Monday, September 26, 2016

Buck Naked

We live in strange times.  People have plenty of "friends" but perhaps feel way more alone than ever.  It is, but one measure, of how rapidly our lives are being transformed.  In the process--and more importantly--we are completely redefining what it means to be human, with human emotions.

Sex is one of those human emotions, which is also being rapidly redefined.  "Making sense of modern pornography" is what this New Yorker essay is about.  The following sentence there makes me think about how much even our "regular" vocabulary and approach to life has changed:
It has permeated everyday life, to the point where we talk easily of food porn, disaster porn, war porn, real-estate porn—not because culture has been sexualized, or sex pornified, but because porn’s patterns of excess, fantasy, desire, and shame are so familiar.
I know what the author is referring to; even in this blog, I have used phrases like 'poverty porn' when, for instance, critiquing Slumdog Millionaire.  The word "porn" has pretty much become a part of our daily vocabulary.

Porn is everywhere.  And at zero cost.  One small typo when entering a URL can easily send one to a porn site.  Years ago, back when the web was young, I wrote an op-ed about this, during my California years, in which I noted that life as a teenager has become immensely more complicated and how amazed I was that the kids were managing this quite successfully.  In the years since, the life of a young person has become even more challenging with porn so easy to access right from the smartphone, and with sexting becoming a part of the daily vocabulary.  I am so glad that I am not a stressed out teenager with hormones rushing through every possible vein.  Phew!
Despite porn’s ubiquity, the Internet has also made it more private, and its effects less knowable. The consequences of seeing sex before having it are as unclear as those of Facebook’s colonization of our leisure time. Pornography isn’t hermetically sealed from the rest of culture, and today it sits on a continuum with other problems of technology that we don’t yet know how to address.
I love how the author has summed it up: "it sits on a continuum with other problems of technology that we don’t yet know how to address."  We have no freaking idea.

Meanwhile, technology is apparently flooding the market with sex toys that are so beyond my wildest imaginations, like these:
Then there are smart toys and machines such as the Bluetooth WorldVibe vibrator, with shareable vibration patterns and an app that controls the device, and the Limon, which uses ‘squeeze technology’ that allows one partner to squeeze the toy, programming it to a personalised rhythm and pressure the other can enjoy. There’s also Vibease, the ‘world’s first wearable smart vibrator’, which is controlled by an app on either iPhone or Android. One partner can wear the vibrator inside her underwear and the other, regardless of where she or he is, can control it.
There are toys for men too, although unlike toys for women, which straddle solo and partner play, heterosexual men’s toys are largely masturbatory devices.
Am I the only one who finds it creepy with such intersections of technology and sex?  More than the creepiness factor, what worries me more is the one with which the author ends the essay: "we risk alienating ourselves from each other all over again."  

The scenarios presented by Hollywood in Her and Ex Machina do not seem that far away. All the more to look forward to turning 75.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Sunny side up

It was a gorgeous autumn afternoon in the valley.  Yes, in case you forgot, it is a brand new season now.  The trees knew that even before Google doodled the change.

Despite the wonderfully sunny day, there were very few people out on the bike path.

Perhaps it was because of the football game.  I cannot understand how people can be this addicted to entertainment.  I was, therefore, all the more delighted that the local team lost ;)

Of the people out and about, it was mostly women. Women of all ages.  Perhaps many of them are football widows.  Though, of course, some women are even more fanatical about the pigskin than even men can be, and their yells and shrieks during the game could make one wonder whether the ballgame is perhaps orgasmic like the other ball-game!

I passed a family resting against their bikes.  Papa, mama, son, son, and daughter.  I nodded a hello.

I could not understand why not many were outside.  A few weeks down, when they complain about the overcast November sky, I wish I could be next to them to shake them by their sweatshirts and yell, "what the hell were you doing wasting away the sunny September Saturday?"  In fact, that is how life should be.  When we suffer the consequences of our bad decisions and, yet, complain about the awful life, somebody ought to whack us on our head and remind us that we wasted our lives with our own wrong decisions.  (Crap, I just felt a whack on my head!)

