Scubed

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Aspiring polymath since 1982

After A Long Hiatus

Well, I have been away from this blog for more than two months now. My resignation from the current job as well as the myriad complications arising out of it, the piles of work from the transitioning process and the general sense of ennui with life has kept my hands and mind full over the past few weeks and more.

Time to catch up on the writing and the rambling. Expect to see regular posting from now on. Cheers.

Filed under: Ramble,

Being Atheist

In today’s religious climate, its not very easy to rise up in front of a crowd of your peers and elders and have to state the uncomfortable fact (for them) that you do not believe in the things that they believe in, and that your belief system actually consists of an emphatic lack of belief in theirs. There are the usual exclamations about landing up in hell, wise elders shaking their heads and saying that its just a growing-up phase and that you will revert to believing in God again, just you wait and see. Scandalized aunts whispering loudly that that boy was always weird and different. Peers tittering or staring incredulously, as if your pronouncement was the verbal equivalent of a Girls Gone Wild (mildly NSFW) video.

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Why is it so difficult for people to accept that there might be someone who does not believe in God and actually has very good reasons backing him up? Why does an atheist not only have to explain his belief (or lack of it) in front of everyone at every given opportunity, but also have to deal with people who think that their faith is being put to question by your lack of it? After all, we are all atheist in some way or the other. To paraphrase Richard Dawkins from his talk at TED, “If you ask someone who is a Christian if he believes in Allah, Vishnu or Odin, he would definitely say no. As atheists, we just go one god further”.

We don’t become atheist because its something that can get talked about at cocktail parties, or because its a laugh scandalizing people. We are atheists because that is the only frame of reference that explains and satisfies the recurrent question of who we are and where we belong.

As a person born and brought up in a mildly conservative Hindu family, its been a question that I have grappled with myself for a while. My interactions with the faith that I was in mostly consisted of weekly or monthly trips to the nearest temple and reading up on the works of well-known Hindu philosophers. The more I read, the more it struck me that even as Hindus, the belief systems and philosophies that they worked with had so much variation (as Hinduism lacks any dogma)

If there was so much variation in their beliefs, then the only logical conclusion I could arrive at was that all or nearly all of it had to come from a man-made source. That religion itself was a man-made construct, adapting and evolving itself to meet the requirements and needs of its adherents over the centuries of its existence. So if it was a man-made construct, then where could God arise out of, except from a blind devotion to the central dogma of his or her existence?

My realization was not a Hindu-specific realization, because if you were to examine any of the other major world religions you would seem the profligacy of man-made construct in their belief systems, their religious texts, their rituals and dogma. How else could any one explain the sheer proliferation of sects in stridently monotheistic religions such as Islam and Christianity?

The second realization that I arrived at was that religion needs unquestioning belief. That it brooks no questions and rarely, if ever, accepts speculation. Religion could never be like science, accepting nothing unless it had passed the gauntlet of academic scrutiny, empirical testing and validation. Even in economics, while there might not be a mathematical equivalent of 200805051210.jpg for the relationship between supply and demand, there is still a very clear and unambiguous correlation between the two. Religion has nothing of the like.

The third realization that I had which was to push me even farther, was the realization that science and religion are essentially antithetical to each other. As a person who was deeply interested in science and its questions, the sheer impossibility of any form of logical reconciliation between religion and science was something that made me realize that it had to be one or the other. That for me, there could not be an uneasy truce between the two like Human Genome Project director Francis Collins was able to arrive at very publicly, in his books as well as talks.

Like Pascal’s wager, I tried making my peace with the incoherence of organized religion and my growing lack of belief in a higher power by hiding behind the convenient skirts offered by agnosticism. And it did work for a while as long as I kept myself away from any discussion regarding religion or faith that would re-ignite the doubts all over again. I stifled any close-blasphemous verbalization regarding religion that came to my lips now and then. The surprise for me was how accepting people were of my agnosticism.

It was kind of like being treated as the befuddled aunt at a party who mixes everyones name up without any recognizance of her errors. Indulgent smiles from religious people who in their hearts would have been hoping that I would find God as long as it was their own. Nods of understanding from other agnostics who might have seen in me, a reflection of their own reconciliations and journeys. Things would have continued in this fashion if I did not make the decision last year that I could not be truly free till I acknowledged who I was, because otherwise I’d be living a lie that I really had no reason to continue living.

