अनिल एकलव्य ⇔ Anil Eklavya

December 1, 2011

The Original Mark Twain

A day or two ago Google put on its search engine interface what they call a doodle. It was for celebrating the 176th birthday of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, otherwise known as Mark Twain. I used to have trouble recalling his real name, so commonly known and popular his pen name has become, something like that of George Orwell, who, by the way, wrote an essay about him titled ‘The Licensed Jester’ (note this down as evidence of contradiction).

I had read Huckleberry Finn during my first college degree days. At that time I was aware of the fact that Mark Twain was a famous writer. I had read a few short things by him in English text books. I had also read a part of Tom Sawyer, but couldn’t finish it because it had to be returned. But I did not know about this book, Huck Finn. I didn’t know that it was considered the first Great American Novel. But even before finishing that shortish novel, I had no doubt that it was one of the best American novels ever written.

Note the self-referentiality and pomposity and keep it in mind while reading the rest of this article.

But this article is going to be more of a cut-and-paste (copy-and-paste, to be exact) job. That’s because this is the only way to do justice to what I want to say here. And there is no editor and a board of reviewers to look over my shoulder, so that makes it easy. The source is also in public domain, so no legal problems. If you are a fair use fanatic, go read something else.

If even people like me have trouble recalling his real name, it can be expected that few people (other than literary scholars and may be some other literary geeks) know the story of the origin of his pen name. Those who do know, only know a part of it, and that too the part that is less interesting.

Now I can add here that there is a theory among scholars that this story is perhaps not factual. I am not aware of their arguments and since Mark Twain himself explained in detail why he became Mark Twain, and I also know him to be one of most honest people in literature or elsewhere, I will ignore that theory and get on with the one that I like.

In fact, when I first read this story it made such a great impression on me that I have been aching ever since to write about it. The story forms Chapter 50 of another of his great books, Life on the Mississippi. I read it some years after I had read Huck Finn and this time I had borrowed the book (from the British Library, if I remember correctly: note this down for your later judgement). Since I had it in my own name and was ready to pay the fine for late fees (which I did very frequently and they were substantial sums for me at that time), I was able to finish this much longer book (I was as busy as anyone can be in those days: note it down). I liked it almost as much as Huck Finn. For the record, I completed reading Tom Sawyer much later and didn’t like it that much. No match for Huck Finn.

The story, or the part of the story that is commonly presented and known, is also given on the Wikipedia page about Mark Twain:

He maintained that his primary pen name came from his years working on Mississippi riverboats, where two fathoms, a depth indicating safe water for passage of boat, was measured on the sounding line. A fathom is a maritime unit of depth, equivalent to two yards (1.8 m); twain is an archaic term for “two.” The riverboatman’s cry was mark twain or, more fully, by the mark twain, meaning “according to the mark [on the line], [the depth is] two [fathoms],” that is, “The water is 12 feet (3.7 m) deep and it is safe to pass.”

The Wikipedia page goes on to say that he “claimed that his famous pen name was not entirely his invention” and that “In Life on the Mississippi, he wrote:”

Captain Isaiah Sellers was not of literary turn or capacity, but he used to jot down brief paragraphs of plain practical information about the river, and sign them “MARK TWAIN,” and give them to the New Orleans Picayune. They related to the stage and condition of the river, and were accurate and valuable; … At the time that the telegraph brought the news of his death, I was on the Pacific coast. I was a fresh new journalist, and needed a nom de guerre; so I confiscated the ancient mariner’s discarded one, and have done my best to make it remain what it was in his hands – a sign and symbol and warrant that whatever is found in its company may be gambled on as being the petrified truth; how I have succeeded, it would not be modest in me to say.

As I said, the complete story forms a full chapter of the said book. The title of the chapter is “The ‘Original Jacobs'”.

Mark Twain was not faultless, of course, and he was also not one of those who only seem to become faultless by adopting the current orthodoxy about political and social correctness, taking no risks of their own, and having done that, they entitle themselves to judge and sentence anyone from the present or the past, say, for having shown a little bit of racist tendencies in the seventeenth century or of being a little sexist in the first half of the 20th century.

That is not to say that he did not do some nasty things in his time. In fact, the interesting part of the story is about just that. Then there is also the fact that he displayed considerable literary/stylistic prescriptivism in blasting some writers and critics of his time, but I am not going to go into that.

The introduction to the story is that there was another man who had used the pen name Mark Twain. He wasn’t a literary writer, but he was something impressive: impressive enough for Mark Twain to say that it was an honor to be the only one hated by him.

So here comes the copy-and-paste of the 50th chapter of Life on the Mississippi (I have left out the final paragraph, which is not relevant to the story):

Chapter 50 The ‘Original Jacobs’

WE had some talk about Captain Isaiah Sellers, now many years dead. He
was a fine man, a high-minded man, and greatly respected both ashore and
on the river. He was very tall, well built, and handsome; and in his old
age–as I remember him–his hair was as black as an Indian’s, and his
eye and hand were as strong and steady and his nerve and judgment as
firm and clear as anybody’s, young or old, among the fraternity of
pilots. He was the patriarch of the craft; he had been a keelboat pilot
before the day of steamboats; and a steamboat pilot before any other
steamboat pilot, still surviving at the time I speak of, had ever turned
a wheel. Consequently his brethren held him in the sort of awe in
which illustrious survivors of a bygone age are always held by their
associates. He knew how he was regarded, and perhaps this fact added
some trifle of stiffening to his natural dignity, which had been
sufficiently stiff in its original state.

He left a diary behind him; but apparently it did not date back to his
first steamboat trip, which was said to be 1811, the year the first
steamboat disturbed the waters of the Mississippi. At the time of his
death a correspondent of the ‘St. Louis Republican’ culled the following
items from the diary–

‘In February, 1825, he shipped on board the steamer “Rambler,” at
Florence, Ala., and made during that year three trips to New Orleans and
back–this on the “Gen. Carrol,” between Nashville and New Orleans. It
was during his stay on this boat that Captain Sellers introduced the tap
of the bell as a signal to heave the lead, previous to which time it was
the custom for the pilot to speak to the men below when soundings were
wanted. The proximity of the forecastle to the pilot-house, no doubt,
rendered this an easy matter; but how different on one of our palaces of
the present day.

‘In 1827 we find him on board the “President,” a boat of two hundred and
eighty-five tons burden, and plying between Smithland and New Orleans.
Thence he joined the “Jubilee” in 1828, and on this boat he did his
first piloting in the St. Louis trade; his first watch extending from
Herculaneum to St. Genevieve. On May 26, 1836, he completed and left
Pittsburgh in charge of the steamer “Prairie,” a boat of four hundred
tons, and the first steamer with a STATE-ROOM CABIN ever seen at St.
Louis. In 1857 he introduced the signal for meeting boats, and which
has, with some slight change, been the universal custom of this day; in
fact, is rendered obligatory by act of Congress.

‘As general items of river history, we quote the following marginal
notes from his general log–

‘In March, 1825, Gen. Lafayette left New Orleans for St. Louis on the
low-pressure steamer “Natchez.”

‘In January, 1828, twenty-one steamers left the New Orleans wharf to
celebrate the occasion of Gen. Jackson’s visit to that city.

‘In 1830 the “North American” made the run from New Orleans to Memphis
in six days–best time on record to that date. It has since been made in
two days and ten hours.

‘In 1831 the Red River cut-off formed.

‘In 1832 steamer “Hudson” made the run from White River to Helena, a
distance of seventy-five miles, in twelve hours. This was the source of
much talk and speculation among parties directly interested.

‘In 1839 Great Horseshoe cut-off formed.

‘Up to the present time, a term of thirty-five years, we ascertain, by
reference to the diary, he has made four hundred and sixty round trips
to New Orleans, which gives a distance of one million one hundred and
four thousand miles, or an average of eighty-six miles a day.’

