'Ulysses - Story of a Day' In a Day?

Ulysses takes place over the course of one day - 16th June, in roughly 18 hours. It should be possible to read it in one day, right? One can read faster than people can walk, right?That's going to be my weekend project - does the math add up?

I have had the book since I was 16 and I have not made it past the first few pages after numerous attempts. It has, in one form or the another, been on my reading list, but always for 'next year'. I am sick of doing that. A nice week-long break is coming up and "why put off  for tomorrow what you can today? or do this year, instead of next year, right?" 

Any serious reader, or more correctly in my case, a reader pretending seriousness, cannot claim to be one if he/she has not tackled the eight-thousander Himalayan peaks of: 
  • Joyce's Ulysses,
  • Proust's In Search of Lost Time (or Remembrance Of Things Past),
  • Tolstoy's War and Peace, or
  • Eliot's Middlemarch
The above are on any great reading list, and if not included, then the compiler has to justify why not. It must be said that I have read none of the above. Partly, because of their daunting length and difficulty, but mainly because of their fabled complexity and literary weight. There are many in the camp of the Ulysses 'also rans' - those who have wanted to read it, have made numerous attempts and have failed, or have given up.

Mortimer Adler in How To Read a Book writes that most people read books slower than they need to, and that reading too slowly can make you lose the forest for the trees. He writes that the first reading should be quick and "not to worry if you don't understand every word". Get the main idea. My idea in past years was to attack the text in a scholarly and leisurely fashion. Read the Odyssey, then other commentaries, consult the Linati and Gilbert schema, so that I can appreciate what I read. That did not get too far. 

Adler believes that books like Ulysses are 'above the heads of most readers' anyways. They are great because they demand a lot of the reader and you will never really understand it in one reading. They need to be read again and again, some parts faster than others. The book will grow with you. Though it will not be possible if you haven't read it even once. 

With that sage advice, I feel well-armed and the plan of reading it so quickly does not seem that hair-brained either.

Personal Rules for reading Ulysses in a Day

1) It has to be done in 24 hours. Not, necessarily in one calendar day, for practical, logistical reasons and so that I don't lose my mind as I wander around Dublin.
2) No reading commentaries, guides or keys such as the Stuart or Linati schema. That would slow things down and affect the pure, naked effect of the text. 
3) Fail as I may, it's still not Finnegan's Wake (Chabon on Finnegan's Wake) and progress has been made  THIS year.


Made it to the end last night (Jan 10) - all 783 pages from "Stately, plump Buck Mulligan" to Molly Bloom's final  "... yes."
It took a total of 12 hours and 11 mins. Much less total time than I initially thought, but many more total days (There were other digressions, like reading other books). More on the book later. I am currently overwhelmed with the sheer mastery of Mr. Joyce. He is a real Colossus.


If Marilyn can do it, so can you!

Frozen credit

The AMEX card being thawed after being in the freezer for a month.  One may think that there was no need to do this, but it did help in the no-credit card month to have this in the deep-freezer to avoid any temptations. It was a bit of a pain to keep track of the cash spending, but after a while you get used to it. The   experiment was overall a success with the added 'mindfulness' of spending money. A useful exercise in showing that,  far from being rational, impulses take hold of us.

The card had a nice washed look after the thawing and was promptly put to use!

The poetry of equations: The 'Alice approach'

“And what is the use of a book," thought Alice, "without pictures or conversation?”
― Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
In No Small Matter, a book on the 'science on the nanoscale', famous chemist George Whitesides and photographer Felice Frankel achieve to convey the poetry and beauty of science with elegance and erudition. Their unique manner of presentation - saying much, by saying less - is more effective than most other books on science written for the lay audience. There is no surfeit of words, no clamour of explanations, and no riot of reasons.

