Saturday, May 07, 2011

Random Musings on Free-Will, Game Theory, Social Psychology and God

Note: This is hopefully the first of a series of posts on the subject, in which case I sympathize with my readers! :P

Disclaimer: I am an Atheist, a Keynesian Capitalist (Free Markets with Regulation & Intervention) and a firm believer in Free-Will. Also, the topic under discussion is immensely vast, and is of such a scope that every human born into this world contemplates about it at some point of time in their lives, and great philosophers and public intellectuals have pondered on these questions, coming up with their own subtle variations to explaining the nature of life as we see it. I am just presenting a short snippet of my take on the subject and I am trying to stir up some conversation by being a polemicist!


As “Neo” tells the “Architect” in “The Matrix”: “The Problem is Choice”. This is one of the most profound self-evident truths in the universe, and yet not only is it under-stated, but also flagrantly contradicted by the corporations, advertisers and by civil society in public discourse.

We are told, again and again, by people, corporations, entities and Governments that the greatest gift of the 20th century has been “Free-Will”. This statement has been sold to the public repeatedly by the entire society, as if it were a self-evident truth, and people who seek to question its veracity (with the best of intentions) are demonized as being archaic, illogical and evil. This often repeated assertion assumes that Free-Will is necessarily a good thing – that man is happiest when he is given the freedom to choose, that civilizations with immense freedom are necessarily the ones which are the most productive.

Lets try to deconstruct that for a moment.

  • Assertion #1: Main is happiest when he is given the freedom to choose:

    Psychologist Barry Schwartz, in an acclaimed TED Talk [3], takes aim at a central tenet of western societies: freedom of choice. In Schwartz's estimation, choice has made us not freer but more paralyzed, not happier but more dissatisfied, not clearer but more confused.

  • Assertion #2: Civilizations with immense freedom are the most productive:

    It is true that the Soviet Union collapsed spectacularly and this is taken irrefutable evidence of the failure of Communism/Socialism and conclusive evidence in support of Free societies. It is worthwhile noting that the Soviet Union had immense power and influence in the world for almost half a century – its power and influence almost rivalling that of the United States. That its power/influence thrived successfully for four decades is indicative that Socialist societies could indeed be productive and influential. Furthermore, it is also worthwhile noting that the Soviet Union, despite lacking political, economic & religious freedom, made very tangible and significant advances in nuclear technology, space exploration technology and other products and services.

Scientists and biologists have discovered that based on current evidence, it can be concluded that an individual’s sexual orientation is a combination of genetic, hormonal and environmental factors [1][2]. Who is to say that in another decade or so, the scientific community will say the same thing about the tendency of an individual to commit murder or perpetrate violence? This is indeed a scary thought, but it may very well be true – that human beings could possibly be merely biological automatons who live out their lives computing a function (which determines sexual orientation, political beliefs, religious inclinations, compassion/arrogance and other aspects of human behavior), which is encoded not in Binary logic, but the logic of the four nucleotides that constitute the DNA.

I am not saying that Free-Will is a bad thing or that Democracy should be abolished or that we should return to anarchy/totalitarianism (Don’t worry! I am no Noam Chomsky or Naomi Klein!). But we must seek to constantly introspect, contemplate and question the foundational assumptions behind every important assertion (especially if the assertion is held to be self-evident and forms the moral and epistemological basis for modern civilization). And we must admit that our knowledge of the universe and the origin and nature of life is still in its infancy and that as science and technology progresses, we might find alternative explanation models for existing philosophical and moral conundrums.

Now let us say that Free Will exists and that it is a wonderful and noble thing.

Human beings are not strictly speaking universal turing machines, although we are analogous in some respects – we don’t function in a strictly algorithmic way, that is to say we do not function as per a mechanical procedure. Our lives are filled with uncertainty, decision-making, heuristic evaluation and intuitive assessment of goals, rewards and penalties with a streak of irrationality and emotions thrown into the mix. Every choice that an individual makes is predicated upon an inner (partially innate, partially inherited, partially acquired) complex heuristic function, which tries to comparatively assign priorities and subjectively assess various possible decision-paths in life. This heuristic function is individualized and customized to suit the sensibilities and tastes and preferences of that particular individual, and takes into account religious views (Christian/Jew/Atheist), economic ideology (Capitalism/Socialism), political stance (Conservative/Liberal), moral stance on several issues (Abortion, Death Penalty, Euthanasia), and a plethora of other attributes including perseverance, ambition, resourcefulness, etc. The nature of decision making and heuristic evaluation of decision-paths is thus a subjective process, for which there does not exist an objective numerical rating system. Furthermore, there is no universal de-facto standard composition/configuration of the heuristic function, which applies and scales equally well to all individuals.

It is precisely because of these reasons that the study of Social & Cognitive Psychology is so important and critical to eventually find the true nature of Free-will, ascertain the degree and semantics of the choice we exercise, figure out the exact neuro-cognitive thought processes that help us making decisions, and finally to possibly extrapolate these results into formulation of effective Government policies. Furthermore, Game Theory (and certain elements from Mathematics & Computer Science) involve the use of heuristic evaluation functions, which try to objectively assess the utilitarian benefits of a particular decision path, with the intention of finding a reasonably optimized (if not perfectly optimal) decision path. By its very definition, a heuristic is NOT an objective evaluation but is a subjective assessment of the utility value of a given configuration in the search-space, and most heuristics are based on a concoction of rational thought, empirical observations, logical deduction and critically human intuition.

