In hiding

I always thought that the question of how people hid dissent from oppressive regimes was interesting. A lot of human cost, but interesting. So there is bit around materials, for example, Samizdat in Soviet Russia, or DVDs and TV shows in North Korea. And there is the discussion of ideas under a thought policing regime. I have thought about it from the point of view of spies, of people resisting against an adversarial government.

New Yorker had this short post on the double life of the San Bernardino couple, which goes on to discuss the way the white supremacists try to avoid drawing attention to themselves. It is not very intricate stuff – don’t get into arguments, hide obvious signs of affiliation, grit your teeth and blend in. Be NORMAL.

Well, it is pretty much the same strategy that would be followed by most people who deviate from social norms – so atheists in a very religious place like India or Bangladesh (given what has happened to people who write about atheism). Of course, when the point of view that they espouse becomes the new normal, they can be more honest.

And it can flow both ways. A change of political climate where it is fair to denigrate a particular section, will allow the so far silent sectarian to come out of their closet, while someone who finds it distasteful may let sectarian comments pass without speaking out.

I am a person without deep moral courage. I do not know how I would behave if some such flip were to happen.

Which reminds me of this story from QI (end Season G, Episode 8: Germany):

I leave you with this story about the Bloomsbury group writer, Lytton Strachey, who was – emm -how should I put it, a confirmed bachelor and aesthete, also a conscientious objector and a pacifist. He appeared before the conscientious objection board, and they were obviously going to quiz him on whether or not he was truly a conscientious objector, or a coward trying to get out serving.
They said, “Mr Strachey, are you married?”
“Well, no”, he said.
“But, do you have a sister”, they said.
He said, “Yes, I do.”
They said “Well, suppose a German soldier came and tried to rape her. What would you do?”
He said, “In that case, I would endeavor to place myself between them.”

Edit: 2016-01-09 11:05
From the 2014 profile of Angela Merkel from The New Yorker:

Merkel studied physics at Leipzig University and earned a doctorate in quantum chemistry in Berlin. She was allowed to pursue graduate studies, in no small part because she never ran afoul of the ruling party. Ulrich Schoeneich, who became Templin’s mayor after reunification, expressed bitterness to me that Merkel hasn’t been challenged much on her accommodation with the East German system. Schoeneich’s father, Harro, was also a Protestant minister, but, unlike Kasner, he openly dissented from the state. Ulrich Schoeneich refused to join the Free German Youth, the blue-shirted “fighting reserve” of the ruling party which the vast majority of East German teen-agers joined, including Angela Kasner, who participated well into adulthood. “Not just as a dead person in the files but as the officer responsible for agitation and propaganda,” Schoeneich told me, referring to a revelation in a controversial recent biography, “The First Life of Angela M.” He added, “I’m convinced that she could get her doctorate only because she was active in the Free German Youth, even in her postgraduate days. Most people say it was forced, but I demonstrated that you didn’t have to join it.” Merkel herself once admitted that her participation in the Free German Youth was “seventy per cent opportunism.”

Schoeneich wasn’t permitted to finish high school, and he spent much of his early life in the shadow cast by his family’s principled opposition. Angela Kasner had other ideas for her future, and became, at most, a passive opponent of the regime. Evelyn Roll, one of Merkel’s biographers, discovered a Stasi document, dated 1984, that was based on information provided by a friend of Merkel’s. It described Merkel as “very critical toward our state,” and went on, “Since its foundation, she was thrilled by the demands and actions of Solidarity in Poland. Although Angela views the leading role of the Soviet Union as that of a dictatorship which all other socialist countries obey, she is fascinated by the Russian language and the culture of the Soviet Union.”

Rainer Eppelmann, a courageous dissident clergyman under Communism, who got to know Merkel soon after the fall of the Wall, refuses to criticize her. “I don’t judge the ninety-five per cent,” he told me. “Most of them were whisperers. They never said what they thought, what they felt, what they were afraid of. Even today, we’re not completely aware what this did to people.” He added, “In order to be true to your hopes, your ambitions, your beliefs, your dreams, you had to be a hero twenty-four hours a day. And nobody can do this.”

After 1989, when the chance came to participate in democratic politics, these same qualities became useful to Merkel, in a new way. Eppelmann explained, “The whisperer might find it easier to learn in this new life, to wait and see, and not just burst out at once—to think things over before speaking. The whisperer thinks, How can I say this without damaging myself? The whisperer is somebody who might be compared to a chess player. And I have the impression that she thinks things over more carefully and is always a few moves ahead of her competitor.”

The Angela Merkel story – because of the question of participation and the fallout on the family of the choices of one – also reminded me of Ye family in The Three Body Problem.

