Vampire, Vampire, Burning Bright

When I was ten years old or so, my father and I went to visit an old friend of his at his sprawling home. While they chatted in the living room, I went wandering around the house, looking for books to browse through. (I had asked for, and had been granted permission to do so; my father knew it was the best way to keep me occupied while the adult conversation proceeded.) In a bedroom upstairs, I found a bookshelf, and began looking through its offerings. I quickly found one title that looked good for a read: Vampires. A pair of bloodstained fangs adorned the cover, and it featured a collection of plates mid-volume.

This was no pop book; this was a serious history of the vampire phenomenon in cultural history. I read the first few pages, grimly fascinated by the descriptions of the undead nocturnal blood sucking creatures  that had so terrified and excited the human imagination through the ages. I had seen Dracula: Prince of Darkness a year or so before (somehow, my parents had allowed me to do so); I knew of vampires and their properties. But I had not realized they had been such a perennial fascination across cultures and time. I spent, as can be imagined, more time on the black and white plates than on actual reading–there were enough gruesome drawings and depictions of various forms of the vampyric to send chills down my spine as I sat there, alone, in that bedroom, engrossed and horrified in equal measure.

Soon, I was called downstairs by my father. Our visit was over. I was relieved and disappointed in equal measure. But I did not ask to borrow the book, to continue reading it. Something about it had made me deeply uneasy.

Later that evening, I went out to play soccer in the local park, and stayed out late, kicking around with my mates till dusk fell. At that point, with the sun setting and visibility increasingly poor, we reluctantly called it a day and headed home. I walked down my lane back home, ready for a shower, and then, dinner with my parents. I walked up the stairs to our second level home, and rang the bell.

No one answered. I rang the bell again. Still no answer. I realized, suddenly, that our normally well-let living room, clearly visible through the sliding glass door, was dark, utterly so. So was the bedroom my brother and I used. No one was at home. I was alone, standing on our darkened balcony.

At that moment, every single image I had seen earlier that day, came flooding back, jostling for attention. Every fear that had remained hidden, that I had struggled to keep latent during the day suddenly made itself manifest. This dark balcony was no longer familiar; its corners crawled with menace.

I burst into tears; I was utterly, totally, terrified. I cursed myself for having exposed my vision and my imagination to those depictions of bloody teeth, cowering victims, and caped creatures of the night. I was convinced my death and damnation were at hand.

A few seconds later, my mother, having heard my bawling from the back of the house, the kitchen, where she had been cooking the night’s dinner, came running out.  Salvation was at hand.

I’ve never been as scared since. By the supernatural at least.

Speaking In Accents – II

In response to my post yesterday, a Facebook friend offered the following perspicuous comments:

I have no control over my accent and it breaks my heart when my dialect goes missing – and faking it/forcing it is difficult and problematic to boot. I just want so badly to rub my accent in the face of every stereotype of the illiterate drunken welfare bum, but code switching happens even when I don’t want it to. So often dialect becomes kind of trivialized, but really, in my experience, it’s at the core of cultural identity.

[T]he final point in the blog post about [Samir's] unconscious ability as a linguistic sponge contrasted with the observation that Americans rarely pick up Indian accent features even if surrounded by them is SO IMPORTANT. Power and perception of prestige is such a huge dimension guiding whether accents are abandoned, modified, or clung to….in my own life, I’ve observed how so many Newfoundlanders move away and lose their accents – learn to speak ‘correctly,’ ugh – but I can’t think of examples of Canadians who move to Newfoundland and pick up the local way of speaking in a significant way. [links added]

Accents can be (are?) markers of privilege and power. The immigrant loses his accent, but not all kinds of immigrants; it depends on who is immigrating, and where.

Accents and assimilation go together; those that seek to assimilate, often seek to lose their accents; those that don’t want to, or don’t need to, do not. There is little you can do about skin color or physical appearance, but perhaps there is a great deal that can be done about the way you sound. (Witness the popularity of ‘accent removal classes‘ in the US, for instance.) And such linguistic assimilation can be crucially important.

A reminder of an accent, especially in mixed company, is a galling business. Even if you aren’t seeking assimilation consciously, it can be a simple reminder of difference, of outside status. These reminders can vary: sometimes its the request to speak slower, to repeat oneself; sometimes its the insensitive impromptu mimicry; sometimes its the well-meant but often awkward, “I love it when you pronounce X like that”; sometimes its the simple query, “What kind of accent is that?” The accented speaker feels the spotlight turn on him; he had thought he had sneaked in, but his papers have been asked for, and they’ve been found wanting. His cover is blown.

More problematically, an accent can simply disguise your content with its form; you might be making eminent sense, but the overlaying accent invokes a prejudice that clouds comprehension. In some kinds of conversation, some kinds of accents don’t work. It’s easier to talk about cricket in an Indian accent than it is about baseball or football; I’m supposed to be talking about, and dispensing wisdom on, the former, but not about the latter. I will not be heard in the latter case.