Game Theory seeks to understand bargaining, pricing and competition – but it does so with the assumption that people plan ahead and carefully figure out what others will do, which often results in mathematical claims that are highly unrealistic cognitively. An interesting article [4] suggests a theory called “Cognitive Hierarchy Theory”, that a key part of strategizing by predicting the behaviour of other people (or corporations, or countries), involves thinking about what the others think you will do. One can extend this line of thought to also include the factor of thinking about what others think you think …. And so on. And as can be clearly seen, the intersection of cognitive/social psychology, game theory and neurological sciences is something that deserves celebration and applause, for it will bring forth many critical insights into several aspects of human behaviour.

Finally, as an ending note, I wish to emphasize a point made by Christopher Hitchens about the popular conception of the linkage of Free-Will with Existence of God. The religious dutifully and sincerely believe that Free-Will can only be explained by the existence of God – that He (or She for the feminist-conscious) is the one who grants Man with the capacity of Free-Will and confers upon us the right to choose our own path. But by the very definition of Free Will, if it is granted explicitly by a supreme creator, then it CANNOT be called “Free-Will”. Its like a Database Administrator granting privileges to Database users – the administrator is permitting freedom of access, but has the power to strip away the privileges at any time by a simple SQL command. God (if he exists, which I believe is not the case) too can execute SQL and strip Man of Free-Will – thereby defying the very notion and semantics of the concept “Free-Will”. Who would have thought that the religious unwittingly portray God as a Database Administrator?! .... Lets see if any of you can come up with a metaphor correlating God with Operating Systems, Data Structures, Algorithms or Web Programming! :P



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Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Curious Case of Bhimsen Ballaru

Note: This is my attempt to write a small short-story and develop an interesting character, while providing an interesting subtext. I have tagged people because I would like to especially seek their opinions about this story. All feedback is welcome - positive and negative. Comments about the subtext (towards the end of the story) are even more welcome. :)


Bhimsen Ballaru wanted to be everything there is to be. Moreover, he wanted to be perfect in whatever he wished to be - he wished to be the picture of extreme perfection in whatever he wished to be. So if he wanted to be a good Samaritan, he wished to be the epitome, the paragon of a Samaritan. And if he wished to be a delusional psychopath, he wished to be the worst, the most twisted and blood-curdling psychopath on the planet.

And he WAS everything there was to be. He was a kid and an adult. Juvenile and matured. Tamed and Wild. Introvert & Extrovert. Gregarious & Laconic. Inarticulate & Articulate. Capitalist and Communist. Rightist, Leftist and Centrist. He subscribed to the writings of Ayn Rand and immensely liked the manifestos of Karl Marx. He was a stout follower of Arundhati Roy and Noam Chomsky, while being a firm proponent of George Bush and Milton Freidman. He aggressively supported free-market laissez faire capitalism and was an active member of the Communist Party's politburo. He bowed daily to Lord Ganesh and offered coganuts to Lord Shiva and simultaneously claimed to be a convinced non-believer. He was considered a pious individual among religious masses but consistently maintained his atheistic credentials. His musical tastes spanned every genre, his taste in movies was also broadly universal. He had an exceptional talent to grasp at intangible and abstract theoretical sciences, while also possessing the ability to master a variety of practical skills in lightening speed. He was like an unsatisfiable boolean formula or an unsolvable puzzle. To put it plainly, in set-theoretic terms, he was the cartesian product of his parents and then some more.

By the time little Ballaru Jr. was born, the Ballaru family could be considered to be posh upper middle-class and no effort was spared to herald the little kid's arrival into this world. Social acquaintances, business partners, relatives from near and far traveled to the increasingly affluent household to bear witness to the kicks and movements of a toddler Bhimsen. He therefore grew up with all the comforts of an affluent well-to-do upper middle class household. His parents spared no effort in educating him and enrolling him into classes of all kinds, because they wanted him to be the model educated youth with bright career prospects.

He matured into a young man who was socially indifferent, politically confused and philosophically lost. He had a profound sense of existential angst, which try as hard as he may, he found it difficult to shake off. This solidified eventually into an absolute nihilism which brought in its wake a cloak of absolute indifference, which again, he found difficult to shake off. He would show streaks of passion and brilliance, but it would inevitably ebb away into dull ennui and placid indifference. And then again, there would episodic moments of dazzling brilliance – moments, where his mind would get a profound sense of clarity and he would be able to picture for himself, a concrete future and a definitive strategy to attain that future. Being such a contradicted and conflicted individual, he would perennially struggle for social acceptance from his peers, his juniors and seniors – and throughout his life, it remained elusive.

The central theme in his life was chaos - utter and absolute chaos in his mind - evident from the vast range of opinions he expressed on a variety of issues, the large assortment of political, socio-economic and cultural beliefs that he held and by his desire to be everything there was to be. His mind was a jumbled ball of rubber-bands and the intricate inter-connected neural pathways were overloaded by a potent concoction of confusion, contradiction, indifference and chaos. The more he grew up, the more confused he became, the more contradicting was his behavior. With each increasing day, like the second law of thermodynamics, the entropy of his neural pathways was constantly increasing and his brain's machinery became more chaotic. This massively complicated and contradicting personality left him with periodic episodes of unbridled confusion, where he would feel as lost as a lamb without its shepherd, agreeing to everything and agreeing to nothing.

Bhimsen Ballaru often wished that he would be a caped crusader, a master crime-fighting super-hero, who would go around beating criminals to pulp. He felt this way on days when he would feel both an intolerable frustration with the status quo of the world, as well as an intrinsic optimism that he had the capacity to correct the ways of the world. Through his teenage years, this frustration was primarily targeted towards the usual targets - the bad men of the blue collar variety - criminals, gangsters and theives - whose obvious acts of vandalism, violence and subterfuge struck an emotionally frustrating chord with him. As he grew up, he became equally disillusioned by the less violent, far more subtle but equally diabolical and ruthlessly insidious nature of white collar crime - reckless bankers and powerful stock brokers were quickly bundled in the same category with robbers and murderers in his mind's moral hierarchical organization. He wished the world to be rid of these insidious agents of Satan, these reckless morons who, in his opinion, created the ills of the world and thrived on socio-political strife and economic anarchy.

