Thursday, December 30, 2010

2010 In Passing

It was a good year to be a Muneeb Pasha. There have been and will be better years, and there are no altogether bad years, not yet, no - but 2010 was a good year nonetheless.

"What is this thing called love?
It is nothing reliable,
not like this silk cravat"
      - John Beer, the Waste Land
What made 2010 such a good year to follow after the jump:

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Pillow Talk

I. Immaculate Misconception

Too many people were hitler this year
so it was unsurprising to hear
from someone, maybe Jon Stewart
(because Jon is one clever J-Streeter),
that Hitler also is hitler.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Through Your Jalousies

I sat atop that hill there, see?
I reached and saw you descend
like that sequin for myself
I peeled off her dress.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Civilitas Draconis

Perhaps it was rooted in my fondness for dinosaurs in the pre-Jurassic Park period when they were still underground, or perhaps it was the unpalatable rudeness of an armor-clad St George stabbing his lance through the heart of a scaled, winged Teuton engaged in pathetic imitation of flight, or perhaps it was just the broader human psychological imperative to root for the underdog at play, but irrespective of the underlying cause, the result has always been and still is an overweening adoration of Dragonkin that borders on the fanatical but is grounded securely in reason.

Monday, November 15, 2010


I was not used to being out of bed early; I stayed up most nights and slept only fitfully if at all, so the rising Sun, which I could not see from the pillow, but which launched its first faint rays reassuringly at the window was the welcome signal I awaited before hitting an indefinite snooze button on the broken alarm clock inside my head that kept rousing me intermittently of its own accord. [...]

I've withdrawn the story while I rewrite it, please email if you'd like to know when it's done. -MAP, July 13

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Of Daisy-Cutters & Olive Oil

While watching a fan-made video (Youtube, same window) of Foster the People's Pumped Up Kicks I noticed that one of the stills in the montage used by its creator seemed vaguely familiar. Curiosity piqued, I asked, and was promptly informed that it was a still from Věra Chytilová's surrealist Sedmikrasky (En.Wiki): Czechoslovak, surrealist, and grittily modern; predictably enough - considering how many of those things no longer exist today and the absolute sucker I am for things long extinct - I picked up the movie (no, I pirated it really) and sat down to watch. Note: There are some spoilers after the jump, mixed in with my own impressions of the movie, not that it counts for much in a movie such as this.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Nature of the Beast

Phillip did not mind waiting for women while they got ready, even if they missed their reservation by a half hour and had to look for an alternative venue, it was alright because he always made reservations at two different restaurants a half hour apart – just in case. 

I've withdrawn the story while I rewrite it, please email if you'd like to know when it's done. -MAP, July 13

Saturday, October 9, 2010

For he on honey-dew hath fed, And drunk the milk of Paradise

It is a moment of luxurious self-indulgence when one kicks off the covers early on a Saturday morning; to shrug off the temptation to sleep that is so alluring during weekdays and jump out of bed filled with anticipation for an entire day with no claims on one's time except what one may choose to grant. The phone is silent, the city is asleep for a few hours yet, and the very air one breathes is pregnant with the promise of realizable contentment.

Monday, October 4, 2010


The way Rebbecca saw it, the popularity of Starbucks was a no-brainer. Even though she could not tell the difference between most of the flavors offered, and would never in all probability try the Pumpkin Spice Latté – except maybe just once to see what it was all about, she could nonetheless enjoy playing at being a coffee connoisseur for less than four dollars a pop. It was not a bad deal except that the sunny demeanor of the Baristas, or whatever it was they like to call themselves, was sometimes too much to deal with on her way back from work, or during the middle of the night when she could not sleep and did not want to stay in bed. At times such as these she did not want to see a smiley face, and she did not want to have to smile back. It was comforting to not have to pretend that life was anything but rough. Of course, she also preferred the smaller, family-owned coffee shops at the corner of every other street for a reason other than the aged, discourteous women who run such shops almost exclusively in the city: you could smoke there. Even after the several months since she had quit smoking she was still choosing places – perhaps by reflex – that had an ashtray at each table.

Sometimes the ashtray at her table would not be empty and the waitress who took her immutable order of "coffee. Black," would neglect to empty it. At other times there would be no ashtray at her table at all and the waitress, floating across the floor from table to table taking orders, cleaning up after patrons, and refilling drained cups of coffee would sweep one off the counter and place it absentmindedly in the center of her table, and sometimes this ashtray too would not be empty and the waitress would neglect to empty it. Of course, it did not matter to Rebbecca one way or another if there were an ashtray on her table or not, but she would remark its absence automatically as she sat down at the nearest vacant table when she entered and would notice as reflexively when the hole in the center of the table was filled.

Rebbecca liked to inspect the non-empty ashtrays and their contents in some detail. She sifted through the ash and cigarette butts with a toothpick or matchstick to turn them over and see what mark they bore, or separate them from one another and count how many there were, and of how many types. She would guess at how many people there had been, and how long they might have stayed and imagined the animated conversations they might have had over their coffee and cigarettes. She was delighted in particular when she found - somewhat rarely - a cigarette butt that bore the distinctive pair of golden-brown rings around a cigarette butt and she wondered if she shared more with the smoker than just taste in cigarettes; if they had the same taste in music and food and enjoyed the same kind of movies and read the same magazines. She would catch herself on these flights of fancy eventually and chuckle softly, chiding herself for daydreaming like a lovesick schoolgirl when she was neither.

She also liked to picture how the different cigarettes appeared to have been put out: that one was snuffed out half-smoked, like they left in a hurry and could not be bothered taking it along; these other ones had been rubbed out vigorously, perhaps angrily into the ashtray. How many were there? Three, no, five, five of these and only two of the others, but these two were also put out in the same deliberate manner. So this one did all the talking, eh? What had they talked about?

"More coffee?" She was forced out of her reverie by the automaton of a woman that ran the place and now stood looking down at her with dull, disinterested eyes. Rebbecca looked up at her and the steaming pot of coffee she held expectantly and took a few seconds to nod her reply. The old woman filled up her cup and plodded back to her seat behind the counter.

Rebbecca returned her attention to the ashtray. Even though she had already found everything there was of interest and knew it, she held out hope for her most prized catch of them all: a cigarette butt with a lipstick stain on it. She could always tell from the texture and the color and the way it had rubbed off onto the cigarette butt that it was lipstick and not some beverage. She was pleased even more when the lipstick stain was of a shade that she sometimes wore. Oftentimes the color of the stain was indistinguishable because of the ash but she made up the colors anyway. She wondered what they wore and when she imagined bejeweled fingers holding a cigarette between them she was seized with a passionate envy. Rebbecca had given up smoking for good reason, and she stood by her decision, but she could not stop sensing an gnawing emptiness in her hand that she had never felt before; that there was something missing. She was tempted to buy a pack just so she could comfort herself sometimes by holding the cigarette as she had used to but the way she reckoned it, that was just the first step on the slippery slope to starting again and she did not want to take that chance just yet. But try as she might to ignore the the gaping void, she could not help but miss the scrape of paper on the skin of her knuckles and the reassuring pressure between her fore and middle fingers, and feel keenly the loss of the poise and vitality it had lent to her gesticulations.