Whenever Captain Sellers approached a body of gossiping pilots, a chill
fell there, and talking ceased. For this reason: whenever six pilots
were gathered together, there would always be one or two newly fledged
ones in the lot, and the elder ones would be always ‘showing off’ before
these poor fellows; making them sorrowfully feel how callow they were,
how recent their nobility, and how humble their degree, by talking
largely and vaporously of old-time experiences on the river; always
making it a point to date everything back as far as they could, so as to
make the new men feel their newness to the sharpest degree possible,
and envy the old stagers in the like degree. And how these complacent
baldheads WOULD swell, and brag, and lie, and date back–ten, fifteen,
twenty years,–and how they did enjoy the effect produced upon the
marveling and envying youngsters!

And perhaps just at this happy stage of the proceedings, the stately
figure of Captain Isaiah Sellers, that real and only genuine Son of
Antiquity, would drift solemnly into the midst. Imagine the size of the
silence that would result on the instant. And imagine the feelings of
those bald-heads, and the exultation of their recent audience when the
ancient captain would begin to drop casual and indifferent remarks of a
reminiscent nature–about islands that had disappeared, and cutoffs that
had been made, a generation before the oldest bald-head in the company
had ever set his foot in a pilot-house!

Many and many a time did this ancient mariner appear on the scene in the
above fashion, and spread disaster and humiliation around him. If one
might believe the pilots, he always dated his islands back to the misty
dawn of river history; and he never used the same island twice; and
never did he employ an island that still existed, or give one a name
which anybody present was old enough to have heard of before. If you
might believe the pilots, he was always conscientiously particular about
little details; never spoke of ‘the State of Mississippi,’ for instance
–no, he would say, ‘When the State of Mississippi was where Arkansas
now is,’ and would never speak of Louisiana or Missouri in a general
way, and leave an incorrect impression on your mind–no, he would say,
‘When Louisiana was up the river farther,’ or ‘When Missouri was on the
Illinois side.’

The old gentleman was not of literary turn or capacity, but he used
to jot down brief paragraphs of plain practical information about the
river, and sign them ‘MARK TWAIN,’ and give them to the ‘New Orleans
Picayune.’ They related to the stage and condition of the river, and
were accurate and valuable; and thus far, they contained no poison.
But in speaking of the stage of the river to-day, at a given point, the
captain was pretty apt to drop in a little remark about this being the
first time he had seen the water so high or so low at that particular
point for forty-nine years; and now and then he would mention Island
So-and-so, and follow it, in parentheses, with some such observation
as ‘disappeared in 1807, if I remember rightly.’ In these antique
interjections lay poison and bitterness for the other old pilots, and
they used to chaff the ‘Mark Twain’ paragraphs with unsparing mockery.

It so chanced that one of these paragraphs–{footnote [The original MS.
of it, in the captain’s own hand, has been sent to me from New Orleans.
It reads as follows–

VICKSBURG May 4, 1859.

‘My opinion for the benefit of the citizens of New Orleans: The water
is higher this far up than it has been since 8. My opinion is that the
water will be feet deep in Canal street before the first of next June.
Mrs. Turner’s plantation at the head of Big Black Island is all under
water, and it has not been since 1815.

‘I. Sellers.’]}

became the text for my first newspaper article. I burlesqued it broadly,
very broadly, stringing my fantastics out to the extent of eight hundred
or a thousand words. I was a ‘cub’ at the time. I showed my performance
to some pilots, and they eagerly rushed it into print in the ‘New
Orleans True Delta.’ It was a great pity; for it did nobody any worthy
service, and it sent a pang deep into a good man’s heart. There was no
malice in my rubbish; but it laughed at the captain. It laughed at a man
to whom such a thing was new and strange and dreadful. I did not know
then, though I do now, that there is no suffering comparable with that
which a private person feels when he is for the first time pilloried in
print.

Captain Sellers did me the honor to profoundly detest me from that day
forth. When I say he did me the honor, I am not using empty words. It
was a very real honor to be in the thoughts of so great a man as Captain
Sellers, and I had wit enough to appreciate it and be proud of it. It
was distinction to be loved by such a man; but it was a much greater
distinction to be hated by him, because he loved scores of people; but
he didn’t sit up nights to hate anybody but me.

He never printed another paragraph while he lived, and he never again
signed ‘Mark Twain’ to anything. At the time that the telegraph brought
the news of his death, I was on the Pacific coast. I was a fresh new
journalist, and needed a nom de guerre; so I confiscated the ancient
mariner’s discarded one, and have done my best to make it remain what it
was in his hands–a sign and symbol and warrant that whatever is found
in its company may be gambled on as being the petrified truth; how I
have succeeded, it would not be modest in me to say.

The captain had an honorable pride in his profession and an abiding love
for it. He ordered his monument before he died, and kept it near
him until he did die. It stands over his grave now, in Bellefontaine
cemetery, St. Louis. It is his image, in marble, standing on duty at
the pilot wheel; and worthy to stand and confront criticism, for it
represents a man who in life would have stayed there till he burned to a
cinder, if duty required it.

I find it interesting that the part that this chapter focuses on is always left out from the usual accounts, as far as I know (I am not a Mark Twain scholar, so I am only talking about what I have read).

I also feel that there is a lesson somewhere in this story for those who are receptive. How many would be receptive to such a lesson is something depressing to think about these days.

As a bonus for having read thus far, I invite you to read this, which was not published in his lifetime and about which he said, “I don’t think the prayer will be published in my time. None but the dead are permitted to tell the truth.”.

November 25, 2010

Drones, Aerial and Otherwise

[This was meant to be a comment in reply to an article on the ZNet by Pervez Hoodbhoy about aerial drones and what he calls ‘human drones’.]

I feel very strange, in fact disturbed, to have to make this comment, as this comment is critical of the ideas of someone with whom I have a lot in common, whereas I have almost nothing in common with those he proposes should be killed by any means possible. The strangeness also comes from the fact that the author not only recognizes but has actually been writing about the grounds on which I will put forward my criticism.

I am not sure whether Pervez Hoodbhoy is one or not, but I am an unapologetic atheist and have almost the worst possible opinion about religious fundamentalism of any kind, especially when it is of the organised kind or has organisational support. I also have no hesitation in stating that there IS something that can be called Islamic Fascism and it should be called by its proper name. But I also recognize that often things get mixed up and we can have a resistance movement that is also a Fascist movement. That makes it difficult to analyze them, let alone judge them. We can, however, still analyze and judge specific facts and events and be mostly right about them if we have sufficient evidence and we make sure that we keep our intellectual integrity intact.

Thus, for example, the people who are being targeted by the American drones (excluding those caught in the ‘collateral damage’) have been doing things which no sensible human being can support. These include the horrible terrorist acts, but more importantly (as the author rightly points out) they include their atrocities on their own people: women, protesters of any kind, ‘blasphemers’ etc. I can very well see what would happen to me if I were living in that kind of society.

I also share most of what the author has been saying. The trouble is that, he also makes some leaps of logic or conclusions which seem patently wrong to me and I think I have to register my disagreement with them, because they are far too important to be ignored.

I could, perhaps, write a longer article about it, but for now I will try to say a few things which matter more to me.

The first problem is that the author mixes up the literal and the metaphorical and this logical error leads him to atrocious conclusions. We can surely talk about ‘human drones’ where we are using the word drone metaphorically and the usage is justified as he has eloquently explained by comparing them with the non-human aerial drones. But the comparison itself is metaphorical. And the justification does not remain valid when he goes on to establish a straightforward literal equivalence. The ‘human drones’ might be brutal, unthinking, destructive, (metaphorical) killing machines and so on. They might be, in a sense, inhuman or anti-human, but they still are not non-human. They do have bodies, minds and thoughts. To say otherwise is to abandon one’s thinking in a fit of rage. What they deserve or not may be a matter of debate, but it has to be based on a vision that does not ignore the fact that they still are human beings, however detestable and dangerous they may be.