Simultaneously, on dark days with a slightly unhinged disposition, he wished to be a murderous psychopath who prayed for exorcism of his inner demons via impulsive violent rampages. He wished to throw things into walls, into mirrors, into each other - to see those things splinter into a thousand fragments was a cathartic act which would expunge his inner emptiness and give him temporary relief from his mind's recurring schizophrenia. He hardly cared if the victims of his psychopathic rage were deserving of the violent punishment he meted out to them. He was apathetic to the concerned individual's guilt or complicity in violating a moral code simply because, in this state of mind, he didn't care about maintaining a moral code. He would rather allow his rage to manifest indiscriminately among his victims - young or old, rich or poor, guilty or innocent - morality & ethics be damned. Unlike life, where good fortune is the result of biased probabilistic exercises, his targets were the result of a perfect unbiased dice throw, which threw up perfectly random choices.

And then he sometimes wished the bliss of ignorance from the problems of the world, as also relief from his intrinsic self-destructiveness. He wished to have a functional identity independent of his worldly frustrations, and independent of his intrinsic demons. He wished to exist with a distinctive identity, with a concrete role in society, with a well-defined purpose, and an established routine. He wished to be the most quintessential stereotype of the middle-class regular working man. And like regular folks, he wished to be insular from the problems of the world, oblivious to the death, deceit and exploitation so overwrought in the world. He wished to be the aam aadmi, the commoner who has a family, a job and a quintessential cocooned life.

On days when he would feel particularly capitalist, he wished to be an ace software programmer for the likes of Microsoft and Apple. He wanted to write software apps for these giants that would take them to the cusp of a new technological and marketing breakthrough. He was conscious of how the stock markets would favorably respond, with bullish optimism and a maddening buying spree, to the news of a new cool I-phone app. In his yuppie, capitalistic avatar, he loved the stock market and loved the brokers even more. For he had a lot of stock in these companies and by the time he was done, the brokers would only be showering love on him.

Then again, on days he would feel militantly communist, he would nurse a strong desire to be a supreme hacker for the Free Software Foundation. He would passionately make a compelling case for open source procedures and would extol the virtues of collaborative development. He would berate those supporting proprietary software, sometimes to the extent of explicitly demonizing them, while belaboring upon the need for the world to openly adopt and embrace the free software paradigm. He idolized Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and the Google guys. At the same time, he offered atheistic paeans in the name of Richard Stallman and bowed daily to a life-size statue of Ernesto "Che" Guevera.

For every act of good that he did, he (consciously or subconsciously) did an act of evil too. He was, in a metaphorical sense, obeying Newton's third law of motion. Like death, he became the great leveler. He would go out of his way to help people and then plot insidiously to bring down other people. He would go onto heroically rescue people from disasters, and then coldly contemplate his next target on his murderous spree. He would save people from natural calamities and then enforce man-made disasters on an unsuspecting populace. He was both Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Snake and serpent.

It is evident, from the trajectory of his mental and emotional evolution, that Bhimsen developed into a deeply confused and highly conflicted individual. His inner conflict was the inevitable result of a lifelong sense of ambiguity and ambivalence on every issue, on every matter in life. After all, he represented within himself, the entire sum total of all human thought, opinion, action and behavior.

If only Bhimsen wasn't God and God wasn't Bhimsen .... For through his morbidly complicated, utterly confused and perennially conflicted personality, he mimicked the creator's thought processes at the time of the world's creation/inception. The creator of the world, the Alpha & Omega, must have been as conflicted and as confused as Bhimsen while creating the world, and populating it with such astounding diversity of human thought and contemplation. Through Bhimsen's ambivalence and indecision, we can see how conflicted God must have been. Through his desire to be everything there is to be, we can see the diversity of human contemplation and action that God gave humanity. Bhimsen represents all that is good and all that is bad in God. He represents the common-folk, the caped crusader/vigilante and the murderous psychopath within God. Bhimsen was the Good, the Bad and the Ugly in God.

The astounding range and depth, versatility and diversity of human thought, opinion and behavior is a wonderful gift - one which adds color and depth to life, one which ensures an absence of monotony in life, one which encourages passionate debates and decision via consensus. But at the same time, the same fantastic diversity in human behavior becomes the source for much of the discord and dissonance in the world. Disagreement, discord and the resulting cacophony makes life exceedingly complicated and ensure a profound difficulty in forming consensus and establishing an idyllic and peaceful world. Differing opinions creates divisions in human society and polarizes society on the basis of political, social, religious and other differences. It creates violence and strife, bitterness and spite.

But if the remarkable diversity of thought & behavior is eliminated altogether, the world would no doubt be the perfect peaceful human abode, but wouldn’t it be that much duller and uninteresting? Life would be perfect, but insipid. It would be at once entirely peaceful but also somehow unsatisfying. Variety and diversity, which ultimately results in chaos and cacophony, is the underlying bedrock of human life and serves as the fabric on which human societies and civilizations thrive and survive.

This fabulous diversity in human culture, political and economic thought, societal customs and individual quirks could only have been the result of a conflicted and flawed maker. Bhimsen evidently represented that flawed creator. The confusion, contradictory ambivalence and the intrinsic conflict that Bhimsen experienced on a daily basis, is what the creator must have experienced regularly, while ruminating on his efforts to create the universe. The creator's intense internal conflict and his ambiguity of thought, served as a foundational basis for the versatility and variety in human cognition and behavior. The creator's ambivalence and ambiguity is directly and potently reflected in His creation.

