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Archive for March, 2008

Now that’s a cool way to commit suicide!

Of course, there are other less stylish, but equally effective ways to do it. The one that I’d likely use if ever such need arises,  is the beautifully simple plastic-bag technique from Final Exit

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I was driving from Pasadena to Palo Alto on Tuesday when at one point the freeway started looking rather unfamiliar – too much traffic, too many exits. A short investigation revealed that as a result of staying on the wrong lane about twenty miles back, I was going north along the 99 rather than north-west along the 5. I dug out my map and decided that the best course of action would be to take the 58 West and rejoin the 5. Not more than a half-hour lost, no big deal.

So I took the 58, which goes through the suburbs of Bakersfield before turning into an undivided single lane rural highway. By then, dusk had morphed to night and the moon shone through softly. And as I drove along, something indescribable happened – it was an intense feeling of oneness with the eerie quietness around me. I usually take freeways and they are aloof, overpowering entities. They make their way dismissively in a straight line and are too wide to see what lies beyond them. This narrow rural highway, however, truly belonged to the earth. The road was lined on either side by tall trees, that to my eyes, looked like the keepers of some secret too terrible to divulge. My car speeding at 80 miles, I held the steering wheel firm with my two hands and looked out of the window on my left. The terrain, all the way to the horizon, was washed by a pale, beautiful, ghostly moonlight and there was no sign of intelligent life anywhere.

It gave me the chills.

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Alas, I cannot give a more considered response right now as I have to get on the road. But I do want to say that this searing, nuanced, gut-wrenching, loyal, and deeply, deeply Christian speech is the most honest speech on race in America in my adult lifetime. It is a speech we have all been waiting for for a generation. Its ability to embrace both the legitimate fears and resentments of whites and the understandable anger and dashed hopes of many blacks was, in my view, unique in recent American history.

The full post.

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My impressions? It was powerful, nuanced, insightful and moving. I wrote yesterday that this speech would be Obama’s sternest test as a politician and an orator. I believe he lived up to it.

For those who missed it, here’s the transcript, though the emotional impact, I suppose, is somewhat muted when one merely reads it.

Update: And here’s the video.

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There is little doubt that the Wright controversy is the biggest crisis that the Obama campaign has faced so far. Some commentators have hastened to declare that it is, in fact, over for Obama. There is virtually no chance of him winning the general election anymore, they claim, even if he somehow manages to cling on to the nomination. Undoubtedly, the reaction of the blogosphere has been mostly negative, with some notable exceptions like Andrew Sullivan. Opinion polls have shown Obama’s support plummetting, especially among whites. Posters at message-boards who have already voted for him have declared their outrage at being fooled by the man’s charm and some of them have vowed to make amends, come November.

There is only one way to respond to a crisis like this — to take it head-on and respond. And Barack Obama is going to do just that, tomorrow, when he addresses the nation from Philadelphia in what might just go down in history as one of the defining speeches of our times.  In my opinion, he should have done this long ago — after all, the Wright sermons are old news for anyone who follows the news — but better late than never.

I expect Obama to address the role of race in this campaign and in the broader arena of public service. I expect him to also talk about his own faith, elaborate on what drew him to Wright’s church, mention the words that have inspired and supported him, even as he reiterates his total rejection of Wright’s divisive messages. But above all, I hope that he will say something about the pitfalls of viewing things in black and white (and I am not talking of race here). Far too often we make the error of seeing things through an absolutist lense. People, and issues that matter, are generally too complex to be summarily dismissed with a value judgement. There are sometimes elements of good in the most inflammatory rhetoric. There is hope and beauty, truth and inspiration, to be taken from everyone, and it is possible to do so while simultaneously rejecting other viewpoints of the same person. Obama’s greatest quality is his inclusivity — he can see both sides of an argument, disagree without being disagreable and by extension, I think he can stay twenty years in a church and only take away certain positive aspects of its philosophy. Yes, the tapes and the Youtube clips being played over and over today do not speak highly of their author, but to get a balanced picture of Wright one should also go through his other sermons, like the one that inspired the title of Obama’s book, and I expect him to talk of that.

Will he be able to convince those who have turned against him? I don’t know. Changing people’s minds is an exceedingly difficult task, especially when the issue is complex and etched in shades of gray, as here. But if anyone can do it, it is Barack Obama. He is one the best orators of this age, and tomorrow will be his sternest test.

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“The sonatas of Mozart are unique: too easy for children, too difficult for adults. Children are given Mozart to play because of the quantity of notes; grown ups avoid him because of the quality of notes … Mozart is the most inaccessible of the great masters”

Artur Schnabel

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I haven’t had much time to blog this weekend. Ideas for posts came and went. News broke, and got stale. I gave them all a haughty ignore and, with single minded devotion, concentrated on my L-functions.

One of the drawbacks of being a fourth year grad student is that you need to do a lot of research quickly enough to produce a decent body of work by next winter — for the perusal of the grim committee that will go through your job application. And I am a fourth year grad math student. My research consists of proving things — by the power of thought. Which means I work when I think and I … umm … think when I walk. So when do I blog?

Yet, being a student comes with its perks. One of them is that I get student-priced tickets for concerts. So I went to the Pasadena symphony yesterday to hear an evening of music. They were playing three piano concertos by Mozart, my favourite composer.

The pianist was superb. He played beautifully. The music was pure and simple and true. It was mostly joyous, sometimes moving and deep, but without an iota of negativity. It was a bit like the best kind of mathematics.

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