Thursday, November 19, 2009

Irrelevant Conversations

A brave man once requested me / to answer questions that are key / is it to be or not to be? / and I replied 'oh why ask me?'
Was listening to nick drake's 'suicide is painless': a song that has become a part of my life, courtesy m (may her Scribble Pad rest in peace). I have heard a few covers of the song and I like nick drake's version the best. His flat and unemotional tone goes brilliantly with the lyrics. I had the title of the song as my goog-talk's status. As it turns out, I had one of the most pointless conversations I have ever suffered; and the conversation was triggered by the status message. Seems oddly ironic, that! But, let's talk about the conversation itself.

Rooney (name changed to protect the author against a libel lawsuit) started a chat with me: an exercise he attempted 26 months ago and promptly gave up as being too hurtful. I will take the credit for that too, of course. On that occasion, he wanted to talk about volleyball and school and nostalgia in general. I'm not exactly the emotional kind; not about school at any rate. I never did see the point of reminiscing about a time of my life when my primary motive was "getting more marks than Sowjanya". But Rooney wasn't to know to know that, of course. That conversation was a classic case in point for my "lost child" theory.

(Sidetrack1: begins)
The concept of the "child lost in a mela" is a common recurring theme in Bollywood movies. Of course, in the 70s, these lost kids would all meet up and recognise each other (each of these n lost kids would have had 1/nth of a medallion that help the job of recognition or, better still, they would all have a common family song that they would sing to establish their credentials: Yaadon ki Baraat, et al)

Even as a kid, I found the idea that you could drop a relationship or a conversation as a five-year old and re-start that relationship or conversation twenty years later as if nothing had changed in the 'tween, to be extremely unlikely if not totally absurd. Things change! (Not a particularly insightful or original observation, I must admit. But it is obvious enough and valid enough to need neither an explanation nor a justification.) m used to tell me that she found it hard to start conversations with people she had lost touch with, because she never knew how much the other person had changed. My point has always been that people don't change radically. Well, I did, but that's just moi! My explanation for the awkwardness in starting a conversation with someone you lost touch with, is the fact that the reason for your conversations when you were together was merely proximity and not bonding. Conversation with most people on most occasions is contextual. If the context does not exist, neither does the conversation.when you have lost touch with people, the context in which the live their lives can be different from the context in whcih you live yours. If the context is no longer shared, obviously the conversation is forced or empty (or both).

(Sidetrack1: ends)

On the earlier occasion, Rooney wanted to talk about "things in common", which we had quite a lot of as kids. A dozen years down the road of life, Rooney was still talking about our school principal and volleyball and Alistair MacLean. To be fair to the man, I'm not criticizing him for living in the past. Since Roon and I shared no "present", he did have ample reason to believe that he could start with nostalgia. There was nowhere else to start the conversation with. But sharing the same geography fifteen years ago is not the same as sharing a connection for life. Of course the conversation went nowhere. I told him so in as many words. Rooney hung up the phone and, in all likelihood, muttered some obscenities on the way out.

In today's conversation, Rooney was evidently distressed or, at any rate, disturbed and had happily (definitely not an appropriate usage of the adverb) concluded (because of my status message) that he had found someone else who was in the same depressing boat. (At this point I must apologize if my summary is incorrect (or more likely apocryphal): In the guilty conversation, Rooney was spectacularly unclear (or unsure) with his nouns, and put on the word "it", a burden that "it" could neither semantically nor logically be expected to bear.)

- note to oneself... less parentheses tends to imply greater linearity : ergo, TRY AGAIN! -

The Roon-man was depressed and evidently in the process of hating himself for it. Depression, I must add, doesn't go along with Rooney's world-view which requires the obvious and overwhelming presence of the clich├ęd perimeter of Argentum. His objection to depression is primarily wistful: Life should be beautiful. Too much roberto benigni has been watched, methinks. He wanted me to confirm that I saw the ray of sunshine that he could not. He wanted me to confirm that that there was more to life than this. But! But, he did not want to actually tell me that he wanted my help. I was not going to offer it him on a platter. For all I cared, he could bloody well ASK! Well, he didn't; nor did I. The details are irrelevant. Roon had done something that he believed was wrong, and he needed me to tell me that it was alright. I obviously was going to say no such thing. Not because of any objection (in principle) to lying, but merely because I had decided that I had no intention of satisfying his whims. Also, I might have been taking him to task for not declaring his nouns.

An excerpt from the conversation is given below: 3 things to be noted.
1. Very few complete sentences. Typos galore.
2. The banality of Roon's questions and the irreverent nature of my answers
3. That IS my goog talk theme - light sabers et al.

