Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Once, I had some doubts about my sanity. After all, if you find yourself questioning the realness of reality, you have to wonder — is it reality that is unreal, or your sanity?

When I shared my concerns with this philosophically inclined friend of mine, she reassured me, “Sanity is overrated.” After reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, I think she was right. Perhaps she didn’t go far enough — may be insanity is way underrated.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance defines insanity as the process of stepping outside mythos; mythos being the sum total of our combined knowledge passed down over the generations, the “commonsense” that precedes logic. If reality is not commonsense, what is? And doubting the realness of reality, almost by definition, is stepping outside the bounds of mythos. So it fits; my concerns were indeed well-founded.

But a good fit is no guarantee of the “rightness” of a hypothesis, as Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance teaches us. Given enough time, we can always come up with a hypothesis that fits our observations. The process of hypothesizing from observations and experiences is like trying to guess the nature of an object from the shadow it projects. And a projection is precisely what our reality is — a projection of unknown forms and processes into our sensory and cognitive space, into our mythos and logos. But here, I may be pushing my own agenda rather than the theme of the book. But it does fit, doesn’t it? That is why I found myself muttering “Exactly!” over and over during my three reads of the book, and why I will read it many more times in the future. Let’s remind ourselves again, a good fit says nothing about the rightness of a hypothesis.

One such reasonable hypothesis of ours is about continuity We all assume the continuity of our personality or selfhood, which is a bit strange. I know that I am the same person I was twenty years ago — older certainly, wiser perhaps, but still the same person. But from science, I also know for a fact that every cell, every atom and every little fundamental particle in my body now is different from what constituted my body then. The potassium in the banana I ate two weeks ago is, for instance, what may be controlling the neuronal firing behind the thought process helping me write this essay. But it is still me, not the banana. We all assume this continuity because it fits.

Losing this continuity of personality is a scary thought. How scary it is is what Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance tells you. As usual, I’m getting a bit ahead of myself. Let’s start at the beginning.

In order to write a decent review of this book, it is necessary to summarize the “story” (which is believed to be based on the author’s life). Like most great works of literature, the story flows inwards and outwards. Outwardly, it is a story of a father and son (Pirsig and Chris) across the vast open spaces of America on a motorbike. Inwardly, it is a spiritual journey of self-discovery and surprising realizations. At an even deeper level, it is a journey towards possible enlightenment rediscovered.

The story begins with Pirsig and Chris riding with John and Sylvia. Right at the first unpretentious sentence, “I can see by my watch, without taking my hand from the left grip of the cycle, that it is eight-thirty in the morning,” it hit me that this was no ordinary book — the story is happening in the present tense. It is here and now — the underlying Zen-ness flows from the first short opening line and never stops.

The story slowly develops into the alienation between Chris and his father. The “father” comes across as a “selfish bastard,” as one of my friends observed.

The explanation for this disconnect between the father and the son soon follows. The narrator is not the father. He has the father’s body all right, but the real father had his personality erased through involuntary shock treatments. The doctor had reassured him that he had a new personality — not that he was a new personality.

The subtle difference makes ample sense once we realize that “he” and his “personality” are not two. And, to those of us how believe in the continuity of things like self-hood, it is a very scary statement. Personality is not something you have and wear, like a suit or a dress; it is what you are. If it can change, and you can get a new one, what does it say about what you think you are?

In Pirsig’s case, the annihilation of the old personality was not perfect. Besides, Chris was tagging along waiting for that personality to wake up. But awakening a personality is very different from waking a person up. It means waking up all the associated thoughts and ideas, insights and enlightenment. And wake up it does in this story — Phaedrus is back by the time we reach the last pages of the book.

What makes this book such a resounding success, (not merely in the market, but as an intellectual endeavor) are the notions and insights from Phaedrus that Pirsig manages to elicit. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is nothing short of a new way of looking at reality. It is a battle for the minds, yours and mine, and those yet to come.

Such a battle was waged and won ages ago, and the victors were not gracious and noble enough to let the defeated worldview survive. They used a deadly dialectical knife and sliced up our worldview into an unwieldy duality. The right schism, according to Phaedrus and/or Pirsig, would have been a trinity.

The trinity managed to survive, albeit feebly, as a vanquished hero, timid and self-effacing. We see it in the Bible, for instance, as the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. We see it Hinduism, as its three main gods, and in Vedanta, a line of thought I am more at home with, as Satyam, Shivam, Sundaram — the Truth, ???, the Beauty. The reason why I don’t know what exactly Shivam means indicates how the battle for the future minds was won by the dualists.

It matters little that the experts in Vedanta and the Indian philosophical schools may know precisely what Shivam signifies. I for one, and the countless millions like me, will never know it with the clarity with which we know the other two terms — Sundaram and Satyam, beauty and truth, Maya and Brahman, aesthetics and metaphysics, mind and matter. The dualists have so completely annihilated the third entity that it does not even make sense now to ask what it is. They have won.

Phaedrus did ask the question, and found the answer to be Quality — something that sits in between mind and matter, between a romantic and a classical understanding of the world. Something that we have to and do experience before our intellect has a chance to process and analyze it. Zen.

However, in doing so, Phaedrus steps outside our mythos, and is hence insane.

If insanity is Zen, then my old friend was right. Sanity is way overrated.

Photo by MonsieurLui

Are You a Malayali?

If you can fit four passengers in the front seat of an Ambassador taxi, while in the back there are eight passengers and two children with their heads sticking out the window, chances are, you are a Mallu going to attend your cousin’s wedding.

If you can run, ride a 100 cc motorbike without wearing a helmet and play football all while wearing a lungi tied halfmast, Malayali status!

If your late father left you a part of an old house as your inheritance, and you turned it into “chaya kada,” yes, you’re a Malayali.

If you have more than 5 relatives working in Gulf, Big Time Malayali…

If you have the words “Chinchu Mol + Jinchu Mol” written on the rear window of your Omni car, yes, you are a Malaayli.

If you refer to your husband as “Kettiyon, ithiyan, pillerude appan,” guess what — you’re a central Travancore Syrian Christian Malayali.

If you have a Tamilian parked in front of your house every Sunday, ironing your clothes, chances are a you are a Middle Class Malayali.

If you have more than three employee trade unions at your place of work, then ask no more, you are indeed a Malayali.

If you have voted into power a Chief Minister who has not passed the 4th grade then ask no further, YOU ARE A MALAYALI.

If you have at least two relatives working in the US in the health industry , yes! Malayali!

If you religiously buy a lottery ticket every week, then you’re in the Malayali Zone!

If you describe a woman as “charrakku,” yep, Malayali!

If you constantly refer to banana as “benana” or pizza as “pissa,” you’re a Malayali..

If you use coconut oil instead of refined vegetable oil and can’t figure out why people in your family have congenital heart problems, you might be a Malayali.

If you are going out to see a movie at the local theater with your wifey wearing all the gold jewellry gifted to her by her parents, you are a newly married Malayali.

If you and your wife and three children dress up in your Sunday best and go out to have biriyani at Kayikka’s on a 100 cc Bajaj mobike, you an upwardly mobile Malayali from Cochin.

If your idea of haute cuisine is kappa and meen curry, then, yes, you are a Malayali.

If you have beef puttu for breakfast, beef olathu for lunch, and beef curry with ‘borotta’ for dinner, yeah, definitely Malalyali.

