“It’s not so easy writing about nothing”…
Thus begins Patti Smith’s memoir, M Train, a 275 page odyssey that takes us through the world – through the graves of literary legends like Plath and Genet, to ice-covered Japan, rocky Iceland, and sunny Casa Azul, the boardwalk shacks of New York, and importantly, the most expansive and fascinating of them all, the inner working of an artist’s mind. And thus shall begin my musing, by shamelessly borrowing her line, lazy plagiarism in the guise of adulation.
For the second time in a year, I attempted to read Rachel Carson’s iconic book Silent Spring. For the second time in a year, I stopped at page 115, unable to rein in my brain from branching off to its Lala-land as Carson wrote passionately about pesticides endangering all the facets of nature. For the second time in a year, I felt the pinch that I wasn’t properly taught to deal with as a kid, the pinch of quitting something.
Out of an infinitely large collection of books and texts, what was it about this harbinger of the modern ecological movement that gnawed at me?
“I mean, Jesus Christ, I’m burning up inside! Don’t you know? I want to get out! This is all f****d up inside! I can’t stand another night! I just can’t take it anymore!”-Prisoner 8612, Stanford Prison Experiment 
It was the experiment that became a phenomenon in itself. It sparked off movies, a Netflix documentary, became a fixture in every college Psychology course, made its way into bestsellers like Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘The Tipping Point’,and made its creator, Philip Zimbardo, a legend in the psychology community. But after enjoying nearly five decades of notoriety, researchers have dug into archives and it’s not looking good for Zimbardo and his credibility.
I was on LinkedIn this morning, clearing my notifications, scrolling with no aim in mind, reading (questionable) stories of inspiration, success, failure, life-lessons, ‘expert’ commentary, and everything in between. What struck me was not how disingenuous some of the posts seemed but how people had taken an entirely different language to express themselves there – ‘business talk’, full of legalese, buzzwords, and thesaurus-esque contraptions which complicated basic ideas. It seemed almost dystopian, this way of talking, turning nouns to verbs and verbs to nouns & making sure the only words in a sentence having less than 2 syllables were articles. Why do we think complicated language is a signal of intelligence? Rather, why do we disregard clear expression as oversimplified?
The other day I sat in front of an Indian news channel after ages. The discussion, in between all the screaming and shouting, was dismal at best but my family felt the anchor was doing a great job because she could turn a clever phrase. In that moment they were so impressed with her vocabulary that the fact that it lacked substance was beside the point. They are not alone. Think back to your school, college, and work years and see how we have been taught collectively to reward the smart talker, the juggler of jargon. My point is not to disregard flourish of language but to question the correlation we assume between breadth of vocabulary and depth of ideas.
As I was writing this article, I was aware that most wouldn’t even click the link to read it. Some of those who did won’t make it past the first paragraph. I tried to think of ‘angles’ to pique interest, witty ways to rephrase our collective denial and failure when it comes to climate but couldn’t conjure any. So here’s a straightforward musing on a topic that elicits little banter and social currency – Climate Change.
This month I set out a task, to read more about environmentalism and climate change. I went through six books in total – Small Is Beautiful by E.F Schumacher, Animal Liberation by Peter Singer, Timeless Simplicity by John Lane, The Great Derangement by Amitav Ghosh, The Ecology of Commerce by Paul Hawken, and Walden by Henry David Thoreau. Between them, respectively, they covered aspects like reimagining economics as beyond profiteering and growing into larger entities, reconsidering our attitudes towards animals as food and research material in labs, rethinking our need to invest in materialism to derive self-worth, recognizing that our literature, history, and politics all played a role in downplaying the magnitude of the problem, realizing that unless businesses wake up to climate change, no amount of 3R’s at household level will do much, and that reconnecting with nature is an inherent need for all of us.
An article exploring the legacy of Mrs. Shakuntala Devi and the questions raised by women pioneers
“Human memory is not merely the repository of information in the brain. It is much more than this, and something that a machine can never be: a power, a force by which we mentally reproduce not just information but also our experiences, by which we shape our perceptions, introspect, interpret and analyse the direction our life has taken.”
― Mrs. Shakuntala Devi, Super Memory: It Can Be Yours
I watched the biopic on Mrs. Shakuntala Devi, starring Vidya Balan yesterday. The movie was a good albeit overdramatic attempt at exploring the woman who was called The Human Computer. Every biopic has a narrator or point of view that serves as the ‘in’ for the story – the lens through which we are introduced to the subject. Mrs. Devi’s was her daughter and their flawed dynamic. While I liked the idea of portraying her as a complicated figure – a genius par excellence, a feminist ahead of her time, an overbearing mother, a stubborn trailblazer, I was left wondering about this emphasis on domesticity. A review on Deccan Chronicle captures my thoughts.
