Saturday, September 13, 2014

Total perspective vortex: A bibliography

The Total Perspective Vortex in Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a device capable of extrapolating a complete picture of the universe – every sun, every planet, their orbits, their composition and their economic and social history from one small piece of fairy cake.  It is a torture device. The torturer, if she or he so wishes, can plug on one end, the whole of reality as extrapolated from a piece of fairy cake, and the victim can then be plugged into the other end: so that when turned on, the victim sees, in one instant, the whole infinity of creation and their self in relation to it. The experience paralyses or even kills the victim.
Let’s attempt at putting ourselves through a very, very weak version of this device. Because nobody has tried to build these amazing devices born of Adams’ genius, we’ll have to rely on a mix of books and videos.
We can start with watching the powerful short Powers of Ten’ by Charles and Ray Eames. The architect couple, famous makers of wonderful objects like the Eames chair, made this film in 1968 (releasing it in 1977), by far predating Google Maps and The Pale Blue Dot. Starting at a picnic by a lakeside, the video takes us on a quick ride to the outer edges of the universe, and then, back again, deep into the human DNA and the atoms that inform its construction. Once we have established our insignificance in spatial terms, let’s go down a temporal tunnel.

“The cosmos is also within us. We're made of star stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.” One of the most enlightening books that will put things in perspective for us would be Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, with its insistence that “If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.” Let’s get on with it, then.

In an approximately 13.8 billion year old universe, our little blue rock formed around 4.6 billion (4600 million) years ago. Protons fused together in stars and new elements formed. The rich diversity of elements on earth created a possibility of millions of molecular permutations. Hydrogen reacted with carbon dioxide inside iron-sulphur bubbles, forming organic molecules like acetate, and a few hundred million years of accumulated reactions later, there were enough complex organic molecules replicating themselves. RNA and DNA evolved, and natural selection kicked in (to understand the principles of natural selection and evolution, read the very brilliantly put together ‘Introducing Evolution: A Graphic Guide’ by Dylan Evans).

Photosynthesis evolved about 3 billion years ago, simple animals about 600 million years ago, the homo-genus appeared around 2.5 million years ago, and homo sapiens started emerging 200,000 ago. It’s been only 25,000 years since the Neanderthals died out and the human being with behaviour traits similar to us today, became prevalent. Play with some evolution timelines online and let the idea of our infancy as a species sink in. I would recommend going to, and My personal favourite is (also look up the Human Molecule, while at it).

An obvious choice, at this point, would be to dive into Bill Bryson’s greatly entertaining A Short History of Nearly Everything, but a more poetic place to go to, would be ‘The Lives of a Cell’ by Lewis Thomas - especially for its precious consolation thatThere are some creatures that do not seem to die at all; they simply vanish totally into their own progeny. Single cells do this. The cell becomes two, then four, and so on, and after a while the last trace is gone. It cannot be seen as death; barring mutation, the descendants are simply the first cell, living all over again.”

Back on our timeline: it’s been about 12,000 years since the invention of agriculture in the ancient near east (roughly modern day middle east), and like all exponential consequences of accumulating reactions, this bibliography is going to explode, as well. The first thesis here, is Jared Diamond’s argument of environmental determinism, “History followed different courses for different peoples because of differences among peoples' environments”, in the perfectly reasoned, (but also disappointingly Eurocentric) ‘Guns, Germs and Steel’. You could skip the book and watch the documentary instead, as with the mildly amusing ‘The Botany of Desire’ by Michael Pollan. Now, the subtle co-evolution of language, technology and the human brain, is best studied with the neuroscientists - it would be worthwhile to browse through Terry Deacon’s ‘The Symbolic Species’. Yet, the real fun begins with binging on V S Ramachandran’s absolutely incredible talks, but wait, we are skipping a step.

Why do we feel fear, joy, anger, disgust, excitement or disdain? Why do we behave the way we do? Charles Darwin in ‘The Origin of the Species’, and his following works, made the first connection between natural selection and behavior patterns. Yet, it took another century for evolutionary thinking to become the basis of studies in animal and human behaviour, and, consequently, of human interaction, relationships and society - and no book does it better than Richard Dawkins seminal ‘The Selfish Gene’, a masterpiece of piercing clarity and scientific reasoning, evolving the field of semiotics into memetics.

To finally counter the nihilism of this adventure, read the prophetic ‘The Last Question’ by Isaac Asimov. And if you are sufficiently inspired by Asimov's transhumanism, have a go at Kurzweil's claim that ‘Singularity is Near’.

Monday, April 14, 2014

An appeal...

(Disclaimer: This post is only an emotional appeal. It does not welcome any party propaganda, so political rhetoric will be deleted. Share, if you care.)
Just one final appeal to everybody to make a truly informed decision. Your vote will count, even if you think it's one against a million, because you never know what is truly burning in the heart of your fellow citizens, till you honestly, deeply engage.
All of us want a fairer, nicer and cleaner, a more progressive and a more civilised country with better and equal opportunities for all. We want to uphold our right to speak and ask questions. We want to retain our right to seek information and justice. We want our natural resources to be mined and used for a better and sustainable life, while remembering they are borrowed from our future generations, and are not to be sold off to political sponsors.
We don't want to see criminals representing us in the parliament - we want to rehabilitate them, and engage them in social responsibility, help them readjust their worldview. The same goes for the corrupt - they, like us, are victims of a corroded machinery - we want to help build better systems. We want representatives who welcome our participation in policy thinking, and not decimate it. We want a government that is not hard of hearing, and educates and empowers communities to participate in short term practical decisions like road repair and water supply and annual local fund allocations for building schools and parks - and while at it, we want our representatives to do everything in their power to protect our fundamental, inalienable rights as living beings.
Let's remember that we are not working against each other. Let's work against this constant, convenient manufacturing of the "other", and let's work towards cleaning the mess we have created or inherited, together. And let's look at the Preamble to the Indian Constitution one last time, before we cast our vote -

The Facebook mirror post is here - 

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Proposition for a Revolution.

When Khushboo and Vinay decided to track the evolution of the Aam Aadmi Party, none of us knew what that document is going to look like. Because of the party's stand on transparency, it wasn't difficult to get access early on (another reason was, perhaps, they were glad there was at least some video record of their journey.) Today, we are in the process of editing a documentary feature, which we feel, is a really relevant icebreaker to many conversations we need to have - about our democratic processes, policies, practices and possibilities. We have maintained a high degree of rigor in our observation and documentation, and worked hard towards an objective, academic and unbiased perspective. We are very glad to invite the community to participate in the making and the eventual distribution of the film. Please watch the trailer of the film here (and share, if it resonates with you - with the hashtag #Prop4Rev) -