Rebbecca considered the women who smoked these cigarettes; wondered what they had worn when they sat here smoking them. So many people changed buses on the way to and from everywhere around this corner of the street that it could have been anyone. It might have been someone quite like herself; but was there any woman quite like herself who came to this coffee shop? Yes, she imagined there were several dozen who grabbed a cup of coffee while passing through here waiting for the bus, or who stopped here after work as she sometimes did, except that they were usually with friends and chatted and laughed loudly and she was always alone. Alone under her pale blue umbrella at the stand waiting for the bus, alone in the basement where she worked; ironing and folding sheets of linen, alone walking up or down the street to or from some place of no great importance, alone when she stopped at the hawker for dinner, alone when she ducked into the bar for a quick drink, alone when she left after an hour of toting a half-pint of lager idly and trying not to drink any because it was not good for the baby and she did not want to get fat, alone when she headed to the payphone to call her mother, and alone when no-one answered. But these other women whose cigarette butts she sought out desperately were not as alone. And if they had been faced with the same decision Rebbecca had made for herself three months ago, would they have chosen differently? Maybe they would have, they certainly had every conceivable reason to choose differently but they might have decided to keep it. Why shouldn't she have kept it? She wasn't asking for anyone to help or understand. She was alone and then she would not be alone anymore and that was that.

Summer 2010

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Motor-Scooter

He walked down the street in no great hurry but with definite purpose. The boy went from storefront to storefront, asking shopkeepers if they had what he wanted. He passed by groups of similar teenage boys standing huddled in the shadows, sharing cigarettes, telling jokes, and laughing desperately. There were women standing at the narrow entrances to their houses that opened on the narrow street, they spoke in hushed voices and this combined with their long headscarves - draped around their shoulders, over their hair and across much of their faces  - to lend them on that night a decidedly sinister aspect: co-conspirators deciding what to do with the body of the assassinated King in that moment before they realize there is no further need for discretion. There were children playing games of tag or hide and seek and being generally noisy unless someone barked at them and then they would shut up for a few seconds, only to start again a few feet farther up or down the street. Girls on shadowy balconies overlooking the street, or behind dark windows, played sappy love songs on their cellphones, and it was under these overhangs on the street that older, quieter boys stood conspicuously, heads angled to the side and heedless of the noise of vehicles trudging through the tangle of heat and dust and darkness and perspiration and badly-kept secrets that was this street and countless other streets all over this city and in other cities across the country.

An old man riding what appeared to be a cross between a scooter and a motorcycle put-put-putted past the boy; so close that he would have jumped had not his foot been caught under the front wheel of that contraption. The scooter-cycle moved on and the boy looked at the back of the old man, stopping himself from swearing loudly at his receding tufts of hair; he was sure he was an old man because of the white prayer-cap he wore at a time that was far gone for prayer, the white dress he wore and the walking cane he had stowed on the side of the scooter-cycle. The scooter-cycle slowed down and coasted to a stop a few feet farther down from where the boy had stood transfixed since it had passed over his foot. The put-put-putting noise of its engine died, and the tail light went out suddenly so the boy lost equally suddenly his object of focus and his gaze drifted in the darkness, readjusting and coming to rest on the old man, who was fidgeting with his scooter-cycle, attempting to restart it. The old man leaned to one side and lifted his leg to strike the pedal, he brought it down hard and the motor-scooter sput-sput-sputtered back into life. 

Even as the boy watched, the old man lay on the street and the still sput-sput-sputtering machine lay on top of him. The engine was stoked and was proceeding into a progressively sharper and painful whine, spurred by some torturous mechanism. The old man waved his arms, his cries for help - if there were any - were swallowed by the rapacious din of the motor-scooter. The boy rushed to his side and attempted to lift the old man out from underneath the scooter-cycle. He grabbed the man under the arms, but the dampness there made him uncomfortable so he let go and wiped his palms on his pants while the old man stared into space, his face an amorphous mask of confusion and helplessness. He next tried to lift the still sput-sput-sputtering scooter-cycle, and in this was partially successful. The old man stayed flat on his back as the boy righted the bike and found the landing gear after much probing with his foot. He reached down to help the old man up, grabbing him around the waist this time and raising him slowly. The old man held out a hand and pointed at the ground where the boy struggled to spot the walking cane that had tumbled loose. He bent down to pick it up while the noise from the motor-scooter was cut off: the old man had switched off the ignition. The boy handed him his walking cane, the old man started hobbling towards his house - a few feet away on the other side of the street. His wife - or daughter, or daughter-in-law, the boy could not tell which - stood in the darkened doorway. She stood aside as a young man appeared in the doorway from inside the house. He walked past his father and took the motor-scooter and guided it across the street and into their home. 

The boy took the old man by the elbow: "Are you alright, sir?" The old man said nothing and waved his hand dismissively. "But you're limping, sir," the boy insisted. "Old injury. I'm fine" came the curt reply, and he shrugged off the boy's hand from his elbow. Hobbling, slow and pathetic, behind his son who had now disappeared with the front-half of the motorcycle into the dark doorway. The woman still stood outside, silhouetted against the light-colored paint of the front wall. The old man stopped a few feet from the entrance and said something the boy could not hear. The woman stepped inside and the old man followed his wife or daughter or daughter-in-law, hobbling over the raised doorstep and slamming the door shut.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Down the Delta

Eager to carry the word,
the shortness of breath crippling;
shouting against the flux -
Unaware, perhaps, or uncaring
of the leaden weights on each pulse.

September 20, 2010

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Edgar Allan Poe Revisited

I chanced upon a collection of poems by Edgar Allan Poe at a second-hand bookstore earlier this year, and was transported back to fifth grade when our English Literature teacher included To Helen and some few lines from Israfel in our syllabus. I cannot pretend to have been too impressed with poetry of any kind back then, so it was very surprising to find that I remembered Helen word-for-word, some fifteen years later. Since that day in February I have spent many Sunday afternoons enjoying Poe's poetry, and, intrigued by the fastidiousness of his craft, read through a few biographical sketches and articles of this great American poet.

Poe had the misfortune of being derided and dismissed by his contemporaries and critics in his day, and generally ignored by the public. His own proclivities and erratic behavior did nothing to help him here: from his stillborn career in the Army to his sacking from an editorial position at a literary periodical to his elopement with a 13-year-old cousin; Poe was alleged to have made a thorough hash of everything he did. Oh, and: Yes, thirteen. Yes, cousin. Classy, classy guy. 

TS Eliot called Poe "meretricious," implying perhaps the more tawdry of the word's meanings. Emerson, deriding Poe's obsession with the scale and meter of his poems, referred to him as a "rhymester." I do not quite understand - not unexpectedly, for I am no poet - why a poet would be attacked for being poetic. James Russell Lowell was somewhat more measured in his criticism of Poe when he described him thus:

"He has written some things quite the best of their kind,
"But the heart seems all squeezed out by the mind."

It was not until long after his death that his work came into its own and Poe's reputation as a poet was not only rehabilitated but greatly embellished. Of course, Poe was not - not even in America nor indeed in his own time - the only literary figure to be attacked thus; just bait Hermann Melville with a giant white whale, although he might see that as vindication instead. In my reading of Poe's poetry, which is by no means either exhaustive or profound, I have failed to notice this lack of "heart" that Lowell deplores. Indeed, there is a certain nudity of emotion in some of his less macabre works that parallels that of the greatest Romantics.