Darth Roon: you really are not serious are you?
Sriharsha, The Jedi Knight: not serious abt what?
Darth Roon: but what is the motivation.....?
Sriharsha, The Jedi Knight: for WHAT?
Darth Roon: there seems to be no point.
Sriharsha, The Jedi Knight: this conversation?
Darth Roon: no, not really :-)
Sriharsha, The Jedi Knight:  I'd start agreeing in about two minutes   :)
Darth Roon: i am just fine. cool, man.
Sriharsha, The Jedi Knight: didnt wnt to know :)
Darth Roon: i am very happy.
Sriharsha, The Jedi Knight: didnt need to know.
Darth Roon: harsha, you rascal are a good guy man, but obivously you can give a guy a heart attack.
Sriharsha, The Jedi Knight: your problem seems to be that I dont take empathy or sympathy very well.
Darth Roon: that whole thing is going to be a stupid assumption though.
At this point in the conversation Roon decides to try again.

Darth Roon: all right harsha-san!   harsha-san: how's life?
Sriharsha, The Jedi Knight: Your consistent refusal to spell out the nouns is discomforting.. almost like you have no idea what you want to apply those statements to...inane question deserves inane answer.   life's good!   :)
Darth Roon: how's the wife?   
Sriharsha, The Jedi Knight: the person who played that that role exists, she just doesn't play that role any more.
Darth Roon: harsha, you remember the time we were conversing at the htoel in madras when i gave you the shirt from nba --- what was it, the scaramento kings, who was it, the guy...? you still ahve it?
Sriharsha, The Jedi Knight: tony kukoc bulls no 7.   I dont have any personal possessions to be cherished.   conscious choice.
Darth Roon:    zen. or minimalism   ?
Sriharsha, The Jedi Knight: neither..
Darth Roon: too small, eh?
Sriharsha, The Jedi Knight: just carelessness brought on by apathy
Darth Roon: after all, ravi shankar thinks pi is of no value
Sriharsha, The Jedi Knight: and that would be of least relevvance to me.
Darth Roon: sure, sure.   there is no period in life.   ha ha ha ha

I have played irrelevant conversation as a game. But this is the first truly irrelevant conversation I have had. From the beginning to the end, the conversation was pointless: not one redeeming note. And it was triggered by Roon's concern for my "obviously" depressed status. Frankly, If I had to pick between suicide and this kind of conversation, I would pick suicide any day.
'Cause suicide is painless / it brings on many changes  / and I can take or leave it if I please
...and you can do the same thing if you please.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Strumming along...

For years I've been a lazy bum. Waiting for someone to point out a good piece of music to me. (I did find some amazing stuff: Scribble Pad's m got me hooked to Amy Grant, DP got me in touch with Alan Jackson's Margaritaville) But I never actually went hunting for music. Well, yesterday, whilst waiting for a friend to come back online, I was hunting for something good to listen to, and I stumbled onto GarageBand. Fifteen minutes of pseudo-random clicking later, I found some gems. It's amazing the number of gems that will turn up and land in your hands if you actually take the effort to sift through piles of rubbish. These are lovely pieces. If Joni Mitchell or Norah Jones had sung these, we'd have a few best-sellers on our hands. But then that's why GarageBand is there right?
This is some of the stuff that I'm listening to... and strumming along with...

Erika Chambers: If only tears! (soulful, stirring, powerful vocals... not really my kind of music, but amazing melody)

Hard times: Dear Mama (wish I was home with you and Daddy! simple... lovely country tune)

Julie Collings: Tread Carefully (as we all unfold / slowly things spin out of control / tread carefully / there's pieces of me I'm still looking for)

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Irrelevant Conversation

This was a game we used to play in IIT. 'twas called "irrelevant conversation" and ze rules were simple. Two people made one statement at a time, with only one condition: No statement made by either person should have any relevance with any other statement made previously by either person. Sentence fragments were not allowed. The first person to spot a mistake by the opponent would have to slap the table with an open palm and say "I object". If the objection stood, the other person would have lost the game. If the objection was overruled by the moderator, the person raised the objection would lose.

Irrelevant conv. was immensely popular in IITM in the mid-nineties. There were elaborate strategies devised to fool the opponent including the following:
Strategy 1 was to say, "I object!" without actually slapping the table, and then wait for the opponent to ask what the objection was. When the unsuspecting took the bait, the first person would then object, properly this time, that the other person had responded to a question and was hence out.
Strategy 2: the opening statement would be "IIT". the opponent would object that this was not a sentence. the first player would then insist that what he had actually said was "I eye Tea", and that was a complete sentence by itself.

For some reason, non-IITians didn't really seem to like this game a lot. I wonder why! :)

I was talking to some of my students, yesterday, who were asking me to reduce the number of jokes I cracked per class. They insisted that the jokes were distracting them and that they could not concentrate on the lecture because they were thinking about the joke.
(I had explained entropy and spontaneous processes, by using the example of a person
farting in a room, instead of the more traditional one of opening a bottle of perfume. The joke raised a stink!)

