Faces of Dignity (Contd.)

I talked about how dignity can be ‘maintained’ in the face of two different extreme conditions which can easily destroy the kind of dignity I am referring to: extreme wealth and power as well as extreme deprivation.

This is true, of course (that’s why I said it: I wouldn’t lie, would I?). However, what I called extremes are not really extremes. We Indians shouldn’t have difficulty in understanding it. Rosetta’s poverty is relatively much better (what a word to use!) than that of tens (hundreds?) of millions of Indians. Rural as well as urban. It seems to me that Life in a Metro should also include life in metropolitan, even somewhat cosmopolitan, dwellings of the poor called slums. I may be wrong. Anyone can be wrong. Nothing is absolutely right or wrong. We all know that, of course.

Still, since it’s beyond my capabilities to rise above the notions of right and wrong, I do wonder how hard it can be for a person in a typical Indian slum to maintain (as in maintain lifestyle?) the basic human dignity I am so stuck up on. Sounds incredible to me, but it may just be true that Rosetta is lucky. And the princess is, of course, much more luckier. Not just because she falls in safe hands.

Just to make it simple to understand, and it is amazing how difficult it can be to understand such things, I can cite the example of a man (leave aside women) being tortured in a police station. Any police station anywhere in the world where torture is still an acceptable method of ‘interrogation’. Can a man being tortured ‘maintain’ his dignity? Fantasies will tell you that he can. Perhaps that’s true. But people from George Orwell to Khushwant Singh (not to mention our actual executioners, beg pardon, executives of the Law and Justice System) have pointed out, everyone has a limit. Where you lose your capacity to retain (that sounds better) your basic human dignity. Because it is snatched away from you and you can’t even fight back. You are trapped. (Is anyone calling a psychoanalyst to ask why I use this word so much?).

When I originally planned to write this post, I had thought I would write about the characters of Ann and Rosetta. About the technical aspects of the movie. About acting and direction. And, most importantly, about specific incidents in the movies which are not talked about by your usual reviewers. Like the scene of the princess doing her shopping with precious little (borrowed) money. Or like the scene in the barber shop. Or even about the dignity of the (comic) photographer: an unlikely candidate. Or why Rosetta leaves her job which she got after doing something which cost her the favor of many viewers and reviewers. Or about her apparent stomach aches. Or about the only time in the movie when she has an (awkwardly) good time.

It has turned out differently because what I wrote today is what I wanted to write today. No stylistic effect intended. No explanation intended. No protestation intended. No apologies intended. No pun intended either. Sometimes simple truth alone can be quite stylistic. I hope (or fear?) it often is.

So what’s the point? Well, the point can’t always be expressed in a punch line. You can know it if you want to.

Enough! No more waste of my philosophical profundities on a mere blog post.

Faces of Dignity at Two Extremes

For me, the single most important thing for acceptable human life is basic human dignity. Animals also have their own kind of dignity, but since they, perhaps, don’t have any self-consciousness, they automatically get all the dignity they need. Of course, humans have changed this situation, but that is a different story. For humans, on the other hand, dignity – basic human dignity, not the dignity associated with power, rank etc. – is something very hard to get or maintain. This is partly because it depends to a great extent on what is outside you: other people, the society you live in, the environment.

This may all be true, but it’s very abstract. What do I mean by ‘basic human dignity’? I can either give an academic sounding definition, or I can explain by example. I will do the latter here. The former can be reserved for some later academic work :-)

So if you want to see what basic human dignity means, you can watch two movies. You can see what dignity means at two ends of the socio-economic spectrum. The two movies are Roman Holiday and Rosetta.

The first shows you how dignity can be maintained even when you are deluged by wealth, a kind of power, pretentiousness and all the masked menace it means. How a princess can be so dignified that a down-and-out journalist looking for a scoop that will allow him to escape the situation he is trapped in, is moved to drop the scoop and his chances of escape, even when the princess is an easy ‘fair game’.

The other movie shows you how a down-and-out very poor girl trapped in a hell because of her poverty can still be so dignified that you can’t help feeling respect and awe for human life. And, not quite incidentally, disgust for the system that has created her hell and forces her to live in it with hardly any chances of escape.

