The Abused Exclamation Mark

From sur­prise to hap­pi­ness, from anger to vio­lence, from anguish to tragedy, the excla­ma­tion mark punc­tu­ates a vari­ety of human expres­sion. When a char­ac­ter in your fic­tion says “Stop!”, your reader hears the shout; while “Stop.” con­veys there is a calm author­ity behind the order. A com­mand to “Jump” may not achieve it’s pur­pose; “Jump!” may actu­ally pro­pel one to do so.

Sadly, this unique and extra­or­di­nary power of the excla­ma­tion mark has greatly dimin­ished in con­tem­po­rary writ­ing. The elu­sive semi­colon lies at one end of the spec­trum, the abused excla­ma­tion marks the other end. Like a can­cer in our mod­ern lan­guage, it seems to mul­ti­ply for­ever. A sin­gle mark no longer con­veys the level of excite­ment or shock as it once used to, it now needs sev­eral mul­ti­ples of itself to cre­ate the magic.

There is an odd­ity about these mul­ti­ples that I have never under­stood: they occur as a group of either 3 or 5 or more, rarely 2 or 4. I hope in vain that some­day, the sin­gle excla­ma­tion mark will get even with those who so abuse it.

Now we even encounter cases where the num­ber of marks used out­num­ber the let­ters it was intended to punc­tu­ate, as in “OMG!!!!!!!”, thus becom­ing more dis­rup­tive than even the paren­the­sis.

Jew­elry can embell­ish, but not make a woman beau­ti­ful; gar­nish­ing can enhance fla­vor, not cre­ate it. Embell­ish­ment can dimin­ish the orig­i­nal idea. The excla­ma­tion mark can punc­tu­ate con­tent, not sub­sti­tute it. Alas, like an alco­holic who is never sat­is­fied with just one drink, pop­u­lar lan­guage is rarely sati­ated with just one excla­ma­tion mark. The excla­ma­tion mark is the new opi­ate of the masses.

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The Disruptive Parenthesis

This is not a Par­ent The­sis on gram­mar about how kids should write; it is just a con­tin­u­a­tion of my mus­ings. Noticed the semicolon?

When you write, you assume there is a reader (unless you are writ­ing for your­self), and the paren­the­sis (when and if used) is where you ask the reader to hold your cur­rent idea in the mind, while you dis­tract for a bit, seek atten­tion even to the dis­trac­tion, then implore the reader to fol­low in your ear­lier, orig­i­nal flow.

The above sen­tence rewritten:

Unless you are writ­ing for your­self, you assume there is a reader. When you use a paren­the­sis, you are ask­ing the reader to hold your cur­rent idea in the mind, while you dis­tract for a bit, seek atten­tion even to the dis­trac­tion, then implore the reader to fol­low in your ear­lier, orig­i­nal flow.

Which reads better?

When you watch sports on TV, and watch a replay in slow motion to enjoy a spe­cial shot, it is a break from the live flow. It does ask you to “hold” your live TV watch­ing, replays what you’ve already seen, and resumes to live action. It is like reread­ing the pre­vi­ous sen­tence more slowly. It isn’t a paren­the­sis how­ever, because it doesn’t dis­tract. A paren­the­sis dis­tracts by definition.

Your reader is on a flow, raft­ing along with the cur­rent of your river. When you use paren­the­sis (if you do) the reader’s raft hits a rock. See?

Paren­the­sis are nec­es­sar­ily branches of a thought process; trib­u­taries of your river that lead nowhere. A free­way exit you force upon your reader, but one that sim­ply loops back to the free­way, slow­ing the reader unnec­es­sar­ily. If one’s thought process has a def­i­nite des­ti­na­tion, then one need not waste one­self in trib­u­taries of paren­the­ses. One can flow straight­for­ward, car­ry­ing read­ers in an unin­ter­rupted flow, right up to the des­ti­na­tion (unless you use parenthesis).

The paren­the­sis dis­rupts the flow; it is very dis­rup­tive by nature.

In my 40s, when I look back at every­thing I’ve writ­ten in my life so far, it takes me quite a while to dis­cover an instance when I used paren­the­sis. It is my least uti­lized writ­ing device.

But for­get writ­ing. When I need to use paren­the­sis in my think­ing, I take a step back. Because, when­ever one feels the need of the paren­the­sis, one is branch­ing out con­cep­tu­ally. A care­ful rethink­ing yields the insight needed to inte­grate the trib­u­tary into the main river, after which one is ready to express. Or write. With­out parenthesis.

