Friday, April 28, 2017

Labored Confusions

In the dim squalor
of sweatshops
tucked behind silhouetted skyscrapers – glittering
blood diamonds on black velvet – the rhythmic thundering of hammers,
and little heartbeats stolen
from forgotten schoolyards,
sound the trumpets of neoliberalism.

Gucci, Armani, Tiffany’s, Ivy Leagues and Standardized Testing materials;
and in the hollowed out shells of heavy ordinance,
Imperial Democracy nurtures
The better angels of our nature — buy two, get one free.


The way the days pass,
with tired breaking of
Insincere Promises;
while the unending retrospections
of a cognizant mind,
at its reluctant inertia.

Primate Saturday: Jane & Her Chimps

You know what  who I have always been jealous of? Scientists who have found a life-long obsession vocation — Diane Fossey in the mountains of Uganda, Galdikas in Borneo, and of course, Jane Goodall in Tanzania! I wonder, often, how fulfilling it must be to be able to chase down your scientific curiosities throughout your life with such consistency!

Golden Age Comics: With A Twist

Superhero comics are, supposedly, fun! Right? Except when you really think about it, they are not. When you read them in a historical and political context, they are blatantly sexist, discriminative, privilege-perpetuating pieces of propaganda garbed in bright colors and designed to distract people from their undertone. And it works! As Edward Bernays knew all too well, if you can serve a piece of addictive substance — video games, comics, TV in general — with some nice packaging, and if you can make sure that consuming it doesn’t require any active cognitive exercise, then soon you will develop an addicted population who, not unlike tobacco-addicts, would not only come to rely on the substance but would defend it with fervent zeal. To ensure that the process didn’t become too apparent it is necessary to present an appearance of avant-garde — grown people reading comics, adults pushing buttons on a keyboard and making like it takes intelligence to play video games, parents watching cartoon with their children — while quietly reinforcing all kinds of stereotypes under the hood. Take the Golden Age comics for instance. Not only are the gender stereotypes, and socio-political ones, silently reinforced through the
cosmetic and behavioural traits of the characters (all neatly divided along  gender lines), but the same are also the guiding principles behind what each character is allowed, and not allowed, to say.
So, in the spirit of Direct Action subversion of cultural imperialism in order to pursue Social Justice and Gender Desegregation, here’s some twisted takes on the Golden Age comics from yesteryears! 

Friday, February 17, 2017

Primate Saturday: Cocoa with Koko

For over almost half a century, Francine "Penny" Patterson has claimed that her surrogate daughter, a female western lowland gorilla named Koko, can use sign language productively. Following what started as her own PhD project, Koko has gained international publicity due to both the public's fascination with a domesticated gorilla that clearly interacts (but not necessarily linguistically communicates) with humans, and also due (largely) to what most scientists consider to be over-inflated claims by Patterson regarding Koko's sign language usage.
To be sure, no one has ever claimed that Koko cannot use signs to signal certain elemental concepts that are interpretable by humans. For instance, gorillas have long been known to be capable of complicated social structures, intricate inter-personal relationships and of a wide range of emotions. Given this, Koko's ability to use the sign for "sad" or "cry" on being shown pictures that would qualify as such, after extensive familiarization with the concerned sign-reference correlations, is hardly news to any primatologist. Patterson's claims, however, go far beyond this ability (often also observed in bonobos and chimpanzees) -- according to Patterson, Koko instinctively uses signs to communicate her feelings and thoughts. The ability to use discrete symbols, and to recursively combine them to create ever more complicated structures with semantic content, is a hallmark of the human species. And while Patterson does not, in fact, claim that Koko is quite that adept, her claims of Koko having self-consciousness, or being able to recognize herself in her reflections/creating a self-identity, and using sign-language to "think" about her world has consistently raised eyebrows in the scientific community. Several scientists have pointed out that Patterson is falling victim to the one cardinal sin in ethology -- anthropomorphism. She has been compared to an over-zealous mother who is infatuated with her very clever baby, and is thus ascribing to the behaviours of the baby concepts that are, developmentally, beyond the baby's ability. According to most, Patterson's interpretations of Koko's behaviors vanish when seen through more objective eyes.
While Patterson's claims about Koko's abilities are very likely to be overreaching, she has nonetheless to be commended for spending her entire life caring for the gorilla she adopted. Certainly this deserves more praise than Project Nim, wherein the researcher who adopted a chimpanzee, named him Nim Chimspky (after the polymath linguist Noam Chomsky), and tried to teach Nim sign language, would eventually give him up for a life in captivity when the research didn't go as expected. Nim, having been raised in a human family, was unable to adapt to wilderness later on. He lived out the remainder of his life, following the sad (but predictable) demise of Project Nim, being subjected to various forms of experimental indignities, including being used for product testing -- a confused, troubled and perpetually depressed chimpanzee, Nim died in his cage, forgotten and abandoned by the world that had moved on to the next circus trick.
There are important lessons to be learned from both Project Nim and Koko. The positive lesson is one of hope; we are only gradiently removed from our closest cousins with whom we share a majority of our genetic materials, who only lack may be one or two of our qualities, but are nonetheless very as capable of appreciating us as we them. The other lesson, though, is one of a more cautionary note; just because our cousins in the ape world lack our kind of language neither makes them lacking in consciousness, nor does it do to invade their world and try to teach them neat circus tricks in vain and misguided attempts to improve on evolution.

