i.e. stuff Zeerak has written in roughly reverse chronological order
I started writing this piece a few months ago when Season 6 of Coke Studio had just aired its first episode. The first single, Jogi, blew my mind. What they had done to make it happen was just crazy. First, they got rid of the house band; then got a classically trained pop singer to sing a qawwali that a renowned qawwal had already sung on Coke Studio, except this time make it kind of boppy; asked some Serbians to jam on it; requested the qawwal who had originally sung it in Season 3 to do backing vocals; and put in some dhols for good measure. Read these last few phrases again. This is crazy. Afridi crazy. But it’s brilliant.
Have you ever had the experience of listening to someone talk, or reading the words of a sage and feeling in the moment utterly convinced and in awe of the majesty of the idea that has engulfed you, only to wait for a few hours and realize you are unable to recount why you felt convinced, or what the person addressing you did to make you feel so? i.e. You are unable to recount what the person said, what it did to you such that it made you feel convinced.
The common explanation for an experience such as this is to resign the momentary clarity to the faculties of emotion, as opposed to reason. To argue that the argument you received appealed to the weaker of your two sensibilities, and made you feel something in the moment but was unsustainable – indicating that it did not stick in your mind and hence must have been unreasonable.
Reason trains us to unpack arguments to be able to judge the constituents that make up the arguments – premises, derived premises and the links between them. Through this deconstruction we are able not just to evaluate the argument but also to find the individual components to be able to reconstruct it again in the future. Reason gives us the ability to understand, record, and convey an argument. It is the fundamental modum of the transmission of human thought (where it is used both to filter out argument unworthy of transmission and then to propagate further that which passes the test).
Therefore, when we feel we are unable to explain why an argument convinced us (such in a political speech, or in a powerful religious experience), or what the argument was in the first place, we deduce that it must not have appealed to our faculty of reason.
But when an experience of the inability to recall and reevaluate and argument occurs in the case of reading certified argument (i.e. when you read the works of great philosophy that societal convention has certified for you as great example of the use of reason), one explains the inability to recall and explain initial conviction by virtue of the improper understanding i.e. a weak faculty of reason on the part of the student or addressee.
The fact is that society does not certify religion or politics or belief of any kind in a manner that it certifies science. And so while we are often comfortable finding solace in knowing that faculty of reason is weak when in the domain of science, it is the reputation of the argument that suffers (not of the student) when in the domain of belief.
But in the faculty of belief also, men have experiences which allow them to rekindle their faith in certain thought. They are able to find ways to understand the intuitive connection first felt, but never reproduced through action to augment or strengthen the faculties of man.
The idea being that whenever the experience occurs where any argument creates intuitive conviction, followed by failure of reason, it implies weakness in the faculty of reason of the adressee and not of the adresser. Thsi implies further that the Intuition is a human ability that surpasses Reason, for it is able to signal the presence of great thought before the presence of Reason. Reason is a technical skill, it is a fundamentally procedural, human faculty consisting of the deconstruction and reconstruction of the thought. Intuition, is an act of cognition of Divine quality, in a way that it is able to see through objects without actually having the procedural circumstances of ordinary, reasoned cognition.
When men are able to see through the thicket of signs around them and find profound truth (such as when a political pundit analyzes a situation and correctly predicts the outcome), we say that the man in question has great Vision. Whereby, even though this man cannot see with his senses the occurence of events he predicts, he sees through some other faculty beyond the human experience of judging events through the senses (which require specific worldy events to happen to trigger them: vibration to hear something, light to see something and so on.). Men of great vision rely not just on their senses but on an ability to see through a faculty that does not rely on incidence of suitable technical circumstance.
Similarly, Intuition is able to see things Reason cannot. For successful reasoning requires the skill of language and logic which define the technical, procedural circumstance needed. Intuition does not, it is a something we seem to be born with, and happens outside our control of worldly action. Therefore Intuition holds sway over Reason i.e it is a superior faculty as compared to Reason in some sense (especially in the realm of belief as opposed to science because society understands reason in science better that it understands reason in belief).
I used parts of these ideas in this little speech at a Friday sermon, which is based in being able to doubt yourself and your technical ability to reason.
UPDATE: Published in the Daily Princetonian April 2, 2013.
(Originally uploaded here while the Prince website was down, so the original comments are here.)
Mediocrity is an old, bitter foe. For years my greatest fear has been to take mediocrity as my companion, one that would forever hold me back from the longed-for Land of Greatness.
All this time I have fantasized about drawing out my sword and defeating Mediocrity in one swift, fatal battle. That is the battle I must face, the challenge that separates me from greatness. Perhaps going to college will do it, or joining a big company or going to grad school is the answer — something, anything.
