The Winter of ’69 Is Coming

I was sitting in a dark, somewhat seedy bar in Kondapur, Hyderabad when the “DJ” started to play Summer of ’69 and the dark, somewhat seedy crowd went wild. I was amazed that even in 2014 there were people who had failed rather spectacularly to outgrow Bryan Adams’ anthem to nostalgia. When I was 15 and in high school, everyone was learning to play that very song on guitar. The seedy bars I went to aged 18-21 played Summer of ‘69 on the hour every hour. And here I was again, 26 years old and watching people cheer and whoop as soon as Bryan Adams’ annoying voice croaked “I bought my first real six-string!” through the speakers.

That’s when the penny dropped. These were not disparate groups of people; no, they were the same. The same people who cheered Summer of ’69 in seedy bars at the age of 20 in 2008, were cheering Summer of ’69 in seedy bars in 2014, aged 26. Was it because they had stopped caring about music in the same way I had stopped caring about whatever gritty new American TV show was all the rage on social media? Why was that? After giving that question a bit of thought (and gin), I came up with the idea that it’s because we are now rather suddenly gaining an understanding of the value of time and the imminence of death. When you’re 15 or even 21, time is an empty stretch of ocean extending before you until it disappears over the edge of the horizon. All you want to do then is experience as much as you can, drown yourself in new and exciting pleasures. At 26, you start spotting land at the end of the horizon and suddenly, your time is precious and you want your pleasures to be simple, uncomplicated, regular, and something you can share with as many other people as possible. Thus, it’s easier to cheer and whoop to the unimaginative and clichéd strains of Summer of ’69 than it is to go out there and search for good contemporary music. It’s probably why our parents (or at least mine) stubbornly held on to their old tapes of Mohammad Rafi and Kishore Kumar even while AR Rahman was making the best music of his career, before his he turned towards the new musical direction of rampantly stealing from Algerian and Middle Eastern musicians.

Well, I thought some of you might be interested in exploring new music once again, just like you did while in college, though instead of a large folder full of unorganized mp3s that span genres, decades, and quality; all I can offer is a list of some rather interesting musical acts I have come to grow rather fond of since 2010. Unfortunately, it is quite common for people who are knowledgeable about any human endeavour to use that learning as a weapon to protect their own fragile and bloated ego. Thus, people now are rightfully hesitant to heed anyone’s suggestions for trying out new music. Well, luckily for you, I’m not some sort of music connoisseur, and this is not some sort of hipster one-upmanship contest with me saying, “Look at all this music you’ve probably never even heard of”. These aren’t exactly underground acts; some of them have been around for over a decade. I’m just putting this out there in the hope that this list spreads and I will not have to endure any more Bryan Adams or Bon Jovi the next time I’m at a seedy rock-themed bar in Hyderabad, Bangalore, or Delhi. So, without further ado, here is a collection (in no particular order) of what I believe is the best music I have heard in the last 4 years.


 

1. Das Racist

Some of you might have already come across the comedy styling of Hari Kondabolu. If you haven’t, I recommend you check this and this out. Das Racist is a rap group that consisted of Hari’s younger brother Ashok Kondabolu (aka Dapwell), fellow ABCD Himanshu Suri (aka Heems), and Victor Vazquez (aka Kool A.D.). Their formation story is rather different from most hip-hop bands; they met at the prestigious Wesleyan University, perhaps the United States’ leading liberal arts school, which counts 13 Pulitzer Prize winners, and the likes of Joss Whedon, the creators of How I Met Your Mother, and Michael Bay in its alumni. The band is not some sort of privileged minority satire of hip-hop as much as it is a deconstruction of rap, race, and politics in the US. The name, a phoneticized version of ‘That’s Racist’, was a response to what Himanshu Suri described as a game “(…) to take all the seriousness out of making legitimate commentary on race, because that can get very annoying. So when something veering on racially insensitive would pop off in a commercial on television or something, it would be like, who could yell “That’s Racist” first”. Of course, if you don’t care about the socio-political commentary behind the music and just enjoy some phat beats and sick rhymes, this could work for you on that level too.


 

2. M83

In something with no precedent whatsoever in all of human history, some sort of revolution is taking place in Paris. Daft Punk were just the beginning, there is a lot of very interesting musical talent emerging from France, most of whom sing in English. French electronic/indie rock group M83 have been making music since 2001, but I only heard them for the first time in 2011, when their album, Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, was described by music critics as a summoning of the best of The Cure and New Order. That, the fact that the band are named after the closest and brightest spiral galaxy in the night sky, and that ‘cosmic’ and ‘trip’ were the most commonly used words to describe their sound, made me check them out almost instantly. While they definitely combine elements of 80s synthpop with a very 90s shoegazing, post-grunge feel, I would have to say that their sound can be best described as the auditory equivalent of watching an episode of Doctor Who. Particularly, an episode written by Steven ‘Adds Needlessly Messianic Undertones in Everything’ Moffat.