If your name is Wislon, and your wife’s name is Baby, and you name your daughter Wilby, have no doubts at all, you are a standard Malayali.

If most of the houses on your block are painted puke yellow, fluorescent green, and bright pink, definitely Malappuram Malayali.

If you tie a towel around your head and burst into a raucous rendition of the song “Kuttanadan Punjayile” after having three glasses of toddy, then you are a hardcore Malayali.

If you call appetizers served with alcoholic beverages as “touchings,” then you are one helluva Malayali.

If the local toddy shop owner knows you by your pet name and you call him “Porinju Chetta” (kekekekekek), then you are true Malayali.

If you’re sick and your wifey rubs “Bicks” into your nostrils and gives you “kurumulaku rasam” with chakkara, (grandma’s recipe) to help relieve your symptoms, damn!! You’re Malayali.


The Philosophy of Special Relativity — A Comparison between Indian and Western Interpretations

Abstract: The Western philosophical phenomenalism could be treated as a kind of philosophical basis of the special theory of relativity. The perceptual limitations of our senses hold the key to the understanding of relativistic postulates. The specialness of the speed of light in our phenomenal space and time is more a matter of our perceptual apparatus, than an input postulate to the special theory of relativity. The author believes that the parallels among the phenomenological, Western spiritual and the Eastern Advaita interpretations of special relativity point to an exciting possibility of unifying the Eastern and Western schools of thought to some extent.

– Editor

Key Words: Relativity, Speed of Light, Phenomenalism, Advaita.


The philosophical basis of the special theory of relativity can be interpreted in terms of Western phenomenalism, which views space and time are considered perceptual and cognitive constructs created out our sensory inputs. From this perspective, the special status of light and its speed can be understood through a phenomenological study of our senses and the perceptual limitations to our phenomenal notions of space and time. A similar view is echoed in the BrahmanMaya distinction in Advaita. If we think of space and time as part of Maya, we can partly understand the importance that the speed of light in our reality, as enshrined in special relativity. The central role of light in our reality is highlighted in the Bible as well. These remarkable parallels among the phenomenological, Western spiritual and the Advaita interpretations of special relativity point to an exciting possibility of unifying the Eastern and Western schools of thought to a certain degree.

Special Relativity

Einstein unveiled his special theory of relativity2 a little over a century ago. In his theory, he showed that space and time were not absolute entities. They are entities relative to an observer. An observer’s space and time are related to those of another through the speed of light. For instance, nothing can travel faster than the speed of light. In a moving system, time flows slower and space contracts in accordance with equations involving the speed of light. Light, therefore, enjoys a special status in our space and time. This specialness of light in our reality is indelibly enshrined in the special theory of relativity.

Where does this specialness come from? What is so special about light that its speed should figure in the basic structure of space and time and our reality? This question has remained unanswered for over 100 years. It also brings in the metaphysical aspects of space and time, which form the basis of what we perceive as reality.

Noumenal-Phenomenal and BrahmanMaya Distinctions

In the Advaita3 view of reality, what we perceive is merely an illusion-Maya. Advaita explicitly renounces the notion that the perceived reality is external or indeed real. It teaches us that the phenomenal universe, our conscious awareness of it, and our bodily being are all an illusion or Maya. They are not the true, absolute reality. The absolute reality existing in itself, independent of us and our experiences, is Brahman.

A similar view of reality is echoed in phenomenalism,4 which holds that space and time are not objective realities. They are merely the medium of our perception. In this view, all the phenomena that happen in space and time are merely bundles of our perception. Space and time are also cognitive constructs arising from perception. Thus, the reasons behind all the physical properties that we ascribe to space and time have to be sought in the sensory processes that create our perception, whether we approach the issue from the Advaita or phenomenalism perspective.

This analysis of the importance of light in our reality naturally brings in the metaphysical aspects of space and time. In Kant’s view,5 space and time are pure forms of intuition. They do not arise from our experience because our experiences presuppose the existence of space and time. Thus, we can represent space and time in the absence of objects, but we cannot represent objects in the absence of space and time.

Kant’s middle-ground has the advantage of reconciling the views of Newton and Leibniz. It can agree with Newton’s view6 that space is absolute and real for phenomenal objects open to scientific investigation. It can also sit well with Leibniz’s view7 that space is not absolute and has an existence only in relation to objects, by highlighting their relational nature, not among objects in themselves (noumenal objects), but between observers and objects.

We can roughly equate the noumenal objects to forms in Brahman and our perception of them to Maya. In this article, we will use the terms “noumenal reality,” “absolute reality,” or “physical reality” interchangeably to describe the collection of noumenal objects, their properties and interactions, which are thought to be the underlying causes of our perception. Similarly, we will “phenomenal reality,” “perceived or sensed reality,” and “perceptual reality” to signify our reality as we perceive it.

As with Brahman causing Maya, we assume that the phenomenal notions of space and time arise from noumenal causes8 through our sensory and cognitive processes. Note that this causality assumption is ad-hoc; there is no a priori reason for phenomenal reality to have a cause, nor is causation a necessary feature of the noumenal reality. Despite this difficulty, we proceed from a naive model for the noumenal reality and show that, through the process of perception, we can “derive” a phenomenal reality that obeys the special theory of relativity.

This attempt to go from the phenomena (space and time) to the essence of what we experience (a model for noumenal reality) is roughly in line with Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology.9 The deviation is that we are more interested in the manifestations of the model in the phenomenal reality itself rather than the validity of the model for the essence. Through this study, we show that the specialness of the speed of light in our phenomenal space and time is a consequence of our perceptual apparatus. It doesn’t have to be an input postulate to the special theory of relativity.

Perception and Phenomenal Reality

The properties we ascribe to space and time (such as the specialness of the speed of light) can only be a part of our perceived reality or Maya, in Advaita, not of the underlying absolute reality, Brahman. If we think of space and time as aspects of our perceived reality arising from an unknowable Brahman through our sensory and cognitive processes, we can find an explanation for the special distinction of the speed of light in the process and mechanism of our sensing. Our thesis is that the reason for the specialness of light in our phenomenal notions of space and time is hidden in the process of our perception.

We, therefore, study how the noumenal objects around us generate our sensory signals, and how we construct our phenomenal reality out of these signals in our brains. The first part is already troublesome because noumenal objects, by definition, have no properties or interactions that we can study or understand.

These features of the noumenal reality are identical to the notion of Brahman in Advaita, which highlights that the ultimate truth is Brahman, the one beyond time, space and causation. Brahman is the material cause of the universe, but it transcends the cosmos. It transcends time; it exists in the past, present and future. It transcends space; it has no beginning, middle and end. It even transcends causality. For that reason, Brahman is incomprehensible to the human mind. The way it manifests to us is through our sensory and cognitive processes. This manifestation is Maya, the illusion, which, in the phenomenalistic parlance, corresponds to the phenomenal reality.

For our purpose in this article, we describe our sensory and cognitive process and the creation of the phenomenal reality or Maya10 as follows. It starts with the noumenal objects (or forms in Brahman), which generate the inputs to our senses. Our senses then process the signals and relay the processed electric data corresponding to them to our brain. The brain creates a cognitive model, a representation of the sensory inputs, and presents it to our conscious awareness as reality, which is our phenomenal world or Maya.