Of Sci-fi and Language 2 – Imperial she

It is a bit of a problem when friends are in town, and they have an evening flight, so you meet them for a long slow brunch – I say brunch, but what you do is drink a lot – so that before dusk you are nicely buzzed, and then you come home, make progress towards finishing a series, but the power goes out and what you have is a lack of internet connection. So, there. I thought I might just as well talk about the books I read last week, which I had planned to talk about much earlier.

When you go through days when you seem to keep encountering references to the same thing across different content, I wonder if it is because the thing is truly blowing in the winds, or because it has sunk into your subconscious and rings a chime whenever you encounter another mention of it.

In the case of the Imperial Radch books, it just kind of sank into my consciousness. I had heard about it when the first book came out, or so I think. And then earlier in the year, I think I had heard it mentioned in the context of the Hugo Award controversy. Mostly, what filtered in from the first few encounters was:

“blah blah galactic civilization blah blah gender not ‘important’ blah blah author choose to use the pronoun ‘she’ to emphasize the point.”

And I told myself, interesting but not what I wanted to read right now. And then finally it popped up in a language log post (which incidentally was prompted by Brad deLong quoting the Ann Leckie writing about “Debt: the first 5000 years” [That post is also interesting. Somewhere in the second book of the Imperial Radch, I encountered an word, mes, that I thought was mentioned in the first book. Finally remembered that she had mentioned mes in the blog post in the discussion of Sumerian view on prostitution.]).

The language log post wasn’t about the gender thing. It was a block of true weirdness from one of the books of the series. I read a couple of lines and thought, OK, time to read the trilogy, before I get any spoilers from this post.

So, I bought the first book. In about four days I was done with the series. It truely is magnificient.

The pronoun thing is interesting. This is what you need to know: “blah blah Radch empire has no focus on gender, and the language has no gendered pronouns. This cultural blindness to gender so intense that when the main character is outside the empire, she has difficulty distinguishing between males and females in human worlds that do emphasize the difference. To focus on this difference, the author choose to use the pronoun ‘she’.”

[OK, a comment to the language log post I mentioned earlier, that discussed the female to male pronouns in the books. (This was with reference to GK Chesterton’s apparent reluctance to talk about females – with male pronouns being about 90% of the total gendered pronouns.) The first book, which begin outside the Radch Empire and contains ‘translations’ from languages where gender is emphasized, the female pronouns account for 90% of the pronouns. The last book that has little speech not originally in Radchaai, there is 1 male pronoun. [I learnt this fact before starting the last book, but failed to spot the male pronoun.]]

This was an interesting choice. I didn’t realize quite how often I’d assume a character is male [I am very deaf to first names, so don’t always id gender based on names, plus the names were not very ‘Jennifer’ and ‘Bill’ type]. It was, for almost all of the first book (where, as I mentioned, there is a fair sprinkling of ‘him’ and ‘he’), to encounter a ‘she’ and realize the ruts in my mind.

[The edition of the first book that I read had the first chapter from ‘Trading in Danger’, the first of the Vatta’s War books by Elizabeth Moon. I went and bought that book and read it between Ancillary Justice and Ancillary Sword. The main character of that was female, as were a significant number of other characters. So, it also had a lot of female pronouns, but it felt completely different from the Imperial Radch books.]

[PSA: It is not just about gender and language.]

However, the interesting things about gender/language are not just restricted to pronoun. It is explicitly understood that all speech is in one of a multitude of languages used in various worlds. Radchaai, of course, doesn’t have any gender related grammatical complication. However, it is implied that some of the language have pronouns/conjugations that depend on the gender (and perhaps, age, marital status, parenthood, etc). Richness that rarely comes up in English.

There are other weird and interesting clever things – if you want a spoiler, read the bit in the language log post.

It is a political book. I imagine it is exactly the kind of book that would make the puppies who want to return to the good old days of space opera with pirates and empires and intrigues (though this has all of that). Politically it makes an interesting contrast to the ‘Trading in Danger’.

[Did I mention I liked the ‘Trading in Danger’. It has been compared to ‘Vorkosigan Saga’, probably because both feature a person who had to leave a military training academy, and ends up building a mercenary army. I hate ‘Vorkosigan Saga‘, I don’t believe the worlds that were built. I gave up after the Cetaganda book(s). I don’t see how it could be stable.]

I liked Trading in Danger, but while it didn’t have 50 worlds all alike, it had a flatness to the worlds. Both Imperial Radch and Trading in Danger feature plantation planets (tea in the case of Imperial Radch! It so often is tea or spice.). But, while Vatta of Vatta’s War is from the family of the plantation owner, Imperial Radch has important characters from three or more levels of the plantation hierarchy.

Some of the political stuff feels a little naive, and there was this bit where I thought, [OK mega spoiler, so cut it out]. And I couldn’t imagine how Breq remembers everything. [The brain-machine interface is another plot point that is common to this series and Vatta’s war, though I suppose it is standard for all deep future stories. Did I forget to mention the brain-machine interface? Oh, well, you will find out when you read the books.]