My stand was, and always has been, that humour was essential to learning. Bernard Shaw's work is proof undeniable that the technique of wrapping a didactic lecture in a humourous package is an excellent way of delivering one's message to one's target audience. (I enjoy Stephen Leacock's work too, but it has far less value as a lecture series.)

The students had a fair point as well. They insisted that they were interested enough in the quality of the contents of the package and didn't really care about the wrapping it came in.

I accepted the possibility that they didn't need the humour to keep them interested in the lecture. But i refused to believe that the joke could be so gripping as to compromise their ability to concentrate on the lecture.

I told them that they could always put the joke aside.

It was at this point in the conversation that the idea of irrelevant conversation came up. I remember having done pretty well in the game, and my basic strategy had been to concentrate on the words that the other person was saying without actually taking in the meaning completely. If I actually tried to figure out what the other meant, it also usually meant that, at some level, I would respond to their words. (This, I had learned through experience!) the key to winning was being attentive enough to hear the words, but to also be distracted enough to prevent those words from being integrated into one's though process.

To be able to take in the humour (and not be distracted by it), would necessarily imply a level of distraction that I wouldn't appreciate in my students. They've made their point and there will be fewer jokes in class of course.

But I cannot imagine going through life the way these kids do. a 17-year old taking something so seriously that he/she does not want to be distracted by a little irrelevant conversation!

Is this normal? Am I too old to understand what they think like? Or is there something fundamentally and systemically wrong with a person who has such a rigid interpretation of his/her wants?

(Having written that last line, I realize that I could well have written it about myself. I do have a very precise idea of what I want. Maybe it is not the rigidity of their ideas that I abhor. Maybe the key is that the ideas that these people stick to are abhorrent to me!)

I have some plans. Maybe I'll post the results some day.

Break on through...

we chased our pleasures here / dug our treasures there / but can you still recall / the time we cried
Break on through to other side / Break on through to the other side / Break on through...
It does come through that Morrison was poet and only then a musician.

The thing about being on the other side of 30 is that it puts one's life thus far into rather a harsh perspective, especially for a geek. Before he turned 30, Feynmann had already come up with his Principle of Least Action. Before HE turned 30 Niels Bohr had proposed his model of the atmoic structure. Einstein had already had his annus mirabilis, and would never do anything quite as remarkable for the next 50 years. Alan Turing had cracked the Enigma machine. Warren Buffet was a slow starter. He was 32 before he made his first million. I don't intend to drag the writers and poets in here, because they are even scarier. Keats was dead well before he turned 30. As was Jim Morrison.

And what have I done? Well, nothing really. My life's story reads like a boring script of a boring soap opera (without all the extra-marital affairs).
2003: Got into a new job. Got into a relationship. Had parathas for dinner. Smoked Gold Flake Kings. Drank lots of vodka. Started writing on a new blog. Cheered Real Madrid during the Champions League.
2005: Got into a new job. Got into a new relationship. Had noodles for dinner. Smoked Menthols. Drank lots of rum. Started writing a new blog. Cheered AC Milan during the Champions League.
2007: Got into a new job. Got into a new relationship. Had pasta for dinner. Smoked Dunhill. Drank lots of whisky. Started writing a new blog. Cheered Liverpool during the Champions League.
2009: Got into a new job. Got out of all relationships. Had lasagna for dinner. Smoked Davidoff. Drank lots of single-malted Scotch. Started writing a new blog. Cheered Manchester United during the Champions League.

The only doubts for 2011 are merely questions of what I put into my body while I support a yet-to-be-identified football club.

The point, of course, is that my life is NOT in a rut! My body is just settling into a pattern that has just enough variation to prevent stagnation. My mind on the other hand is racing; against time as it were. For long enough I've sat on my arse - an armchair philosopher - content to reflect and observe without affecting the world. My life expectancy is 10 years and counting. Since I do not believe in the comforting thought of an after-life, and because my life has followed a path that merits eternal damnation, if said after-life does indeed exist; it is indeed a short span of time that exists for me.

I'm writing, again. Not on my blog though. Look out for the book stores in summer 2010. Three books should hit the stands in India. A romance; a textbook on physics; and a treatise on living a rational life. The first should be the most inane and the most successful. The last should be the most entertaining and the least successful. The second would be my magnum opus.

If I can get someone to read these, I'll write the three books that actually kick-started the literary fire in my brain. With due apologies to Douglas Noel Adams, the books that make up this philosophical trilogy will be named ...
Where God went wrong
Some more of God's greatest mistakes
Who is this God person anyway?

This post by itself is very obviously a note to a friend. To her, I recommend a Raj Kapoor song that goes: "Chalna jeevan ki kahani, rukna maut ki nishaani..."
I, personally, am with Johnnie Walker on this one.