Wait for more…

Bollywood Growing Up

I would never have seen this movie had Kalpana Sharma not written an article about it. That’s because it has one of the worst names a movie can have. Believe it or not, this movie is a good one, even though it’s called (Ugh!) Chak De India.

As they say in such situations, no points for guessing. That there are several servings of plenty of patriotism. There are some other usual Bollywood ingredients too, but not too many. The movie is of a surprisingly grown up kind for hard core mainstream Bollywood fare.

What did I like in the movie? For one thing, as the title of Kalpana Sharma’s article says, the celebration of difference. The run of the mill reviews may tell you that the star of this movie is Shahrukh Khan, but actually there are many stars. All the girls who played the roles of hockey players. That’s right, the film is about women’s hockey, in a country which is mad about cricket, but whose national game is (men’s) hockey. We are after all very good at such, well, duplicities.

So the movie is about how a rag-tag team of real (mostly) desi girls from all corners of India is inspired to win the (women’s) hockey World Cup. By a coach who is a former disgraced (men’s) hockey star. The fact of his disgrace is closely bound to the fact that he is a Muslim who was the captain of a team which lost, no points again, to Pakistan when his deciding penalty stroke ended up being a missed chance.

But the above summary doesn’t do justice to the film, because there are many other things which I liked. One being the language(s) used by the players from (desi) ‘states’. Another one is that there is no girl who is shown to be the Hero’s girl: quite a bold thing for a Bollywood movie which has been made for one of the most male chauvinistic societies in the world. Can you imagine a Hero who is without a girl, even a bewafa one? And that too when he is surrounded by girls all day. Who are almost at his mercy. Amazing! How would an Indian male be able to digest this fact. Crazy! (Is someone asking whether he is …?).

So, the movie is bold about representation of the minorities, stereotypes of tribals from Jharkhand (‘junglees’), girls from the North East (‘chinks’), cricket being a real career and hockey being ‘just a stupid game’, women’s career versus men’s career etc.

The scenes of games also look quite authentic, perhaps with some help from the CGI people. The director sure seems to know something about hockey. May I say that it is one of the best sports movies made in India, including Iqbal.

There is one thing though which is very odious about the film: the coach seems to be acting like a gentler version of the trainer in Full Metal Jacket. And this brings us back to the overdose of patriotism, which often threatens to make the movie unwatchable. Perhaps the director thought that the bitter anti-stereotypic medicine can only be given with the sugar coating of patriotism. The coating has become quite thick. Perhaps we will have to wait for some more time to have movies without such things. Till the protesters on the margins have struggled enough and sacrificed enough and till what they struggled for becomes mainstream and can be openly accepted by the Yash Chopras of the world.

If it ever does.

It could be Worse. And Worse. And Worse.

I have been through absurd situations before, but yesterday night I found myself in another one of those. This situation, like some (not all) earlier ones, was created by people I had (have?) some respect for. No exaggeration to say that my (personal) world was all shaken up.

Then I heard about the twin blasts. So I thought it could be worse. I had been planning for the last few days to go out. I could have gone to one of those places. Well, under perfect circumstances things could have become completely simplified: all problems solved, but perfect circumstances are not very likely. Things could have become much more complicated.

Then I watched Parzania. And thought that things could be still worse. We know what can come after something like ‘serial blasts’. We already had serial killers. Even a movie genre after them. Now we also have Serial Blasts. Possibly followed by Serial Riots. What about Serial Wars? Perhaps we already have them too. One kind of serial followed by another? Was the last episode of Gulf Wars the ith one or the jth one? Surely the loops aren’t infinite ones?

Then I watched Broken Arrow. Yes, things could be even more worse. There can be a whole new meaning to the term mentioned above (I shudder to mention it with this other meaning).

So what should I do? May be thank God that things are all -ed up (not just for me) for no fault of mine, but they could be worse and worse and worse. I could consider that, if there was one. I mean God. But then something tells me that things are going to be just that: worse. And still more worse. Serial Worse.

