Monday, July 13, 2009

The Man Who Flew Too Much - Part I

Here's the first part of the first draft of a video essay I am seeting out to make. It's a 90 minute performance piece. The actor goes into a fit of uncontrollable rambling and subject hopping...

All of us, at some point, share the universal feeling of feeling thirsty and wanting to pee at the same time. I wonder why the internal parts of this body mechanism can’t settle it amidst themselves. One part wants water and the other wants to flush it out. And how about feeling thirsty when chlorinated water adamantly stays stuck in your ears after having taken a dip in the pool? That itself should be proof enough that there is no God. Natural selection is still constantly learning at a fast pace of one lesson per billion years. At what point, I wonder, natural selection chose to perceive images through light-reflection over echolocation. It’s interesting to imagine that bats actually “visualise” through echolocation… they do not approximate… they “see” through sound. Colours and shapes are just codes corresponding to wave lengths of light and trajectories of reflection. A wavelength of 400 nmis seen as violet by the mind and a wavelength of 650 nm seen as red. Similarly, colours can be encoding wavelengths of sound in bats. Did the route of natural selection that eventually led to homo-sapiens ever come across the migratory birds’ ability to perceive earth’s magnetic field to stay their course during long flights. The birds perceive the earth’s magnetic fields as bands of colours. But besides natural selection, there is genetic drift to account for as well. It has been discovered that in the brains of the blind, the visual cortex has not become useless, as they once believed. When blind people use another sense -- touch or hearing, for example -- to substitute for sight, the brain's visual cortex becomes active, even though no images reach it from the optic nerve. Echolocation creates its own images. There are examples of Daniel Kish and Ben Underwood, both blind, who use echoes of sounds to navigate through the world. Kish leads other blind people on mountain biking tours and hikes in the wilderness, visualizing and describing the picturesque sights around him through echolocating. And there are people like Ingrid Carey who have a rare neurological condition called synesthesia, allowing them to actually feel colours. She tastes, hears and smells colours. Numbers and letters, sensations and emotions, days and months are all associated with colors for Carey. Number 2 for her is green and orange is her colour of pain. It is believed that the migratory birds have this neurological ability as well. The birds that look dull to us might have a plumage radiant of near ultra-violet, or a skin texture reflecting sound in a certain unique way associated to a certain radiant colour that the female of their species can get attracted to. That takes me to another fundamental question. The perception of pleasure and pain. Why are some things perceived by the brain as pleasure and some perceived otherwise? Is pleasure an in built incentive for a life form to aid survival, continuation and evolution? Common observation shows us that food and sex provide maximum pleasure for most people. Evolution doesn’t necessarily always promote or guarantee adaptation or survival. For instance, when nutrients run low, individual myxobacteria (slime bacteria) may come together to form a fruiting body to produce spores. Lab studies have shown that cheating myxobacteria that only produce spores and never help form the non-spore producing parts of the fruiting body can drive populations to extinction. Humans can choose not to reproduce and thus eliminate their genes from the gene pool. The notion that human brain is fittest for survival turns around with the emotional complexity that comes along with an evolved brain. One can argue that the human choice of not reproducing can still be aiding the survival and continuation of life on the planet, after all. This could also be one of the explanations of acts of charity where an individual puts social and collective interest over self interest. Why doesn’t evolution discourage suicide? I wonder if any animals apart from human beings commit suicide. Suicide should be defined as a premeditated anticipated act of self destruction. Dogs are known to starve themselves to death on separation from their loved ones. Scorpions are known to do anomalous action of biting itself to death in very high temperatures. Soldier sterile termites blow themselves up so the enemies get stuck in their goo. Stinger bees die of the injury from stinger amputation that happens after they sting. Are these animals aware of the ultimate effect of their actions? I think not. “There is only one true philosophical problem, and that is suicide.” That was Camus. It has inspired me to give a lot of thought to suicide, aging, death, evolution and pain. Back to my original question. Why are pink and sky blue such pleasant colours for children? Is it social conditioning or a rather “purer” physical attraction? How does a radiant plumage on the head of the male bird translate as better genetic condition and better opportunity of survival and reproduction in the brain of the female bird? In humans, the plumage is replaced by . I had once worked for an idea company. It was a company that sourced ideas from all over, patented them for the creator, pitched the ideas and profited from the commissions earned from realised ideas. My idea was software for cellphones. You fill up an exhaustive form asking you all sorts of questions about yourself when you buy the software. It’s a really long questionnaire and it would take you at least a couple of hours to fill it up. You are questioned about everything from your political inklings to your favourite authors to your tastes and ideas. This information is encoded and installed in your phone software, that is linked to the universal server. Now each time you cross somebody sharing your interests or ideas or having interests in allied disciplines, both your phones beep and the shared connections are highlighted on your phone. The software ensures that you don’t cross your potential “soulmate” at a mall or on a plane and lose the opportunity. It can act as a great ice breaker. “Oh, you like Borges? I love Marquez.” Or “Oh, you are a trolley driver? I am a philosopher. I have a problem for you.” Or “So, you are schizophrenic, eh? Sad. Have you always been a large rabbit?” What is with rabbits and schizophrenia? Look at Harvey, Alice in Wonderland… In Watership Down, rabbits can count up to four and anything more than four is too many for a rabbit. Is it true that rabbits fuck a lot?