Sunday, February 12, 2017


Slow, dull, monotonous, persistent
and unforgiving;
Every beat renews
the ever darkening constancy
of a reluctant pessimist.

An exercise in futility;
rusting arteries can only
blacken young blood,
with each new beat.

Never learning.

Mockingbirds do not return
to leafless branches
and play Muse
to the poets of eternal Fall.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Primate Saturday: Ham in Space

Before there was Neil Armstrong, Yuri Gagarin or Carl Sagan, there were the forgotten apes we sent to space. Whether such acts reflect human anthropocentrism, or whether they were worthwhile sacrifices for furthering our understanding of the cosmos, is an open debate. No one, of course, in their right minds would claim that we should not have studied the space. The survival of our species, and since we alone are capable of Scientific logic probably the survival of other earthlings, depends on our understanding of deep space. So, perhaps, instead of arguing against the space-faring chimpanzees, we should look back on their experiences, and remember the sacrifices they made (involuntary as they were) to further our understanding of the cosmic ocean. So, in remembering the most humane of the astronomers, I dub thee Sagan's Primates.

The Story of Ham

Friday, February 3, 2017

In All Fairness

Forked-tongued, mousse haired, black tied 
whistle hawkish tunes,
circling the bodies of Syrian children
washed up on Bodrum shores,
singing war songs,
beating battle drums.

Lying, stealing, pillaging,
boundary-challenged savants,
talk of walls and borders.

And from the heights of Standing Rock,
drenched in the blood and tears
of an once proud People,
Fair Evil eyes the Earth;
looking, searching, lusting
for another Wounded Knee.

Primate Saturday: Mutual Aid Apes

Bonobos share 98.7% of our DNA. Physically, they resemble chimpanzees. But something remarkable sets them apart from their primate cousins, making them an altogether different animal. Bonobos live in almost complete absence of violence; work cooperatively toward shared goals; foster a society that values equality; and engage in prolific casual sex. Could these gentle, promiscuous creatures hold the key to a world without war? Vanessa Woods, author of Bonobo Handshake, discusses what we might learn from our evolutionary relatives with anthropologist Brian Hare and NPR RadioLab's Jad Abumrad.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Primate Saturday: DIY Orangutans

This is going to be a new series in the spirit of understanding the evolution of beings that would ultimately result in higher cognition, the highest being the human ability for logical natural language (my personal area of research). We are all, of course, descendants from the same single source, but even though we share much of our genetic materials with the higher apes -- bonobos, chimpanzees etc. -- we are still separated by a very tiny subset of cognitive abilities when compared to the higher primates. These abilities, often abstract computational in nature, must nontheless be explained as biological endowments, which in turn require an evolutionary (thought not necessarily adaptationist) explanation.

This series, though, is not so much meant to be an in depth elaboration of the concerned science as it is meant to be food for thought... How did we get here, with our abilities to do mathematics and write poetry, and engage in all sorts of abstractions, starting with the simple, yet revolutionary, ability to imitate and use tools?
                                     David Attenborough: BBC Earth's Amazing DIY Orangutans


Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Epilogue to Identity Politics

Barrack Obama is almost out of the White House, and boy!, did he have some Call-of-Duty-styled fun with the world during his time in power! And the saddest bit is that this hawkish, lying, totalitarian goon will only look saintly in comparison to the utterly bigoted lunatic white supremacist who is to follow him. But let's stay focused on Barry for the moment.

We all remember the moment he was elected, the tears in the eyes of the aging civil rights warriors who had lived through Jim Crow and segregation, the old women of color who were grandmothers before they earned the right to vote, and we understood why it mattered to them. Even as we were scared of the inevitable bane of identity politics, even as we knew deep in our hearts that when you pick from a pack of wolves you can only ever pick another wolf, even so we couldn't help but give in a little to the magnitude of "change" in the fortunes of a people, even if it was purely symbolic. But fast forward eight years, and what do we have? The "change" that we could believe in is nowhere to be seen, either in domestic or in foreign affairs of Barry's regime. But lies, deceits, coups, assassinations and incarceration of dissent as far as the eye can see.

Kafka once wrote, "Suffering must lead to something elementally beautiful", and much in a Kafkaesque fashion we hoped that a man who came from a long suffering people would know not to further suffering of others. What we got, though, was a black elite who carried out the most extensive surveillance campaign at home, persecuted whistle blowers using an Espionage Act drafted in 1917, stayed silent in the face of a white supremacist police state carrying out genocidal violence against his own people, and abroad engaged in the most extensive drone assassination and terror campaign the world has ever known. Here's a chart from the Council on Foreign Relations on exactly how much 'HOPE' and 'CHANGE' Barry brought to the world, disguised as heavy munitions, in 2016 alone!

