Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Inward microscope

As I was scanning old email in my inbox (I know…it sounds like I don't have much to do, but it is a nice pastime), I noticed an email I wrote to some student in SUNY Buffalo asking him about my chances of getting into his school (with funding). Doe-eyed and optimistic, I had written an email in my finest English (as much as possible while trying to appear colloquial) wherein I had told him about my GRE score and acads, and declared proudly my dream of helping rid the world of disease with my formulation skills. I had even attached my CV. (which basically was a list of my mediocre academic achievements, along with some embellished extra-curricular stats.)

Oh man…how he must have laughed. As a graduate student of some years, he might have identified the rosy pictures I had of research in the US. I was such a fool back then. I actually believed that I was going to be the answer that pharmaceutical sciences and drug delivery technology was looking for. Time, and more time beats the optimism out of you. It certainly brings you down to earth. I realize, as a graduate student of a year and a half, that I won't be the crowning glory that I was so sure I was, but actually a small part in a large organization that needs me, but that I need it more. There is no shame in being a part of something that is so much larger than you that you might seem insignificant in comparison; but one must not forget that one is not insignificant to such an organization.

There is so much that I want to dip my beak in, and the growing finiteness of my time, energy and abilities is beckoning me close every day, only I have been putting it off for some time now. It is definitely time to recognize it and address it. There have to be a lot of efforts put here, and it will consume me. The end result will not always be pretty, but there will be the satisfaction of having worked hard. There will be the triumph of having committed to a project and seeing it to the finish. And when the inevitable situation comes where I realize that a particular task is too tough for me, I wouldn't shy away from asking someone for help, for I would then be secure in my achievements.

A funny thing happened as I was typing this out. Microsoft word 2007 crashed (damn you Bill Gates), but then restarted. You know what, it had completely recovered my write-up. So I forgive you Bill Gates…there is something to be learned in this experience that any realization, even if it comes late, is not too late…

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Unbridled blasphemy

As I was gumming down a bowl of soup that some diet-friendly misanthropic nihilist might have invented, I glanced around the cafeteria to see if there were any of my friends or pretty girls nearby (Both groups are surprisingly not mutually exclusive!) There was this Latin-American female who monopolized my attention for a whole minute, after which she started walking, leaving me with her image still implanted in my head (persistence of vision is a blessing!); and after that I noticed a banner which read, "Maybe God is the answer?" That was the message verbatim.

Now, most of my regular readers know my cynicism about religion and might consider it hypocrisy that I joined a catholic university, but let's move past that for now. Please note that this is not a slight on Christianity but on religion in general. In fact, my kind of atheism is strangely ecumenical as it unites all religions while calling them crazy. What hurts me deeply is the marketing of religion that is done today. Many a graduate student can testify to being accosted by a missionary with the dangling carrot of free tuition in exchange for accepting Jesus Christ as their personal savior. "God wants you to give till it hurts" is one of the many lines smoothly delivered by buff evangelists as they continue to mercilessly fleece poor innocent people.

Another cheap shot especially practiced by religion is that it attacks people when they are the weakest. Terminally ill patients are often known to have complete conversions during their last hours. While the religiously fanatical lobby notches this in their victory column, it can also be explained as a form of mental anesthesia that people crave when their fear, desperation or pain gets too much to handle.

The Hindu, Muslim and other religions are not far behind in their hypocrisies and their endorsement (and sometimes instigation) of atrocities. They too captivate people when they are most mentally feeble.

Richard Dawkins, the geneticist & acclaimed atheist, says that religion is the best product to sell because neither its virtues nor its promises are vulnerable to scientific testing. This is a product whose qualities you cannot experience until you die. The funniest part is that the people who tell you what happens after death lack serious resume points in the experience category themselves. If, in a scientific discussion, someone throws conjecture after conjecture at you without a shred of data to back them up, you would show that person the door. Yet, we grant religion a free pass and complete immunity from all logical accusations.

Sam Harris says that most people who follow one religion are atheists with respect to others. They believe in no god but their own god. Atheists, Harris says, simply go one god further. Bill Maher notes the pejorative connotation of the word atheist in modern times, and prefers the word rationalist. A rationalist is simply a person who does not conform to an ideology in principle but questions everything and is a natural skeptic. You need to convince such people, and not preach to them or command them.