That realizing one thing and accepting it are two totally different things, is something that I have gained as an experience truly my own. Arriving at the conclusion that I could not in all conscience consider myself a part of the religious majority was easy. Making a clean break from religion and the comfort and security of its community was for me the most difficult part of my transition.

Starting off with irrational fear of uttering anything bordering on blasphemous, being tight-lipped about religious orientation or interest, avoidance of any discussion on religion or faith, the convenient subterfuge offered by agnosticism were all the different steps that I went through before arriving at the courage to publicly verbalize my atheism. A courage required for me to scale the barriers raised in my mind and psyche by my upbringing in religion rather than the courage required to face the public eye.

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This post of mine is not raise questions in the eyes of people who do profess a faith in God and/or religion. The purpose is basically to chronicle in a small way the journey I undertook to the port of call where I’m right now. There are atheists out there who propound that all atheists should be out there proselytizing the truth about atheism, the irrational belief of God and the corrupting influence that religion has on the daily lives of billions. While that might be motivation for some, for me it looks very much like the religious evangelization that I have come to dislike.

I do not seek to “convert” anyone to atheism and I do not engage (as much as possible) in arguments for atheism unless dragged or provoked into it by someone. I’m an atheist because thats what’s fulfills me as a human being and not because of any sense of self-righteousness on my part. I believe that people should be free to believe in anything that they want to even if it involves fairies and leprechauns and I do wish that religious people had the same attitude of understanding when it comes to other belief systems. After all, does it take a stretch of imagination to go from angels and demons to elves?

I do think that atheists out there have a responsibility though. And that responsibility involves being more open about our atheism, about not hiding behind words like agnosticism and making the public more aware about what atheism means and what it means for them. After all the known enemy is better than the unknown (at least for religious fundamentalists). In the sublime words of Donald Rumsfeld, let us not be “unknown unknowns” but “unknown knowns” to start with and slowly make the transition to “known knowns”.

Lets make sure that there is enough material out there regarding transitions made by people from a religious belief system to atheism. Material which will serve as guideposts for people out there too confused and maybe also scared to make the transition on their own. Prominent people like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens have their part to play but so do we. At a smaller, grassroots level, we can take baby steps also to ensure that there is a support system that people can use. Especially for people who are letting go of any that they ever had.

Most importantly, keeping in mind that we do not ever want to be equated as an “Atheist Church”. Nearly all of us have arrived where we are through logical reasoning and introspection on our part. Proselytizing or evangelizing of any kind would just undermine the journey of any people who would care to join through such a drive.

I have collected some links that I think would of use to anyone interested in this topic. This page will be continually updated with new links and material, as and when I come across them.

Websites:
  • Why Won’t God Heal Amputees : Website examining systems of prayer and religion and refuting them through simple logical reasoning. Slightly Christian-focused but that might be because its an US website
  • Internet Infidels : Promoting a naturalistic worldview, namely “the hypothesis that the physical universe is a ‘closed system’ in the sense that nothing that is neither a part nor a product of it can affect it. So naturalism entails the nonexistence of all supernatural beings, including the theistic God.” Good reading material and references
  • Positive Atheism : Another website containing a lot of material and references for use by atheists and people stuck on the cusp. They promote activist atheism which should be self-explanatory to anyone
  • Richard Dawkins : The great grand-daddy of atheists out there in terms of visibility and activism. Site contains reading samples from his books as well a very active discussion forum on atheism. Great resource, highly recommended. Be prepared to lose a lot of your time on the site though (it’s that engaging!)
  • Atheism in India : The only good resource on Indian Atheism that I could come across. Web site collates material from over half a century of the Atheist Center’s existence. Based out of all places in Vijaywada, Andhra Pradesh. The official website is here
  • Flying Spaghetti Monster : A parody religion cooked (pun intended) by an activist in Kansas to protest against the inclusion of Intelligent Design as a theory in science textbooks in the state. Spread like wildfire across blogs and the news networs and now has its own approved Church and Bible.