The one poem of his that resonates most strongly with me in this context is Israfel. Grander and infinitely more coherent in whole than the few snippets we suffered through back in school. I view it as Poe's declaration of surrender, his admission of defeat, and his confession of a preposterous ambition and an apology for untamed arrogance. Poe views the Archangel Israfel as the true inspiration for his craft, wondering how monumental Israfel's song must be for it to bring an abrupt end to the Universe and revive all beings for the day of Judgment. Poe's hubris, typically, lies in seeking to identify with and be inspired by Israfel's perfection; more earthly standards of poetry having been judged and found wanting. The bitter taste of an over-reaching, impotent greed runs through the length of the poem, manifesting mid-way as a resigned acceptance of Poe's failure to do justice to his muse, whom he praises lavishly. Israfel ends on a conciliatory note, however, as Poe ascribes the Archangel's success and his own failure to the vast difference in their respective circumstances, realizing belatedly the sheer impossibility of his quest for Israfel's perfection. It is, in this view, a classic case of sour grapes and unrequited love, and Poe is quite the fox in salvaging some dignity. There is, however, a perplexing choice of a single word in the last line of verse. When Poe may reclaim his ambition by comparing his heavenly music to Israfel's favorably, he instead chooses to settle only for being better off than he is at present. In this Poe demonstrates a sensitivity and maturity one would never expect, and perhaps therein lies the root of his remonstrations.

I threw together the video below somewhat quickly as a tribute to Edgar A Poe. The Raven remains a very readable poem, even though one may hear Ramadan-fatigue dripping from my voice.

Enjoy, and you're welcome.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Ba'athing in the Euphrates

Perhaps the most simultaneously heartening and distressing piece of news in the interim has been the announcement of cessation of combat operations by US forces in Iraq. The drawdown leaves behind some fifty thousand troops for training Iraqi security forces ("advise and assist"),   deterring the various internal security threats plaguing that country, and securing key US interests across Iraq. American media and the US administration have routinely used the word “withdrawal” to describe the change in force levels, signifying the start of an irrevocable process by which to arrive at an agreeable conclusion to that deplorable misadventure. Iraq is one of the two Wars inherited from the previous administration, and bringing it to a swift and – insomuch as it is possible – painless conclusion has been one of Obama's key priorities and campaign promises (WP); Obama has to ensure that the withdrawal is carried out – irrespective of the security situation in Iraq and the implied strategic failure of the Surge – to limit the political fallout from Vietraq come 2012.

Iraq herself is likely to be destabilized further as the deterrent represented by US forces is diminished and fragmentation of the population along ethnic and sectarian lines continues: a process frozen in place by the Surge in 2007. President Obama's recent speech marking the end of designated combat operations sidestepped the important issue of a longterm American footprint in Iraq. How will the administration respond if requested by the Iraqi government to extend the tenure of US forces in Iraq or expand the scope of their mission? Such a request would be entirely rational given the security challenges facing that country.

The other, perhaps more dreaded specter of an Iranian Iraq is also a lot closer to reality than in 2003. The Iranians have, through sponsorship political parties and support of Shiite militias and resistance groups, gained a strong political foothold in Iraq. As this Foreign Policy article points out: the political gains made by Moqtada Al-Sadr in the recent elections and subsequent horse-trading have placed Iran in a powerful position to influence Iraqi politics. In the absence of a strong US military presence in Iraq – under a clear mandate to deter and rollback the various militias, from which potential antagonists derive much of their hard-power – the role of Moqtada al-Sadr in Iraq, and hence and his Iranian backers, will continue to increase.

The fact, however, is that none of the minority groups opposed to Iranian influence in Iraq – the Kurds for example – is capable, even when acting in concert, which they are unlikely to do, to acquire a decisive proportion of political power in the Iraqi government. The US-made new constitution of Iraq seems to have made effective governance only possible when a broad consensus is shared. In the absence of this consensus, Iraqi political factions reserve the right – and preserve the ability – to revert to armed warfare, a nightmare scenario the lawmakers perhaps did not foresee in 2003. Indeed, the various political parties and factions in Iraq find common ground mainly in their antagonism toward one another: a common occurrence wherever democratic systems are paired with politics of fear-mongering and ethnic sensationalism.

Iraq's increasing tilt towards Tehran will have repercussions for more than Iraq herself. The strategy for limiting and countering Iranian influence in the Middle East has thus far revolved around containment. It was to this end that various Arab governments sided with Iraq in her eight-year war with Iran; this same policy guided the Saudi government in 1991 to lobbying to limit the outcome of the First Gulf War to expelling Iraqi forces from Kuwait and not threatening Saddam Hussein's regime itself. Saudi Support for the 2003 invasion was limited and given only reluctantly, when it became clear that the Bush administration would not be swayed from the warpath. Iranian gains in Iraq and Lebanon (via Hezbollah) are cause for as much concern in Riyadh and Tel Aviv as in Washington, and may catalyze attempts by regional players to influence events in Iraq. Indeed, absent US assurances - backed up by a hundred thousand pairs of boots on the ground in Iraq - to contain and curtail Iranian influence in Iraq, other players may be left with no choice but to get their hands dirty. Whichever way such a contest may turn, it does not bode well for Iraq.

It is perhaps too early, and ultimately irrelevant, to talk of winning and losing in the Iraq War. Posterity will be judge how the War changes the balance of power in the region and how it affects the development of US policy, and revise whatever inferences we may draw today. The one thing  that is certain, however, is that abandoning Iraq to her fate will close the lid on what appears at present to be a decisive strategic victory for Iran; made all the more impressive because no-one realized they were even in the running to begin with.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Repetition vs. Persistence in MMORPG Design: Why Arthas Won't Stay Dead

I was slow to jump on the MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game) bandwagon. I was content to play my single-player CRPG's and – occasionally – Action RPG's, devoting myself to faithfully enacting and reenacting the adventures of the Lone Wanderer, or Scion of Lionheart, or Bhaalspawn, or Darth Revan, or simply Hero. Going back to play the original Baldur's Gate in 2006 for no better reason than I'd run out of games to play was a pain, surely; but being able to immerse myself in the Forgotten Realms was worth the clunky animations and other limitations of the Infinity engine..

After eventually giving World of Warcraft a try and instantly getting hooked, I found that the game experience was lacking in something – not electronic ego boosts (epeen), nor the visually attractive wide-open worlds that the Elder Scrolls and Gothic series had lavished me with. There was an addictive crafting system, a popular PvP element, the PvE was rewarding and, and, and, the game was horribly repetitive and one was forced into doing the same things over and over.

Coming from a somewhat extensive and exclusive CRPG background, which extended to pen-and-paper fantasies, being out of the limelight and not being at the center of attention of the game world came as a pretty rude – even if perfectly reasonable – shock. My character in the world of Warcraft had no agency in the game world. I indulged in most of the things the game had to offer. The NPC's called my character “Hero,” I managed to get some text next to my character's name that proclaimed me a Champion of some sort, my character rode atop an enormous armored black bear, and was covered head-to-toe in fancy gear that bore testament to my character's numerous victories over heinous villains – hellish demons, corrupt wizards, megalomaniac warlords – and “enemy” players. But for all the alleged heroism of my character and the band of similarly acclaimed and accoutered adventurers that my character hung out with in Orgrimmar, we did not really have as much of an impact on the game's world and storyline. The *bling* gear, our majestic steeds and vainglorious titles were status symbols lacking in any inherent value, only appreciated within a narrow community of the game's players. Without much preamble regarding the indulgent escapism of players of video games and the dependency of video game media on the audience – the players – to immerse themselves in the content therein provided, I shall attempt to reconcile the idea of Agency, as that heroic footprint that allows players in single-player games to thoroughly affect the game world, with the “massively multiplayer” part of these games in the context of Bioware's upcoming MMORPG Star Wars: the Old Republic.

