Testing status blogging to my WordPress blog using the micro.blog app, as @manton suggests.
I’ve been thinking about a topic which my wife was talking to a friend about recently – the emotional rollercoaster rides that are social media feeds of today. From Instagram to reddit to YouTube, whenever you’ve spent long enough on a platform, you tend to gather a lot of cruft – topics you were once interested in but are now just stale, pages and creators which have strayed from their initial mission, and sometimes it’s well meaning people who are speaking about current affairs when all you’re trying to do is watch cat videos. Of course, there’s also the algorithm, trying to tweak your feed to keep you engaged more than you want to be.
Our social feeds of today have become emotional landmines. We can cull them, limit the number of people we follow, and even depend on algorithms to mark posts as sensitive. But in the end, we get exposed to things when we don’t want to.
There’s value in it for the social networks themselves. You want fashion, current affairs, memes, and travel all in one place? Come on over! You shouldn’t ever have to leave to go to another app or network for some subgroup of your interests, because that would take DAUs and eyeballs away from us! Facing social media withdrawl? Just let us curate what you see through our algorithms, so we can optimize showing ads to you!
But what’s the value to us, the users? Sometimes, when we’re up for it, sure, we love it. We love having all our interests in one place. But more often than not, the onslaught of good news-bad news-memes will wear you out. You’ll end up scrolling longer and longer for the same happy feelings, instead getting more negative news and digging that emotional hole even more. In the words of that friend, “you end up scrolling for an afternoon without being truly satisfied“.
We were also talking about shopping in person in stores, my wife and I. Her point was that even through she can’t wait to go back to shopping physically – there’s an element of satisfaction in touching something while window shopping it – there is one problem that physical stores were already running into pre-corona, which would only have been exacerbated now – a lack of sizes. Suppose she likes a particular top and they have multiple in one size, but not in hers, the only recourse she has is to order it online to have it delivered to her home. Either the store clerk will do it for her, or she can go home and do so herself. In any case, her shopping pleasure was interrupted by their lack of willingness to keep more product in store. One obvious solution would be for stores to just immediately order replenishment as soon as a product is sold. But this doesn’t work on big shopping days and in any case, with so much inventory moving through online orders nowadays, it makes more sense for retailers to offer online orders than to keep everything at hand for the dwindling in-person customers.
But that’s what the promise of shopping malls was supposed to be – something for everyone, always in stock. The fact that their economics is being upended by outside forces shouldn’t force them to abandon their original promise, but to double down on it with newer customers. But of course, there’s diminishing return in that, specially now.
Where do these two tales meet? Social networks today try very hard to become one-stop-shops for media consumption just like Macys and Nordstorm did for clothing. But that model doesn’t work. You can’t deliver on that promise for everyone and keep them happy. No amount of analytics and planning can keep the human mind happy, which may be seeking its happiness in some new way in that moment.
I don’t know what’s in store for in-store shopping, but more and more people realize the need to distance away from their current social network. This makes it possible for new ones to come in. But the new ones make the same mistakes – of letting all kinds of content run rampant with subtle UI tricks to make people think they’ve got control over what they consume and when. Unless a social network comes along that makes it easy to switch off certain content at the drop of a hat, they can keep expecting to fight a losing battle for eyeballs as soon as they reach scale.
P.S. This post was written on my new FreeWrite, gifted to me by my wife on my birthday. It’s an interesting product, with its limited feature set and exceptional design. She calls it a smart typewriter and reminds me that I should treat it as such. I think I’m going to enjoy using it for writing blogposts and maybe even get into the habit of writing longform again.
I got the second dose of my vaccine today. It was a breeze! I got there an hour early because I had some free time and the person at the counter hemmed and hawed about when I would get my shot. But there was no one in line and as soon as I settled down, my name had been called.