 

3. Deafhaven

Somewhere in the 1990s, metal completely lost it. Metallica started making shit like Load and Re-Load before making St. Anger and Death Magnetic, two ginormous pieces of pure, unadulterated excrement that now make Re-Load look like one of their greatest albums ever. Iron Maiden too only came out with their last good albums, Brave New World and Dance Of Death between 1999 and 2003. Throughout the 2000s, instead of rocking out, sticking it to the proverbial Man, and headbanging so hard that it took three cans of Violini spray before you were capable of lifting your head the next morning; metal fans indulged in only two pastimes. The first was arguing about who invented metal (some say it was Black Sabbath, others say Judas Priest, others say Led Zeppelin, and a few even point to The Beatles, with Helter Skelter as the first metal song). The second was arguing about what sub-sub-genre of metal a band or song belonged to. “What? Death Metal? Can’t you see this is clearly Norwegian Industrial Alternative Melodic Sludge Doom Heavy Grindcore?” Well, Deafhaven is a metal band that combines death/doom/whatever metal vocals with a sound that tends more towards Magnesium or Aluminium than heavy metal. Since no metal review is complete without coining a new genre to describe the band, I hereby dub Deafhaven ‘Death Mithril‘. It may come across as slightly disconcerting to the metal regular at first, but it grows on you until you can see the complexity and calmness behind the facade of chaos.


 

4. Broken Bells

As I said before, this is not supposed to be a list of “underground bands you’ve never heard of”. Broken Bells is a huge, multi-platinum selling supergroup consisting of James Mercer, the lead singer of The Shins (you know, the guys who made this song?) and Danger Mouse aka Brian Burton. Who is Danger Mouse? He is the Illuminati, the Men In Black (well, Man…), the Petyr Baelish of contemporary music. If in the last ten years you’ve heard an album that you think is something really good, possibly even awesome, there is a very good chance that Danger Mouse is lurking in some corner of that CD/record/folder. He’s worked on albums for Gorillaz, The Black Keys, Norah Jones, Beck, Sparklehorse, Electric Guest (a nice indie rock band I’ve just started listening to today, so I can’t feature in this post), and is working on U2′s next album. Danger Mouse, along with Cee Lo Green, also formed the group Gnarls Barkley; you’ve probably heard their Grammy Award winning song Crazy from their Grammy Award winning album St. Elsewhere. So, yeah. Danger Mouse + Shins = Brilliant. Check it out.


 

5. Kendrick Lamar

See, I told you this isn’t going to be a list populated with obscure artists nobody’s ever heard of! Unless you haven’t heard of Kendrick, in which case, I assume you don’t follow a lot of contemporary hip-hop, because he has been receiving high praise from almost every rapper, producer, and casual rap enthusiast in the world. Case in point, when his album good kid, m.A.A.d city didn’t win the 2014 Grammy Award for Best Rap Album, the winner - Thrift Shop‘s Macklemore – himself stated “You (Kendrick) got robbed. I wanted you to win. You should have. It’s weird and sucks that I robbed you.” While that probably doesn’t do much as a recommendation, though it might endear Macklemore to you a bit, it is genuine. Kendrick is probably the best active MC in the world right now, and that’s in a list that includes Eminem.


 

6. Enter Shikari

Though this band has been around since 2003, and their breakthrough album came in 2009, I only heard them for the first time in late 2010. And no, they aren’t Indian. Enter Shikari’s post-hardcore metal sound, accentuated with dubstep-influenced electronica, is brilliant on its own, but what makes this even better is that they appear to be quite earnest musicians with a message. Their songs talk about the alienation that many young people feel with the establishment, the sense that the best days of your life are behind you and that those days were pretty shit to begin with, as well as climate change, resource inequality, and the urgent need for a social and economic revolution. It’s the kind of “youth empowerment” stuff we hear with nauseating regularity from the kind of people who BJP supporters call NGO-wale; except it’s put to some great music and expressed using words and emotions that reflect my sentiments about the issues more accurately.


 

7. Dualist Inquiry

If you have a TV in India, you might’ve noticed a new channel some time ago. If you haven’t, turn on channel 667 on Tata Sky (I don’t know the numbers for the other cable service providers and can’t be bothered to look them up). That’s the first good thing MTV have done since Fully Faltoo. Called MTV Indies, it’s a channel that’s dedicated (as of now) to Indian independent music. It’s also the first MTV channel worldwide to show a music video in nearly 8 years. The flagship band for this channel is, in my opinion, one of if not the best indie band from India now. Dualist Inquiry’s Doppelganger was easily the best album to come out of India last year. Their sound is an electronic heavy, synthpop influenced, psychedelic and largely instrumental kind of indie rock. Whilst not especially inventive or original, they are a step in the right direction, and their excellent production and skill could easily lead to the kind of genre-busting, path-forging new sound many of us are waiting for Indian indie bands to create.


 

8. The Child of Lov

When I first heard the self-titled debut album of The Child of Lov (aka Belgian/Dutch musician Martijn William Zimri Teerlinck), I couldn’t help but compare him to Damon Albarn. The album shared many similarities with Albarn’s early solo work with Gorillaz, viz. the incessant genre-switching, the almost child-like glee of making any sort of musical cacophony, and where Albarn’s Gorillaz fused electronic music with rap and hip-hop, The Child of Lov’s fusion tendencies created a Frankensteinian amalgam of electronic R&B and soul music. I treated this album as the early exploratory forays of a musician whose career I was expecting to follow rather keenly. While looking up his real name for this blog post, I found out that he died on December 10, 2013. May his electronic soul rest in peace.