Three broad elements of gameplay are present in MMO games across the broad and are known as the Three Pillars: exploration, combat and character progression. It should be noted that there is a cause-and-effect relationship between these three pillars: the player engages in exploration and combat and is rewarded with progression; a broad term that means an increase in the strength and significance of the player character; this is accomplished by gaining a new ability, increasing the power of an ability, gaining score or – given the social nature of MMO games – prestige!

Somewhere along the road to having fun with the game, which is and should be the overriding reason people play games, the player community realized that it is possible, even encouraged by design, for all players to gain the same abilities, rack up the same scores and project the same in-game personality; bragging rights, then, become one of the key points of competition between players – how else does one define “winning” in what is an endless game experience? The objective is not just to complete a certain adventure, slay a particular monster or acquire a special treasure, but instead to be the first to complete the adventure, to slay the monster in the hardest way possible, to hoard a mountain of treasures from different sources and be able to show them off to people as trophies of one's unmatched success in the game. This is not an incidental development, either. The game is designed – by economic necessity – to reward the investment of time with character progression; in terms of items, abilities and prestige. The inclusion of achievement badges, trophies and honorific titles has absolutely no impact on the gameplay, but it does appease the burgeoning number of players who want to stand out from their colleagues, fueled by the remainder of the player-base playing catch-up to these competitive types.

Repetition is something we have come to associate with the very notion of massively multiplayer online (MMO) games. After all, users expect to be provided hours of daily entertainment from these games, and because there is only so much content that developers can realistically create, they are forced to recycle. This repetitive nature of gameplay is indispensable and reasonable in its entirety from the perspective of the developers. There are three broad themes of repetition in MMO games:

Content Structure
Content structure and format are repeated frequently throughout the game, with cosmetic differences with varying player levels, game world areas, factions and allegiances and the like. Consequently, there are the ubiquitous “Kill X of Y” quests, the “Rescue/Escort the Prisoner to Safety” quests, the FedEx quests and several other recurring quest templates and formats.

Another kind of repetition is that of content itself: enter repeatable quests, instances and material/currency farming. An artificial delay is introduced into the repetitive cycle by means of traveling time, respawn times on monsters, preventing you from doing a certain quest, instance or other activity more than once per day or week etc.

Rewarding Repetitive Gameplay
The game is structured by developers to reward repetition: gear, which is the main standard of progression in most end-games, is gained by repeatedly defeating an instanced encounter – perhaps on a resetting timer – until the desired items are randomly generated and received by everyone in the group who desires them, or raising a certain reputation score to the highest levels by means of repeatable quests and monster-killing, or entering a few instanced Player versus Player (PvP) areas again and again – win or lose – until the requisite tokens/currency/rank has been gained. This reward system leverages the repetition of content and content structures mentioned above to coherently bind the player to the game world and provide a broad set of “goals” for the players to work towards.

Whatever passes for epic adventures in such games are built by stringing together combinations of these content templates with a flimsy dressing of narrative, usually delivered by bland text boxes that most players skip reading. Some few adventures are actually well written, nicely choreographed narratives that have broad implications for developments in the story of the game world itself, but more often, story-telling takes a backseat in MMO games. Even when some major development takes place, such as the death of a major enemy from the game's overarching plot line at the hands of the player character, the killed character does not die in the game world itself, instead reappearing after a certain time and making no mention of his previous death. Indeed, even after the narrative of the game world acknowledges the death of such a character in the world's lore, the character is still very much alive and present in some dungeon. More than any death at the hands of the players, these all-powerful villains die of irrelevance; lurking ignominiously in their sprawling caverns that players no longer care to explore, sitting atop treasures that players no longer desire, lording over minions and underlings that can no longer earn their keep by attempting to keep Raiders at bay.

Of course it is not possible to remove content altogether once it is completed. As discussed already, repetition of content is an indispensable gameplay requirement. It is not possible for everyone to get everything the first time an encounter is defeated and it is not possible to remove content from everyone's game-world after one player or group of players has defeated it. To use an analogy from the Lord of the Rings:, it is not enough for one Frodo Baggins to defeat Sauron, it is not fair for the Nazgul to be destroyed by only one group of heroes; the Content is meant to be experienced by as many erstwhile adventurers as possible. Hence it is the “first” or “hardest” instance of an in-game achievement that confers bragging rights, and not the “only” instance of that achievement. These gameplay abstractions relating developments in the story to the game-world are left to the players to figure out and/or ignore altogether; story-telling is at once irrelevant to and unaffected by the gameplay. In these MMO games the player character's own story is (generally) shallow, and the broader world story arcs are not affected by any player actions, instead being tightly controlled by the Developer by means of playable content patches, revisions in canon, comic books, novelizations, game expansion packs etc.

Role-playing games have traditionally been about telling a story from the perspective of a key heroic role played by the player character. This detail has been lost and buried by successive generations of MMORPGs as something that could not be reasonably implemented within the constructs of contemporary MMO games. The traditional view has been challenged, however, by Bioware with their first foray into the MMO market with Star Wars: the Old Republic, it aims to leverage the studio's expertise in interactive narrative by making a bold attempt to innovate in a genre that has stagnated since its first iteration over a decade ago. This innovation comes in the form of adding a Fourth Pillar to the MMO design philosophy: Story.

Of course, considering the ease with which I give in to over-thinking and speculation, it did not come as a surprise when my enthusiasm for storytelling in a MMO context faded and I was left wondering if delivering to players millions of “Han/Fett/Vader/Luke/Emperor” fantasies was actually possible without instancing major portions of the game and hence killing off the “massively multiplayer” element. After all, having a million Luke Skywalkers slay a million Emperor Palpatines would – in my nit-picky eyes – detract from the idea of player agency. I am not convinced if Bioware will actually be able to pull off storytelling while allowing player characters to have an impact on the wider game world, I suspect it is not a priority and I will probably not know anything for certain until after I have played the game next year.

That said, it occurs to me that perhaps my expectations of player agency are over the top and unrealistic. It would certainly be that way insomuch as Galaxy-changing events such as the destruction of Alderaan are concerned (*hint* I would play the Grand Moff Tarkin class). By way of analogy, the problem appears to be one of having too many children playing in the same sandbox, one would only just start to build a sandcastle before another stomps on it, and no meaningful experience can be drawn from such chaos. One way, then, for players to have a heroic footprint without said footprints competing for severely limited “world space” is to reduce the radius of each to the point that they no longer overlap. The idea itself, like everything else in this post, is nothing unknown or surprising. Other MMORPG's, by reducing and limiting player agency to zero by means of widespread instancing and paying only lip service to story/narrative have accomplished exactly this. But is it impossible to allow the heroic footprint to retain some non-zero radius without destroying the structure on which the game's fun factor is based?

Our Galaxy is a big, fascinating place. The Star Wars galaxy is perhaps as big and certainly not as fascinating to a scientist – hokey religions and all that – but it is filled with tens of thousands of inhabited planets, populated by visually distinct but anthropomorphic alien species and improbable conspiracies, romance and drama. The Star Wars galaxy is not a zero-sum, closed-loop system. The Galactic Civil War that Luke helped to end in the movies did not have much of a bearing on events in the Unknown Regions or the Hapes Cluster. Life goes on, there are pirates, warlords, criminal syndicates and unpopular governments aplenty in this fantastic place, and you cannot swing a dead cat without hitting some plot point that could bring everything crashing down for everyone.