All accents are not equal, of course. In my twenty-seven years in the US, I’ve never seen an Italian or French friend told their accented English was difficult to understand, or asked to repeat themselves, or had it mimicked to their face. Their listeners strain to understand them; these accents are markers of sophisticated European cultures, signals of sophistication. On a related note, I’ve never heard complaints about Italian or French speakers talking to each other in their home languages in mixed company, a grouse all too often directed at other more ‘insular’ folk from lands a little further east.

I’ll never lose my accent; I wouldn’t know how even as it occasionally synchronizes with the speech of those around me. My daughter will realize, soon enough, her father sounds different from most around her. Hopefully, she won’t be too confused or mortified by the difference between her Brooklyn accent and my mutt one.

Speaking In Accents – I

Like every human on this planet, I speak with an accent. In my case, I speak English with a curious, hybrid, mongrelized accent – Indian, but bearing the impress of twenty-seven years on the US East Coast. It is distinct and unmistakable–no American will ever think I have grown up in the US. It is clear I’m from ‘elsewhere.’ (I mix up my Ws and Vs, I do not always pronounce vowels in the clipped style so distinctive of American English, and of course, I sometimes emphasize syllables in my own idiosyncratic way.) Sometimes, when I travel, Europeans–and others too–think I have an American accent, but Americans know it is not. Interestingly, because the Indian accent has some intonation patterns similar to that of the Irish, Scottish and Welsh accents, I’ve sometimes been asked–only in the US, not elsewhere–why I’m speaking in a brogue.  (In the opening scenes of Twin Town, the Lewis brothers, from Swansea, Wales, are shown talking to their mother–I think–in hospital; their conversation is only partially audible. I could have sworn I was listening to Indians.) And of course, because I speak English with an accent, it is a common enough suggestion that English is not my ‘first language’, that rather it is my ‘second language.’ But as I noted here a while ago, English is my first language in every relevant dimension.

When I speak to Indians, whether here in the US or in India, as the conversation proceeds, the Indian roots of my English become ever more prominent till, finally, it seems to me I’m speaking English the way I used to when I lived in India. As my brother said to me when I first traveled back to India after spending nearly three years in the US, “You were speaking funny when you got off the plane but by the time we got home, you’d become normal again.”

Once, I was accused of feigning an accent–a particularly damning accusation of insincerity and inauthenticity as far as my interlocutor was concerned. I was the archetypal post-colonial, trying to sneak into the club. But for me, the only partial Americanization of my accent has been a subtle process; I have not been conscious of it being molded and shaped as I spoke English in the US. Instead, it has seemed to me that as I have participated in conversations, my spoken English has, in a kind of sympathetic dance, aligned itself with that of the speaker.  A related observation was made by my wife who pointed out that when I conversed with a good French friend of mine, I seemed  to start throwing around Gallic shrugs by the dozen. And then, lastly, when I lived in Australia, I did pick up, quite quickly, many distinct Australianisms.

No American, of course, has had his spoken English acquire an Indian accent by talking to me, so perhaps the original accusation did have some weight. Perhaps there is a bit of Zelig in me–in the linguistic dimension. More on this anon.

Tocqueville On Slaves, House Of Cards, And Miami

In his classic Democracy in America, in the section “Situation Of The Black Population In The United States, And Dangers With Which Its Presence Threatens The Whites”, Alexis Tocqueville wrote:

[I]n a certain portion of the territory of the United States…the legal barrier which separated the two races is tending to fall away, but not that which exists in the manners of the country; slavery recedes, but the prejudice to which it has given birth remains stationary. Whosoever has inhabited the United States must have perceived that in those parts of the Union in which the negroes are no longer slaves, they have in no wise drawn nearer to the whites….the prejudice of the race appears to be stronger in the States which have abolished slavery, than in those where it still exists; and nowhere is it so intolerant as in those States where servitude has never been known….In the South, where slavery still exists, the negroes are less carefully kept apart; they sometimes share the labor and the recreations of the whites; the whites consent to intermix with them to a certain extent, and although the legislation treats them more harshly, the habits of the people are more tolerant and compassionate. In the South the master is not afraid to raise his slave to his own standing, because he knows that he can in a moment reduce him to the dust at pleasure.

This passage on segregation and the power structures that create and sustain it inspire the following indirectly related observations:

1.  In House of Cards Francis Underwood is shown loving the finger-licking good ribs at Freddy’s BBQ, a down-home Southern joint owned by Freddy Hayes. The Wikipedia entry for the character describes him as “One of Frank’s only true friends and confidants who he turns to for a fun talk.” One of the reasons, of course, that Freddy, a black man from the South, is such a ‘true friend’ to Francis, is that besides his facility with ribs, he knows his place; he knows the line not to be crossed. In the North the “negroes” Tocqueville observed did not know their place.