[Edit: 2015-11-09 10:48]
Language hat quotes a post on translating Ancillary Justice, an interesting given how gender varies in importance across languages.

[Edit: 2015-11-17 14:08]
1) forgot to talk about first person pronoun
2) Ann Leckie about the books at

Snip (2000)

This is going to be really short because I need to take a bath, like right now.

This is not the best introduction to the movie, but this is the only clip that I was able to find.

I love movies like ‘Ek Chalis ki last local’, or ‘Waisa bhi hota hain, part II’ – not straight gangster movies, but kind ‘Gangster funny’. And Snip! is probably one of the earliest such movies that I watched. (Leaving aside ‘Jaane bhi do…’, Guy Ritchie, ‘Pulp fiction’, etc.) Probably one of the earliest examples in India, so may be the movie wasn’t that good. But that is what we had, and I remember loving it. I loved ‘Everybody says I’m fine’ and I am not sure it was a great movie. They were movies that were vastly removed from what I had watched before.

Anyway, I want to watch it again, and I just can’t find any copy. No official stream or media, of course, because our media companies are idiots. No unofficial source either.

Bhojpuri (and Assamese) in Bengaluru

Someone in a whatsapp group shared this wonderful interview with Kalpana Patowary: I’ve become used to the fact that when I sing guns go off. The interview had apparently happened while Kalpana Patoway was in Bangalore for a show, a show that I had watched. So, I posted the link to twitter, Satya replied, and I suddenly remembered that I’d wanted to blog about the show, and had completely forgotten to do that. So, here.

The show was held in an amphitheater behind the main auditorium of the Ravindra Kalachestra. It had a low stage backing into the main auditorium. I was sure it would rain, but it didn’t. The crowd was a mix of families, firangs and other bohemians, and workers from construction sites all over the city. The art collective, Maraa, had apparently spent a lot of time going out and inviting the workers for the show. The start was much delayed, the workers had the finish their day’s work, before they came over.

The warm up act was a local percussion group. I have now been assured that it was actually called “Indian folk band” led by Bala. It was fun, as all percussion is. People danced, though there was more participation there from the urban non-bhojpuri section.

The first song the Kalpana Patowary sang was the Ganga one mentioned in the article. I’m sure what she said before that song was “Ganga maiya ki yaad aati hai?” The crowd took time to warm up. Towards the end people – everyone – was dancing, even to songs that I thought were about gods. There were stage invasions in the middle of songs, and a stage-hand/manger was busy trying to keep people from swarming around her or jolting the iPad on the stand which seemed to have her lyrics.

Sometime before the end, a large section of the workers had to leave – before the buses stopped plying. There was an album to be released, and the workers were asked to come up to release the album. There were people everywhere on the stage, and lots of selfies were shot. But it settled down in about ten minutes, and it was back to the songs.

Participation. There were lovely moments in the show. There was this elderly gentleman in a salwar-kameez, who passed on a note to an organizer, who passed it on to Kalpana Patowary. It was a song that he had written, and he wanted her to sing it. But he was asked to come up on the stage, and he sang it a cappella. The friend who had told me about the show later walked up to him to say that she enjoyed his singing. He said that he didn’t have much time in the city to practice.

There was another towards the end, a sharply dressed young man, who came up, took the mike and said, “You sing about the pain of the wife, whose husband is about to leave for work to a place far away. Why don’t you sing about the pain of the newly wed husband who has to leave his family and migrate for work.” To which she said, “As a woman I sing about the wife. It should be the male singer who should sing about what you said. But they don’t, perhaps I should do their job for them.”

BTW, Trilok Gutru and Kalpana Patowary had collaborated on re-imagining a bihu song, which was also featured in that show.

Doesn’t quite fit in twitter

Context (kind of): From Kottke: The end of the NASA window

I wonder whether our space exploration is about to get into maintenance mode with very little new stuff.

Which reminded me of a documentary on the Concorde I watched a long time ago. Towards the end of the documentary, one of the pilot wonders whether his grandchild would find it difficult to believe that her grandfather used to do the transatlantic crossing in half the times it takes her. Then he turns to the camera and says something like, “I don’t believe that that would happen. As a species we have never turned back. Supersonic transatlantic passenger transport would be back.”

Except that sometime we do turn back on the future.

Edit: 2015-12-13 11:14

From New Yorker on Savante Pääbo’s work on Neanderthals, and what happened between them and us

Archaic humans like Homo erectus “spread like many other mammals in the Old World,” Pääbo told me. “They never came to Madagascar, never to Australia. Neither did Neanderthals. It’s only fully modern humans who start this thing of venturing out on the ocean where you don’t see land. Part of that is technology, of course; you have to have ships to do it. But there is also, I like to think or say, some madness there. You know? How many people must have sailed out and vanished on the Pacific before you found Easter Island? I mean, it’s ridiculous. And why do you do that? Is it for the glory? For immortality? For curiosity? And now we go to Mars. We never stop.”