Luke, Leia, and Han – joined by an endless stream of poorly named characters from the Expanded Universe – are not only omnipotent and immortal as they need to be to resolve disparate crises one after another and escape unscathed; they are also omnipresent. To quote a certain irate Yuuzhan Vong Warmaster from another galaxy ever farther away: “Is every third person in this Galaxy named Solo?” One may excuse the Warmaster for thinking so, given how almost every major event in the YV invasion across the entire Galaxy was affected pervasively by the Wesley Crushers of the NJO. What does this mean for storytelling in SWtOR? Simply that heroic adventures are only a stone's throw away, your average Joe is neck-deep in some exhilarating quest, and the bad guys find redemption only too often in a self-sacrificing blaze of glory.

What this ubiquity of excitement and adventure confers on the designers of the Old Republic is the ability, the license, to craft – or allow a human-assisted computer system to cobble together – an enormous number of adventures using the templates provided by the novels and comic books of the Expanded Universe. If we are afraid of everyone being Luke Skywalker, the simple alternative is to tone it down a notch and allow everyone to be Kyp Durron or Nomi Sunrider instead: flying away to far flung parts of the galaxy, infiltrating criminal elements, raising squadrons of starfighters, waging anti-piracy campaigns, discovering some subtle hints of an overarching conspiracy – a resurgent Ssi Ruuvi, for instance – and following mostly solitary but convergent paths until they coalesce into an epic (shared: cooperative or competitive) climax for everyone involved, but it needs to be a climax that does not or cannot have rippling implications for the broader galaxy in the context of story. To illustrate: the final encounter in such an adventure can be with the leader of a band of Weequay pirates, not someone as irreplaceable as Admiral Ackbar.

I find it expedient to imagine this kind of encounter/content design as something akin to oversight by a 'Dungeon Master': throwing hordes of monsters and traps and riddles in the path of intrepid explorers on their way to rescuing the Princess. Not the same monsters nor the same obstacles, nor indeed the same treasures at the end of the adventure. The content structure, the content itself, must repeat, that much is a given, but the degree of variation, however superficial, must be heightened in order to offer a higher degree of immersion and a sense of Agency in the game world.

There is no reason this cannot be extended to other fictional universes. To cross over into Warhammer 40,000, consider that since “in the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war,” allow players to fight said wars on obscure planets and actually conquer them. Offer a clear path starting with a “deep strike” to secure the Spaceport and leading up to the final defeat of a Demon Prince of Khorne.

Massively multiplayer online role-playing games are attractive and addictive; not least because persistence and social interaction bring them a lot closer to the “real world” than other games. Repetition detracts from the experience offered by the sense of finality that persistence can lend to these worlds. Developers have sidestepped this design conflict by widespread instancing of game content and trivialization of the player character narrative. However, I feel that the trade-off between accessibility and agency need not be dealt with in binary terms. It is possible, by limiting the player's expectations of agency and toning down the scope of the content and the player's role in it, to enhance the sense of player agency. This will create an experience containing a coherent, player-centric narrative and allow for the repetition of content to feel less like a meaningless grind.

In sum: some degree of repetition is required to appease the player-base within a reasonable amount of unique content; what this “degree” is and what constitutes a “reasonable amount,” of course, is open to debate. Agency demands, however, that things once done cannot be undone or done a different way, that the player character is a heroic influence on the game world, or a very small part of the game world, and as such holds sway over the pace and direction of the narrative of that part of the game. Their achievements are theirs alone and are visible for the rest of the server's population to see, even if most never happen across those hyperspace lanes anyway.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Spring Thaw: Turkey & Israel

Since Turkey's PM Erdogan stormed out of the World Economic Forum in Davos after a heated diatribe against Israel's military operation in Gaza (Jan 2009), there have been exuberant displays of solidarity and admiration for his confrontational antics: the Muslim world, desperate for a hero, has hailed him as its Knight in Shining Armor (Aljazeera). It is natural for Erdogan's Turkey to have such popularity in Muslim countries; deprived as they are of any sense of common purpose, and lacking in modern hero-figures who transcend national borders and ethnic divides. This recent chain of spats between Turkey and Israel, however, is not indicative of a shift in the geopolitical dispositions of the Near Eastern countries. The idea of Turkey's participation – perhaps in a leadership role – in the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict cannot find purchase with the other Countries and factions involved in this tortuous process. Indeed, it is unlikely that this is the Turkish government's primary motivation to begin with. On the contrary, this could be seen as no more than posturing on the part of the Turkish government to appease certain domestic lobbies, and curry favor with Arab and Muslim countries; possibly as a counterweight to perceived over-reliance on European and American markets and alliances.

The location of Anatolia as a crossroads between East and West, in possession of the sole access to the Black Sea, has long placed her in the crossfire of opposing forces. The same strategic importance that led the Crusaders to spend much time crusading against their Orthodox Christian allies in the Byzantine Empire – by means of coups d'etat, palace intrigue and assassinations, direct military intervention – caused all sides in the Second World War to woo Turkey with promises of regaining pride of place in the Near East in the post-War period. Turkey deftly played all sides – German, British and Soviet – and maintained its neutrality through the War, not aligning itself with any power until several years later.

The end of the Second World War was followed by the Greek Civil War, and a shift in US policy towards the Soviets – marked by the adoption of the Truman Doctrine. Turkey was provided with hundreds of millions of dollars to shore up the anti-Communist stance of the Turkish administration, the military and economic aid rendered by the United States continued well into the Cold War, with Turkey becoming a member of NATO in 1952.

It should come as no surprise then that Turkey was the first Muslim-majority country to lend diplomatic recognition to Israel. 1948 was a turbulent year in the Middle East. The British had been forced out of Palestine, Israel proclaimed independence and was promptly set-upon by every country on its borders. The Israelis fought them to a standstill and even managed to expand into Palestinian territory. The Soviet Union stepped in to rearm the beleaguered Arab states. Having opted-in to the Western Bloc, Turkey pursued her strategic interests in containing and curtailing Soviet influence in her backyard. Recognizing that Israel was there to stay, supported by the same countries that supported Turkey's government and opposed by countries aligned with the Soviet juggernaut poised along Turkey's Northern and Eastern borders, embassies were exchanged between Turkey and Israel in 1949 and ushered in an age – by necessity – of economic, military and diplomatic cooperation between the two countries.

Turkey, of course, gained more from her alignment with the United States than just a regional ally and a military alliance. The Nixon administration granted its tacit endorsement to the Turkish invasion and subsequent division and occupation of Cyprus in 1974. The Kurdish separatist insurgency was suppressed first for the cause of anti-Marxism-Leninism and then as a target for the ongoing War on Terror, with frequent cross-border operations undertaken by the Turkish military in Iraq, as late as 1999. Turkey was allowed to get away with certain flagrant abuses of human rights and other nations' sovereignty in pursuit of these goals, and at least one of the factors in making Turkey such an indispensable ally of the United States and Europe is her cozy relationship with Israel, unique among Muslim countries.

Recently, however, due to anti-expansion and anti-Muslim sentiments in European Union countries, Turkey's application to join the Union, of several institutions of which Turkey is already a signatory and participant, has been stalled on demographic, socio-religious, geographic and political grounds.

