Thursday, April 30, 2009

An extract from a very interesting and eye-opening talk by Peter Sandman about risk communication:

"The fundamental principle of risk communication can be summarized in a number, [which] is the correlation between how much harm a risk does and how upset people get about it. If you look at a long list of risks, and you rank them in order of how upset people get [about them], then you rank them again in order of how much harm they do, then you correlate the two, you get a glorious 0.2....

That is, the risks that kill people and the risks that upset people are completely different. If you know that a risk kills people, you have no idea whether it upsets them or not. If you know it upsets them, you have no idea whether it kills them or not.

If you replace mortality with morbidity in the calculation -- you're not killing people, you're just making them sick -- our correlation remains 0.2. If you use ecosystem damage, the correlation is once again 0.2, and if, as this group likes to do, you correlate economic damage with public concern, the correlation is 0.2.

It doesn't seem to matter what your measure of harm is. Whatever your measure of harm, across a wide range of risks, the correlation between how much harm [a risk is] going to do and how upset people are going to get is this absurdly low 0.2 correlation."

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

John Locke: What is the monster?
Ben Linus: What?
John Locke: The black smoke, the monster. What is it?

Lost, Episode 4.02

How do you fight The Dark, Black, Hairy Monster? How do you survive its deceit, its cunning, which multiplies like Hydra's heads with every strike you make at it? How do you run away from the lies, the filth, the poison it spews out against you? How do you defend yourself when the black monster has the power to mutate the untruth into verity?

Will good always be in the clutches of bad?
Will darkness always over-shadow the light?

How do you fight the lie with a truth, when the truth is weak?

Is the only way to fight The Dark, Black, Hairy Monster is to become a monster yourself?


See also: The Smear Campaign

Monday, April 27, 2009

A great tragedy took place within the span of a generation. Our parents brought us up, sacrificing for us, thinking that we would grow up to want the things they thought we should we want for ourselves; that we would adopt a morality based on family and tradition. But meanwhile, the world changed. The seeds of individualism rolled from the West and sprouted in the East. The children grew up singing "It's my life".

Shock. Conflict. Guilt. Depression. Loss.

It was inevitable. It was no one's fault. But everyone suffered.


I have swam so long in the dark waters of religion, i have forgotten how much good there is in it.


X: Why don't you believe in compromise?
Y: Oh, i do believe in compromise, just like you. It's just that the things i am willing to compromise for are different from the things you are willing to compromise for.


"I am what I am" is a never ending journey of self-definition, because you are defined in terms of what lies beyond you. Labels are arbitrary. But they have the power of definition. Latitudes and longitudes are arbitrary. But they can define a solitary island in obscure waters. "I am what I am" is an island refusing to accept its position on the map.

To accept being a part of an arbitrary 'false' map to avoid being lost. Is it a fair price?

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Law of Room-Cleaning: also applicable to messed-up lives.

"Order can only be created in one corner at the expense of an equal amount of disorder in another corner."

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

"People were like beasts - worse than beasts. In the middle of it all, i dreamed about love."

I. B. Singer
Few, if any, would be able to make sense of it, but observing the almost Manichaean battle of good and evil in my college, i have been led to declare humbly:

"It is better to be a fundo than a dangar."

Please don't ask me to explain, because i wouldn't.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Source: xkcd
"In ancient days, men looked at stars and saw their heroes in the constellations... For every human being who looks up at the Moon in the nights to come will know that there is some corner of another world that is forever mankind."

Read the text of the speech that Richard Nixon would have delivered if the first Moon landing had ended in failure, unearthed from archives.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

If a cancer cell could think, it would think like an anarchist.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

There was an Urdu short story i read many years back in Kemcol, the magazine of King Edward Medical University, and i could really relate to it. So i translated it into English. I recalled having done the translation today, and i decided to share it on internet, in case someone else can also relate to it the way i did.

The Idol-Breaker

(Translated by Awais Aftab from the Urdu short story ‘Butshikan’ written by Abdur Rehman, published in Kemcol 2003.)

Everyone had left after the daily worship and he was left alone, pondering with a finger in his mouth. Since a few days questions had been arising in his mind, like how can the bestial god decide the fate of humans when it cannot even blink and cannot even take a step. He wanted to unravel the secret that why the tribesmen sacrificed human lives in front of the murderous idol and how did the cruel deity inflict men with disasters and epidemics.