The biopic on Mrs. Devi. Source : News18.com
An essay on feeling comfortable with whatever you read, and being okay with not enjoying reading too
Surfing on YouTube, I came across channels which catered to reading. One was of an astrophysicist who recommended books that shaped his scientific temperament (which is how I found about Alex’s Adventures in Numberland, a book I’ve raved about – those who follow me on Instagram and Twitter may know), another was a literature student who check-listed 100 books he read in the previous year (mostly from his curriculum), and finally one from Timothy Ferriss, the guy behind the 4-Hour Workweek, in which he gave tips to speed-read by engaging your peripheral vision. It’s this video that struck me most, not because I flinched when he physically drew lines on the paper with a pen to delineate the periphery of focus, but because in a span of 10 minutes, he had turned my hobby, my leisurely activity into a mechanically optimized task.
A friend told me whenever he suggests books to his colleagues, he gets radio silence, not so on other topics. There’s a Dorothy Parker quote that goes, “I don’t like writing. I like having written.” I suspect it’s the same here. People love ‘having read’ but abhor the effort that goes into reading. That’s where people like Timothy Ferris come in to make the process quicker, sharper, cleaner. Why read a line when your brain can take half of the sentence and fill-up the rest based on heuristics? Why read a book when you can skim through half and let your mind make up the rest? Why even read when you can see the title and let your imagination run wild?
An article exploring the genesis of probability from socially frowned-upon gambling
“So surely as I was inordinately addicted to the chess board and the dicing table, I know that I must rather be considering deserving of the severest censure.” – Girolamo Cardano
In ‘Alex’s Adventures in Numberland’, the writer Alex calls the Italian Girolamo Cardano “probably history’s most colourful mathematician of significance”. Cardano (1501-1576) lived quite the life – professionally a doctor, he published over 100 books in his lifetime, once travelled to Scotland to treat the archbishop’s asthma, was an astrologer, claimed to determine one’s character by interpreting the irregularities on one’s face, and whose book Consolation is rumoured to be the book Hamlet reads during his ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy. Cardano was also a controversial figure, notoriously temperamental, had a scandalous personal life – his oldest son murdered his wife, his daughter, working as a prostitute, died of syphilis, he himself was jailed for calculating Christ’s birth-chart, and was an addict & gambler. And it was his gambling that gave birth to the first scientific treatise on probability, ‘Book on Games of Chance’.
Girolamo Cordano – Source : Britannica
An article exploring nature’s complexity being brought out through Chaos Theory
Think about water dripping from a tap. When you turn it on slowly, it drops in an aesthetically pleasing rhythm – an aggregate of hydrogen and oxygen coalescing into a bulbous shape, pulled by gravity, falling into the sink, followed soon by similar drops coalescing behind it. Turn up the pressure gradually and this pattern dissolves, the tip, tap, tip, tap giving way to an erratic stream that suggests that the rhythmic pattern may have been an error. Think of the smoke rising from a lit cigarette. Wisps of grey-black soot escaping from the stub and immediately dissipating into unknowable shapes in front of your eyes, never to be repeated again. How can such simple system birth such unpredictability?
An article exploring Tesla’s struggle with bureaucracy, frustration with finances, and society’s vindication coming too late for most innovators.
“This letter will never get to you, Mother. I don’t know why I write it to you when you cannot read it…rest in peace Mother and please forgive me for choosing paths that had led me away from you. I cannot even be there for your funeral. I read the telegram that informed me of your death and despise people who weren’t ready to understand two years ago that electricity can be transferred without wires. Now, they have seen it but they won’t use it for centuries to come because someone burned my downtown laboratory to the ground, with all of my formulas and writings in it.”
-Fragment of Tesla’s Last Letter to His Mother
Were it not for the title of this article, could you have guessed that this grieving son writing to his then-deceased mother, was the man behind revolutionary ideas like Alternating Current, Radio, Microwaves, Radar, Computing, Robotics and scores more? It’s easy to think of ‘eccentric geniuses’ as people absorbed in their work to a fault, and there’s ample evidence that Tesla was both – eccentric and genius. His notable eccentricities included – “obsessive compulsive disorder, only inhabiting a hotel room that was divisible by the number three, pigeons, and an aversion to women wearing earrings”. Nevertheless, it’s important not to let the odd traits be the sole markers of his identity. So here’s an attempt to humanize Nikola Tesla. Read More