Books:

  • The God Delusion : A distillation of Richard Dawkin’s work involving atheism and refuting the claims of intelligent design, its a great read for people like me. Might not bring smiles to the religious majority out there
  • The Blind Watchmaker : The book that really started it all for Richard Dawkins. An examination of evolution that puts down the argument for intelligent design cogently and decisively. A great read again, even for the religious right
  • A History of God : This is another book which really shook my core. Former nun Karen Armstrong examines the evolution of monotheism from its roots in paganism to its current avatar of devout bureaucracies. If this will not shake your questions about religion as a man-made construct, nothing else on this page will. Brilliant read.

There are some great books out there by Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens also but I’ve focused on Dawkins as he seems to be more readily available here in India.

The atheistic difference is and should always be that it offers a path based on humanism and rationalism, not one based on the very tools and techniques that started pushing us away from the folds of our religious backgrounds in the first place.

Filed under: Society, , , , , , ,

Indie Inglish/English Music

My playlist over the past two years has steadily been dominated by indie & former indie bands from Canada, the States and the UK. Bands such as The Arcade Fire, The Killers, The Shins, Interpol, Death Cab for Cutie, British Sea Power to name a few, and lots, lots more. To hear the directions that these bands have taken sonically and musically especially compared to Top 10/20/30/40/50 bands that used to be part of my listening schedule, was both an auditory experience as well as an emotional one.

My first brush with indie music was with that of Modest Mouse and Death Cab for Cutie. I really can’t recall how I came across them (might have been from The OC), but from then on it was flitting from one band to the other (thanks Amazon) as I compiled a larger and larger playlist and devoted more and more time into my listening. Thankfully, I have not made Pitchfork or the other great Indie music blogs out there a staple, or my time and hard disk would have given up on me a long time ago.

Meanwhile, over the same period, my exposure to Indian music dipped further and further away till I reached a point where I could (would) not even place the latest Indipop out there. And when it came to Indian music in English (i’d like to call it Inglish) , what ever little that came across my way through the numerous college festivals out there was all that I cared to be aware of.

There was a point in the past where I did follow the main Indian rock bands out there, though not through a regular forum such as the Rock Street Journal. Mainly from recommendations from school friends, flitting through my elder cousins collections and far removed reviews of Indian rock albums in the mainstream media. Even now, there are a few names that stick through from that time. Names such as Agni, Rock Machine, Orange Street, Mother Jane and obviously Parikrama.

Except for a small coterie of people, I wonder how many people out there actually remember these bands any more. And for the bands out there right now, I wonder how many of them will still be remembered outside their own circles several years from now?

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Why is Inglish music still a cottage industry?

Now, I’m definitely not a person who will be qualified enough to pass a summary judgement on this question but I do have my theories that I will present. My first theory is that the Inglish music scene is still dominated by bands who play covers. A lot of this also has to do with the fact that in India, most bands still make their money out of playing college festivals where it is difficult to avoid the barely-washed screaming out “Playing fucking Megadeth man, yeah!!” or “Machan, Maiden play punna da!!” and the like.

The second theory I have is that in India, people are still getting used to English music. Most people are still diving their linguistic loyalties from situation to situation and role to role without being firmly ensconced in one language. After all, our generation might be the first generation in India that was/is being schooled from toddlerhood in English (and this theory obviously ignores rural India totally).

Therefore I think for a lot of people, their exposure to English music is fairly limited to what is available on the TV and to what is available in the local music store (which obviously are not the places where you will get to pick up Indian English music at all). Which is why most people listening to English music follow what I like to call the Bryan Adams Curve™ or the Now Music Curve™ (patents pending).

If you’re into the rock sound you are on the Bryan Adams Curve™, where you start your progression with Bryan Adams, move on to Bon Jovi, Aerosmith and Nirvana at which point you choose your stream and decide to either matriculate in Iron Maiden and Megadeth or in Nickelback and Limp Bizkit.

If you’re into the pop sound you are on the Now Music Curve™, where you start your progression with Britney Spears or Shakira, progress to either the Black Eyed Peas or Christina Aguilera, at which point you choose your stream and decide to either matriculate in Nelly Furtado and Paris Hilton or in Nelly and 50 Cent.