Car honks are shrieks of frustration, it’s a demonstration of masculinity and speeding is a call for mating. Why is it that young people speed and the elderly drive slowly? The elderly don’t have much time left on their hands, so they should be speeding. Cops should have an age detector with their radars… they see a car crossing the speed limit, they should be able to go, “oh, but she is an old granny, she doesn’t have much time left now, does she?” Slowing down a granny is like giving an ambulance a speeding ticket. Zeno argues that motion unexists. He gives us the Achilles’ paradox. Achilles, ten times faster than the turtle challenges the turtle to a running race. And the turtle is like, “what’s the point dude, you are ten times faster than me… it’s obvious you are going to win, go play with an equal!” So Achilles makes him an offer he can’t refuse. He gives the turtle a head start of 100 meters in the 120 meters race. He starts running when the turtle is already at 100 meters. By the time he crosses the 100 meters, the turtle has gone ahead by 10 meters. When Achilles crosses those 10 meters, the turtle has gone further ahead by a meter. Achilles crosses the meter and the turtle is now ahead by 10 cms. Achilles 10 cms, turtle ahead by a cm, A crosses 1 cm, turtle ahead by a mm, A crosses the mm, the turtle is ahead by 0.1 mm, A crosses 0.1, T is ahead by 0.01… so on and so forth. Achilles shall never be able to overtake the turtle. Though by definition, it’s a trick paradox… Achilles should be happily overtaking the turtle at 111.11111 metres in the race… There is a modern variation of Zeno’s paradox… Thomson’s Lamp… Consider a lamp with a toggle switch. Flicking the switch once turns the lamp on. Another flick will turn the lamp off. Now suppose a being able to perform the following task: starting a timer, he turns the lamp on. At the end of one minute, he turns it off. At the end of another half minute, he turns it on again. At the end of another quarter of a minute, he turns it off. At the next eighth of a minute, he turns it on again, and he continues thus, flicking the switch each time after waiting exactly one-half the time he waited before flicking it previously. The cumulative sum of all these progressively smaller times is exactly two minutes. The following questions are then considered: Is the lamp on or off after exactly two minutes? Is the lamp switch on or off after exactly two minutes? Would it make any difference if the lamp had started out being on, instead of off? Or a more existential question like would it make any difference at all if you figured this out, if there wasn’t a switch to flick, if there wasn’t a lamp or if there wasn’t a you? It’ll be naïve to limit the theoretical paradox by a physical imposition like the speed of light or the time it takes for one to toggle the switch. One of the interesting problems of the infinite is at what point does finite become infinite. Galileo put infinity in a funny way. "Though most numbers are not squares, there are no more numbers than squares." At what point does the explicable become the absurd? The strict parameters of vagueness. The ship wherein Theseus and the youth of Athens returned had thirty oars, and was preserved by the Athenians for centuries, for they took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their place. The ship was replaced part by part over the centuries. The logical question that arises now is whether it’s still the Theseus’ Ship or is it a new ship? John Locke (a 17th Century English writer) proposed a scenario regarding a favorite sock that develops a hole. He pondered whether the sock would still be the same after a patch was applied to the hole. If yes, then, would it still be the same sock after a second patch was applied? Indeed, would it still be the same sock many years later, even after all of the material of the original sock has been replaced with patches? There are many other variations. There is George Washinton’s axe. The blade of the axe has been replaced a few times and the handle has been replaced a few times as well. Is it still the same axe? A corollary could be… what happens if the replaced parts were used to build a second axe. Which, if either, is the original Washington’s axe? Tin Woodman is a lumberjack replaced part by part into an entirely mechanical being. His discarded limbs become a part of the composite man, Chopfyt. Jules Verne alludes to this paradox in Dr. Ox’s Experiment. In the van Tricasse's family, since 1340, each time one of the spouses died the other remarried with someone younger, who took the family name. Thus the family can be said to have been a single marriage lasting through centuries, rather than a series of generations. Girish Karnad’s Hayavadana adds another interesting dimension to this paradox. An athlete forms the third corner of a love triangle with his best friend, an intellectual and the intellectual’s plain wife. The intellectual sacrifices his head at a Mahakali temple, the athlete comes looking for him… freaks out on finding him dead, and chops his own head off in social fear.And then comes the woman… before she can chop any more heads and add to the mess, Goddess Kali comes to life and gives her a boon. She is now to place the amputated heads of the men back on their torsos. She keeps her eyes closed from fear and disgust and ends up replacing the wrong heads on the wrong bodies. So now there is one person with the athlete’s body and the intellectual’s head and the other with the athlete’s head on the intellectual’s body. Here, the writer considers this question: Which, if either, of the men, can claim fatherhood to the child in the woman’s womb?

