That’s not a car, that’s a lunchbox!

I remember this quote by Jeff Dunham’s puppet Achmed the Dead Terrorist. Powder Blue Prius, Chihuahua, Prius, puppets, Jeff has everything required to be called “gay”, according to both Achmed and Walter, another puppet.

That was my introduction to the Toyota Prius. I’d never seen it in India, and I’d never seen it in Taiwan or Singapore either (though to be fair, I think I’d visited Singapore before the thing had been released). And since I was too lazy to google it up, well, my impression was that it was a tiny car with almost no leg space and room enough for only two people.

So I was jogging the other night. 1am, quiet Kyoto streets, you know. The works. No earphones, though, I like jogging without music. The streets were incredibly silent. Just me, the slight burning in my legs, and my thoughts.

Or so I thought.

The crunching of gravel was the only thing which alerted me to the fact that I was not alone. I stopped jogging. The gravel stopped getting crunched. And suddenly, the road was flooded with light. I turned around to see a glossy black sedan behind me.

A whole bloody car. Not a hatchback. A ruddy sedan, had crept up behind me without getting noticed.

I stepped aside, and the car silently rolled by. As it crossed me, my eyes caught the “Prius” branding momentarily illuminated by a streetlamp. I swallowed, my preconceptions breaking down.

It didn’t look very different from any other car, except the fat in its posterior. Looked as if someone had fed the car through the wrong end, and the car was still chewing.

Okay, it was more graceful than that, but I digress.

And I just stood there for a full minute, watching it roll away silently into the distance. It made no noise. None of the traditional car sounds of revving engines and acceleration were made. It accelerated silently, and it cruised even quieter.

Wow. If a Prius is that awesome, I wonder what a Model S would be like!

The colours of the rainbow

I wrote this as an experiment. This piece does not reflect my true views on the LGBT community. As I am not a member of said community, it would be difficult for me to understand their views properly. Hence, I am neutral in the issue. If I were called to vote on the issue of gay marriage, for instance, I would not vote, no matter what the stakes.


“Should he have resigned?” he asked me.

“I don’t know, mate,” I said, working on my laptop.

“Come, on,” he urged me. “Think about it. Give me an opinion! I want to know your stand on it.”

I rolled my eyes. He could be such a drama queen at times.

“Forget the fact that I’m gay, mate,” he said. “And you know that I won’t hold anything against you.”

I sighed. “Fine,” I responded. “I don’t think Eich should have resigned from his post of Mozilla CEO. Happy?”

“Reasons, man!” he hollered, a large grin on his face. “I need your reasons!”

I groaned. The only way to oblige him here would be by acquiescing to his request. I took a deep breath.

“Look,” I began, “What is a company all about, hmm?”

“Building a product,” he replied.

“And what is Mozilla building?”

“Firefox, and Thunderbird, or they were building it anyway. Oh! And Firefox OS.”

“Exactly. And what does Brendan Eich’s stance on Gay marriage have to do with any of them?”

“A lot, I would think,” he replied, his voice turning a tad serious.

“How is that?” I asked.

“Well, imagine if my employer openly discriminated against the LGBT community,” he said. “Would I be comfortable working with him?”

“Mate, giving a donation to prop 8 is hardly discriminating against the LGBT community.”

“But it is!” he was getting serious now. It had started as fun, but I knew that this would need me to abandon my essay to focus properly. “He’s taking away my right to be with the man I want!”

I sighed. “No one’s taking your right to do that away. What you can’t do is legally marry him.”

“And isn’t that discrimination?” he pointed out. “Isn’t that the kind of discrimination sane, thinking human beings want to put an end to? I realise that you’re not particularly receptive to the feelings of the LGBT community yourself, but you’ve never said anything against their agenda either.”

“Well, think about it this way,” I said. “What is the end product of a marriage?”

“Happiness,” he replied instantly.

“Well, lots of heterosexual men would object, but no, that’s not what I meant.”

“Then what?”

“Children,” I replied as if it were the most obvious thing in the world.

He stared at me. “Man,” he said at last. “That is so nineteenth century.”

“No, think about it,” I replied. “Can any other institution allow you to have children?”

“No,” he said.

“Then? The only thing a state gets out of a marriage is new citizens. If you take people’s emotions out of the equation, then what is the need to allow gay or lesbian marriage?”

“But you can’t take human emotions out of the picture,” he pointed out. “Lots of people marry for reasons other than bringing forth kinds into the world.”

“And yet a majority of those in a marriage end up having kids,” I pointed out.