 

9. Tame Impala

Did you like The Beatles when they were the Fab Four? Did you like them more before they went Back In The USSR? When Sorry Girls, Lennon Was Married and not The Walrus? When Paul was still alive? But do you also wish they could also win the Ashes 5-0? Well, lucky for you, there’s just such a band! Starting this brief about Tame Impala with a comparison to The Beatles may seem unfair to the Australian band, but what they lack in mop-tops, they make up for with a sound that’s described as neo-psychedelic space pop/rock, but is actually 60s hippie revival. These Bondi Beach Boys have successfully managed to integrate the music and feel of 1960s UK and California into Sydney and thereafter around the world.


 

10. The Lightyears Explode

If for nothing else, their album’s name: The Revenge of Kalicharan and their album cover. But even then, what I like about The Lightyears Explode is the fact that these guys come closest to achieving that unique, Indian-indie sound that we’re looking for. A piece of musical originality that betrays its roots better than the odd strain of a veena or beat of a tabla ever can and is yet more forward than backwards. I’m not saying this Mumbai-based punk band has it, but they’re heading in the right direction.


 

And with that, one hopes the tyranny of Bryan Adams will fade into darkness and the Winter of ’69 shall finally be upon us, and it will not be a moment too soon. You know, when I look back now… that summer seemed to last forever.

If you’ve read this far, sneak the words ascii 42 into a comment and the next time we meet in person, I will buy you 2 drinks of your choice.*

*Conditions Apply

Posted in Fads, Faux-Viral, Ideas, India, Kolaveri, Philosophy, Rant, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A short bit on some of my personal heroes

Hint: It’s not Nietzsche or Douglas Adams or even Radiohead.

The creators of South Park – Matt Stone and Trey Parker – are the only people in the entertainment industry who are anything close to being role models to me. They are the source of not just my life philosophy – a sort of nihilism sans melancholy, but their vendettas against maturity, political correctness, and society’s holy cows, along with their subversive, almost anarchist sense of humour is something I can relate to on a deeply personal level. Even the story of how they met is amazing when heard from their own voices. The boring version is that they met at film school while at studying at the University of Colorado. But Matt Stone puts it this way:

“We were the only two people who were into comedy and doing weird little films that weren’t black-and-white sexual exploration pieces. And so we were kind of thrown together because we were the only two who wanted to not be Martin Scorsese.”

A recurring statement in numerous interviews is that they find liberals, especially Hollywood liberals, far more interesting targets of satire than Republicans, and that most liberals are much worse at taking jokes aimed at them than conservatives, maybe because you don’t find a lot of good satire targeting the liberal side of an argument. I wasn’t always sure about this, my opinions on most matters classify me as a ‘Liberal’ and I thought that the South Park episode making fun of Atheism, a side I am firmly on, was hilarious, and more importantly, poignant; I understood the point they were trying to make and it probably stopped me from becoming what Dawkins describes as a ‘Militant Atheist’. So I thought maybe Liberals are not as bad sports as Matt and Trey make them out to be.

You know, I learned something today. They are right. Here’s a link to a 2010 Huffington Post article about the duo. The comments on this are a cesspool of delicate, self-inflated egos that have pricked quite hard and are scrambling desperately to reaffirm their own lofty ideas of being the modern world’s sociocultural Ubermensches.

Samples include:

Just poking fun at everything because you don’t understand the issues enough to know the difference between right and wrong isn’t cool, it’s asinine.

and

The are garbage people, living in a trash era in a rubbish universe, reveling in the intolerable stench of themselves and everything that surrounds them with every toxic breath. Their only theme is whether their exhalations are more poisonous than their inhalations, and their only answer to the question is “Fyoo, a whole!”
It’s very possible they may jointly comprise God 2.0. If they remain true to their vision of absolute spiritual, moral, and aesthetic bankruptcy, their careers must inevitably climax in martyrdom by some uniquely public, juvenile, repulsive, and meaningless suicide pact, (mutual immolation in rancid diapers?) after which religions will be based on South Park for the next 5,000 years.

or

Kind of amoral, narcissistic, frat-boys. Kind of like GWB

Yup. You have completely disproved their point. Well done.

Posted in Ideas, Philosophy, Rant | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Is The End Nigh?

Before you read this, I would suggest checking out the exact opposite point of view, espoused by Anupam Guha over here. While I don’t agree with everything he says there, I do like his characterization of urban, Indian youth and the phrase he uses to describe them, ‘petty bourgeois’. The choice of words I think plants him firmly within that camp, and my appreciation of it lands me there too.

Side note: People have this idea that a blog post must be at least 2,000 words long and coherent and have a particular subject. Trying to ensure that my blog ticks all these boxes is perhaps one of the reasons why I’ve managed to update this blasted thing only once every few months. So, in the time-honoured tradition laid down by every self-aggrandizing speaker at every formal function I have ever attended, I will begin by saying “I’m going to keep this short” before droning on about something that you probably don’t care about.

