Author: Kamangir

How fast is too fast for a brain?

Breathing in and breathing out. The pounding of the heart. The digestive tract cooking and crumbling smelly mush into juice for the cells. Not only there is a rhythm to life, but also, and categorically more importantly, there is a safe range of frequencies in which life occurs and beyond which it first shows signs of distress and then it falls into the havoc of anxiety, bouts of rage and depression, and the inevitable demise into the basic elements. And life does not stop there. The insects, the bacteria, the chemical reactions that deliver life as well as its digression into deadness, they all happen within a safe range of frequencies. Arouse the drums, or calm them down, too drastically, and the bridge collapses.

Every student of control systems is some time in her first year of introduction to concepts pertaining to dynamic systems presented the stark example of a system that is forced to operate outside of its safe zone of frequencies and the inevitable catastrophe that ensued. Here is how the story goes.

Once upon a time, there was a bridge that was considered as a marvel of construction by its builders and the public alike. The honeymoon for the bridge was very quickly blown away, though, by strong gusts that stroke its sides and made it have to respond to frequencies that it was not prepared for. In the short video recording of those fateful moments one can watch as a deserted car oscillates with the entire bridge. The dance of the bridge at first appears docile. Nothing more than a momentary surge that is to pass harmlessly. It is imaginable if a spectator found excitement in the little benign trick that the nature seemed to be playing to that bridge. As the reel proceeds for about two minutes, however, it would be hard for a sharp eye to not discover, taken aback by terror of course, that the bridge is collapsing. And collapse it did. The incident has become over the years an example of the dangers of dynamic systems being exposed to, or rather not being protected against, the inferno of hostile frequencies.

The fate of Tacoma Narrows Bridge is important to us, as homo sapiens, not only because it is a potential threat to any not-yet-constructed bridge, but also, and more importantly, because any threat to one dynamic system may be an indicator, a proverbial canary in the coal mine, that other dynamic systems are endangered by a similar phenomenon. And endangered they are. Bend a piece of metal too quickly and too aggressively against its will and it will break. Move your hand too quickly while trying to balance an inverted pendulum and it will succumb to the ensuing chaos. One can seek and in fact find the catastrophic impact of unexpected frequencies in many dynamic systems and as these systems encroach upon the human skin it is only inevitable to inquire if such a phenomenon is also a threat to us, the majestic homo sapiens. And I believe that is the case.

The human biped is a product of millions of years of evolution that occurred within carefully maintained and adhered to frequency limits. Things happen at a particular pace and we might not always have ample time to respond but somehow at the end things work out. Intervals of hyperactivity are compensated by periods of relaxation. We take a nap when faced with prolonged periods of physical labour. It is as if, although frequencies rise and fall, but at the end they balance out into what is, non-incidentally, our comfort zone of facing stimuli and responding to them. While that sounds like a safe mode of operation for the human animal, the frightful question is what may happen if this delicate balance is disrupted, momentarily or intermittently.

Standing in a busy subway car, packed with exhausted labourers at the end of their shifts, a messages comes in and rudely makes its existence known via a vibration on my wrist. The train has peeked its head out of its dark cavern for a short breath and the invasive organelles of digitality have found an instance to hand a message over to me. A few lines of text, maybe accompanied by a picture, in Farsi or in English, if the sender has deemed her message worthy of her time. Otherwise, the mumbo jumbo of Finglish, Farsi words typed in English, will make my eyebrows turn away from their linear cohesion and into a frown. Notwithstanding, an intrusion has occurred and I must respond to it. Not only that, I need to be quick as well, or rather I need to also decide how quick I want to be in responding to this message. The situation is more dire, in fact. I first need to decide if I am going to respond to the message. A great friend of mine suggested in the weekend that we, human beings, are capable of making only about thirty well-contemplated decisions in an average day. Any attempt to elevate that number would, in her words, jeopardize the quality of those and all our other decisions as well as the tranquility of the person who is forced to make the decisions. If there is a shred of truth to that proposition, then the non-distinct incident of having received a text message on the subway consumes at least three seats on that departing ship.

