Pearls at Random Strung

Just a place to jot down my musings.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Reflections on the Revolution in Isla Nublar, epilogue

This is the epilogue to a three-part series of posts, titled “Reflections on the Revolution in Isla Nublar”, interpreting the movie Jurassic World. The whole series of posts in order is the following:
  1. An extended look at the role played by clothing in depicting personal transformation in the movie.
  2. An expansion of our analysis, from clothing through enclosures to social relations structured by power, understanding, and survival.
  3. An examination of survival, evolution, rationality, and the (non-)distinction between the real and the virtual.
  4. An epilogue defending my choice of title, and offering some final thoughts.


I realize now that I did not explain at all why I picked the title for this series of posts on Jurassic World. It is of course meant to call to mind Edmund Burke’s classic critique of the French Revolution, which has the much more elaborate title Reflections on the Revolution in France, And on the Proceedings in Certain Societies in London Relative to that Event. In a Letter Intended to Have Been Sent to a Gentleman in Paris.

Burke is sometimes caricatured as being an arch-conservative and stick-in-the-mud, but it is important to realize that in the context of his society, he was actually rather on the progressive wing. Burke was a supporter of the American freedom struggle, a champion of the rights of the Irish (he was of Irish descent himself), and vehemently opposed to the East India Company’s depredations in India. And yet, he was fundamentally opposed to the French Revolution, because he saw in it the release of forces deeper and more dangerous than those unleashed by any other revolution: rationalism, utterly convinced of its own correctness and of the total mistakenness of all other positions, willing to overthrow everything that came before it in the name of a new world order founded on pure reason unencumbered by primitive inherited idiocies.

What happens on Isla Nublar is a revolution in that sense: a full overturning of the existing order (a re-volvo) and the institution of a new system based on different principles.

Reflections on the Revolution in Isla Nublar, part three

This is the third of a three-part series of posts, titled “Reflections on the Revolution in Isla Nublar”, interpreting the movie Jurassic World. The whole series of posts in order is the following:
  1. An extended look at the role played by clothing in depicting personal transformation in the movie.
  2. An expansion of our analysis, from clothing through enclosures to social relations structured by power, understanding, and survival.
  3. An examination of survival, evolution, rationality, and the (non-)distinction between the real and the virtual.
  4. An epilogue defending my choice of title, and offering some final thoughts.

In the previous installations of this series, I first wrote about the hugely significant role clothing plays in understanding the transformations of individuals in Jurassic World. I then expanded on the idea of clothing to enclosures in general, which led naturally to relations of power and dominance, which were then contrasted with relations of trust and understanding (familial relations) and with relations of unification for survival (conjugal relations). It is now time to naturally move from conjugal relations to the theme of evolution, which of course underpins the entire Jurassic Park franchise.


Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Reflections on the Revolution in Isla Nublar, part two

This is the second of a three-part series of posts, titled “Reflections on the Revolution in Isla Nublar”, interpreting the movie Jurassic World. The whole series of posts in order is the following:
  1. An extended look at the role played by clothing in depicting personal transformation in the movie.
  2. An expansion of our analysis, from clothing through enclosures to social relations structured by power, understanding, and survival.
  3. An examination of survival, evolution, rationality, and the (non-)distinction between the real and the virtual.
  4. An epilogue defending my choice of title, and offering some final thoughts.

Last time, we took a very close look at some of the significant ways in which clothing works in Jurassic World. I will avoid diving into such detail this time around, as I have a vast range of topics to cover. (Need I say that this will be massively full of spoilers if you haven’t seen the movie?)

2. Enclosures

I’m thinking of enclosures fairly broadly here as any sort of covering that affords protection from the elements. In this sense, clothing is of course a kind of enclosure protecting human skin: the shedding of clothing is the discarding of a layer of insulation. But there are a number of other such enclosures in the film: the gyroball, for instance, literally encloses the two boys in a protective shell as they travel through the park—

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Reflections on the Revolution in Isla Nublar, part one

This is the first of a three-part series of posts, titled “Reflections on the Revolution in Isla Nublar”, interpreting the movie Jurassic World. The whole series of posts in order is the following:
  1. An extended look at the role played by clothing in depicting personal transformation in the movie.
  2. An expansion of our analysis, from clothing through enclosures to social relations structured by power, understanding, and survival.
  3. An examination of survival, evolution, rationality, and the (non-)distinction between the real and the virtual.
  4. An epilogue defending my choice of title, and offering some final thoughts.


I haven’t blogged for a regrettably long time, so I figured I would mark my return to the scene by reflecting on a movie that hasn’t done too badly for itself this summer: Jurassic World. Given my obsession with dinosaurs (par for the course for anyone who saw Spielberg’s original miracle), this experience was particularly fun for me.