This is the reason why people like Bryan Adams can come to India every 2-3 years to be greeted with stadia bursting at the seams, replenish his retirement account and head off back to Canada. Where if I might tell you, if he were to die of asphyxiation because an elephant sat on him, it would not even make the headlines (I concede that it might make the day for some Canadian cartoonist though). I can imagine Bryan Adams shaking his head and wondering if it were some great cosmic joke that his greatest and maybe only fan following, is Indian.

Of course, I realize that this theory is a gross generalization but I’d like to invoke my patron saint for arguments such as these, Pareto, and invoke his great generalization that 80% of the people are drivel-listening sheep and the remaining 20% are the sheepdogs who bravely venture forth into musical territories where no sheep or dog has been before. Okay, I made the last part up but you get my drift.

My third and (thankfully) final theory is that in India, even the Inglish bands are getting used to English music and playing Inglish music. And this fact can be confirmed by listening to the inanity which passes as lyrics for most of the original compositions being made by bands out there and the utter lack of experimentation in most of the sound out there. Seriously, who wants to listen to lyrics and music that rhyme?

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So, what should Inglish bands do?

There seems to be some signs of change out there in the Inglish scene. Bands like Thermal and a Quarter, Orange Street, Them Clones, focusing purely on original compositions, putting out professionally produced albums, getting record company contracts and in some cases coming out with music videos also to push CD sales.

There are a few internet sites such as Gigpad, Muziboo and Radio VeRVe have come out which though not having a focus on Inglish music alone, have made it easier for bands to spread word far and wide. Also, there is an emergence of informal spaces for performance now. Opus in Bangalore is one that comes to mind, Turquoise Cottage in Delhi is another. Spaces where bands are given the freedom to come and perform their best in front of a well-intentioned, knowledgeable and usually appreciative audience.

And then there is the emergence of a band like the Raghu Dixit Project. Which through great music created a word of mouth demand, got opportunities to play at big events and is now not only into the mainstream but making great progress there too. A little window into what viral marketing can really do for a great band and what other great bands can also aspire to reach.

I think the main thrust has to come from the bands themselves. They need to innovate, in terms of their music and their lyrics till they arrive at a voice or a sound that is uniquely their own. And unique not just for India but across the world. With innovation will come the creation of their own niche, and along with that will listeners and patrons who are truly involved in the success of the band. Kevin Kelly, Senior Maverick of Wired Magazine puts it best in his post about the creation of “1000 True Users“. I think its a must-read not just for bands, but for everyone interested in exploring new trends in business models. (remember to read his follow-up posts also).

The second suggestion would be to look at new ways of distribution. An Inglish band looking at making a mark should not get caught into the mindset that a record company contract is the meal ticket. Look at bands like Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails who are experimenting with new forms of distribution and pricing for music. Distribute music yourself in the beginning, either through CDs or paid MP3 downloads. Make sure that your pricing is right so that listeners out there will be tempted into an impulse purchase.

The third suggestion would be to create a community around the band and its music. Use the power of social networks such as Orkut, Ning, and Facebook to spread the word about the band’s music, about gigs that you are playing (be careful not to spam).

Use them to create member-only gigs where people who are really interested and passionate about the music attend and give their feedback and encouragement. Solicit marketing and revenue generation suggestions from your community. If they really care, they want you to be commercially successful so that the band will be around making more music for them. Make these people feel special and exclusive! They need to be, they were around when there was no one else.

The fourth and final suggestion is that if you’re in the business of music, then you need to treat it as seriously as you would any other business. If you just want to let your music do the talking, then you need to have the patience to wait around till it reaches the right ears. But, if you are looking at music as a career which pays the bills and some more, then you need to get acquainted with all the subjects that any proper entrepreneur would cover.

Marketing the band, sales and promotional activities for your album, designing the album cover and CD, forecasting sales of the album, estimating expenses and breakeven sales, creating and managing a relationship with your customers and your community, public relations are all activities that you will have to get familiar with. Read some basic books to provide you with a direction.