What the spam!

Over the last few weeks, I have been getting comment spam in Japanese.

Other than the fact that the content of the comment happens to be in Japanese, these pieces are spam are pretty normal: they have a few luxury brand key words, and a few links to websites selling knock-offs.

But, I have been bugged by two other facts about these:
a) Akismet puts these in the moderation queue instead of identifying these as spam
b) They were all posted to this post on Sachin Tendulkar, the hundred hundreds and the movie 99


Acrophobia is nothing to be afraid of

I wanted to write about a few songs. But I need to be able to think some things through and I have been feeling too lazy.

Instead of that a short note about a type of dream that I keep having.

But first, you should know that I have severe acrophobia. Those viewing areas in towers with the glass floor, even looking at the pictures of those makes me queasy. It has become less acute as I have grown older, but the fear is still there. I can peep down a stairwell only by gripping the banister, or move towards the edge of the roof only if there is a parapet. However, most banisters and parapet come up to just below where I think my center of gravity is, and I keep imagining myself tipping over like a egg, over the wall.

Twice in my life, I joined a job to find myself shipped off to a corporate training camp run by ex-military personnel. They had this huge rock (I say huge but it was probably just about 10 meters tall) and we had to rappel down its side. Didn’t enjoy it one bit.

And I have claustrophobia. Well, not true claustrophobia, because phobias are irrational and there irrational about being afraid of being trapped. I mean I don’t find being in an enclosed place scary in and of itself (though I haven’t been in one in ages). It is just that I worry I might have a tough time wriggling out of spaces into which I have wriggled into. When I watch people who are spelunking wriggling into a tiny hole that they can’t imagine them wriggling out of, it nearly induces a panic attack.

But back when my age was in single digits, I liked climbing. There were trees right next to our house, and climbing the trees would get me to the horizontal wall extension that the house had right below the ventilators (no idea why, but were common; look at the one here for example). And climbing up the windows (windows had these horizontal bars) would let me climb up to the top of the almirahs and closets.

And I liked enclosed spaces. My favourite place to hide was under the bed. I would take my books and hide there. My second most favourite place to hide was in the closet. It was more comfortable, but I couldn’t read in there. There is a story from my childhood, where a person who had saved my father from drowning as a child, saved me when I hid in a tin storage trunk and accidentally locked myself in it.

Anyway, I outgrew those childish interest and no longer could fit my body in the gap between the bed and the floor. I replaced those with my rational fear of dying horribly. Anyway, it is not as bad as it was in my teens. I regularly dream of picking up mountaineering. Seeing pictures of mountains inspires me, though I haven’t yet tested whether the inspiration will survive the first brush with an actual mountain – with precipices and other dangerous features.

And I dream of living in a small house. One of my favourite channels on youtube is about small houses, and I like the idea of sleeping in a place that is one tiny flight up from the living area, with just about enough headroom so that my head doesn’t hit the roof when I sit.

(aside: I use autos for the ride to work regularly, for reasons too complicated to explain. Anyway, a lot of those autos have extra cushion in the seats – a great idea in theory. Unfortunately, the cushioning means that the headroom is just that bit lesser. The design of autos is such that they have crappy suspension and one of the structural support passes right over the passenger seat. And the the design of the Indian roads is such that many times during each journey I’d be magically transported upwards where the head can meet the structural support.)

Now, my dream. Or dreams. I regularly have dreams in the morning where I am in a cubby hole of sorts. There is no room to stand up. Even with me sitting down I have to keep my head bent forward. I am in a modern building. There is enough light. I can clearly see the exit. There is no immediate floor outside the exits. I know that this place is somewhere at least a few floors up in the building. If I were careless while getting out, I’d fall a long way down.

The only way out is through the exit, where I have to reorient myself in interesting ways to reach a ladder embedded into the wall. However, I am calm. I do not panic. I know that what I need to do is slightly difficult, but I am quietly confident about my ability to do it.

So, that is it. That is what I wanted to write about today. Sometimes this sequence is just one scene in the Lord of the Rings length epic that is my dream. At other times, like today morning, it is the entirety of dream as I remember it when I wake up.

Other things can wait

Since this doesn’t fit in twitter:

At the bus stand, a slightly sozzled man walks up to me, stares incredulously, as if he can’t believe my stupidity, and asks, “Are you leaving Kerala?”

I don’t know him from Jack O’Bedlam, but he acts like we’re old friends. Did I meet him in a Mahé bar? Not too sure, I say “I’m so sorry, but I am.” He smiles, waves sadly as he tightens his lungi which is on half mast, and says “Please come back soon again.”

From an article on eating mussels in North Kerala.