Felice Frankel’s photos (or visualizations) show  bits - 1s and 0s - using wine glasses with red Shiraz, a prism on Venetian blinds, and a 'faked' quantum apple (to make the point that quantum mechanics confounds our ‘normal’ intuitions) and quantum dots, that are simultaneously beautiful art and beautiful science. George Whitesides’s prose is the 'second voice' in this lovely duet of images and words and strikes a wonderful balance between explaining and making us ponder.  He asks to reconsider what we take for granted - the magic of listening to music, for instance, is the ‘magic of transformation’. Using the LP track of Eleanor Rigby, Whitesides makes us rethink this amazing feat of alchemy. The the voices of the Beatles were recorded (copied) in the variations of grooves in vinyl, transmuted to electrical impulses by the needle, transduced by the vibrating speaker diaphragm into vibrations that are carried in the air, through our outer ear, and then via tiny bones and fluid in our inner ears back into sound, back into the emotion of Eleanor Rigby and all the lonely people. With the well-crafted images and sparse sentences the book has the economy and power of poetry. Saying much, by saying little. 
 Curiosity is an itch, that understanding scratches
From the dawn of time, humans have had that itch and that need to scratch won’t ever go away. That’s what we humans do. Whitesides, for all his accomplishments, shows no trace of arrogance in what we now know; showing, that with greater understanding comes greater humility. For there is still lots we cannot explain. It’s not just arcane quantum or cosmological phenomena. We have the DNA code, but we don’t know how proteins ‘do what they do’ from messages in the code. As he writes, its like constructing the lives of people by looking at a telephone book. We don't understand how water molecules work in the cell.  Even the the everyday, plain and mundane confounds us. We don't understand cracks - how a crack actually ends. We don't understand bubble formation. We don’t understand colliding water jets.

Maybe someday we will get to a more complete explanation, or it may elude us, but the strange beauty of the water jets and the rest will continue to enchant us forever.
What really got me was the piece titled 'Duality': 
We're burdened by a curious conditioning that blinds us to one of the greatest - perhaps the greatest - of art forms. We live for poetry; we live in terror of equations.

We see a poem, and we try it on for size: we read a line or two; we roll it around in our mind; we see how it fits and tastes and sounds. We may not like it, and let it drop, but we enjoy the encounter and look forward to the next. We see an equation, and it is as if we’d glimpsed a tarantula in the baby's crib. We panic.
An equation can be thing of such beauty and subtlety that only a poem can equal it....
It's an idea worth trying on for size. Poetry describes humanity with a human voice; equations describe a  reality beyond the reach of words. 
He quotes De Broglie’s equation:
 λ = h / mv
In a compact and precise way it says, “A moving object is a wave”. That is poetry of the highest order, he says, and I agree. Even haikus seem long in comparison.

There no end to technological reductionism, but Whitesides urges us to write that love letter from Indiana in long hand. Science will only scratch that itch. It’s up to us to use our judgement as well. As we delve deeper there is more need of caution. As he admits, even in the case of equations, not all equations are alike and ann do not lead us to delight in their beauty, “Some are porcupines, some are plumber's helpers, and some are tarantulas.”

At the end of the book, scientist and non-scientist will have gained some understanding of science works. That is secondary. What is more important in my opinion, is that it shows how fascinating all this really is, and how we go about finding and exploring things that we cannot see, or hold, or smell. I call this the ‘Alice approach’ - create wonder. Draw attention to that itch, and the scratching will take care of itself. Drawing people into the beauty that nature is.

My issue with the polemics and arguments offered by science apologists is that they are written to appeal to the already convinced choir, who silently smile and cannot but nod in approval, but they do little to draw the ‘others’ in, and often achieve the opposite effect of turning them away. The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins was wonderfully written, but I cannot think it actually convinced anyone (barring a few fence-sitters) to actually change what they already believed in. It was divisive and that does not help. This is not the ‘Alice approach’.

Jonathan Haidt’s recent book, Why Politics and Religion Divide Good People, talks about ways to end the partisan politics of the Right vs. the Left, but this can be also applied elsewhere. In a twist of the Western adage - 'shoot first, questions later', his work as a moral psychologist has shown that ‘we are emotional first, and rational later' and when reason is brought into play it’s in support of the initial emotion. We make up reasoning post-hoc to bolster what ever was our initial emotional response. Reasoning and reflection can cause us to change our opinions but it is rare (We are less in this mode than we would like to believe). The approach to begin to gain any traction in an opponent’s mind is to use methods that ‘talk to their intuitions, and not to their reason’. Keep the reasons for later.