Almost 51% of Turkey's population self-identified as Muslims in 2006, up from 43% in 2005 (Pew Global Report) and previous years. The Islam-branding of the ruling AK Party has placed expectations on the administration to stand up for perceived “Muslim interests.” In retrospect, the likelihood of the Aid Flotilla incident should have been evident considering the Turkish Prime Minister's rhetoric at Davos almost two years ago. The severe Israeli reaction to the Flotilla, and the grim Turkish response are well within keeping of the requirements of their respective electorates. The Israeli public would have accepted no other outcome from the Likud government, and the AKP was expected to put into action the words spoken at Davos and since: stalling the Aid Flotilla or not protesting the Israeli raid on the ships would not sit well with the electoral power-base of the AKP.

Will this diplomatic spat signal the end of Turkey's alliance with Israel and NATO? Do the Premiership of Erdogan and primacy of the AKP in Turkish politics represent a paradigm-shift in her foreign policy imperatives and national interests? Does Turkey seek to take upon herself a leadership role in the Muslim community at large, at odds with its European interests? The answer to all of these questions ranges between “absolutely not” and “probably not.” The Turkish government has deftly handled the various problems in Gaza and used these to embellish its image in Muslim countries while fulfilling some of its campaign slogans. This PR windfall in Muslim countries should yield sizable dividends for the Turkish economy, as well as send a clear message that Turkey retains its ability to play all sides for maximum advantage (incidentally, a new gas pipeline is to run from Russia through Turkey to Europe). Indeed Turkey has a well-established legacy of tactfully preserving, propagating and perpetuating her national interests, come what may.

The United States has a clear understanding of the implications of estrangement or even divergence from Turkey. So much so that President Obama chose Ankara as the destination of his first visit to another State. Turkey's is the successful Muslim secular democratic experiment the West looks to as a solution to the present alienation of the Muslims.

The United States and Turkey can help the Palestinians and Israelis make this journey ['toward a secure and lasting peace' in the Israel-Palestinian conflict]. Like the United States, Turkey has been a friend and partner in Israel’s quest for security.”
Barrack Obama, to the Turkish Parliament, April 6, 2009

In the same speech, he reaffirmed US support for Turkey's EU application, the fight against the PKK, Turkey's role in salvaging Iraq. The message is clear: Turkey is important to the West and knows it. The recent posturing raises the stakes for appeasing and retaining Turkey's full support for the many thorny issues in the Middle East, while opening up new opportunities for regional relationships (with Iran for example). It was this perceived imperative that has prompted Turkey to embarrass Israel. The defunct Uranium trading deal reached recently with Iran is another extension of the same policy: Turkey is reaching out to her estranged neighbors, re-building bridges to the East while retaining and buttressing those to the West. Caught in the tug-of-war as she is, Turkey seems to have settled, as often before in the past, for making the most of it.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Operation Opera Opportunity Cost: Why Israel will not attack Iran's nuclear facilities

The recent tragedy in the Eastern Mediterranean in which a flotilla of aid ships headed for Gaza were violently stopped and diverted by the Israeli blockade has heightened tensions between Israel and most of the rest of the world. Such drama always raises temperatures and kicks up a lot of dust and, as always, our species is only too eager to lose all perspective. This series of blog posts attempts to weave a single disjointed thread through similar episodes in the violent recent history of the Middle East with the objective being to establish the historical, albeit anecdotal, framework in which to correctly view and appreciate this crisis. It is my belief that only by building a nuanced understanding of the issue by fostering an open and objective discussion (especially within the community) may one ever hope to arrive at an adequate treatment of this festering problem.

June 7, 1981. The morning in Saddam Hussein's Baghdad is eerie and quiet, unfaithful to the raging conflict with Iran that shows no signs of abating. Worshipers in the Iraqi capital make their way back home after the morning prayer. Along the banks of the Euphrates far to the east, the dull thump of artillery has just begun to shake weary Iraqi and Iranian soldiers out of dreamless, zombified stupor. It is just another day in the Middle East. The calm is shattered by the sound of jets diving from the sky; a hail of bombs streaks from the warbirds. Lazily, almost as an afterthought, the sound of air raid sirens and anti-aircraft fire fills the air with a ceaseless, maddening din. The jets are already long-gone: the wreck of Saddam's nuclear reactor lies buried beneath tons of rubble. It is no longer just another day in the Middle East.

The preemptive Israeli airstrike on Osirak was hotly debated and analyzed to no end during the latter half of the decade and several times thereafter. The eventual consensus that did develop amongst all except Israel and her staunchest allies, was that Osirak's value as a weapons facility was dubious at best, and that the airstrike had exacerbated the non-proliferation issue in the Middle East by emphasizing the deterrent value of nuclear weapons and the need to keep such strategic assets secure against surprise attacks. Most analyses did not, however, factor the local political gains made by the Israeli government at the time as a causative agent. Begin's Likud government, which had previously lagged behind its political rivals in the polls, managed to win the largest share of seats in the neck-and-neck elections for the tenth Knesset three weeks later.

Operation Opera did, however, come with a significant opportunity cost. It served as a catalyst for the hitherto-nascent Iraqi nuclear program, established the strategic strike capabilities of the IDF for their potential adversaries to learn from, and expounded the need for adequate hardening of strategic facilities against similar attack. In a nutshell, the success of this feat, the first of its kind, was so great as to instantly make a repeat performance extremely likely to meet with failure. Israel expended diplomatic capital and military capability, and actually exacerbated its security situation for the decades to follow. This puzzling, self-destructive behavior, at odds with the remarkable ability for self-preservation that Israel has demonstrated amply throughout its turbulent history can only be explained by the unexpected victory in the electorate that Begin gained by capitalizing on the success and exaggerating the threat that had been neutralized. Public support in Israel for the incumbent administration ran high following the miraculous deliverance of the Tribe of Israel from a phantom threat of nuclear apocalypse posed by the Osirak reactor. Miraculous because an airstrike on a nuclear facility was too audacious an idea to have been taken seriously before it happened; phantom because Iraqi nuclear weapon ambitions were neither substantial nor directed against Israel.

All politics is local, and nowhere is this more true than in the reunited diaspora of cross-cultural immigrants who are defined and identified not so much by introspective adhesion and ideological common ground as by the forces – imaginary and otherwise – that are alleged to threaten its existence from within and without. Israel exists in a parallel universe where every mundane choice is between black-and-white, every shadow is either with us-or-them, every banality of life is make-or-break, and even inconsequential actions are defined in do-or-die terms; a paranoia in which the Holocaust was not a freak accident in which a bunch of middle-aged men in trench-coats perpetrated a grievous crime in thrall to a madman, but an apocalypse that has almost-happened too many times too easily and must never be allowed to happen again.