(Musings on womb and cocoon and butterflies. Compound eyes. Moths. Transformation. Silence of the Lambs poster. Dali’s painting of the skull used in the poster. The skull itself is made of women. Optical illusions. The physics of illusion – using the patterns of perception and twisting them. Some great concepts of magic. Magical engineering. The Turk. Turing test. Our fascination with anomalies. Freaks. Dane Arbus.)

Miracles, rarities, dreams, freaks are fascinating, enthralling, riveting. Order brings a sense of security. Chaos is a show one would rather watch from a distant seat of causality. If a monkey was to smash the keys of a typewriter randomly, the chances of him ending up writing Hamlet are one in infinite. Hell, the chances of a super computer fed with all the words and rules of grammar producing even a page of Hamlet, are one in infinite. But it’s exactly the kind of thing one would love to witness. Throw a handful of grain randomly on a patch and you don’t need to be a math genius to know that the probability of the grains falling to arrange themselves in the shape of your face is one in zillions. The chance of the unique four letter DNA words that made the exact sonnet that is you? I wish all my ideas will arrange themselves and connect in a way that makes perfect sense, with a nice moral to take away – the way we arrange our memories and inferences to make sense of our present. If you were told that the magician pulling a rabbit out of the hat is not a trick, how would you believe something like that, and if you did, won’t you freak out? Why is it that we like to be told again and again that there is only one true love? I don’t know if there are any monkeys that wrote Hamlet or if there are any handful of grains that made Mona Lisas, but there are some funny absurd songs and some pretty interesting patterns out there. And there are those of us who are as excited about that unique one-in-a-million pattern that doesn’t make a recognisable design as we would be about the one that does.

(Some random ideas about patterns. The use of pattern and colour in culture. Patti Bellantoni's pop thesis "If it's purple somebody's going to die"... If it's pink somebody's going to be beaten up in the case of Rajasthan's Gulaabi Gang of women, dressed in pink, armed with rolling pins, beat up wife abusers... collective enlightenment and economy)

Yeah, so I was telling you about deficit financing. Apparently there is an international law that allows governments to print up extra currency to fill up deficits. It’s some kind of a complex economics – how will they maintain rates of exchange, and what if a government does it furtively? Etc. There was a time in the 90s when you needed a government licence to own a colour laser or colour digital printer. Not for your inkjet ones, but for the professional ones. The government was apparently quite paranoid about them. They feared that people will start printing money from their homes. Around the same time I had attended this exhibition at Jehangir. It was quite mediocre. It’s amazing how the most important gallery of the city exhibits the most mediocre of artists. Anyways, why did I bring up Jehangir? Yeah, the currency exhibition. So this artist had painted Indian currency to the minutest detail. From a foot away, it was impossible to tell that the notes were counterfeit. It was good craft, not art. The artist told me that he had cut special size brushes for the detailing. By the way, brushes made from sable and hog hair contribute majorly to the economics of slaughterhouses. Did you know that pharmacy is the prima-mover of slaughterhouses, meat is a secondary product? I hate it when people leave their meat on the plate. At least, finish your meal! Somebody died for it! Do you remember that scene in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe when they meet the Dish of the Day. It’s a dairy animal that is genetically engineered to want to be eaten. "I just don't want to eat an animal that's standing here inviting me to," said Arthur, "it's heartless." "Better than eating an animal that doesn't want to be eaten," said Zaphod. And then there was – "Something off the shoulder perhaps?" suggested the animal, "Braised in a white wine sauce?" "Er, your shoulder?" said Arthur in a horrified whisper. "But naturally my shoulder, sir," mooed the animal contentedly, "nobody else's is mine to offer." Such complex problems in ethic dealt with such imagination and humour. DNA was discovered a year after DNA was born and he died at the age of 41, a year short of 42. That’s the beauty of it. Dying at 41 is as inexplicable and as random as 42. A physicist friend was telling me the other day about a brainstorming session she was having with her professor and colleagues, and it’s interesting how the line between modern theoretical physics and philosophical abstraction is almost blurred. At one point the professor goes, “I guess there’s only one explanation – 42”. Even modern scientific thought can be as worryingly limiting as religious cosmology. The monotheism of big bang and singularity, for example. A more open thought, I feel, is the idea of multiple and simultaneous big bangs. I checked out the pilot episode of this sitcom called the Big Bang theory on the recommendation of a teenager. He finds the show hilarious. He reads Nietzsche, attends skiing camps inSwitzerland, listens to hard metal, writes poetry about freedom of thought, etc… One of those kids… It was such an unimaginative show! The characters are cardboard cutouts, and their jokes are as flat as dimensions of M-theory. Where do you stand on the string theory? Copying, duplication, imitation of the product is a punishable offence is replaced by "This product at a microscopic level might be made of strings. Manufacturer will prosecute to the maximum extent of the copyright law any attempt to make a supersymmetric version.” Have you heard this one? How many string theorists does it take to change the light bulb? Two – one to hold the bulb and the other to turn the universe around.

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