In fact, looking at the chart above one would wonder, isn't Barry doubly responsible for his crimes against humanity because he used the color of his skin to not only trick a desperate population into believing he was their "hope" for a "change" from his predecessors, but also stole a Nobel Peace prize? For being black! While he silently watched the tacit exploitation and murder of the same black people, on whose shoulders he stood to claim a Nobel prize, by a brutal and biased police force resorting to Jim Crow era tactics! Barry may look black, but he has never lifted a single finger to help the conditions and lives of those whose legacy he has instead exploited to further the imperialist cause. Heck, the man even gave a speech at the Nobel Peace ceremony justifying war! Words befitting a man whose philosophical ruminations involve "moral standards in waging war". How strange it is how strange the world turns out to be, as Jerry Fodor once wrote.

Ask yourself, "How many people did each one of those bombs kill?"  If we assume a medium death toll per bomb of, say, 10 people each, then the United States has killed a quarter of a million people in the last year alone. If the number is very large, then it is an atrocity that rivals the worst ones ever committed in the history of humanity. And yet, Barry wins a Nobel Peace Prize, and Steven Pinker is singing hosannas for the long democratic peace. We are at peace, apparently, yet a single country has probably killed more than a quarter of a million people in just the last one year. In a saner world, the sheer paradox would drive a moral man to insanity. And to the observant ones, this truth is not that hard to comprehend either.


This should hardly be news, if it wasn't for the fact that we live in a media-controlled nation where public intellectuals are replaced with prime-time talk show hosts and unfunny comedians making placid observations about the world that fail to challenge the status quo in any kind of an informative manner. As Noam Chomsky, one of the last remaining iconic intellectuals, once said, "The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum....”. And Chomsky falls outside that spectrum. In an interview with Washington based history teacher Dan Falcone and New York based English teacher Saul Isaacson, 'the most important intellectual alive' discussed the issues of drone warfare, terrorism, and Washington's long legacy in indulging in genocidal games, group/identity politics and exceptionalism.
"Yeah, Reagan started it. It’s pretty interesting. I mean terror became a big issue when the Reagan Administration came in. They immediately announced [their plans] and kind of disparaged Carter’s alleged human rights programs. The main issue is state-directed international terrorism. Right at that time that big industry developed. That’s when you start getting the academic departments on terrorism. You get UN conferences trying to define terrorism. Journals, you know, big explosion of interest in terrorism. I started writing about it more at that time as did Ed Herman. But we actually had been writing about it before and we picked up after that.

But the stuff that we write can’t enter the canon for a very simple reason. We use the official definitions of terrorism. The definitions in the U.S. code, in British law, in U.S. Army manuals and so on. And if you use those definitions it follows instantly that the United States is the leading terrorist state in the world. So since you can’t have that conclusion you have to do something else. And if you look at all this academic work in the conferences and so on there’s a constant theme that terrorism is extremely hard to define and we therefore have to have a deep thinking about it. And the reason it’s hard to define is quite simple. It’s hard to find a definition that includes what they do to us but excludes what we do to them. That’s quite difficult. So it takes a global war on terrorism.

The worst terrorist crimes going on right now are the drone campaigns. But you can’t include that obviously. So you have to try to define it. I mean if Iran was carrying out an assassination campaign killing anyone around the world who Iran thought might harm them someday we’d go crazy. But that’s the drone campaign.

There’s been a big problem now, for 35 years, in trying to define a way to restrict the concept of terrorism to things that those guys are doing to us. Take a look at the Supreme Court decision that just authorized an effort by U.S. claimants against Iran for terrorist acts. What are the terrorist acts? The terrorist acts are bombings of U.S. military installations in Lebanon and Saudi Arabia, which Iran is claimed to have something to do with. Well suppose they did. That’s not terrorism. I mean if we have a military base in Lebanon that while we’re shelling Lebanese naval ships, the Navy is shelling Lebanese installations and somebody attacks [that’s not terrorism].

But that’s the way you’ve got to craft the concept and it runs right through the whole ideological system. Kind of interestingly one of the exceptions is the international law community. So there’s an interesting review article in the latest issue of the American Journal of International Law, a very conservative journal, which basically does, or comes pretty close to calling the drone campaign terrorism. But it’s not in the mainstream of course or in the textbooks.

In fact if you look at Reagan’s global war on terrorism it very quickly turned into a massive terrorist war: [by us] Central America, South Africa, the Middle East, all U.S.-backed terrorism. That’s one of the reasons why it disappeared from history and why the standard line is that Bush 43 declared the war on terror. Actually he just repeated what Reagan had said 20 years earlier."

The interview is illuminating and insightful, and serves as a stark reminder of the troubled legacy of identity politics that we cannot afford to forget just because of Trump. There are lessons to be learned here, and especially so when the time comes for us to react to whatever destruction and devastation Trump will leave us with! If we pay attention to history, and listen to public intellectuals like Chomsky, may be we won't make the mistake of indulging in identity politics when reacting to the Trump-era like we made when reacting to 'dubya'.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Cold Turkey

You ever wandered,
inside your own head?
Like a drunk hobo in Kansas?

There's a feeling --
I can't find --
lost in my head. Endlessly
It itches
Where I can't scratch.