Those of us who have learned to adapt ourselves to this contradictory and complicated world or those who wish such a world, would be thankful for Bhimsen's disposition being representative of the creator. Those of us who are bewildered by the inherent complexity of the world and who wish for simplicity in human life, would ruefully wish that Bhimsen didn't represent the creator's intentions. Whatever it may be, Bhimsen surely was a most interesting creation … It is an entirely ironic matter that, while “God” (his holiness/the creator) gained widespread acceptance via humanity’s collective prayers, Bhimsen wasn’t so fortunate and he continually fought to obtain acceptance, which sadly remained elusive …

Monday, June 22, 2009

Part 1: Obama Fly Swat - the Incident

Disclaimer: The following post depicts real incident(s) in a sarcastic & sardonic manner. While some extracts of the post refer to real incident(s), most extracts are fictionalized/parodied accounts.
Washington D.C.
16 June, 2009
It was another Tuesday morning at the White House and things were going right on schedule, pretty much as planned - no security breaches or threats, no scandalous disclosures and no shoes being thrown (Ah wait! All these had become non-issues since quite some while ago, ever since the arrival of a charismatic, idealistic, dynamic leader, but I digress). Somewhere deep within the confines of the pristine white monolith, President Obama was being interviewed by a C.N.B.C. anchor-man on various issues ranging from Wall-Street to Health-Reform. Though the President was facing some thorny questions (asked no doubt by an anchor-man whose pay-cheques were regulated directly or indirectly by crony capitalists & Wall Street fatcats), it didn't seem to perturb him much. And then it happened…
A fly, a rather large one at that, came out of nowhere and launched an audacious assault on the President of the United States, the executive symbol and the living embodiment of America's power in the world. The Secret Service, an institution much glamorized in the country's films & media, portrayed always as adroit at presidential logistics & adept at presidential security, but whose track-record in the real-world contradictorily enough, hasn't been failure-proof (which is no doubt publicly attributed to "nefarious designs of tyrannical men"), stood paralyzed not out of fear but out of "shock and awe", notwithstanding their alleged superior neurological & cognitive abilities, supposed split-reaction-times and an abundant supply of technological gizmos.

As they watched awe-struck as mute spectators, the President himself seemed to be mildly amused at this half-hearted attempt that the minuscule fly made. He did admit that the fly perturbed him - apparently much more than some of the gravest issues facing the planet. He even verbally articulated his displeasure, instructing the assaulting fly to "get outta here", (which some opined also doubled up as a battle-cry), while simultaneously waving his hand in intimidation & defense. The C.N.B.C. crew in the meanwhile gleefully captured an audio-video feed of this inter-species combat that would no doubt hit America's air-waves as a contentious issue for pundits/analysts to belabor upon and also find a lot of takers in educational documentaries of how two different species with radically different sizes battle for the attention of the community.
Ideally, at this stage, several secret service agents , after having whispered complicated permutations & combination of laborious abbreviations (representing situational protocols & heuristic behavioral algorithms) to each other over super-encrypted secure digital channels, should have formed an ad-hoc tactical-response unit, moving in formation towards the President (source: Hollywood). It was assured (by Hollywood portrayals) that the end result would be a bloody execution of the assailant (in S.S. euphemistic parlance, "swift neutralization") while simultaneously securing the safety of the President. Alas, this failed to happen.
As the President was fighting a lone battle against the fly, the C.N.B.C. anchor-man opined rather intellectually that the fly was indeed one of the most persistent ones he had seen - there was a tacit admiration in his voice & an implicit suggestion that the fly possessed perseverance and fortitude - qualities that all Americans (and the World) need to emulate. The fierce battle had gathered enthralled spectators from amongst the C.N.B.C. crew, all of them egging on the President to go for the kill by chanting jingoistic slogans and juvenile cheers. After a prolonged arm-wrestling battle, the fly decided a time-out was in order. The President too was relieved that he wouldn't have to continue to keep up with this macho charade and tried to resume bilateral talks with C.N.B.C. Little did he realize that in the short time-span of a fly's life-cycle, a second was more than sufficient to rejuvenate for the next round of the fight. For in a second, the fly dramatically landed on the President's left-hand, as if to offer a hand of friendship announcing peace & reconciliation, all the while looking insidiously for a sign of complacency in the opponents demeanor, a sign of his opponent letting down his guards. President Obama saw through the fly's flimsy farce and decided to end the confrontation once and for all.
With measured movements, he raised his right-hand in a position that quite resembled the one he had used to take his oath. For a fleeting moment, it appeared that the President, apparently rendered insecure by a desperate opposition (with an odd-sounding moniker 'GOP') wanted no stone unturned or no oath un-uttered, and so not convinced about having taken oath twice under two independent/competent authorities, he had decided to re-take the oath to be apparently administered by the assailant-fly. But as he brought down his right hand in one continuous sweeping motion, it became clear, both from the angular velocity and the directional trajectory of the President's right-arm, that this was no proud oath-taking moment, but a hostile action whose intended consequence was the immediate termination of the said assailant. With one swift motion, the long-fought truculent battle was over - the preceding seconds of tension, mistrust, war and misery eclipsed by the sweet taste of a just victory. The victor brushed off the vanquished and saw it succumb to the force of gravity, only to be later swept by the victor's long wispy legs. The President seemed content with himself, having just realized the patriotic symbolism of the moment, also deciding to parade his kill for the cameras. He invoked a profound existential rhetorical question: "That was impressive, wasn't it?", following it up with a vehement articulation of victory: "I got the sucker".
The President then continued to discuss policy issues (non-interesting matters) with C.N.B.C. in his trademark composure and suave sophistication, quite as if to deny the occurrence of the epic battle that had unfolded a few seconds ago. As the interview concluded, the President, perhaps out of a mark of respect for the dead or admiration for the persistent assailant or esoteric curiosity (or simply perhaps out of a strict adherence to the Geneva conventions), decided to give the assailant-fly a dignified disposal. President Obama undertook a presidential parade in somber remembrance of the slain assailant, carrying the tender, lifeless body of the beast wrapped in tissue in his own bare hands. In doing this, he proved once again very visibly, that he is the humane warrior - providing a dexterous, pain-free execution to those who cross him needlessly while also ensuring dignified treatment in the immediate aftermath of these spars.
The President, unbeknownst to him, has seemed to kick off a storming pot of controversies on everything from Foreign Policy to Economic Policy to controversial domestic issues to backburner animal-rights issues. It has gotten everyone worked up – right from an (in)famous dead-pan comedy-show host to a yesteryear actor (who incidentally played a fly) to tyrannous dictators and evil men wearing pirate eye-patches. The impact of the actions that the President undertook during his armed encounters of the fly kind, shall no doubt shape public policy for years, if not decades to come. This shall be the subject of an investigative report (read: conspiracy theory/burning satire) put out by our hard-working reporters to be tabled very soon (as soon as we are able to concoct more lies and/or sensationalize trivialities for public dissemination) and you can then make an independent (but moronic & entirely misinformed) decision about whether the President has opened the Pandora’s Box.