“Agreed,” he admitted. “But still, children is not the reason people marry. People have children when they are comfortable enough. It’s just a side product of marriage.”

“The most important side product of a marriage,” I pounced on his statement.

“Happiness is the most important side product of a marriage,” he pointed out. “People get divorced because they’re unhappy in their marriages, you know.”

“I do,” I replied. “I know that marriages break apart because of tension between the couple. But that tension can be caused due to many factors. You need to be happy in whatever you’re doing. Children could be a major reason for that tension, so could religion. Who knows? Maybe the wife suddenly realises her husband is a dumbass. It could be anything.”

“So the point where we disagree is the biological side product of marriage,” he said. “Well, it has been proven that homosexuality is biological.”

“And you know something else?” I said. “The very nature of human reproduction means that homosexuality is doomed to die out.”

“And yet,” he countered with a smile, “it hasn’t.”

I smiled back. “It hasn’t,” I replied. “But again, we’ve drifted off topic. How does this discussion affect what Eich’s decision should have been?”

“Because Eich supports inequality,” he replied.

I sighed. “I don’t think he does, fella. You’re allowed to marry whichever female agrees to marry you, as am I. How’s that unequal? He never tried to make things unequal for you.”

“He’s taking away my right to love whoever I want and not get vilified for it.”

I stood up. “You know something? If I went back home and told my mother that I’ve fallen in love with a Black, African woman, my mother will try to be happy for me. But she won’t be as happy as if I had chosen a White girl. Quite a large faction of my ‘modern Indian family’ will be scandalized.

It would have been the same thing had I suddenly decided to go gay. My parents would have been supportive, I’m sure, but I’m certain my grandmother would have gone into depression.”

“Well, that’s not right either,” he pointed out. “That’s pretty racist and petty of them.”

“My point is,” I said, glancing at him to shut him up, “that their views don’t mean jack to me. I can go against my family’s views and not care that they’ll stop loving me. I think it’s pretty clear that Eich might have, at one point, been against gay marriage, the same way I am academically, but that hardly means that he’s going to order all the members of the LGBT community to GTFO or STFU. In fact, I doubt he would honestly care what you do in the confines of your house, or even if you bring your partner to work for some reason.”

“But imagine this,” he argued. “Your employer is working actively to make sure that you never get to marry a chick from another country. Would you still work with him?”

“But is Eich actively doing that?” I shot back. “He donated $1000 once to prop 8. If my employer had once donated to some cause I hate, short of a terror outfit, of course, I wouldn’t really care. I mean, yeah, I work for you, and we have different views on something. That’s it. End of story. We smile and move on. That’s what a professional should be like.”

“Except that you probably don’t have issues that hit so close to home,” he pointed out. “He’s not violating a fundamental right of yours.”

“He’s not violating one of yours either,” I countered. “His supported view is not enforced any more, and you’re hounding him for a donation he made to a cause which was supported by the majority at that time. It makes little sense.”

“I don’t feel comfortable working with someone who hates people like me. I don’t feel comfortable knowing that he has it in him to fund something which tries to take away from me something which makes me happy.”

“What? The right to be with your partner? No one’s doing that to you. You can’t marry him, but you’re free as ever to walk out into the sunset holding hands. No one can legally stop you.”

He threw up his hands. “You’re impossible.”

“No,” I replied smugly, “My point of view is different from yours. I’m speaking as the devil’s advocate here regarding LGBT rights. Of course you should have them. But even if your employer decides that he or she personally does not share your views, you should not let your professionalism suffer for it.”

“Also,” I continued after a short pause, “Movements like Feminism and even LGBT Rights tend to irritate me. They make a lot of noise. Yes. I agree that you need your rights. Yes, I know that you’re fighting for them. But why do you have to emphasize it all the time?”

“Because every waking second for us is a struggle,” he said softly. “We’re denied things you heterosexual men take for granted. Freedom to choose who you want.”

“Then get into the government and change things,” I pointed out. “Rallies and excessive noise, like feminism, actually creates animosity.”

“That’s how we make people understand, that’s how we force them to look at the issue.”

“And for someone like me who’s actually looked at it, it’s annoying. I sympathise with your plight. That doesn’t mean I’m going to lift a finger to help you.”

“Evil is propagated when good men decide to do nothing. Don’t be one of those men.”

I took a deep breath and let it out. “I’m not going to be an obstacle to someone who’s doing something about it. I’m not going to be someone who doesn’t support people working on this. But don’t expect me to take the initiative. It’s not my fight.