It is important, however, to avoid falling into the deception that receiving a text message is a calamity in this time and age. I would argue that the downsizing of the other opportunities for making contact with people has effectively made us reliant on the new technologies for building and maintaining human relationships. My own personal experience, for that matter, is a testament to the important role that digital media plays in discovering and developing exquisite connections with rarities within the human race. I have observed, rather gleefully, that a significant majority of my most cherished relationships have either started on the web or could have been significantly damaged had I not used the social media to the extent that I do. There is no doubt, therefore, that Facebook and Twitter and Instagram are not void of value and content. They do, at the same time, however, cause harrowing disturbances in ones equanimity, partly because they alter the pace of human interaction towards high frequencies that have had no precedence during human evolution.

Here is the key question. What is the safe range of frequencies for the human psyche to operate and communicate at? At what point does the soul fail to ride the waves and fall into despair? And ultimately, experience seems to make it abundantly clear that the human body, and that includes the human brain as well, is generally in need of protection against the elements. No astronaut would even consider allowing the ferocity of vacuum and the solar blaze meet their bodies absent of the circumvention of a thick spacesuit. Why would then any person, in their right mind, allow the unknown ether of the digital sphere come in contact with the delicate balance of their neural circuitry?

A major theme for creative efforts of the human mind has been to devise shields that would allow a person to step into the unfamiliarity of the spaces in which life never took hold. Breathing masks for the deep ocean, goose feather jackets for the frigidity of the polar caps, and, in fact, much closer to home, the popularity of leather gloves between November and April in Toronto, they are all successful human achievements in protecting her cells against the outside. Why would then any person allow the strong winds of electronic representation and stimulation sweep her brain cells unfettered by a protection mechanism? Have we not witnessed the carnage already? Is there anyone out there who does know of a person who bent and broke and dispersed away in the hurricane of the social media?

Note: Marquee picture is a frame in the Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapse video found on YouTube.

To whom the machine listens

Gathering up a crowd of more or less ten people in my apartment and watching them as they interact with each other and also with their own thoughts constitutes a favourite Friday night for me. The event generally starts at around eight pm and continues well into the  early hours of the next day. People usually show up at around the same time and the evening starts. The departures are less homogenous; some people leave before midnight. These are the ones who have something “important” to do the next day, or even the same night. Parents are generally amongst this group, as it is known that the environment may not be safe for minors. And that is one of the curious properties of these gatherings. No particular activity or imagery can generally be pinpointed as a potential source of duress for a child that may be present in my living room in these magical get-togethers. I have come to the understanding that it is the atmosphere that is deemed inappropriate for an immature brain. And that primarily is an artifact of the thoughts that are shared. Here is an example.

A friend who is the newest addition to these nights announces, upon taking a seat and greeting Sion, my cat, that he has chosen to make fewer decisions about the mundane aspects of daily life. He approaches this idea from a philosophical perspective, while using his hands to stir the air in front him so that he can find a more appropriate channel for communicating with the others. His mouth is dry, possibly as a result of the mixture of the passion that he has inside of him for expressing his thoughts while, at the same time, knowing that a typical audience would find his musings confusing and potentially outright incongruous. There is nothing typical about this audience, however. I have arrived at the understanding that many of the participants of the Friday gatherings in my apartment do in fact belong to the fringes of the societies, most of them lacking at least one aspect of the “usual” way that people live their lives. And this alone has given me much food for thought.

Why are there so many “normal” people out there? The ones that seek and find and marry the least unsuitable mate, reproduce once or twice or three times, bury their finances in the pithole of a hefty mortgage and manage to become the Platonic Form of the banality of existence. What is the appeal of the usual, the highway, the path taken by any and every one? These questions do indeed carry in them a judgment, however sublime that is, and yet the questions themselves are important and if one answer to them is that these actions constitute the conventional way that one may live her life, then a more critical question would become relevant and also ever so sensitive: How do I manage to steer away from the banality of being taken away by the strong winds of living life as the shopping mall wants me to.