I’m going to keep this short. This post is, in essence, an explanation of why I’m not commenting at all about the supposed elections taking place in the world’s largest supposed democracy. Of course, my inability to not fly off on irrelevant and irreverent tangents makes the possibility that this post will continue to be only about that remote, but I shall persevere. So, why do I refuse to be drawn in (until now, that is?) Because I think we are collectively, as a society, deluding ourselves. We are rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, only pausing to notice an iceberg looming in the distance and saying to ourselves, “It’s an exaggerated threat. We’ll be fine!”. Yes, I’m aware of how bad an analogy that was. But my point is this. There are many well-intentioned, well-meaning, extremely intelligent people I know personally who are looking at these elections as if they are the cornerstone to India’s future. And maybe they are right; maybe decades, even centuries from now, people will look at the Indian General Election of 2014 in the same way that we today view the German Federal Election of 1933. But that presupposes civilization will last the next few centuries. I’m not try to be a climate prophet of doom, this is not a “OMG! climate change is going to kill us all!!!” rant. Even in worst-case scenarios, humanity will survive. In what state, however, is a different matter altogether. All I’m saying is this. Yes, this election is important, and yes, I do hope that a certain politician from a certain state with the largest coastline in India doesn’t end up becoming our Prime Minister. But that’s most likely what’s going to happen. And here’s the thing, very little will change. Change comes not from one man’s will or from the authority of the seat of Prime Minister. If that were possible, solving India’s problems would have been a piece of cake. We’ve had numerous well-meaning PMs in the past, some of whom commanded greater loyalty among their party members, possessed more charisma, and were more authoritarian than the one Liberal India is hoping and praying doesn’t become our next one. They couldn’t do shit, and neither will he. 

What will dictate the future of India are things that people have only a cursory interest in now. They glance at news articles about it, maybe like the occasional FB post related to it, and almost never read anything substantial written about the topic, though I don’t blame them. Climate change, resource scarcities, wealth inequality, India hitting some sort of Malthusian crisis point, natural calamities, falling trade; these are the factors that have historically shaped the rise and fall of civilizations and will shape the fall of our global civilization too. I can’t put my finger on it, but I sense we are close to a major catastrophe in this light. It’s just a feeling for which I have no evidence, but I can feel it in the same way one feels that it’s going to rain soon. Something in the air, something in the way things are going, it just makes me feel we have maybe a decade or two, maybe even less, to sort ourselves out before the shit hits the fan. 

Like most writers on the internet, I too secretly crave comments on my blog but am too proud to openly ask for them. Well, here I am doing that now. And just to make it easier, I am going to ask you a question that you can choose to answer in the comments. Or you could ignore it and just say I’m a lazy, nihilistic, so-and-so who can’t be arsed to do anything, even hold an opinion. Whatever floats your goat

I think, whether we like it or not, the balance of probability is that towards Narendra Modi is going to be India’s next PM. Suppose, like Dominic Cobb in Inception (THAAAD!), you had the ability to plant an idea in his head with the knowledge that he will actively pursue it in his own inimitable style, what would that idea be? (Please don’t be a spoilsport and say, “Step down from being PM” or something like that). Think about it, what would you make him do that would make his tenure tolerable, possibly even good, for India and even the world? 

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Sage Sagan’s Sagacious Saga

Today, November 9, is Carl Sagan’s birth anniversary. Had he lived, Dr Sagan would have celebrated his 79th birthday today.

His extraordinary Pale Blue Dot speech, which accompanies the now-famous photograph of the Earth taken by Voyager 1 from the edge of the Solar System, 6 billion kilometers away, is posted all over Facebook around a thousand times a day. That’s still not enough.

Note: This is the first time I’m publishing a blog post from my phone. Sorry about the absence of the usual bells and whistles that accompany my infrequent blog posts. And the numerous editing oversights that are bound to happen because I hate copy-editing or proofreading on a phone.

I’m in Hyderabad with my family, who while not being particularly conservative, are still pretty religious. There’s a Hindu religious function taking place at our house early tomorrow morning. I helped around as much as I could in the preparations, which were pretty substantial, nevertheless tempers are frayed, the scene is hectic, and everyone (your humble narrator included) is rather severely stressed out. Religion, I am told, is supposed to provide inner peace and solace. From my vantage point, I don’t see it.

As an atheist, I am supposedly incapable of experiencing a sense of belonging with the universe or appreciating the uniqueness of my own existence. These sentiments have been so thoroughly co-opted by the religious that even calling it spirituality is to plant one’s flag firmly in their territory. Yet, what spiritual benefit is my family to obtain from the performance of this silly ritual? It that has led to some nasty words being exchanged amongst members, a not-insubstantial drain on already limited financial resources, and will leave emotional wounds that will remain long after the last whiff of incense leaves the house.

I derive more spiritual peace from listening to one Carl Sagan quote than from all your pujas, namaazes, and sermons. I have committed to my rather inconsistent memory, the opening mandalas of the Rig Veda, the Gayatri mantra, the Takbir, the Shahada, and many verses of the Bible (KJV). Yet the spiritual fulfillment they give me isn’t even a fraction of a percent of what I get from reading Douglas Adams (“The fact that we live at the bottom of a deep gravity well, on the surface of a gas covered planet going around a nuclear fireball 90 million miles away and think this to be normal is obviously some indication of how skewed our perspective tends to be“), Kurt Vonnegut, Isaac Asimov, or Terry Pratchett, to give you four names at random.