I am sure the author is aware of some of the history of the world which seems to indicate that there were a lot other people – and still are – who might also be justifiably called ‘human drones’ and who might be considered as bad as the ones he is talking about. That definitely can’t justify their actions, but it has a bearing on what those taking up the task of judging them should think and do.

If you agree with my contention here, then the analysis will lead to different directions. What those directions exactly should be, I won’t go into, because I don’t claim to have the answers, but they would lead to conclusions different from those of the author.

Even the metaphorical comparison here has some problems, which can, as I said, be guessed from what the author himself has been writing. There are some similarities, but there are also many differences. The ‘human drones’ still come from a certain society and they are part of it. The aerial drones are just machines, they don’t come from any society. The ‘human drones’ come from societies which have seen destruction of the worst kind for ages, whereas the aerial drones are (literally) remote controlled by those who played the primary role in bringing about this destruction, as the author himself has written and said elsewhere. If you ignore these facts, you will again be lead to very risky (and I would say immoral and unfair) conclusions.

With just a little dilution of the metaphor, haven’t most of the weapon laden humans (soldiers, commandos etc.) been kinds of ‘human drones’? The ones author talks about may be deadlier, but the situation is more drastic too. On the one hand you have an empire that is more powerful than any in history and on the other you have an almost primitive society that thinks it is defending itself, just as the empire says it is defending itself. Will it be improper to ask who has got more people killed? What about the ‘human drones’ of the empire: thinking of, say Iraq?

As far as I can see, the use of aerial drones to kill people, whoever they may be, is simply indefensible. Because if their use is justified on the grounds of the monstrosities of the Taliban ideologues and operators, what about chemicals? If some people were to form an anti-Taliban group and they were to infiltrate the ‘affected’ villages and towns and if they were to use poisoning of the water supply or something similar to kill people in the areas where these monsters are suspected to be, would that be justifiable? The aerial drones are, after all, just a technological device. There can be other such technologies and devices.

There must have been some very solid reasons why the whole world agreed to ban the use of chemical and biological weapons after the first world war and stuck to that ban (with a few universally condemned exceptions), though they were very effective and the Nazis were very evil.

The other big problem I have with the author’s opinions on this matter is that he suggests that the American aerial drones are one of the unsavoury weapons we should use against the fundamentalist Islamic militants. This is a logical error as well as a moral one. The logical error is that ‘we’ are not using the weapons at all, the empire is using them. And it is the same empire that created the problem in the first place, once again as the author himself has said. We have no control over how these drones are or will be used and who they will be used against in the future. Can’t they, some day in the future, be used against ‘us’? Why not? Perhaps the empire won’t use them directly, but it can always outsource their use: think again of Iraq. Iraq of the past and Iraq of the present. The author, in fact, knows very well the other examples that I could give.

To put it in Orwell’s words, make a habit of imprisoning Fascists without trial, and perhaps the process won’t stop at Fascists.

The use of aerial drones, they being just a technological device, might perhaps be justifiable for certain purposes, for example in managing relief work during large scale natural disasters, e.g. the wild fires in Russia or the frequent floods in India and China (but not as just a cover for their more sinister use). Their use for killing humans is, however, of a completely different nature.

The moral error is that the author’s conclusions unambiguously imply that ends justify the means. As long as these monsters producing (or becoming) ‘human drones’ are killed, it doesn’t matter whether the weapons are, to use the author’s word, unsavory. It also doesn’t matter that they are being used by an empire ‘we’ are opposed to and which started the mess. (Actually, the mess was started long ago by another empire, but then we could say there were even older empires who played a role in creating this mess, so let’s not go into that).

I even sort of agree with the author’s idea that recommending the standard left meta-technique of “mobilizing” people (actually, it is not just leftists who use such techniques) may not be very practical under the conditions prevalent in this case. But, as I said, though I understand the severity of the problems, I don’t have the solutions. I only want to say that the kind of errors that the author makes can lead us to a worse situation. We should not forget (I am sure the author knows this too) that it is not just a case of some bad apples. Even if these were to be removed by using ‘unsavory’ forces and weapons, the problems are not going to be solved so easily. Because there is not just one clearcut problem but many problems which are all meshed together and the meshing is too complex and barely visible.

At the risk of making an unpalatable statement, I would say that if any party in conflicts like this has to be excused for using unsavory weapons or tactics, it will have to be the much weaker party, not the strongest party in history. But I don’t think I would include suicide bombing among those weapons or tactics. And I also realize the limits to which I can be entitled to sit in judgement over people living under such conditions.

The author need not offer me (business class or mere economy) tickets to Waziristan. I am scared to even go to places in India.

One more problem that I have with the author’s writings is that he seems to have assigned blame to most parties involved in the conflict: the Army, the militants, the Taliban, the Americans etc., but has he (I haven’t read everything written by him) considered, equally critically, the role of the Pakistani elite (not just the leftists) and the somewhat ‘secular’ middle class? He seems to have hinted at their role, but it seems to me that their role was, is and will be far more critical in determining what is happening and what will happen. After all, the rise (if we can call it that) of the Taliban closely parallels the Islamisation of the Pakistani society in general. How did the Pakistani elite (intellectual, feudal and official) help in this and what can they do to solve this problem?

That, it seems to me, is the crucial question to ask (though it won’t lead to a quick fix), apart from what people around the world can do about those controlling the aerial drones, towards whom, as the author earlier wrote, “we still dare not point a finger at”. After going on to point a finger at them, the author seems to have now moved to the position of accepting their support in terms of killings by the aerial drones in order to contain the ‘human drones’, which (to be a bit harsh) doesn’t make sense to me.

Related to this is another question: does the natural antipathy of the Pakistani elite towards these ‘primitive’ tribal communities has something to do with the position that the author has taken and which he says many others (‘educated people’) share?

There are, of course, other actors. The author has mentioned Saudi Arab, but Iran has a role. Even India has (or at least wants to have) a role.

But I want to end on a positive note. It’s heartening to see that the ZNet allows this kind of a dissenting view to be presented on its platform. That should be a good sign for the discussion.

[Unfortunately, I have to end on a slightly negative note. As I was going to add the comment to the article, I realized that I have to be a ‘sustainer’ even to post a comment. And I have not been able to become a sustainer for reasons I won’t go into here. Hence I post it here.]

April 26, 2008

A Tryst with the Soul of Paris (1)

As I promised, I am going to write about the movie ‘La Môme’, also known as ‘La Vie en Rose’ (‘The Life in the Pink’). The movie is about the legendary French popular singer Édith Piaf, real name Édith Giovanna Gassion, but earlier known as La Môme Piaf (The Little Sparrow).

For the last many weeks, I have been soaking myself in her songs. Not her alone, because I am never ever an exclusivist, but my playlist during this period has been almost half full of her songs. Or songs related to her, i.e., songs sung by her which were later also sung by others. As far as music is concerned, this has been one of the major obsessions so far. And it doesn’t look like I am going to get over it soon. I don’t mind it, of course.

I even found some notes and tunes familiar from Hindi film songs, which are the true melting pot of music like nothing else.

Did I say I will talk about it later?

Let it be said that I have listened to a very wide variety of music from around the world and claim to have a very good musical sense. So, now that you know about my qualifications for writing about her and the movie based on her (I guess you already know that I also claim to have a very good cinematic sense), I can get on and you better take me seriously.

Heh! Heh! Where is your degree?

First, I will say what has already been said by all. Marion Cotillard has given a great performance in this movie as the legendary singer. It’s hard for me to forget that she is not really Édith Piaf.

