The Man in Black

Last year, it was Jamie Foxx as Ray and this year it is Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash in Walk the Line. I have not seen Capote yet, so I cannot really compare him with 'current' Oscar favourite - Philip Seymour Hoffman. In any case, Phoenix's performance as Cash has been nothing short of heroic and the movie is one of the best biopics ever made. It is now well-known that Phoenix played and sang all the songs in the movie; at whose start, he did not know the first thing about singing or about playing the guitar. He effortlessly managed to play one of the most interesting characters ever to walk on the face of this Earth; who Bob Dylan called 'an almost Biblical character'. But Walk the Line is more than just about Johnny, it's also about the great love story of Johnny Cash and June Carter.

"Hello, I'm Johnny Cash."

Johnny Cash always opened his shows with this simple line. His music was simple and his clothes were simple - just black. Here was a man who never forgot his roots or his faith, remained true to his art, never sold out and more importantly always stood for what he believed. He championed Bob Dylan when most people thought he was just another Woody Guthrie knock-off, encouraged Merle Haggard and told him not to be ashamed of his convict past and introduced Kris Kristofferson to the world. He played in prisons before it became fashionable to do so. When he wanted to record at the San Quentin prison, Columbia Records executives asked him, "Why are you dressed in black? Whose funeral are you going for?" He answered - "Mine". It is a different issue that the album went on to be a huge hit.
When he first met June Carter, she was country-music royalty and he was just another upcoming artist. She sensed the tenderness behind the tough 'outlaw' image that he cultivated. He would propose to her numerous times, but she always refused till one day she accepted 'on-stage' in the middle of a song. The movie ends with him marrying June Carter, but things did not end happily ever after. In the tradition of great heroes, he had his strengths and his numerous flaws. He was addicted to various drugs over the years - stimulants, painkillers and alcohol. There would be more bouts of addiction and June would stand by him like a rock and try her best to save himself from him. When he recovered, he said, "If it wasn't for June, I wouldn't be alive." They were inseparable and would be married for more than 30 years. After June passed away, he completely lost his will to live and passed away four months later.
In the Rolling Stone, Bono reminisced about the time he had dinner with Johnny. When they sat at the table, Cash bowed his head and joined his hands in prayer. After the grace was said Cash remarked, "Gosh, how I miss those drugs!". Bono said, "He wasn't just pretending to be a Holy Joe". It takes a lot of courage and honesty to accept yourself and then it takes a lot of strength to confront your demons and change. Trent Reznor may have written "Hurt", but Cash's rendition of the song has more emotional depth than Trent can even imagine.
While rock-stars have always written protest songs, complained about injustices and participated in demonstrations and marches, few have really put words to action. Only Johnny Cash could have always worn black as he sang:

I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down,
Livin' in the hopeless, hungry side of town,
I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime,
But is there because he's a victim of the times.
I wear it for the sick and lonely old,
For the reckless ones whose bad trip left them cold,
I wear the black in mournin' for the lives that could have been,
Each week we lose a hundred fine young men.

And, I wear it for the thousands who have died,
Believen' that the Lord was on their side,
I wear it for another hundred thousand who have died,
Believen' that we all were on their side.
Ah, I'd love to wear a rainbow every day,
And tell the world that everything's OK,
But I'll try to carry off a little darkness on my back,
'Till things are brighter, I'm the Man In Black

Even now, only a few gangsta rap stars exclusively wear black.

Blog scroll update

It has long been due.
I have updated my blog links.

Species of Dogma

This Sunday there was a bold attempt at organizing an event titled Evolution and God: Complementary or Conflicting Worldviews?. What was interesting was that it was held outside the university in a space shared as a church and a Jewish temple. In the opening talk, quite tactfully, David Mindell, Professor of U-M Ecology and Evolutionary Biology stayed clear of controversy and spoke about evolution from a biologist's perspective. At the end he said that evolution is the study of history and its methods can be applied to subjects far removed from biology. He showed how even the Bible has evolved over the years and how meanings have changed and have kept changing. Contrast the famous King James version(1611) of Psalm 23 in Wycliff's(1382) rendering:

"The Lord gouerneth me, and no thing to me shal lacke; in the place of leswe where he me ful sette. Ouer watir of fulfilling he nurshide me; my soule he conuertide. He bro[z]te doun me vpon the sties of ri[z]twisnesse; for his name. For whi and if I shal go in the myddel of the shadewe of deth; I shal not dreden euelis, for thou art with me. Thi [z]erde and they staf; tho han confortid me.