My reward for the shot was twofold – when I got done with it, I was greeted with thunder and torrential rain. Minutes later, as I gave myself the reward of great tasting natural ice cream, a hailstorm swept through the area, with the Sun twinkling in the background. It was an ethereal state and the weather seemed to be celebrating that I got the vaccine today.
I’ve been having a conversation with myself and with a friend lately. I’ve often thought about what changes I’ve seen in people due to the pandemic. For the most part, I’ve seen depressive states, acting out, bold declarations of the future (a sort of mania perhaps). But I rarely turned my gaze inward. But recently I started thinking about it and I realized what change has come in me.
When I was a kid, my parents gifted me a poster that I hung above my bed. As I would get dressed for school, I would recite the words on the poster. It was a short prayer towards optimism –
Today is going to be a great day.
I can handle more than I think I can.
Things don’t get better by worrying about them.
I can be satisfied if I try to do my best.
There’s always something to be happy about. I’m going to make someone happy today.
It’s not good to be down.
Life is great, make the most of it.
Be an optimist!
That first year when I got the poster, my class teacher noted in my report card that “Nitin is a very optimistic child”.
Ever since, I’ve thought of myself as an optimist, sometimes blindingly so. Over the years, it has stood me in good stead – an attitude of “whatever happens, it’ll be good in the end” is a good way to coast through life.
Two years ago, I discovered philosophy through a podcast – Philosophize This. Apparently, there’s no better way to destroy ones rose tinted glasses than through a study of philosophy. Yet, for all the knowledge that I soaked in, it felt distant – a subject I’m studying rather than lessons I’m learning about life.
Or maybe the change started then, and the pandemic accelerated it, as it did everything else. I believe I’m now a realist. Every hopeful thought that comes about the future is quietly quashed by the reality of the pandemic. No matter how much we hope that the end is near, the facts and the reality of the situation in the US and India belie those fantasies.
My friend offered that perhaps I’m a rational optimist. What’s that? Someone who is optimistic within reason.
I don’t know if I’m that. But I think it’s a good thing to aspire to. Perhaps it’s time to find that poster and bring that prayer back.
I’ve discovered the joy of reading ebooks from the Seattle Public Library. It’s not only a great way to discover new fiction that I would not otherwise get my hands on, it’s also a good driver to finish what I start. I’ve got a loan right now that I have to return in 14 days. Better get on with it!
a program officer focused on artificial intelligence at the effective-altruism organization Open Philanthropy
My first highlight in the article was about her husband? For shame!
The speech of rationalists is heavy on the vernacular, often derived from programming language: “updating your priors” (keeping an open mind), “steel-manning” (arguing with the strongest version of whatever point your opponent is making), “double-cruxing” (trying to get to the root of a disagreement)
No idea what double-cruxxing is supposed to mean in programming. But I reckon that this over-rationalist approach to tech is what has caused the mess that Silicon Valley is in today.
I often publicly identify as an ‘effective altruist,’ ” she says, referring to the rationalist spinoff movement focused on optimizing philanthropy,
What is the meaning of effective altruism?
Evolution has wired our minds to be soldiers (focused on winning) instead of scouts (focused on ensuring our mental maps reflect reality).
That’s a brilliant idea! But what does it mean in practice? I’ll have to look at the book to find out, won’t I?
To adopt a scout mindset is to resist falling prey to “motivated reasoning,” in which we distort our thoughts to achieve a desired outcome.
Hmmmm. That sorta makes sense.
Galef reminds herself of a tip she gives in her book: to take pride in being the kind of person who can change their mind.
This is again, brilliant. If we are willing to change our minds completely on a topic (only after thorough research though), then we’d be better off as a species.
My wife asked today, “We’ll always look at the past with some mystique, right? We’ll always romanticize it, always look at it with rose-tinted glasses, right?”
True. Even though the future holds so much more – more potential, more growth, more medicine, more science, more fascination, and even more religion and spirituality – we’ll look at the past as this amazing place worth returning to.