By the way, she became the first actor (or actress) to “ever win an Academy Award for Best Actress (“Oscar”) for a performance entirely in French”. Given that winning an Academy Award is considered the height of achievement for people working in the movies, doesn’t it sound a bit strange? I mean French directors (along with directors from other countries from Europe and Asia) have been making movies and setting the standards for others for a long time now and French actors have been acting in them. Well enough to deserve world class awards.

How easy it is to forget that the Oscars, the Academy Awards, are mainly meant for English movies. There is just one magnanimous (or guest, if you like) category for ‘Foreign language movies’. But everyone behaves as if the Academy Awards are equally for all movies of the world.

Can we expect globalization of the Academy Awards? I won’t bet on it.

Except that I have never bet.

The spell checker has identified ‘globalization’ as an invalid word. I am adding it to the dictionary. The spell checker also doesn’t recognize ‘exclusivist’ as a valid word. I am adding this word too.

I have heard the term ‘Artificial Intelligence’ somewhere. I also heard a rumor (rumour for the non-dominant party) that computers now have some of it. Why do I feel a bit relieved that it is just a rumor?

Coming back to the movie, it is about a singer who, as someone said, “belts them out, doesn’t she?”. She does indeed. And she does just great. I have become her lifetime admirer. For whatever is left.

She was a born singer. She started on the street. She was the daughter of an acrobat and a street singer. For some time she lived in a brothel managed by her grandmother, where she was treated very well. One of the prostitutes became so fond of her that she was heartbroken and hysterical when the father came back for his daughter. With her father, she (the singer to be) lived in a circus. Later she accompanied her father on his acrobatic (contortionist) street shows and started singing. Then she sang on the streets with her half-sister, who remained close to her till her death, except for some time when she felt ignored and abandoned by the star singer.

She was discovered by a nightclub owner. She was suspected of involvement in his murder, but was cleared. She denied that she had anything to do with that and I would prefer to believe that. I would rather give her the benefit of doubt than to Henry Kissinger. Or so many like him, even if not his equal in douchehood.

She sang under the protection of local mafia men, who took their share, obviously. She met a composer, Marguerite Monnot, who also became her ‘most loyal friend’ for the rest of her life. Then she was mentored by a composer who was also a poet and a businessman. She became popular on the radio as well as on the stage. She became a star. Actually, in France, she became a super star. She mentored many people and helped them launch their career. And ‘dropped’ them when they became successful and no longer needed her mentoring. She helped launch many careers, including that of another legendary singer Yves Montand. Jean Cocteau wrote a successful one-act play ‘Le Bel Indifférent’ specially for her and she acted in it.

She was severely injured in a major car accident. Then she suffered more car accidents. Partly because of injuries from the car crashes, she got into addiction and suffered more. She fell in love with a married French boxer (who was a star in his own right in France) …

Well, according to the ethics of movie reviewing, I shouldn’t divulge too much. Suffice it, as the phrase goes, to say that if there was anyone whose life was the stuff of legend, she was the one.

I would say even more than Howard Hughes.

So much about her, what about the movie? It is one of best biopics I have ever seen. It is better than ‘The Aviator’. It is better than ‘Capote’, even though I have more than a soft spot for movies made about writers or about literature. It is better even than ‘Gandhi’. More about that last movie later.

Now the reasons why it is better. First is simply that I like it more. But more specifically, everything is almost perfect in this biopic. Direction (Olivier Dahan) is really good without being pretentious or stiff. Screenplay (Isabelle Sobelman and Olivier Dahan) is as it should be for a biopic. Realistic but still interesting. Not over the top. Neither starry eyed, nor of the kind which seems to be declaring ‘I will (academically) judge this person’s personal life and cut him or her to size’.

Marion Cotillard actually became The Little Sparrow. I don’t know whether it was with or without Method Acting. The rest of the cast also gave very convincing performances, including the actress who played Marlene Dietrich. I should make special mention of Sylvie Testud who played the role of Mômone (Simone Berteaut), Édith’s half-sister and her lifelong friend. Her lifelong partner in mischief.

For now, I will stop talking about the movie here as I intend to write a second installment of this post.

I would be proud to have lived a life like the one she lived. With warts and all.

Even now, as I write, she is singing in the background. Literally.

In the words of the movie’s Marlene Dietrich, she is taking me on a voyage to Paris. Where (unlike Marlene Dietrich) I have never been, except for half an hour at the airport when I had to keep sitting in the plane as there was a strike at the airport. So I have yet to set my feet on the soil of Paris, but The Little Sparrow, who really belts them out and who embodies the soul of Paris, has flown me around there plenty of times now.

P.S.: The strike in the above paragraph doesn’t mean terrorist strike. It means labour strike. Just in case.

And yes, labor for the dominant party.

April 13, 2008

Two Laws of Reviewing

After a few years in research, I have discovered two laws which the process of reviewing (of research papers) follows. Not very original, but here they are:

  1. You can always find some reasons for accepting any paper.
  2. You can always find some reasons for rejecting any paper.

April 5, 2008

Screwball Horror

This movie is supposed to belong to a genre called ‘screwball comedy’. Well, there was some comedy in it, of a very black sort, which is fine with me because I like black comedy. It is the kind of comedy found in the real world in the most abundant quantity.

However, what I felt most while watching the movie, especially after the first twenty minutes or so, can only be described by the word ‘horror’. Screwball horror.

The movie I am talking about is called ‘His Girl Friday’. It is a story about an unbelievably unscrupulous newspaper man and another newspaper ‘man’ who is actually a woman and who was previously his wife and his primary reporter. His Girl Friday, as the title says. She is almost equally unscrupulous, but this we find out a bit later into the movie.

Since she is just a bit less unscrupulous than him, she got fed up at one point (before the movie starts) and divorced him to go and become ‘a human being’. At the start of the movie, she seems to be on the way and has found a human being (an insurance agent) to marry (who loves her) and comes to the office of her former husband to inform him of the news.

But her former husband has other designs. He is determined to not let her go. As we find out later, not because he ‘loves’ (whatever that means) her, but because she is too good a reporter (of the kind shown in the movie and of the kind often found in real life) to be let off and also because, as a person, she is of the same flock, and would have been much better off had she stayed married to the reporter.

As it happens, a man is going to be hanged the next day and there is great news capital that can be made out of that. The man happens to be a poor man who was fired after a long spell of loyal service, who started getting drunk and started attending some union meetings just because he had nothing else to do. Then something happened some day and he shot a cop. He says accidentally. The cop happened to be a colored man and the colored vote is important in the locality concerned. So, the governor doesn’t want to give him a reprieve as the elections are coming.

So far so good. But, as the reporter (editor? owner? all in one?) tries every trick in his morally anarchic bag, and after he has got his former wife to stay for a few hours (he has a plan) and interview the convict (which she does) for a great story, the convict escapes during his ‘psychoanalysis’ by a shrink from New York.

The Wikipedia page says this is where the fun begins. I don’t think the statement is accurate. Actually, this is where the little bit of fun (as I understand it) that was there ends and true horror begins.

I don’t have the patience (or the stomach) to describe everything that happens after this. We begin to really understand the distinction made by the screenplay writer between newspaper men and human beings (which a notice at the start of the movie indicates doesn’t apply in the ‘present’ times).

Basically, what we see is almost everyone (newspaper men, cops, politicians etc.) behaving like monsters, except that there is no (visible) blood and gore. Without batting an eyelid. Or bowling an eyelid for that matter.

The game of the hanging to be (which later becomes shooting to be) gets dirtier and dirtier, till we realize that the director is not just showing us a screwball comedy, or a satire, or a black comedy. We realize that the genre to which the movie belongs is that of the blood and the gore which flows thick through the stream of rapid fire dialog but is not directly visible to the eyes.

Because it is not directly visible to the eyes, some people (who don’t look at such things very hard as it might upset their constitution or their life) can understandably call the movie a screwball comedy.