He had been going to the old priest for the past many days. He sat beside him and listened to the bloody tales of the blood-thirsty god. The old priest had told him how once a young, curious man had touched the cruel god and his skin had peeled off that very moment, and he had died on the spot after a slow, painful and helpless death. After his death, the corpse had vaporized and vanished. The old priest narrated similar events everyday. When he talked his yellow, filthy teeth became more conspicuous and he had to endure the gusts of foul, putrid breath.

The sun was ascending gradually. The shadows shrank as the sensation of fear multiplied in his mind. All the horrible events, famous in the tribe, were coming to him one by one, in which there were soul-burning punishments, calamities and adversities for those who refused to bow before the god and turned away from it. Despite all these stories, his curiosity was dominating his fear. He wished to touch the statue of the god but he loved his life. He couldn’t bring himself to take a single step further. He didn’t wish to die because of his inquisitiveness. All the heard stories, myths and fables repeated themselves continuously in his mind like awful nightmares. He wished to control his keenness and run out of there but his feet were frozen; he didn’t possess the courage to either move forward or backward.

Suddenly his eyes fell on the idol’s head where a little paint had been chipped off near the right ear, and the metal was shining beneath. Then he looked in its eyes. He found nothing but cold and sadness in those visionless eyes; matt instead of glow. The blood-thirsty idol appeared as nothing but a helpless, pitiable statue. But then it came to his mind that perhaps the blood-thirsty god was doing all this to entrap him, so that he would touch and the god would quench his thirst by his blood.

He tried his best to leave without doing anything but now his fear was in the clutches of his curiosity. He decided to gamble on his life. He took a step. His legs were shaking badly, his body drenched in sweat, throat parched and thorny. His life appeared too small a price to pay for his curiosity. The statue which had always appeared as made up of stone and metal looked like a bloody demon thirsty for his blood. He now realized the risks involved in the pursuit of truth.

He mustered up his courage and took another step. His face was pale and his legs were giving away but he had decided and his steps came one after another. At last, he was standing right beneath the blood-thirsty god.

He closed his eyes and placed his hand on the statue’s leg. For a moment he felt as if electric jolt had passed through his body. He pulled it back immediately; nothing had happened. He was all right. He stood there for sometime in that state of uncertainty, then he touched the statue again. He felt nothing but the cold stone.

His fear vanished. He had found that the blood-thirsty god was just a statue, carved out of stone by man. All the legends associated with it were the product of human fantasy, derived from man’s uncertainty and helplessness. He wanted to shatter that statue, to break it into a thousand pieces but then he thought of the people: they needed an idol to worship. If he broke this one, they’ll make a new one. So, he returned silently.

The next day when the tribesmen woke up early in the morning and went to bow before the god, he was not among them.


The idea of that curious man touching the idol and discovering it was merely stone reminded me at that time of my own inquisitiveness and my tendency to subject religious beliefs to critical analysis. However, i had always been taught that religious beliefs were ’sacred’ and even the minutest criticism was blasphemy and would be punished by the wrath of God. So, it was with great fear that i approached my religious beliefs. The fear expressed in the story; i know what that feels like. But ultimately, i went ahead and ‘touched’ my religious beliefs, and i found out that they were just ’stone’, just a bunch of flawed ideas.
A brilliant soft, mellow song:

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Me: X told me that i live in a bubble, that i don't know what real life is like, and that time will show that i am making a mistake. Kind of left me shaken; there is a seed of doubt in me now :(
Aati: Lost revolutions have lost revolutionaries, but things start going awry the moment someone decides to believe a lie; decides they may not love someone but they will eventually; decides they may not have faith in a belief but they will eventually... that's how you end up with regrets. You live someone else's life, and end up missing your own. So master your doubt. A person who doesn't doubt is a person who doesn't believe. Doubt means you can see more now, and the decision you make is not one of ignorance.
The enchanting image of a cosmic hand reaching out for the stars... recorded by NASA's Chandra observatory, X-ray image of the nebula produced by the pulsar B1509.