This description of how the phenomenal reality created ushers in a tricky philosophical question. Who or what creates the phenomenal reality and where? It is not created by our senses, brain and mind because these are all objects or forms in the phenomenal reality. The phenomenal reality cannot create itself. It cannot be that the noumenal reality creates the phenomenal reality because, in that case, it would be inaccurate to assert the cognitive inaccessibility to the noumenal world.

This philosophical trouble is identical in Advaita as well. Our senses, brain and mind cannot create Maya, because they are all part of Maya. If Brahman created Maya, it would have to be just as real. This philosophical quandary can be circumvented in the following way. We assume that all events and objects in Maya have a cause or form in Brahman or in the noumenal world. Thus, we postulate that our senses, mind and body all have some (unknown) forms in Brahman (or in the noumenal world), and these forms create Maya in our conscious awareness, ignoring the fact that our consciousness itself is an illusory manifestation in the phenomenal world. This inconsistency is not material to our exploration into the nature of space and time because we are seeking the reason for the specialness of light in the sensory process rather than at the level of consciousness.

Space and time together form what physics considers the basis of reality. Space makes up our visual reality precisely as sounds make up our auditory world. Just as sounds are a perceptual experience rather than a fundamental property of physical reality, space also is an experience, or a cognitive representation of the visual inputs, not a fundamental aspect of Brahman or the noumenal reality. The phenomenal reality thus created is Maya. The Maya events are an imperfect or distorted representation of the corresponding Brahman events. Since Brahman is a superset of Maya (or, equivalently, our senses are potentially incapable of sensing all aspects of the noumenal reality), not all objects and events in Brahman create a projection in Maya. Our perception (or Maya) is thus limited because of the sense modality and its speed, which form the focus of our investigation in this article.

In summary, it can be argued that the noumenal-phenomenal distinction in phenomenalism is an exact parallel to the BrahmanMaya distinction in Advaita if we think of our perceived reality (or Maya) as arising from sensory and cognitive processes.

Sensing Space and Time, and the Role of Light

The phenomenal notions of space and time together form what physics considers the basis of reality. Since we take the position that space and time are the end results of our sensory perception, we can understand some of the limitations in our Maya by studying the limitations in our senses themselves.

At a fundamental level, how do our senses work? Our sense of sight operates using light, and the fundamental interaction involved in sight falls in the electromagnetic (EM) category because light (or photon) is the intermediary of EM interactions.11

The exclusivity of EM interaction is not limited to our long-range sense of sight; all the short-range senses (touch, taste, smell and hearing) are also EM in nature. In physics, the fundamental interactions are modeled as fields with gauge bosons.12 In quantum electrodynamics13 (the quantum field theory of EM interactions), photon (or light) is the gauge boson mediating EM interactions. Electromagnetic interactions are responsible for all our sensory inputs. To understand the limitations of our perception of space, we need not highlight the EM nature of all our senses. Space is, by and large, the result of our sight sense. But it is worthwhile to keep in mind that we would have no sensing, and indeed no reality, in the absence of EM interactions.

Like our senses, all our technological extensions to our senses (such as radio telescopes, electron microscopes, red shift measurements and even gravitational lensing) use EM interactions exclusively to measure our universe. Thus, we cannot escape the basic constraints of our perception even when we use modern instruments. The Hubble telescope may see a billion light years farther than our naked eyes, but what it sees is still a billion years older than what our eyes see. Our phenomenal reality, whether built upon direct sensory inputs or technologically enhanced, is made up of a subset of EM particles and interactions only. What we perceive as reality is a subset of forms and events in the noumenal world corresponding to EM interactions, filtered through our sensory and cognitive processes. In the Advaita parlance, Maya can be thought of as a projection of Brahman through EM interactions into our sensory and cognitive space, quite probably an imperfect projection.

The exclusivity of EM interactions in our perceived reality is not always appreciated, mainly because of a misconception that we can sense gravity directly. This confusion arises because our bodies are subject to gravity. There is a fine distinction between “being subject to” and “being able to sense” gravitational force. The gravity sensing in our ears measures the effect of gravity on EM matter. In the absence of EM interaction, it is impossible to sense gravity, or anything else for that matter.

This assertion that there is no sensing in the absence of EM interactions brings us to the next philosophical hurdle. One can always argue that, in the absence of EM interaction, there is no matter to sense. This argument is tantamount to insisting that the noumenal world consists of only those forms and events that give rise to EM interaction in our phenomenal perception. In other words, it is the same as insisting that Brahman is made up of only EM interactions. What is lacking in the absence of EM interaction is only our phenomenal reality. In the Advaita notion, in the absence of sensing, Maya does not exist. The absolute reality or Brahman, however, is independent of our sensing it. Again, we see that the Eastern and Western views on reality we explored in this article are remarkably similar.

The Speed of Light

Knowing that our space-time is a representation of the light waves our eyes receive, we can immediately see that light is indeed special in our reality. In our view, sensory perception leads to our brain’s representation that we call reality, or Maya. Any limitation in this chain of sensing leads to a corresponding limitation in our phenomenal reality.

One limitation in the chain from senses to perception is the finite speed of photon, which is the gauge boson of our senses. The finite speed of the sense modality influences and distorts our perception of motion, space and time. Because these distortions are perceived as a part of our reality itself, the root cause of the distortion becomes a fundamental property of our reality. This is how the speed of light becomes such an important constant in our space-time.

The importance of the speed of light, however, is respected only in our phenomenal Maya. Other modes of perception have other speeds the figure as the fundamental constant in their space-like perception. The reality sensed through echolocation, for instance, has the speed of sound as a fundamental property. In fact, it is fairly simple to establish14 that echolocation results in a perception of motion that obeys something very similar to special relativity with the speed of light replaced with that of sound.

Theories beyond Sensory Limits

The basis of physics is the world view called scientific realism, which is not only at the core of sciences but is our natural way of looking at the world as well. Scientific realism, and hence physics, assume an independently existing external world, whose structures are knowable through scientific investigations. To the extent observations are based on perception, the philosophical stance of scientific realism, as it is practiced today, can be thought of as a trust in our perceived reality, and as an assumption that it is this reality that needs to be explored in science.

Physics extends its reach beyond perception or Maya through the rational element of pure theory. Most of physics works in this “extended” intellectual reality, with concepts such as fields, forces, light rays, atoms, particles, etc., the existence of which is insisted upon through the metaphysical commitment implied in scientific realism. However, it does not claim that the rational extensions are the noumenal causes or Brahman giving raise to our phenomenal perception.

Scientific realism has helped physics tremendously, with all its classical theories. However, scientific realism and the trust in our perception of reality should apply only within the useful ranges of our senses. Within the ranges of our sensory perceptions, we have fairly intuitive physics. An example of an intuitive picture is Newtonian mechanics that describe “normal” objects moving around at “normal” speeds.

When we get closer to the edges of our sensory modalities, we have to modify our sciences to describe the reality as we sense it. These modifications lead to different, and possibly incompatible, theories. When we ascribe the natural limitations of our senses and the consequent limitations of our perception (and therefore observations) to the fundamental nature of reality itself, we end up introducing complications in our physical laws. Depending on which limitations we are incorporating into the theory (e.g., small size, large speeds etc.), we may end up with theories that are incompatible with each other.