2. Where segregation is visible and manifest by a variety of social mechanisms it can soon become self-imposed.  My first trip to Miami in 1990 was made in the company of a Haitian friend. We drove down, visited a Cuban friend of ours, and checked out some of the local attractions, including its white sanded beaches. A short while after we had hit the waves and stretched out for a little sunning–not that we, black and brown–needed any, my friend got up, gathered his belongings and said he wanted a change of scene, a “better spot.” He seemed uncomfortable. I was a little puzzled; our spot seemed perfect. But I accompanied him as he left. We walked on for about ten minutes or so,  and then parked ourselves in a locale that did not seem too different from the one we had left. I remained puzzled. But not for too long. When I looked around, I noticed there were more black people around us. Indeed, a few minutes later, when I walked back to our car to retrieve some food and drink to bring back to our blanket, I could look down on the beach below me and saw distinct swathes of black, brown, and white. The population of Miami had, on this beach, with varying degrees of consciousness about their actions, sorted themselves into distinct bands on its sands. They knew where and around whom they wanted to be; they knew who would want to be around them; they all knew their place.

Waterboardin’ Brothers: The ISIS And The US

Over at The New York Times, Rukmini Callimachi writes on the inhumane treatment the ISIS meted out to those they held hostage (some of whom, like James Foley, were subsequently beheaded). Of particular interest to all Americans should be her descriptions of their torture techniques:

The story of what happened in the Islamic State’s underground network of prisons in Syria is one of excruciating suffering. Mr. Foley and his fellow hostages were routinely beaten and subjected to waterboarding….At one point, their jailers arrived with a collection of orange jumpsuits….they lined up the French hostages in their brightly colored uniforms, mimicking those worn by prisoners at the United States’ facility in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. They also began waterboarding a select few, just as C.I.A. interrogators had treated Muslim prisoners at so-called black sites during the George W. Bush administration….Within this subset, the person who suffered the cruelest treatment…was Mr. Foley. In addition to receiving prolonged beatings, he underwent mock executions and was repeatedly waterboarded. Meant to simulate drowning, the procedure can cause the victim to pass out. When one of the prisoners was hauled out, the others were relieved if he came back bloodied.“It was when there was no blood,” a former cellmate said, “that we knew he had suffered something even worse.” [italics added]

If ‘waterboarding‘ is now a distinguished member of the American lexicon it is not because the US, as defender of human rights and exporter of freedom, has undertaken a bold, morally inflected campaign to stamp out its usage. Rather it is because its use as an ‘enhanced interrogation technique,’ as an instrument of foreign policy, and the subsequent failure to punish those who indulged in it has become the starkest recent instance of American hypocrisy in a domain which can ill afford such displays.

A hypocrite easily provokes rage; a sanctimonious, blustering, bullying hypocrite provokes an effusion of bilious resentment, which cannot be suppressed for too long. It all too easily finds expression in violence.  This resentment need not be confined to the socially disenfranchised, the poor, the usual subjects of concerned theorizing; instead, even those considerably more fortunate in life may find themselves infected by its virulence. Perhaps we should be a little less surprised than we profess to be that such a motley crew finds itself attracted to the fulminations of the ISIS. Its activities promise them release from the febrile anger that surges through them–no matter how barbaric.

Let us then, gaze upon the evidence before us, of where we have been brought, of how far the mighty have sunk: a prominent arrow in the quiver of one of this world’s most depraved political entities is a torture technique it has borrowed from those who loudly proclaim their perennial standing as arbiters of the world moral order. The long road to moral perdition that began with the declaration of an illegal war against Iraq in 2003 is finding, now, its wholly expected terminus–a rendezvous and commingling and hail-brother-well-mets with those that were supposedly the antithesis to our thesis.

Twitter’s Design And The Deadly Sin Of Task Modification

Over at Slate, David Auerbach has an excellent analysis of how the interface of a social networking tool–in this case, Twitter–can severely degrade the discourse it is supposed to to be facilitating:

Twitter’s founders initially formulated it as a broadcast tool to publish announcements to your friends and to the world, and to that extent it works fine. But once dialogue is taking place, Twitter becomes a cocktail party where everyone has a megaphone. Twitter lets you shout in public—so imagine everyone trying to shout conversations with one another in a public space….on Twitter, anyone who might take offense is likely to overhear….its design stresses conflict and impedes consensus. Once five or 10 people who disagree with you descend, it is very difficult to keep the original conversation going, since Twitter’s threading of conversations is nightmarish. Not only do you lose tweet space as a conversation gains more members, but as tweets branch off with different combinations of people, it can be impossible for any one person to see the entire conversation.