There is a similar problem in Science v. Faith/Religion debates. It’s not that the reasoning of the science boosters is not sound, but that the tone is wrong and reason alone is inadequate. You need to appeal to the intuitions that believers have. Richard Dawkins in his recent book, The Magic of Reality written for children and ‘curious’ adults, has tried really hard to create that ‘Alice approach’. It contains beautiful expositions of scientific experiments and phenomena with a preamble of folkloric and mythical explanations. It works, but only somewhat as they serve as ‘foil’ and straw-men to be knocked down later. What then remains of wonder when it really an argument, a quarrel in another guise? 

In a less intrusive way and with greater effectiveness, Whitesides/Frankel give us a tour of this Wonderland of the nanoscale and quantum phenomena that any one of any stripe cannot fail to be moved.

Alice would’ve  heartily approved.

Post on Mortality up

What could have been a result of fat fingers, a DVORAK-QWERTY key confusion: ironically, the post on Mortality died and had to be revived.

The post has risen Phoenix-like, a week past due.
On the lit blog:
Mortality by Christopher Hitchens

Lit blog revival

Another attempt at reviving the lit blog that has been dormant for a long time. Reviewing Jeet Thayil's Narcopolis.

November is "No-Credit Card" month

I have a long-standing argument with J. about using credit cards or cash for local merchants. She pointed out to me that Espresso Royale has signs asking customers to pay in cash for small orders as they paid thousand of dollars in credit cards fees last year. Many places in Ann Arbor still don't accept American Express because of their higher fees compared to VISA or Mastercard.  The opposing view is that when businesses accept credit cards people tend to spend more, so what they may lose in fees, they gain in sales volume. So, my argument with J. has been that it's also necessary to know how much Espresso Royale's sales went up after they switched to credit cards. And who carries a fat wallet of cash anymore?

My reason for using credit cards has been less lofty - it's easier to keep accounts of what went where. The opposite reason of why you use cash not to have a 'paper trail'. The other advantage of using credit cards is that you are not spending your money, but rather the bank's money and in case of fraud or wrong charges, you are safe as long as you complain within 30 days. I have used this to get wrong charges taken off (somehow the fraudsters are always magazine subscriptions departments).

On the flip side, it has been shown that people who use credit cards tend to spend more being more indifferent to pricing. Different areas of the brain light up when you have to dish out cash, as opposed to paying for it in the future using a credit card. The mind also automatically discounts costs that are far away in the future as opposed to immediate enjoyments. I happen to be in the 'dead beat' category - people who pay their credit cards on time, who don't overspend  and are almost never late. Though even the most on top-of-the-game person, as the credit card industry has shown, will also miss on a few payments, or be late and tends to be charged about $30-45 dollars (my recollection of an NPR story) a year in fees/fines.

Then there are my German friends who refuse to use credit cards in general,because they did not want the government to know how they were spending their money.  Big Brother is surely watching and the credit card companies certainly track every single expense. In fact, AMEX makes no real bones of the fact - they provide you summaries of what you spent in the whole year and MINT (not a credit card company, but an aggregator of the information) offers comparisons to what amounts others spent. They don't wholly make clear, or obfuscate how this data is shared and/or sold to interested parties. (Note to self: turn up privacy settings to maximum for credit cards and Mint). 

So, November has been decided as  "Credit-Card Free Month" to empirically find answers to the following:

  • Is it possible to actually live in today's world without a credit card?
  • Does it make it easier to save? by way of making us more conscious of spending ?
  • ... or just by spending less to begin with.

Based on my analysis of past purchases on the credit card the things that I will have to give up for  the next month will be:

  • Amazon purchases
  • Groupon or Living Social purchases
  • Online purchases of any sort - REI, Adorama, etc.

Having to not use a credit card means that we will be forced to shop locally and we will have to use the long-lost art of writing checks at the grocery store.

On Vocabulary - Jason Schneiderman

Today's poem on Poets.org is a a wonderful meditation on words lost, found and discovered

I used to love words,
but not looking them up.