Our argument is that some of these complications (and, hopefully, incompatibilities) can be avoided if we address the sensory limitations directly. For instance, we can study the consequence of the fact that our senses operate at the speed of light as follows. We can model Brahman (the noumenal reality) as obeying classical mechanics, and work out what kind of Maya (phenomenal reality) we will experience through the chain of sensing.

The modeling of the noumenal world (as obeying classical mechanics), of course, has shaky philosophical foundations. But the phenomenal reality predicted from this model is remarkably close to the reality we do perceive. Starting from this simple model, it can be easily shown our perception of motion at high speeds obeys special relativity.

The effects due to the finite speed of light are well known in physics. We know, for instance, that what we see happening in distant stars and galaxies now actually took place quite awhile ago. A more “advanced” effect due to the light travel time15 is the way we perceive motion at high speeds, which is the basis of special relativity. In fact, many astrophysical phenomena can be understood16 in terms of light travel time effects. Because our sense modality is based on light, our sensed picture of motion has the speed of light appearing naturally in the equations describing it. So the importance of the speed of light in our space-time (as described in special relativity) is due to the fact that our reality is Maya created based on light inputs.


Almost all branches of philosophy grapple with this distinction between the phenomenal and the absolute realities to some extent. Advaita Vedanta holds the unrealness of the phenomenal reality as the basis of their world view. In this article, we showed that the views in phenomenalism can be thought of as a restatement of the Advaita postulates.

When such a spiritual or philosophical insight makes its way into science, great advances in our understanding can be expected. This convergence of philosophy (or even spirituality) and science is beginning to take place, most notably in neuroscience, which views reality as a creation of our brain, echoing the notion of Maya.

Science gives a false impression that we can get arbitrarily close to the underlying physical causes through the process of scientific investigation and rational theorization. An example of such theorization can be found in our sensation of hearing. The experience or the sensation of sound is an incredibly distant representation of the physical cause–namely air pressure waves. We are aware of the physical cause because we have a more powerful sight sense. So it would seem that we can indeed go from Maya (sound) to the underlying causes (air pressure waves).

However, it is a fallacy to assume that the physical cause (the air pressure waves) is Brahman. Air pressure waves are still a part of our perception; they are part of the intellectual picture we have come to accept. This intellectual picture is an extension of our visual reality, based on our trust in the visual reality. It is still a part of Maya.

The new extension of reality proposed in this article, again an intellectual extension, is an educated guess. We guess a model for the absolute reality, or Brahman, and predict what the consequent perceived reality should be, working forward through the chain of sensing and creating Maya. If the predicted perception is a good match with the Maya we do experience, then the guesswork for Brahman is taken to be a fairly accurate working model. The consistency between the predicted perception and what we do perceive is the only validation of the model for the nature of the absolute reality. Furthermore, the guess is only one plausible model for the absolute reality; there may be different such “solutions” to the absolute reality all of which end up giving us our perceived reality.

It is a mistake to think of the qualities of our subjective experience of sound as the properties of the underlying physical process. In an exact parallel, it is a fallacy to assume that the subjective experience of space and time is the fundamental property of the world we live in. The space-time continuum, as we see it or feel it, is only a partial and incomplete representation of the unknowable Brahman. If we are willing to model the unknowable Brahman as obeying classical mechanics, we can indeed derive the properties of our perceived reality (such as time dilation, length contraction, light speed ceiling and so on in special relativity). By proposing this model for the noumenal world, we are not suggesting that all the effects of special relativity are mere perceptual artifacts. We are merely reiterating a known fact that space and time themselves cannot be anything but perceptual constructs. Thus their properties are manifestations of the process of perception.

When we consider processes close to or beyond our sensor limits, the manifestations of our perceptual and cognitive constraints become significant. Therefore, when it comes to the physics that describes such processes, we really have to take into account the role that our perception and cognition play in sensing them. The universe as we see it is only a cognitive model created out of the photons falling on our retina or on the photosensors of the Hubble telescope. Because of the finite speed of the information carrier (namely light), our perception is distorted in such a way as to give us the impression that space and time obey special relativity. They do, but space and time are only a part of our perception of an unknowable reality—a perception limited by the speed of light.

The central role of light in creating our reality or universe is at the heart of western spiritual philosophy as well. A universe devoid of light is not simply a world where you have switched off the lights. It is indeed a universe devoid of itself, a universe that doesn’t exist. It is in this context that we have to understand the wisdom behind the notion that “the earth was without form, and void'” until God caused light to be, by saying “Let there be light.” Quran also says, “Allah is the light of the heavens.” The role of light in taking us from the void (the nothingness) to a reality was understood for a long, long time. Is it possible that the ancient saints and prophets knew things that we are only now beginning to uncover with all our advances in knowledge? Whether we use old Eastern Advaita views or their Western counterparts, we can interpret the philosophical stance behind special relativity as hidden in the distinction between our phenomenal reality and its unknowable physical causes.


  1. Dr. Manoj Thulasidas graduated from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Madras, in 1987. He studied fundamental particles and interactions at the CLEO collaboration at Cornell University during 1990-1992. After receiving his PhD in 1993, he moved to Marseilles, France and continued his research with the ALEPH collaboration at CERN, Geneva. During his ten-year career as a research scientist in the field of High energy physics, he co-authored over 200 publications.
  2. Einstein, A. (1905). Zur Elektrodynamik bewegter Körper. (On The Electrodynamics Of Moving Bodies). Annalen der Physik, 17, 891-921.
  3. Radhakrishnan, S. & Moore, C. A. (1957). Source Book in Indian Philosophy. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NY.
  4. Chisolm, R. (1948). The Problem of Empiricism. The Journal of Philosophy, 45, 512-517.
  5. Allison, H. (2004). Kant’s Transcendental Idealism. Yale University Press.
  6. Rynasiewicz, R. (1995). By Their Properties, Causes and Effects: Newton’s Scholium on Time, Space, Place and Motion. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, 26, 133-153, 295-321.
  7. Calkins, M. W. (1897). Kant’s Conception of the Leibniz Space and Time Doctrine. The Philosophical Review, 6 (4), 356-369.
  8. Janaway, C., ed. (1999). The Cambridge Companion to Schopenhauer. Cambridge University Press.
  9. Schmitt, R. (1959). Husserl’s Transcendental-Phenomenological Reduction. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 20 (2), 238-245.
  10. Thulasidas, M. (2007). The Unreal Universe. Asian Books, Singapore.
  11. Electromagnetic (EM) interaction is one of the four kinds of interactions in the Standard Model (Griffths, 1987) of particle physics. It is the interaction between charged bodies. Despite the EM repulsion between them, however, the protons stay confined within the nucleus because of the strong interaction, whose magnitude is much bigger than that of EM interactions. The other two interactions are termed the weak interaction and the gravitational interaction.
  12. In quantum field theory, every fundamental interaction consists of emitting a particle and absorbing it in an instant. These so-called virtual particles emitted and absorbed are known as the gauge bosons that mediate the interactions.
  13. Feynman, R. (1985). Quantum Electrodynamics. Addison Wesley.
  14. Thulasidas, M. (2007). The Unreal Universe. Asian Books, Singapore.
  15. Rees, M. (1966). Appearance of Relativistically Expanding Radio Sources. Nature, 211, 468-470.
  16. Thulasidas, M. (2007a). Are Radio Sources and Gamma Ray Bursts Luminal Booms? International Journal of Modern Physics D, 16 (6), 983-1000.