Whether you follow an orthodox religion like Christianity and Islam, or an orthopraxic one like Hinduism, Jainism, and other “Oriental” cults, knowledge is the truest path to spiritual enlightenment. Knowledge acquired not for any particular purpose other than itself. “The Fear of the Lord is the Beginning of Wisdom” says Psalm 111:10. I think love for wisdom is the beginning of wisdom. Dr Sagan loved learning for learning’s sake. Art, in its truest form, is said to be something we make or do for no other purpose other than itself. In that sense the act of learning science is an art.

P.S.: I call dibs on ‘The Art of Learning Science’ as the title for a book, article, essay, blog, website, film, play, painting, or interpretive dance performance.

Posted in Gloom and Doom While Things Go Boom, Ideas, Philosophy, Rant, Science | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Navroze Spec Series: The Ahura Mazda RX7

My introduction to Zoroastrianism came via a very large Parsi mansion that was located right behind the apartment building I lived in for two years in Prenderghast Road, Secunderabad. We’d occasionally have to jump the wall that separated our two complexes in order to retrieve tennis balls that made their way there thanks to fits of very un-Hyderabadi aggressive batsmanship. Sometimes there would be a ceremony of some sort happening in the Parsi bungalow, as it was called, and I’d be transfixed trying to decode the mysterious rituals from the vantage point of our flat’s balcony, which overlooked their large backyard.

Disclaimer: I spilled coffee on my keyboard and have been reduced to using the on-screen keyboard instead. Typing anything out by furiously clicking on a mouse is a painful and irritating process and is not conducive to producing your best work. The only reason I persevered is because I really wanted to write this very badly. And in that attempt I have succeeded, for this has been written very badly.

A Navroze message to the followers of Ahura Mazda

Image

Source: farhadasl.deviantart.com

It took us 4,000 years, but it looks like we’ve won. I hate to bring this up on your New Year guys, but the fact is we won. Of course no-one remembers what the fight was about in the first place. Hell, many followers of the Devas (or Daevas, as you call them) now refuse to acknowledge that we were ever one people. But we were. And they were good times, too. We were there, together, at the invention of the greatest military marvel the world had ever seen until that point in history; the horse-drawn chariot, or ratha. After a hard day of training chariot horses (asvas/assuas) we sat together under the night sky of the Central Asian steppe, drank soma (haoma), and composed poems about Vayu, Agni, and other gods, the Devas and Asuras (or Daevas or Ahuras, as you came to call them). When did the fight start? Was it during the 4.2 KY event, which turned or verdant and lush grassland into deserts? Did the climate change? Did the streams run dry, did the soil lose it’s richness, emptying our once-mighty citadels? Did this lead to conflict, strife, and eventually civil war? 

Image

Some hack’s half-decent article on the 4.2 KY event

Were there factions, one of them led by a man, let’s call him Zarathustra, who rejected (you would say “reformed”) the black and gray morality of our old gods and instead advocated the revolutionary idea that the world is a battleground between the forces of pure good, represented according to you by the Ahuras (we call them Asuras), against the pure evil of the Daevas? Did my people see it the other way around? In the Vedas, we praised Indra, King of the Devas. In the Avesta, you list Indar as one of the arch-demons, calling him that which freezes the minds of the righteous and the opposer of Arta (divine truth). Is that why we fought? Is that the source of our great hymns and stories? The Vedas and the Avesta, written in languages so similar one cannot but come to the conclusion that they sprung from a common source? I know one thing we did do. We moved out of our old homes, away from the hills and mountains where the soma plant grows; we moved away from the steppes where our wild horses used to roam free. You moved to the west of the great mountains, we to the east. And over the next thousand years, our cultures grew apart, changing, evolving to adapt to our new realities.

And then, around the 8th to 10th centuries CE,  as you sought refuge from persecution, some part of your cultural memory remembered us. And thus, the followers of the Ahuras and the Daevas were in some small way reunited. But time, it appears has been less fortunate to you. Today, there are perhaps only a 200,000 or so followers of the Ahuras, whereas there are over 800 million followers of the Devas. That said, most of your 200 grand are extremely wealthy and powerful, while most of our 800 million live in abject poverty. So we win in quantity, you win on quality. It’s been 4,000 years, let’s just call it a tie. It’s time to bury the hatchet, brew up some soma/haoma, and listen to your greatest modern poet

P.S. That Kikkuli bastard sold us out! He wrote a book detailing all our secrets on how to rear chariot horses. If he wasn’t already dead for three and a half thousand years, I’d say we go kick his ass!

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2. Teenage Wasteland

This began as a blog post with an agenda. It ended up as a bit of stream-of-consciousness writing that has a faint hint of a unifying motif. And yes, “stream-of-consciousness writing” is code for poorly-written, rambling drivel.

