Intellectual Curiosities and Provocations

Eastern

Geek Sublime by Vikram Chandra

by Levi Asher on Sunday, February 15, 2015 10:08 am


Twenty-five centuries ago, a Hindu scholar named Panini produced an analysis of the Sanskrit language so remarkable that later language theorists such as Ferdinand de Saussure would eventually cite it as the foundation of linguistics itself. Panini shows up in Geek Sublime: The Beauty of Code, the Code of Beauty, a new book by novelist and computer programmer Vikram Chandra, who describes the ancient scholar's achievement thus:

His objects of study were both the spoken language of his time, and the language of the Vedas, already a thousand years before him. He systemized both of these variations by formulating 3,976 rules that -- over eight chapters -- allow the generation of Sanskrit words and sentences from roots, which are in turn derived from phonemes and morphemes ...

The rules are of four types: (1) rules that function as definitions; (2) metarules -- that is, rules that apply to other rules; (3) headings -- rules that form the bases for other rules; and (4) operational rules. Some rules are universal while others are context sensitive; the sequence of rule application is clearly defined. Some rules can override others. Rules can call other rules, recursively. The application of one rule to a linguistic form can cause the application of other rule, which may in turn trigger other rules, until no more rules are applicable. The operational rules "carry out four basic types of operations on strings: replacement, affixation, augmentation, and compounding."

This is interesting on its own, but a reader who shares Vikram Chandra's familiarity with technology will probably notice how much fun Vikram Chandra is having here with words that have become standard computer programming jargon: "rules" and "metarules", "override", "recursion", "trigger", "operations on strings". The problems that concerned Panini as he read the Rig Veda in 400 BCE are apparently the same problems that concern software developers around the world today.






From the Tao Te Ching

by Levi Asher on Monday, February 2, 2015 09:25 pm


There are some days when only a very old poem will do. Sometimes a 2600-year-old poem. Here are a few selections from the Tao Te Ching, apropos of a hard day at work. -- Levi

Chapter 43

The softest things of the world
Override the hardest things of the world
That which has no substance
Enters into that which has no openings
From this I know the benefits of unattached actions
The teaching without words
The benefits of actions without attachment
Are rarely matched in the world






Philosophy Weekend: From Chaos

by Levi Asher on Friday, October 3, 2014 08:47 pm


The past week was a rough ride on the literary Internet. Thursday brought the sudden death knell of HTMLGiant, a rollicking community website frequented by writers like Tao Lin, Zachary German, Megan Boyle, Noah Cicero, Marie Calloway and Blake Butler along with a wide cast of erratic contributors and scattered postmodernists. This lively website always reminded me of the fun and psychotic days when Litkicks ran message boards.

The good news is, HTMLGiant is staying alive through October for one last gasp, promising to unleash a series of farewell blog posts "because if there’s anything this website deserves it’s an uncontrolled flameout". That's the way to do it, HTMLGiant!






Philosophy Weekend: The Buddhist Fable of Bob and Maureen McDonnell

by Levi Asher on Friday, September 5, 2014 11:13 pm


I moved to northern Virginia in 2009. There were a few good surprises down here for this lifelong New Yorker, like the easy proximity of the thrilling Shenandoah mountains and rivers, and the rich, stark beauty of several Civil War battlefield parks that dot the region in a wide arc around Washington DC.

I found a few bad surprises here too, like the fact that this state hates public transportation. Train tracks are everywhere in northern Virginia, but you can't catch a train into Washington DC to see a baseball game or visit a national monument on a weekend, because there are no trains for people. This probably has more to do with Virginia's desire to keep people from Washington DC out than its desire to keep Virginians in. It ends up having both results.

So I found some good and some bad when I moved down to Virginia, and I also found some funny/crazy. Like the politics, which are entertainingly out of control.






The Last Illusion by Porochista Khakpour

by Levi Asher on Tuesday, May 13, 2014 08:24 am


In one remarkable moment in The Last Illusion, a new novel by Porochista Khakpour, a shy and vulnerable young man who was raised as a bird in a cage meets an impetuous young woman who seems to understand him. He then meets her sister, who is so enormously fat that she lives her life in bed, occasionally dressing up in a tiara and gown and high-heeled shoes under her blanket.

We expect Zal, the young man, to become infatuated with Asiya, the passionate and intelligent young woman, and in fact Zal does like and respect Asiya very much. But it's Willa, the gigantic sister who lives in bed that Zal falls instantly and completely in love with.






The Mahabharata, the Ramayana and the Mystique of William Buck

by Levi Asher on Tuesday, April 1, 2014 02:52 pm


I recently heard about a British Library project to reassemble and digitize a 17th century illustrated edition of the Ramayana, a classical Hindu epic. This sounds pretty cool, and it reminded me of a different edition of the Ramayana that I once owned myself.

This was just a cheap pocket paperback, a novelization of the great poem, published alongside a similar edition of the other great Hindu epic, the Mahabharata. These two books, the life work of a young American translator named William Buck, were designed to be accessible and enjoyable versions of their extremely long and complex originals. Of course the great epic poems had to be condensed and simplified to fit into these forms, but the popular paperbacks provide a rich reading experience that must capture at least some of the significance of their gigantic counterparts.