Denizens of the Civilized World cannot be blamed for scratching their heads and wondering why Israel behaves so unilaterally with brazen displays of disproportionate force. Muslims in particular, antagonized in equal measure by the inability of the Arab world to intimidate Israel, and the ignominious existence of Palestinian refugees, feel justified in shaking their fists at Israel and ascribing all of their woes: from the mayhem in Somalia to the drone attacks in Pakistan to the Australian intervention in East Timor, to some grand Zionist conspiracy against Islam. That may very well be true, and one may neither refute nor validate such emphatic assertions while holding oneself to standards of rationality and logic. There may, however, be a somewhat simpler and less glamorous explanation: In the most recent episode involving the flotilla of ships bearing aid for impoverished Gazans, imagine that the aid flotilla had been allowed unimpeded access to Gaza and allowed to unload its supplies freely and without hindrance from officious Israeli politicians and soldiers. In this set of ideal circumstances, whenever the next rocket attack on Israeli settlements from Hamas-controlled Gaza takes place, irrespective of whatever damage it may cause, if any, and despite the fact that the rockets were not supplied by the aid flotilla, the political opposition in the Knesset would charge the government with neglecting its sworn duty to protect the lives and property of Israeli citizens. The allegation would run something like this:
  1. Aid ships were allowed to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza
  2. This symbolic victory and the actual aid delivered by the flotilla bolstered support for Hamas in Gaza
  3. The Israelis maintain that the people of Gaza should not support Hamas because of the latter's perceived rejection of co-existence with Israel (on Israel's own terms, no less, it should be noted). Israel should drive home the point that Hamas is a lose-lose for the people of Gaza by making the people of Gaza suffer for having voted for Hamas, hence the blockade
  4. The recent rocket attacks were carried out by Hamas only because (this is where the politics get scary for the incumbent administration) the aid ships were allowed to dock, carrying weapons and aid that Hamas was able to use to shore up its support base, undoing perceived gains in Israeli efforts to isolate and topple Hamas
  • Hypocritical? Perhaps.
  • Plausible course of action for self-serving politicians? Most certainly.
As noted: all politics is local. The Israelis' botched handling of the interception of the flotilla may come under fire on the international stage and in the media, but given Washington's unequivocal support for Israel's actions, however heavy-handed, it is not a PR crisis that threatens the domestic standing of the Israeli government, the actions of which are driven by political self-preservation. An ineffective hailstorm of rockets landing near the blast walls of fortified Israeli settlements built on occupied territory, on the other hand, could create a domestic political maelstrom the hardliner Likud administration cannot afford. One may cry foul and allege double standards, and one may well be right, but one's opinions – right or wrong – carry no weight in Tel Aviv for the simple reason that the Israeli electorate is the sole consideration.

Let us, then, look elsewhere for a propitious handle on the issue.

Friday, May 21, 2010

The Trident of Erebus

The recent furore in Pakistan over the “Everyone Draw Mohammed Day” has spawned dozens of anti-groups and a vociferous SMS/e-mail campaign: using flawed assumptions and flimsy mathematics to overemphasize the financial worth of Pakistan's Facebook users and optimistically believing that a 'boycott' by Pakistani users would teach them a lesson. 'Them' being a group of fascist-Zionist (but somehow devil-worshiping) anti-Christs. Of course the whole point of the spirited boycott campaign and Internet-borne heckling (their commitment is admirable, even if one does not agree with their views) has been rendered moot by the Lahore High Court's heavy handed, blanket ban on the social networking giant, extended by the PTA – eager to showcase its own evangelical zeal – to cover Youtube and en.Wikipedia as well. I am generally a very unhurried blogger: content to leave things unfinished, unsaid and unpublished in the security that “it'll be done when it's done,” but the recent spate of bans has me worried they'll shut down Blogspot itself shortly – and I cannot let that happen without weighing in on the issue for myself.

A lot of unqualified, emphatic assertions (to the accompaniment of even more spittle!) have been made in the (mockery of) debate surrounding the subject: Facebook's double standards vis à vis Holocaust denial pages have been particularly lambasted. As someone who followed this older debate closely last summer, the nonobjective bias rampant in these allegations is easily apparent to me. Yes, two pages advocating holocaust denial were removed – but many more were not, notwithstanding considerable pressure by a number of influential forces such as CNN. Ezra Callahan from Facebook's PR team, who also happens to be Jewish, had this to say on the subject: “You do not combat ignorance by trying to cover up that ignorance exists.” When eventually they did take down two of several pages, it was for reasons other than the promotion of hate speech or antisemitism, as evidenced by several other antisemitic pages that continue to exist.

The First Amendment of the American Constitution guarantees freedom of speech, and even the freedom of hate speech is held sacred. A United States court tossed out a case last year against a small group of Midwestern hicks who protested the Iraq war in a very unique fashion: by picketing funerals of servicemen killed-in-action and ascribing their deaths to God's punishment for America's tolerance of homosexuality. Very few people, within the United States and without, would consent to that rather unique view; even fewer would consider dishonoring fallen servicemen – regardless of what one thinks of the cause they died for – to be anything but shameful. What prompted a bench dominated by conservative Justices to throw out the petition brought by bereaved and rightly offended families was not an agreement with said Midwestern hicks, but a responsibility to uphold the First Amendment right to Freedom of Speech. Will a fortnight of boycott by Pakistanis, of dubious value to the social networking giant really convince Facebook to clamp down on Islamphobes? Does Facebook's removal of these web pages, even if it were ever to happen, remove the hatred that pervades the thoughts of a small but vocal minority of Westerners? Perhaps most importantly, how does blocking access to Facebook help combat blasphemers or blasphemy? If anything, it plays into the favor of those people who stir up controversy by denying the spirited opposition the means to combat them. Walking away from an argument equals forfeiture; it is not a winning tactic but the opposite - a spoiled infant smashing her sand castle because someone showed her a picture of the real thing.

Of course the larger, perhaps more sensitive, question is why Pakistani sensitivities are offended more easily than those of the larger, vaunted Umma (a worldwide Muslim national identity); or perhaps we are just more prone to expressing ourselves violently than our brethren in the Middle East, North Africa, Southeast Asia, South Asia, Central Asia and wherever else Muslims happen to reside. The Jyllands Posten controversy saw millions of dollars of damage to our markets and infrastructure as riotous mobs inflicted righteous justice on themselves; I wonder if these same frothy-mouthed zealots are sitting down across the country with monstrous smug smiles, proclaiming the local and temporary ban on Facebook, Youtube and en.Wikipedia as a great victory for God. I wonder also if these are the same ignorant beasts who believe television is a demonic contraption and the necktie is a symbol of Christianity. I have no illusion that such views are held by only a minority of our people, or that all we're missing for a lasting, forward-looking solution to our rampant ignorance and regressive tendencies is a bit more time for the media/government etc. to work their magic. The people of this country take great pride in their ignorance, and brandish it like a weapon to those that would challenge it – a means and an end in and of itself.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Blind Fake: Talmudic Correctional Paradigms

I happened to find myself at a celebration marking the holy day's of one of Pakistan's minute religious minorities last night. This afforded me, for the second successive night, the opportunity to drag out my soapbox and rant about the fallacy of mechanical religion devoid or distinct of religious faith.

Of course I could only do this circumspectly, because - arising perhaps as the consequence of a community-wide identity crisis - minority communities tend to take themselves and their religions a lot more seriously than those in the comfortable majority.

When surrounded suitably by a bunch of people, I proceeded to tell them of how I had discovered the work of (the Prophet) Tonclerf who, between 1792 and 1796 BCE, was inspired by divine guidance to write what we do today know as the Talmudic Correctional Paradigm / Instructional Protocols. I introduced him to my listeners as a great member of the Jewish Enlightenment of the second millenium BCE; who first introduced the Tribe of Israel to the concept of the Kteowrn (pronounced Kteowrn), which I explained was the belief that the Eternal Soul exists between the time of death and the day of judgement in a state of Disembodied Life, in which it continues the pattern by which it has existed in life. A scholar continues to read and write, to the mathematician all the secrets he has pondered in life are revealed, a sinner on the other hand continues to exist in a state of sin: it is the continuation of life absent physical restrictions, the Soul is freed from the need for sleep, from emotion, from deprivation, and may fully pursue that which it has sought in life - something that defines why the Afterlife is eternal when life itself is so short. I scanned the faces of the audience for signs of disbelief but was disappointed; apparently the Faithful respect others' convictions - if they are convincing enough.

