Sunday, July 29, 2007

A Quick Observation

I was just reading a couple of posts from my old blog. The blog itself is not as polished as this one, but the quality of the writing is far far higher. The thoughts are similar, but that blog seems a much greater joy to read. It made me realize the importance of writing regularly in order to keep the writing level up there. And writing is an essential skill. Maybe that will motivate me to write far more posts than I did before.

I am being ambitious, and aiming for at least 5 posts a week.

Lets see how that works out! (Quite discouraging are my archives, which barely show any month with more than 1 post in it!!). On the other hand, I already have 3 in the last 2 days (although this really should not count..)


I recently came across this page while looking for music recommendations. I am one of those people who hate listening to individual tracks, but would rather listen to the entire album. It allows me to experience the music in the exact manner that the artist would like me to. While this may not be the best way to get the most out of the music (listening to the best tracks from each album is obviously more efficient), it helps me appreciate each album as a work of art. Often, you find that the lingering sounds from the previous track change the way you perceive the current song completely.

Anyways, I downloaded the top 10 albums on the list and decided I would listen to all of them. Having already listened to all the Beatles albums on the list, I started with the album "Pet Sounds" by the Beach Boys (#2). It took me a while to digest the music, but once I gave it enough listens, I just could not get enough of it. One day, being really bored, and with nothing to do, I dug up some background info on the album. Apparently, the Beatles released "Rubber Soul" (#5) in 1965, which inspired the Beach Boys to release "Pet Sounds" in 1966, which in turn inspired the Beatles to release "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" (#1) in 1967.

Stop there for a second and imagine yourself as a teenager in the 60s. The hippie culture is sweeping America, which while you might not have appreciated, you cannot deny was fantastically anti-establishment. And what does a teenager like more than the smell of revolution in the morning? And then comes 1965 and you listen to rubber soul for the first time. It is amazinng, and you say that there will never be anything like it, ever again. And then the next year your predictions are proved hopelessly wrong when Pet Sounds come out. This time though, you are not going to be wrong in saying that this is as far as music will go, you think. You even place money on it. And then the Beatles come back and give a crushing blow to your pocket money savings as you lose the bet with the release of Sgt. Peppers. What a time to be a 15 year old! (Oh, and then 2 years later, HOLY SHIT, man walks on fucking moon, but that is slightly off-topic).

And then there is the maybe not so surprising fact that each of these masterpieces existed directly because of each other. There is something quite amazing, and I dare I say it, religious in the idea that one set of geniuses are pushing another bunch to continually advance the pinnacle of human achievement. I can almost feel the excitement that must have pulsing through civilization as every boundary was tested, and pressed as far as it could go. And it was something the entire world could share in. Music was not restricted to the Western world, but was available to every person on the planet, being one of the most universal mediums that has existed in history.

You would have thought that with such a fantastic platform to build upon, there was no place music could go but up. And for a while it did, as Pink Floyd in the 70's and many others then and after could testify. However, looking at the current music scene I cannot help but shed a tear or two. How many songs in the last five years can you point to and say you would actually be listening to it in 20 years? How many albums would you go and buy repeatedly every time it was released in a new format? Where is all the groundbreaking music that changes the way you live your life, and is a defining moment of the era? Why are artists not pushing each other to outdo themselves, as well as everyone else? The only competitive inspiring I see is "beefs" between different rap singers, who use their next album as an excuse to hurl f-bombs at people they hate. There is no respect for their peers, and why would there be any? Its not like anyone is creating anything worth respecting...

What has caused this decline? I think a big factor is the rise of the gangsta culture which places greater importance on the 'bling' on a person rather than the quality of their work. (Btw, isn't it ironic that these men who pretend to be so 'bad-ass' and 'manly' are such fans of gold and jewellery, historically, a feminine pursuit). At the same time, no small part is played by the record labels who have constantly looked out for artists whose music may be terrible, but can be packaged well, because in today's superficial world, it is the cover that sells. Witness the boy bands of the 90s, the teenage girl revolution of the late 90s (would Britney have a single song if she always looked like this?) and now gangsta rappers, whose CVs have nothing but a description of each time they have been shot. Additionally, music is now competing for talent with so many other pursuits, such as television and movies.

There might still be light at the end of the tunnel though. With the rise of the internet, the record labels might just be pushed out of the equation. With sites like iTunes, and myspace giving artists direct access to massive audiences, good musicians might be able to reach the public without having their lights put out prematurely by record labels who did not find them "marketable enough". Also, with regular home computers being able to perform all the functions that one earlier needed a record studio for, the barriers to entry have been considerably lowered, allowing more people to enter the music game. (Consider this, for my cousin's wedding, I was able to do all sorts of cutting, and blending of tracks using Garageband on my mac that was earlier being done in a professional studio for Rs. 100 an hour). Hopefully, if the quantity of chaff is increased, there might just be more wheat that comes along with it.