Here is a thought.

I came to work on Sunday and was welcomed by a notice from the cluster that every task that I had deployed has successfully completed. I deployed the tasks at the end of Friday. More precisely, I issued a single command to one machine, which then translated that command to a set of instructions for the entire cluster. I did not bother to watch the machines as they took off and started their choreographed dance, yet I knew that it was happening as I took off towards the subway station with Abeer Nehme’s delicious voice caressing my earlobes. In the meantime, the machines distributed the work amongst themselves and worked for thirty six hours. They then sat still for me to come back and harvest the fruits of their labour. I, on the other hand, spent those thirty six hours primarily “doing” three things, the first of which was the Friday gathering in my apartment. In addition to that, I also spent some time on the Machine Learning piece of digital art that I am working on with a group of friends. We are breathing life into a set of traffic lights that we are planning to take with us to the next Mooseman, and, who knows, to the Burning Man, at some point. To make my weekend slightly more enjoyable, I also watched the Theatre Gargantua production of the The Wager and completed the night with a drink and a discussion about the play and everything else that was of interest to the small group of us who went to the play. I was able to do all of this because I have transferred a minuscule shred of my cognitive abilities to the machines that do my dirty work, or rather my boring work. Is that the key to freeing one from the banality of the contemporary society?

To live a life of meaning one needs money. This proposition may appear perplexing at first because it seems to resort to an aspect of the hegemonic ideology in order to combat it. I suggest that is not the case. Indeed access to financial resources does not guarantee that one would lead a life that is capable of sticking its head above the smog of mediocrity that covers the earth. A healthy bank account is, however, a necessary requirement for such an endeavour, and one must be careful when considering what constitutes a “healthy” bank account.

One needs to have access to food, shelter, and pocket money to go to plays and to purchase books and also to travel the world. The minimum number of zeros on the right side of the balance on one’s checking account that would allow for these activities to happen, is dependent upon one’s skillfulness in managing her expenditure, of course. And that is a key distinction between different individuals and why there are people who can happily subsist on smaller incomes that allow them to live more and why there are people who live a life of self-induced, or at least non-mitigated, misery whilst their bank accounts are overflowing with cash. Given the vast range of people and how they manage their own financial footprint, I suggest that there is an underlying reality in the system: One needs to have money in order to stay away from the catastrophe of the lifestyle that is so prevalent and is in fact imposed by the modern society. I opine that Machine Learning is one way to achieve this state.

I imagine every mathematical model that I implement and every line of Python code that I write as one step towards freeing my soul from the shackles of the modern day symbolization of life. In other words, what is important about Machine Learning is not only that one can make a living out of it, but, more importantly, that one does not need to spend one’s own time for that purpose. Hence, for example, one can replicate herself within and through the machines and then escape away from the harshness of the city for the closest lakeside and let the machines that follow her instructions to the word translate miniature jumps of electrons within silicon into cents and dollars that pour into one’s bank account.

And this is where the key question stares into one’s eyes and becomes undeniable. Machine Learning does fit the bill for a technology that can help select individuals escape the humiliating crush of the society into a box of mass-produced human figurines. The same technology, however, is the force that will devastate the scaffolding of the dignity of a sizable portion of the human population. Is Machine Learning the wagon that will lead the elite into intellectual prosperity whilst leaving the rest of the humanity in the agony of ultimate uselessness? Is that the next stage in the predetermined fate of the herd? Are the zombies that roam the shopping mall destined to the distress of having to compete with and surrender to the Machine Learning algorithms that the new elite are devising as the vehicle of their superiority?

