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Word Power

I hit that sweet spot, just late enough, the soothing calm of late evening as I walked along campus today. The light was diffuse, ambient brightness just soothing enough. Harsh reds and yellows of the afternoon replaced by mellow oranges and magnolia. I could feel the the light wind ruffle through my beard, a gentle caress. It brushed against my skin slowly taking away all the tiredness of the entire day. The perfect combination of cool and warm, spring. Birds were returning home, I presume, all of them talking at once. Not a cacophony, a melody. The ambience did not let anything harsh intrude upon itself, everything was filtered through a peaceful calm. It altered my mood, I could feel the trees around me gently waving in the breeze, a days job done, time to sleep. The road was almost empty, the few people who were on their way home not making a sound, probably reveling in this paradise of a moment.

I went into a building, came out about fifteen minutes later. The drastic transformation outside immediately invoked that word. The word that has been coming up in my mind for a while now, exerting undue influence.

CREPUSCULAR

Twilight had fallen. Birds silent, breeze absent. A dark, heavy stillness hung in the very air, you could feel it in pressing down on you. The failing light showed everything unfavorable. Long shadows, menacing. The city lights started coming on, but looked really ugly without the utter darkness of the night that usually frames them to make them look pretty. The other people walking around looked like pale ghosts, motives unknown, faces unseen. A moment ago, DAY had let out one final beautiful breath, and NIGHT hadn’t arrived yet, and we hung in this putrid purgatory, an uneasy state of transition. I quickened my pace, to escape this brooding, heavy miasma into the relatively safe confines of my office. Once inside the building, I deliberately slowed down, taking the longer route to go up, hoping that the spectre of this unseemly twilight had passed. It had. Night has fallen as I think about the events of the last few minutes and look out my window at the pinpricks of light that sit tight within the surround blackness, the interplay of white and black and neon painting minimalist painting of a city gearing up for some night time jiving.

Just that one word, crepuscular, transformed the soothing balm of the evening into a festering mass of dark thoughts. If you have noticed, the word has wormed its way into all my recent writings, usually in inappropriate places. It crops up in my head, exerting its power at unexpected times. It is not alone and the other words are not so dark either. There are many such words that become fixed in your imagination, due to some incident or other. Such is the effect of this evening on me today, the other words elude me at this moment. Sometimes, like in this case, there is no story, the word crepuscular just fascinates me. It invokes so many things within the confines of about four syllables transforming everything, from a gentle breeze to a vile miasma just like that. Creepy, pustular, are the other subliminal words that are whispered in the background. The word invokes a sudden darkness, not complete, but just enough to invoke the despair of the description above. Such power. I wont even venture to dissect the profound effect of this word, or others on the mind in the right context because it is so self evident. It is a matter of experiencing it, feeling it. The word is not beyond words, but all its influence is explained away by eleven letters in sequence: Crepuscular.

Do we give power to the words we use, or do they come equipped with their own force?

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SOMMEIL ANORMALE

Taken from my old blog, dated january 9, 2012

Why french? Meh, who cares. We are here to talk about my abnormal sleep behavior. I am not sure if it is exactly abnormal, not having observed other people much, but there are some features to my sleep, that if they are normal, God save humanity… 🙂  [ok, not something thatdrastic ]
As some of you [Read ‘Samit’] know quite well, I [used to] suffer from night terrors. This is something, wherein I would wake up screaming like a banshee on steroids, keep at it for about 30-40 seconds, waking everyone within earshot [and a few beyond] and promptly fall asleep again, oblivious. Sometimes, I would wake up on account of the hubbub around me and realise what has transpired. A few apologies later, everyone would return to bed, no one except me enjoying a sound sleep.
We even consulted a doctor, who said it was nothing detectable. A few pill regimens later, I am seemingly cured. Though it did recur about 6 months later, once I kinda figured out a pattern to it, it straightaway stopped. This reminds me of a problem our old Maruti 800 once had. It just stopped working, and wouldnt start without a vigorous push, 3-4 times on the Pune-Nashik highway. Back in Nashik, the mechanic saw the car, noticed nothing was wrong, asked Dad to start the car, and it started, like nothing ever happened. Though it stopped, we were never quite sure when it would crop up again, the problem, and we would be stranded. 4 years of use, till we finally sold it, we could never take the “Ghost Problem” out of our minds. My affliction (?) is analogous. It hasnt recurred in over a year now, but I can never sleep easy, knowing it can happen.
Why am I writing about this? Just yesterday [yesternight?], a most singular series of events [ah! Sherlock holmes :)] took place. I love Mumuryache laadu [whats it called in english? puffed rice flakes?] and my mom gave me a huge bag full of them. As Rahul [The Rote one, my room-mate] was also interested in them, the bag was open, right next to my bed. I woke up in the middle of the night, and for some reason had a craving for those laadus. I ate a half laadu, just like that, half asleep, and immediately fell asleep again. The wierd thing is, this thing repeated itself 4-5 times, and I ate about 5 big laadus [they are pretty big, bigger than golf balls] through the night. When I woke up in the morning, and realised what had happened, in addition to loads of laughter, I got an upset belly.
Again, why am I writing this? No reason. I just finished grading 160 papers, almost at a stretch. Was super bored, and this is something I am doing just before I hit the trenches, for another [hopefully un]eventful night. Good night to all of you!
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Free Willie

