Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Eventually all things merge into one...

Norman MacLean published A River Runs Through It And Other Stories in 1976, at the age of 74. The series of semi-autobiographical stories was his first publication, and the first book of fiction ever to be published by the University of Chicago Press.

MacLean is comparable to Hemingway in the simplicity of his prose, and is perhaps a touch more evocative. After his death, Robert Redford produced 'A River Runs Through It' as a major multi-starrer motion picture. Here is a video that captures the end of the novella (and indeed the movie), where the line between prose and poetry is blurry.

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Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Ethics and Utilitarianism

Last week, I asked SteveG, a great philosopher who consistently writes wonderful pieces at Philosophers' Playground, a question on ethical philosophy: "Is utilitarianism the best available paradigm in evaluating social justice. What's problematic about it?" You can read his great response here.

The question was actually inspired by some essays I read by Michael Sandel, Professor of Government at Harvard University. Sandel teaches the most popular undergraduate class at Harvard, with around 1,000 students enrolling each semester, called Justice. He's also delivered some thought-provoking speeches on this topic, among others, at Chautaqua. Utilitarianism -- also known as the 'greatest happiness principle' -- is no doubt a very useful philosophical tool; however, it does run into some classic problems: having to compare utilities by putting a monetary value on people's well-being (which is what economists do in a cost-benefit analysis), the problem of not knowing the consequences, the debate over intention vs. outcome, and the Kantian notion of treating man as an end-in-himself. Sandel argues that the utilitarian paradigm isn't adequate in answering a lot of the ethical questions we face today, like abortion, stem-cell research, and gay-marriage. For example, in tackling the issue of gay-marriage, he brings in the good old Greek notion of telos. What is the telos of marriage? Is it procreation?

There are different ways one can, and should, approach every problem. Steve does hit the nail on the head in his response. He quotes Stuart Hampshire: "thinking inevitably leads to conflict and our job is to think about those conflicts carefully and thoughtfully."

Thanks to Steve for the reply, and also for tapping me with the 'Thinking Blog Award.' It's really an honor!

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Memorable Movie Lines

Watched Casablanca today. I'd been wanting to watch it for quite a while now: finally did. Talking about Casablanca, most conversations inevitably draw to some of the classic lines in the movie. "Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine" (also my friend Nash's favorite quote); "Here's looking at you, kid!"

Apparently, six lines from Casablanca appear in the top 100 most memorable lines in cinema history, based on a poll by the American Film Institute. That happens to be the highest by any single movie, beating Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz, which have three apiece.

As I was browsing through the list of the top 100 most memorable quotes, I felt like I couldn't relate to a lot of them. So I thought about some quotes that I've liked, but are not on the list. Here are some:

* "But I tried, didn't I? Goddamnit, at least I did that."

* "The only true currency in this bankrupt world....is what you share with someone else when you're uncool." (ALMOST FAMOUS)

* "How do you shoot the devil in the back? What if you miss?" (THE USUAL SUSPECTS)

* "...but you can love completely without complete understanding."

What are some of your all-time favorite lines?

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Opportunity Cost: Broadly Speaking

Most introductory economics classes begin with the usual principals: 1) Human wants are unlimited, 2) The resources to satisfy the wants are limited, 3) There is an opportunity cost to the way we use our resources. If we go for X, it means we are not going for Y or Z.

Here, the notion of opportunity cost really interests me. It is like a fundamental axiom, applicable in almost any sphere. Lets stretch the model a little further: 1) Human life (age) is limited, 2) The ways in which we can spend the life are unlimited, 3) There is an opportunity cost to our actions. If Ram marries Sita, he is not marrying Gita or Mita. If Hante decides to live in Australia, he has to give up life in Burma, Sudan, or any country other than Australia.

Once in a while, in a retrospective mood, we analyze our life in terms of it's opportunity cost. What if I had done this instead of that. Anne Tyler's novel, Back When We Were Grown-Ups, opens with the sentence, "Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person." What Tyler is driving at isn't that there is a right person per se, but that among all the possibilities, what she became wasn't what she had once envisioned, she took the wrong turn at the crossroads. In 'The Family Man', Nicholas Cage experiences the opportunity cost of his life as a rich investment broker, the less-alloyed happiness of family and friends. He redeems himself, which makes for a feel-good movie.