The family passed me.  The father was the last one to pass me.  I suppose there is some unwritten code in the family manual that the father should bring up the rear.  However, apparently the same family manual also says that when tandem biking, the man should be in front with the woman in the rear seat.  In all my years of walking by the river, I am yet to see a tandem bike with a woman in front.

Am I the only one who observes people like this and makes snide remarks on life?  What's wrong with me?  I can't even blame it all on my parents, thanks to the wonderful people they are!  I suppose I am responsible for my own bizarre approach to life.  (Wait, why was I whacked for that? Not fair.)

On the bridge over the river, the family had stopped and were all enjoying snacks.  Energy bars and candies.  I wanted to tell them that with all the sugar and fat, energy bars are not any better than candy bars.  But, I didn't.  Let them also get whacked later for the wrong decisions they make ;)

After a while, they passed me again.  As the mother evened with me, she slowed down enough to ask me, "how many miles do you walk every day?"

I laughed.  I assumed it was mere small-talk and not a real inquiry.

She kept looking at me for an answer.  She meant business.

I had to make a quick decision.  Do I tell her that I don't walk every single day?  What frequency should I report then?  I decided to make it easy for all of us.  (Why I am whacked now?)

"Oh, about five miles."

"Wow. ... wow" she said as she continued on.

The daughter, who was the youngest, and looking perhaps six years old, collided with her brother.  "What's your problem?" she yelled out.

I guess she is the darling of the family. She collides with her brother and then yells at him.  Maybe she is a politician in the making.

The father, who was bringing up the rear, responded in an even voice, "you ran into your brother. It is your problem."

I headed home after all the sun that I had soaked up over the five miles.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

May Peace Be With You

I have sent this across to the editor

The United Nations marks October 2nd as the “International Day of Non-Violence” for a very good reason--it is the birthday of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, popularly known as Mahatma Gandhi.

Gandhi, who was born in 1869, led the independence movement that, in 1947, resulted in the creation of two new countries of India and Pakistan and, with that the end of the British Raj as well. The struggle for freedom, in which Gandhi passionately urged his followers to observe non-violence even against the colonizer’s brutal force, inspired many others, including Martin Luther King, Jr.

Life is full of tragic ironies--Gandhi and King, the champions of peace and nonviolence, fell to bullets that were aimed at them. Unlike Gandhi, who was assassinated in 1948, King had not lived long enough to live in the promised land of freedom.

Albert Einstein summed it up best for all of us when he wrote about Gandhi that “generations to come, it may well be, will scarce believe that such a man as this one ever in flesh and blood walked upon this Earth.” On Gandhi’s birthday, it certainly will help us all to be reminded of, as the UN puts it, the human desire for "a culture of peace, tolerance, understanding and non-violence."

In the contemporary United States, any talk in the public space about peace and nonviolence is rare anymore. Politicians of all stripes want to prove how much they are tougher than the other, out of a fear of being labeled a wimp otherwise. This has been especially the case since the fateful events on September 11, 2001. At the national level, the “tough” ones smell blood when an opponent does not talk war. At this rate, even those running for the office of a local dog catcher will have to prove their toughness.

Of course, violence is more than merely about engaging in war. The political rhetoric over the past year seems to have been anything but peaceful and nonviolent. A new day begins with attacks on yet another person or group of people, based on whatever cultural trait is deemed to be the “wrong” one for the moment. So much so that even I, as insignificant as one can be in the political landscape, have been a target for those who are seemingly at ease with offensive words and rhetoric!

While words, unlike sticks and stones, do not break bones, the violence conveyed through words causes plenty of harm. In the noise and confusion of the violent rhetoric that surrounds us in the real and cyber worlds, we seem to have lost a fundamental understanding of what it means to be human,. One of Gandhi’s favorite prayers says it all about being human--it is to “feel the pain of others, help those who are in misery.” However, and unfortunately, the overall rhetoric and practice these days is far from that interpretation of humanity.

