Monday, September 29, 2008

Views from Tehran and Kabul: On the US Presidential Election

Elections in the US matter elsewhere. I was called a radical in 2004 for suggesting that Iraqis should also vote for the US Presidential Election. And now, as we get closer to to another election, it's only fair that Afghans and Iranians - the former especially - should have a right to views, if not the right to vote.

Here are a couple of videos of recent street interviews from Kabul and Tehran.

There are some hilarious statements, especially from Tehran. Check the Persian carpet-seller who supports McCain because he looks fit to be president whereas Obama is merely talk and celebrity looks. And many young Iranians like Obama because Obama is not too different from "U-ba-ma", which roughly translates to "He is with us."

But the best comes from one of the Tehran respondents who asks: "George Bush isn't running again, is he?"

Happiness 2.0

Check this wonderful poem. Via.

Friday, September 26, 2008

When Asia Was The World

Papermaking originally came from China. The basic technique passed down the Silk Road into the Middle East with the Abbasids in about 750 CE. With royal support at Baghdad, the process was reinvented to suit local conditions. Chinese paper manufacture used tropical plants that did not grow in the Middle East. It was soon discovered that linen and cotton fibers produced a supple smooth paper. Within a century there was a flourishing paper market and many paper mills in Baghdad. The earliest surviving paper document from the Middle East is in an official Jewish letter from Baghdad to Egypt.

Other capitals such as Damascus and Fustat soon competed with Baghdad, offering alternate sizes and compositions of paper. Paper made possible not only the hundreds of thousands of volumes of Baghdad Imperial Library, but circulation of these texts to multiple capitals in Middle East, Persia, Central Asia and Spain. [From Stewart Gordon’s When Asia was the World]
So the technology of paper spread this way. As did many, many other things – spices, silk, and of course, religions and ideas. In Stewart Gordon’s When Asia was the World, a short book about eight Asian travelers from 600 AD – 1500 AD, we get to glimpse this globalizing world, which spanned North Africa, the Mediterranean, the Middle East, Central Asia, the Indian subcontinent, Southeast Asia and China. These regions were privileged in the sense that they were connected to innovations and imports from faraway places.

Other regions – North and South America, Australia, and parts of Africa – would soon come to know, rather harshly, what they had missed. But I've bemoaned this tragic quirk of history in earlier posts, so I won't say more.

Friday, September 19, 2008

On reading this year

A rambling post about some books I've read and come across this year.

It’s frustrating to not settle on a good book. But it’s also a pleasure to read in an unsystematic way. I try whatever interests me, and move on if the book does not get my attention. In the process, I get to read a lot of little bits and pieces, a couple of chapters here and there. This goes on until I find something that reads easily and gives great insight. I gravitate towards non-fiction these days. I am steadily losing faith in fiction, though every now and then there comes a novel that startles.

I’ve finished some hefty books this year: The Brothers Karamazov was a miraculous book, not only full of speculation about religion, philosophy and the Russian 19th century social context, but also one of the best murder mysteries I’ve read. And there is humor almost throughout the book – it erupts at unexpected moments. Dostoevsky is a bleak prospect to most readers; his name portends gloom and tragedy. But there’s a lot more to his writing.

And I finished too The Fate of Africa, another hefty book, and which I’d been tarrying for a while. Among novels, Willa Cather’s O Pioneers, Alaa Al Aswany’s The Yacoubian Building, and Louise Erdrich’s The Plague of Doves caught my attention. There’s a growing trend of popular economics writing – economics explained in accessible fashion, with everyday examples. Freakonomics and The Undercover Economist were two of this kind I liked. And it won’t be long before I read Malcolm Gladwell's Tipping Point and Blink.

But my favorite non-fiction read this year is a book about chance and probability. Leonard’s Mlodinow’s The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Affects Our Lives was a revelation. Discussing the role of chance is like discussing the supernatural, discussing God. Certainly, the book felt that way: like a scientific approach to understanding destiny, success and anomalies. When someone becomes successful, we tend to attribute special qualities after he/she has made a mark. In retrospect, everything seems obvious. We look back and say he/she succeeded because he/she had something special. But perhaps many great people are just ordinary people who got lucky. Look, for instance, at how the Man Booker prize long and short lists are created and how the winner is chosen. It’s a ridiculously random process; almost nothing can be inferred.

