice to have the patience and maturity to sit still and watch the world go by.

Status: Probably more unusual for Americans, again. Practically all middle class Indians have done this at some point.

15. Go to a music festival.
Hit up one of the big ones (Coachella, Bonnaroo, Glastonbury) and spend the weekend listening to good music, dancing, and having random song lyrics make you contemplate what you’re doing with your life.

Status: I’ve done the usual campus fests, NH7 (as big as it usually gets in India) and Edinburgh Fringe so I think I can tick this off, even if I haven’t hit the “big ones” yet.

16. Have one iconic Americana experience.
Think Dollywood, Graceland, and Branson.

Status: Meh.

17. Go to at least one of the Smithsonian museums.
The world’s “largest museum and research complex” includes 19 museums, galleries, and parks — the majority of which are free.

Status: Done, Air and Space, which was awesome, although this was before my 20s.

18. Summit a mountain.
I’m not talking Everest, but you should by now have stood on a mountain peak high enough that you’re worried about getting back down.

Status: It was small and I was only worried about getting back because we had spent too much time swimming in the waterfall basin and it was already getting dark. Also not even a proper summit. Will have to wait.

19. Be able to name your top five dream vacations.

Northern lights

Northern lights (Photo credit: Moyan_Brenn)

It’s OK if one of them is “home.”

Status: Maldives/Carribbeans, Macchu Picchu and the Andean country, the “overall” European backpacking trip, Norway for the Northern Lights, Spain/the Catalan area (this last inspired in large part by Vicky Christina Barcelona).

20. See a game at a classic ballpark.
If Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, or Joe Dimaggio hasn’t played in it, it doesn’t count.

Status: Meh, and I cannot stress the meh enough.

21. Visit a neighbor to our north or south.
There’s a hall pass to be had for out of the continent, but by 30 you should have crossed at least one landlocked border.

Status: Ironically, I have actually visited Canada, but not yet been to China or any of our actual neighbours (to be fair Pakistan/Bangladesh/Myanmar are not likely to be easy, but Bhutan has been on the list for some time and will happen soon.)

22. Do something so adventurous that it requires a doctor’s visit.
Whether it requires a series of preventative vaccines before or a cast/splint/cream after, the goal here is that the adventure at hand was so extreme that you need to seek the advice of a trained professional.

Status: Hmm? Let’s see. I need preventive vaccines and need to learn how to kick out the emergency exit windows on an underwater helicopter for my regular job, but I’ve never been into anything quite that extreme.

23. Save pennies to go somewhere you really want to go.
It doesn’t have to be extravagant, but you should have to work for it.

Status: In some sense I have to work for all of it, and in some sense I don’t, so this one doesn’t make much sense.

24. Go to New York City.
Eat a slice of pizza, stand in the middle of Times Square, and ride the Subway to somewhere — anywhere. This trip is made even better if you can’t afford a decent hotel and book a hostel instead.

Status: Done, done and done. You avoid the trouble of a hotel by having a really huge extended family who are happy to put you up.

25. Sleep under the stars.
In your backyard, in a tent on safari in Kenya, or in the camping pit of an organized event — be extra proud if your experience was made significantly more successful by a can of bug spray.

Status: In a tent, yes, but I note that this is technically not under the stars.

26. Eat an iconic city meal.
Options include a cheesesteak in Philly, clam chowder in Boston, deep-dish pizza in Chicago, crabs in Baltimore, gumbo in New Orleans, BBQ in Memphis, and a beer in Milwaukee.

clam chowder

Status: Clam chowder in Boston (I could really use some right now!), haggis in Edinburgh…. fish and chips in London, pepperoni pizza in new York, fish curry in Goa, vada pav in Mumbai, chicken rice in Singapore, fondue in Zurich? I guess some of these might be a stretch.

27. Know all of the best places to take tourists in your home city.
Philly’s “Love” Park may be just a point of congestion to locals, but trust me, your mother will love it.

Status: Well, some.

28. Have one close encounter with a wild animal.
If this means you don a wetsuit and slip into a tank with dolphins, so be it. But let’s aim for something in the wild if at all possible.

Status: I have seen a jaguar climb a tree in less than a second and it was AWESOME, but I’m definitely getting no closer than that. Maybe the dolphin tank sometime. Also we had deer all around our campus which we necessarily dealt with all the time. They are not domesticated, but you can hardly call them wild, either.

29. Do something you can’t tell your parents about.
Go ahead and make some bad decisions.

Status: Lots of won’ts, probably not many can’ts, but ONE shouldn’t be a stretch at all :) .

30. Know a dance well enough that you could keep up with the locals.
Tango with Argentinians, Salsa with Cubans, Kathak in India, do a jig with the Irish, or line dance in Kansas.

Status: Alas, I know none, and this is definitely on the list. Kathak is not quite like salsa or tango, for the record, in that it is a performance, not an activity

Verdict: So many of these are really ambiguous but even so, of the ones I care about I think I’ve done a good two thirds, which is very reassuring!

Technicolour Dreams and Black and White People

Being offshore is an excellent way of realizing precisely how much of your life has always been internal, because it forces you to think about just how little social contact you need. A rig is not necessarily a lonely place; it is, after all, full of people. But most of them come from very diverse backgrounds, with very different tastes, and you are not likely to have known/worked with more than the 1 or 2 people previously. You are required to either be indiscriminately pro-social, or to lead a mainly internal life. I am certainly not the former, so it is a relief to discover that I might be the latter.