When LGBT decides to add polygamy to it, call me. I’ll be protesting right up there with the best of you.”

#2 – Doshisha Mae

This is a short piece I wrote to increase my flash fiction writing skills. I’m going to be doing this regularly in order to help build them up and to learn to get inspired from the tiniest of thoughts.


“Hey.”

She looked up at me, a slightly quizzical look on her face. Michael and Ju Eun stood around 10 feet away, pretending they didn’t know me. It wasn’t easy, seeing that the three of us had been sitting together with Nick at Starbucks for the past hour. Nick, typically, was already outside, not interested in seeing me embarrass myself with a girl.

I’d been staring at her for the past 30 minutes. There were beautiful girls all around us, but somehow, she had been the one who’d struck me. And this itch to walk up to her, and tell her that she was the most beautiful thing this side of Eden just wouldn’t subside.

“Yes?” she asked. Her legs were drawn up on the couch she was on, a half full glass of black coffee on the table in front of her strewn with books. They looked mysterious to me, with Hiragana and Katakana symbols (which I could vaguely remember) and Kanji (which I’m hopeless with) smattered across them. A notebook was open in a delicate hand and she held a pen with the other, one end of which was trapped between her pink lips in a gesture both innocent and sensual the the same time.

I swallowed.

“I was just wondering,” I began, a slight hitch in my voice (down, boy!), “what you were working on. Are they log tables or something?”

Log tables. Yeah. Way to go. Next thing she’ll be asking me if my name’s Raj Kuthrapalli.

She scrunched her nose up for a second as she processed my statement, and my legs grew weak for a second. Only a second, as I managed to regain control over them a second later. That expression, my brain decided despite being on the verge of shutdown, needed to be burned into my mind and etched into the inside of my skull.

And then she smiled. “No,” she chirruped, “I’m making my timetable. I just started at University today, and I need to pick my professors.”

My brain receded from the edge of total lockdown to saner pastures. “Ah,” I replied, my hesitant smile becoming a tad more genuine. “We did the same thing back at Uni in India. What’s your major?”

“I’m in Political Science,” she replied, her voice sweet as honey. My eyes travelled from her impossibly bright eyes to her notebook, which had nothing but doodles in it. A dainty hand darted forward and shut it. My eyes followed that hand back to its owner and her face, a slight blush on her features.

“I’m not done yet,” she said shyly.

My smile grew wider and slightly conspiratorial. “That’s okay,” I winked, “I won’t tell anyone.”

She grinned, and I grinned with her. “You’re from India?” she asked, stretching in a cat-like manner.

I nodded, my eyes trying not to leave her face. She was dressed beautifully, a white top with the sleeves rolled up slightly to facilitate writing and a short black skirt underneath. Her legs were two smooth pieces of marble stretching away to eternity.

“I’m working at Kyodai,” I said. “You?”

“Doshisha-mae,” she replied.

“Ah,” I responded. “Well,” I realised that I had taken enough of her time. Michael, Nick and Ju Eun had to take the last train back to Osaka, and if I just stood there talking to her, I wouldn’t be able to board it with them (I was taking the same train back to Katsura). “I need to leave now, but it was really nice talking to you.”

“Nice talking to you too,” she said.

I turned away, and walked back to Michael and Ju Eun, and we began to walk towards the exit. My head turned reflexively to stare at her. Only to find that she was staring right back with those impossibly bright eyes, a smile on her face as her fingers went through her bangs. An innocent gesture, but one which was enough to make my heart beat at a pace which would have made John Bonham proud.

She had just a hint of makeup on, enough to accentuate the slightly snobbish look she had and make her lips look fuller. In a kimono, she would probably have had heads turning left, right and centre. My eyes strayed below her face to catch a golden pendant winking at me. I looked back up. Maybe I imagined it, but a knowing glint had entered her eyes. Eyes which seemed to say, “You naughty boy. You’ve been looking where you oughtn’t.” They accentuated her snobbish features even more.

Maybe on another day, those features would have looked stuck-up. She might not put on makeup in such an elegant fashion again. Maybe she would not choose her clothes with the eye of a tasteful fashion designer.

But I would never know, I realised with a pang as my brain caught up with my body.

We hadn’t even exchanged names.

#1 – For want of money

This is a short piece I wrote to increase my flash fiction writing skills. I’m going to be doing this regularly in order to help build them up and to learn to get inspired from the tiniest of thoughts.


“What do you mean by that?” I asked

“Exactly what I said,” was his reply.