Now I love both,
the knowing,

and the looking up,
the absurdity ....

Discovery is always tinged
with sorrow, the knowledge

that you have been living
without something,

so we try to make learning
the province of the young,

who have less time to regret
having lived in ignorance.

Link to full poem

A great observation that we often make learning chiefly the "province of the young". Why? Perhaps we hate admitting ignorance.

I disagree (as he says "This may surprise you") with his conclusion of notliking the author who ended his book on a obscure word. Picking up dictionaries is good.

It's never to late...

It's never too late to be who you might have been.
George Eliot

The Mother of all Puzzles

From a reader submitted puzzler on Car Talk (Aug. 23, 2008) which I first read about in William Poundstone's book "Are You Smart Enough to Work at Google". Hilarious reactions by readers on Peter Norvig's post on G+!

So, either you can laugh about it, or start solving this mother of all puzzles!!
A hundred prisoners are each locked in a room with three pirates, one of whom will walk the plank in the morning. Each prisoner has 10 bottles of wine, one of which has been poisoned; and each pirate has 12 coins, one of which is counterfeit and weighs either more or less than a genuine coin. In the room is a single switch, which the prisoner may either leave as it is, or flip. Before being led into the rooms, the prisoners are all made to wear either a red hat or a blue hat; they can see all the other prisoners' hats, but not their own. Meanwhile, a six-digit prime number of monkeys multiply until their digits reverse, then all have to get across a river using a canoe that can hold at most two monkeys at a time. But half the monkeys always lie and the other half always tell the truth. Given that the Nth prisoner knows that one of the monkeys doesn't know that a pirate doesn't know the product of two numbers between 1 and 100 without knowing that the N+1th prisoner has flipped the switch in his room or not after having determined which bottle of wine was poisoned and what colour his hat is, what is the solution to this puzzle?

 On second thought this should be called "The deranged offspring of all puzzles" instead of the title above. 

Andre Kertesz - On Reading

Robert Gurbo in the introduction to Andre Kertesz's book On Reading writes that the famous series is reissued at a time when digital media, ebooks and computers are threatening to eliminate the reader of the printed word.  The timeless image of a person head-down poring over a book is now being replaced with people transfixed in similar ways to their cell phones, laptops, e-readers.

The New York Times ran a photo spread on the impossibility of capturing street images of people without anyone head down checking their devices (Misha Erwitt's: Cellphone pre-occupation). The series of pictures shows people in states of preoccupation talking, texting, checking email. (My favorite is the the woman talking next to the Giacommeti statue). In comparison, as Gurbo notes in the preface, "... Kertesz's timeless images of people transported to another world by the intimate process of opening a book or newspaper ... "

Is there an essential difference? Is there a difference between a person texting on a bench versus a person reading a book? Is it more of a disconnection from reality and your surroundings to be staring into a computer screen into the vastness of the internet versus fingers curled around a folded newspaper?

I went back and forth between the collections and I tried to reach a conclusion - is one better than the other? or is is just a symptom of conditioning?

Sounds like a beaten down trope - "digital bad, analog good"

To me, there is an appropriate choice of words for  Erwitt's series versus Kertesz's.

Preoccupied vs. absorbed
Distracted vs. transported
Disconnected vs. immersed

It's hard for me to believe that anyone can actually read anything on the internet with it's easy-to-navigate HTML links. Add to that the numerous distractions of messages, tweets, and emails. You don't really travel anywhere on the internet, you simply bounce around.

This is one my favorite images from Andre Kertesz's collection of photographs - On Reading.  A boy eating an ice-cream reading the comics section from a scattered bunch of newspapers. Andre Kertesz captures the essence of reading: the solitary, self-absorbed pleasure that transports you to a different place. The only thing that would mar that image would the silhouette of a person talking on the cellphone. Of course, the boy would not notice.


A student once asked his Zen master,  "Why did you not ever marry?"

The Zen master replied, "Well, I was looking for the perfect woman".

The student eagerly asked, " Did you not find the perfect woman?"

"Oh, I did", replied the Zen master with a smile.

"Then...what happened.. why did you not marry her?"