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The Elusive Semicolon

Of all the var­i­ous punc­tu­a­tion marks, the semi­colon is the most elu­sive. One instinc­tively knows when to use the period. One has no doubts what to use when one is ter­ri­bly excited! When seri­ously in doubt, does one hes­i­tate to ask a ques­tion? But when­ever one strings mul­ti­ple things together, the comma often seems to do the job, leav­ing the semi­colon aside. Largely unused, often ignored, the semi­colon has an iden­tity cri­sis and is in dan­ger of becom­ing extinct.

The comma mean­while, evolves in its dom­i­nance, con­quer­ing every­thing in its path, threat­en­ing to  oblit­er­ate the semi­colon out of existence.

But, the semi­colon con­tin­ues to sur­vive a frag­ile exis­tence. When a thought process begins from a cer­tain idea A as the start, goes through an inter­me­di­ary step B, leads to a con­clu­sion C, the comma does the job in giv­ing your reader the nec­es­sary pause to fol­low you. But a the­o­rem is always fol­lowed by its corol­lary; that’s when the semi­colon comes into the picture.

The comma leads the reader to take the next step, the semi­colon is where you let the reader take a breath and then take the next step. You do not let him stop; doing so neces­si­tates a period.

The comma, though dom­i­nant, is often depen­dent. It needs con­junc­tions, whether they are are, and, but, or or; the semi­colon, on the other hand, is inde­pen­dent. The grow­ing dom­i­nance of the comma per­haps tells us how we pre­fer the props of con­junc­tions to pro­pel the reader breath­lessly for­ward; while the semi­colon becomes an elu­sive fig­ure lan­guish­ing in aca­d­e­mic obscurity.

The comma with its con­junc­tions is banal; the semi­colon irre­place­able. Sub­sti­tute a semi­colon with a comma and a con­junc­tion and the sen­tence becomes insipid; divorce the two clauses with a period and the idea loses its inte­gral character.

The semi­colon is a bond like no other. It does not divide and con­quer like the period, nor does it mean­ing­lessly try to assim­i­late asym­me­try via con­junc­tions. The semi­colon respects indi­vid­u­al­ity; it merely seeks to con­nect. It is the elu­sive glue that bonds ideas like friends.

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Your Blog, Your Home, Your Self

A blog is a vir­tual home. A per­ma­nent place for your thoughts, your mem­o­ries, your indis­cre­tions, your intro­spec­tion, and a place to share the unquiet­ness of your mind.

No social net­work ful­fills this need. Your blog is not a place where you impress your rel­a­tives with how good a vaca­tion you had, it is not a place where you share your fan­tas­tic pho­tographs with your friends, it is not a place where you are par­tic­i­pat­ing in any social net­work with the bag­gage it carries.

It is not a place like Face­book where you look at other people’s happy lives won­der­ing what the hell you’re doing with yours. It is not like Twit­ter where every­one seems to have a lot of things to talk about when you your­self have noth­ing to say. It is not like Quora where seem­ingly intel­li­gent folks are impart­ing their wis­dom to seemingly-ignorant folks. It is not like Insta­gram where you’re look­ing at your unin­ter­est­ing meal or rou­tine sur­round­ings while gaz­ing at the great food or exotic des­ti­na­tions your friends are appar­ently enjoy­ing. It is not where you find folks enjoy­ing great music while your life seems to be in disharmony.

Your blog is a place where you can be your­self. It does not expect you to be happy and hav­ing a great time all the time. It does not expect you to cap­ture in pho­tos your best moments in life. It does not demand that you share the most momen­tous occa­sions with it. It does not expect that you share the great music you’re sup­pos­edly enjoy­ing. There is no com­pul­sion. There is no demand.

It just is there for you, if you ever need it. And that is what a true friend is. Your blog can be your best friend.

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The year was 1985. I was a teenager enter­ing the Xth grade in school, sub­scribed to an Indian children’s mag­a­zine “Tin­kle”. One item in an issue in 1985 caught my fancy. It was in the Sci­ence sec­tion: “How to build your own telescope”.

By that age, I was already fas­ci­nated by sci­ence in gen­eral and astron­omy in par­tic­u­lar. I had read how Galileo had watched the moons of Sat­urn and I was enchanted. The tele­scope described in the Tin­kle arti­cle would have a mag­ni­fi­ca­tion of 20x with an aper­ture of 2.5 inch. If it were built, you could watch the craters on the moon! I was fas­ci­nated but, how could I build one myself?

Huge rolls of thick paper from cal­en­dars, stuck together with adhe­sive, rolled to form the tube with a slit for the main front lens. Smaller roll of thick paper glued with adhe­sive to form the smaller tube to hold the eye piece, adjusted in dimen­sion so that it could roll in-and-out eas­ily within the larger tube of the front lens. Beg­ging my par­ents for Rs. 175 to then let my elder brother buy those lenses.