The theme for today’s blog post is disappointment. That and stupidity. Now, I know you’re thinking, “Oh, no! Here he goes again, wagging away about how miserable his life is!” And while Disappointment and Stupidity: The Harish Alagappa Story would be a highly appropriate title for my autobiography, my disappointment here is directed at someone whose merest operational parameters I am not worthy to calculate; the one and only, Neil Motherfuckin’ Gaiman (FYI, “Motherfuckin’” is not Neil Gaiman’s real middle name, which apparently is… Richard. Anti-climactic, that). Nimish Batra; if he still read this blog instead of living the good life in New York, which involves taking instagram photos of Manhattan in the rain, working in an office that overlooks the WTC site, and watching a 33-year-old Thierry Henry regularly school American football players (that’s Americans who play football and not people who play American Football, a sport that if I hereafter talk about on this blog, I will refer to as “the oddly homoerotic handegg lobotomy sport”); would have at this juncture liked to point out that he’s met the Gaiman, gotten a whole bunch of his books autographed, and even managed to earn a response from him on Twitter. Speaking of Nimish, his Facebook posts are, to my immense surprise, cheerful and upbeat. It is strange to see him so happy all the time. But back to Gaiman.

My disappointment stems from his work on a recent episode of Doctor Who, which was the second time he’s written an episode for that show. His first episode, The Doctor’s Wife, was highly anticipated; I mean, when the guy who wrote this and this (and this, that, and the other) pens an episode for a show that is the ultimate in geekgasm-inducing (yes, I know I used the word geekgasm, and yes, I feel horrible) science-fiction fantasy, it is not unreasonable to expect the result to be something that will cause one’s brain to spontaneously leap 200 feet in the air and scatter itself over a wide area. Amazingly, the episode didn’t just match our insane expectations, it exceeded them by a larger margin than the one that divides Neil’s writing skill and mine. The Doctor’s Wife had everything that an episode needs to become a Who classic; brilliant writing, timey-wimey-ness, and a core idea that makes you go, “Damn! How the hell didn’t I think of that!”. Which is why his second foray into Whovian authorship was so disappointing. I’m not going to go into the details of why ‘Nightmare In Silver’ was “meh”, there are plenty of blogs that you can find for that purpose. Instead, I’m going to express my disappointment at one of my favourite writers, a man known for re-inventing genres and producing works of unsurpassed genius, for using a trope – no, a cliché, tropes can be good – that one sees all to often and isn’t just insulting and demeaning, but also highly unrealistic. In ‘Nightmare In Silver’, Neil Gaiman wrote an angry teenager who, even in an unusual and potentially life-threatening situation, is whiny, ungrateful, and obsessed with some ridiculous emotional conflict.

Angie, a teenager whose governess is the Doctor’s current companion (and Rose 2.0 candidate) Clara Oswald, has just discovered her baby-sitter occasionally runs off with a 1,000-year-old alien who has a blue box that can travel to anywhere in space and time. She blackmails her nanny (in an implausible but plot-propelling fashion) to take her along. The alien and governess do this. So far, so believable (by Doctor Who standards). They end up on a planet that was supposed to be an amusement park, but is a desolate wreck occupied by two groups of people; some weirdo with a mechanical turk that’s actually a Cyberman, and, importantly, a platoon of military people wearing camouflage that has no relevance to their surroundings except that it clearly identifies them as military personnel. She sees the Doctor use psychic paper to shoo the army people away, she sees the Doctor panic when he first sees the mechanical Cyber-turk, and can clearly see how visibly disturbed he is by the presence of the damn thing. The Doctor tells her to wait in a room while he investigates. Oh, and the entire time, she’s accompanied by her younger brother, who, as per another trope, is the brainy pick of the litter. Angie gets frustrated of waiting, leaves her brother alone on an alien planet, wanders off to where the military personnel are, enters their base, and loudly announces to them, “I’m bored!”.

It’s a trope you see all the time when there’s a teenage character in a plot, especially on film. I assume most of these stories are written by people who have teenage children and are probably just venting. But seriously, can they not see the flaw in the train of thought that goes, “Fucking teenagers, they’re are always wangsty, right? So why would they stop being wangsty when they’re in a strange place and/or a perilous situation! I’ll show them how their behaviour will land them in trouble! Then they’ll learn!” It presupposes that teenage wangst is a stronger sentiment than one’s basic instinct for survival, but also shows a startling lack of the writer’s ability to relate to when they were of that age. I was a teenager. Some say I still have the mental capacity of one. Before I was a teenager, I saw my elder sister as a teenager. I love my elder sister and she’s a really nice person and all, but between 1998 and 2004, she was a fucking terror. She has, I would like to clarify, mellowed down a lot since then. And I don’t think I was much better at that age, except I didn’t use my voice as much as she did and instead did all my screaming and shouting in writing, some of which was mercifully on paper and is hence lost in mists of time, but sadly on other occasions, I vented my teenage frustrations on a blog that I am tempted to delete every time I think about it.