If I ever teach Probability and Statistics – and it turns out I might have to soon – I’ll make Mlodinow’s book required reading. No, it's not a mathematical book full of incomprehensible equations. Quite the contrary: There's not a single equation and Mlodinow takes great pains to ensure his ideas are understood easily.

There were about a dozen other books I began and skipped or skimmed. But unsystematic reading is almost apt since my mind wanders so much these days. Browsing through the Economist magazine, for instance, is an ideal sort of wandering: one glimpses so much of the world, current affairs, economics, science and technology. Switching from book to book, especially books with no relation, creates a similar experience.

Here's a sample from the last two months: Guy de Maupassant’s The House of Madame Tellier and Other Stories; Mukul Kesavan’s The Ugliness of the Indian Male; Patrick French’s The World is What It Is. More recently: Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate, a book that adds to the nature vs. nurture debate; The Redeemed Captive, a memoir set in the New England of the early 18th century when Indians, the French and the English were competing for territory; Claude Levi Strauss’s Tristes Tropiques, a work of anthropology, which many recommended, but which I could not read beyond a couple of chapters; David Duncan’s Hernando de Soto: A Savage Quest in the Americas, a biography of the great Spanish explorer, the so-called “discoverer” of the Mississippi, whose expedition through the American Southeast in the 16th century and whose hostile encounters with the Mississippian Indians there still remains mysterious – mysterious because the Indians vanished after De Soto’s expedition.

I’ve finally settled on Helen Epstein’s The Invisible Cure, which is about the history of AIDS in Africa. It is also a history of how the West and its multi-billion dollar aid industry got many things wrong.

And what does the future hold? The non fiction collection AIDS Sutra; Rajmohan Gandhi’s Mohandas, a biography of Gandhi from last year (the author is Gandhi’s grandson) – a massive book, but which beckons every time I look at my shelf. I’ve never read a biography of Gandhi, and I hardly know anything about his personal life. It is time to fill that gap .

Also on the list: The Discovery and Conquest of Mexico, the first person account of the conquistador Bernal Diaz del Castillo, which recounts the fall of the great Mexica city of Tenochtitlan, a surreal historical moment. I hope also I’ll enjoy Richard Dowden’s book on Africa; like the many books on India and China, heralding their rise, there are many gloomy ones about Africa. But this one –whether gloomy or not – is different, or so we’re told. Chinua Achebe likes it, and Achebe is a picky guy, especially when it comes to how people outside Africa write about it.

I’ll have to stop somewhere; otherwise this post will go on and on. Sometime in the future, I’ll be back with another post, about this or that magnificent book, and a new reading list. Until then,

Friday, September 12, 2008

The Great Coatlicue

One of the benefits of having being in a large university is the easy online access to magazines and journals. I now have free access to all essays in New York Review of Books. I check the site all the time, returning again and again to the two writers whose interpretations of world history leave me breathless, and wanting more. These are writers you’ve seen often quoted in this space: VS Naipaul and Octavio Paz.

It’s the latter’s essay, The Power of Ancient Mexican Art, that I’ll excerpting in this post. I read it first about two years ago, and it still holds me in thrall.

Paz begins the essay with a fortuitous discovery that took place in 1790, when municipal authorities were digging up the Central Square in Mexico City. They stumbled upon a colossal statue, two meters tall and two tons in weight. It was of the goddess Coatlicue, the “Lady of the Serpent Skirt”. The Viceroy ordered that the statue be taken to the Royal and Pontifical University of Mexico, as a “monument of America’s ancient past.” There was discomfort, however. “The Aztec idol might have rekindled ancient beliefs in the memories of the Indians and, above all, its presence in the cloisters was seen as an insult to the very idea of beauty.”

The idol was buried again, re-interred for a brief period in the early 19th century, and back it went to the earth, its presence too awe-inspiring to be bearable. It was dug up again, years after the Mexican independence movement. It changed locations a couple of times before occupying a prominent place at the famous National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City.