Part of the reason for this is that when we think of the past, we tend to focus on the memories that are more easily brought up, rather than the hard ones. We remember the good times, the happy ones, or at least the more memorable ones. When we look back at this pandemic era decades from now, we’ll think about how humans banded together and created vaccines in record time, how we all survived through, even though many, many did not. We’ll not remember this as the era when the world’s hypocrisy was laid bare, when the rift between the thinkers and the feelers was exacerbated, when everyone suffered and the foundations of life-long global trauma were established.
Another reason is that we do not look at the past with introspection. This is why we call it a simpler time. Because the complexities are hidden behind a layer of thoughtlessness. We do not want to introspect because it’s hard. It’s hard because we know that the past was just like the present – complex, uncertain, unforgiving. Yet, survivorship bias kicks in – “we survived, so it mustn’t have been that bad”.
This is why the future is interesting to me – it’s just as uncertain and strange as the present, but there’s hope. Hope that we’ll live better lives, by one metric or another. But this too, is looking at it with rosy glasses. The future will bring it’s own horrors, it’s own trauma, it’s own death and destruction. But it’s out there somewhere. Somehow, we’ll survive it, as we have the past and the present.
Perhaps, in one sense, it’s good that we look at things so positively. Staring the future in its face is bound to cause anxiety. We might as well look at it as some distant land where all will be well, just as it was in the past.
Back when I was in college for my Bachelors, my parents gave me a post-paid mobile phone that had unlimited Internet access, but very limited SMS per month. This was a common theme for Indian telecoms back then – prepaid connections had thousands of free SMS messages, while post-paid had unlimited in-network talktime, and in my case, unlimited Internet access. The latter was a rarity and I really appreciated it. However, all my friends were on pre-paid connections and were diving into the free SMS world like crazy. I felt left out. So, one day I went out and bought myself a second phone (one of those epic indestructible Nokia 1100 phones), got a prepaid SIM and dived into the world of free SMS. For that first month, I got a package that let me send 9000 texts.
I was in heaven! I was chatting with all my friends, but also sending them all kinds of useless forwards. I would painstakingly send each message to my 60 classmates and ten or so hostel mates, twenty SMS recipients at a time (the technical limit for a group message in that phone). I reached a point where I started to annoy a few of them 😀
Pretty soon though, the supply dried up. There are only so many forwards a person received in a day at that time. That’s when my post-paid connection paid off. I would find interesting messages online, type them out on that rapid-fire T9 keyboard and save as draft, before going through the message forwarding rigmarole.
After some time, I went on a holiday. When I came back, my pre-paid pack had expired so I went to renew it. I learnt that while I was vacationing, my telecom was hard at work. They believed they had captured enough of the market and were ready to pull the benefits. The free SMS packs had reduced from 9000 texts to 900, and a few days later, to 600. This was barely enough to keep my interest and I moved on from this world. But it taught me a valuable lesson – anyone could setup shop as a message forwarder given the inclination and resources.
Years later, when WhatsApp forwards started flooding inboxes, I was over the trend even before it started. But I watched it with great interest. After all, what’s better than free messages? For anyone holding a smartphone, it was SMS-but-better-and-free. For a network engineer, it was nothing more than a few packets. It could have been a forwarded email or gchat message, but it was a WhatsApp message instead. Nothing to see here.
The likeness to SMS is what catapulted WhatsApp to the level where it is today. I don’t know about you, but MMS were never a thing in India. They were expensive and needed tech most people didn’t have. Hence when we think of WhatsApp forwards, we don’t think of MMS, just SMS, even though most forwards nowadays are a mix of well-crafted emoji-laden texts, and colorful images wishing you good morning and ten other things.