But whatever I do, however hard I try, no matter how fast I run, Mediocrity always seems to be around. At every point of success I look around, convinced that the final battle has occurred. But Mediocrity reappears to remind me that it has not. The fight continues.
Over this long struggle, Mediocrity and I have shared some heartfelt moments. At the turn of an apex, in the glow of a little success or in the face of a grand challenge, I embrace Mediocrity as a partner. I’m done with it all, I say. Done with the tiring day and the sleepless nights, the constant struggle, the will to continue fighting. Today, Mediocrity, I embrace you as one. We shall settle together in a life of ease.
But this is a dejected, fleeting partnership; the specter of ambition kicks in soon enough. Lo and behold, I declare the battle with Mediocrity open once again. Like bitter lovers, we start it all anew — I run away toward the Land of Greatness but somehow run back into Mediocrity. I must be running in circles, and the only answer must be to get rid of Mediocrity once and for all, to do something so unquestionably great that it must certainly take me to the Land of Greatness. But I fail.
After many nights of panic and anger, I have realized that I give Mediocrity (and myself) too little credit. I haven’t been simply walking in circles after all. I have been walking toward the Land of Greatness, but Mediocrity has slyly been following me. As I have grown, Mediocrity, too, has learned and taken on new forms.
I look back on my dreams from four years ago. I was so stupid. Not that I’m not stupid now, just less so. I used to want to be an entrepreneur — to one day come up with a great idea, make it, sell it and change the world. It doesn’t seem that simple now. The complexity of the world seems to fit my growing mental capacity. There’s a strange, unlikable entropy at work: The same points in life now seem farther away, the path to get to them more complicated.
As I have met greater, smarter, more accomplished folks, I have begun to see myself as unassuming and static while the world around me keeps moving to better things. But I am not static. I’m just moving more slowly than I thought I would as a kid because I underestimated how far away the Land of Greatness was. It just appears that I am static in relation to the new heroes I now aspire to be. And it’s even easier to forget that Mediocrity is on my tail, moving just as I am.
As time goes by, my relationship with Mediocrity grows too. I have learned to see Mediocrity not as a monstrous enemy but as a competitive rival, a friend who eggs me on to move faster, to see if I can do what I once thought. I haven’t failed by befriending Mediocrity — it has just grown with me.
I used to have very simple dreams. They were easy to follow, easy to play up. Today I feel that those dreams are gone; it’s not as easy to convince myself of a direction. But while the dreams appear less real, the world appears more so. I see the problems more clearly — the solutions less so. It’s easy to stereotype this as stagnation, but that’s just a lazy way of understanding ourselves. We now know more clearly that the dreams are harder to achieve. But to convince ourselves that they are now unattainable, that we must have stagnated in the process, is just an easy way to divest ourselves of the responsibility to keep fighting. I am not out to defeat Mediocrity in one epic duel. We will slowly struggle together toward the Land of Greatness.
People used to tell you and me to go change the world. We used to tell ourselves to go change the world. But nobody seems to say that anymore. The hope has dried up, the dream has faded; we seem to have failed. But we haven’t. We’ve just gotten a little smarter, a little less naive, a little more aware. Today I stand with you, and I will watch you go change the world. It won’t be one swift battle, but I will watch you change the world, one step at a time. I may be far away, but your friend Mediocrity will keep you on your toes, will keep you fighting and will be there for a cup of tea when the chips are down.
Published in the Daily Princetonian March 6, 2013.
An interviewer asked me a few days ago what the relationship was between my academic interests in policy, music and computer science. He preceded this with a comment that he had no idea what I was interested in after reading my resume. I was cool with that because I felt like I, too, have no idea what I’m doing with my life. At least we were on the same page.
I told him my interests in all of those fields didn’t really intersect. That didn’t help my job prospects, so I went into recovery mode.
Many of the skills learned doing various sorts of academic work are transferable to the work at a tech company, I said. An ethnography of musicians and audiences involves similar interviewing and analysis skills as a user test for software, for example. Learning to generate buy-in for policy involves as much of a critical high-level understanding of people’s preferences as any market research job.
But I think this point was leading to something more fundamental. I see the skills across all disciplines as transferable to most forms of work. I believe this is because most academic study can be generalized to understanding the mechanisms behind the processes of the world.
History is about looking at facts of how humans and states (as organizations of some humans representing other humans) chose to act and about understanding the reasons that they did so, and then spotting patterns between similar actions to formulate an underlying mechanism of how humans and groups act in different scenarios. Abstracted to this level, one begins to see similarities with sociology and psychology. The natural sciences are about understanding the mechanisms of organisms and substances behind their phenomenal appearance. It is about identifying and mapping the patterns of movement and change in the natural world. Much of engineering relies on being able to use these patterns to aid human action.