This was followed by discussions in small groups. The subtle irony about the different versions of the Bible seemed to have been lost on some of the audience. I sat next to a grandfather, who was well-read and well-informed and who proudly told all of us that he has been an atheist for 45 years. (Are the two correlated?) Directly across from him sat a grandmother who takes comfort in the fact that every rock, fish, bird and human being has a place in God's scheme and evolution is just another one of his wondrous processes. Then there were people in the middle who are a little less credulous, but still seemed to harbour anthropocentric views about evolution. The discussion went back and forth quite amicably and everyone aired their thoughts. Nothing was resolved. I do not think that anyone had switched sides when the left the room, but everyone felt that such gatherings were useful. Most people, if you asked them, would consider themselves liberal, scientific and free from prejudice and dogma. I left the room thinking - "My own opinions are dogmatic? Am I a fundamentalist scientist? Am I just like them?"

Despite all my optimism, I have to admit that it's going to take a lot more outreach and education. Most people in the discussion group had read The Beak of The Finch and had attended a few lectures on evolution, yet were still not willing to examine/change their core beliefs. The Origin of Species was published in 1859 and we are still trying to explain it. Explaining evolution is hard enough, but trying to change beliefs about religion and God is hard, very hard. Evolution and God: Complementary or Conflicting Worldviews? In my opinion, it all depends on what your view of God is. Evolution and God have both stated their opinions.

Size Does Matter

Saw this interesting sign on the the Campus Diag today:

The Large Print Giveth

and the Small Print Taketh Away

A <3 2 <3 Talk

Okay, be honest, did you figure out what the title meant? If you happen to be a guy then the chances are pretty slim. A few days ago, I got mail in which the sender had separated every paragraph with a row of <3<3<3 s instead of the regular ****s or ###s. Though 3 and # share the same key, the pattern looked too regular to be a typo. However, in my postscript I suggested to the sender that they looked liked typos. The draftee (a girl) shot back almost offended that "<3" stands for a heart!!! The separators were in honour of Valentine's Day.
At the risk of sounding sexist - I have noticed that girls use emoticons more than guys. An occasional smile :) or wink ;) in an email is okay, but some girls seem to communicate exclusively using these symbols. When actual text starts looking like garnish within a soup of emoticons then clearly a line has been crossed.

The question is why do girls overuse emoticons?
It is true that we make sense of speech by not only the literal meaning but also by how it is said. The loudness, pitch is highly related to the emotional state of the speaker. Written speech strips out all that tonal content. Emoticons have provided that bridge to some tonal context. I have often found a smiley :) very useful for tempering or defusing an angry remark. A recent survey concluded that women all over the world wanted more romance and men wanted more (guess what?) - sex. It further reinforces the stereotype that men are more physical and women more emotional. Then to women more than men, tonal content might be more important and it is not hard to see why women have most eagerly jumped on the emoticon bandwagon and seem to pepper their text with more emoticons than a guy would deem strictly necessary.
So for those drafting their V-day paeans to their lady loves check out this page.


"You are a geek!"
".. and you are a dumbass!"

What's your poison?

Bill Maher's New Rule:
"The more complicated the Starbucks order, the bigger the asshole. If you walk into a Starbucks and order a "decaf grande half-soy, half-low fat, iced vanilla, double-shot, gingerbread cappuccino, extra dry, light ice, with one Sweet-n'-Low and one NutraSweet," ooh, you're a huge asshole.”

Dennett's Dangerous Idea

As a Christmas gift, I could not have asked Santa for a better gift - an Evolution Theme Semester. Trying to listen to the talks has itself been a lesson in the 'survival of the fittest'. Last week's talk by Jonathan Weiner on the Beak of the Finch (reviewed here) was at the Washtenaw Community College(WCC). I reached the venue to find out that what I thought was the WCC was the Washtenaw Juvenile Correction Center! Finally after I made it to WCC, finding the auditorium turned out to be quite a task. It's a common error made by students, but The University of Michigan is not Ann Arbor!. I should have known the local community college - talk about living in ivory towers! Since I arrived late the hall was packed and I had to kneel on the carpet.