Web is free, when you don’t afford to pay

The date that I went on a short while ago was by far among the best first-glance interactions that I have had with a person of the opposite sex in as long as I remember. She sipped her white wine and I submerged my psyche in my second double-shot of Kahlua. The thick bitter liquid was at the right temperature, thanks to the two cubes of ice that shined in the glass and glittered under the dim light of the cozy pub that I had chosen for our special night.

We spoke at length of existence and agency. Whether the table in front of us existed, and if there are different kinds of existence. More specifically, whether we existed in a way similar to that of the table. If agency was a phenomenon to be analyzed, or if it was merely the mirage of the coexistence of the multitude of cells that constitute us. My companion did not miss the opportunity and opined that a true relationship happens at the atomic level, and not on the more apparent conscious stage. A nuclear physicist by profession, and passion as well, as I was to reckon soon, her view of the now was intimately based upon the physical, as opposed to the magic of a notion of the supernatural.

We “met” less than one hundred hours prior to that rendezvous on a dating app. I had set up a profile that reeked of distaste for the mediocrity of the mainstream and would urge only the one who “thinks Chomsky is important” to bother to cause a splash in the electromagnetic ether that we have become used to accepting as a sixth sense that connects our brains absent of the need for physical proximity. She liked me and then sent me a “Hi :)” message.

I would have not noticed the like, had I not paid the premium that allows one to have a full picture of her presence in that environment. In other words, you can interact with the app, or rather allow the app to interact with you, in two distinct ways. One, you are a freeloader; You set up a profile and like people and wait to be liked and called upon. When people interact with you, however, you don’t see the details. “Someone liked you”, that is what you are told. Someone. One person amongst the eight billion occupants of the planet thinks that you are worthy of a few seconds of her time. Or his time. Or its time. How many years in the future and we would first encounter and then get used to, as we always do, bots running people’s presence on the web? What if it is an app that is “liking” me? Maybe it wants to test the waters before the master allocates a minuscule of her attention to me?

There is a second, rather more affluent, way to interact with the app and that is the route that passes through your bank account. For the price of a few pints of quality beer, you get the full picture. You see who liked you, and you can let them know that you like them. You also receive boosts to the top of the list, especially when everyone is looking for a mate. Come next Friday evening, when the population of single women are pretending to be solely interested in their drinks, and you can pay to show up at the top of the list of the available bachelors in the vicinity. A larger transfer, and you can feature a handsome profile picture and boast about your familiarity with Hegel and Schopenhauer and how well you know the underground culture in Toronto. Alas, this second payment is to a different merchant, but that is not the point. You have better chances when you pay.

Last night I decided to pay for porn. It is a valid question whether porn strips women off of their humanness. While the answer to that question is vitally important, with so many women identifying with their erotic appeal, I, as a man, can manage to pack up a clear conscious and enjoy the sight of evolution having gone astray. All in all, my concern last night was not whether or not porn is an acceptable form of pastime. On the contrary, I questioned my decision in the past two decades that I would not give my interest in exploring my sexual desires the same opportunities that I allot to my urge for food and shelter. I have chosen to live in a paid residence, and not in the streets for example, and do not pick up food from the dumpster. Why and why then do I succumb to the mind-numbing repetition of unimaginative free porn?

The same logic is applicable to not only dating apps, but apps in general, and in fact the entirety of the digital sphere. Recently, our book club was postponed for two months due to some glitch in the human psyche. That was painful, no doubt, but what was more daunting was Facebook’s refusal to allow me to change the date of the corresponding event which had been scheduled to happen in the past and never did. It was, and is, clear to me that I must be able to interact with Facebook as I wish. Yet, Facebook does not allow me to do just that. “An event can’t be created in the past.” That is what Facebook keeps announcing, or “toasting” as the Android terminology suggests, when I try to update the date of the book club Facebook event to tomorrow.