Friday, December 12, 2008

26.11.2008: Introduction & Media's Role

NOTE: This post lays the introduction and presents PART ONE of a multi-part post.

WARNING: Long, Long post! Apologies for the length! Please be patient and read! I am sure it will be worth your while.

We all know what happened on 26 November, 2008. Each one of us saw the grisly images, the horrendous testimony of people who survived, the horrific story of victims and their families, the tragic heroism of a few brave foot-soldiers of our police and armed forces. And each one of us, I am sure, shall never forget this day. Ever.

To reiterate the facts again, armed gunmen with AK47’s and grenades, opened indiscriminate fire at innocent people across several parts of South Mumbai. Among the attack sites were a very popular café (Leopold Café), frequented by foreign tourists and Mumbai’s upper classes, the monolith heritage structure of C.S.T. and two landmark five-star hotels – The Oberoi and The Taj, both monuments to a resurgent, confident India and the site of many a high profile business deals. A small Jewish community centre ‘Chabad House’ (locally referred to as ‘Nariman House’), run by Chabad Lubavitch, an ultra-orthodox Hasidic sect of Judaism, was also made a target by the terrorists, who killed a young Rabbi and his wife among many others. For three days, they laid siege to the two hotels and the Jewish center and managed to uproot any traces of confidence that Mumbai had in its Govt. institutions. For almost 72 hours, they managed to terrorize a city to the core, a city otherwise known for its resilience and also infamously for its numbness to such shocking incidents. It began dramatically, resulting in a bloodbath in South Mumbai, and total terror throughout the city, and indeed the nation. When it all ended (which was ironically not at all dramatic), over 190 people had died, a majority of them Indians, with a sizeable number of foreigners of varied nationalities. The incident shook the city’s complacent feeling of self-contentment and false sense of security, apart from shaking confidence in India’s image as a tourist-friendly and investment-worthy nation. It also undermined India’s increasingly vocal assertions at the global stage as an emerging super-power, by exposing the evident inadequacy of security and Govt. infrastructure to tackle such calamities.

As it unfolded, the tragedy gained a level of non-stop reporting and endless critique by political and defense analysts, unprecedented in Indian Media history! Every news channel justifiably covered the story 24*7 for three consecutive days and beyond. I do not doubt that the situation merited such an exhaustive coverage - it was after all an audacious attack, meticulously planned and executed with chilling perfection. However, what I object to is the manner in which the media covered it. Many aspects of most of the NEWS reporting I saw were fundamentally flawed, dangerously jingoistic and indeed subtly (yet noticeably) biased towards the voice/opinion of the richer classes. Watching these endless news broadcasts along with judiciously reading detailed analysis/editorials and opinion pieces in a leading newspaper (Times of India) along with following it up on several web-blogs and online newspapers (Huffington Post, Indian Express, GreatBong, Hindu, Hindustan Times, etc.), I couldn't help but formulate my own views on the entire tragedy on several fronts - what went wrong, who were responsible, how to deal with the perpetrators, how to respond to Pakistan's seeming complicity in this regard, the media's coverage, the various analysts and their enlightened opinions, the Page 3 socialites who turned crusaders overnight, etc. Below, I list down my own critique of the tragedy, its representation in NEWS media, and what we ought to be doing about it (all my personal opinions of course, which anyone who disagrees is entitled not to follow!)


Some may argue that given the situation, the media performed well, doing a commendable job and performing the crucial public service of fact-dissemination. But as it turns out, the media is justifiably receiving a lot of flak for its voyeuristic approach to the tragedy and for its propensity to propagate "unsubstantiated facts” or “unconfirmed reports" (heavy euphemism for a rumor). There are, broadly speaking, three main aspects of all media reporting on the tragic attacks (especially T.V. news), which I found deeply disturbing and even unsettling.

The most striking among these is the media's complete disregard for factual accuracy & ignorance of its own self-regulated protocols of fact-checking (which in retrospect have proved to be meager, if not non-existent, and totally un-enforced), which lead to much unnecessary panic and chaos. The immediate announcement by most news channels of "breaking news" of "unconfirmed reports" or "reliable sources" suggesting some sinister shooting/bombing, without even bothering to check its veracity and authenticity, lead to much tension in a city already over the edge. Some incidents noteworthy in this respect were:

  • CNN IBN's CST gaffe [1][2] - Rajdeep Sardesai's premature announcement of fresh shooting at C.S.T., as a result of his hyperventilated enthusiasm to be the source of the sensational breaking news (to the point that he forgot the most basic tenet of journalism – fact checking), and his subsequent flushed apologies. Unfortunately, the damage had been done. Droves of train-travellers and city-dwellers were in varying degrees of cardiac arrest (courtesy: panic and chaos) and the city was thrown out of gear. Ironically, in his misplaced enthusiasm, he epitomized the tagline of IBN: "Whatever It Takes!” Whatever it takes indeed!
  • Constantly conflicting reports on NDTV, Headlines Today, CNN IBN, Times Now, etc. regarding number and status of terrorists at the attack-sites (in particular Taj, where so many volte-face were made that I have lost count!). At one point, Javed Jaffrey being interviewed by Barkha Dutt was informed by her that a conversation with NSG chief revealed that one terrorist was still alive at Taj, even though all media reports at the time were to the contrary. Within seconds, Jaffrey was interviewed by reporter from another rival channel and was being vehemently confronted by the adamant reporter who insisted that terrorists at Taj were completely neutralized (the reporter and the channel reverted to the “one terrorist alive” version within a couple of hours).

A second appalling aspect of the media coverage was the complete disregard for the sensitivity and confidentiality of information concerning counter-terror operations. I concede that the media is supposed to be the conveyor of all information pertinent and relevant to the general public. I also agree that the media’s mandate empowers it to poke its nose, scratch the surface and explore the unexplored. But there must be some sense of discretion and discernment to differentiate information that can be broadcasted without having a feedback to the way events are likely to unfold, from information whose dissemination might influence the outcome of the concerned event. Put simply, the media has to exercise appropriate self-regulated censorship to ensure that information (which may or may not be relevant) that compromises the operations of security forces and neutralizes their advantage vis-à-vis terrorists, is never let out either intentionally or otherwise. However, caution was clearly thrown out of the window by a news-hungry, breaking-news-eager media, which did the exact opposite. All kinds of information regarding positioning of armed forces in the vicinity of the scene of CTU operations were beamed across T.V. sets, along with detailed descriptions and candid visuals of the relative location of security forces, firepower, deployment strengths, etc. All this undoubtedly gave away strategic advantage and the crucial "element of surprise" that the CTU teams needed to ensure decisive victory over the terrorists. It can be argued that this only prolonged an already long-drawn battle and may have unintentionally aided the loss of NSG forces. Repeated warnings and fervent requests by police authorities for the media to keep a low profile went completely unheeded. Finally, when the exasperated authorities decided to request cable operators to switch off news feeds to their customers as a last resort, the decision was ruthlessly derided by most media channels. The extent of the self-serving and narcissistic nature of Indian T.V. news media is best illustrated by the completely misplaced hyper-accentuated sense of self-righteousness indignation of an irate Arnab Goswami of Times Now, who called the cable black-out unacceptable and a black moment in the history of the country’s democracy (or something to that effect – I have forgotten the exact words and tried searching exhaustively for it on the Internet in vain. My version may be a little exaggerated, but rest assured Arnab’s actual pearls of wisdom were something equally ridiculous and pompous!). Apparently, Mr. Goswami felt that the day was black and sad not just because terrorists were killing innocent people, but more so because the Govt. was taking draconian actions to muzzle, what he most likely contended was a ‘daring’ media (notwithstanding the media’s general excesses in context of the tragedy) Mr. Goswami, I cannot tell you how conceited and indeed strangely amusing you sounded when you spoke those words! (However, one has to give some credit to both Mr. Goswami and Times Now for being the more restrained of most T.V. channels [3]. That however, does not exculpate them from justified criticism generic enough to be directed at the general media.) RIP cool-headed, factual reporting with a premium on objectivity and neutrality. Welcome self-obsessed, super-touchy, hyper-enthusiastic and supremely voyeuristic reporting.

The third criticism I have of the media coverage was the utter disregard for basic etiquette and code of behavior. When greeting a decorated officer of the Indian Armed Forces, one would expect a basic sense of discipline and decorum. However, the media behaved anything but civil. There seemed to be constant rioting and jostling among media-persons at the attack sites, each bout of frenzy triggered by the arrival of yet another high-voltage politician/dignitary, high-wattage celebrity or distinguished serviceman of the armed forces. Some points to be highlighted in this regard were:

  • Persistent harassment of freed and traumatized hostages (idiotic questions including the likes of “aap kaise feel kar rahe hain?” or “dead bodies ko dekhkar aapko kaisa laga?” or “Were you scared?”. These questions subjected relieved hostages to more trauma and irritation, compounding their pain instead of relieving it.)
  • Insane jostling to get sound-bytes from anyone and everyone (especially the pandemonium the media-persons created near The Oberoi, when the NSG chief was completely mobbed by super-eager anchors & cut-throat cameramen, who were shoving and swearing to try to get a good shot. This kind of behavior is unacceptable in the face of such a situation and when addressing a distinguished member of the Armed forces. It is unbecoming of an otherwise aware media.)

My fourth and final grouse against the media was their steady and subtle leaning towards the views and opinions of celebrities, page 3 socialites and the insecure elite. Throughout the coverage, The Taj and The Oberoi were in constant spotlight (to the point of being completely overdone), while the massacre at C.S.T. went terribly under-reported. It was as if the mayhem at C.S.T. was too unglamorous to the media, as compared to the juicy stories of the elite of Mumbai facing a terrifying ordeal and the prospect of a grisly end. Part of this bias in coverage may be attributed to the fact that these hotels are recognizable landmarks (The Taj, especially is an iconic heritage structure) and the siege there continued over multiple days and nights, in contrast to C.S.T.’s ultra-quick massacre, which was over in a few minutes. However, this still doesn’t completely & satisfactorily account for the clear bias in reporting towards the Taj & the Oberoi. As the coverage progressed, we witnessed the media chasing celebrity after celebrity (or mebbe it was the other way around). Even after the tragedy came to a bloody conclusion, we saw the media favoring to air celebrity opinions more prominently (with greater air-time on prime-time slots), as compared to views expressed by ordinary citizens. Some within the media introspected on this bias and mused whether such a huge outpouring of public anger would have emanated, had the tragedy occurred in say public transportation systems. Most such introspections concluded: probably not. I, for one, believe that the media demonstrated a systemic bias in stoking public rage more prominently in response to this attack, than say as compared to previous ones. This was done in conjunction with the city’s elite, whose sudden consternation was primarily a result of their incredulity at being made targets. [More on this theme in a subsequent PART that deals with the reaction of the elite classes and the way in which they perhaps hogged the limelight.]