When it comes to the terrible humanitarian crises, like the situation in Aleppo, in Syria, it is depressingly shocking how quickly we closed ourselves from the “pain of others” and how easily we refuse to “help those who are in misery.” We have refused to budge even when the screens all around us flashed the images of Aylan Kurdi--the toddler who was dead, face down, on a beach--or the five-year old Omran Daqneesh, whose dust and blood covered face looked dazed and confused.

Meanwhile, all around the world, the number of people displaced from their homes continues to increase. The United Nations estimates that by the end of 2015, the number of people who have been forcibly displaced from their homes numbered 65.3 million. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, noted that “at sea, a frightening number of refugees and migrants are dying each year; on land, people fleeing war are finding their way blocked by closed borders. Closing borders does not solve the problem.”

As I write this column, peace and nonviolence seem to be evaporating even in Gandhi’s old lands of India and Pakistan. Tension between the two countries is at such high levels that international media and commentators wonder, and worry, whether the neighbors are getting ready for yet another war. As often is the case with these sibling countries, this time too the fight is over Kashmir, but with plenty of nuclear bombs on both sides of the border.

We shall certainly overcome, in the long run. In the meanwhile, on the “International Day of Non-Violence,” like the stereotypical beauty pageant contestant, I too will wish for world peace.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Join me in saying thanks

There is one page in the Economist that I always check out first.  It is the last page.

When you have been reading a magazine long enough, you check out your favorite sections first.  I start with the last page of the Economist.  What's there?  An obit essay.

Yep. About somebody who died.  Almost always, the person who died would have done something wonderfully constructive.  Sometimes, the obit is to be thankful that an awful person is no more. It is in this latter category that I hope to read about Mugabe really, really soon.

When it is about a constructive contribution, often the person is one who is not really a household name. Which is all the more that I love that last page.  Like this time.  It was about Donald Ainslie (“D.A.”) Henderson.  Up until I read this, I had no idea about this Henderson!

As a teenager, Henderson became obsessed with smallpox after the virus re-visited New York City, which panicked the residents. 
He wanted to study the causes, spread and suppression of epidemics. Rather than serve in the army he joined the Epidemic Intelligence Service at the Communicable Disease Centre in Atlanta, for what he called “firefighter” training. As soon as a disease broke out anywhere in the world, he would dash to tackle it—becoming a proper “shoe-leather” epidemiologist, as opposed to a “shiny-pants” desk-bound sort. When he was hauled away from his anti-smallpox work in west Africa and sent to Geneva for the WHO in 1967, at 38, he wasn’t thrilled. But if they wanted the world rid of the virus in ten years, he would give it his best shot.
From the stories I have heard from my father and grandmothers, smallpox was one mighty enemy that people feared.  A cousin of my father's was a typical survivor, with scars on his face as evidence of the battle.  By the time we kids came along, the worry was only about chickenpox.  We owe it all to Dr. Henderson and his “surveillance-containment” towards "Target Zero":
Problems rose up constantly. In Ethiopia, rebels attacked the vaccinators. Afghanistan brought deep snow and no maps. In Bangladesh trucks could not cross the bamboo bridges; in India mourners had to be stopped from floating smallpox corpses down the Ganges. He experienced most of this himself, frequently decamping from cramped Geneva armed with “Scottish wine” (his favourite medicine) to urge on the troops. Out in the trenches he also faced the full horror of what he was fighting. At a hospital in Dhaka the stench of leaking pus, the pustule-covered hands stretched towards him, the flies clustering on dying eyes, convinced him anew that he had to win this war.
The last recorded case was in 1977.  A decade after he was appointed to the job, Henderson did rid of the world of this monster.

To borrow from Einstein, we are standing on the shoulders of giants who made our lives so easy.  

Thanks, Dr. Henderson.