Behind every field of study there is the logic of causation. X causes Y which leads to Z which implies something else. The primary structure of an argument remains the same. Each field of study involves a combination of finding evidence and reasoning to explain a process that entails the evidence. And as we learn more we become more adept at understanding more complex processes and more complex reasoning. We learn both to abstract so that we can build on each other’s work and to dissect so that we can build our own understanding. Theoretically, given enough background knowledge, some abstraction (and belief that abstracted parts of processes work as expected) and the skills of logic, most fields of study should be within the grasp of a diligent student.
The point here being that education is really similar across the board. We may be ignorant about many parts of many fields, but that does not imply that we are stupid and will be unable to understand the field at all.
Underlying my interviewer’s question may be the assumption that the lack of domain-specific knowledge may render someone useless for a given set of tasks. I find this assertion problematic because I see all aspects of the educational process as a struggle to build competency with understanding the mechanisms that underlie our world in one form or another. Intelligent minds should be able to switch domains and learn to paddle around them given good experience in the core art of following an argument.
The implication here is that to me, learning domain-specific knowledge is like moving to a new house. You must relearn the little things such as how long it now takes to get from home to work, but you don’t forget the core art of transporting yourself from one place to another.
For this reason, anytime I see the argument that my educational background (i.e. what major I am) dictates what sort of work I can succeed at and add to, I find it problematic. I see this when courses are reserved only for members of certain departments, when I witness the possible difficulty of changing fields between undergraduate and graduate study and every time someone stereotypes my major.
There’s a part of Sufi thought that argues that divine inspiration and realization can only be witnessed by a select, blessed few. Many see this as an elitist aspect of Sufism. I think that our prohibitive attitudes to diversity of study as mentioned above are also elitist because they assume that a concentration may limit one’s scope of thought — by extension implying that certain forms of thought can only be accessible to certain kinds of people. Be it in school or at the workplace, an inclination to educational diversity should be welcomed, not rejected.
I think the struggle to understand the mechanisms of the world is a process in which we all take part in order to obtain a better conception of the Truth about our world. Given the universality of this objective and of thought itself, knowledge should be available to anyone to understand and build on.
Published in the Daily Princetonian February 13, 2013.
To my freshman self, here is a list of some things that I would like to have known three years ago:
Brown is an awesome place to live.
Don’t buy textbooks unless you’re sure you actually need them.
Talk to professors. Do it again. Keep going. This will inevitably be fodder for the stories you tell everyone about Princeton. Since you will also run out of stories to tell, you will need these conversations. Some of the happiest moments at Princeton are about discovering new ideas, ideas that explain something you’d always wondered about or something you hadn’t even thought about at all. That light-bulb moment makes it all worth it. There will be a few; look for more.
Don’t spend the night at Penn Station because you want to catch an 8 a.m. train and the Dinky doesn’t run early on Sunday mornings. Take the cab to Princeton Junction.
Need a book on reserve for more than three hours? Go to Firestone Library within three hours of closing, and keep it for the entire night. One more reason not to buy textbooks.
Don’t be tense about the D you got on that first French exam. The others will be OK, and it won’t suck overall.
Don’t be tense about anything — not worth it.
Being independent is awesome.
Go with the flow in room draw. You’ll hear about horror stories, but the less you worry the better it seems to work out. Your roommates will be some of your best friends.
Take more econ.
Take some philosophy.
Studying abroad is a good decision.
Start your thesis early. You will hear this often from seniors. And you’ll think, “That sounds obvious enough. I don’t know why people don’t just start early.” You won’t start early. And you won’t be able to explain why. So plan to start early. Does it seem too early? It’s not. In fact, it might be a good idea to start even earlier.
You will be rejected by a lot of things. So will everybody else. Don’t let it get to you. If it does, get over it. Dwelling on things that didn’t happen will often take you nowhere. Choose to go somewhere, and look forward. Many things that don’t work out won’t have been good ideas in retrospect, anyway.
Look at the sodium content of the ramen.
Always sign up for frequent flyer miles before the flight.
Apply to everything that interests you. Some things work out almost by accident and lead to other, great things. Those will take life into directions you hadn’t even imagined. Let that happen.
Maybe consider joining Terrace before it’s too late. Go to Terrace more, regardless.
There will be times when you see the world and the people in it as motivated only by self-interest. These will be the times when you are most bewildered, because the only sustainable personal reward seems to come from work that creates relationships with other people in some way or another. But as you navigate this, you will understand the need to strike a balance between preparing for self-interested actions and being motivated by the will to help other people. Want to help other people; keep that alive.
Don’t take a class just to get a recommendation. Hollow motivation can’t lead to good work.
Thinking of buying an electric guitar because you already have a bass and will need an amp anyway? You’ll be indecisive and never buy an amp, so just buy an acoustic guitar. Make it semi-acoustic if you want to make yourself feel better.