I suppose it needs no spoiler warning to say that Jurassic World is about (yet another) dinosaur going crazy on a theme-park island, with lots of humans dying gruesomely while the protagonists make it through with all body parts intact and with an increase in their wisdom. But what struck me even while watching the movie was that it very artfully sets up a number of structural polarities, only to dissolve some of them—but not all!—into an even more complex jumble. Postmodern neopaleontology? Bring it on!

What I will do now is look at a few motifs that are repeated throughout the film, creating striking parallels and generating resonances.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

"Denial through skill" (chekâpahnuti)

See this previous post for a summary of Appayya Dīkṣita’s definition of the figure of speech called “denial”, apahnuti. For the particular subtype of apahnuti known as “denial through skill” (chekâpahnuti), which Appayya previously defined as a skillful concealment of the truth in order to allay someone’s suspicions, Appayya provides an additional example of “denial through skill via the construal of words” (śabda-yojanayā chekâpahnuti):

padme tvan-nayane smarāmi satataṃ bhāvo bhavat-kuntale
nīle muhyati kiṃ karomi mahi[ ]taiḥ krīto ’smi te vibhramaiḥ |
ity utsvapna-vaco niśamya sa-ruṣā nirbharsito rādhayā
kṛṣṇas tat-param eva tad vyapadiśan krīḍā-viṭaḥ pātu vaḥ ||

“I constantly remember your two {lotus-}eyes[, o Lotus-lady]!
My very being is bewildered by your {black} tresses[, o Nīlā]—what do I do?
I’m totally sold on your {mighty} caprices[, o Mahī]!”

May Kṛṣṇa the playful paramour,
        who, when yelled at by angry Rādhā for saying these words in his sleep,
        taught her his “true” intentions,
protect us!

If you read the verse ignoring the words in {braces} and only taking the ones in [brackets] into account, you get the polyamorous sense of Kṛṣṇa’s words: he is talking about his three divine consorts, Lakṣmī (Padmā, the Lotus-lady), Nīlā, and Mahī (the Earth-goddess). This is obviously what Rādhā—all too familiar with Kṛṣṇa’s dalliances—takes his somniloquent mumblings to mean. But Kṛṣṇa, ever the charmer, convinces her that what he really meant were the words in {braces}, which are all taken to be references to Rādhā herself. Thus does Kṛṣṇa skillfully deny the truth of the matter by (mis)construing the words of his own speech differently. Of course, depending on your theology, it may be that Kṛṣṇa is in fact being honest here!

For those of you who care about the details of the (mis)construal:

  • padme and nīle can either be in the [vocative singular] or in the {nominative/accusative dual}. The utterances are therefore syntactically ambiguous.
  • mahi can either be read as [vocative singular followed by a word break] or as {the first two syllables of a three-syllable word}. Here the ambiguity lies in word segmentation.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Guitar tuning and contravariance

I’ve been fiddling around with a guitar for a few years now, trying to occasionally produce a few notes that sound mildly musical. Since I don’t usually get anything done unless I put immense pressure on myself, I decided to record myself playing and singing a song ("Daaru Desi" from the Bollywood movie Cocktail) that would force me to actually learn some chords.

There was only one minor hitch: the song is in G♯m.

The opening riff involves the chords G♯m and D♯, which have to be played with barre chords on the 4th and 6th frets of the guitar. This raised two issues:
  1. My barre chords are atrocious
  2. Whereas in the opening riff the D♯ is clearly lower than the G♯m, playing them on the 6th and 4th frets means the D♯ sounds higher than the G♯m.
After much shedding of sweat and tears (fortunately no blood), I was on the verge of giving up, when I accidentally played the chords on the 5th and 7th frets. This of course shifted the song up by a semitone, and resulted in me playing the Am and E chords (on the 5th and 7th frets). I was now out of tune with the original song, being too sharp by a semitone, but since I didn’t really care about that, I now had the option to play the Am and E chords in open position. This then had the further consequence of making the E lower than the Am—just as the opening riff demands.

I realized I had almost cracked the puzzle of the song. All that needed to be done was … what? Retuning the guitar so that the Am open position on the regular tuning became a G♯m instead, and the E open position on regular tuning became a D♯ instead. All I had to do was to tune every string a semitone flat. (This is apparently called the E♭ tuning.)

With this new tuning in place, I was able to play the song in the same key as the original—and was able to play it using mostly open position chords.

Now, if this were all, it wouldn’t make for a great story. What got me excited, though, was the fact that I had realized a deep truth about tuning and music:

an instrument’s finger positions contravary with its tuning

In plain English, it sounds commonsensical: if you lower the tuning of a string, you’ll have to play at a  correspondingly higher position on the string to produce the same frequency earlier. Hmm, now it doesn’t sound that exciting at all. Oh well.


