Saturday, September 30, 2006

food for thought, chew well

Seen in a copy of the New York Times, found on the 1 train at 3am -

Determined to make New Yorkers healthier, ..., the Bloomberg administration unveiled more regulations yesterday for restaurants and bars. ...

Under one recommendation, diners will be required to chew their food for at least 12 seconds before swallowing. ...
The officials acknowledged that enforcement of the 12-second rule - formally known as the Proper Mastication Initiative, or P.M.I would be diffifcult. ...
As psrt of the P.M.I, waiters would be ordered to pay special attention to how customers cut their food.
A piece of steak, for example, may not be ingested if it is more than half an inch thick or longer than three quarters of an inch on any side. Violators may be ordered to leave the restaurant. ...

Thursday, September 28, 2006

if there is paradise on earth, it is...

Agar firdaus bar rue zaminast
gets a whole new (old) twist

just saw Paradise Now

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Saussure and the Answering Machine

or, how to (over)compensate for lack of theory by using quizzer fundas instead, in doing assignments.

When confronted by voice mail messaging services and telephone answering machines, my mother, prefers to hang up. I don’t talk to machines, she says.

Her discomfort reminds me of the Turing Test, the radical hypothesis to test machine intelligence put forth by Alan Turing in his seminal 1950 paper, ‘Computing Machinery and Intelligence’[1]. In this paper, to be crude and reductive, Turing asserted that if a human judge in conversation with a human being and a machine could not reliably tell them apart, then the machine could be considered, for all practical purposes, to be a thinking entity. The Turing Test started a still ongoing intellectual debate, as well as a popular social and cultural concern about the possibilities of Artificial Intelligence, and what such a possibility would mean for the question of ‘being human’.

The questions of language, and speech, are central to these anxieties, reflected in my mother’s refusal to ‘talk to’ machines. Of course, the original Turing test was never meant to be a test of speech at all.

In order that tones of voice may not help the interrogator the answers should be written, or better still, typewritten. The ideal arrangement is to have a teleprinter communicating between the two rooms.’[2]

To try and express this in terms of Saussure’s work - In Turing’s original hypothesis, a computer with a large enough database can acquire language (langue), if we think of langue as ‘the sum of word images stored in the minds of all individuals’[3], as a collective social fact. The machine could come up with adequate responses to most questions, because they would be expressed in syntagms, ‘pat phrases’[4] of standard usage present in the depository of language. (Saussure considers sentences, with their infinite variety, to belong to the realm of speaking (Parole) rather than language.[5] In fact the modern networked computer system as a depository could be (and is) the material manifestation of langue as the collective social fact. But even in Turing’s radical hypothesis, which rubbished both theology and the claims of exclusive human consciousness, the act of Speaking is still, perhaps unwittingly, the domain of the ‘human’ subject...

[1] A. M. Turing (1950) Computing Machinery and Intelligence. Mind 49: 433-460.

[2] From Computing Machinery and Intelligence. Text quoted from the website

[3] Saussure, Ferdinand de. Course in General Linguistics. Edited by Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye, in collaboration with Albert Riedlinger. Translated by Wade Baskin. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1966. Pg. 13

[4] Saussure, 124

[5] Ibid. 124

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

author bio

Had to send one today, for a guide book in which the last/latest piece I wrote on Delhi (while sitting in Calcutta), will be appearing.

They are frustrating things, these author bios - trying to convey the life you've lived and your definitions of who you think you are (more importantly, who you'd like others to think you are). I was sleep deprived enough to do a relatively 'sober' one, without too much angsting. (previous author auto-bios, by yours truly, have been awful. AWFUL.)

You might see at the back of a book about to hit the newsstands in a couple of weeks -

Anand Vivek Taneja is currently in temporary exile from Delhi, a city he has had an obsessive relationship with since coming here eight years ago. A student of history and of film-making, he has worked as an urban researcher, freelance writer, columnist, quizmaster and tour guide. He is now in a PhD program in New York City, but still thinks that Jangpura Extension is the centre of the universe.