I looked at the scene in front of me. From the beggar and her baby, both covered with filth to the man standing beside me. I was meeting him after a few years. Back then, when we had hung out together, we used to be inseparable. We’d go out for movies together, go out and pick up chicks, act as each other’s wingmen, you name it, we’d done it. Then I’d gone to the US. I’d received an offer I couldn’t refuse while he had decided to stay on in India. I’d been gone seven years.

Things had changed since then. He’d greeted me like the old friend I was at the airport, but everything since then had been different. He’d tried to make sure that things remained jovial and normal, but somewhere, somehow I had noticed a tension. My friend had changed. And I wasn’t sure that it was for the better.

He’d been reluctant to tell me what he did for a living. I hadn’t known why then, but I knew now.

“You’ve injected the baby with heroin?” I asked again, to confirm. My brain was certain that my ears had failed it.

“I haven’t done it myself, but that’s what’s been done,” he explained quietly. “That or the baby’s been fed some alcohol.”

“Why?” I asked. Somehow, curiosity overrode revulsion.

“To keep him quiet, of course. She’s not his mother, and what do you think will happen once he wakes? He’ll be screaming and kicking. She won’t be able to beg properly if that happens.”

There was a pause.

“Do you also maim beggars in your jurisdiction?” I asked, my pitch increasing.

“Of course,” he shrugged, turning around, his leather boots clacking on the pavement. “You need an element of pathos for men to care.”

“They’re humans as well,” I said, the disgust finally welling up.

He stopped and turned me around. His eyes were calm, his gaze steady. “Tell that to the next whore begging me to buy her child.”

Customizing the Arch Desktop – Without a DE

One of the most fun things you can do in Linux is customize the way it functions and looks. And if you’re on Arch Linux, this is encouraged. Outrageous configurations are the norm, and if you tell someone that all you have installed on your laptop is tmux and a prayer, no one bats an eyelash. Chances are the next comment is going to be, “Been there, done that.” (I actually have been there and done that. It’s fun, you should try it out.)

The last time I posted about Arch, I posted about getting a stable and infinitely sexy XFCE config running. Since then, I decided to go DE-hopping, and ended up using Cinnamon for around 2 months and KDE for a few weeks. That brought me to a very important question. What exactly constitutes a DE?

A fully functional DE
A fully functional DE

The building blocks of a DE

A DE such as KDE has so many threads interweaved into its fabric that untangling them would take me a few days. There are daemons to tell programmes what time zone I’m in, for heaven’s sake. The others are all relatively simpler, but usually, you can break down a DE (after removing its bells and whistles) into the following:

  • (Roughly speaking) A DE init system
  • A Window Manager (with a compositor, if your DE is any good. I’m looking at you, XFCE.)
  • A panel (multiple, if you like) with a system tray, a menu-type launcher, optional quick launch, task manager, clock, etc.
  • A file manager
  • A terminal emulator
  • A dbus notification server
  • A quick launch/search program
  • Weird services I wasn’t able to understand, but which presumably serve some purpose
  • Weird services I do understand which serve no purpose (viz. Akonadi, Nepomuk, the time zone daemon in KDE)
  • A control panel for all these items

How much of it do you really need?

Not as much as you usually use, that much I can tell you. Actually, answering this question requires you to ask yourself a very basic and simple question. What do you want your DE to do?

A good DE tries to get out of your way
A good DE tries to get out of your way

For me, the answer was plain and simple. I want it to be there when I need it, to be perfectly suited to my workflow, to provide no distractions and to display the needed amount of information for me to have both peace of mind and the ability to work. In short, I want my DE to get out of my way.

All this time, I’d been trying to do that with XFCE, Cinnamon and KDE. To be fair to both XFCE and Cinnamon, they weren’t exactly in my face all the time. They were both joys to work with. However, I had a few weird problems in Cinnamon regarding my phone (I couldn’t browse it at all) and I didn’t really like gnome-terminal. I could have replaced it, but that’s what the DE wants you to use.

XFCE was almost perfect. I almost rue leaving it to go DE-shopping. However, in my quest to find a DE with the perfect blend of features and performance, I decided to leave it behind. (I haven’t tried LXDE yet. Maybe that should be my next target?)

Going to a WM

That, ladies and gentlemen, was my solution. Let’s throw away all this DE crap and go over to a WM! Sounds fun, right? Well, let me be the first to tell you that it was. UI customization is what I love, and starting with a fresh Arch install got my blood pumping. Mind you, though, that I did not mindlessly install base. Several useful components were deliberately left out (like cronie), so if there’s anyone who’s trying to follow my footsteps, I would recommend that you either simply install base and base-devel and be done with it, or head over to LFS and get down and dirty once, ’cause that will teach you a lot more than Arch or even Gentoo.

