Book of Uncertain Knowledge

If, in some cataclysm, all of scientific knowledge were to be destroyed, and only one sentence passed on to the next generation of creatures, what statement would contain the most information in the fewest words? I believe it is the atomic hypothesis that all things are made of atoms…”

You have probably come across these lines by Richard Feynman. Now assuming we had the luxury of sending across not one sentence but one book to the next generation of creatures, which one would you choose? My vote would fall upon John L. Casti’s Paradigms lost. Its value – in the context of this enterprise – lies in addressing important issues about which we do not have conclusive answers yet: origins of life, search for extra-terrestrial intelligence, quantum mechanics, artificial intelligence, human capacity for language, and genetic basis for human behaviour. Each of these six topics merits a book in itself, but Casti does a great job of condensing these diverse and controversial subjects within a single volume while covering the different sides of each story in the form of a jury trial, before finally playing judge and pronouncing his verdict.

I first learnt about this book about a decade back, and I’ve kept coming back to it from time to time. Each chapter can be read independently, and that makes it managable in parts. Currently I’m reading the chapter on the unique ability of humans to communicate using language (and the theories surrounding this capacity, with Noam Chomsky dominating the initial pages). I hope to discuss – in the coming days or weeks – this topic in greater detail.

Art of Writing

One of the best quotes I’ve seen so far on the art of writing is one I found quoted in John D. Barrow’s The Universe That Discovered Itself. Among the quotes at the beginning of this book is one from Mary Heaton Vorse :

The art of writing is the art of applying

the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.

Well, it is precisely the kind of advice a person like me needs. I should hang this up in every corner of my house.

Welcome aboard, Captain!

…for the sailor’s worst enemy is not the raging storm; it is not the foaming wave which pounds upon the bridge, sweeping all before it; it is not the treacherous reef lurking beneath the sea, ready to rend the keel asunder; the sailor’s worst enemy is drink!

No, that isn’t an extract from the Alcoholics Anonymous manifesto. Speaking on the radio at the end of his first adventure with Tintin, that is Captain Archibald Haddock, president of the Society of Sober Sailors. He is sharing his views on a topic close to his heart, and after these words when he pauses for a moment to wet his lips with a drink, he promptly collapses. We learn that the drink was something he isn’t quite used to: water.


Like many others, I discovered the adventures of Tintin during my childhood. Looking back, it strikes me that Tintin contributed significantly to my education about the world during those days. I learnt about the moon’s rocky surface not from photographs published by NASA but from Tintin’s explorations on the moon, and I discovered the wonders that lay at the bottom of the sea not through Discovery channel but while hunting for Red Rackham’s treasure. Red Indians came to my knowledge when Tintin went to America, and the Inca civilization revealed itself to me when he was made a prisoner of the Sun. The first footprints of the Yeti were the ones I saw when Tintin visited Tibet, and the first opera singer I encountered was the irresistible Bianca Castafiore, whose melody transcended those pages, tickled my ears and sent a chill down my spine.

These days I am reading these timeless adventures in chronological order, discovering the minute details depicted there, and rediscovering the idiosyncrasies of adorable characters who surface from time to time. Captain Haddock has just made his acquaintance with Tintin in The Crab with the Golden Claws, where he is in his elements from the beginning, causing one calamity after another in his inebriated state and reserving the choicest words for Tintin’s worst enemies. His vocabulary, when carefully accounted, is prodigious:

Miserable whipper-snapper! … Meddlesome cabin-boy!… Swine!…Jellyfish!… Tramps!…Troglodytes!…Toffee-noses!… Savages!… Aztecs!… Toads!… Carpet-sellers!!… Iconoclasts!… Rats!…Ectoplasms!… Freshwater Swabs!… Bashi-bazouks!… Cannibals!… Caterpillars!… Cowards!… Baboons!… Parasites!… Pockmarks!… Blistering Barnacles!!!…Bandits!… Brutes!… Oh Columbus!… Slave-trader!… Twister!… Heretic!… Technocrat!!!… Bucaneer!… Vegetarian!!!!…Politician!!… Pirate!… Corsair!… Harlequin!… Hydrocarbon!… Aborigine!… Polynesian!… Gyroscope!… Blackamoor!… Anthracite!… Coconut!!!… Fuzzy-wuzzy!… Anthropithecus!… Blackbird!… Nincompoop!… Anacoluthon!… Invertebrate!… Liquorice!

All this in his very first outing with Tintin. Phew!

When this rekindled interest in Tintin had me hooked, I scouted the web for Tintin related sources and found plenty. The official Tintin site is a real treat for Tintin lovers. An interesting piece of information I gathered there was about the usage of the Golden Ratio by Herge – creator of Tintin – to depict some scenes :

Vitruvius, a Roman architect from the 1st century B.C., defines the principle as follows. For an area divided in unequal parts to be aesthetical, there must exist between the smaller area and the larger one, the same relation than between the latter and the entire area.
The result is 4 golden points, among which the artist can choose one to place the most important element of his work, thus be assured that it will be placed most appropriately on an aesthetics stand point.

Apart from the official site, I found a Tintin Webring, Tintin trivia quiz, Tintin wallpapers, Tintin Video previews, Tintin Video Games, Tintin Magazine, and Tintin Stores. There is also an exhibition of Tintin’s sea adventures scheduled to be held in March in London’s National Maritime museum.

About an year back there was a press release which stated that Steven Spielberg will be making a movie based on Tintin. The film is expected to be released in 2004, so after three years of Lord of the Rings this year there is something new and different I can look forward to.

Teen Deewaren

Three prisoners facing death penalty for committing murder, a documentary filmmaker interviewing them within the walls of a “self-sustaining” prison, slowly bringing out bits and pieces of their story and getting involved herself. A theme absorbing enough to keep you glued to the screen, wondering what will happen next.

In Teen Deewaren Nagesh Kukunoor has come of age as a director. The movie is a big improvement over Hyderabad Blues – his first movie – and one sees this in many facets, notably editing, screenplay and direction. My only complaint is with the ending. Although satisfying when I watched it – especially after the gloom of impending death that casts a shadow for most of the movie – the dramatic turn of events at the end is something I could not accept fully. Happy endings such as the one portrayed are rare; reality is harsher than that. The film would have left us with a deeper message – about the helplessness of the common man in his fight against a corrupt and convoluted system of justice – had it taken the more probable course and ended in a tragedy, taking the gloom to its climax with the death of all three.

An older Nagesh Kukunoor would have scripted his story differently, perhaps. Let us wait and see what this talented young filmmaker has in store for us.

Signs of age

We spent New Year’s Eve at home, watching firecrackers splash the neighboring sky with colorful sparkles. Not very exciting in the popular sense, but calm, relaxing and cozy.

I sometimes do not understand the significance we give to dates. To me, such dates – of religious, cultural or personal importance – are useful to the extent they serve to motivate a community event that brings people together. And they are nice for children, whose memories of such events are like bookmarks to a past they would want to, later in their lives, look back and feel good about. I do have fond memories of festivals & birthdays celebrated while growing up, but these days such dates fail to excite me.

As another year goes by, the signs of age become more prominent.