For more info: Telegraph

An undercover sinner at America's holiest university, turning on the sex life for consecutive 101 days, living according to each and every rule of Old Testament for a year, and many more innovative ideas... check out Time's list of Top Ten Literary Stunts.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

This is a long over-due post, since people have been asking me for years what my view of God is, and i have been avoiding a direct answer. The problem is that when people ask me this question, they want to squeeze me into some label. And three most typical labels used are Theist, Atheist and Agnostic, which i shall henceforth refer to as The God Triad. I don't feel comfortable with the God Triad, because it is inadequate. I have never felt belonging neatly to any of the three categories. Why? There are four reasons:

1) The Triad depends on a pre-supposed definition of God, and if that definition of God is changed, the label may change too. For instance, if God is defined as "omniscient, omnipotent, creator of the universe" then a person who believes in any non-Abrahamic conception of God would be labeled an Atheist because God, by that definition, does not exist for him. Like mystics were labelled atheists; like Spinoza was labelled atheist. And interestingly, like the Jews were labelled atheist by the Romans.

2) The classification doesn't take into account the potential dichotomy of reason and emotions. For example, for a Theist who believes that God exists, there is no dichotomy of reason and emotions inside him. He would believe in some logical argument for God's existence, or he might simply believe that reason is too limited to reach God. But consider a person who is logically an atheist or agnostic, and yet continues to emotionally feel as if 'something' is out there. That person may even continue act in real life as if some higher force exists in the universe, without ascribing to any particular God. He may not even use the term God. For such a person, and they do exist (i am in a more or less similar category), i believe it would be hypocritical to pretend that those emotions don't exist. What is the point of a particular label if it leaves out a huge chunk of how you actually do live? And emotions do play a strong part in how we live.

3) Pragmatism has radically changed the notion of 'reality' and 'existence' and other ontological notions of that sort. If facts exists independent of human cognition, they are unknown to us. Facts may not even exist independent of human experience. In this setting, the question "Does God exist?" takes on a very different dimension. The God Triad, usually, is seen in a non-pragmatic sense, talking about a reality which is objective and independent. In that sense, perhaps the pragmatist position in the God Triad would be some form of Agnosticism. However, if the God Triad is seen from a pragmatist sense, then the question 'Does God exist?' would be a question of which of these positions 'works' for us. It would not be an issue of whether existence of God corresponds with some ‘independent, objective reality’ but rather it would be a matter of which attitude worked best in life. Here, point 3 becomes related to point 2. For a man who lives in the constant emotional consciousness of some higher force, it would be absurd for him to label himself an atheist, since the label is obviously inadequate, and yet he is not theist, because he logically doesn't believe in any 'God'.

Here i would like to share two extract, one from a lecture Ultimate Religion by George Santayana, and other from the novel Ocean Sea by Alessandro Barrico, to illustrate two atypical conceptions of God, both of which have influenced me greatly:

* "Of this power i confess to know nothing further. To me, as yet, it is merely the counterpart of my impotence. I should not venture, for instance, to call this power almighty, since i have no means of knowing how much it can do... I am not asserting the physical validity of this sense of agency or cause: I am merely feeling the force, the friendliness, the hostility, the unfathomableness of the world. I am expressing an impression."

George Santayana, Ultimate Religion

Its a dialogue between Father Pluche and Bartleboom from Ocean Sea.

"Numbers speak clearly, Father Pluche. The rest is poetry."
"Quite. If only we were a little more..."
"Don't make things difficult, Father Pluche. The question is a simple one. Do you really believe that God exists?"
"Well, now exists strikes me as slightly excessive term, but i believe he is there, that's it, in a world of his own, he is there."
"And what difference does it make?"
"It makes a difference, all right, Bartleboom, and how. Take for example this story of the seventh room... yes, the story of that man at the inn who never leaves his room, and all that."
"No one has ever seen him. He eats, it would seem. But it could easily be a trick. He might not exist. Made up by Dira. But for us, in any case, he would be there. In the evenings the lights are lit in that room, every so often sounds are heard, you yourself, i have seen you slow down when you pass that room, you try to see, to hear something... For us that man is there."

4) I don't feel that the question of God's existence per se is of any importance to me. The question which is important is: "Is there any meaning in human life?" The two issue are related, but distinct. God may exist, and yet there may be no meaning in human life. For example, consider Aristotle's God or the Deistic conception. God is just a creator who left the universe to its own laws and does not meddle in it. Such a God creates no meaning for human life, for there is also no heaven or hell, or any revelation by God to follow.

So, here i would propose, like Wittgenstein, to see 'God' in a new light. Wittgenstein writes in his notebook: "The meaning of life, i.e. the meaning of the world, we can call God." Such a meaning need not exist in the form of a 'being' or have any ontological status. Hence, such a God would not fit into the traditional God Triad. The modified God Triad would be:

Theism: Life has meaning
Atheism: Life has no meaning
Agnostic: I don't know if life has meaning or not.