I know that the event has not happened yet and, no, I am not “creating” an event “in the past”, but how am I going to let that be known? No one is liable to listen to my complaints. Zuckerberg has guaranteed it in the fine print whose acceptance is a prerequisite for living and breathing on Facebook that I, as a non-paying user, am not more than a tolerated leech, whilst unbeknown to me it is my blood that lets the wheels of the digital machinery churn out the billions of dollars that pay off dividends to the investors as well as is the source that yields the salaries of the executives at Facebook.

Here is the core of the argument, unveiled of the shroud of allegories and half-baked thoughts. As long as I do not pay to Facebook the price of my ticket, I am not a passenger, but a mere cog in the ship. If I am not paying, then I am needed to behave in a certain way, and while I admit that the conundrum is more complicated than such a dichotomy, I would like to dictate the terms of my ride.

The dating app that I got to know the fascinating lady on at least gives me the option to pay, and I do pay, and as a result I go on dates that stimulate my mind and give me food for thought well past the date night. Similarly, because I am paying for my porn, I now expect better content and at least a shred of imagination and a tangible storyline. I want to be given the option to pay for the treatment that I receive on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and hence expect a minimum level of acceptability for the service that I receive there as well. Decidedly, that is going to segregate, even further, the haves from the have nots. My brain is not at ease with that. I fathom, however, that such a move would at least put an end to the shortsighted declaration of the digital sphere as an idealistic utopia in which “things are free”.

Cat videos are what we need the Internet for

It is 2:37 pm on Sunday November 11st, 2018. One hundred years and a few hours ago, the first World War concluded with an armistice. The use of the word “concluded” is rather unwarranted here, because twenty years later a conflict that strode on a more technologically advanced basis shook earth and its inhabitants. The use of the word “shook” is not allegorical in this sentence, as the second world war did indeed end with the massive eruptions of two nuclear detonations.

Last night I watched in horror the despair of the German submarine soldiers onboard a U-Boat that was under attack by British soldiers during World War II. I had found the film a few days earlier, and I need to admit that it took me a substantial amount of time in order to sift through the heap of what constitutes the common stock of Netflix’s offerings, before I landed on anything that appeared to have some notion of value and content.

The film is narrated from the perspective of the “aggressor” and that makes it particularly interesting. Here I am seeing the victimization of the victimizers. That is a particularly interesting vantage point as it rips the discourse off of its use of victimization as a justification for the criminality of the war. Too many films and books, especially of the type that mainstream Hollywood loves to utilize as a cash grab, hone on into the scapegoat of portraying armed conflict as an evil act imposed from without. That, inherently, makes it unnecessary for the capitalist-artist to have to address the controversial question of “why do we fight?” Das Boot is void of that. The tormented souls whose life and misery is chronicled in the film are the aggressors, they are the bad guys, they attack an already burning Allied tanker and then watch in shock and awe as burning human figures jump into waters that are covered with oil that is ablaze. And they watch in horror as the sailors swim towards their boat, which intentionally distances itself from the inferno and makes itself unreachable by the dying men.

I can almost never watch a film from start to end in one sitting. When I arrive home, generally past sunset, and after I hurriedly take care of the usual chores, I have a mere hour to dive into life as it must be lived. The rest of my time is, mostly, occupied by the necessities of survival: sleeping, making money, and transitioning from one to the other. Such is life of a bourgeois white-collar mental labourer in the last decades of the reign of Capitalism. Hence, I had to pause the film and then it slipped off of my mind until I stumbled upon it again on a list published by CBC, carefully scheduled to show up on the website a few days before the Remembrance Day, and leave no trace behind on the day in which no one is supposed to dare to ask about the futility and criminality of the concept of military conflict and the supposed valour encoded and experienced in it. Alongside All Quiet on the Western Front, Schindler’s List, Life is Beautiful, and The Pianist, Das Boot is another testament to the validity of the question “why do we fight?”