Yes, I agree, teenagers are angry all the time, and most of the while they’re not 100% sure why they’re angry, or indeed at whom. Yes, they get bored easily and do not like listening to authority figures telling them what to do. Yes, they think they know everything about the world, but are in many ways painfully ignorant and naive. But they’re also, for the most part, not completely and entirely unaware of reality. When I was 15 years old, I had a pretty decent idea of what was happening around me. When, in 2003, I was travelling with my family in some extremely rural part of the Tamil Nadu coast, I saw a man carrying what at a glance looked like a gun. I whispered to my father, “Are we in LTTE territory?”. He nodded a yes. I didn’t shout, “Look! A guy with a gun! He’s probably an LTTE member! Fuck you Tamilians for sympathizing with a terror outfit that uses child soldiers, you piece of shit! Gawd, I’m so angry!” Nevertheless, in Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 , it makes perfect sense for Jim Lovell’s teenage daughter to be so obsessed with the fact that The Beatles broke up that she doesn’t want to go to see her father’s video broadcast from outer space en route to the moon. Somehow, in every disaster movie, there has to be a scene where the noble hero is trying to tell his, usually estranged, teenage daughter, “Honey, there’s an asteroid approaching the city/ a volcano’s erupting / Cthulhu has risen! We have to get outta here!” The daughter’s response is usually along the lines of, “No! You were never there for me! I hate you! I want Mom! Beiber 4eva!” When I was 15, if I was in danger, I wouldn’t care if Saddam Hussein came to save my life, I would want my life to be saved. Also, why are these narcissistic, survival instinct-lacking teen characters almost always girls?

It’s paradoxical how on one hand adults have the notion that teenagers are somehow so obliviously self-absorbed that they can’t perform basic acts of logical reasoning in dangerous situations, while at the same time teenagers are expected to show discipline, focus, and dedication while taking some of the most important decisions of their lives, viz. what career do they want to pursue, which college do they want to go to. Additionally, even though my teenage sister was a terror whose favourite pastime was to annoy me, I can assure you that she would never leave me alone on a dangerous alien planet just to go wandering off because she was bored. Fifteen-year-old elder sisters have at least that much of a sense of responsibility. And no matter how much teenagers hate authority figures, when they are in an alien situation (literally in the case of Gaiman’s episode), they listen to those authority figures. It’s not a culture gap or anything, it’s plain fucking common sense. I’m sure that during 9/11, teenage girls didn’t walk up to random police officers or firemen and announce loudly that they’re bored.

This is, of course, symptomatic of a larger trend of poor writing that tries to add emotional depth to a story by having characters bring up previous emotional conflicts in situations where sentimentality or focusing on the characters’ relationship with each other is just daft. Based on what I’ve noticed, during a time of crisis, people tend to forget previous relationship issues and work together. It’s not just a general statement about human behaviour, it’s a survival trait. 70,000 years ago, if a hunter you didn’t get along with shouted “There’s a lion behind you!” (I’m presupposing language had reached a sufficient level of complexity by this point), you didn’t say, “I’m not listening to you, okay!” You ran for your effing life and, if you impossibly survived, potentially even thanked the chap. Emotional conflict for the sake of it, making people bring up relationship issues in situations where no sane person would bring up relationship issues is in many works a bigger plot-hole than any bending of the laws of physics or egregious bit of historical inaccuracy. But oddly, no one calls bullshit on writers who frequently indulge in this, and some critics even praise this as “highlighting the difficult relationship between the two characters”. Not sure what else there is to say, really. I’m aware of the irony of making an argument against emotion while discussing a Doctor Who episode about the Cybermen, and just to make it worse, I’m going to end on a note from a different franchise. When human beings, of any age, are in a life-threatening situation, their reactions are more Vulcan than we give them credit for.

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Age Of The Geek? Not Really…

Like a cancer, the blog is back from remission to slowly sap your will to live.

And I’ll begin with the wise words/demented ramblings of noted conservative American radio host, actor, and filmmaker, Alex Jones. He is infamous for accusing the US Government (or “gub’ment”, as he calls it) of being responsible for the Oklahoma bombings, 9/11, 7/7, and Sandy Hook (oh, yes! He’s using the violent death of elementary school children to put forth his pro-gun, anti-thinking political agenda). He also believes US Presidents are puppets for the “New World Order” and the Illuminati, who dominate the world using Carbon Taxes (no, seriously!) and are intent on creating a single world gub’ment to hasten the coming of the Anti-Christ. Anyway, this guy made a colossal ass of himself on Piers Morgan’s CNN show last week after starting an online petition to have Morgan deported from the US for saying negative things about American gun laws. Jones-y let loose his drool-filled fury on Morgan, shouting at the camera about how Piers Morgan’s REAL reasons behind speaking ill of American gun laws is that he was trying to ensure that the average American will be left defenceless against a global conspiracy lead by the media, the banks, Hollywood, the Jews, and even England. “1776 WILL COMMENCE AGAIN!” Jones shouted mid-way through his hilarious interview adding that, “THE REPUBLIC WILL RISE AGAIN!”. (I wasn’t aware it had fallen. What was that thing that happened in November last year, then?)