May be I should just get meself drunk. Only I don’t drink. For all practical purposes.

Has Chomsky Failed?

There seems to be a widespread explicit or implicit assumption among many linguists as well as among people from fields which have some overlap with linguistics that Chomsky has not only failed but has refused to accept his failure. Well, I am not really a *linguist* and I am interested in cognitive and statistical approaches. Also, as a computational linguist, I am using corpus all the time. But I just can’t see why one should say that Chomsky has failed.

  • During the last fifty years or so, he has done so many things that it’s impossible to say that he has failed in all that he did
  • Even in the narrow sense, I don’t think he has failed, because as Mike has pointed out, the central idea was innateness and Universal Grammar, which has been quite a success
  • As another example, I personally think the idea of autonomy of syntax and semantics is correct and it will be proved so in the future. I can say more on this, but may be later…
  • All kinds of people have taken something from the Chomsky branch of linguistics, e.g. cognitivists. Even computer scientists.
  • Just try to imagine what linguistics would have been had behaviorism dominated the field
  • It’s really not correct to say that Chomsky has refused to ‘accept that he has failed’. I don’t remember the source or the exact words now (someone on this list surely would) but he had explicitly said that he doesn’t claim to know what exactly is the correct solution. He had written that if at all we some day find the correct solution*, most probably the (specific) solution he is suggesting will turn out to be wrong.
    • * Which we might not: his famous spider and the web example. Like the spider, we may have this great skill of language but we may never get to know how exactly we use it.
  • His churning out new theories every decade shows that he never claimed to have found the correct solution. He just claimed to be trying to get nearer to the solution.
  • I think it’s unfair to just look at his specific theories and based on their (partial) failure claim that he has failed. What he has been doing is much more than just proposing some new grammatical theories.
  • I think, on the whole, he has succeeded more than he has failed. Even his failures (if they are that) have added to our understanding of how language works.
  • A lot of his presumed failure has to do with the kind of goals he had set for himself and for linguistics. He wanted to do linguistics the way physicists do physics. No wonder he considered semantics to be out of the scope. Can anyone really claim that we can (even after his ‘failure’ and some others’ non-failure) talk about semantics in the way physicists talk about physics? I don’t think we should restrict ourselves to physics-like study and so I am not averse to speculating about semantics. I think the best work on semantics (including computational) is at the same level (on the scale of being scientific) as the political work of Chomsky. And that is quite alright because it:
    • is a sincere attempt to find the truth
    • is rigorous
    • tries to stick to really scientific methods as far as possible (not always possible)
    • may be practically useful
  • That some ways of inquiry were ‘blocked’ is as much a fault of others as his. Others could have tried new ways irrespective of what he said. That a lot (or all) of them did not is something to do with the way society works, not just about his views.
  • Language is so complex and so important a part of our psychology (and philosophy and social behavior and politics and …) that, as they say in computational theory, if this problem is solved, all the problems will be solved. Why should there be any surprise that Chomsky, or anyone else for that matter, has failed to come up with a complete and correct solution. I, for one, am extremely thankful that the mysteries of language haven’t been all solved and am hopeful that they won’t be: at least in the near future.
  • As some others have pointed out, what is the right way and what is not may depend on your purpose. If I just want to automatically identify the language of a document and a purely statistical method (learning from a small corpus) gives me the right answer almost always, statistics is the right way for me for this purpose. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that Chomsky has been proved all wrong.
  • Finally, my favorite example (from Chemistry): Dalton, in his formulation of the atomic theory, confused atoms and molecules (which Avogadro later pointed out). Did Dalton fail and Avogadro succeed? In an extremely narrow sense, yes. Otherwise, not really.

(This comment was sent in reply to some mails on the corpora list).

Getting a Doctorate: An Honorary One

Which is the better option for getting a doctorate: one of the best educational institutions in India or Reality TV in UK? Now you have the answer.

So here is a four step guide to get an honorary doctorate:

  1. Become a silent but visible victim of racism
  2. Let there be some protest
  3. Then pretend nothing really happened
  4. Forget-and-forgive the offender and express admiration for the offender’s community/nation/whatever

Et voila! you become a Doctor. Perhaps, sometime later, the offender might as well get a doctorate by some reputed Indian university. Quid pro quo?

