June 23, 2020

What I have to admit, from the beginning, is that I know nothing, and yet I know too much. I know nothing, on the basis that I’m poorly read. I have read neither Das Kapital nor Mein Kampf, and little of the great western philosophers. But also because the state of our knowledge, in the first quarter of the 21st century, is also very poor, compared to what it will be fifty or a hundred years later. On the basis of what we knew, in the 20th century, we have committed terrible errors and vicious crimes against humanity. On the basis of what we currently know, it is clear that we are destroying our biosphere.

I know too much because my knowledge interferes with my ability to see the world afresh. I have adopted biases that determine how I relate to my world. The prejudices that we acquire are far ranging and pervasive. Knowing this is not necessarily the answer to the problem. Sometimes knowing more can expose one to different ideas that can knock down our suppositions. A person with a narrow grasp of the underlying philosphical bases behind the mechanisms that drive our society is less likely to question them than a scientist who knows them better. Knowledge can be dislodged or challenged by new knowledge. On the grand scale of things this is what happens.

Either are in the playing field or the market of ideas, or one attempts gradually to deconstruct what one thinks one knows, without taking the route of adding new knowledge to challenge the old knowledge. These are opposite tracks. My tendency is towards the former, reduction by reduction, rather than through accumulation. But it is a path where one must forever be admitting one’s own weaknesses and deficiencies; a path of humility and humiliation. A Taoist path.

Yesterday Ilan sent in an article that debates the matter of what constitutes truth in an era of fake news; he looked at the matter of truth through the prism of various historical thinkers, eventually concluding before a matter can be admitted as truth, it must be open to wide discussion, that no authority could have the ultimate say. Instead the truth of a matter would be determined after being debated by the best minds. In such a process, my opinion counts for very little. I cannot “compete” in an arena where the qualifications depend on knowing the history of philosophical thinking and I would not contest the opinions of others in such an arena. It is true that I know a fair bit about the philosophical thinking of Eastern philosophical systems, perhaps, but there too I do not think it is worthwhile to contend. The area that is more interesting is that of learning and knowing from observation; discovering through silent communion with the universe, meditation. I have always thought that the keys to understanding are there to be discovered directly and must not depend upon academic learning. There are scriptures and holy books that claim to hold the keys to salvation and enlightenment. There are philosophers who have pursued truth through reason. There are scientists who have tried to discover the physical laws upon which our universe is constructed. All of these have their value and their place in our human civilization. But, without much basis other than belief or intuition, I continue to hold that the truth of our existence is there to be discovered by every denizen of the cosmos directly, without recourse to scripture, philosophy or science. Not every kind of knowledge, of course, but the particular knowledge of the identity of the self in relation to the universal. I think that the basis of this belief is present in the scriptures themselves. And it does not contradict reason. It cannot be negated by science, as far as I know.

This thinking is very democratic, because it extends the possibility to every one of us to understand, independently, our position in the universe, if we put into it enough effort. It only depends on our willingness to give all we have to the project, and not be afraid.

The knowledge of the self in relation to the cosmos, the nature of the self, our true identity, the nature of the other, the meaning of our lives, the inner purpose and the relation of this purpose to that of the universe, the act of observation, what constitutes happiness, the reason for our restlessness, the ability to confront and understand suffering, the movement of thoughts, moods, desires, attraction and repulsion, emotion, indifference, and the relation and mutual influence between our minds and our bodies, the ways in which we affect the world and interact with it and with others; our dreams and the subconscious, the obvious and the latent, the sources of our inspiration and energy, the ability to tap into the energy of the universe; the question of our mortality, the observation of time and its subjective velocity; the nature of experience, the various states of consciousness, the integrity of our knowledge or its partiality, the understanding of what is truly important and what is of less importance, the question of what is real and what illusion; the question of self-mastery or subservience to basic instincts, the question of belief in God or the supernatural, the matter of empathy, the ways in which egoism manifests, our aesthetic sense, the ways in which we lie to ourselves; attachments, the nature of peace, and many more questions, qualities, understandings, are all matters that we can resolve for ourselves without any necessity to go to a book or consult with a teacher. They are matters that can be understood through direct experience, aparoksha anubhuti.

Naming, shaming

Owen Jones, in the Guardian says: “History is not being erased by those seeking to topple the statues of slavers and murderous white supremacists; it is being remembered. That is the real sin as far as the protesters’ detractors are concerned. They understandably fear what will happen if historical atrocities committed by the British state enter wider public consciousness.”