The director has to be given credit for sticking with the idea throughout and not giving us a falsely feel good ending.

Almost all the characters in the movie, who all belong to a particular class, are not bothered, even superficially, by such trifles as deaths of human beings. Even when they might be causing it. They are not shaken even by the most moving emotional outbursts by one of the few ‘human beings’ in the movie who had talked kindly to the man to be hanged and is therefore branded a murderer’s girl friend.

So there is enough horror in the movie to make it feel more like amplified (albeit sanitized) ‘Clockwork Orange’ than, say, ‘Some Like it Hot’ or ‘It Happened One Night’.

But there is some more horror off the film. Like in the movie, this horror can also be seen in the trivia:

  • The director Howard Hawks, who could be perceived to be a closet commie (by many) in this movie, was known to make anti-semitic remarks. Ben Hecht, whose play was adapted for the movie, was Jewish and is known for his anti-Holocaust activism.
  • Rosalind Russell, who played the female lead (the newspaper ‘man’), hired her own writer to ‘punch up’ her dialogs to make them as good as that of Cary Grant, who played the male lead. Did she mean her dialogs were not as horror inducing as that of the Hero?
  • The man to be hanged is white (even if trash) and he had shot a colored cop. Not vice versa, which would be much more likely given the demographic and other statistics.
  • The fact that I mentioned earlier. That this movie is considered to be a screwball comedy. Not even a black comedy.
  • The corollary to the fact mentioned above. That horror can be mistaken for fun and enjoyed accordingly.

I won’t accuse the director for giving us some escapist fare. Not even of making a feel good movie.

Nor of making a comedy.

March 7, 2008

Transcribing Romance on Your Menu

It makes us feel that we are all extras in somebody else’s movie.

That’s a comment someone made about the movie I am going to write about today. I am not the kind of person who likes to watch the same movie again and again. But there are exceptions. So I do watch some movies more than once. And this one is a movie I have watched the second highest number of times.

From what I have written so far about movies, the regular readers of this blog (assuming there are any), might have got the impression that I am a very dry kind of person. Always talking about serious movies. And always talking about only the serious (political, philosophical, psychological) themes in all movies.

I am not going to do that in this post. Not because I want to prove something (there goes an apology). Just that this particular movie doesn’t have anything serious to say about life. And, therefore, I don’t have anything serious to say about the movie either. (Well, yes, this is more of an exaggeration than a literal truth).

But I still have watched this movie the second highest number of times (for me of course). And will definitely watch it again. More than once.

Like the other movie that I have watched the highest number of times (for me of course), this movie too was a big surprise.

In how many non-Indian movies will you find a Punjabi folk song on the soundtrack? A song like the one transcribed below.

This is one other very unusual unme-like thing I am going to do in this post. Transcribing the lyrical and poetic parts of the soundtrack of a non-serious movie. There might be some mistakes in the transcription (there goes a disclaimer), but then I won’t be the only one to do that (there goes an excuse). Just a few days ago I bought a sackful of second hand books (all in English: good Hindi books don’t have a market, even a second hand market) from a roadside Sunday book bazaar. One of the things I bought was a booklet titled ‘Joyful Hearts (For Private use only)’. It had lyrics of popular songs in several languages, all transcribed in the Latin script. One of them (California Dreamin’) is on the soundtrack of the movie I am writing about. I too have transcribed it below, but I have done so from the movie. The version in the booklet wrongly contains the word ‘in a lay’ instead of ‘in L.A.’. Actually, the task for me was easier (for English songs) because the subtitles also had the lyrics. But the Hindi and Punjabi words I had to transcribe on my own. And if I remember correctly, even the subtitles had some mistake in the transcription of an English song.

Anyway, here is the Punjabi folk song:

पिपलां दी ठंडी-ठंडी
छाँ वरगी
सत्थ मैनूं लग्गे
मैनूं वरगी

मैं वी उन पुच्छ के
बैर कर दी

So, how many foreign (non-Indian) movies will have this kind of real and really beautiful folk song that is hard to find even in India? (I am talking about music more than the words. Unfortunately, I can’t transcribe the music).

Even in an India where, while Punjabi as a distinct language is going down the extinction path as much as any other language except the lucky handful, certain aspects of Punjabi culture are making inroads even in the South. And music is one of those aspects. But, tragically (I mean it: I don’t use words lightly), the Punjabi music that is proliferating is of the worst kind.

And how many foreign movies will have light classical Hindustani music with words like this:

बदरवा बरसन लाई
लाई फूहारों की लड़ाई
पवन चलत पुरवाई
बदरवा …

As this is Hindustani classical music, even if light one, the words give very little indication of the beauty of the music. Unless you have a gift for discovering the music hidden within the words. A well known Hindi film music director used to say that all songs (i.e., lyrics) have music hidden within them. You just have to find that music and you can get the right composition for the song. I think he was at least partially right (there go weasel words).

But the one that follows takes the cake. In how many movies will you find hardcore poetry in hardcore standard Hindi. The shuddh Hindi. The pure Hindi. Even I don’t understand everything in this poem. And, I am ashamed to say, I don’t even know whose poem it is.

गर्जन भैरव संसार
हँसता है बहता कल कल
देख देख नाचता हृदय
बहने को महाविकल बेकल
इस मरूर से
इसी शूर से
सघन भूर गुरू गहन रूर से
मुझे गगन का दिखा
सघन वह छोर
राग अमर अंबर में भरने जरूर

ए वर्ष के हर्ष
बरस तू बरस पर तरस खा कर
मार दे चल तू मुझ को
बहार दिखा मुझ को

गर्जन भैरव संसार
हँसता है नर खल खल
बहता कहता
बुद बुद कल कल
देख देख नाचता हृदय

This poem, like other songs in the movie, is played in more than one bits and is employed as the musical theme of a certain bit of the ‘story’.

There is not much of a story though. What you see in this movie, what made me watch it the second highest number of times, and what made this one of Tarantino’s favorite movies, is simply cinematic magic.

Magic created out of photography, choreography, composition, colors, music, musical words and romance. Simple almost unreal and surreal romance made magical.

By the way, the movie is called ‘Chung King Express’ and is directed by Wong Kar Wai. And it stars a very good looking star cast consisting of Brigitte Lin, Tony Leung Chiu Wai (the smaller, who is a bigger super star than the bigger Tony Leung of ‘The Lovers’), Faye Wong (who was already a pop star), Takeshi Kaneshiro (who actually knows four languages and uses them all in this movie) and Valerie Chow.

The movie also has a song from one of Faye Wong’s albums which I couldn’t transcribe as I neither know the language nor the script.

I have a feeling that this movie has influenced a lot of people working in the realm of popular culture.

It is also influenced by a lot of other creations by other people working in the realm of popular culture.

It’s not every day
We are gonna be
The same way
There must be a change
Somehow

There are bad times
And good times too
So have a little faith in
What you do, oh yeah
Getting happy, yeah
I want you to understand, yeah

The movie actually has two interwoven stories (CLICHE!). Roger Ebert may be right in saying that watching this movie is a cerebral exercise as you like this movie because of what you know about it, not what it knows about life.

But Roger Ebert can be horribly wrong sometimes. Like when he wrote a review of Malena. I will just quote Michael DeZubiria to point out how unbelievably wrong the best known movie reviewer in the world can be (there goes a marathon digression):

Roger Ebert wrote probably the most idiotic review I’ve ever seen him come out with about this movie. He missed the point of this movie even more than he missed the point of Memento, and his review of that movie was like a blind man describing a shooting star. He describes Malena as a schoolteacher “of at least average intelligence, who must be aware of her effect on the collective local male libido, but seems blissfully oblivious.”

Roger, seriously, are you joking? BLISSFULLY?? Did you sleep through this movie?