The Zen master paused and with a twinkle in his eye said, "Well, she was looking for the perfect man."

(paraphrased from  John Gottman)

Ralph Williams on Shakespeare

Ralph Williams who lectured on Shakespeare is one of the best-loved professors at Michigan. He has now retired but thankfully is still around in an emeritus capacity. Link to this short series of meditations on Shakespeare, passages and language.
LSA video: Part I

Monkeys, Shakespeare and the Internet

"We've all heard that a million monkeys banging on a million typewriters will eventually reproduce the entire works of Shakespeare. Now, thanks to the Internet, we know this is not true."
~Robert Wilensky

Social significance of rocks

 "The world is going to pieces and people like Adams and Weston are photographing rocks!'
Henri Cartier Bresson

"I still believe there is a real social significance in a rock - just as there is in a line of unemployed.  For that opinion I am charged with inhumanity, unawareness."
Ansel Adams, to Edward Weston

"I agree with you that there is just as much 'social significance in a rock' as in 'a line of unemployed.'  All depends on the seeing . . . If I have in some way awakened others to a broader conception of life - added significance and beauty to their lives - . . . then I have functioned, and am satisfied."
Edward Weston, to Ansel Adams

Ole' Brittania

The Encyclopedia Britannica announced on Tuesday that the 2010 edition was the last print edition. They would not be printing any more. After 244 years, the mother of all encyclopedias decided that that a better business model would be to move to an online-only version.
(See New York Times report). They were not selling well: there were 4,000 editions of the 2010 edition that were still in the warehouse (unsold) and perhaps many more at distributors all over the world.

It pained me to read that suddenly the staple of many libraries and many homes will cease to be. Market forces had triumphed and Schumpeterian 'creative destruction' has triumphed. It represented a whole world for many of us. Whether you were a reader or not, there was something magnificent about just seeing those bound editions on a shelf. (A more magnificent experience was experienced on reading them).

We did not own the Britannica while growing up. It is and was very expensive. Instead our Dad got us another set - Grolier's - which we used so much that the plastic covers tore from the frequent removal, and putting it back,  or not putting it back, leaving it open in the midst of things. My father was actually very proud that they looked so worn and used over the years. He liked to joke about people who also had such  bound editions of encyclopedias gracing their living room, but in such pristine shape that "they could not be possibly be read more than a few times".

The Encyclopedia Brittanica was not so common in people's homes in India (It was mostly the World Book who had a team of dedicated franchisees). I cannot recall anyone possessing an edition. You would find it libraries everywhere. There was always an aspirational quality associated with it. My Dad and I often talked about replacing our set with it. We never did.

I did have access to it.  The Encyclopedia Britannica was kept in a special metal cabinet at the Poona Club Library. The editions were somewhat old, but they were placed in a prominent spot by the entrance. It had the effect of a jewel-case - they were  seen by everybody who walked in, they were always locked up and you needed to ask the librarian special permission to access the volumes. They could not be checked out. They could be read in the library only.  I used it for special school projects and essays that I needed to write. But,  that wasn't the main reason. I did it mostly because I had a good reason to walk up to the librarian and ask for the keys.  As a precocious 12-yr old I wanted to show up the adults and thumb my nose at their 'lowly' tastes as they read magazines at the reading table.  Here I was carrying this gigantic brown-leather volume of the Britannica, then noisily going through those light, translucent pages with the smell of  volumes that had lain there for too long, and then I took notes. A real serious reader and scholar in their midst.

A few months ago, I decided to stop being so stingy and donated a substantial amount to the Wikipedia foundation.  I have spent  hours and hours on their website looking up the most arcane, mundane, or insane subjects. Oddly, the so-called 'Britannica-killer' also needs $$$ to survive. A fact that makes you think everything that is good cannot be free, or that you can live off the charity of others forever. Wikipedia is a great idea. It has made access to information more or less democratic (provided you have an internet connection). I am all for that. But, I am also for the older version.