I installed my base system, got netctl working and happily added Bohoomil’s infinality repos to my pacman.conf. Now what? X server, of course. I took care to install the bare minimum. To tell you what I mean by that, my memory usage after my bare minimum install, connecting to the net and getting a pptp client running (I was going through a VPN) was near around 108 MB. Which is nothing to sneeze at. I use zsh, which is slightly heavier than bash, and I use it extensively. So you’re probably going to get better stats than me if you use bash.

I wanted to keep my work environment clean and slim. Why, you might ask. Why try something like that on a system with so much memory to spare? Well, quite simply this. I want as much memory available for the applications I use. So that when Firefox runs on a laptop with 4 gigs RAM, I don’t open Htop to see that my system has started swapping (it never came to that, but on KDE, it was routine to see 3450/3820MB used).

I decided on Openbox. Why? It’s very light, it’s minimalistic, and it gets out of your way. It allows for endless customization, and plays ball by being toolkit agnostic (not that I care, but it’s a nice point nonetheless).

Because Openbox can look extremely good
Because Openbox can look extremely good

Of course, Openbox by itself doesn’t give you everything you need. Compositing, for one, is simply not there. Many people will tell me they do not need it, but I prefer and use translucent terminals. I also like seeing shadows, windows fading in and out, and a hint of translucency here and there. Maybe Kwin is overkill, but something lighter? I decided to use compton.

I spent a lot of time searching for a good panel. I decided on tint2 in the end. It is quite light, supports all I need from a panel and is insanely customizable. I took the tint2-svn package from the AUR, for it has the ability to add launchers (for which I added custom .desktop files).

For my terminal emulator, I decided on rxvt-unicode-256colors. Not only is it very light, it is flexible and can be configured using your .Xresources file. Perl extensions can extend it to work exactly like the terminal of your choice. Which is good, for you’re definitely going to add just those pieces of cruft you do need.

With urxvt and pcmanfm
With urxvt and pcmanfm

For a file manager, I decided on pcmanfm. However, I did not install gvfs (for automounting) or the like. The whole point of pcmanfm was to make sure that the file manager is light and gets the job done. To replace the functionality of gvfs, I decided to use udisks (not udisks2) with udiskie.

Strictly speaking, udisks isn’t really needed. In fact, if you believe Ignorant Guru (search him up if you don’t know who he is), anything Red Hat is evil. He is the author of a very flexible (albeit visually cluttered) file manager called spacefm. He has written his own tool called udevil in response to both udisks and udisks2. You can use udevil and devmon instead of udisks and udiskie. However, I remember reading the words of an Arch dev who called Ignorant Guru’s views on udisks out of touch, which made me come back to it.

Udiskie is a small tool which makes it easy to mount/unmount devices from your system tray. Is it needed? Not really. I had it just in case I wanted to work with devices outside the file manager. I’m now thinking of adding a few keyboard shortcuts to Openbox to mount/unmount things and remove udiskie completely. I could always open pcmanfm if I wanted to work with multiple pen drives at once.

For knowing my network status at a glance, I have netmon sitting in my tray. It doesn’t really do much, just shows a nice icon which can tell me the status of my network at a glance. Do I need it? No. But is it good for peace of mind? Yes.

For a volume icon, I use volumeicon. It gets the job done, and doesn’t require pulseaudio. I need no more. If I need better control over my audio, I’ll open alsamixer.

My conky is compiled with lua support enabled. This allows me to easily add translucency using a little script I lifted off someone (who lifted it off londonali).

I use feh to set my wallpaper, and gmrun as a quick program launch.

The fruits of this labour?

Well, apart from feeling incredibly self-satisfied, I guess the real fun is in knowing that after I log onto my own, so called, “desktop environment”, I use around half the memory my XFCE used to use (XFCE – 440 Megabytes at startup, I use around 218-220 Megabytes at startup). I don’t have a file manager running in daemon mode all the time to manage my desktop (ala all desktop environments), everything is extremely snappy, all configuration is done using human-readable config files I understand (I wrote them, after all) and there is no extra package on my system.

The applications I use on a laptop configured thusly are Firefox, MPD, VLC, Skype, Calibre, etc. I don’t use Libreoffice (LaTeX FTW), and I am all the happier for it. I’d love to use mpv on this instead of VLC, but mpv skips frames, for some reason, which annoys me. I have a thing about videos. They must be perfect, else I’m going to crib about them. VLC is good, so I don’t complain. Much.