The Moon and Sixpence

I confess that I had no idea what the title meant after I finished reading the book for the first time. My ignorance persisted even after the second perusal, although the title did suggest something like noble intentions and prosaic realities. Before the third reading, this time specifically for this blog, I decided to look it up. Like all good netizens, I consulted Wikipedia, which told me that the title was a reference to Of Human Bondage (where Philip Carey reaches for the moon while ignoring the sixpence at his feet.)

In The Moon and Sixpence, Maugham chronicles the life and adventures of Paul Gauguin — an artistic genius who stepped outside the bounds of ethics and morality in a single-minded pursuit of an unknown and troubling vision of his soul (“the moon”) at the cruel expense of his friends and family (the “sixpence,” presumably.)

Unsure of how to create a perfect Frenchman (as he later confesses in The Razor’s Edge), Maugham chose to “translate” Gauguin and portrayed him as an Englishman Charles Strickland, a semi-successful, though dull London stockbroker. At the unlikely age of 42 or so, Strickland decides to abandon his family to take up painting. The need to paint is a yearning of the soul for Strickland, and it doesn’t matter that he is no good at it — yet — as he explains, “I tell you I’ve got to paint. I can’t help myself. When a man falls into the water it doesn’t matter how he swims, well or badly: he’s got to get out or else he’ll drown.” While saving himself from this metaphoric drowning, Strickland is indifferent (beyond cruelty) to the rest of the world. Then again, he is just as uncompromising and cruel to himself as well.

In portraying such a difficult anti-hero, Maugham showcases all the mastery and skill he possesses. To my untrained eyes, it looks as though Maugham builds this character so carefully and painstakingly that each one of the monstrosities Strickland commits is counter-balanced in some fashion. It is indeed a fine chisel that Maugham employs in crafting this masterpiece; none of those broad, confident strokes we would see in his later works.

We find Maugham at cynical and misogynistic best (or worst, depending on the perspective) in the early part of the book, especially in his descriptions of Mrs. Strickland and her children. We should condone this appearance of misogyny as a pardonable foible of a genius, I think. More than that, I see it as an effort, a successful one, to balance the callousness of Strickland’s disappearance that soon follows.

Such balancing devices can be found throughout the book. Perhaps to soften the shock of Strickland’s seemingly inexplicable renunciation of his family, his son’s hypocritical account of his later life is cynically ridiculed right in the beginning of the book. The unfortunate Dirk Stroeve, so cruelly used by Strickland, is also a buffoon who elicits derisive laughter rather than sympathy. Stroeve’s groveling adulation of Blanche perhaps serves to iron out the overtones of sexism or misogyny permeating the story. Blanche Stroeve’s betrayal is counter balanced with her own abominable indifference to Stroeve, which, in turn, gets evened out in what she receives from Strickland — “What an abyss of cruelty she must have looked into that in horror she refused to live.” Strickland, curiously, walks unaffected through all this death and mayhem, larger than life, tortured by his own private agonies of the soul well beyond our comprehension and his own. Even in his callousness, what Strickland invokes in Maugham and even Stroeve is, not merely a natural indignation, but an overwhelming compassion — astonishingly. The misplaced compassion is perhaps a device to prepare the reader for Strickland’s sordid and horrible death.

Maugham employs a variety of techniques to make the narration sound natural. If I was a fiction writer, I would study these techniques very carefully and try to employ them myself. To begin with, Strickland is a fictional portrayal of Gauguin, but Maugham takes great pains to pretend that the narration is not fictional. Even the narrator (Maugham himself) is portrayed as fallible, and contritely so, to lend credibility to the narration. For instance, Maugham gets exasperated at Stroeve’s weakness and is later ashamed of himself for getting angry.

The book has its elitist moments. When asked if it was better not to have known, Stroeve replies: “The world is hard and cruel. We are here none knows why, and we go none knows whither. We must be very humble. We must see the beauty of quietness. We must go through life so inconspicuously that Fate does not notice us. And let us seek the love of simple, ignorant people. Their ignorance is better than all our knowledge. Let us be silent, content in our little corner, meek and gentle like them. That is the wisdom of life.” It is as though the gift of inquiry and knowledge is given to a precious few — a special club to which Stroeve and Maugham are privy. This elitist attitude permeates not only Maugham’s works, but all great works of literature; it is only by masking his sense of superiority that an author or a thinker projects himself as non-elitist.

Perhaps it is some knowledge, or a vision of the world that Strickland’s soul yearned to share with the rest of us. Such communication is beyond language — a medium unequal to the task even when masterfully employed. Visual arts come closer. In Strickland’s tragic and cruel plight, along with that of almost all characters in the story, we see one eternal question. What is it that we are really after? Is it happiness? If so, Charles Strickland certainly didn’t find it. Very few do. Is it glory? Strickland did find that, albeit after his death.

Death is the great equalizer. It brings us back to the nothingness we spring from, however high we may fly or however low we may sink during the brief instant in between. The wisdom of the wise, the ignorance of the masses, the grandeur of the accomplished, the glory, the baseness — all matter very little when faced with such complete finality. In Strickland, Maugham has depicted the heights of glory as well as the nadir of baseness. The Moon and Sixpence — perhaps I have understood its meaning after all.

Photo by griannan

Einstein on God and Dice

Although Einstein is best known for his theories of relativity, he was also the main driving force behind the advent of quantum mechanics (QM). His early work in photo-voltaic effect paved way for future developments in QM. And he won the Nobel prize, not for the theories of relativity, but for this early work.

It then should come as a surprise to us that Einstein didn’t quite believe in QM. He spent the latter part of his career trying to device thought experiments that would prove that QM is inconsistent with what he believed to be the laws of nature. Why is it that Einstein could not accept QM? We will never know for sure, and my guess is probably as good as anybody else’s.

Einstein’s trouble with QM is summarized in this famous quote.

It is indeed difficult to reconcile the notions (or at least some interpretations) of QM with a word view in which a God has control over everything. In QM, observations are probabilistic in nature. That is to say, if we somehow manage to send two electrons (in the same state) down the same beam and observe them after a while, we may get two different observed properties.

We can interpret this imperfection in observation as our inability to set up identical initial states, or the lack of precision in our measurements. This interpretation gives rise to the so-called hidden variable theories — considered invalid for a variety of reasons. The interpretation currently popular is that uncertainty is an inherent property of nature — the so-called Copenhagen interpretation.

In the Copenhagen picture, particles have positions only when observed. At other times, they should be thought of as kind of spread out in space. In a double-slit interference experiment using electrons, for instance, we should not ask whether a particular electron takes on slit or the other. As long as there is interference, it kind of takes both.

The troubling thing for Einstein in this interpretation would be that even God would not be able to make the electron take one slit or the other (without disturbing the interference pattern, that is). And if God cannot place one tiny electron where He wants, how is he going to control the whole universe?

Software Nightmares

To err is human, but to really foul things up, you need a computer. So states the remarkably insightful Murphy’s Law. And nowhere else does this ring truer than in our financial workplace. After all, it is the financial sector that drove the rapid progress in the computing industry — which is why the first computing giant had the word “business” in its name.

The financial industry keeps up with the developments in the computer industry for one simple reason. Stronger computers and smarter programs mean more money — a concept we readily grasp. As we use the latest and greatest in computer technology and pour money into it, we fuel further developments in the computing field. In other words, not only did we start the fire, we actively fan it as well. But it is not a bad fire; the positive feedback loop that we helped set up has served both the industries well.