She almost never speaks at all and never displays even the slightest hint of a smile. Given the extent of her depression and stifling sadness, it is astounding to me that anyone in their right mind could attach the word “blissfully” to any element of her character.

I know what that’s like though, because sometimes I completely miss something about a movie and I think that something else is the stupidest thing in the world because of it, at least until someone explains what I missed and then it all makes sense. Watch Malena, for example, walking through the central square in town at any point in the movie. If you think she keeps her eyes on the ground directly in front of her because she is in a state of pure, ignorant bliss, then trust me. You are missing something.

I don’t know if Malena was actually unaware of the effect that she had on the townspeople, but I find it nearly impossible to believe that she did. That thought actually never even occurred to me until I read Roger Ebert’s gem of a review. Her behavior struck me much more like someone who had been dealing with such behavior from the men around for her whole life. I doubt very much that she doesn’t understand the concepts of human physical attraction.

Coming back to the current movie, I can say with a crystal clear conscience (I don’t like to lie too much) that this is one of the best movies about plain and simple ‘love’ type romance.

What a difference
A day makes
Twenty four little hours
Brought the sun and the flowers
Mmm, where there used
To be rain

My yesterday was blue, dear
Today I am a part of you, dear
My lonely nights are through, dear
Since you said you were mine

Lord, what a difference
A day makes
There’s a rainbow before me
Skies above can’t be stormy
Since that moment of bliss
That thrilling kiss

It’s heavens when you
Find romance
On your menu

What a difference
A day made
And the difference
Is you

But then it is a movie by the master of nostalgia. Wong Kar Wai can make you feel extremely (I don’t use adjectives or adverbs lightly) nostalgic even about places where you have never been. He can even make you feel nostalgic twice removed. In this movie he first makes you nostalgic about Hong Kong (even if you have never been there) and then he makes you feel nostalgic about California (even if you have never been there) from Hong Kong. And all this time you (there goes projection) are sitting in a man made cave in India.

All the leaves are brown
And the sky is gray
I’ve been for a walk
On a winter’s day
I would be safe and warm
If I was in L.A.

California dreamin’
On such a winter’s day

Stopped into a church
I passed along the way
Well, I got down on my knees
And I pretend to pray
You know the preacher likes cold
He knows I am gonna stay

California dreamin’
On such a winter’s day

If I didn’t tell her
I could leave today

California dreamin’
On such a winter’s day

I was (along with the person who gave that movie to me) fascinated by the soundtrack of another one of Wong Kar Wai’s movies, ‘In the Mood for Love’. But ‘Chung King Express’ beats even that movie. It has one of best soundtracks in the history of movies. In fact, I have watched it sometimes just for the soundtrack. And I am not really crazy about movie soundtracks.

Tarantino has claimed that everyone that he knows who watched this movie (he only knows men, or, more likely, he only counts men) had a crush on Faye (who is named Faye in the movie too).

A tribute from the king of cinematic non-serious violence to the king of cinematic non-serious romance.

So, whenever you want romance on your menu, go to Wong’s. They serve the best there. You will find yourself visiting frequently.

Even if there was nothing else, I will still watch this movie to listen to the Hindi poem being played on the TV, accompanied on the soundtrack by many other sounds.

Hindi poem on cinema. Foreign cinema. Now there’s a rare thing for you if there ever was one. Even if it forms the backdrop of an almost comic botched small time drug smuggling operation involving many very bad looking lower class ‘Indians’ who are actually Pakistanis.

February 29, 2008

English is Language Independent

It’s the Global Language, right? So how can it be language dependent? You propose a theory based on English. It has to apply to all languages. You propose a Natural Language Processing (NLP) or Computational Linguistics (CL) technique for a particular problem. For English. It applies to all languages. You build a software for some purpose. For English. It has to be useful for all languages. You build a dictionary…

Never mind.

But the vice versa is not true. You propose a theory based on Hindi. It is language specific. It doesn’t count for much. You propose an NLP technique for a particular problem. For Hindi. It is language specific. It doesn’t count for much. You build a software for some purpose. For Hindi. It is language specific. It doesn’t count for much.

That’s how it works in practice, if not theory. Or may be even in theory, with some help from the (very valid) idea of Universal Grammar (except that the UG may be the UG of English).

Even today I have got a review of a paper on a problem which is like one of the holy grails of NLP or CL. One of the comments is that the approach has been evaluated on Hindi so it can’t be compared to other techniques that already exist. True. But what is the number of papers published in the ‘first class’ NLP/CL conferences and journals in which the approach has been tried only on English? Doesn’t matter, because English is language independent. If you only evaluate your technique on English, that’s OK. But if you evaluate on only Hindi, that’s not acceptable. Because Hindi is language specific.

We know this very well in India. The Elite talks about (Indian) literature. And sometimes the Elite magnanimously (or dismissively) talks about (Indian) literature in languages. The first, of course, refers to literature in English. The second refers to literature in other languages. Indian languages.

The Elite talks of media. And the Elite (rarely and mostly negatively) talks of language media.

Hindi is a language. English is not a language.

Pardon me.

Hindi is a language. English is the language.

English is above being merely a language.

That’s why all the work done in English is language independent. Not just research. Not just in NLP/CL. Anything. Movies, literature, music.

I am guilty of the sin of indulging too much in mere languages. I should be working mostly on English. Not just writing blog posts in English. Sometimes, of course, I can bestow a bit of my attention on languages. Like Hindi.

But I won’t do that. I will do the opposite. I am incurable.

Can Confrontation be Turned into Collaboration?

In the last post I tried to put across some points against blind reviewing. The intention was to show the limitations of blind reviewing. As I said in that post, I don’t have the correct solution. But I do know now that blind reviewing is not as good an idea as it seems on the surface.

I will have more to say about this, but in this post I will digress from the topic a bit and consider a hypothetical situation.

At present, when the author(s) of a paper get the reviews, they (in most cases) have no venue to reply to the comments made in the reviews. Now, suppose we had completely open reviewing. Not double blind. Not single blind. Zero blind.

Zero blind means that the reviewers know who the author(s) are and the author(s) also know who the reviewers are.

Hard to imagine? But we already have such a reviewing process in real world. In fact, this is the most used process. This is how books are reviewed in the media. Or movies. Or anything artistic or scientific.

Yes, I know, the situation with research conferences and journals is a bit different and there are many practical difficulties. But let’s ignore them for the time being and just assume that a zero blind process is in place and a paper is sent to a conference.

Now, the reviewers do their job and based on their comments and scores (if any) it is decided to reject the paper. This is again not a universal thing, because there is also something called ‘killing a paper’ where a single reviewer can virtually ensure that the paper is, well, killed. Regardless of what other reviewers might have said. This actually happens.

But we will ignore this too for our hypothetical case and just assume that the paper was rejected after considering all the reviews and discussion among the PC members.

Now, when the authors get the reviews, they believe that the reviewers have made mistakes in understanding the paper. Also, that the reviewers have made statements which are not justified. The authors, because they know who the reviewers are, write a detailed reply and counter all the comments and statements made by the reviewers which they think are not justified.

The reviewers are also interested in the problem that the paper is about and they probably are also working on the same problem. Which is why the paper was assigned to them in the first place.

Once again, this is an assumption for the sake of idealization. In reality, the reviewers often are not working on the same problem and may not even be interested in it.

What is going to happen now? The reviewers also reply to the author(s)’ comments. This could start a confrontation which goes on for a long time and arguments are traded back and forth.

Note that the decision about the paper has already been taken because the only reform that has happened in this hypothetical situation is that we have zero blind reviewing instead of single or double blind. So the confrontation was started by the reviewing process, but it is no more a part the process now.

‘Conventional wisdom’ says that confrontations (with words and verbosity) among researchers (or, in general, members of a group) are bad. This is the same wisdom which says that confrontations (with weapons and violence) may be good among nations or communities because there are things called national interests or communal interests.