Anyway, the reason I’m mentioning this so-called person is that his new targets are a social group that includes me. In a radio show on Friday, he finally identified the people who are destroying America and trying to take over the world. This sinister group of evil fiends are, drum-roll maestro… Nerds! Yes, those nerds, the people who are known for obsessing with intellectual minutiae, random trivia, and lacking or, struggling with, basic social skills. The fact that this man has a significant number of assault-rifle owning followers of course makes this statement slightly more dangerous. Alex Jones’ statements were characterized by his usual penchant for clear logical thinking, and his style of building rational arguments that are tested by repeatedly conducting experiments and observing how well the results of those experiments match the ones he predicted, saying:

I’m telling you folks, nerds are one of the most dangerous groups in this country, because they end up running things. But they still hate everybody because they weren’t the jocks in high school. So they play little dirty games on everybody. They use their brains to hurt people, and I’m aware of them. Okay, I see you, you little rats.

Makes You Laugh, Makes You Think…

Yes, Alex, I know it hurts you when nerds use their brains, especially when they use their brains to come up with those hurtful things called facts, which they use to create painful things called arguments. And those nerd arguments can be used to prove you a gibbering Cro-Magnon, possessing a mind that’s more Palaeolithic than Palaeoconservative. Damn those nerd brains, Alex! Brain make Alex head hurt! Alex no happy when head hurt! Alex smash brain!

(Mild digression: The good news is homosexuality has become so acceptable in American culture that gay people; who were once blamed for earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, fires, violence, terrorist attacks, and health scares, among other things; are now no longer the focus of hate for America’s top fascist ignoramuses! Well done, you guys!)

But what is remarkable about his rant is the fact that he is perpetuating a myth that I have so far only seen in Hollywood high-school/college movies and recently, on Facebook. It is the idea that nerds are taking over the world, that nerds are the CEOs and Presidents of major corporations, banks, international organizations, and even governments. This, of course, is not true, folks. Nerds do not, as Mr Jones said, “end up running things” simply because if there is one thing that a stereotypical nerd is morbidly averse to, it is running. Also, in the figurative sense, nerds hate having to constantly interact with people, as all social interactions in a leadership role inevitably result in conflict. Nerds hate social conflicts that have to be resolved in person, especially when sometimes the right answer lies in between two opinions. We prefer our world to be binary, with questions to which the answers are either right or wrong. The constant decision taking that leadership roles entail are also something that nerds do not appreciate, not because nerds don’t like taking decisions, rather it’s the idea that other people have to face the consequences of our potentially wrong decision, and the one thing a nerd hates more than anything else is being proven wrong. A nice way to illustrate this is using TV Tropes’ brilliant nomenclature system for the average band of heroes:

The group traditionally includes:

  • The Leader (The CEO / Lead singer / President or PM): The Hero of the group; can be a mastermind, charismatic, level-headed, headstrong, or some combination of the four.
  • The Lancer (The CFO / Lead guitar / VP): The second-in-command; is usually a contrast to The Leader. If the Leader is clean-cut and/or uptight, the Lancer is a grizzled Anti-Hero; if the Leader is driven and somewhat amoral, the Lancer is more relaxed and calm.
  • The Big Guy (Security / Drummer / Legal): The strongman of the team, he may be stupid, but is likely to be hot-headed, vindictive, and aggressive to the point of self-destruction.
  • The Chick (Communications / vocal effects / PR): Holds the peacekeeping role to balance out the other members’ aggression and brings them to a nice or at least manageable medium. The “Chick” is often considered the heart of the group, and is most fiction; this role is played by a woman or girl.

Nerds, in the real world do not occupy any of these roles. What they are, is member #5:

  • The Smart Guy (IT / keyboardist/ whatever it is I do for a living ): The physically weak, but intelligent or clever member; is often awkward and played for comic relief.

Nerds, in the real world suffer due to our inability to deal with social situations. In the corporate world, nerds are not CEOs or Presidents. Bill Gates may have been a nerd by the standards of society, but Paul Allen was a bigger nerd, and was responsible for most of the technical work behind Microsoft. Bill Gates’ real skills were as a businessperson, not as a nerd; and one sees this pattern repeat with Steve Jobs and Wozniak or Sergey Brin and Larry Page. Nerds are the blacksmiths who build the tools with which the leader conquers the world. Nerds aren’t sitting at the helm of the world; rather, the CEOs, Presidents, and Prime Ministers of the world today are the same kind of people who were once kings, emperors, or tribal chiefs. The difference is that nerds have been promoted from living in the dungeon or in a distant cave while brewing their magic, to having posh apartments and being supplied with the best toys for them to play with.

So while Alex Jones ranting and raving may be the mad drooling of someone who should be locked up safely in a large white room with soft, padded floors and walls, what is worrying is how his sentiments might catch traction. The idea that we’re living in a world ruled by geeks has somehow managed to permeate into popular consciousness, and in times of strife, those people against whom the vox populi direct their anger and hate because they cannot understand and/or fear them are usually the first targeted. Which is why I’ve written this. You see, only an idiot would try fighting fire with fire, like trying to defeat the illogical arguments of a gibbering lunatic with an idiotic, illogical argument of his own. I’m not a nerd. Don’t kill me in the Great Jock Uprising of 2025 (It’s gonna be totally awesome bro; just beer, bitches, and beatin up nerds!)

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