Jones says that bringing attention to the statues is giving us all a history lesson. I think that is true. But what will happen in a few years, when all these statues of people who perpetrated attrocities and held despicable opinions are gone? Memories fade quickly. I think a better idea might be to leave the statues, but place descriptive plaques, describing their personage’s wrongdoing, as markers of shame for the generations.

Yet it’s true that statues are usually (solely?) erected to honor, rather than dishonor. In India, a statue is a murthi (an idol) and is there to be worshipped.

So one could go a step further and replace those statues with new ones of heroes murthosizing opposite values. The description on the plinth would mention the previous occupant, and why he’d been evicted in favour of the new owner.

Planet of the Humans (again)

Reading George Monbiot’s critique of “Planet of the Humans” I appreciated his ability to sift through the many details, see where the errors lie and then state the ways in which the film is inaccurate, dangerous and damaging to the cause that it is supposedly trying to support. Environmentalists face so many challenges from the political right and those with vested interests who wish to undermine challenges to the continued degradation of the biosphere.

Perhaps I misinterpreted the film, or saw what I wanted to see in it. Or perhaps I’m right after all. It’s true that everyone experiences reality according to their individual tendencies. What dawned on me while watching it was that however careful we are to produce cleaner forms of energy, and however efficient those processes become, we will simply be encouraged to consume more, and it is built into the capitalist system and our own species’ nature to do so. We will not be able to reverse the destruction because the more we produce, the more we will use. I don’t see this as being a problem of the developing world and its burgeoning population (and growing needs), but a challenge to be addressed by those who are at the pinnacle of progress – who are also the heaviest consumers. They need to provide leadership in learning how to use less, not more.

But I don’t think they will do so.

Home server?

I’ve been thinking more seriously about setting up a home server.  Yesterday I looked at the Freedombone, Yunohost and Freedombox projects – these are some of the noteworthy attempts to make a Linux distro specially geared towards home servers.  All three are based on Debian Linux and can be run on a variety of hardware.  Cheap Raspberry Pis, old computers and other cheap machines are what people normally use.  In my case I will be trying from an Eeeepc netbook, since I have one lying around and its electricity needs are a bit smaller than those of a normal laptop.  I do have an unused Raspberry Pi, but it’s one of the early models and has only half a gigabyte RAM.

My initial experiments were failures.  It took many hours to download Freedombone from Bob Mottram’s site, and even then it seems that the data was corrupted.  Yunohost’s download took just a couple of minutes but the thumb drive wouldn’t boot for me.  I will try again with these later.  Or I’ll just work from another distro – my eeepc already has a Debian distro on it.  These kind of experiments always seem to take me longer than for most people.

“Planet of the Humans”

I watched this movie, (it’s available free on YouTube) by Jeff Gibbs and produced by Michael Moore, as there have been appeals from the Green movement to take it down and, who knows, maybe they’ll succeed.  While the film is, as critics say, no doubt hurtful to efforts to lobby for greener solutions, I think the central thesis of the film is correct, that without addressing the root causes of our environmental problems – overpopulation and unrestrained economic growth – any technological fixes we try to find will not work. (Update: See George Monbiot’s critique of the film.)

The main problem is capitalism, and our dependence on its fruits.  Without addressing it, greener energy production, even if it turns out to be better than the dismal examples shown in the movie, is only going to increase demand.  Just as improving the roads to avoid traffic congestion encourages more people to drive to work rather than take the bus, so the traffic congestion remains.

As a species we expand until it is no longer possible to meet our demands.  When we reach that point, it seems than we will not gently restrain ourselves but, like the boom and bust economy, reach a point of total breakdown. That will be a tragedy, a holocaust, for our ourselves or our forebears, as well as for most of the larger life-forms on the planet, because it will coincide with the collapse of the entire biosphere.

It’s capitalism that is driving us to the apocalypse, of course, but turning capitalism into a scapegoat is not the solution.  Our economic system is a product of the way we are. It’s something more fundamental that we need to change. And yet, if we can learn anything from ecology, it is that systems are intertwined and that no one of us exists in isolation, independently from the whole. So it is not as if I, as “an individual” can change anything. We effect change as a group, as a race, as a species, and in conjunction with every other species.