So how about collaboration? Can this exchange of arguments lead to collaboration among the author(s) and the reviewers?

Apart from practical constraints, is there any reason why this can’t happen? I mean, even if collaboration is ruled out in many cases due to practical constraints, it may still happen is some cases. Wouldn’t that be a good thing for research?

Of course, I am talking about Computational Linguistics and Natural Language Processing, where most of the action takes place on computers. Which are likely to be connected to the Net. So, collaboration, i.e., long distance collaboration, is not a Utopian dream.

And I also know it’s not just that collaboration may not happen, there may be an ugly confrontation. This might lead to worsening of social relations among the researchers. It won’t be a good situation.

But wait a minute!

Aren’t researchers supposed to be mature people who, for the most part, think rationally? Aren’t they supposed to be objective, or at least rigorously and honestly subjective? Aren’t they supposed to be good enough to take the responsibility of deciding which research paper should be accepted and which should be killed. Or not allowed to be born, to put it more politely? In fact, aren’t they assumed to have a lot of qualities which we don’t so easily assume in ordinary mortals? Such as the fact that when they recommend the rejection of a paper and make sure it’s never published, they won’t take some ideas from those rejected papers and use them for their own work as their own contribution? Unconsciously, if not consciously. To suggest otherwise (i.e., that they can be unknowingly plagiarist) would actually be considered a blasphemy. And if someone gets caught, it would be considered a great scandal. There is some social psychology involved here which I would rather not talk about right now.

If the researchers who review papers are already assumed to have all these wonderful qualities, can we also assume that in most cases they won’t get into an ugly confrontation? That they would, if possible, convert a possible confrontation into a collaboration?

It all depends on what our preferred model of relations among researchers is. If there is a four colour (color) spectrum, which one is your preferred color:

  1. Between Newton and Leibniz
  2. Between Einstein and Bose
  3. Between Bertrand Russell and Wittgenstein
  4. Between Hardy and Ramanujan

In case there is anyone reading this, and assuming that they don’t think this is all pure BS…

What do you say? Which model do you think can work? Which is your preferred model? Which model would you recommend for application in the real world?

In today’s world? But more importantly, in tomorrow’s world?

February 26, 2008

On Blind Reviewing (2)

In the first part, I presented a case in favour (favor) of blind reviewing as a bulleted list of ten reasons to have blind reviewing as the most preferable implementation of the concept of peer reviewing.

Excuse again the legal sounding language.

I also indicated that I am not sure that this is indeed correct, i.e., blind reviewing is the best that we can do to ensure quality research. In this post I will try to present a case against blind reviewing, or at least a case against the idea that blind reviewing is only or the best way to go about the business of research.

First, let’s take each of the ten points I had listed:

  1. Human beings can be biased. So, if a reviewer knows that a research paper is written by a person she doesn’t like or has strong disagreement with, she can get biased against the paper and will not be able to review the paper fairly.

    Human beings can be biased and their biases can really come to the fore if they know that their identities won’t be revealed. There may be enough in the paper to trigger their biases.

  2. Apart from the above kind of biases, there can be the bias in terms of the weights associated with the names of the authors, their institutions, their countries, their group, even their academic background. Most of the people who have been working in NLP/CL[1] for some time know about the linguistics vs. statistics or machine learning bias. This kind of bias increases the chance of your paper being rejected or accepted depending on whether you seem to be in favour (or favor) of a linguistics heavy approach to NLP/CL or of a statistics (or machine learning) heavy approach. There are variants of this bias in other fields too. For the closest example, we can consider Linguistics. Where your paper is perceived to be situated along the Chomskyan or Empiricist or Cognitive or Computational axes with respect to the chosen position of the reviewer can have a large impact on the decision about your paper, irrespective of what else your paper says. And the chances of such a perception can be increased if the identities are known.

    Such biases are especially the ones that can be triggered mostly by the content of the paper itself, because enough is revealed about the authors by just the content of the paper. More on this later.

  3. Human beings can be unduly confrontational and they can also be unduly wary of confrontation. So, if the identity of the reviewer is not withheld, the author(s) may be offended by the reviewer and they may also become confrontational and carry on this confrontation with the reviewer, thus making the process of reviewing difficult and something which a lot of people would like to run away from. Also, the reviewer may avoid making adverse comments, especially if the reviewer doesn’t want to offend the author(s).

    This is perhaps the strongest point in favor of blind reviewing. However, the problem is that, like all the other points, it assumes that identities are not revealed at all in the blind reviewing process. The truth is that the content of the paper often gives enough information about the possible identities of the author(s). And this happens more in the cases where there are much higher chances of biases and where a proactively fair reviewing process is needed the most. For example, if someone is working on languages of the Third World, those languages will be mentioned in the paper. From this, and from the language and presentation of the paper, it will be easy to guess that the paper is from some Third World researcher. In many cases, the reviewer might even be able to guess the author(s), or at least the groups of which the author(s) are part. It is these cases where the need for fairness is the highest because it is so easy for a reviewer to become biased against the paper. So much so that she doesn’t even care to read the paper carefully. If you get two papers to review and one of them seems to be from a major research group from a major university from a First World country, while the other is possibly from a graduate student from a second class university in a Third World country, would there be any difference in the way you review the papers? Would there be any prejudgment? Won’t you be more careful in reviewing the second paper if you knew your identity will be revealed?

  4. If the author(s) don’t know who the reviewer is and vice versa, the whole reviewing process may be more fair for the above specified reasons and because of the general association between anonymity and fairness. If you don’t know who is criticizing and the person criticizing also doesn’t know who is being criticized, then you can expect more fairness.

    Seems to be a valid point on the surface. And it is: To a certain extent. But there is an even more valid counter-point. If the reviewer knows her identity is not going to be revealed, she can be as biased as wants. Even as biased as she doesn’t want. There is not much ‘incentive’ to read the papers carefully. You can get away with anything, especially if the authors are not ‘prominent’ ones so that even the chair(s) won’t probably notice. Unknown authors, paper rejected, extremely negative comments and ridiculously low scores. So what? Common occurrence. No need to take note.

  5. If the Program Committee (PC) chair(s) also don’t know who the authors are and who the reviewers are, then they can assign equal weight to all the reviews for making the final decision about a paper.

    This is actually a hypothetical point. It doesn’t apply even to double blind reviewing. The chair(s) always know who the authors are. The reviewing process is not actually completely blind. In almost all cases, the chair(s) assign the papers to the reviewers. Now, the reality is that the fate of a paper depends on which reviewers are assigned to review it. Moreover, in many cases, the chair(s) or the area chair(s) actually overrule the assessment of the reviewers. They are supposed to do this to ensure fairness, but why should the chair(s) be assumed to be free from bias? They are as much human as other reviewers. Reviewers in one conference or journal are often the chair(s) or the editor(s) in some other conference or journal.

  6. If the author(s) don’t know who the reviewer is, then they won’t have any reason to attribute bias or prejudice to the comments made or ratings given by the reviewer.

    Only if they assume that the reviewer didn’t guess anything about the possible identities of the authors. That might happen with their first few papers, but later on they might catch on to the fact that this is not really so. In fact, just as the reviewers can guess the possible identities of the author(s), the vice versa can also happen. One small remark might give away the identity of the reviewer. And it often does.

  7. Peer reviewing of research papers, like the administration of justice, should not just be fair, but seen to be fair. And this can only happen with blind reviewing.

    Again a superficially valid point, but there is a more valid counter-point. If everything is ‘blind’ but not really blind, how can the process be seen to be fair? Perhaps there can be some other ‘non-blind’ way which actually seems more fair.

  8. Blind reviewing, through the use of the device of anonymity, gives a true meaning to the idea of ‘peer reviewing’, because if the identities are not known, all the people involved can be treated as peers, even if some of them are senior most pioneering researchers or Directors of first class institutions in first world countries, while some others are graduate students in second class institutions in third world countries.