A deeper question is, is it worth it? In the long run? Well, I can’t say. My laptop’s got no battery left (I’ve abused it thoroughly in the 3.5 years I’ve had it), and it runs wholly on AC power. However, judging by the way my fans whir, I’d say yes. ‘Cause I used to have a jet engine on my lap with KDE, and now I have a sleeping baby.

At times it gets up and wails, but it mostly sleeps soundly.

The Wrongness of Right: Part 1

Note: By Right, I don’t mean to talk about the so called right-wing politicians. They have their own place and deserve a discussion, for sure, but this is not it.

Introduction

Heaven, and hell. Hell and heaven. Two concepts taught to us at an early age in order to sensitize us to morality. Do good, and you get to go to heaven. You get to live with God, listen to choirs of angels serenade you to sleep, live for the rest of eternity with the greatest of the virtuous, and so on. It’s the prize every religion promises you (though the promises of 72 virgins still sound suspect to me) and a way for them to make you follow their tenets.

The stairway to heaven. The traditional goal of all intelligent life.
The stairway to heaven. The traditional goal of all intelligent life.

This is the carrot.

And if you do bad, it’s not heaven, but rather, hell, that you’ll land up in. Instead of God, you have the Devil (or a variation thereof), instead of choirs of angels, you have whip-wielding demons (not there if this turns you on, I hope) and instead of clouds and serenity, you have fire and brimstone. A bleak picture for any mere mortal.

This is the stick.

The logical fallacies surrounding the existence of God and various other reasons have lead to many people proclaiming themselves disgusted with religion and turning into atheists. Religion is for sheep, they say. God is for the weak-minded. Why does He not show himself? Is He afraid? And if He is, what is He afraid of, really? His own creations?

But almost no one declares themselves atheists because of this carrot and stick approach to morality. Even atheists have some semblance of morality within, and most of them live their lives according to this code. They might not believe in the traditional forms of heaven and hell, but they have consciences they listen to, and for the most part, the code of morality followed by theists and atheists is similar, if not the same.

“Thou shalt not kill”

But why is this so? Is morality really that absolute? Some philosophers philosophize that there is something known as an absolute truth. Would it be a stretch to say that there is something called absolute morality as well? The Bible certainly thinks so. There is a commandment given to Moses by God which says, “Thou shalt not kill.” Admirable, really. And by modern standards, it conforms perfectly with the concept of human rights. Taking the lives of fellow citizens is something frowned upon by the law of any country, as it perfectly well should be.

But take the case of a person fighting against a physically stronger person about to rape her. She manages to grab hold of a knife, and in the confusion that follows, instead of simply disabling his ability to ever rape anyone again, she manages to cut open his stomach and allows him to bleed to death.

Any competent lawyer will argue self-defence. But that commandment given to Moses had no exceptions. God did not say, “Thou shalt not kill (see footnote 1 for exceptions)”. God did not provide any appendix filled with legalese about situations in which murder was acceptable. Even if the person was exempted and cleared of all charges by the judge and jury on Earth, the court of the Lord would still find her guilty of breaking a sacred commandment. Since the commandment does not mention circumstances, a plea regarding circumstances would probably not amuse Him.

And just like Adam and Eve who did naught but gain knowledge, you too shalt be kept out of Paradise.
And just like Adam and Eve who did naught but gain knowledge, you too shalt be kept out of Paradise.

Another commandment mentions, “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.” Let’s do a thought experiment. Imagine you were sitting across a man who gives you an ultimatum. He says that your missing wife, who you love from the bottom of your heart and are sick with worry for, is with him. Before you can let all your tension out with your breath, he tells you that she will be returned unharmed on one condition. You must testify against the character of your neighbour in court tomorrow, else she may not be returned. If you decide to trick him, then your wife will be returned, but she might be “damaged goods”. His tone sends a chill up your spine. You have 12 hours in which to decide your next move, oh, and don’t worry about the coffee. It’s on him.

Your hands tremble as you make the decision of getting your wife back. The next day, you bear false witness to your neighbour. The man who accosted you yesterday wins the case. You cannot meet the eyes of your neighbour, who stares at you accusingly, screaming profanities at your retreating back as he is hauled off to Gitmo. And as soon as you reach back home, your wife flies into your open arms. You feel as if a weight has been lifted off your shoulders, it’s such a relief to hold her in your arms again. For that one moment, you can forget that you committed the capital crime of selfishness simply to send someone to hell on Earth and fulfil someone else’s agenda.