I’ve been reading a HuffPost article about QAnon, and its effects not on the cult’s followers, but on their families. It is both heart-rending, and deeply intriguing to see the parents of out generation fall for such traps. For the longest time, I assumed that the movement only existed online. Then, when it spilled blood, I assumed it was only a conservative thing. But reading the article, and reading about erstwhile Obama voters, and believers in alternative medicine and essential oils falling for the gargantuan myth of Q, I realized that it goes beyond just one side. It’s more a myth built to cater to anyone and everyone. Depending on whether you believe in aliens, are libertarian, or are just wary of oft-caught lying Mainstream Media, there’s some hook somewhere to get you in. After all, what’s better than one lie? A hundred lies, all built to cater someone or the other. If you believe in one layer of QAnon and not the next, all you need to say about the rest is that those others are nutjobs, but your beliefs are solid. Then, there’s no way to extricate you from the mess, because everyone else is objectively wrong, aren’t they?
I found some interesting things in the article – one of the people talked about chatting with their parents over discord. I had no idea the elder generation even knew about discord. But I believe the reason these specific ones know about it is because of discord’s private servers, which allow admins free reign over the content that gets disseminated to users. Also, the use of discord shows that the people controlling the movement are of a younger skew – those used to meme-making, shitposting, and gaslighting people for fun. If the people running the show were the same age as the people falling for the spin, they would be interacting wholly on other mediums – email, chat, twitter (perhaps), or something that I’m not into because I’m not in that generation. If this were happening in India (as some things are), it would be wholly on WhatsApp.
Another interesting thing is this quote –
And because QAnon adherents are conditioned to interpret opposition as validation, trying to debunk their falsehoods often only pushes them deeper into the movement.
This here is a masterstroke. Not only are you believing in the message, you’re also falling for the idea that anyone actively opposing you is either an agent of the “enemy” or is so misguided that they need help themselves! This, combined with the general distrust between the generations has led to a situation where children and parents are fighting for their definitions of the “truth”. The fact that QAnon has brought people to this place shows the true power of suggestion.
The thing that I asked myself when reading this article was – why? Why are people believing this nonsense? We’ve been reading about fake news, about MSM being a terrible source of information, about the slow and steady degradation of public discourse. But none of this should mean that our parents should fall down this trap of fake news. Why are they falling for it? Why is it so difficult for them to look at a news item with a critical eye before forwarding it or accepting it as the absolute truth? I thought about it a lot, till yesterday, when my wife shed some light on it.
Story time –
- When COVID-19 started, we were inundated by fake news. WhatsApp forwards played a very big role in the first few weeks/months in creating an environment of fear and distrust among people. But along with the external noise, we also had friends and family forwarding every piece of information from all quarters, without verification. I’m not saying disinformation about COVID has stopped, but when there are no sources of information, it’s particularly vicious to forward fantasy as fact. Early on, a friend posted a “news item” on a group stating that the Pope has COVID. I looked at it and immediately guffawed. People will believe anything. My wife commented that it’s really sad this happened, as it shows no one is safe. That spurred me into action. I looked at the URL. The “news” website was not one of the many reputable (or even disreputable ones) I know of. First red flag. Then, I googled the news item. No one else was carrying it, and neither google nor Apple News told me the same. In fact, both were pointing to the same link I had as the source of truth. Second red flag. Then, I went to the site’s homepage and looked at other news article. Lo and behold, every single news item was “someone rich or famous got COVID”. Big red flag! Lastly, since I know the tools for it, I did a whois on the domain. It showed that the website had been registered just three days ago. Yet it had hundreds of articles about everyone from the Pope to your favorite childhood teacher getting COVID. That was the last flag that I needed. For the first time in forever, I replied to a forward, listing out the reasons why it’s fake. Of course, the response from the other end was “I just forwarded it”.