Why not? That’s what civilization is all about.

A Model of Scripts and the Two Trips in March

Though the vague ideas had been with me for many years, I started to formally work on (what I have named) Computational Modeling of Scripts (CMS). Incidentally, modelling is wrong in 2007, modeling was wrong in 1907, but it is not really a case of language variation. Anyway, two of my papers (co-authored with Harshit Surana) related to the work on CMS were accepted and I had to present both of them in March. I wouldn’t give here the details about the work on CMS because if I begin, there would be no end.

The first paper was titled ‘Using a Model of Scripts for Shallow Morphological Analysis Given an Unannotated Corpus’ and I had to present it at a Workshop on Morpho-Syntactic Analysis. It was being held at Bangkok as part of the 2nd School of Asian NLP for Linguistic Diversity and Language Resource Development. In this case, the long name of the event was justified by the fact it went on for ten days. But even though I had to attend a lot of talks everyday, I didn’t mind. I missed the first two days because of the highly efficient way in which our bureaucracy works. I actually had to go back from the airport after checking in with luggage and all. I managed to survive the nightmare and, thankfully, my nine days at Bangkok were among the best I have had for years, in spite of many problems: food, language, money etc. This was the first time I had gone to any place east of Varanasi and, to put it simply, I liked it.

Bangkok-1 Bangkok-2 Bangkok-3

The second paper was called ‘Study of Cognates among South Asian Languages for the Purpose of Building Lexical Resources’ and it was to be presented in Mumbai at the National Seminar on Creation of Lexical Resources for Indian Language Computing and Processing. I just managed to reach Mumbai (one day late) because there was a deadline for submission to an ACL Workshop on Computing and Historical Phonology. By the way, this paper too was (distantly?) related to the work on CMS and it has been accepted. However, the stay in Mumbai was somewhat less enjoyable (another long story I am not going to tell).

Mumbai-1 Mumbai-2

Apart from the joys (and pains) of traveling, the positive thing about these two trips was that at last I managed to present some of my work on CMS, even if the events were not as big as the ACL. And I got to see a lot of people working in NLP, some of whom I had known from the literature. I also got to meet a lot of East Asians from many different countries, in person and in their world. The downside was that I missed another important event which I had been waiting for: A proper film festival in Hyderabad.

PS: This ‘article’ was published somewhere earlier, but since some parts got left out, I am putting the complete and unabridged version here :-)

Streetcar of Desire Sabotaged (Contd.)

So what was the movie about anyway (not anywayS, as many less reading Indians say, but not due to a typo)?

Well, the first thing one can mention is something that connects the Streetcar with Gone With The Wind (GWTW), apart from Vivien Leigh. Namely, the going away of an old world and the beginning of a new world. But the old world was not so good and the new one is hardly better. Of course, the similarity is limited. There is not much nostalgia in the Streetcar. And all the characters are more imperfect.

An educated sophisticated lady comes from a dying feudal world which she tried very hard to cling to and which has all but destroyed her. She comes, out of compulsion, to a (not the) new industrial world. But people in this new world are more ‘primitive’. They almost live like animals. This is explicitly stated in the movie by the newcomer lady, but is repeatedly shown by the director implicitly. Eating heartily, fighting fiercely and making up, having sex, thinking only about their survival, but (unlike the very poor on-her-own teenager of Rosetta) as if they had no memory. Animals are said to have no memory. The newness of the new world is reflected only in the glimpses of some modern objects: light bulb, machines, and the streetcar etc. Even the law the Yelling Hero talks about is straight from from Napoleon. To sum up this theme (as this is just a blog post, not a proper review), the new world is not so new. And not much better either.

The other theme (as I saw, not necessarily as the director intended) is about two victims torturing one another and the one who is hardier and less sensitive (and ignorant and stupid) surviving, while the other one ‘cracks’ down under the long long assault which was not started by the first victim. I am not sure whether the two are equally victims, as the Yelling Hero obviously suffers less than the Lady of Sweet Sophistication and Bitter Decadence.