I have met many people who argue that as I cannot disprove the existence of god, there has to be a god. To this, the great philosopher Bertrand Russell proposed a theory that there is a small teapot orbiting the sun and that its orbit lies between that of Mars & Earth such that it is too tiny to be seen by the most powerful telescope. As we cannot disprove the existence of said teapot, it must exist, and we are free to worship it. This kind of juvenile logic would be rejected by most children if said in the context of the teapot, and rightly so, for it is impossible to prove a negative, and hence the burden of proof should be shouldered by the people who claim the existence of any object.

The least these religious people could admit is that they don't know. I would still respect that. It is their unwavering certainty in the face of many a contradictory proof that baffles me the most.

A friend of mine once gave me a patronizing smile during one such argument and said, "We must not critique these stories & fables in religious texts, but merely take the good out of them." Is that not a critique in itself? Does it not take critical thinking to separate the grain from the chaff? And who is to decide which is which? Are we free to choose?

I consider it an offense to be told to suspend my critical thinking for any reason whatsoever. Richard Dawkins opines that we can lead perfectly moral and decent lives without being taught so by religious scripture. Having considered that, let us weigh the damage wrought by religion against the little (not unique) good it does. It pains me to visit ground zero in NYC. That horror would not have happened if there was no religion. If there was no promise of an afterlife, no one could have convinced young men to throw their lives away and take many others with them. There would have been no Holocaust. Closer to home, we Indians have seen enough brutalities committed in communal riots to know what I'm talking about.

If you woke up one day and saw that Princess Diana was speaking to you, you would suspect that you were hallucinating. Substitute that with the voice of god (which, by the way, you have no way of identifying) and you might just be called a prophet or a messiah.

I am very cynical & venomous on this subject simply because of the time, money, energy and other resources I see being wasted on this selfish mental anesthetic. Let's face it. We humans fear the unknown. Death is the ultimate unknown. So no matter how incredible the explanations offered to us are, we swallow them down just like I swallowed that soup-we have a void to fill, and when we are really desperate, anything goes.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Waltz with Bashir

It was colder than a witch's t$t that day. All day, it had been pretty cold. Full body cover and head gear were a must, and the biting cold winds made you swear off every ungodly thing you might have done in this sorry little life. Somehow I reached Lincoln Plaza cinemas on 62nd and Broadway by 7:30pm.
My cousin was due to meet me there with a buddy of his. I called him up only to learn that he is in a cafe somewhere. Ah! Enjoyin the warmth when I am counting body parts that I was losing to frostbite. Anyway, he came soon enough, and told me that the friend would join us and that we should go inside. We bought the tickets and went into the movie theater hallowed with heat.
The movie was 'Waltz with Bashir'. It was...wait for animated documentary. That is a rare genre, but enough exploited to make some kinda statement alongwith saving money.
This movie was about the recollections of a man who fought for Israel in the dark and gloomy depths of Lebanon in the 1982 Israel-Lebanon conflict. He finds, in the beginning that he cannot remember anything significant about the conflict situations. So the whole movie is his search of people who were with him (with better memories) and their recollections of how it went to speak. Bashir was the name of the president elect of Lebanon, Bashir Gemayel, who was assassinated around that time. The Lebanese Christian Militia, also called the Phalangists, were sympathetic to the Israeli agenda, and 150 Phalangist forces routed the Sabra & Shatilla camps, hence the name "Sabra & Shatilla massacre."
The movie was disturbing, and thought-provoking. While I would support Israel in most situations, it being a democracy in a middle east riddled with theocrats is an important thing to me. The movie is amazingly poignant today in the event of the invasion of Gaza, and dare I extrapolate to the Sri Lankan annihilation of LTTE?
All in all, it was enjoyable, but tiring, because staring at subtitles for an hour and a half when you are already tired is not easy. I would recommend the movie to my serious connoisseurs, but I would prescribe some light reading of the 1982 conflict.
Later, off to some desi restaurant on Amsterdam ave. with that friend of my cousin's who caught up with us after the movie. We ate something called Gajar ka halwa there, although the color and taste failed to ring any bell. A couple of beers later, another freezing walk to the subway station, and home sweet home...