[But since the God Triad is almost always used in traditional sense, i would not prefer the use of these terms in the modified sense.] Now, where do i stand? Logically speaking, i don't think life has no any meaning apart from what we create for ourselves. However, emotionally, i cannot help but feel that there is some higher meaning to my life which i am unaware of; that there is some teleological progression; that the events happening are not just random coincidences but rather have some unknown purpose. I know, logically, such a belief is totally unfounded. And yet i have been unable to shake this feeling off, despite years of trying, and i would be a hypocrite if i denied that i do not live in the constant consciousness of some higher, hidden meaning. And here i would say like Santayana "I am not asserting the physical validity of this sense of agency or cause: I am merely feeling the force, the friendliness, the hostility, the unfathomableness of the world. I am expressing an impression."

Give whatever label you wish to give to it.

Cross-posted at The Trash Bin.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Me: Did you know that when a male fruit fly copulates with a female fruit fly, it also injects an 'anti-aphrodisiac' along with sperms to make the fly less interested in sex with other male flies? That is so mean!
Aati: Really? I thought that was called marriage :)
It's not just being religious which affects your psychological well-being (positively or negatively), rather it is determined by the type of God you believe in, and your beliefs about the life after death. In a survey from USA, Believers in a 'close and loving God' had low incidence of psychosis, especially anxiety, while believers in a 'creating and judging God' had a high incidence of psychosis.

See here for the detailed results.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Some days back i was having an argument with a friend over how the concept of Ḥūrs (Houris) is an objectification of women, and it was interesting that the very next day i got an email from J Z, containing a couplet which someone had shared with him in a literary gathering:

Jannat ki deevar pe charrh ke, main ne aur shaitan ne dekha
Sehmi hui hooron ke peechay vehshi mulla daurr rahay hain ....

A rough translation would be like

Climbing up the wall of heaven, Satan and I witnessed
The savage mullahs chasing after the frightened houris.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

"Settled? The word rewound and repeated itself in my head several times. What does that mean anyway? Just someone rich, or someone who gets predictable cash flows at the end of every month. Except parents do not say it that way because then it really sounds like they are trading their daughter to the highest bidder. But in some ways, they are. They do not give a damn about love or feelings or crap like that. 'Show me the money and keep our daughter for the rest of your life.' That is the arrangement in an arranged marriage."