Slowly, the tele­scope began to form. But it needed a stand. We had an old, dis­carded table study lamp, with a spher­i­cal base, and a ball-socket arrange­ment for an upper hemi-spherical base for the lamp. It was a gift from the school for my elder sis­ter for her schol­arly apti­tude. I cut off the upper hemi-spherical base, and the cylin­dri­cal socket for it fit­ted the thin­ner eye-piece cylin­der of my tele­scope per­fectly! Wow. My tele­scope was ready.

From that point on, I was watch­ing the craters on the moon, gaz­ing at the Orion Neb­ula, and try­ing my best to observe galax­ies beyond my reach. M42 became a beloved object in my life and has remained so for many decades hence­forth. My pas­sion and my curios­ity had no bound­aries. That tele­scope mag­ni­fied the extent to which my human vision could reach. It taught me that there are tools man invents to reach out­side and beyond the lim­i­ta­tions of our per­cep­tions and our indi­vid­ual experiences.

28 years later, I ask myself, which tele­scope am I using now? Not to gaze into outer space, but to observe within and around myself. The answer came read­ily: it is books, movies, and pri­mar­ily, peo­ple. Books and movies expand our expe­ri­ences beyond what our own per­cep­tion could ever have. Books place you into sit­u­a­tions you’ve never been, make you under­stand the moti­va­tions of char­ac­ters you’ve never met. Movies let you expe­ri­ence sit­u­a­tions you’ll prob­a­bly never expe­ri­ence and allow your imag­i­na­tion to fly. These are tele­scopes that mag­nify indi­vid­ual human per­cep­tion and expand it beyond what would have been nat­u­rally possible.

Peo­ple are the ulti­mate tele­scopes. Every per­son, has a wealth of expe­ri­ence and learn­ing and wis­dom to whomever is allowed access. Every per­son has a wealth of knowl­edge we’ve never learned, a trea­sure of insights we’ve never had, a gold mine of expe­ri­ences we’ll never have. How often do we make use of these read­ily avail­able telescopes?

How much trou­ble, how much effort, I went through to con­struct my first tele­scope! Do I take even a 10% effort in uti­liz­ing the tele­scopes that other peo­ple offer me for free?

Oh no, he lives in such a bad area, it’s a pain just to drive to his home.” “Oh no, she talks too much, I can’t even lis­ten to her any­more.” “Oh no, he is too pre­ten­tious.” “Oh no, she is too much into her own thing she doesn’t care about any­body else.” There are dozens and dozens of rea­sons we have for ourselves.

Each of these human beings is a tele­scope, if only one were will­ing to watch through the eye­piece. The eye­piece, in this case, is the human abil­ity to lis­ten, which we most often abuse — or in other words, don’t use at all.

We reject the view, by not lis­ten­ing at all. Often, we choose not to view through the telescope.

Because, we’re so com­fort­able with our own world­view, that any­thing that changes it, is deeply uncom­fort­able to us. We do not want telescopes.

Posted in Personal | Tagged , | 5 Comments

Music Composition as an Artistic Process

[This post is #8 in the West­ern Clas­si­cal Music Series]

Every block of stone has a statue in it, and it is the task of the sculp­tor to dis­cover it — Michelanglo

The beauty of an art­work is not just because of what the artist has included in the work, but also because of what the artist has excluded from it. I find this to be true of most forms of cre­ative art, whether it is music or pho­tog­ra­phy, paint­ing or lit­er­a­ture, sculp­ture or architecture.

In a sculp­ture, it is easy to visu­al­ize this aspect of the artis­tic process — a statue is ini­tially a block of stone from which the sculp­tor removes parts, and the result is the work of art — the statue. We are eas­ily able to visu­al­ize the artist’s work in remov­ing the unnec­es­sary parts of the stone. In paint­ing, one can visu­al­ize the col­ors not used. And so on. In music, how­ever, it is dif­fi­cult to appre­ci­ate this aspect, because we are almost never aware of what the com­poser has excluded. As casual lis­ten­ers of music, we only respond to what we lis­ten to, what the com­poser has included, we do not wear the hat of a com­poser and think about what the com­poser has excluded.

This aspect of music appre­ci­a­tion is cer­tainly not a pre­req­ui­site to appre­ci­at­ing WCM, but it does help us to appre­ci­ate Form. We have dis­cussed Form in WCM before, and it is worth­while reit­er­at­ing its key lesson:

Form is a series of strate­gies designed to find a suc­cess­ful mean between the oppo­site extremes of unre­lieved rep­e­ti­tion and unre­lieved alteration.