- Yesterday, my wife told me that her Mom is considering the efficacy and safety of the vaccine. She received some signals that the vaccine may not be as aboveboard as we all thought it would be. This caused my wife a lot of anger and surprise. Why was her Mom listening to this noise? Of course the vaccine is safe. Of course she should get it! The funny thing is that my mother-in-law is receiving both signals – there are people getting it without a second thought and absolutely recommending it, and there are people who are steadfast against it, without any reason. What’s funny is that my wife gave me a very straightforward explanation for this – our parents are from a generation where the information coming at them has always been vetted, checked thrice, and editorialized. There’s little to no chance of an earth shattering lie. Conversely, we’ve grown up with the Internet, where every behemoth falls and sells our data and passwords to the most vile operators, and we’ve learnt through an infinity of forwards that everything coming at you should be taken with a grain of salt. Does this make us cynics? Sure. It’s worth being cynical when CNN tells us unequivocally that Iraq has WMDs and Facebook tells us that it doesn’t sell our data. That juxtaposition has led to where we are – teaching our parents right from wrong, just as Zoomers have taught us how to use snapchat and tiktok. (Seriously, how do you interact with an app that doesn’t have a visible interface????)
So that’s it – our parents, and everyone who has fallen into the QAnon hole, has fallen because they are a people who do not understand that everything from the Internet is not the truth. That they need to detach the message from the sender and take it first with a grain of salt and if it passes a cursory check, maybe accept it as fact. That we really, really, really need to stop forwarding Good Morning messages, as they’re killing the world.
But is that it? Is that the explanation? Maybe not. My favorite philosophy podcast – Philosophize This! – ran a very timely podcast in February on the book “Escape from Freedom” by Erich Fromm. Fromm talks about two kinds of freedoms – negative and positive freedom. Negative freedom is freedom from outside influences such as tyranny or oppression. Positive freedom is the freedom to do what you want, such as the pursuit of happiness. At first, people develop a freedom from others – from nature and the elements, from tyrannical governments, from social stigma. Then people start to explore the freedom to do what they want to do with their lives, to keep their identity intact, yet be a part of the world and be productive and happy in it.
However, while some people choose to embrace this freedom and grow with it, others want to escape this freedom. Why? Because with freedom comes responsibility, and some people don’t want that on their heads. This seems so natural – while some people see an empty canvas as full of possibilities, some will see it with dread. It doesn’t even have to be our entire freedom. We regularly outsource specific responsibilities to others – the work of filing taxes, of selecting which countries to invade, of picking the next video to watch, of thinking about God to believe in.
The podcast goes on to talk about another of Fromm’s concepts – one used to explain why some people supported Hitler’s rise to power. He talks about people who, in that era, wanted to escape the freedom they had by supporting authoritarianism. Such people are practicing a form of sadomasochism. Sadism, because they want to control others, and Masochism, because they want to submit to a higher power, and divest themselves of the responsibility of thinking further about the political path of their country. Fromm talks about how in the same person, both psychological traits exist simultaneously. The same person who despises a caste/creed/religion/sex, and wants to suppress them, also believes in the supremacy of someone else, or themselves, or an ideal, and submits to that willingly.
The other way that such people escaped freedom was “automaton conformity” – by becoming a cog in a machine. Once more, the end result is that they are part of a larger picture. But the way they do it is by simply conforming to a set of beliefs being presented to them, without question. Such people are looking simply to divest the task of thinking for themselves, because it’s either too taxing or too painful or too mortifying to face the reality of their existence – that their freedom and the freedoms of others can coexist and help everyone grow together.
There is a third way for some to escape from freedom is to be destructive. Whether it’s by destroying what they can’t control, or by people around them, they want to create an identity for themselves that goes opposite to freedom, life, and creation. They want to be known for their culpability in destroying someone else’s freedoms.
Fromm’s thoughts teach us a lot about how to think about QAnon followers. Some of them are truly hateful of the powerlessness of their leaders and the victory of one party over the other. They want to escape the reality of living in a world they do not recognize, because it isn’t the utopia they were promised. Thus, they fall into sadomasochism, giving power to some in order to take power and freedom from others.
Others see the rising tide of disinformation and the blinding lights of social media and rather than figure out the means to clarify the truth, they simply believe any incoming information and become packet pushers, sending out as many forwards as they receive without stopping to question the information within them. These people would be described well as banal, but they do not believe it. They want to know so badly that their version of the truth is the absolute truth that they start to believe it is, regardless of proof either ways, and without searching for it.