Having told Coatlicue’s story, Paz then analyzes, brilliantly, how differently the statue has been perceived over the centuries:
The changing fortunes of the Coatlicue—from goddess to demon, from demon to monster, and from monster to masterpiece—illustrate the changes in our sensibility over the last four hundred years. These changes reflect the increasing secularization that characterizes the modern age. The opposition between the Aztec priest, who worshiped her as a goddess, and the Spanish friar, for whom she was a demoniacal manifestation, is not as total as it seems at first sight. For both of them the Coatlicue represented a supernatural presence, a mysterium tremendum. The difference between the eighteenth-century attitude and that of the twentieth century also betrays a similarity: the condemnation of the former and the enthusiasm of the latter both respond to a primarily intellectual and aesthetic criterion. From the end of the eighteenth century the Coatlicue abandons the magnetic realm of the supernatural in order to enter the corridors of aesthetic and anthropological speculation. She ceases to embody a crystallization of the powers of the beyond in order to become an episode in the history of mankind's beliefs. As she leaves the temple and enters the museum, there is a change in her nature if not in her appearance.
Such change in perception! And yet the magic of Coatlicue, the effect it has on those who view it, is in some sense immutable. I wonder which of the great masterpieces of our time – our buildings perhaps, or the movies or the gadgets we adore – will survive the test of time. And how will someone far in the future think of them, when he looks upon them with curiosity, and tries to understand us?

To finish, here's one more excellent paragraph, Paz's meditation on the art of ancient societies :
Art survives the societies in which it is created. It is the visible tip of the submerged iceberg that represents every civilization. The recovery of the art of ancient Mexico has taken place in the twentieth century. First, there was archaeological and historical research: later, aesthetic comprehension. It is often said that this understanding is an illusion: what we feel, when confronted by a relief from Palenque, is not what the Maya experienced. This is true. But it is also true that our feelings and thoughts about the work are quite real. Our understanding is not an illusion: it is ambiguous. This ambiguity is present in all our views of works from other civilizations and even in our ideas about works from our own past. We are not Greeks, Chinese, or Arabs; neither can we say that we fully comprehend Romanesque or Byzantine sculpture. Our only recourse is to translate, and each of these translations, whether it be of Gothic or Egyptian art, is a metaphor, a transmutation of the original.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Quotes from Leonard Mlodinow's The Drunkard's Walk

One of the best books I’ve read this year is Leonard Mlodinow’s The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Affects Our Lives. The title might sound a little like a self-help manual, but the book certainly isn’t. Instead, it’s one of the most eye-opening and philosophical texts I’ve read, the sort that changes the way you think and look at things. Mlodinow presents many great ideas, and I don’t have the time to review them, but here are some quotes that I feel encapsulate Mlodinow’s main points.
“…much of the order we perceive in nature belies an invisible underlying disorder and hence can be understood only through the rules of randomness.”

“Human perception, Faraday recognized, is not a direct consequence of reality but rather an act of imagination.”

“…in all aspects of our lives we encounter streaks and other peculiar patterns of success and failure. Sometimes success predominates, sometimes failure. Either way it is important in our own lives to take the long view and understand that streaks and other patterns that don’t appear random can indeed happen by pure chance. It is also important, when assessing others, to recognize that among a large group of people it would be very odd if one of them didn’t experience a long streak of successes or failures.” [Mlodinow's italics]

“The cord that tethers ability to success is both loose and elastic. It is easy to see fine qualities in successful books or to see unpublished manuscripts, inexpensive vodkas, or people struggling in any field as somehow lacking. It is easy to believe that ideas that worked were good ideas, that ideas and plans that did not were ill conceived. And it is easy to make heroes out of the most successful and to glance with disdain at the least. But ability does not guarantee achievement, nor is achievement proportional to ability. And so it is important to always keep in mind the other term in the equation – the role of chance.”

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Wupatki National Monument

Here's a picture that I really like - taken at the Wupatki National Monument near Flagstaff, Arizona when I visited a few years ago. These ruins are from around the 11th century, remnants of the societies of the Ancient Pueblo Peoples, specifically the Sinagua. These names might not mean much to readers: American Indian history has never been mainstream, even though there are some startling historical sites which make you think and question.


Meanwhile, here's what's coming up soon: posts/essays on some of the travel I've done in the last year and a half. I'll write about my drive from Minnesota to Massachusetts; my trip to Chihuahua in May 2007; and to Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota in August 2007. The last two I have been composing in my mind for too long; now is the time (although life in general is very busy), to get them down on paper.