Saturday, January 31, 2009

I watched the Revolutionary Road tonight.

the system

"All those rules," my friend pondered, "waiting in line to see someone, getting tickets from a machine, going from one office to another... so many obstacles are raised in our way each day, limiting our lives in so many ways..."

I found this thought very refreshing. But then I thought, these rules are there for a reason, right? They are the result of years and generations of experience and hard thought, negotiation, common sense. People built this system over hundreds of years. This is what they came up with after hundreds of years of conquest for happiness, freedom, security. And all the consensi (I assume this is the plural of consensus?) in between. Will revisiting it, trying to go against it make us any happier than everyone else? Trying to swim against the current?

This is the best we can get. The best consensus. The equation with the optimal outcome. We are not completely happy, free or secure, but each of us are in a happy medium with enough of each to get by. Because too much of one wouldn't leave enough room for the others. And we want them all. We need a little bit of each.

We might as well go with it. Close the book on all the questions our forefathers found answers to. Like an exam you already passed. This is the answer.

"When in doubt, conform," said another friend. Even if you're not totally convinced, conform. Even if you don't see the point. Even if you think you could be happier if you did things another way. Just believe that this is the best way of doing things, even if you can't get your mind around it. Know that you couldn't be better off any other way. Get on with what you have to do.

People are not stupid. You are just a bit slow.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

"Those who are quiet, those who don't know how to tell, who can't make themselves listened to, who don't seem important, those who are mute, those who always think of the good answer at home, those whose stories people aren't curious about - aren't their faces more meaningful, more full? As if the letters of the stories they can't tell mingle on these faces, as if they hold signs of silence, bruise, even defeat." Black Book, page 263 (Turkish edition), Orhan Pamuk


The pilot I spoke of in the previous post. Don't misunderstand me. I spent hours watching survivors' and witnesses' accounts of him landing on the Hudson (and I didn't like watching Gazan hospitals, so the criticism was directed at myself). I admire this guy so much. I'm pretty sure I wouldn't be able to be so quick and decisive if I were in his place (and even with his experience!).

Yesterday I went to watch Slumdog Millionaire with a good friend of mine in Haymarket Cineworld. We didn't have assigned seats, so people sat wherever they found. A couple (with huge muscles) sat in front of us. I think muscle volume takes away from brains, and soon I was proven right. A guy who was clearly sick and had difficulty walking stopped by their row, asking if he could take the seat next to the couple. This asshole's precious backpack occupied the seat, and he pointed at the seat right in front, asking "what's wrong with this one?" The guy said he had neck problems. Frowning and hissing, the asshole finally moved to move his backpack, but by then the sick guy said, "Don't worry, I'll find another seat," and climbed back the stairs. My friend and I were shocked, the asshole's other half was clearly embarassed, looking back to see where the guy went. And although I was the closest bystander, I didn't do anything. A moment later I thought, "I should have given him my seat and move next to this asshole, obliging him to sit with his backpack on his lap!" But it was too late. I played the scene in my head over and over, how I would spare the sick guy the trouble of finding another seat, how I would face down the asshole and ask kindly but firmly, "Sir, have you paid for this seat?" Then I briefly thought to clear myself, "but the sick guy should have gotten a disabled seat!" We need regulations to protect the weak from assholes, right?

But I didn't do anything, and the moment passed. One of the indications of a person's value is how they react to a situation in very short notice. Of course experience helps, but if you pass your chance, another moment may never come again. And I really think we shouldn't let assholes like this prevail if we have any respect for ourselves.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Leading uneasy lives

An LSE academic (whose name I'll refrain from mentioning here, as it was a private meeting) visited our office last week, and provided us with an interesting description of the world today. He said that a paradigm shift in hard sciences occur when scientists discover internal contradictions in their theories. For a paradigm shift in social sciences to come about, an external shock is necessary. An external shock tells us that the truth about the world is no longer what we thought it was. For the western world, that external shock was September 11th.

It became apparent that the "modern" worldview, which explained the world in terms of "states and failed states" and which was shared by both the US and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, no longer sufficed to explain what is truly going on in the world today and why. However, the objective truth of the modern world was not replaced by a new objective truth.