Last are the people who attacked the Capitol building on January 6th 2021, or those who planned the attack on the Michigan’s Governor. These people feel they have the right to destroy others’ freedoms in order to assert their own, or are willing to sacrifice their freedom in order to stop someone else from living out their own.
To think that each of these people are the same would be wrong. But they are a part of a larger whole, a whole that has been duped into believing the abject lies of a few mysterious individuals who stand to gain somehow in all this – whether monetarily, politically, or just for the lulz.
Is it as simple as this? No, but it’s a starting point.
FaceID is weird
I missed the boat on FaceID for a long time. Part of it was all about my unwillingness to dump my iPhone 7 Plus. It’s still an epic phone with an excellent security system that Apple may be returning to, after all their hullabaloo about FaceID.
Now that I’m here, I can’t say I’m impressed. FaceID definitely exceeds my expectations in many ways. It’ll be pitch dark and my phone will unlock as if by magic. But if I’m too close to my phone, it’ll just forget how to work. It’s as if there’s a mandate for the software to see my entire face before it can unlock.
Which is funny, because, well, I can’t expect Apple to have anticipated COVID, but their unwillingness to move fast to accommodate for face masks is just weird. It is only now, in the iOS 14.5 beta, that they’ve finally talked about a way to use FaceID with masks. As we all know, beta features don’t always end up in release.
Early on, I tried to trick FaceID by wearing the mask when trying to add my face to the software. It was quick to point out that something is covering my face. If it’s that smart, why isn’t it smart enough to use what’s available of my face? I can’t imagine how FaceID works for those with physical disabilities or religious mandates to cover their faces.
Google is getting dumber
From Nest to Google Home, things in the IoT World aren’t what they used to be. I remember a time when Google Home was snappy! It would respond quickly and get things right. Nowadays, Alexa seems to be much faster and Google Home’s response time has worsened noticeably. We first noticed this anecdotally. Then, we saw a Canadian vlogger give a demo where clearly, Alexa responded to a pre-created routine a lot sooner than Google did. The last straw was when we recently tried to ask Google Home to put a reminder. At some point, I removed our voice profiles from Google’s apps, in a fit of privacy-fueled action. This has essentially broken the Google Home system. Many features seem to depend heavily on voice profiles. It certainly makes sense for me to ask my smart assistant to remind me of something, and later, see that notification on all the devices I own. But if I’ve not enabled that functionality, the reminder should be presented on the device itself, shouldn’t it?
This doesn’t mean we’re giving up on Google Home. There are certainly things Google does better. For example, their maps prowess stands them in good stead when it comes to finding timings or local shops. But things like reminders are off-limits and so is IMDB. A lazy stroll through some movie or TV show lists becomes a chore when it comes to asking Google Home for the ratings. This is on Amazon and probably their forced lack of integration, but you can’t ask Google for “imdb ratings”. You can ask that of Alexa and that’s what we end up doing.
This pathetic approach to lack of data sharing is causing a second disintegration in our lives fast behind the streaming wars. I’m certainly never going to get Paramount+, but Alexa and Google Home both have a home in my… well, home.
But this worsening experience with Google Home brings another conversation out – is Google reducing the resources available to their smart speakers? Have they seen not-good-enough returns and data collection through this hardware so that they are not investing in the backend infrastructure enough? The day Google Photos was launched, they stressed more about their AI capabilities than anything else. I told my brother that very day that when Google has used our data to improve their tagging capabilities, they’ll dump Google Photos. The upcoming crippling of the “always free unlimited storage” promise shows that Google absolutely uses all of these services to enhance their capabilities and when they’re done, they throw their users under the bus.
Big companies is where innovation goes to die, especially in tech
Why is Spotify available everywhere but YouTube is not? Is that not a disservice to the users of YouTube?