This inter-dependency, healthy as it is, gives us nightmarish visions of perfect storms and dire consequences. Computers being the perfect tools for completely fouling things up, our troubling nightmares are more justified than we care to admit.

Models vs. Systems

Paraphrasing a deadly argument that some gun aficionados make, I will defend our addiction to information technology. Computers don’t foul things up; people do.

Mind you, I am not implying that we always mess it up when we deploy computers. But at times, we try to massage our existing processes into their computerised counterparts, creating multiple points of failure. The right approach, instead, is often to redesign the processes so that they can take advantage of the technology. But it is easier said than done. To see why, we have to look beyond systems and processes and focus on the human factors.

In a financial institution, we are in the business of making money. We fine-tune our reward structure in such a way that our core business (of making money, that is) runs as smoothly as possible. Smooth operation relies on strict adherence to processes and the underlying policies they implement. In this rigid structure, there is little room for visionary innovation.

This structural lack of incentive to innovate results in staff hurrying through a new system rollout or a process re-engineering. They have neither the luxury of time nor the freedom to slack off in the dreaded “business-as-usual” to do a thorough job of such “non-essential” things.

Besides, there is seldom any unused human resource to deploy in studying and improving processes so that they can better exploit technology. People who do it need to have multi-facetted capabilities (business and computing, for instance). Being costly, they are much more optimally deployed in the core business of making more money.

Think about it, when is the last time you (or someone you know) got hired to revamp a system and the associated processes? The closest you get is when someone is hired to duplicate a system that is already known to work better elsewhere.

The lack of incentive results in a dearth of thought and care invested in the optimal use of technology. Suboptimal systems (which do one thing well at the cost of everything else) abound in our workplace. In time, we will reach a point where we have to bite the bullet and redesign these systems. When redesigning a system, we have to think about all the processes involved. And we have to think about the system while designing or redesigning processes. This cyclic dependence is the theme of this article.

Systems do not figure in a quant’s immediate concern. What concerns us more is our strongest value-add, namely mathematical modelling. In order to come up with an optimal deployment strategy for models, however, we need to pay attention to operational issues like trade workflow.

I was talking to one of our top traders the other day, and he mentioned that a quant, no matter how smart, is useless unless his work can be deployed effectively and in a timely manner. A quant typically delivers his work as a C++ program. In a rapid deployment scenario, his program will have to plug directly into a system that will manage trade booking, risk measurements, operations and settlement. The need for rapid deployment makes it essential for the quants to understand the trade lifecycle and business operations.

Life of a Trade

Once a quant figures out how to price a new product, his work is basically done. After coaxing that stochastic integral into a pricing formula (failing which, a Crank-Nicholson or Monte Carlo), the quant writes up a program and moves on to the next challenge.

It is when the trading desk picks up the pricing spreadsheet and books the first trade into the system that the fun begins. Then the trade takes on a life of its own, sneaking through various departments and systems, showing different strokes to different folks. This adventurous biography of the trade is depicted in Figure 1 in its simplified form.

At the inception stage, a trade is conceptualized by the Front Office folks (sales, structuring, trading desk – shown in yellow ovals in the figure). They study the market need and potential, and assess the trade viability. Once they see and grab a market opportunity, a trade is born.

Fig. 1: Life of a Trade

Even with the best of quant models, a trade cannot be priced without market data, such as prices, volatilities, rates and correlations and so on. The validity of the market data is ensured by Product Control or Market Risk people. The data management group also needs to work closely with Information Technology (IT) to ensure live data feeds.

The trade first goes for a counterparty credit control (the pink bubbles). The credit controllers ask questions like: if we go ahead with the deal, how much will the counterparty end up owing us? Does the counterparty have enough credit left to engage in this deal? Since the credit exposure changes during the life cycle of the trade, this is a minor quant calculation on its own.

In principle, the Front Office can do the deal only after the credit control approves of it. Credit Risk folks use historical data, internal and external credit rating systems, and their own quantitative modelling team to come up with counterparty credit limits and maximum per trade and netted exposures.

Right after the trade is booked, it goes through some control checks by the Middle Office. These fine people verify the trade details, validate the initial pricing, apply some reasonable reserves against the insane profit claims of the Front Office, and come up with a simple yea or nay to the trade as it is booked. If they say yes, the trade is considered validated and active. If not, the trade goes back to the desk for modifications.

After these inception activities, trades go through their daily processing. In addition to the daily (or intra-day) hedge rebalancing in the Front Office, the Market Risk Management folks mark their books to market. They also take care of compliance reporting to regulatory bodies, as well as risk reporting to the upper management — a process that has far-reaching consequences.

The Risk Management folks, whose work is never done as Tracy Chapman would say, also perform scenario, stress-test and historical Value at Risk (VaR) computations. In stress-tests, they apply a drastic market movement of the kind that took place in the past (like the Asian currency crisis or 9/11) to the current market data and estimate the movement in the bank’s book. In historical VaR, they apply the market movements in the immediate past (typically last year) and figure out the 99 percentile (or some such pre-determined number) worst loss scenario. Such analysis is of enormous importance to the senior management and in regulatory and compliance reporting. In Figure 1, the activities of the Risk Management folks are depicted in blue bubbles.

In their attempts to rein in the ebullient traders, the Risk Management folks come across in their adversarial worst. But we have to remind ourselves that the trading and control processes are designed that way. It is the constant conflict between the risk takers (Front Office) and the risk controllers (Risk Management) that implements the risk appetite of the bank as decided by the upper management.

Another group that crunches the trade numbers every day from a slightly different perspective are the Product Control folks, shown in green in Figure 1. They worry about the daily profit and loss (P/L) movements both at trade and portfolio level. They also modulate the profit claims by the Front Office through a reserving mechanism and come up with the so called unrealized P/L.

This P/L, unrealized as it is, has a direct impact on the compensation and incentive structure of Front Office in the short run. Hence the perennial tussle over the reserve levels. In the long term, however, the trade gets settled and the P/L becomes realized and nobody argues over it. Once the trade is in the maturity phase, it is Finance that worries about statistics and cash flows. Their big picture view ends up in annual reports and stake holders meetings, and influences everything from our bonus to the CEO’s new Gulfstream.

Trades are not static entities. During the course of their life, they evolve. Their evolution is typically handled by Middle Office people (grey bubbles) who worry about trade modifications, fixings, knock-ins, knock-outs etc. The exact name given to this business unit (and indeed other units described above) depends on the financial institution we work in, but the trade flow is roughly the same.

The trade flow that I described so far should ring alarm bells in a quant heart. Where are the quants in this value chain? Well, they are hidden in a couple of places. Some of them find home in the Market Risk Management, validating pricing models. Some others may live in Credit Risk, estimating peak exposures, figuring out rating schemes and minimising capital charges.

Most important of all, they find their place before a trade is ever booked. Quants teach their home banks how to price products. A financial institution cannot warehouse the risk associated with a trade unless it knows how much the product in question is worth. It is in this crucial sense that model quants drive the business.

In a financial marketplace that is increasingly hungry for customized structures and solutions, the role of the quants has become almost unbearably vital. Along with the need for innovative models comes the imperative of robust platforms to launch them in a timely fashion to capture transient market opportunities.