Auerbach then goes on to provide a clear example of how, for online discussion, the venerable Internet Relay Channel remains a vastly superior space and notes:

IRC…offers everything for conversation that Twitter doesn’t: topic-based chat rooms that you can drop in and out of, a real-time roster of participants, and a single complete stream of conversation…..On Twitter, the line between discussion and harassment is slippery. As soon as people overhear something they don’t like, they can drop in. If a lot of people hear something they don’t like, you will get swamped, and since you are always alone on Twitter…it can be discomfiting if even one of those people is less than friendly. Moreover, even if your critics have the most impeccable manners, it’s easy to become defensive and even scared if a dozen people simultaneously and independently disagree with you.

He concludes:

Twitter is a verbal minefield that encourages harassment while discouraging productive conversation.

More than two decades ago, when I first began studying online discourse in the context of computer mediated conferencing systems (in particular, EIES), I took a class in user interface design with my then academic adviser, Murray Turoff. One of the central commandments of interface design for the systems we worked on was quite simple: the interface should roughly map on to the cognitive style of the user. That is, if you are used to communicating or problem solving in a particular way, one which ‘works for you’, which enables you to achieve your substantive aims, then the online system’s interface should approximate it as closely as possible. You should not have to change the way you communicate or solve problems in order to accommodate your system’s idiosyncrasies; it should be the other way around. Otherwise the system is guilty of the sin of task modification. (Remember the drunk searching for his car keys under the lamppost rather than the parking lot where he dropped them, because ‘the light’s better here’?)

A classic example: old school command line mailers used to ask you to enter a recipient’s address in the cc: field before you began composing an email, and then moved you on to the actual writing of the text. Once you were done writing, you could not change the address fields to add more recipients list – whether in the to: or in the cc: field. Now, we do not write and communicate like this; very often, we will think of who should receive our communiques once we have written them. Its content–dynamically generated by us–can lead us to reconsider who should receive it: ‘This might be of interest to X too.’ The email clients that soon replaced the command line mailers added this functionality – you can add recipients to your message before, after, and during the composition of a message. They better approximate and accommodate their users’ styles.

Twitter is guilty of task modification. It forces us to change the way we communicate–even if we are in public–simply to accommodate its design features. Auerbach is right: Twitter is broken.

Note: Of course, individuals have vastly differing styles of communication and work so an ideal interface would be tailorable by each user. More on that later.

Running On Dark Mornings: How Virtuous It Is

In his autobiography The Greatest: My Own Story, (which I read as a pre-teen), Muhammad Ali often described his training routines. Among their components was something called ‘roadwork.’ I knew it involved running, but didn’t fully understand the roles shadow boxing and jumping rope played in it. Roadwork was an early morning business; Ali would leave his home when it was still dark outside, and often return home, just as his family was stirring. For some reason, nothing quite captured for me the essence of the champion he was than the fact that he was out and about, in the darkness, finishing up his beginning to the day before others had even acquired full consciousness. That image of the boxer stepping out into the cold dark–I always imagined it to be cold, even if Ali might have been describing a summer training session–to hone his body and mind for the punishing fifteen-round examination that awaited him always did it.

I have thought of that reaction on a couple of occasions over the past few weeks as the days have grown shorter and cooler–as I step out for my Tuesday/Friday morning run. Thanks to my running partner‘s work schedule changing, we now meet just a little earlier, and so it is just a little darker when I wake up to the alarm, drink my coffee, lace up, and head out.  The alarm’s sound is unwelcome; I hate leaving my warm bed; the coffee offers some relief and courage. But all dissonance disappears once I step out the door, onto the street. At that moment, all doubt vanishes. Any prior conceptions of oneself as stiff, sleepy, unluckily deprived of comfort while the fortunate slumber on are dispelled. They are replaced, instead, by just a little chest-puffery: Lookit me, stepping out in the dark, braving the elements, boldly going forth to exert my sinews. Truth be told, I feel like a champ. Not the greatest by a long shot but a champ anyway.

Around me, the city is stirring, slowly, to life. Some folks are headed to work, yet others are returning from late shifts. They, and I, seem drawn together in our virtuous waking state; they, and I, seem like pioneers. Who knows what these early hours are like? We do.

The end of the run–a pleasant, easy paced 3.4 mile loop around Prospect Park–brings its own reward.  As I come down the final hill to the closing stretch, using my acquired downward momentum to generate a final speedy kick for the finish line, I am flanked by a glorious crimson and orange sunrise on my left, coming up over Prospect Park Lake, coloring its calm waters, and seemingly heralding my triumphant breasting of the tape. And then, once I begin my walk back home, I am able to savor, at leisure, the fabled runner’s after-glow. A day that will feature its inevitable share of disappointments lies ahead of me; for now, it’s good to get this deposit into the feel-good piggy bank out of the way.

Note: An earlier entry in the ‘How Virtuous It Is’ series is here.