Spotify’s business model depends on ensuring their customers can get to their catalogue no matter where they are. Hence the offline playing capabilities, the somewhat open API for many third party tools, services, and hardware. Add to that a killer API feature which I’ve not seen anywhere else. I can start listening on my phone and Google Cast it to my entire collection of Google Home speakers. I can be on their desktop app and use Spotify Connect to move the music to my Spotify-friendly Bose speakers. Heck, I can be playing on anything and use my phone’s Spotify app as a remote control!
This amazing tech feels alien in a world where YouTube is becoming more restrictive by the day. Why can’t I play YouTube on my Google Homes? Oh, because they’re videos and the GHomes I have are audio-only? That’s a pathetic excuse. Why can’t I Google Cast just the audio parts? Because integrating the streams is a difficult job?
Google has an infinite amount of resources at their disposal, yet they cripple their subdivisions by not letting the left and right arms integrate. This brings up the Amazon model front and center – everybody is your customer and your job is to present an API for everything you do. After that, if a business unit integrates your API into their tooling, that’s good news for you! But Google is still acting as if all of its properties are separate companies and integration must come from the top down. Top down is how innovation dies.
There’s famous cartoon showing how Google and Amazon differ. With employees inside a circle and customers outside, Google has roses pointed inward and guns pointed outwards. Amazon has roses pointed outwards and guns pointed inwards. If someone finds this cartoon, please link me. A picture is worth a couple hundred words. Inflation.
My apartment building has an event going on – a blind date with books. In this, participants part with a book from their personal collection, the organizers wrap books in opaque paper and write the first sentence of the book on the front. If you find that sentence to be interesting, you pick up the book and walk away.
So far so good.
As part of our Diwali cleaning, my wife and I reorganized our books into a few stacks – those we want to read some time in the future, those we want to read in the near future, those we’ve read, and those we will never read.
From that last stack, I picked up a book that I started to read and just, couldn’t. I decided that this book is popular enough that someone will like having it. But for me, it just wasn’t the right fit.
But, as I was walking out of our home and into the elevator, I realized that I have a bout of separation anxiety. As the metal box sped downwards, I thought about it.
I dislike this book, I dislike the author, I dislike the entire concept. Yet, I had serious anxiety about giving it away. I looked the book all over. It’s priced at seventeen dollars. I probably didn’t pay that much. But it’s still worth something. The font is nice, the line spacing is comfortable, the paper rich.
Yet, it’s the content. The book is The Dharma Bums, by Jack Kerouac. Kerouac is said to be a pioneer of the Beat Generation, a 1950s literary movement related to a post World War II, spiritual, anti-materialist thinking, and apparently the the precursor to hippie culture of the next decade. The book itself is recommended as a sort of intro to Kerouac, a good first read to dip into his interpretation of Zen Buddhism.
So I was surprised when the book was just… crass. It was a warped appropriation of Buddhism. The title is very apt – it’s a couple of aimless bums who are exploring Buddhism from the bits and pieces they come across. They have no conception of dharma, having established that the author will just jump on a moving train and stowaway his way to another place instead of building a life and living it. That ideology of stealing his way on to a goods train just rubbed me the wrong way and it was downhill from there.
For Westerners, this romanticism of a life of running might seem intriguing and beautiful. But that is not in any way what we’ve been taught to be the meaning of life or spirituality in India. If you think about it, being a bhikshu is the very beginning of Buddhism. Yet the way Kerouac does it, alternating between binge partying and self-exploration atop a mountain seems haphazard and decidedly crude.
I could not digest this book and though I’m sure others might find it interesting, I am glad to have gotten rid of it.
Next, I’m eyeing my copy of The Crying of Lot 49. Thomas Pynchon is an author I thought I’ll enjoy, and the novel is included in Time Magazine’s “100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005”. But it is steeped in a hatred of womanhood and is an absurdist’s dream-come-true. Maybe I’ll shed it the next chance I get.