The key is to find the bal­ance between the two. Which aspects of the imag­ined work has the com­poser excluded because they were too repet­i­tive? Which aspects of the imag­ined work has the com­poser excluded because they were stray­ing too far away from the theme? Is the music lead­ing you sub­con­sciously on a pre­de­ter­mined roadmap in which the com­poser ulti­mately wants to take you through a jour­ney to his cho­sen des­ti­na­tion? When you love a piece of music, this is exactly what the com­poser achieves — take you through a won­der­ful jour­ney to a destination.

There are very, very few instances where this can be stud­ied and expe­ri­enced in the field of music. If you have expe­ri­enced a musician’s com­po­si­tion process, it is an insight­ful expe­ri­ence. With WCM, the only way we can engage in the com­po­si­tion process is to go back cen­turies in time and study the notes of the com­poser. This is, for­tu­nately, what musi­cal schol­ars have done. How­ever, their archived scrib­blings of musi­cal nota­tions and their explo­ration mostly remains exclu­sive to the elit­ist schol­arly domain, leav­ing us casual lis­ten­ers with no way to appre­ci­ate or under­stand them.

This is quite sim­i­lar to sci­ence. There are many fas­ci­nat­ing areas of sci­ence that remain beyond the reach of the main­stream, because their appre­ci­a­tion requires spe­cial­ized knowl­edge. There is a gulf between the higher ech­e­lons of art and sci­ence and the main­stream pop­u­lace. There are very few peo­ple who attempt to bridge that gulf. I have the most pro­found respect for them, because they attempt to enlighten us.

Carl Sagan epit­o­mized this role in Sci­ence. Leonard Bern­stein epit­o­mizes it in Music. Leonard Bern­stein is to Music what Carl Sagan was to Science.

They were them­selves a sci­en­tist and a musi­cian, but in look­ing back at their role in his­tory, their bridg­ing the gulf may be deemed more impor­tant than their pro­fes­sional careers.

With no fur­ther eulo­giz­ing, let us now learn from Leonard Bern­stein teach­ing us about the com­po­si­tion process that went behind Beethoven’s highly regarded and most loved 5th Symphony:

Watch and lis­ten. I need not say any­thing fur­ther. This is a unique expe­ri­ence for us to learn to appre­ci­ate WCM and we should for­ever be grate­ful to Lenny.

P.S. The Man­del­brot set is a unique excep­tion to the rule of Form, where unre­lieved rep­e­ti­tion ulti­mately results in what some may say is Art.

Posted in Arts, music | 4 Comments

Learning about Photography

A pho­to­graph cap­tures a moment. Moments in time are fleet­ing, time passes you by, there is no other way to be able to reflect and con­tem­plate a moment in time with­out the aid of pho­tog­ra­phy. Before pho­tog­ra­phy was invented, man had no con­trol over time. Time relent­lessly moved for­ward, man had no way of press­ing a “Pause” but­ton. We were slaves of Time. Until pho­tog­ra­phy was invented.

Pho­tog­ra­phy enabled us to cap­ture Time and imprison it. Time could no longer sneak­ily slip away. We are now able to press the “Pause” but­ton in a moment of fleet­ing Time. We con­quered Time thanks to photography.

A pho­to­graph also has dif­fer­ent eyes than yours. When you are in a sit­u­a­tion, you see and per­ceive it accord­ing to your fixed atti­tudes of see­ing and per­ceiv­ing. When you see a pho­to­graph of the same sit­u­a­tion taken by a dif­fer­ent per­son, it often sud­denly opens up a whole new world. Pho­tographs are a way of see­ing the world through dif­fer­ent eyes. They can encour­age us to look at sit­u­a­tions in dif­fer­ent ways. Pho­tographs are not just ways of see­ing the world dif­fer­ently, they often epit­o­mize ways of think­ing about the world around you differently.

I want to learn not to be prej­u­diced by expe­ri­enc­ing a sit­u­a­tion in the ways that I usu­ally do. I want to open my mind to other pos­si­bil­i­ties of expe­ri­enc­ing the same sit­u­a­tion, through dif­fer­ent eyes. And if pos­si­ble, cap­ture them as a moment in time.

It is with this goal in mind that I am join­ing the free mas­sive open online course to explore and learn about pho­tog­ra­phy. I am afraid it will take me more than a year to com­plete what is sup­posed to be a 4 month course, but the best part about it is that you can take your own sweet time about it, so I need not worry. Inter­ested? Do join!