True that  HTML links are easy to click, words and things are easy to find.  You could be reading an article and if you wanted to know something you were a tab and a few keystrokes away. The information online is more updated and there is a lot more of it. All true. But there is something else to old media - books, newspapers, dictionaries and the encyclopedia. You get lost more often, you take time to find something that you were looking for. In passing, you read a lot more words, learn a lot more things than a goal-direction search. Besides, there is the sheer physicality of of it. Turning pages, holding the spine, carrying all that weight of words and knowledge ... our ideas and knowledge are not as abstract as we think them to be. There is nothing more alive, living and breathing than an actual sheet of paper with words on it (This computer won't understand).

Yes, I have ordered the last set.

Today, I received a call from the distributor that they cannot fulfill my order given the overwhelming response. He said that they received 100 orders within 2 hours after the story broke (I presume on the NYT website). Apparently, antique collectors, other bibliophiles (like myself) suddenly woke up and decided to order that last edition. He thinks that this is not going to be valuable. Perhaps not. It's not the reason why many of wanted to buy it. On parting he wanted to bribe me with a DVD for 2012 for me not to leave negative feedback on Amazon.

On Distraction

If you are reading this then you are most likely distracted from doing what you should be doing. If  Hanif Kureishi is right then this can be a good a thing. (Hanif Kureishi on Distraction). The article was on the subject of Ritalin and how that can atomize someone's natural creativity to enforce a more standardized view. Of course, this is over-medicated America. But Kureishi, a distracted person himself,  writes:
I might have been depressed as a teenager, but I wasn’t beyond enjoying some beautiful distractions. Since my father had parked a large part of his library in my bedroom, when I was bored with studying I would pick up a volume and flip through it until I came upon something that interested me. I ended up finding, more or less randomly, fascinating things while supposedly doing something else. Similarly, while listening to the radio, I became aware of artists and musicians I’d otherwise never have heard of. I had at least learned that if I couldn’t accept education from anyone else, I might just have to feed myself.

From this point of view — that of drift and dream; of looking out for interest; of following this or that because it seems alive — Ritalin and other forms of enforcement and psychological policing are the contemporary equivalent of the old practice of tying up children’s hands in bed, so they won’t touch their genitals. The parent stupefies the child for the parent’s good. There is more to this than keeping out the interesting: there is the fantasy and terror that someone here will become pleasure’s victim, disappearing into a spiral of enjoyment from which he or she will not return.
But, I digress. Coming back to the subject of distraction, Kureishi at the end talks about the virtues of distraction. Like anything else, it's a fine line to draw the distinction between good and bad distractions:
It is said that distractions are too easy to come by now that most writers use computers, though it’s just as convenient to flee through the mind’s window into fantasy. In the end, a person requires a method. He must be able to distinguish between creative and destructive distractions by the sort of taste they leave, whether they feel depleting or fulfilling. And this can work only if he is, as much as possible, in good communication with himself — if he is, as it were, on his own side, caring for himself imaginatively, an artist of his own life.

Oscars 2012 - The Artist

Unlike years past, I did not post my Oscar Predictions this year. I did manage to see most of movies that were nominated to make educated guesses, but I was a bit disappointed with 2012 being a lackluster year in terms of the movies. I can't think of any movie (except one) from the list of the best movies nominated which I would want to see again in 10 years. Of course, the only real  shining gem from 2012 is The Artist which correctly won the awards that it should have. There have been reviews that have been less than flattering and consider the whole movie a sort of gimmick - a very vocal criticism of a silent conceit. It isn't correct to compare it to an actual silent movie from decades ago. It's a movie that is made in the present time and critiques the present time. It is pure satire - in the manner of Jonathan Swift - on this day and age where the real essence of the movies is lost in the pursuit of more technology (James Cameron take note). If all is technical skill, what becomes of art?

Interesting silent movie (could not disagree more with both critics)
New Yorker: The Critics

Aashiqi - Love by Faiz Ahmed Faiz

A beautiful poem by Faiz Ahmed Faiz:


woh log bahut khushkismat the
jo ishq ko kaam samjhte the
ya kaam se aashiqi karte the
hum jeete ji mashroof rahe
kuch ishq kiya, kuch kaam kiya
kaam ishq ke aade aata raha
aur ishq se kaam uljhata raha
phir aakhir mein tang akar humne
dono ko adhoora chod diya…

(my translation)


They were very fortunate
who thought love was their work
or who loved their work
While alive, I kept myself busy
I loved a bit, I worked a bit
work came in the way of love
and love in the way of work
and finally frustrated
I gave up, leaving both incomplete ...