Taken from my old blog, dated 17 january, 2012

 

A few days back, I attended a [highly entertaining] talk, by Susan Blackmore about the link between Conciousness and the Brain. There were a number of interesting questions she raised, and that lead to some [not much!] introspection on my part.
Her talk ranged from “what is conciousness?” to Out of Body Experiences [OBE], to meditation to free will and lots of other things. She is quite a remarkable person who had a dramatic OBE when a young student, which lead her to reject grad studies and pursue a career in parapsychology. After 20 years of unfruitful work, she finally called it quits and turned to psychology and the problems of the mind. She is now a popular person on the Psych circuit, giving talks and writing books. She is the kind of person who has done it all, thus having a different take on many things.
She says that we need to reject our concept of free will. Her thoughts on conciousness and its definition are too complicated to be explained via text alone, so I will leave those alone. Free will, she says, doesnt exist at all. There is no one place, one ME where all your sensory inputs converge, to decide to do things, to have free will. It is all parallel processing, where all your cells do their things, and a big picture emerges.

Emergent behavior has permeated even popular literature. It is the phenomenon that some small and independent modules, with simple instructions, can join up to give rise to properties that are not just a sum of the individual elements, but something more.  This has many examples. Worker ants, each with simple motives and drives, give rise to spectacularly complex colonies. In computation, they use the same concept, that of parallel processing, where many small independent modules come together to solve a problem.

In another talk I attended a few days later, [the topic was History and Philosophy of Science] an interesting issue raised by some physicists [I intend to write about physicists and their biology at a later date 🙂 ]. The talk was about how biology progressed from a observational science, to a descriptive, mechanistic science over the years. The [whats the right word, Talker?] person giving the talk ended with a hint that we were returning to the concept of Vitalism, an unknown force, that makes us living things. The physics people then tried to link the rise of vitalism to similar trends in physics, where mechanistic explanation failed and there was a return to energy and field and those kinds of directions.

The point of saying that was, that we see a trend towards people using various analogies to explain emergent behavior, using terms like Vitalism and energy and force field [and Quantum mechanics!] which have slightly different connotations, and lead us astray from the actual point. As this post is now meandering away from our original point, Consciousness. The point is, that many independent modules working together can give rise to emergent properties, that defy explanation at first, but could be understood in the context of a coordinated, interacting model, a sort of a societal structure. Another case in point would be human society. The fact that it still stands [especially in countries like India, rife with mismanagement] despite so many failures, is for me, virtually un-explainable just as a sum of all the abilities of one human being seven billion times.

As she said, there is no central ME where all your senses converge, to have free will. The body does what it does, and thats that. In my opinion, this is just a difference in how people define free will. Now in western culture, the concept of free will is embedded in their major religion, so there is much more discourse on it, and people are more aware of the implications. Not so in our culture, in fact, it is only recently that we started thinking about free thoughts, let alone free will. Anyway, what I mean is, that if the body does what it does, then isnt that free will too? There is no ME to decide what to do and what not to do, but the body is doing that, isnt it? Think about this for a moment.

Disclaimer: You may or may not experience the moment described in this photo…

Another point that is usually raised by the people who are for free will, is that without it, our society will collapse. As Dr Blackmore correctly argues, in fact our judiciary will be strengthened if we discard the free will concept of “responsibility of an act” and make our laws along the lines of having deterrents to actions that harm people, and the punishment should be according to how useful it will be [ put people in jail if they steal, as it will prevent more thievery, but dont punish juveniles much, as that wont do any good, as they dont understand things as well. ]

To conclude this mishmash of random thoughts, for all practical purposes, we can do what we want, and there is a free will, that follows the spirit, if not the letter of the definition. For most of our lives, we dont [and mostly dont need to] think about how it will affect us, and our actions, but for the times it does, we need to take the many exceptions to freedom of action in that particular context.