Do you agree with me on the state of music? If not, why? If so, then do you share my optimism for the future? Shoot off in the comments...

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Coming out of the closet

The title does not mean what you might think it means. If this recent survey is to be believed, it is even worse, since I now consider myself atheist.

Most people have a lot of preconceived notions regarding atheists. Unfortunately, most of them are completely false, and are a result of people not understanding what the word means, and what the philosophy implies. By definition, atheism is the lack of theism. Theism is further defined as the belief in "at least one god". So atheism is the lack of belief in at least one god. Nothing more, nothing less. An atheist does not necessarily believe that god does not exist but rather, the question that god exists does not even strike him, just like the question that the tooth fairy is real does not even strike most sane adults.

It is a sad fact of humanity that theism is indeed the default position and atheism is frowned upon. A very basic logical principle is that the burden of proof lies on the individual/group making an assertion, in this case the ones claiming god exists. However, in our twisted world, the burden of proof has been placed on the atheists to prove that god does not exist. A little thought will uncover at least a couple of the many reasons why it is impossible to prove this negative. The concept of god is pretty much the only one in which such a situation arises. A classic consequence of the "proving the assertion" policy is the principle of "innocent until proven guilty" which is the bedrock of every successful modern legal system. Further, a belief in god is not the default position because of the merits of such a theory, but rather because our ancestors conjured imaginary creatures to explain phenomena they did not understand, and then passed them down as fact.

One major misconception is that atheists lack morals. Most theists learn that they should be good because they will be punished by god if they aren't. So they find it hard to believe that someone could base their morality on anything else. The only reason I want to do good is because I feel good when being good. Morality is an innate part of me and almost every other human being, much like how we all feel pain on touching a hot object. More often than not, religion is designed and interpreted to fit humanity's current moralities. For example, the following passage from the bible which deals with raising children is completely ignored nowadays because it does not fit with our modern sense of right and wrong.

Deuteronomy 21: 18-21
18If a man have a stubborn and rebellious son, which will not obey the voice of his father, or the voice of his mother, and that, when they have chastened him, will not hearken unto them:

19Then shall his father and his mother lay hold on him, and bring him out unto the elders of his city, and unto the gate of his place;

20And they shall say unto the elders of his city, This our son is stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton, and a drunkard.

21And all the men of his city shall stone him with stones, that he die: so shalt thou put evil away from among you; and all Israel shall hear, and fear.

So if morality is derived from religion/god, then what has caused christians to discard this section? The answer is quite obviously a value system that has arisen independent of their religious beliefs. Indian culture is also a fantastic example. Most of the "holy books", like the Ramayana, and the Mahabharata are widely acknowledged, even by most hindus, as books written by wise human beings to provide moral guidelines. While hindus call it part of their religion now, the people came up with it in the absence of any religion feeding them all these ideas. They were all original and came independent of any word from god. Instead, they were derived from the individual's experiences and study.

Normally, I dont care two hoots about religion and god. However, a quick look around us shows the disastrous effects these concepts are having on us and our planet. I am not even going to mention terrorism (except this one time), but only need to look back at our past for well documented atrocities. The church's suppression of Science and Scientific ideas in the middle ages is well documented. Unfortunately, such things are not confined to the past, as evidenced by the difficulties scientists are having in conducting stem cell research in first world nations like the US. Also, as discrimination against homosexual people, and calamities like this show, not only is religion impeding Science, but is destroying valuable lives in the process.

I do not have a problem with the basic practice of following a religion. I do not have a problem with belief in god by itself. I do, however, have a problem with irrationally placing faith in a higher power, or following rituals because "god says so" (where god is invariably a priest, parent, or someone on TV). Unfortunately, currently a belief in god is inherently irrational and following religion (being a person of faith) automatically condemns you to following a higher power with, at best, limited skepticism. Which is why I reject both.

Note: My ideas and philosophies have not really changed much since when I considered myself hindu. Fact is, I can still call myself one, but I do not since most people consider hinduism a religion, which it most certainly is not (or at least not a religion like Christianity, or Islam. But that is a topic for a different day). I do not want to have anything to do with religion, or have anyone even think I might be remotely religious. Which is why I have decided to shed the hindu label (which honestly, is completely meaningless to begin with) and adopt the atheism one (which in an ideal world, would not even exist).