With inspiration as with job searches, if you don’t find anything, buckle down and keep going. Don’t stop.
Yes, your ears can feel pain. Buy a hat in January.
Wondering how long it would take you to be caught for copyright violation if you torrent? Not long at all.
There will be times when you feel uninspired and you want inspiration to provide some spirit for creative output. But you will remember a time when you most lacked inspiration as one of the happiest times at college. Even in retrospect, it can be a little hard to explain why. Much of the work you will produce in this time will be good. There will be inspired moments and many more of soul-searching. But there will be happiness in forming great friendships that will be inspiration in itself.
These are some things the benefit of hindsight has taught me. It has also taught me the futility of telling myself to do things the right way. Some things never change.
From the Dawn Archives via the Dawn Facebook Page.
Published in the Daily Princetonian November 30, 2012.
The reality that there is a decent amount of data about our lives online means people are now concerned with “maintaining” their online identity. Identifying how you want to appear to others, and correcting where necessary to prevent aberrations from this ideal. You may, for example, have been told to cultivate a personal brand. To find a way to market yourself, establish your worth. I’d rather not, thank you very much. Because I am not a brand, I am a person.
People are talked to, engaged with, learned from and understood. Brands are signed up for or bought into. I don’t want to be signed up for or bought. I don’t want to market myself because I really wouldn’t know how to do it.
The About Me section on my Facebook profile is empty because I’m a little scared of putting in three sentences that might define my being. The only reason I do put some stuff about myself online is the hope that if I put a large enough variety of things about myself in your field of vision it might confuse you enough to prompt you to spark a conversation.
But today we are ready to judge people and form a conception of their identities — that we deem reasonably complete — from their musings on the web. Take a look at some privacy tips from Princeton’s Data Privacy Initiative for some perspective:
“Think before you tweet — today’s rant, burn or flame may come back to haunt you.”
“Remember, what you post online becomes public information — it is no longer under your control.”
“Regularly review your contacts, circles, friends and followers — they may not be your BFFs.”
Is someone on the other end of this terminal waiting to find incriminating evidence about my past?
To hold someone hostage to their tweets is to prevent them from forming opinions, changing their minds or just growing up. We deal with people on the web by bucketing them into categories for bite-sized perception. What we say or do becomes definitive of our personas, with a scary finality to it. The little blips about ourselves are consumed, not engaged with, and they are dealt with a permanency that doesn’t seem to cross our mind when we post the statuses at all.
This is not the Internet I signed up for.
The Internet I signed up for is the one Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the world wide web, tweeted about from the Olympic Stadium. “This is for everyone,” he said.
That Internet is about bringing us together, about creating more ways to share our thoughts and our lives. There shall be no limitation of distance, space or community. We are all one on the Internet, for this space is collectively ours. It is where we think, where we connect solutions to problems, answers to questions, information to ignorance and people to people.
The very power of communication helps us grow — to become bigger people and better societies, not to find ways of limiting our outlook. This is what the Web is to Lee: “I think in general it’s clear that most bad things come from misunderstanding, and communication is generally the way to resolve misunderstandings, and the Web’s a form of communications, so it generally should be good.”
In some ways I like to think that our state of coexistence should always be conceived as one of perpetual misunderstanding. That is both a realization that we do not know each other completely and a simultaneous struggle to want to do so.
If you look at information on the Internet from this perspective — the idea that everything you see is a window to a larger, more complex identity — we are more likely to engage more meaningfully with people and avoid the trap of consuming this information through set frames of reference. People are more than the sum their links, tweets and photos. And it doesn’t always add up. In the words of Walt Whitman:
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
Of course, there are two sides to this story. Just as we need some perspective when receiving information, we must also think about what we add to the Internet as content creators.
Take the uproar on ‘Prince’ comments. There’s some insightful argument from anonymous commenters to University President Shirley Tilghman’s letter. “theturdburglar” writes: “If she takes away the one truly fun aspect of the Prince (ridiculous comments sections that don’t take themselves so damn seriously … ) I would be very disappointed.” It’s amusing that the very next comment by “AH” compares the ‘Prince’ comments section with the public literary sphere of 18th century France. It doesn’t seem like a joke to me. These comments are about bettering our ideas — not stonewalling honest argument.
What we say on the Internet matters, and it should matter. Anonymous or not. Anonymity prevents us from being “silenced,” just as it gives us freedom to publicly hate. Perhaps the best comment I read on Tilghman’s article was by “ ’12”: “I’m not sure that anonymity causes douchebaggery. I think douchebags cause douchebaggery.”
So my concern is beyond anonymity. It is about getting more from our conversations and increasing collective goodwill. We can do better than to pigeonhole and hate.