In the end, the direction for the Inglish music industry will have to come from the bands themselves. Listeners like me can at the most be early adopters. Here’s hoping the next big sound comes out from India.

Filed under: Music, , ,

A New Visual Grammar

One topic that I’ve followed quite regularly since I became aware of it is information visualization. My first brush with this field was through Edward Tufte’s website and specifically the page where he analyzes the visualization created by noted French statistician Charles Joseph Minard to represent Napoleon’s failed invasion of Russia. The visualization is shown below. To say that it left an indelible imprint on my mind would be an understatement.

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(click through to go to Wikipedia page with more information on the graphic)

From Edward Tufte’s book “Envisioning Information” to the work of Casey Reas, Ben Fry and others, a little knowledge of Processing NodeBox GraphViz and a lot of respect for late 19th century statisticians such as Francis Galton, William Playfair, William Farr and Charles Snow who set the first standards for the visualization of information.

For me, language is a graphical idea expressed through voice. When I have a conversation, my brain is working rapidly to convert the auditory information its receiving into visual representations. Gossip about someone’s sexual peccadilloes is transformed into a luridly lit soft-core set, the word Apple conjures about dual images of the fruit in question as well as the company.

Therefore its been kind of surprising as well as mystifying that the visual acuity of my brain slows to a crawl when represented with a visual representation of some information. Seconds are spent in resolving squiggles, whorls and spirals into a whole in my mind.

Then the brain zooms into the finer details. Sampling pieces of information from different sectors, analyzing it to arrive at an assumption regarding what is being represented visually. More seconds spent in validating the assumption in other sectors of the diagram before the brain signs off with a pithy response regarding the purpose of the visualization and the data encoded in.

Slightly difficult, time-consuming and rarely satisfying. I usually do a circuit of the main information visualization blogs once a month or so. After the initial euphoria of coming across interesting topics, I find my interest slowly dwindling.

Seeing a visualization, understanding its purpose, admiring the cogent coding of data that has gone into it and the warm feeling of clarity that I get at the end of it, has unfortunately, become few and far between.

It could be the general fatigue that sets in after hearing and seeing a little too much about Social Media and Web 2.0, as most information visualization blogs seem to focus more and more on these topics now.

It could also be (and this is where the topic of my post really starts) that there isn’t a visual grammar for information visualization that we as laymen can access. (See Leland Wilkinson’s “A Grammar for Graphics” for grammar created to meet a practitioner’s needs)

A grammar that clearly sets the syntax, morphology and the semantics of visual representation out into the open for clearer public access, understanding and debate.

The reason why the verbal communication of ideas between people is easy is because of the presence of a grammar for the language used for such communication. There are little, if any, ambiguities about the meanings of words used in the conversation, and the meaning of the conversation when the words are combined together.

Maybe, information visualization is an emerging field. Maybe it still has to resolve its purpose and efficacy. Maybe, like most other grammars, there is a latent one that is being evolved at through Darwinian natural selection. Let’s hope that there is, because accessible information visualization has the power to make abstract topics lucidly clear, to reduce ambiguities in interpretation and to introduce a new manner of cognition in our daily lives.

It would be unfair to leave without the proverbial wash-basin of links related to information visualization at you lovely people out there. So here goes:

Collection of links
175+ Data and Information Visualization Examples and Resources
Data Visualisation Blogs You Might Not Know About

Examples of Information Visualization
Visual Complexity
Simple Complexity
Flowing Data
Information Aesthetics

Good blog posts
Reading with Edward Tufte
Kottke’s collection of Infoviz-tagged posts
The Data Artist

I’ll keep updating this post with good posts and links on information visualization I come across. Will also help me in collating all of them into a central repository of a kind.

Filed under: Design, , ,

Welcome to Scubed

The genesis of the name for this blog is simple. Its just the initials of my three names put together – S S S. My purpose for starting this blog is also as simple. Keep honing my limited writing skills on topics as far-ranging as homebrewing beer to the Large Hadron Collider.

I’m a work-in-progress autodidact with a voracious appetite for reading, an extremely refined and an essentially snobby taste in music, with poor people skills and an even poorer attention span. Since my posts will reflect all of these….

You are warned.

Filed under: Ramble,

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