In our better investment banks, such platforms are built in-house. This trend towards self-reliance is not hard to understand. If we use a generic trading platform from a vendor, it may work well for established (read vanilla) products. It may handle the established processes (read compliance, reporting, settlements, audit trails etc.) well. But what do we do when we need a hitherto unknown structure priced? We could ask the vendor to develop it. But then, they will take a long time to respond. And, when they finally do, they will sell it to all our competitors, or charge us an arm and a leg for exclusivity thereby eradicating any associated profit potential.

Once a vended solution is off the table, we are left with the more exciting option of developing in-house system. It is when we design an in-house system that we need to appreciate the big picture. We will need to understand the whole trade flow through the different business units and processes as well as the associated trade perspectives.

Trade Perspectives

The perspective that is most common these days is trade-centric. In this view, trades are the primary objects, which is why conventional trading systems keep track of them. Put bunch of trades together, you get a portfolio. Put a few portfolios together, you have a book. The whole Global Markets is merely a collection of books. This paradigm has worked well and is probably the best compromise between different possible views.

But the trade-centric perspective is only a compromise. The activities of the trading floor can be viewed from different angles. Each view has its role in the bigger scheme of things in the bank. Quants, for instance, are model-centric. They try to find commonality between various products in terms of the underlying mathematics. If they can reuse their models from one product to another, potentially across asset classes, they minimize the effort required of them. Remember how Merton views the whole world as options! I listened to him in amazement once when he explained the Asian currency crisis as originating from the risk profile of compound options — the bank guarantees to corporate clients being put options, government guarantees to banks being put options on put options.

Unlike quants who develop pricing models, quantitative developers tend to be product-centric. To them, it doesn’t matter too much even if two different products use very similar models. They may still have to write separate code for them depending on the infrastructure, market data, conventions etc.

Traders see their world from the asset class angle. Typically associated with a particular trading desks based on asset classes, their favourite view cuts across models and products. To traders, all products and models are merely tools to making profit.

IT folks view the trading world from a completely different perspective. Theirs is a system-centric view, where the same product using the same model appearing in two different systems is basically two different beasts. This view is not particularly appreciated by traders, quants or quant developers.

One view that all of us appreciate is the view of the senior management, which is narrowly focussed on the bottom line. The big bosses can prioritise things (whether products, asset classes or systems) in terms of the money they bring to the shareholders. Models and trades are typically not visible from their view — unless, of course, rogue traders lose a lot of money on a particular product or by using a particular model. Or, somewhat less likely, they make huge profits using the same tricks.

When the trade reaches the Market Risk folks, there is a subtle change in the perspective from a trade-level view to a portfolio or book level view. Though mathematically trivial (after all, the difference is only a matter of aggregation), this change has implications in the system design. Trading systems have to maintain a robust hierarchical portfolio structure so that various dicing and slicing as required in the later stages of the trade lifecycle can be handled with natural ease.

The busy folks in the Middle Office (who take care of trade validations and modifications) are obsessed with trade queues. They have a validation queue, market operation queue etc. Again, the management of queues using status flags is something we have to keep in mind while designing an in-house system.

When it comes to Finance and their notions of cost centres, the trade is pretty much out of the booking system. Still, they manage trading desks and asset classes cost centres. Any trading platform we design has to provide adequate hooks in the system to respond to their specific requirements as well.

Quants and the Big Picture

Most quants, especially at junior levels, despise the Big Picture. They think of it as a distraction from their real work of marrying stochastic calculus to C++. Changing that mindset to some degree is the hidden agenda behind this column.

As my trader friends will agree, the best model in the world is worthless unless it can be deployed. Deployment is the fast track to the big picture — no point denying it. Besides, in an increasingly interconnected world where a crazy Frenchman’s actions instantly affect our bonus, what is the use of denying the existence of the big picture in our nook of the woods? Instead, let’s take advantage of the big picture to empower ourselves. Let’s bite the bullet and sit through a “Big Picture 101.”

When we change our narrow, albeit effective, focus on the work at hand to an understanding of our role and value in the organization, we will see the potential points of failure of the systems and processes. We will be prepared with possible solutions to the nightmarish havoc that computerized processes can wreak. And we will sleep easier.

La logique

[The last of my French redactions to be blogged, this one wasn’t such a hit with the class. They expected a joke, but what they got was, well, this. It was written the day after I watched an air show on TV where the French were proudly showcasing their fighter technology.]

[In English first]

Science is based on logic. And logic is based on our experiences — what we learn during our life. But, because our experiences are incomplete, our logic can be wrong. And our science can lead us to our demise. When I watched the fighter planes on TV, I started thinking about the energy and effort we spend on trying to kill ourselves. It seems to me that our logic here had to be wrong.

A few months ago, I read a short story (by O.V. Vijayan, as a matter of fact) about a chicken who found itself in a cage. Everyday, by noon, the little window of the cage would open, a man’s hand would appear and give the chicken something to eat. It went on for 99 days. And the chicken concluded:

“Noon, hand, food — good!”

On the hundredth day, by noon, the hand appeared again. The chicken, all happy and full of gratitude, waited for something to eat. But this time, the hand caught it by the neck and strangled it. Because of realities beyond its experience, the chicken became dinner on that day. I hope we human beings can avoid such eventualities.

Les sciences sont basées sur la logique. Et la logique se base sur les expériences – ce que nous apprenons dans notre vie. Mais, comme nos expériences ne sont pas toujours completes, notre logique peut avoir tort. Et nos sciences peuvent nous diriger vers notre destruction. Lorsque je regardais les avions de combat à la télé, ils m’ont fait penser à l’énergie et aux efforts que nous gaspillons en essayant de nous tuer. Il me paraît que la
logique ici doit avoir tort.

J’ai lu une petite histoire d’une poule il y a quelques mois. Elle s’est trouvée dans une cage, un homme l’y avait mise. Chaque jour, vers midi, la petite fenêtre de la cage s’ouvrait, une main se montrait avec de quoi manger pour la poule. Ça s’est passé comme ça pendant quatre-vingt-dix-neuf jours. Et la poule a pensé:

“Aha, midi, main, manger – bien!”

Le centième jour est arrivé. Le midi, la main s’est montrée. La poule, toute heureuse et pleine de gratitude, attendait de quoi manger. Mais, cette fois, la main l’a prise par le cou et l’a étranglée. A cause des réalités au-delà de ses expériences, la poule est devenue le diner ce jour-là. J’espère que nous pourrons éviter les éventualités de cette sorte.

La chienne

[Another of my French “redactions,” this piece is a translation of a joke, which perhaps didn’t translate too well. I was told that the French version was in poor taste. Now, reading it again, I feel that the English version doesn’t fare much better. You be the judge!]

[In English first]

Once, an American was in England. In a public bus, he saw an English lady sitting with her little dog, occupying two seats. The bus was crowded and many passengers were standing. The smart American, inspired, asked the lady very nicely: “Ma’am, if we put your poodle on your lap, one of us standing could sit. Much appreciated.”

To his surprise, the lady didn’t pay any attention to him. A little miffed, he repeated his request. The lady ignored him with a disdainful look. Americans are men of action, and don’t waste words (where guns and bombs would suffice, as we know). Embarrassed, and being quite American, he picked up the dog and threw it out the window and sat down in its place.

