Monday, July 26, 2004

Article in The Hindu

Outlook India is running an article of mine. It is a review of the movie "Troy". A short extract from the article is below. Click through for the full version.
Where Troy fails is in its depiction of the war. The audience walks away with an impression of a quick, short war, but the Trojan War was a draining, dirty, blood-soaked affair fought over ten years. While the Iliad tried to glorify its heroes, we also see in it scenes of utter despair ("My friend is dead, Patroclus, my dearest friend of all. I loved him, and I killed him."), of disease ("So [Apollo] struck the Greek camp with plague, And the soldiers were dying"), of mass death on the front-lines ("You could hear their screams as they floundered And were whirled around in the eddies.") and of sadistic, blatant and wanton abuse ("[Achilles] pierced the tendons above the heels and cinched them with leather thongs to his chariot"). The Trojan War ultimately became - one hates to use the Q word - a quagmire.
Another version of this article appeared in the Hindu.
The Trojan War was not won in a matter days, and it was not a pretty, glowing sight. It was a dirty, blood-soaked war, fought over 10 years. Homer certainly took liberties with his depiction of the reality of his time, but in his depiction of the war, he does not merely look at the glory and the kleos. He looks also at the horror of war and the sheer pathos. The Iliad remembers the war as one of much sorrow, of disease, of mutilation and of mass death.
"Troy" is an adaptation: it has adapted the story of the war for the American public, but it is not honest to the story it is trying to tell. It masks ambition and arrogance with talk of patriotism and victory. It ignores questions about the morality of warfare, and it glosses over the pain and brutality of war, but if you are looking for some uncomplicated stuff, it will do the job.
Something tells me President Bush is going to love this one. These are, after all, his own tricks in the game.
Update : Updated post with article from the Hindu.

Tuesday, July 20, 2004


To make a start both swift and weighty, here is a little post on semiotics that I have been saving up.

I first heard the term 'semiotics' on account of a course on rhetoric taught by B. Subramanian at IIT Madras in the context of Umberto Eco's "The Name of the Rose". I had never heard of semiotics before, much less of a professorship of semiotics. As Eco puts it, semiotics is 'the study of everything that can be taken as a sign'.

Consider a country where traffic lights have the green light on top, amber next and red at the bottom (as opposed to the traditional red light on top). This should be fine as far as humans as concerned, but dogs are color-blind. If they are trained to watch the stack of lights from top to bottom, seeing-eye dogs are going to get fooled into waiting every time the light changes to green, and worse, cross the road along with the blind person as soon as the light changes to red. (Seeing-eye dogs are actually trained to watch the traffic, not the lights, so let us call these the 'stack of light' dogs). The elements of sensation are the same in both cases, But consider this : what is seen as a signfied in the environment has nothing to do with the environment itself. It has to do with the observer. The signs that the human reads in the environment are different from what the 'stack of light' dog reads in the exact same environment.

Many animals do not see in the same band of the spectrum as humans do. So, the world they see must be very different from the world we see. This is not limited to sight alone. The other senses are also similarly dissimilar. John Deely, in this paper from Semiotica, talks about Uexkull's contribution to the field of semiotics :
What Uexküll uniquely realized was that the physical environment, in whatever sense it may be said to be the ‘same’ for all organisms (we are speaking, of course, of the environment on earth, though much of what we say could be applied, mutatis mutandis, to biospheres on other planets should such eventually be found), is not the world in which any given species as such actually lives out its life. No. Each biological life-form, by reason of its distinctive bodily constitution (its ‘biological heritage’, as we may say), is suited only to certain parts and aspects of the vast physical universe. And when this ‘suitedness to’ takes the bodily form of cognitive organs, such as are our own senses, or the often quite different sensory modalities discovered in other lifeforms, then those aspects and only those aspects of the physical environment which are proportioned to those modalities become ‘objectified’, that is to say, made present not merely physically but cognitively as well.
He then uses the idea of different spectrums of vision to illustrate the idea of 'objects' in his example below, and to further, explain the concept of an Umwelt :
If my eyes are normal and a traditionally equipped classroom is lighted, I cannot fail to see the black rectangle against the lighter background that I will interpret as a blackboard affixed to a wall. But what my eyes objectify and what my mind makes of that vision remain as distinct as sensation as such in contrast to perception which alone transforms sensations into objects experienced, like dark rectangles against lighter surfaces ‘seen’ to be blackboards on walls.
If for nothing else, the paper is worth reading for sheer clarity of thought. On a lighter note, Prof. Deely does have his moments of unintended humor.
Now there is a great difference between an object and a thing. For while the notion of thing is the notion of what is what it is regardless of whether it be known or not, the notion of object is hardly that.
Q : So, there is this thing called a thing, and this thing called an object?
A : No, an 'object' is different from a 'thing'.
Q : So, an object is not a thing?
A : The 'object' may or may not be a thing.

Seriously, folks, the article is complex and scholarly, but it requires no previous background. It is certainly worth reading in full, just for John Deely's sheer brilliance of exposition, and especially if '[the term Umwelt] is destined (such is my guess) to become a term of general use in philosophy and intellectual culture.' I wouldn't bet on that last bit, though :)

Update: updated the post a bit.

[Cross-posted to Zoo Station]

Zoo Station

I started blogging at ZooStation last week. Here is Reuben Abraham's introduction.
Zoo Station awoke this morning from uneasy dreams to find itself transformed on its host into a fabulous team blog. 
Folks, I have been threatening this for some time now -- to convert Zoo Station into a team blog in order to prevent lags in blogging when I am busy, to increase the diversity of content and so on. I had been talking to several people about the possibility of contributing to ZS on a regular basis and that process has resulted in this team blog. Joining me on Zoo Station today are... 
Amit Chakrabarti -- Assistant Professor of Computer Science at Dartmouth 
Ashwin Mahalingam -- Ph.D. candidate in Civil and Environmental Engineering at Stanford 
Anand Manikutty -- Senior member of technical staff at Oracle 
Vinay Nair -- Assistant Professor of Finance at the Wharton School at UPenn 
Abraham Thomas -- Director of G7 trading at Simplex USA, a hedge fund in Princeton 
Jaideep V.G. -- Editor-in-chief for Rave, the premier Indian entertainment magazine