The film says that change can only begin with awareness. Awareness, if it is integral, and not just intellectual, can bring change.  We’ve got to start somewhere.  Let’s start by admitting that we exist in symbiosis with other species in a biosphere that has enough for all of us, if we only limit our share to that which we actually need, and leave enough for everyone else. If we don’t do that, we will soon reach a stage where we will have less than we need (and then we will die). But what constitutes a “need”? If we are asking that question, it probably means we are so remote from our actual needs that we have forgotten.  We can begin by reducing our consumption and finding out for ourselves.


human-themovie.org by Yann Arthus Bertrand

Watched this movie today for a second time; the running time is 3 hours and 10 minutes, and it’s available for free in a number of languages. I’ve also managed to watched several supplementary short documentaries about the making of the film and listened separately to the sound track. Actually I think this may be my all-time favourite film. It’s hard to see with dry eyes. The storytelling, music and cinematography are consistently incredible – if anything, the movie steadily improves as it goes along. The signature theme, for example, only becomes evident in the second half or last hour. The way the film is constructed and edited contributes to its power and ensures that there is never a boring moment. There are subtleties that I only picked up on the second watching. The image of a man speaking on a phone at the corner of a Manhattan skyscraper is followed by a man standing high among desert cliffs. The film plays a little with our expectations. Derisive comments about “rich people” by a poor man are followed by an obviously “rich” American, who, in turn, quickly wins our sympathy. The impoverished window of an Indian farmer who committed suicide due to the water crisis is followed by an educated upper class Indian, who, despite first impressions, places her simple story in its sharp political context. The director says that this is essentially a political film, and one has to agree, but it is not directly so. It commands our attention by its intense humanity. No film could be more true to its title. It captures the essence of what it means to be a human being in our era, beset by vast inequalities, violence, political turbulence and climate change, as well as the options we face as human beings when confronted by these horrendous difficulties. It gives a voice to the voiceless and permits us to hear stories that would otherwise be unlikely to reach our ears. Eventually it is the beauty of these portraits of ordinary human beings, even more than the magnificent landscapes, that lingers in our memory. It is not just that these humans are unforgettable, but that they also hold us accountable. We are so far removed from some of them that even the work that they are doing is unintelligible to us. People hang out long lengths of fabric over a wooden construction for what purpose? A human chain of men move earth with shovels to achieve what? Men rummage through a garbage dump to find what? If we thought we understood our world, we find that we are out of touch.

Eventually it’s an optimistic film. Nobody forced these people to be interviewed. They agreed because despite everything, they believed in the value of their experience and hadn’t given up on either us, the viewers, or, in most cases, themselves.

My great grandfather

Before she passed on a few years ago, I was able to collect a number of stories from my mother from her childhood.  This is one that she told.

When he was old,  Grandfather Newbould would move between the houses of his various kids. He would just show up, and bring along some of his furniture with him. He would move out unexpectedly too. On one occasion the family came home and found that the whole house was empty. Grandad had moved out again, taking all their furniture with him. Nanna Beatty (my mom’s mom) said that she would call the police if he didn’t bring their stuff back, so he told her to take whatever she wanted. (He was probably a little senile and had told the furniture movers to pick up everything.)

Still in Kochi

Still enjoying Fort Kochi, a town that is inherently interesting and enjoyable. Perhaps too many tourists, though thanks to them there are so many guest houses, restaurants and cafes. You can’t have it all ways. But the kind of tourists seems to be wealthier and older than in most places in India, which influences somewhat the prices. There are still enough backpackers to ensure that there are also cheaper places to stay and eat. Prices go as low as 250 Rupees or less for accommodation in dormitories. I would not stay in such places. I have a pleasant, though non-A/C room with attached bathroom. It’s clean and in a good location, close to the main tourist area, but on a quiet street.

I’m having trouble sleeping at nights due to the heat. I sleep best in the early morning. Then I wake up refreshed as if I’ve had a full night’s sleep. It’s true that I often have naps in the daytime. It’s always been a puzzle to me why hot weather makes it impossible to sleep at night but is conducive to sleep in the daytime.

When they are open, I have breakfast at the vegan dhaba – just about the same breakfast I have at home: granola (actually muesli) with chopped fruits and coconut milk, together with a cup of coffee. The fruits usually consist of pineapple, papaya, pomegranate and maybe apple. I refill my water bottle there too.

I have lunch in mid afternoon in any one of various restaurants, then have a snack in the evening – a chaat, a sandwich or a dahi puri or something.

In the afternoon to early evening I walk on the promenade by the beach and sometimes sit on the rocks. There’s always a pleasant breeze blowing from the sea. There are cultural activities, but these are of the kind specifically for tourists.
I’ve enjoyed taking many photos, just with my mobile camera, while here.