Other long-time, familiar deficiencies surfaced again. This included no sense of respect for the bodies of the victims and the forensic sanctity of the attack-sites, a complete lack of empathy for grieving relatives whose wailing requests for a few somber moments of privacy were unheeded by an intrusive media, among other complaints. One last thing that came to my mind was the bastardization of the name of the tragedy (“26/11” or India’s 9/11”) to a style more suited to the Americans, etc. The media chose to portray this in context of America’s 9/11 and while the comparison was justified in essence, it somehow lacked conviction and gave the appearance of defining this tragedy in a manner digestible to international audiences. This to me came across as being somehow contrived.

While there were glaring inconsistencies in tens of versions of the same story across various news channels, while there were gross neglect of some foundational principles of journalism, one can’t deny that the media proved to be quite effective in capturing the tragedy in all its horror. It somehow rather morbidly provided the intricate details of the macabre attacks and the carnage that ensued. The entire way in which it was presented may have been tasteless, but it proved to be instrumental in evoking a very strong public outcry on the basis of its own grotesque content.


  1. Shoba De to the rescue of T.V. NEWS Channels: Rediff Blogs
  2. Rumors cause panic, prompt channel black-out: DNA Mumbai
  3. Mumbai Attacks Show Terrorism in the Digital Age: GROUNDREPORT.COM

Other Blog-posts on Media’s Handling of 26/11:

  1. Week 1 - Post 26/11 - Quo Vadis News Media ?: [Follow all the other links listed at the end of this blog-post]

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

'We got the whole moon in our hands!' :P :D

India's Technological Marvel!

This shall no doubt join the group of thousands of other blog-posts written by a sea of avid Indian bloggers, who have much reason to feel pride and a sense of achievement. Even though, I risk re-iterating what you must have no doubt gleaned via mainstream news media, I feel the simple urge to express my feelings on the issue, especially since I feel some ambivalence at this achievement and concern on its fiscal prudence given a country with a dichotomous social fabric.

No doubt, this is a historic day in this country's voyage to not only the stars, but also to a state of technological supremacy and global power. With this successful launch, India sends out a rousing message to the world, announcing (in fact asserting) its intention to be no more seen by that misinformed & jaundiced western periscope, which branded it as the 'land of the snake charmers'. That perception has been consistently proved wrong with India's booming economy and its advancements in the technological spheres of I.T., aeronautics and aerospace. But whatever residues persisted have been completely expunged today at 6.22 a.m., the moment the 320 tonne PSLV-C11 carrying the 'Chandrayaan-I' lifted off with a thunderous boom from the Satish Dhavan Space Centre (SDSC), Sriharikota. Over the course of the next 15 days, it shall encounter the moon, when its special moon impact probe would impact itself on moon's surface. In doing so, it shall provide a plethora of information on various geographic and chemical aspects of moon and its surface, which scientists say shall prove invaluable to both future moon missions, as well as on research for life on moon.

Already the congratulations are pouring in - The United States Ambassador to India, The European Space Agency (E.S.A.) all applauded India for both the cost-effectiveness of the mission (the previous Chinese & Japanese missions were relatively far more expensive) as well as for its technological drive and willingness to collaborate and share both technology and technical know-how with the world. The E.S.A. was especially vocal in its admiration, calling India "an ever increasing space power".

Thus, it is indeed a moment of intense national pride for every Indian citizen in the world. This signals India's willingness to be audacious in its vision and dexterity in executing it. It is a larger indicator of India's bullish brazenness on everything from industry to technology. It is also a fantastic sign that India can effectively participate in an international framework, not preferring to sit on the sidelines as it did on numerous ocassions in the past, but to seize the moment and take initiatives. The success of this project - which saw participation of scientists and technocrats from N.A.S.A. & E.S.A. among others, as also a firm politico-technological framework spun across the world - indicates of India's increasing alacrity at projects of trans-continental impact and global significance. It also in many ways is a sure sign of how red-tape and bureaucracy are slowly but surely being superseded by well-educated and influential technocrats in various arms of both conventional government and government agencies like I.S.R.O. It is this new crop of technocrats along with old stalwarts like G. Madhavan Nair, whom we owe this visionary success to. Already, there is a talk of future missions, among which a grand plan to send an Indian to set foot on the moon's pristine white surface!

Thus, as we are seemingly standing on the cusp of a technological make-over (and possibly an eventual take-over :P), one would have the tendency to wonder: "Now nothing can go wrong! India has arrived!". However, is that going to be the case? Clearly, we have astronomical levels of abject poverty in this country and this does not bode well for the social and political stability of the nation. It is estimated that a record number of the educated unemployed are post-graduates. Clearly, something is terribly amiss here. While I don't seek to be the killjoy, trying to predict a doomsday situation, I certainly feel that some objectivity should be maintained.

Now in a country of teeming billions and umpteen problems (rising inflation, absolute poverty for the majority, extreme wealth inequality, etc. to name a few), is it fiscally prudent to spend a significant amount of financial resources into an endeavor, which while it brings pride and prestige, is probably more an exercise in showmanship than a commensurate return on investments? Simply put, when the U.S., Europe and China are already onto it, why duplicate their efforts into similar projects? While it is true that this project, its predecessors and successors have proved quite invaluable to providing a space-swarjya (space self-independence), we must not try to overdo it by excessive spending on grandiose projects, which are more an ostentatious display of our newfound (and may I say quite misplaced) ego than a true scientific excursion.