An English gentleman across the aisle was watching the whole exchange. He tut-tutted disapprovingly and said, “You Americans! Whatever you do, you do it wrong. You drive on the wrong side of the street. You hold your fork in the wrong hand. Wrong habits, wrong clothes, wrong manners! Now see what you have done!”

The American was on the defensive. “I didn’t do anything wrong. It was her fault, and you know it.”

The English gent explained, “Yes my dear fellow, but you threw the wrong bitch out the window!”

Une fois, un Américain alla en Angleterre. Dans un bus de transport en commun, il aperçut une Anglaise et son petit chien assis, occupant deux sièges. Il y avait du monde dans le bus et des personnes qui se tenaient debout. L’Américain, étant malin, eut une bonne idée. Il demanda à l’Anglaise très poliment,
“Madame, si vous mettiez votre chien sur vos genoux, une des personnes debout pourrait s’asseoir.

À son grand étonnement, l’Anglaise ne tint aucun compte de sa demande. Gênè, il répéta sa demande. L’Anglaise le regarda avec dédain et resta toujours désagréable. Les américains ne perdent pas de mots, ils sont des hommes d’action. Embarrassé et étant assez américain, il prit le chien, le jeta dehors du bus et s’assit.

Il y avait un Anglais en face qui remarqua tout ce qui se passait. Il dit,
“Les Américains! Quoique vous fassiez, vous le faites mal! Dans la rue, vous conduisez du mauvais côté. Au diner, vous prenez la fourchette avec la mauvause main. Mauvaises habitudes, mauvaises coutumes, mauvaise morale! Et maintenant, regardez ce que vous avez fait.”

L’Américain était sur la défensive,
“Et qu’est-ce que j’ai fait? C’était sa faute, et vous le savez!”

L’Anglais lui répondit,
“Oui, oui. Mais vous avez jeté la mauvaise chienne du bus!”

La pauvre famille

[English version below]

Je connaissais une petite fille très riche. Un jour, son professeur lui a demandé de faire une rédaction sur une famille pauvre. La fille était étonnée:

“Une famille pauvre?! Qu’est-ce que c’est ça?”

Elle a demandé à sa mère:

“Maman, Maman, qu’est-ce que c’est une famille pauvre? Je n’arrive pas à faire ma rédaction.”

La mère lui a répondu:

“C’est simple, chérie. Une famille est pauvre quand tout le monde dans la famille est pauvre”

La petite fille a pensé:

“Ah! Ce n’est pas difficile”

et elle a fait sa rédaction. Le lendemain, le professeur lui a dit:

“Bon, lis-moi ta rédaction.”

Voici la réponse:

“Une famille pauvre. Il était une fois une famille pauvre. Le père était pauvre, la mère était pauvre, les enfants étaient pauvres, le jardinier était pauvre, le chauffeur était pauvre, les bonnes étaient pauvres. Voilà, la famille était très pauvre!”

In English

I once knew a rich girl. One day, her teacher at school asked her to write a piece on a poor family. The girl was shocked. “What in the world is a poor family?”

So she asked her mother, “Mummy, mummy, you’ve got to help me with my composition. What is a poor family?”

Her mother said, “That’s really simple, sweetheart. A family is poor when everybody in the family is poor.”

The rich girl thought, “Aha, that is not too difficult,” and she wrote up a piece.

The next day, her teacher asked her, “Well, let’s hear your composition.”

Here is what the girl said, “A Poor Family. Once upon a time, there was a poor family. The father was poor, the mother was poor, the children were poor, the gardener was poor, the driver was poor, the maids were poor. So the family was very poor!”


All great books have one thing in common. They present deep philosophical inquiries, often clad in superb story lines. Or is it just my proclivity to see philosophy where none exists?

In 1984, the immediate story is of a completely totalitarian regime. Inwardly, 1984 is also about ethics and politics. It doesn’t end there, but goes into nested philosophical inquiries about how everything is eventually connected to metaphysics. It naturally ends up in solipsism, not merely in the material, metaphysical sense, but also in a spiritual, socio-psychological sense where the only hope, the only desired outcome of life, becomes death.

I think I may be giving away too much of my impressions in the first paragraph. Let’s take it step by step. We all know that totalitarianism is bad. It is a bad political system, we believe. The badness of totalitarianism can present itself at different levels of our social existence.

At the lowest level, it can be a control over our physical movements, physical freedom, and restrictions on what you can or cannot do. Try voting against a certain African “president” and you get beaten up, for instance. Try leaving certain countries, you get shot.

At a higher level, totalitarianism can be about financial freedom. Think of those in the developed world who have to juggle three jobs just to put food on the table. At a progressively subtler level, totalitarianism is about control of information. Example: media conglomerates filtering and coloring all the news and information we receive.

At the highest level, totalitarianism is a fight for your mind, your soul, and your spiritual existence. 1984 presents a dystopia where totalitarianism is complete, irrevocable, and existing at all levels from physical to spiritual.

Another book of the same dystopian kind is The Handmaid’s Tale, where a feminist’s nightmare of a world is portrayed. Here, the focus is on religious extremism, and the social and sexual subjugation brought about by it. But the portrayal of the world gone hopelessly totalitarian is similar to 1984.

Also portraying a dark dystopia is V for Vendentta, with torture and terrorism thrown in. This work is probably inspired by 1984, I have to look it up.

It is the philosophical points in 1984 that make it the classic it is. The past, for instance, is a matter of convention. If everybody believes (or is forced to believe) that events took place in a certain way, then that is the past. History is written by the victors. Knowing that, how can you trust the greatness of the victors or the evil in the vanquished? Assume for a second that Hitler had actually won the Second World War. Do you think we would’ve still thought of him as evil? I think we would probably think of him as the father of the modern world or something. Of course, we would be having this conversation (if we were allowed to exist and have conversations at all) in German.

Even at a personal level, the past is not as immutable as it seems. Truth is relative. Lies repeated often enough become truth. All these points are describe well in 1984, first from Winston’s point of view and later, in the philosophically sophisticated discourses of O’Brien. In a world existing in our own brain, where the phenomenal reality as we see it is far from the physical one, morality does lose a bit of its glamor. Metaphysics can erode on ethics. Solipsism can annihilate it.

A review, especially one in a blog, doesn’t have to be conventional. So let me boldly outline my criticisms of 1984 as well. I believe that the greatest fear of a normal human being is the fear of death. After all, the purpose of life is merely to live a little longer. Everything that our biological faculties do stem from the desire to exist a little longer.

Based on this belief of mine, I find certain events in 1984 a bit incongruous. Why is it that Winston and Julia don’t fear death, but still fear the telescreens and gestapo-like police? Perhaps the fear of pain overrides the fear of death. What do I know, I have never been tortured.

But even the fear of pain can be understood in terms of the ultimate fear. Pain is a messenger of bodily harm, ergo of possible death. But fear of rats?! Perhaps irrational phobias, existing at a sub-cognitive, almost physical, layer may be stronger than everything else. But I cannot help feeling that there is something amiss, something contrived, in the incarceration and torture parts of 1984.

May be Orwell didn’t know how to portray spiritual persecution. Luckily, none of us knows. So such techniques as rats and betrayal were employed to bring about the hideousness of the process. This part of the book leaves me a bit dissatisfied. After all, our protagonists knew full well what they were getting into, and what the final outcome would be. If they knew their spirit would be broken, then why leave it out there to be broken?