My major method of coping- an entirely unoriginal one, of course- is to immerse myself in the consumption of whatever media I can get my hands on. A hard disk full of movies and TV shows is not essential, but it is a good fallback. The internet serves very well, although it would have been so much better if only it were just a little bit faster.

The biggest surprise, however, is that this has always been the case. It is amazing just how little difference sitting in a little metal box on a platform several miles from land makes to my major modes of relaxation. I surf the net. I check out what people are uploading on Facebook. I check out Twitter. I watch a TV show. I read a book. I chat with friends. I sleep.

And yet. The effects are cumulative. I might only spend a few hours every weekend “out on the town”, hanging out with friends or cousins or colleagues, but the absence of those few hours even for just a few weeks is massively erosive. And already, I am longing to be in a city again.

PS: The Matchbox 20 song is an inspiration- I am exploring the forgotten depths of my music collection, and heard it last night- but deals with an entirely different issue, as far as I can tell.

A Graphic Novel Feast

sexyshoelessgodofwar

This line is far more exciting the second time he says it.

Order of the Stick is a stick-figure comic -hence the name- set in an explicitly Dungeons and Dragons rules-inspired world featuring very genre-aware characters. It also features an actual long-term plot, character growth,intelligent villains and heroes, unique characters unconstrained by alignment along either axes (quite deliberately). It has dumb gags and heroic sacrifices, but also brilliantly executed plans and counter-plans and frequent reminders that heroic sacrifices, no matter how stirring, don’t matter if far too many people die in the process.

I started reading it last night and am currently on Strip 611. (Granted, I’m in the middle of the sea and have little else to do, but even so. These aren’t 3 panel strips. They’re whole pages, sometimes several, per strip.)

fablescrossover fablesinheritthewind

I also finished Fables 83-121 in the day or two before that. It remains great, and also incapable of being reviewed properly without spoiling the entire grand narrative of the first 80 issues. The storyline is still based on our beloved Fables in exile-they were driven out of their Homelands by the Evil Emperor, who is no longer their Emperor and whose Evils have been forgive-in their completely out of character interpretations. That is to say, Bigby (Big Bad, get it?) Wolf, Snow White, Jack Horner (of the beanstalk), Rose Red, King Cole, an assortment of witches. This set features as antagonists the Literals (part of)  and the mysterious Mr. Dark, a personification of the powers of darkness. Sub-plots galore, too, few of which make sense without prior acquaintance with the characters.

I remember wondering why I would ever want a tablet when I could have a smartphone and an e-reader, but reading gorgeous full-coloured comics on an iPad is a truly magnificent experience. Too bad it’s also ridiculously expensive to do so legally.

Fables also stands as an example that you can enjoy a book tremendously without either buying into or endorsing the author’s politics, in this case Bill Willingham’s stated view that Fabletown is an allegory for the state of Israel.

Habibi by Craig Thompson is also exquisitely gorgeous, but the tale it tells is far more heart-breaking. From wikipedia:

The 672-page book is set in a fictional Islamic fairytale landscape, and depicts the relationship between Dodola and Zam, two escaped child slaves, who are torn apart and undergo many transformations as they grow into new names and new bodies, which prove to be obstacles to their love when they later reunite.The book’s website describes its concept thus as a love story and a parable about humanity’s relationship to the natural world that explores such themes as the cultural divide between the first and third worlds, the common heritage of Christianity and Islam.

The scale is truly epic: “many transformations” seems far too commonplace a phrase to use for what they have to go through as they struggle to find happiness with each other in a world that is not simply uncaring, but feels actively malevolent. But oh, the poetry, and oh, the calligraphy! Deserts seem to breed beauty and misery on either hand.

Buy it. Read it. I got the hardcover, which might have been a mistake considering that I have had to lug it over 5 flights/chopper rides with the rest of my overweight luggage in the last month, but you will appreciate having a nice heavy volume to keep on your shelf. (Assuming, that is, that you do not share my current nomadic lifestyle or homelessness.)

PS: Also, here. Pretty pictures.

Count and Countess (Rose Christo)

Count and Countess is an epistolary novel that describes the never-fulfilled romance between Vladislaus Drakulya, Prince of Wallachia, and Elizabeth Bathory, Princess of Hungary, who find as children that though they are separated from each other by a hundred years, they can send letters to each other. It is part historical fiction/alternate history and part paranormal romance; but more Wuthering Heights with gore than Twilight, and not just because it takes great care never to mention the word vampire.

I found this book on tvtropes - I don’t think it even has a wikipedia page – fell in love with the premise, and immediately bought it from the Kindle Store. It’s gory from start to finish, but the character development is the interesting part; they grow from somewhat entitled, slightly abnormal kids in trying circumstances to being simply deranged and psychopathic, holding onto each other all the more desperately as everything else falls apart. I wouldn’t say it paints a sympathetic portrait of the characters – hard to, when it describes so calmly how Elizabeth kills her ladies in waiting, or Vlad impales thousands of Turkish men, women and children, or how he decorates his dining halls with the heads of his page boys and doesn’t understand why his guests leave before the dinner is over- but it certainly shows a side to them that’s interesting. Elizabeth, especially, is more tragic than horrific, and even Vlad, as he ends the book saying that he looks forward to finally being with her in hell as he knows neither of them are destined for heaven, evokes a certain pity.

There’s plenty more on the tvtropes page linked above, but at $2.99, I would just advise anyone who finds this interesting to buy and read it.