But let me not spoil the merry mood with my serious talk and calls for introspection. Let us Indians indulge ourselves a little more on this magnificient success and bask in its glory. The hard-working, underpaid scientists at I.S.R.O. (and other ancilliary govt. agencies) deserve to be applauded and admired. They deserve every bit of adulation and slavish attention that they are getting from the Indian media and the Indian people. We owe them that much! However when the dust settles down, we must not forget them! We must seek to motivate such scientists by providing better financial emouluments and a better scientific framework in which they can exercise their creativity and embark on technological innovation.

But when the time eventually comes, we must have an iota of humility at the insignificance of these grandiose achievements to the millions of people, who lead desperate and abject lives in absolute poverty and no job security. And we must seek to improve their lot, so that in the future, such a moment shall be cherished by a majority of India's citizens, instead of a small, financially stable minority.

PS: For those who didn't understand, the title of the post is a reference to the late 50's spiritual song 'He's Got the Whole World in His Hands!'

N.E.W.S. Links:
'After Karva Chauth' @ Yahoo! NEWS
'A Perfect 13th successful launch for P.S.L.V.' @ Yahoo! NEWS
'With perfect launch, Chandrayaan heads for Moon' @ Yahoo! NEWS
'Chandrayaan-I successfully put into earth's orbit' @ Yahoo! NEWS
'U.S. lauds India's moon mission' @ Yahoo! NEWS
'President, P.M. congratulate Indian scientists on launch' @ Yahoo! NEWS
'Chandrayaan-I Picture Slideshow' @ Yahoo! NEWS

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Wanted: Stylish No-brainer

Rating: 2.5/5.0

To say that 'Wanted' is devoid of a meaningful, coherent script would be an under-statement. To say, however, that 'Wanted' is devoid of fun and style would be inaccurate and unjust. The movie is indeed a no-brainer and takes such fantastic and bizarre liberties and an overtly fertile imagination of the script-writers, that it rattles the mind. However, while the absence of any real, plausible plot is a cause for irritation, the stylized action sequences along with the imperturbable chutpaz of its lead characters (played by McAvoy and Jolie) lends a certain cool charm to it and manages to convert, what would have been an otherwise flimsy and frivolous misnomer, into a darkly amusing and very stylish film.

As mentioned earlier, the plot is indeed frivolous and nearly non-existent, but the gist of it deals with the transformation of a tractable, docile young man 'Wesley Gibson' (James McAvoy) with a staid, stolid life into a raging bull, a skilled marksman and a willing killer.

Plot Summary: Wesley Gibson is the quintessential average modern-day employee at a huge accounting firm. His daily routine is both monotonous and boring and he has little to look forward to in his life - with a non-existing family, a disastrous love-life and an impecunious existence. He has to silently bear the torments of his menacing office boss (quite the bitch), as well as by the braggadocio of a colleague. He also suffers from acute anxiety and panic attacks, by virtue of which he loses his cool at the most minor of perturbances. His chance encounter with a mysterious woman named only as "Fox" (Angelina Jolie) leads him down a path that includes oodles of kick-ass action and some insane killing-gore that de-sensitizes him and leaves him completely detached from his previous docile life. As it turns out, Fox is working for a secret society of assasins that seems to have been existing for thousands of years. Fox rescues him from a hitman 'Cross' and takes Gibson to the clan's citadel - a textile mill, where Gibson has an encounter with Sloan (Morgan Freeman), the leader of the clan. Sloan informs Gibson that his father, an elite member of the assasin squad died on an operation and that it is his duty and fate to avenge him. This leads him to undertake intensive training that involves severe violence and physical training. He discovers that his anxiety attacks are actually a unique ability to pump astronomical levels of adrenaline into his system, that leaves him with insanely high percerptibility and dexterity. At the end of it emerges a man who just faintly resembles his past in appearance, but whose character has now undergone a kick-ass transformation.

The effectiveness of the movie lies in its ability to create stunning action sequences and the coolness of its central characters. The movie succeeds in creating a glamorized, stylistic world that the previously docile Gibson can play around in. In this sense, it seeks to give us, the audience, an impossible world in which we are coolness personified. We secretly root for and admire Mr. Gibson, as we watch his transformation and we secretly aspire for the debonair style of the film's setting. Thus, the movie creates a bond with the audience, that we are able to relate to. However, where the movie begins to falter is its willingness to take itself seriously.

Wanted, tries in many ways to be a debonair version of Fight Club and it fails miserably. While we are amused and entertained by the antics of the newly empowered 'assassin' Mr. Gibson, we are also irritated by the narcissistic nature of the secret group of assassins. The movie falls into a self-created chasm of narcissism by trying to pass itself off as a serious piece of drama, where critical decisions must be made. Movies such as these, known for its macabre and fantastic content, often shock and please us, but never do they allow self-indulgence. This movie's plot isn't half as allegorical/metaphorical as say a "Fight Club" or a "Pulp Fiction", yet it tries hard to be considered as a serious film. And alas, it fails miserably. The later half of the movie constitutes this feeble and pointless attempt at trying to masquerade as some of the classic noir dramas.

The movie does redeem itself by its last scene, which is again as tongue-in-cheek and unapologetically brutal as most of the movie. Overall, the movie is definitely worth a watch at the theatres, if only to badly yearn for a more interesting and eventful life, quite like the new Mr. Gibson. Like Mr. Gibson says: "What the f*** have you done lately?"

Wanted Links:
Wanted @ Wikipedia
Wanted @ IMDB
Wanted @ Rotten Tomatoes
Wanted @ Box Office Mojo