Today's lecture was by Daniel Dennett, one the leading thinkers of our time. In contrast to the Einstein Theme semester the Evolution theme seems to be more popular and understandably so. Thanks to some over-zealous officials trying to comply with the fire-safety laws, I and another 30 people were kicked out of the hall because "you can't sit on the steps, you have to have a chair." However, that did not deter people from standing in the hallway and listening. There were two large halls below and across the street that would have accomodated all the people had the organizers been more flexible, or would have created overflow rooms or alternate locations. Dennett is such an entertaining speaker that it was worth listening to his deep voice and seeing his slides through the body parts of a dozen other people who were standing, sitting and crouching in the hallway.

It is not hard to see why more than 150 years after Darwin's short book evolution is still is contentious. Dennett is his book Darwin's Dangerous Idea explains,
"If I were to give an award for the single best idea that anyone has ever had, I'd give it to Darwin, ahead of Newton and Einstein and everyone else. In a single stroke, the idea of evolution by natural selection unified the realm of life, meaning, and the purpose with the realm of space and time, cause and effect, mechanism and physical law. It is not just a wonderful scientific idea. But it is a dangerous idea."

Dennett goes on to explain why. Darwinism's greatest foe has been religion. It threatens to undermine everything that religion stands for. The subject of his talk today was based on his latest book - Breaking the Spell. Dennett wants to propose that Science needs to study Religion in a neutral dispassionate way. Why is there? Why has it survived? Drawing from Richard Dawkins' concept of the 'meme', he says religion is a very sticky sort of meme. Whether you believe in it or don't you have to agree that religion does serve some purpose and has persisted because it provides serves human needs. In fact, natural selection is responsible; religion is not an accident but is a natural phenomenon. It may not be divine (if there is such a thing) but it just another ideology not much unlike democracy, communism, freedom. In some way or the other they provide:
1. Something to live or die for;
2. A great placebo;
3. An explanation for the bewildering and confusing world.

Many times, people are faced with dilemmas which can be resolved, say by a coin flip. Of course, for more serious issues flipping coins might be a little 'flippant' so religion provides a more 'serious coin flip'. So you can say, "God asked me do it!", "or scripture says it". Sure, the world is a confusing and bewildering place and our success has has much to do with the constant need for humans to try to make sense of the unknown. How convenient of an invention is religion. It provides faith-based answers, or insists "that this world is the great mystery of God, the Creator, accept it". Dennett says, that this might not have been so much of a problem, but human religion has its caretakers and they tend to introduce interference. So now there is a group that wants to safe-guard its own interest. Dennett showed a picture of a billboard outside a church. It read,
"GOOD without GOD is just zero."
Such thought Dennett says is the most dangerous, implying that to be moral you have to be religious. This spell must be broken.

Michael Ruse published a review of the book in the latest edition of Nature 439, 535 (2 February 2006). His claim is that Dennett's approach might not be very helpful because,
"A major plank in Dennett's discussion is that religion is all smoke and mirrors, so even if we cannot hope immediately to eliminate all religious belief, those of us in the know will realize that we are dealing with a delusion, rather than a rationally justified belief system. However, a naturalistic analysis of religion in itself has no direct bearing on the truth of religious claims. My eyes are the end products of a long process of natural selection. Does that make any less real the truck I see bearing down on me as I stand in the middle of the road?."

Dennett's idea is a start and his solution calling for more education and dialogue is a compelling one. The world in already in a sorry state, thanks to ethnic and religious conflict and now more than ever seem to be finding succour or even release in religion instead if questioning it. Dennett described the types of people:
1)Those who believe in God
2)Those who believe in the belief in God
3) and those who believe in the belief .... ad infinatum.

There is no harm in some religious ideas, but as long as we know what they really are. A notion like - 'there is a God and he is watching over us' might be comforting but has no real basis. However it is nice to believe that there is a Santa and he brings gifts.