Or did you? Rewind a bit. The situation was such that someone was going to be killed/imprisoned no matter what. If you decided to be a good neighbour, then your wife would die, and the man who made you the deal would be imprisoned. Your neighbour’s agenda would be given a leg up. If you decided that you would get your wife back (as we just explored right now), your neighbour is going to be carted off to Guantanamo Bay and he might die there (the probability is pretty good that he will) or even if he doesn’t die, he’ll wish he had. Your neighbour’s opponent is the one whose agenda will be boosted, and in the end, you end up with one fewer person losing their life or freedom.

So did you sin?

According to God, you did. You bore false witness against your neighbour. But in doing so, you made sure that a fewer number of people were exposed to the kind of suffering that haunts most men in their nightmares. Is that not a good thing? Not according to the Bible. Just as in the previous “Thou shalt not kill” example, there are no exceptions to this rule. God will prosecute you all the same, even if you managed to save one of his treasured creations from certain death and/or worse.

So where does that leave us? Does this mean that all morality is subjective? Am I moral if my conscience is clear, like most atheists believe? It does seem a convenient way out of this situation. I’m moral if I kill my rapist. I’m moral if I manage to make sure that one less person is killed in this rigged trial. I did save a life here, after all!

And let’s say that this argument is accepted in heaven. All heaven looks at is the clarity of your conscience once you reach up there. If it’s clear as glass, you get to pass St. Peter. If it isn’t, you got an appointment with ol’ Lucy down in Hell. You can catch up on all the bad deeds you’ve done over a glass of frothing sulphuric acid and boiling mercury. That leads to another catch.

Invoking Godwin

Let’s invoke Godwin’s law here, it’s high time. Adolf Hitler is the epitome of evil in the minds of most people. He should be too. Anyone who can order something as heinous as the holocaust has a few screws loose somewhere, and deserves to be vilified by the world.

The Nuremberg Trials were held to give to the Nazis what they denied so many others. Justice.
The Nuremberg Trials were held to give to the Nazis what they denied so many others. Justice.

Let’s do another thought experiment. Hitler has just killed himself, and is standing for judgement. God asks him, “Is your conscience clear? Do you think you did the right thing back on Earth?” Adolf thinks about it. He remembers the screams of the Jews who died in front of him, he remembers the political opponents he had murdered, he remembers the troops he had sent to Stalingrad. He remembers the battle of Britain. He remembers the choice he gave the Desert Fox. He remembers the Volkswagen Beetle which led to thousands of people getting access to cars in Germany. He remembers the other things accomplished by the Nazis which led to some sort of rise in living standards of ordinary Germans. And he answers, “Yes, my conscience is clear. What I did to the Jews was necessary, and the rest of the world is mad for not believing in it. And the other things I did, well, it was for the good of the world. Those idiots Churchill and Roosevelt have no brains. If they did, they would have joined me.”

God sees that Adolf Hitler believes in what he’s saying, and lets him into heaven, where he joins everyone else who feel they did the right thing back on Earth. That list will soon include Gandhi and Mandela, but because of the way we defined morality, it also includes Cardinal Richelieu, Genghiz Khan and Emperor Nero. It’ll also include Saddam Hussein.

Is this fair? Can someone like Hitler potentially share the same moral high ground as Gandhi? Of course not. It sounds wrong to almost everyone who reads this. Then how can we define morality such that obvious cases like this are handled properly? Can morality be defined properly at all?

Review: The desolation of Smaug

One of the first questions my friends asked me as we left the theatre was, “I saw Smaug, but where was the desolation?” I couldn’t see it then, and I don’t see it now. A movie whose title promised acreage of burnt fields and collapsed buildings showed naught but a taste of the wrath of the dragon it promised to unleash on audiences.

 

Minor Spoiler Alert ahead!

The movie starts with the beginnings of Thorin’s quest. It shows him meeting Gandalf, talking to him and being granted his help. Gandalf suggests taking a burglar on their quest, and hence sets the stage for the events of the first movie to occur. We fast-forward to the end of the second movie. We see our heroes, the thirteen dwarves, our favourite Hobbit and Gandalf running across the screen, trying to shake off their orc pursuers. Of course, they’re not able to using conventional means. However, a house Gandalf knows of happens to be conveniently nearby. It’s occupied by a shape-shifter who hates dwarves, but luckily, he hates orcs more. He decides to help them.