Like it or not, every morning we wake up, we face the heartbreaking, beautiful and daunting opportunity costs of life.

Monday, February 12, 2007

What The Thunder Said

Ganga was sunken, and the limp leaves
Waited for rain, while the black clouds
Gathered far distant, over Himavant.
The jungle crouched, humped in silence.
Then spoke the thunder
Datta: what have we given?
My friend, blood shaking my heart
The awful daring of a moment's surrender
Which an age of prudence can never retract
By this, and this only, we have existed
Which is not to be found in our obituaries
Or in memories draped by the beneficent spider
Or under seals broken by the lean solicitor
In our empty rooms
Dayadhvam: I have heard the key
Turn in the door once and turn once only
We think of the key, each in his prison
Thinking of the key, each confirms a prison
Only at nightfall, aetherial rumours
Revive for a moment a broken Coriolanus
Damyata: The boat responded
Gaily, to the hand expert with sail and oar
The sea was calm, your heart would have responded
Gaily, when invited, beating obedient
To controlling hands
I sat upon the shore
Fishing, with the arid plain behind me
Shall I at least set my lands in order?


Sunday, February 11, 2007

Audacity is the word

This week Barack Obama officially announced his candidacy to become the first black president in the history of America. Speaking at Springfield, Illinois -- where one Bill Clinton officially began his campaign, and where Lincoln served for eight years before becoming president -- he delivered a characteristically Obama speech: modest yet bold, and charming for exactly that reason.

He is a political light-weight, of course. But maybe, experience is over-rated. At a time when America (and the world) are desperately longing for some sort of change -- any change -- the lack of political baggage can be a good thing. Being the smart former lawyer that he is, he rarely misses an opportunity to point that out.

"I know I haven't spent a lot of time learning the ways of Washington. But I've been there long enough to know that the ways of Washington must change."

It's still early days, but I like the audacity of Obama. He's smart and he's likeable. There is something about the spirited under-dog that strikes a chord with us (atleast does with me), something very appealing about the story of rising against the odds in search of glory, for why else would an England win over Australia bring a grin to our faces.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

A Thousand Mutinies Now

V.S. Naipaul, in his travelogue India: A Million Mutinies Now, explores an interesting notion about burgeoning democracies. As democracy offers a promise of freedom and equality, in a society shackled in age-old unfair, discriminatory societal hierarchies, it consequently has the effect of creating a seemingly hostile, retributive environment. Grievances are voiced, discriminations challenged, and the status quo questioned by a 'million little mutinies.'

The recent Madhesi conflict in Nepal can be seen under similar light. In fact, Daniel Lak makes a similar point about the changing dynamics of power in Nepal. Once, a select few controlled the bulk of the resources and power; now, everyone wants a piece of it.

Of course it isn't that simple, political processes in the third-world always complicate matters. However, there are two things, in particular, about the recent Madhesi uprising that I feel the need to mention:

1) Sure, the madhesi grievances are justified. It's about time they are addressed, too. Social justice, however, is multi-dimensional. Madhesis aren't the only marginalized group in Nepal -- there are dalits, tharus, women, and many others who have, for too long, received the short end of the straw. Within the madhesi community, the caste system is still existent. If the blacks had a discriminatory societal hierarchy within themselves, how phony would have Martin Luther King's 'I have a Dream' speech sounded?

2) I, for one, do not believe in violence as a means of social change. Unfortunately, the decade long armed struggle of the Moaists that has resulted in them being invited to share the governance of the country might have sent the wrong message. 'If you wanna be heard, if you wanna be counted, take up the gun.' Gandhi's method of non-violence resistance has been called a fluke by many. Perhaps, this is the time to give it another try.
We surely don't want to go down the route of chakka jam and nepal banda to protest every single issue there is, whether a taxi driver gets into a skirmish, or the price of oil is raised marginally.

Nuts and bolts aside, I have to agree with Daniel Lak. From afar, Nepal does seem to be heading in the right direction.

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