Chetan Bhagat, One night @ the call centre

Thursday, April 2, 2009

In The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, Allama Muhammad Iqbal suggests that laws presented in hadiths may be changed if the situation requires it, but shies away from saying the same about Quran, while the reason he gives for dismissing hadith should, logically, also be applicable to Quran. The following are extracts from the sixth lecture The Principle of Movement in the Structure of Islam, and they would explain to you what I am talking about.
  • ... during the course of history the moral and social ideals of Islam have been gradually deislamized through the influence of local character, and pre-Islamic superstitions of Muslim nations. These ideals today are more Iranian, Turkish, or Arabian than Islamic. The pure brow of the principle of Tauhâd has received more or less an impress of heathenism, and the universal and impersonal character of the ethical ideals of Islam has been lost through a process of localization. The only alternative open to us, then, is to tear off from Islam the hard crust which has immobilized an essentially dynamic outlook on life, and to rediscover the original verities of freedom, equality, and solidarity with a view to rebuild our moral, social, and political ideals out of their original simplicity and universality. Such are the views of the Grand Vizier of Turkey. You will see that following a line of thought more in tune with the spirit of Islam, he reaches practically the same conclusion as the Nationalist Party, that is to say, the freedom of Ijtihad with a view to rebuild the laws of Shari'ah in the light of modern thought and experience.
  • The question which confronts him today, and which is likely to confront other Muslim countries in the near future is whether the Law of Islam is capable of evolution - a question which will require great intellectual effort, and is sure to be answered in the affirmative, provided the world of Islam approaches it in the spirit of 'Umar - the first critical and independent mind in Islam who, at the last moments of the Prophet, had the moral courage to utter these remarkable words: 'The Book of God is sufficient for us.
  • I now proceed to see whether the history and structure of the Law of Islam indicate the possibility of any fresh interpretation of its principles. In other words, the question that I want to raise is - Is the Law of Islam capable of evolution?
  • Unfortunately, the conservative Muslim public of this country is not yet quite ready for a critical discussion of Fiqh, which, if undertaken, is likely to displease most people, and raise sectarian controversies.
  • The primary source of the Law of Islam is the Qur'an. The Qur'an, however, is not a legal code. Its main purpose, as I have said before, is to awaken in man the higher consciousness of his relation with God and the universe. No doubt, the Qur'«n does lay down a few general principles and rules of a legal nature, especially relating to the family - the ultimate basis of social life.... The important point to note in this connexion, however, is the dynamic outlook of the Qur'an.
  • Our early doctors of law taking their clue mainly from this groundwork evolved a number of legal systems; and the student of Muhammadan history knows very well that nearly half the triumphs of Islam as a social and political power were due to the legal acuteness of these doctors....But with all their comprehensiveness these systems are after all individual interpretations, and as such cannot claim any finality.
  • The claim of the present generation of Muslim liberals to reinterpret the foundational legal principles, in the light of their own experience and the altered conditions of modern life is, in my opinion, perfectly justified. The teaching of the Qur'an that life is a process of progressive creation necessitates that each generation, guided but unhampered by the work of its predecessors, should be permitted to solve its own problems.
  • [About Hadith] we must distinguish traditions of a purely legal import from those which are of a non-legal character. With regard to the former, there arises a very important question as to how far they embody the pre-Islamic usages of Arabia which were in some cases left intact, and in others modified by the Prophet.
  • The prophet who aims at all-embracing principles, however, can neither reveal different principles for different peoples, nor leaves them to work out their own rules of conduct. His method is to train one particular people, and to use them as a nucleus for the building up of a universal Sharâ'ah. In doing so he accentuates the principles underlying the social life of all mankind, and applies them to concrete cases in the light of the specific habits of the people immediately before him. The Sharâ'ah values (Ahkam) resulting from this application (e.g. rules relating to penalties for crimes) are in a sense specific to that people; and since their observance is not an end in itself they cannot be strictly enforced in the case of future generations. It was perhaps in view of this that Abu Hanifah, who had, a keen insight into the universal character of Islam, made practically no use of these traditions.
  • On the whole, then, the attitude of Abu Hanifah towards the traditions of a purely legal import is to my mind perfectly sound; and if modern Liberalism considers it safer not to make any indiscriminate use of them as a source of law, it will be only following one of the greatest exponents of Muhammadan Law in Sunni Islam.
  • The transfer of the power of Ijtihad from individual representatives of schools to a Muslim legislative assembly which, in view of the growth of opposing sects, is the only possible form Ijma' can take in modern times, will secure contributions to legal discussion from laymen who happen to possess a keen insight into affairs.
  • Can the Ijma' repeal the Qur'an?... There is not the slightest justification for such a statement in the legal literature of Islam. Not even a tradition of the Prophet can have any such effect.
  • But supposing the companions have unanimously decided a certain point, the further question is whether later generations are bound by their decision.... I venture to think, on the authority of Karkhi, that later generations are not bound by the decision of the companions.
  • The fourth basis of Fiqh is Qiyas, i.e. the use of analogical reasoning in legislation.... Qiyas, as Shafi' rightly says, is only another name for Ijtihad which, within the limits of the revealed texts, is absolutely free; and its importance as a principle can be seen from the fact that, according to most of the doctors, as Qadi Shaukani tells us, it was permitted even in the lifetime of the Holy Prophet.

Discussing what-ifs

Aati: But i have a feeling it wouldn't have been so simple.
Me: It's never simple except in our unfulfilled dreams.
X: [under the obvious influence of One Tree Hill] You are a wierdo, Awais Aftab, but you are my wierdo!

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Aati: [On seeing my shooting pics] Btw, you have interesting wrists. I know stereotypes are dumb but in your case, it's like your wrists were made exactly to match those of an artist. I couldn't even picture them holding something as sharp and rigid as a scalpel. Of course, this only added to the out-of-place effect of the gun. Really though. Call me a whacked idealist. I've never seen someone before whose body so stubbornly defies the profession the mind has accepted.
I spent the morning watching Green Porno videos with amusement. Green Porno is a series of short videos by Isabella Rossellini about the sexual behaviour of animals; Part 1 of series deals with insects, while Part 2 deals with marine life. The videos are very short, just a minute or two in duration. They are funny, entertaining, amusing and also educating (though not recommended for people whose sense of modesty is easily offended). Its hard to forget the mating rituals so guilessly enacted by Isabella. All videos of the series are available for free streaming at the Sundance Channel website.

As a sample, here is the Green Porno video on Bee from part 1 of series:


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