This is no more than the first 15 minutes of the movie, and yet it shows something Peter Jackson seems to have missed while filming this trilogy. The Hobbit is a children’s book. Tolkien himself intended it to be such. Just like in any children’s fable, things magically occur at times. From the random coincidence of finding Beorn and his house to finding Bard, to finding the Arkenstone, a tiny jewel the size of a fist, among piles of gold that dwarf even Smaug himself, the movie is filled with ridiculous happenings which only the mind of a child can ignore.

Giving credit to Jackson, however, he manages to not let those coincidences overwhelm the movie. While they are jarring when they occur, they occur infrequently enough for them to have been ignored had the other parts of the movie been great. However, there are other flaws to this movie.

A common gripe about this movie is that it lacks depth. There are very few meaningful interactions between characters. In other words, in no part of this story is there any character development whatsoever. The potential was there, with a younger Legolas and a female elf named Tauriel. However, the greatest bit of character development occurred when the possibility of a romantic relationship between an elf and a dwarf was touched upon. Jackson, unfortunately, could not capitalise on that and moved on to a part of the movie which, thankfully, was not as bad as the rest. An action sequence.

The action sequences were epic, to say the least. Legolas and Tauriel seemed to have been dunked in Getafix’s magic potion (from Asterix and Obelix) when they were babies. Either that, or Jackson bestowed God Mode upon them. Arrows were fired from point blank range, orc bodies were being used to slide around and knives seemed to materialise from nowhere as two elves began the systematic slaughter of a company of orcs. With some help from the barrel-riding dwarves, a group the size which took down Boromir in The Fellowship was easily dispatched by the duo. Hence, when the dialogue, “You can’t chase down thirty orcs by yourself!” was uttered, all of us could only roll our eyes. You can, sister. You just did.

The presence of Azog the defiler also seemed unremarkable and unnecessary. Jackson, in his bid to fill up the plot, made flat characters with as much depth as a piece of paper. His rivalry with Oakenshield or with Beorn is only a filler which serves no purpose than to increase the length of the movie by a few minutes. The movie is filled with scenes like that. Many of them make no sense, or rather, they seem extraneous. They contribute little to the plot of the film and yet take up screen time.

Apart from this, the movie also lacks the same sweeping cinematography which made the original world of the Lord of the Rings seem so large. While a lot of action occurs in closed spaces, the lack of such panoramic shots makes the movie seem less grandiose and smaller in scale. The combination of such shots with an amazing score by Howard Shore (read the charge of the Rohirrim during the battle of Minas Tirith or Theoden’s last stand during the battle of Helms’ Deep) led to the most memorable scenes of the LOTR trilogy. To have both taken away by Jackson in making the Hobbit seems cruel, almost a travesty.

Howard Shore himself seems uninspired in this series. The music of the Lord of the Rings is on my hard disk today and it often plays when I tinker around with my system or mess around with some equation. However, I can’t remember the score of the Hobbit seven hours after having watched the film. I do remember it being present, but it never seemed to inspire the same sense of hope as the theme of the Rohirrim did, nor does it instil the same majesty the Gondor theme did. It manages to inspire none of the same fierceness of Theoden’s last stand nor does it manage to give rise to the gooseflesh-inspiring theme of the Rohirrim’s ride upon Minas Tirith.

The acting, however is top-notch. Martin Freeman, however one-dimensional his role is here, manages to bring back that same spark which makes him such a great Watson in the BBC Sherlock series, and Armitage manages to make Thorin majestic despite his height. Gandalf is played to perfection by Sir Ian McKellan and even Smaug gains a personality through some superb voice-acting by Benedict Cumberbatch. Luke Evans plays Bard beautifully and Orlando Bloom is as good as he ever was playing Legolas. However, the real star of the show was Evangeline Lilly as Tauriel. She manages to bring both poise and grace to an original character (she is not there in the book) and remains a significant addition we should praise Jackson for. Her presence manages to give the movie some much-needed depth and takes away from the testosterone surrounding the film.

The animation of Smaug, while brilliant, was wasted, I feel, because most of his scenes simply involved him speaking. There were few scenes in which he breathed fire, or laid waste to a city, or simply flew around. The true might of the dragon is showcased only in the last few minutes of the movie. That is unacceptable for a movie titled “The Desolation of Smaug”.

If I had to rate the movie, I would rate the movie a 6. Barely watchable. If it weren’t for the great action sequences or the fact that this movie is part of “The Hobbit” series, it would have been unwatchable. It manages to have less depth than the first part of the series with an excellent cast and bad direction. Go watch it, for I know you will, but go with no expectations of awesomeness.