Friday, January 31, 2014

A meditation on mathematics as meditation

Following the previous posts on bhāvanā, bringing-into-being, and its role in meditation, literature, and human creative activity in general, I couldn’t help but relate some of those ideas to mathematics.

Many (pure) mathematicians are content to take the mathematical structures they explore as givens, which they can figure out or manipulate in interesting and sometimes profoundly beautiful ways. This is a naïve version of Platonic realism, which grants to mathematical structures an objective existential status that lies beyond human beings. (This also means that sentient alien species should have exactly the same mathematical ideas as we do, that the Vulcans would accept that Euclid’s axioms generate the same results as us, and so on.)

Philosophers of mathematics who are formalists of various stripes hold instead that mathematics comes down to playing games with symbols: pushing arrows and boxes and Greek and Hebrew characters around based on well-defined rules. (Cue Wittgenstein.) They reject the idea that mathematicians “discover” mathematical structures; rather, they formulate new rules and new symbols and manipulate them.

While it may certainly seem from the outside that this is all mathematicians do, and while Western models of logic separate formal syntax and formal semantics in a way that seems to encourage this line of thought, it does not gel with my personal experience of actually doing proofs. Seldom can a real proof be hit upon simply by pushing symbols around on a piece of paper. At least for me, thinking about a hard mathematical problem involved trying very hard to “see” what was going on behind the symbols: symbols barely came into it. Strangely enough, the harder the proof, the more I thought I was seeing something that was already there! And even in those cases when one does merely shuffle things around, there is a crucial psychological difference between staring at a bunch of symbols on a page and hitting the Eureka moment. The proof is complete, I would argue, only with the latter. (This is not a “proof” that formalism is wrong, but merely an observation that it doesn’t fit with the phenomenology of at least some mathematicians.)

So where does bhāvanā come into the picture here? I would like to suggest (without proof, hehe) that what makes a proof a proof is precisely the fact that when(ever) it is understood correctly, it reliably and unfailingly brings into being in our minds a mathematical truth, in a manner that is at least intersubjectively valid, if not objectively. A proof is the means by which a particular mathematical end (a fact, a theorem, a lemma, or whatever) is attained. 

I have been vaguely inclined towards this manner of thinking ever since I read one of the greatest math books written in recent times in my opinion, Tristan Needham’s Visual Complex Analysis. Needham takes perhaps the most aesthetically remarkable branch of modern mathematics and offers a fabulous tour of its key features and structures in a manner that emphasizes visual and geometric thinking over the algebraic. (That is, he encourages you to prove things not by pushing symbols on paper but by visualizing, rotating, and dilating mathematical structures.) Given my prior bias towards visualizing mathematical structures, this book has been particularly enjoyable to read. (Perhaps my favorite exercise in visualization is the one in which I had to “see” the complex logarithm multifunction twisting and lifting the complex plane into an infinite helix.)

This process of visualizing a mathematical object is both deeply personal and yet objectively available. Two people who visualize a mathematical object will both agree on its key characteristics and its relevant properties, and may yet visualize it in ways that differ quite dramatically (and yet inexpressibly) from each other. To me, this situation bears a thought-provoking resemblance to Hindu/Buddhist meditative exercises in which devotees are asked to bring-into-being a particular deity in their minds, and are usually given elaborate visual descriptions of the deity’s characteristics to aid them in the process. Two different devotees may thus both bring-into-being very different versions of the same deity in their own minds, while yet agreeing fully on all of the key features possessed by this deity. The former half allows them to “take ownership” of the deity, in a sense; the latter half lets them participate in a shared conversation with others about the deity. Of course, by comparing meditative exercises with mathematical proofs, I intend to make neither religious claims about mathematical entities nor mathematical claims about religious entities!

Why pearls, and why strung at random?

In his translation of the famous "Turk of Shirazghazal of Hafez into florid English, Sir William Jones, the philologist and Sanskrit scholar and polyglot extraordinaire, transformed the following couplet:

غزل گفتی و در سفتی بیا و خوش بخوان حافظ

که بر نظم تو افشاند فلک عقد ثریا را


into:

Go boldly forth, my simple lay,
Whose accents flow with artless ease,
Like orient pearls at random strung.

The "translation" is terribly inaccurate, but worse, the phrase is a gross misrepresentation of the highly structured organization of Persian poetry. Regardless, I picked it as the name of my blog for a number of reasons: 
1) I don't expect the ordering of my posts to follow any rhyme or reason
2) Since "at random strung" is a rather meaningless phrase, I decided to go with the longer but more pompous "pearls at random strung". I rest assured that my readers are unlikely to deduce from this an effort on my part to arrogate some of Hafez's peerless brilliance!

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Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States
What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
—W.H. Davies, “Leisure”