Now we are left with post-modernist "accounts," subjective opinions of self-appointed experts, because we often lack hard data about the nature or severity the problems we face. Policy makers and states now use the "precautionary principle," (thanks to the Bush administration) which presupposes that you don't have to wait for conclusive hard evidence to act against a perceived threat. The way "experts" frame the problems, or "questions" at hand, determines our response to these problems. The academic gave the example of HIV/AIDS. Is it a developmental problem or a security problem? The answer we give to this question will determine which actors will tackle it, what they will do to solve it, and what resources will be spent on it. We can think of many other examples. Take terrorism or climate change.

Although we often don't have hard evidence and easy answers, it is still important to try to understand the actors we are dealing with. For example, the West perceives China as a rising power, a competitive force so competitive precisely because it does not respect the rules. But it is difficult for Westerners to convince China that complying with international labor and environmental standards, reining in on corruption and crime, and refusing to deal with the likes of Hassan al-Bashir will be good for the Chinese in the long-term. China needs high economic growth in the short-term to maintain social peace.

Something this academic said about conflicted regions in the world was interesting. He said some problems are "wicked problems," just when you think you find a solution to them, they transform themselves. We think that parties in an armed conflict want the resolution of a conflict, they are ready to put down arms if their demands are met. The conflict is just the means to an end. In other words, we assume that the reason these conflicts last is that conflicting demands cannot be met. Our guest said that the actors in these conflicts often see the conflict as an end in itself. They derive their power from the conflict, the costs of continuing the war is low (as opposed to state actors) and criminal activities sponsor the war. Their stated goals and demands are then just a front.

Here, I'd like to make a broad point about our conscience. We like clear cause-effect relationships to explain the injustices in this world, we like to hold people responsible for the misfortunes that befall them. We (or westerners) say, "Israel is bombing Gaza because Hamas fired rockets at Israel. Gazan civilians elected terrorists, who could not possibly ensure their security. Hamas does not have its constituents' safety at heart, it is simply a pawn in a grand geopolitical game." Having analysed this disturbing issue, we can get on with our lives, feel happy about a pilot masterfully landing 150 Americans on Hudson River. A story we can identify with more easily.

We cannot close the file on these questions with neat explanations. Having born in one part of the world as opposed to another is merely fate, it does not entitle us to more valuable lives. I read in a book philosopher Richard Swinburne's attempt at reconciling the existence of evil and God. God allowed evil to exist in order to give us the choice of not letting it happen. So some people are created merely to present those more powerful the choice of sparing them? If we have any claim at leading meaningful lives, we should at least recognize and be bothered by this randomness, this injustice.

To be fair, our minds are not completely free of trouble. Even if sufferings of innocent civilians far away does not suffice, we are bothered by things we cannot understand and control. We are less worried about natural disasters and illness thanks to scientific progress. But we are scared of what our fellow human beings might do to us. We are scared of terrorist attacks. We are afraid of immigrants. We are wary of the troubles of a financial system that gained a life of its own.

These are the new forces of nature in a post-modern world.

Saturday, January 10, 2009


It's dreamy weather we're on
You waved your crooked wand
Along an icy pond with a frozen moon
A murder of silhouette crows I saw
And the tears on my face
And the skates on the pond
They spell Alice

I disappear in your name
But you must wait for me
Somewhere across the sea
There's a wreck of a ship
Your hair is like meadow grass on the tide
And the raindrops on my window
And the ice in my drink
Baby all I can think of is Alice

Arithmetic arithmetock
Turn the hands back on the clock
How does the ocean rock the boat?
How did the razor find my throat?
The only strings that hold me here
Are tangled up around the pier

And so a secret kiss
Brings madness with the bliss
And I will think of this
When I'm dead in my grave
Set me adrift and I'm lost over there
And I must be insane
To go skating on your name
And by tracing it twice
I fell through the ice
Of Alice

And so a secret kiss
Brings madness with the bliss
And I will think of this
When I'm dead in my grave
Set me adrift and I'm lost over there
And I must be insane
To go skating on your name
And by tracing it twice
I fell through the ice
Of Alice

There's only Alice

Tom Waits/Kathleen Brennan