I know that this is the 5th time I'm linking to what I wrote about dear old JE a year and a half ago, but then it's true, isn't it?

forthcoming -
long subway rides

Sunday, September 24, 2006

dumpster versus ikea, or a (k)night's tale.

Thursday nights are supposed to be movie nights, because by the time my last class for the week finishes at 8.00 pm, i am going crazy.

(new crazy habit to add to an already long list? Speaking to myself in the shower, in Farsi, in the formal register. - Hal e tun chetowreh? - Bad nistam. Pass the shampoo please.)

Of course, so far, the plan isn't all that it's cracked up to be. I'm usually a zombie by Thursday night with too much caffeine, too many thousand pages of reading and too little sleep. And indy/alternative/art cinema of the type I like watching is definitely not light entertainment. This Thursday's movie was The Proposition, written by Prince of Darkness, Nick Cave; a film which takes being 'visceral' entirely too seriously. (I'm tempted to watch Jackass 2 next Thursday.)

Fortunately, the evening improved. Lynn and Daniela have just moved into a new apartment in Harlem, so after the film, we walked over, with a bottle of wine. On the way, on the other side of the street, suddenly visible in the corner of our eyes loomed a dumpster, hulking in the faint sodium light, bristling like a porcupine with chair legs sticking out.

We considered this monster, let loose from the mythic depths of Morningside Park.

- Chairs, said Daniela, we need chairs for the apartment.

We swarmed over to the dumpster, pulled up, and looked in. It was an embarrasment of riches, enough to keep the Chor Bazaar in Dilli going for a day. There were tables and chairs and chests of drawers, car tires and broken tvs, metal pipes and overhead projectors. We pulled out two chairs with ease, but the rest required some archaeology. Into the dumpster the conquering hero ventured, and five minutes later - we had four chairs, arranged as if for a conference in the middle of 123rd Street. We posed with our prizes... and then, as all knights errant must do, headed for an evening of wine and conversation and actually sitting down at the dining table. (The cork actually had the sign of the Templars on it - go figure.)

Four chairs and a bottle of wine - beats going to Ikea, doesn't it?
(The dumpsters of the Lower East Side are supposed to be even more fabulous creatures, yielding leather couches and velvet sofas and other such wondrous accoutrements to the brave and venturesome).

still to come -
- Saussure and the Answering Machine.
- Jewish New Year, or why I still don't have a camera.
- Those cool cats called Babur and Taimur, and their war on computer cables.
- Ahmanedijad almost came to Columbia, but they kept him away to defend democracy . (it wasn't just the 'hardline jewish group' protesting, but the Columbia Student Union as well.)
- Why if there is a paradise on earth, it is St. Nick's Pub on 148th and St. Nicholas in the wee hours of Saturday Night/Sunday morning.

Friday, September 22, 2006

the too scrutable americans

in an uptown bar last weekend -

woman to me, looking past boyfriend - just so that you're in the loop, we haven't had sex for the past three weeks. just so that you're in the loop.

me - eyebrows raised to polite distance of half a centimetre.

woman to me, again - yeah, i've been so busy here, i'm so tired all the time. that's why i got off early today.

boyfriend to me - so i'm definitely getting some tonight.

me - well, now i'm in the loop.

next instalment -
why dumpster beats ikea.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

other cities - calcutta

kolkata july 2006 005, originally uploaded by Anand VT.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

trying not to write an assignment on a saturday morning

‘So how many years have you been speaking English for?’

It’s been asked. A few times. Can’t really blame them, can we? Here’s this guy who looks Hispanic/MiddleEastern/not white, stubbornly holding on to this weird accent from God knows where, but speaking perfect English, albeit with a few strange idioms and turns of phrase.

‘Just my entire life.’

Went to a baseball game last Friday, and horrifying enough, knew EVERY SONG they were playing between innings, including ‘I got you babe’ by Sonny and Cher.