William Buck's Mahabharata is the one I read all the way through and remember most vividly, because it's a colorful, wise and beautiful long tale that begins with the household altercation that resulted in an elephant head being placed on the body of a boy named Ganesha, the son of Shiva, who is noted (in the story that surrounds the story) as the scribe who is writing the text:






Philosophy Weekend: The Atrocity Cube

by Levi Asher on Saturday, March 22, 2014 07:50 pm


It's time to start putting some puzzle pieces together.

Five weekends ago I began a project by suggesting that we try to analyze some tough ethical/historical problems with the methodology of a puzzle-solver, by which I meant that we would determine a few principles or "tools" and then apply these principles or tools repetitively and mechanically until we reach a conclusion.

I originally spoke of Sudoku or KenKen puzzles, while today I'm showing a picture of a Rubik's Cube. It doesn't matter because the puzzle is only a broad metaphor for the experiment I'm trying to conduct. The goal is to obtain fresh insights that we don't seem to be able to obtain with our usual emotional and moral interpretations of history. You can't solve a Sudoku puzzle or a Rubik's Cube with your emotions, or with a demonstration of your moral goodness. You need to apply simple techniques repetitively and consistently, which leads me now to ask what simple techniques we use when trying to understand the worst and most well-known atrocities of recent history: the Holocaust, the Holodomor, the African slave trade, the massacres in Rwanda, the September 11 attacks, the killing fields of Cambodia, the Irish famine, China's Great Leap Forward, the massacre in Srebenica, the refugee death camps of Darfur, the current crisis in Syria.

The great puzzle we are trying to solve is this: why do these atrocities occur? I think the urgent need for fresh insight is obvious, since despite our hollow promises of "never again" these atrocities occur frequently today (in the list above, five of the atrocities occurred in the last twenty years, and at least two are happening right now).






The Great Lost Rock Memoir: Inside Out by Nick Mason

by Levi Asher on Tuesday, March 11, 2014 04:17 pm


It's because I respect musicians who bravely venture into the dark literary territory of autobiography that I am so fascinated by musical memoirs. It's also why I'm sometimes critical of them. I have high standards regarding what a good memoir should be.

My standards are high but simple. An autobiography of a musician or any other artist must be written in a voice that feels distinct and artistic. It must tell a coherent story in chronological form. Most importantly, a good memoir must tell the truth.

On these terms, I criticized Neil Young's Waging Heavy Peace for lacking story coherence, and for substituting undercooked present-tense for thoughtful past-tense. I knocked Steve Tyler's Does The Noise In My Head Bother You? for an inconsistent voice: the first few chapters about Steve's childhood and teenage years were very well written, but once Steve grew up and got famous the book shifted in tone to something like a People magazine interview about his rock star lifestyle. That ain't memoir.

Today I'm going to tell you about a memoir that I bet you never heard of, even though there's a good chance you dearly love the legendary rock band the author of this autobiography played drums for.






Philosophy Weekend: Buddha-Nature

by Levi Asher on Saturday, November 30, 2013 10:01 am


A surprising news bulletin made the rounds this week: "Incredible Discovery Reveals Birthplace of Buddha". They did what? The story appears to be credible, though many Westerners like me who feel the significance aren't quite sure how to react. Shouldn't a discovery this momentous be bigger news? Shouldn't it at least be accompanied by some kind of astral event or bright comet? (Oh, right.)

It's strange to think of Buddha's traces in the material world, though Prince Siddhartha Guatama of Kapilavastu was certainly a historical figure, and was a celebrated personality in his community even before he became the Enlightened One. His teachings are similar in many ways to those of Jesus of Nazareth, but their life trajectories were opposite. Jesus was born in poverty and anonymity, and died an early violent death after being hailed as the King of the Jews. Buddha was born a royal, but nobody thought of him as a Prince or King any more by the time he died peacefully at the age of 80.






Philosophy Weekend: The Need for Historical Vision

by Levi Asher on Saturday, October 5, 2013 08:12 pm


Funny thing: it was only when I began writing about ethical philosophy here on Litkicks that I began writing seriously about history. The two disciplines might not seem to have much in common, but to me they feel intertwined.

Maybe that's because our popular conceptions of both ethics and history show so much confusion, contradiction and willful denial of obvious fact. People often say illogical and nonsensical things when they talk about their moral principles, and they do so as well when they describe what they believe has happened on planet Earth leading up to our present times. It's hard to say whether our typically chauvinistic and ethnocentric conceptions of history cause us to be ethically confused more than our ethical confusions cause us to mangle historical fact. Let's just say that both things happen a lot. If our world will ever have the happy epiphany in ethical philosophy that is our hopeful destiny and due, it will probably be accompanied by a more informed popular grasp of history.

I read a lot of history -- more history than fiction or philosophy or poetry or even (believe it or not) rock star autobiographies. I haven't written about history much here on this blog because, frankly, I'm scared to start. I have too much to say. I don't know where to begin to unload. I think that many things people believe about history are dead wrong -- no, I know this, because every good history book proves this to be true. But I don't want to turn Litkicks into a whirlpool of historical revisionism. Historical revision is a field with an ugly reputation, since revisionism can be used to gain respect for horrific campaigns such as Holocaust denial.

But perhaps historical revision isn't what we need. We need historical vision. We don't need new books to tell us that what we've learned is wrong. We just need to read the damn books we already have. They will tell us that everything we've learned is wrong.

Here are three superb books I've read that have helped me to understand how little we tend to know about the things we think we know.






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