You have a right...

Perhaps a gimmick, but does make you stop and think

  Poem In Which Words Have Been Left Out
  by Charles Jensen
You have the right to remain
anything you can and will be.

An attorney you cannot afford
will be provided to you.

You have silent will.
You can be against law.
You cannot afford one.

You remain silent. Anything you say
will be provided to you.

See webpage linked for complete poem.

Where your electronics come from

If you didn't catch this story on the radio, or live where you can't hear this live, you might want to take a look at This American Life: The apple factory. Especially, if you are an Apply fanboy, or any kind of nerd who likes technology, or any consumer in the First World who uses products that are Made in China. They are cheap, and you can hear why. The justification for the sweatshops above is standard economic theory: the rising tide of globalization lifts all boats, even little ones in far-off places. The alternatives are much worse. But, it helps to consider what the least of all evils is.

An actual, real letter

In my first few years in America, I wrote a whole bunch of handwritten letters to my parents. I also wrote long emails (which were easier to cc: to others) about my initial impressions, but the letters were longer, more reflective, and more personal. This was before I got sucked into that vortex of unlimited-all-the-time-access to the internet. The letter-writing petered out in a few years. I can't recall the last time I wrote someone a letter. Has technology made us lazy and sloppy? I think so. Punctuation and spelling, to speak much less about bad grammar, are now optional (author included) in electronic communication. Even emails are a level above tweets and text messages. Technology is disruptive, but does it need to be always be destructive? The oxymoronic Schumpeter-ism - 'creative destruction' leans heavily on the latter. In terms of the defending the ancient art of letter writing, I am an occasional and limited contributor. It is a bit of a cop-out, but I have been writing postcards pretty religiously for the last 6 years or so. Whenever I am out of town, I pick up a few postcards, hunt for stamps and as far as possible mail them from the location. One postcard is always sent home to my parents. The others are sent to a random assortment of friends. I must add that every single one of them was glad to receive the postcard but no one has written one to me. Karmic destiny may not work on human time-scale. Sigh! One of my New Year's Resolutions is to write at least 12 actual letters in the coming year, one for every month of the year. There was something satisfying in writing the letter, the sealing of the envelope, the licking of the stamp, and the walk to the postbox. The postbox gobbled the letter and then began the mystery of when it would exactly reach the addressee. Just as I was done composing my first draft of the first letter of the year, I came across this piece by Roger Angell who reports and laments the loss of confirmed next-day delivery by the United States Postal Service. What is exactly lost? that calls for this sort of nostalgic longing?

Losing the mixed pleasures of just arrived letters may not mean as much in the end as what we’re missing by not writing them. Writing regularly to several people—a parent, a friend who’s moved to another coast, a daughter or son away at college—requires one to keep separate mental ledgers, storing up the weather or the idle thoughts or the disasters we need to pass on. We’re always getting ready to write. The letters out and back become a correspondence, and mysteriously take on a tone of their own: some rambly and comfortably boring; others cool and funny; some financial; some confessional. They stick in the mind and seem worth the trouble....

Letters aren’t exactly going away. Condolence letters can’t be sent out from our laptops, and maybe not love letters, either, because e-mail is so leaky. Secrets—an expected baby, a lowdown joke, a killer piece of gossip—require a stamp and a sealed flap, and perhaps apologies do as well (“I don’t know what came over me”). Not much else. E-mail is cheap, and the message is done and delivered almost as quickly as the thought of it.

  Roger Angell on writing letters in the New Yorker
Old emails to my parents are now mostly lost - cremated electronically or permanently exiled and then forgotten in some folder. One doesn't feel their loss. Of course, my mother has saved every one of my letters and postcards in a special folder that is stored in her steel Godrej cupboard. Those real, actual letters will survive many years to be read again and again.