I should confess here that I felt more for the latter. I hardly felt much for the former, until I thought consciously about what had created him and kept him where he was: an animal living in a world of rectangular man-made caves in a primitive society in a supposedly modern world where aeroplanes fly and where actors are learning The Method and where there are mass producing factories.

Which world is the director partial to? I don’t know. I am less interested in what the director intended and more in what the film says to me. Which world am I partial to? None. I want a much better world than both, but that is di…

There is a third victim (among the major characters) in the story who neither thrives nor cracks down. He is just trapped. He and the Yelling Hero’s wife (who is a nice nice conformist) are the two more likeable characters, but unlike the Hero’s wife, he is not very happy in his world and is seeking something better without hurting anyone. In reviews of the movie, he (naturally) comes out as a silly comic character.

Yet another theme of the movie is ‘a touching study of schizophrenia’. This is the only important theme that I found mentioned in the reviews that I read on the Net. You see a reasonably good human being going mad right before your eyes. And the reason she becomes a ‘schizophrenic’ (I don’t like these pseudo-scientific terms) is that she can’t survive the long continuous assault by the world of ‘sane’ people around her. If this theme doesn’t ‘touch’ you, I don’t think you should be reading this blog.

There are many other ‘smaller’ themes in the movie, but I am not writing a review…

Streetcar of Desire Sabotaged

For years I had been hearing of and reading about how great a performance the greatest American actor gave in one of the greatest movies ever made. And about how wonderfully Brando yelled “Stella!, Stella!”. And, of course, about The Method. No wonder I wanted to see the movie as soon as I could. But it took a lot of time. Why? No, no, I shouldn’t digress. I will keep the focus. Back to the streetcar.

I am not really unaware of what different kinds of people consider great art. I rarely considered watching movies a waste of time, even at the time of the most crucial exams, which can make or break of your career. Career was not a big deal for me.

Dgrshn gt bk 2 bzns!

Yes, back to business. What was my impression of the movie before I finally saw it? Well, it so happened that I had never read a real review about the movie. Only articles about how great was Brando yelling “Stella!, Stella!” in this movie and how he revolutionized acting (I could barely make out that what was supposed to be revolutionized was actually American acting. The Method was imported from Russia). Since I didn’t know the story, I thought Brando had a kind of role which he played in “On the Waterfront” or may be like the one he played in “The Godfather” (the two Brando movies I had seen). Or may be even like the roles which his artistic descendant De Nero played in “Taxi Driver”. I mean a kind of role with some element of (presumed) heroism, even if (presumed) anti-heroism. And brooding. A character with whom one could at least partly identify.

To be honest, right in the first few minutes, I was puzzled, then felt kind of cheated, and by the end of the first half of the movie, understood what was happening. But the feeling of being cheated remained. I understood what the movie was about alright, but I still fail to understand what was so great (I mean greater than many other things in the movie) about the shout “Stella!, Stella!”.

What had happened was that all the hype about Brando’s great performance (it was great) and about The Method (there was a method) and The Yell (that was great too) hid everything that the movie was really about. This is why, even though the hype had a solid basis, I continue to feel cheated.

Wt ws d moo v abt n e ways?

Let me get things ordered. Wait for the next post. (Actually, let me rest. Not used to this kind of work.). Better than digressing. Isn’t it?

हिन्दी में ज़ेडनेट

ZNet/ZMag पर एक बेहतर दुनिया के लिए कोशिश करने वाले लोगों के विचारों और उनकी गतिविधियों के बारे में लेख प्रकाशित होते हैं। हाल ही मैं मैंने ज़ेडनेट के हिन्दी संस्करण की शुरुआत की है। यह शुरुआत केवल पाँच लेखों के अनुवाद से की गई है, पर उम्मीद है और लोग भी साथ देंगे ताकि ज़ेडनेट की सर्वोत्तम सामग्री हिन्दी में उपलब्ध हो सके। आप भी इसमें सहयोग कर सकते हैं।