Then why does this city still feel foreign?

Because there’s this other language too, that mongrel mix of shuddh Hindi, filmi and shayarana Urdu and occasional Punjabi inflection that is mine too, and I miss it, and I’ve already whined about that.

This is how much – at a desi gathering yesterday, I did the cardinal gustakhi of speaking to a lad from Bihar, stubbornly holding on to his pride and his English – in Hindustani. Three minutes in, I actually apologized to him, saying I really miss the language, and hence imputing that I wasn’t talking down to him by speaking in the patois, as it were.

We desis are weird.

Later the same evening, spent a very pleasurable time with Amreeki ahl-e-zabaan, old India hands, Joel and Joanna and friends of theirs, watching Maqbool. How’s that for irony?

The movie gets better every time you watch it. I found myself reading the subtitles this time and thinking, ‘they’re not bad – you could actually understand what’s happening by reading these.’

I find myself doing that all the time – thinking how things would translate, the jokes, the films, the poetry; the language that is so much a part of me.

How do I translate my being to this city of beautiful strangers?

Ghair ki basti hai, kab tak dar ba bar maara phiroon?

Yes, I know, my emotional life is made up of way too much of the soppy melancholic masochistic KLPD tropes of Urdu poetry. I’m dealing with it.

(And I’ve been reading too much Saussure. You can tell, can’t you?)

Watched Man Push Cart at the Angelika . Disappointing. Met Shougat there, but we parted ways after. Warning - do not walk alone through a brightly lit downtown full of laughing people and seduction rituals, after watching a film in which this down on his luck desi rockstar selling doughnuts in New York loses his son, his wife, his friends, his could have been Spanish girlfriend, his push cart in a very aesthetically Iranian film. It’s not good for sanity.

Monday, September 11, 2006

dangerous naps 1

suitcases ran away today, downhill.
when the people picked them up and walked away, unheeding to my cries,
they were cellos.


Down in lower Manhattan, you have to crane your neck to see the sky, cut into angled jigsaw pieces by the tall buildings.

If you could put all those pieces together, I rhetorically ask, would it be a perfect sky?

Agar saare tukdon ko jod do to kya aasman mukammal hoga?

And then suddenly, past the roadblocks, we can see the sky complete; a beautiful empty blue, clouds floating serene across. We are at Ground Zero.

From the police guarded perimeter, it looks like a foundation dug, a deep construction site. It is the presence of sky that tells you what a gaping hole has been rent into the heart of the city, the mirrored glass of the buildings around unused to reflecting emptiness.

Please clear the area.

We have come to see what isn’t there, says Lynn, as she tries to capture the absence with her camera. We watch the people standing behind the plate glass of the World Finacial Centre, looking down at the hole, obscured behind the reflections of buildings all around, and emptiness in the centre. We join them, in that place, where as soon as you pass the display remembering 9/11, they are selling designer chocolates, the new Skinny Black Pant, and the foyer looks straight out of Las Vegas.

The construction site, we learn, is that of a memorial; entitled Reflecting Absence.

an earlier meditation on 9/11.

Samanth on five years after.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

a new york state of mind?

a rainy saturday on Houston street.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

silly photo

I have been tagged.
Here's the silly photo.
I'm easy to find, I'm the horizontal one.

Ah, Jangpura.

Monday, September 04, 2006

first (we/re) take (on) manhattan

Ten blocks down from where I live is the massive, still unfinished, gray stone hulk of the cathedral of St. John the Divine, under construction for over a century, and not expected to be completed for another forty or fifty years. It’s the second largest Gothic cathedral in the world, with the carven faces of saints and gargoyles, kings and queens, looking out unseen, unexpectedly from the corners and keystones of the massive, pointed arches; the whole structure rising, rising, grim and gaunt into the sky.