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Good­byes can be heartbreaking.

A good­bye in an air­port is the worst. You hug your dear friend, say good­bye, after which you see him stand in queues, then dis­ap­pear, but you know he’s still there. You wait in the park­ing lot out­side, wait­ing to catch a glimpse of the plane when it takes off. And you silently say good­bye again to your friend who is no longer vis­i­ble, as the plane zooms towards the sky.

Good­byes in buses are a mixed affair. After a deep-hearted good­bye, your friend boards the bus, and then you see him in a win­dow, wav­ing as the bus speeds away. Often, it takes quite a while before it does so, leav­ing you dis­en­chanted as you and your friend can see and com­mu­ni­cate with each other with­out expe­ri­enc­ing the inti­macy of your friendship.

Good­byes in trains and cabs are the most ful­fill­ing of all. Till the last minute as the cab or train begins to move, you try to express your entire rela­tion­ship in the firm grip of a hand­shake, your fin­gers trem­bling to let go, while your heart flut­ters. Despite the most ful­fill­ing of all good­byes, they are all quin­tes­sen­tially painful. Because we just never want to let go of our friends.
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Relating, Relationships & Relativity

There are some peo­ple who, many times, say things we our­selves would have said. Their thoughts seem to mir­ror ours so often that it is aston­ish­ing. We relate to them, their ideas, their feelings.

This does not hap­pen often with whom we call rel­a­tives. Blood may be thicker than water, but noth­ing quenches thirst as well as water. The thirst for a con­nec­tion, a mutu­al­ity, a bond. When a thirst is ful­filled, a rela­tion­ship is born.

Rela­tion­ships are at angles. One’s line of approach towards a rela­tion­ship usu­ally lies at an angle to the other’s think­ing. The acu­ity or obtuse­ness leads to com­plex­ity; orthog­o­nal­ity, though at right angles, usu­ally doesn’t feel right. Some­times, rela­tion­ships that are par­al­lel seem the most inti­mately con­nected, though par­al­lel lines never meet.

Fur­ther, one’s per­cep­tion of angles in a rela­tion­ship also dif­fers from the other’s. One may idol­ize a par­al­lel, much to the con­ster­na­tion of the other who per­ceives orthog­o­nal­ity. After few meet­ings, one may think of another as some­one one knows for many life­times, while being just a new­comer to the other. The frames of ref­er­ence are very dif­fer­ent, the pas­sage of time unequal. In this way, rela­tion­ships are relative.

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The Cycle of Life

There was a young boy in a vil­lage. He went to school in the morn­ing, worked on farms in the after­noon and played with his friends later in the day. He was asked to obey his teach­ers at school, dis­ci­plined at home by his par­ents, and bul­lied by elder kids in the vil­lage. He was always being taught the right way to think and the cor­rect way to do any­thing. He did not always agree with what elders taught him about the dif­fer­ence between right and wrong

He hated being young and small and wanted to grow up soon, so that he could start giv­ing orders to oth­ers and expect oth­ers to obey him. He would grow up and be strong, so nobody could bully him. He hated school, hav­ing to study and do lessons that were not at all inter­est­ing. He dreamt of being a grown-up so he could be smart. When he was an adult, he would have his own farm, and have oth­ers work for him. He would not have to beg for money any­more, he would have his own money and spend it on what­ever he wished. He would have his own fam­ily, and he would be respected as the head of the family.

The boy grew up, mar­ried and soon had his own chil­dren. He hated being a farmer. Their crops would suf­fer when there was no rain. A lot of the farm­ing equip­ment was so expen­sive, he couldn’t afford it, and he strug­gled to pay his work­ers’ wages. Man­ag­ing the house­hold finances was so dif­fi­cult! His wife was always dis­sat­is­fied, not hav­ing this and that and always hav­ing to work around the house, and always want­ing this and that. Being mar­ried was such a curse! His kids always wanted the lat­est toys he couldn’t afford, didn’t do their stud­ies, and hated school. Dis­ci­plin­ing kids was such a headache! All the blame for every­thing was always put on him, because he was the head of the house­hold. Respon­si­bil­ity was such a pain!

He looked at his kids play­ing with their friends and thought how nice it is to be a child! Those kids didn’t have to worry about money. They had no resp­n­si­bil­ity on their shoul­ders and could sleep peace­fully at night, unlike him. They didn’t have nag­ging wives, lazy work­ers to man­age, dis­obe­di­ent chil­dren to raise. They didn’t know how cruel the world could be. They were so inno­cent and care­free! He lamented not being a child anymore.

Posted in children, psychology | 2 Comments