    As discussed earlier, anonymity doesn’t really happen in the cases where it is supposed to matter the most, i.e., in cases where there can be biases. Could it be that ‘blind reviewing’ actually gives an impression of fairness where it doesn’t really exist? This could be a very undesirable situation if we are really sincere about ensuring fairness.

  9. If the identities are not known, both the reviewer and the author can focus on the content of the paper and the review, respectively.

    Another strong point in favor of blind reviewing, but again it depends on the assumption of anonymity. Also, could it be that (consciously or unconsciously) the reviewer starts guessing who the paper is possibly from so that she can review accordingly, without spending too much time in understanding the paper? And when the author(s) get the reviews, could they be guessing who the reviewers are (from the remarks they have made). Both of them might reach right or wrong conclusions, and whichever they reach, such a situation will not be an ideal one for the purpose of fair peer reviewing. This is, of course, more likely to happen with papers which get rejected, fairly or unfairly.

  10. Finally, the very practical reason that blind reviewing provides a reasonably fair mechanism to ensure the selection of the best research papers such that everyone can be more or less satisfied with the outcome and no one will have valid reasons to complain.

    Not all conferences or journals have blind reviewing. Yes, some studies have been done which show that blind reviewing reduces biases, but these studies have not considered the cases where the biases are most likely (as mentioned earlier). What these studies show that biases are somewhat less in cases where biases are likely to be less anyway.

So the case it not as clear as it might seem at first sight.

Now I will mention the really bleak reality of blind reviewing which made me think about the reviewing process and, over the years, has provoked me enough to write this.

Let me emphatically state first that when I started research and was thinking of publishing my first paper, I was really happy to know that most NLP/CL conferences and journals use blind reviewing process to select papers. My reasoning was exactly as I have listed above as points in favor of blind reviewing. So this post is not being written just out of a whim.

What I have found is that blind reviewing, though it does work to some extent, actually becomes a cover for reviewers to be as irresponsible as they want because they are anonymous. As an analogy, there are some good anonymous commentators on blogs, but many use anonymity as cover for their mean and nasty (completely unjustified) comments with perfect unaccountability. Something similar happens with the blind reviewing process. Many reviewers, including those who are most probably very senior researchers, use the cover of anonymity to let all their biases flow freely into their reviews because they know they are safe. And, unlike on the blogs, the author(s) can’t even reply because most conferences don’t have a rebuttal phase. Even if there is one, the reviewers simply don’t care. They have reviewed and their comments are final and unchangeable, whatever the author may have to say. They don’t change their reviews in response to author(s)’ rebuttals or clarifications. They don’t because they are safe in anonymity.

What makes this kind of situation even worse is the fact that a lot of reviewers review for many conferences and journals and, therefore, your paper if unfairly rejected from one place, is quite likely to run into the same set of reviewers at another place.

It can be quite depressing. I am sure many researchers have thought of or have actually quit from the research arena because of what I have described above.

I think it’s time we gave another look to the reviewing process. I don’t have a solution, but I will try to make some suggestions later. Perhaps more experienced researchers and organizers can say something better.

I know there are many great people out there who put their best in writing a review and actually go beyond what’s expected of them, but I think such people would do the same even if their identities were revealed because they know they are doing what’s right to the best of their abilities.

January 20, 2008

On Blind Reviewing

This is something about which I have wanted to write for a long time. Since, like many other things about which I want to write, it is quite an important matter, I didn’t want to write in a hurry. Which meant that I had to wait for a time when I could write at enough leisure to be able to write at enough length with enough time for making it rigorous enough. Now, since it is very difficult (for me at least) to get enough of all these, this effectively meant that writing about this topic was postponed indefinitely.

But I don’t want this to be postponed indefinitely. I want to write about this now. So, I would just write and try to be as rigorous as it is possible to be in a blog post written in one or two short sittings. This applies to many other posts, whether written already or to be written in future. You can take it as an apology or you can take it as a disclaimer.

What is the problem? Well, the problem, or rather the question, is whether what is called ‘blind reviewing’ is a good thing or not. And, of course, this is in the context of peer reviewing of scientific (or claimed to be scientific) research papers or articles for the purpose of selection for inclusion in the proceedings of a conference or workshop or for inclusion in a journal.

Excuse the legal sounding language.

First of all, let me list all the reasons in favour (‘favor’ for the dominant party) of the so-called ‘blind reviewing’ process, so that no one can jump and dismiss the whole affair as trivialization by saying you don’t know what you are talking about:

  1. Human beings can be biased. So, if a reviewer knows that a research paper is written by a person she doesn’t like or has strong disagreement with, she can get biased against the paper and will not be able to review the paper fairly.
  2. Apart from the above kind of biases, there can be the bias in terms of the weights associated with the names of the authors, their institutions, their countries, their group, even their academic background. Most of the people who have been working in NLP/CL[1] for some time know about the linguistics vs. statistics or machine learning bias. This kind of bias increases the chance of your paper being rejected or accepted depending on whether you seem to be in favour (or favor) of a linguistics heavy approach to NLP/CL or of a statistics (or machine learning) heavy approach. There are variants of this bias in other fields too. For the closest example, we can consider Linguistics. Where your paper is perceived to be situated along the Chomskyan or Empiricist or Cognitive or Computational axes with respect to the chosen position of the reviewer can have a large impact on the decision about your paper, irrespective of what else your paper says. And the chances of such a perception can be increased if the identities are known.
  3. Human beings can be unduly confrontational and they can also be unduly wary of confrontation. So, if the identity of the reviewer is not withheld, the author(s) may be offended by the reviewer and they may also become confrontational and carry on this confrontation with the reviewer, thus making the process of reviewing difficult and something which a lot of people would like to run away from. Also, the reviewer may avoid making adverse comments, especially if the reviewer doesn’t want to offend the author(s).
  4. If the author(s) don’t know who the reviewer is and vice versa, the whole reviewing process may be more fair for the above specified reasons and because of the general association between anonymity and fairness. If you don’t know who is criticizing and the person criticizing also doesn’t know who is being criticized, then you can expect more fairness.
  5. If the Program Committee (PC) chair(s) also don’t know who the authors are and who the reviewers are, then they can assign equal weight to all the reviews for making the final decision about a paper.
  6. If the author(s) don’t know who the reviewer is, then they won’t have any reason to attribute bias or prejudice to the comments made or ratings given by the reviewer.
  7. Peer reviewing of research papers, like the administration of justice, should not just be fair, but seen to be fair. And this can only happen with blind reviewing.
  8. Blind reviewing, through the use of the device of anonymity, gives a true meaning to the idea of ‘peer reviewing’, because if the identities are not known, all the people involved can be treated as peers, even if some of them are senior most pioneering researchers or Directors of first class institutions in first world countries, while some others are graduate students in second class institutions in third world countries.
  9. If the identities are not known, both the reviewer and the author can focus on the content of the paper and the review, respectively.
  10. Finally, the very practical reason that blind reviewing provides a reasonably fair mechanism to ensure the selection of the best research papers such that everyone can be more or less satisfied with the outcome and no one will have valid reasons to complain.

I think the above list makes as strong a case for blind reviewing as can be made. I mean in a blog post, not in a book.

Now, in the next post (that means in some future post) I will discuss what is or can be wrong with blind reviewing and will try to draw some conclusions. You must have guessed that the reason I am writing all this is that I am not sure whether blind reviewing is the best thing possible. But by writing all this, I am also trying to get things straight in my own mind.

[1]: With apologies to Martin Kay and others, I am using NLP and CL as interchangeable terms because I think my arguments in this matter are not affected by the distinction between the two, a distinction which may be important in many but not all contexts (i.e., in my opinion).

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