I continued, telling them how life in this blissful disinterred state is determined by our actions in life - a concept I named Bycorz; how our comings-and-goings, our interactions with people and their opinions of us shape our existence as Bycerii. I elaborated at great length on the social structures of the world and our existence in it, and why the concept of a social Ketowrn was not so alien as we might think. I also set their hearts and minds at ease, clarifying that I was not a preacher, that the Talmudic Correctional Paradigms / Instructional Protocols were not so much Scripture as a philosophy of religion, morals and social life. I likened it to Zen and explained how it could be adhered to in conjunction with one's primary faith - that it served to complement religion, not replace it. Having thus garnered several converts to the cause of the Social Ketowrn, and placated their concerns by grandiloquent answers to their timid questions, I made up a name for myself, gave out a bunch of fake names of websites, books and other sources of information, and left.

I suspect that if any amongst my listeners had recalled how Vinton Cerf co-designed the TCP/IP suite between 1972 and 1976 CE, how first the Internet and then Social Networking had evolved - I would have been torn limb to limb by a mob of frothy-mouthed zealots. What I managed to prove to myself - for no reason, and for the umpteenth time, was that humans have a strong ability to rationalize and give in to well-constructed lies, especially when the farce does not affect their lives in any meaningful manner. For some odd reason I'm reminded of a quote from the 1980 movie Flash Gordon, when Ming the Merciless Emperor of Mingo (yeah, I know) says:

"Pathetic earthlings. Hurling your bodies out into the void, without the slightest inkling of who or what is out here. If you had known anything about the true nature of the universe, anything at all, you would've hidden from it in terror."

What a horrible movie that was.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Romance of the Monodom

They are inseparable, such that it is impossible to define one without the other. Their existential interdependence is so pervasive as to have turned what were once two individual, self-contained entities into a single, apathetic two-headed monster of palpable misery.

She - with her endearing charms and guile, her relentless, futile pursuit of his affections,  does not know when to stop. Despite all her cunning and machinations: the love potions and black magic, astrological predictions and the advice she gets from a wide variety of sources ranging from anonymous message boards on the internet to her best friend's colleague to Oprah, she does not realize that for any design of hers to bear fruit, he must meet her half-way: The black magic cannot work if he dismisses it as hogwash, the astrology is immaterial if he is unwilling to let his actions be influenced by the relative positions of the stars across the sky, the love potions are ineffective if she puts it in his beer and he is unaware of how much more expensive his urine is. And all the counsel she has sought, going to great pains to not seem too desperate, making him out to be more receptive to her advances than he really is, has proven to be useless: the questionable usefulness of such advice diluted further by her pretended indifference to its need. Her prayers to manifold deities, for in desperation she is willing to turn to any source of strength, any possible recourse to let him return her love, have produced no miracles - for her atheistic charmer cannot be swayed by powers that have only an existence hinging on the belief people claim to place in them. He is a man of reason, and she has no rational argument to appeal to his intellect with, his brain does not accept things it cannot understand, and her obsession with him is beyond the ability of his logical processes strengthened by several orders of magnitude, she does not even quite understand it herself, but she does not need to either.

For all he knows, she does not exist, or if she does it is only as a mere nuisance: something akin to the mosquitoes he feeds in his sleep, or the electricity outages he whiles away by swatting them. She lays herself at his feet, an immovable object that like a kitten, becomes an object of affection out of sheer inevitability. But he only sees a viper coiling itself around his limbs, retarding his mobility, intruding on his freedoms, squeezing the life out of him. Her only response when he kicks her away is to cling harder. He has never heard a word of complaint issue forth from her lips, when she speaks she has only the most blatant flattery to spout. Her every action, conscious and otherwise, is geared towards his sustained comfort. His ingratitude does not even seem to slow her down. When she broke a leg after 'falling' from the balcony they were standing on, for she would never admit that he had pushed her off, she had followed him anyway. Crawling and limping, dragging the lifeless, broken limb behind her, trailing in the clouds of dust he blazed in his attempt to be rid of her - catching up to him when he paused for rest. Until the moment he finally stopped caring; she has no longer the prepossession to merit even a chance glance from his skyward-turned eyes, nor can he be bothered to swear and shake his fist at her. The hare has not any need to outrun the turtle. She is in the background: an insignificant deaf mute, that speaks and listens and feels - but cannot get herself to register on his noble, arrogant, savage mind.

They are, as I said, inseparable: he would not be recognized without the trailing husk of a living being that he keeps in thrall, she simply does not exist but as his shadow, or a speck of dust in the little cloud he kicks up with his graceless, heavy stride - willing the earth to split open under the sheer weight of the contempt he has for all things on the surface. They have been cursed with infinite patience, for neither seems to be in a hurry to break the cycle, and indeed it has gone on so long that it is no longer certain whether there is a cycle. They have been blessed with the weakness of mind that prevents humans from changing their minds,  gifted with the lethargy of spirit that keeps people shackled to the easy task of rationalizing the familiar. They were not created for a life of adventure, for the exhilaration of discovery or the admiration of generations to follow. They were created to be ignored in their lifetimes and forgotten after death.  They were created to love and be loved, and that is the fate they seem least willing to accept.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

An Insecurious Man

The latest film by Hollywood's best known two-headed dragon may best be described as a fable about fables. The problems that seem to befall the protagonist, Larry Gopnik, one after another are set in bas relief against the backdrop of the greater question that Jewish moralists have been attempting to answer for the better part of the last two thousand years: "Is it possible to have faith in Hashem (a word they use for God so they may not take the Lord's name in vain) in the face of all their people have endured?" As is the case with the entire movie, this question is left unanswered. 

The Coens seem content to raise such serious questions side-by-side with black humor that always seems to find Larry Gopnik at the receiving end without offering any conclusive answers. His problems are allowed to compound until well past halfway through the movie, forcing the unassertive physics professor to reticently turn to three rabbis for help and guidance. The first talks to him in platitudes, the second tells him a story even he doesn't know the meaning or significance of, and the third turns him away without seeing him. 

Towards the end, with Larry Gopnik at the end of his wits, delusional and wanting in faith finds his troubles resolved sequentially by unlikely remedies: his marital life appears to be turning a new leaf, his son manages to get through the Bar Mitzvah despite being high as a kite, he gets tenure at the university; but no sooner has he pocketed a bribe from a student that he has tried to refuse but cannot (for reasons best left for the audience to discover), a freak tornado heads for his hometown, and he receives a call from his physician asking him to drop by immediately to discuss his latest X-rays.

The Moral, or at least what I took home from it, was the Coens' reassertion that Hashem tries his favored children more than most, that He demands from them unswerving faith in the face of challenges no-one can be expected to endure,  with the only reward being a gradual lessening of these trials' severity - and the admonition that everything may yet come wantonly undone by a single, seemingly trivial, misdeed. This view is reinforced at several points in the movie: the funeral of one of Larry's tormentors, the following dialog with a rabbi.

Rabbi: Hashem doesn't owe us any answers, Larry.
Larry: Why does he make us feel all these questions if he's not going to give us any answers?

In the wake of the Holocaust and everything else the Tribe of Israel has suffered since the Diaspora in the first and second centuries CE, it's not surprising if their foremost grievance is "Why me?" The entire movie is built around that premise, and while it has been executed with pervasive dark humor, the final reaction it evokes is pity and not ridicule.