‘Too new,’ said the Italian friend I had gone to see it with. Too new, indeed, the idea of the Gothic, five hundred years past its time, still being built in the New World. The current buildings of Columbia University were also built at about the same time, in the 1880s and 1890s, and again the hankering to be of the Old World, to be part of the European tradition of knowledge, to belong to that intellectual history, is made obvious in stone. The Butler Library’s front, saved from being kitsch only by its age, has incised in loud Roman capitals, the names of those Greeks. Sophocles, Homer, Herodotus…

Bury my heart at wounded knee, is the phrase that goes through my head. And memories of Robert Pirsig’s book Lila, in which he says that democracy comes to the Western world not from the Ancient Greeks, but from the Native Americans. It would be hard to believe that from College Walk, looking south.

A street away from where I live is Morningside Park, essentially a set of steep, heavily wooded cliffs, which survives as a park because its terrain was too rough to fit into the ordered grid that the rest of New York was fit into (and which makes it the easiest big city in the world to navigate –if you’re an English/Spanish speaker). There is a definite sense of wilderness here, of woods lovely, dark and deep; pristine. Morningside was also the site of one of the most important political moments in Columbia’s history, when the students protested the building of a gym with separate entrances for people from Harlem, and for students from Columbia, on the site of the park.

Morningside is still a ‘buffer zone’ of sorts between Morningside Heights/Columbia and Harlem, the black neighbourhood. And looking up at the massive buildings of Columbia from the other side of the park, looming huge and unreachable, built on ground a hundred feet higher than where you’re standing, the city seems to be collaborating in its own stereotyping, High and Low like in the Kurasawa film. Black and white. Yes, the jokes about ‘higher education’ have already been made.

Don’t walk through Morningside at night is one of the first things they tell you at Columbia.

They should add, don’t walk with umbrellas in the rain. New York has been getting some miserable weather the past week, crazy torrential rain. The grid funnels the wind at the rain into something even more ferocious, and crossing the street, at the mercy of crosswinds, is a definite umbrella killer. Saturday evening was littered with umbrella corpses, broken black wings lying in puddles and trash cans along Houston Street, where I was coming out from watching a very New York movie. (I kept getting excited everytime I sawAmsterdam Avenue on the signs the taxi in the film was passing. ‘That’s where I live! That’s where I live!’) I took a couple of forlorn umbrella photos from a friend’s borrowed camera, will post them up when they are mailed to me. (Whenever I get my own camera, there’s going to be a lot more of photos on my beloved junk thematic.)

Sunday morning made up for it. Old friend from Delhi, Emma, was up from DC for the Labo(u)r Day weekend, and we joined flatmate Ivor and two other Irish lads to catch the Irish National Hurling finals on a tv in a bar. Too early for the bar to be opened, so we tried and failed to get a seat at Tom’s Restaurant, familiar to Seinfeld and Suzanne Vega fans. Spent a couple of hours hanging around over breakfast talking about everything from black holes to American politics to bad horror movies. Then we realized that the weather outside was a gorgeous sunlit day, so we all upped and went to Morningside Park, where the wind and the light and the blue blue sky, and the waterfall made for a perfect day, like Delhi in February. We spent nearly an hour, entranced, watching turtles sunbathing on a floating plastic lily pad. (If you use that as the first line of a song/book/story – do give credit.)

Then delicious Senegalese food in Harlem, in an area known as mini Senegal, and distinct from everything around in the music playing, the Ghanaian Nigerian videos, the bright robes the people wear. Emma and I tried to read the Arabic script of the signs, and at a religious bookshop the proprietor smiled when she saw us reading, and showed us more books and posters. Some of the books were printed in Bombay.

I felt at home then, like I don’t think I’d let myself this far, missing the sound and the language of Delhi. And today, walking through Union Square , in the sunshine and wind of another perfect day, I had a sense of the heft and weight of this city, like all cities, the millions of lives lived to build it, to keep it going, each brick a history of its own. And then just a moment of perfect contentment, and the thought, ‘I am here now. Where I need to be.’

Classes begin tomorrow.

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