I am in Stratford, a small town one hundred and fifty kilometers west of Toronto. I have never been this far west. I used to live and work in Waterloo a few years ago and, thus, the first half of the road brought in notable memories to me. I approached, and passed, Shakespeare, an even smaller town in the eastern outskirt of Stratford, and then I found myself in the usual scenery that identifies almost any small town in Ontario. There is always a singular busy road that is crossed by dirt roads and other more commonly commuted paved passages that lead to farms and cemeteries in the horizon. Antique shops, diners, rundown houses, and the usual car that advertises on its windshield that it is up for grabs, are the ever-present decorations along such roads. Then the town erupts into the view. There is always an elaborately erected and neatly maintained core to the town, where the main diners are and which is the place to go for the dwellers of the urban area as well as the passing tourists and curious individuals who travel from a distance to soak in the exquisite vitality of the town people.

And that is where I am. Seated in a Balzac’s Cafe on Ontario street. I had been to Balzac’s cafes, in Toronto for sure and also possibly in other towns in Ontario, but B. told me that this is where the action started. This is the first Balzac’s cafe, according to her. “It used to be a hardware store, and that gives it its rustic charm”, B said. B’s comments are preempted by my inquiry into what I can do in Stratford. She has just poured my second cup of coffee and I have just told her that the steak and eggs was fascinating. “Fascinating? A breakfast being called fascinating?” she asks and then leaves me in order to respond to another customer. When she comes back to the bar, my place of choice in small diners like the one that I am in now as well as larger pubs and eateries in the city, she tells me about K., “the only other person that I know that uses this word in this context”. We are a gang of three, I think, but before I can utter these words, she starts combing her mind in search of an attraction in Stratford that she can guide me to. She is short of ideas and, therefore, stares into my eyes and asks me “what do you do?” Her eyes are gray or blue, I cannot recall, as I was absorbed into the deep glister of the spheres of life that sent out waves of livelihood and mischievousness for the entire time that I was with her. She must be in her fifties. I imagine that she has had a full life. One spotted by lovers and hardships and moments of desperation and elevation, intermittently shaking her vessel to the core.

“You mean what I do for a living?” I ask. “Well, that, and also other things; what attracts your attention?” she replies. “I read, and watch films, and go to plays, and while on that topic, what’s up with the festival?” I am referring to the Stratford Festival that I have heard a lot about and have never attended. “They are only doing The Rocky Horror Picture Show on December 2nd this year”, she says. I remember watching the film, or rather the communal performance that included it at the Apollo Theatre in Kitchener. The sight of people throwing toilet paper in the air and the request from the owner of the cinema to avoid targeting the screen by the water guns. I even took one of the playing cards that were dispersed on the cinema floor with me when I left. “I have watched the film, it was hilarious” I say. “You need to watch the live performance, or you haven’t seen anything” she says as I bathe in her irises.

Back to the topic, she is warmly inquisitive of the lone man who has driven one hundred and fifty kilometers to have a non-remarkable breakfast that is the staple of any diner in the one-thousand-kilometer radius around where I live. “What do you do in life?” she is now asking about my packcheck, I reckon. “I am a Machine Learning scientist, I replace people with machines, I am disgusting.” I give her my canned response. “How fascinating, that is indeed disgusting!” she stares back into my eyes and after a pause that takes a few seconds to converge into any tangible thought she tells me about the Balzac’s Cafe.

I want to pay a visit to the cafe and, therefore, I decide to get back to my car, take out the laptop from the trunk, and spend a while in the cafe doing what I do in these circumstances; a hard-to-explain combination of life and work. I don’t need to think about it, it always comes to me when I install myself behind a table in the cafe and before my latte starts to consider letting out the heat that makes its oily bitterness so deliciously desirable.

I need to cross Ontario Street before reaching the church parking lot that I decided to let my compact SUV squat in. The lights are red and I have a few seconds of existence that are void of any purpose. As I casually canvas my surroundings, I notice that a cat is staring at me. The gray feline is taped into a pole and is advertising the Feline Film Festival. It seems to have happened two days ago in the basement of a Presbyterian church, and as the signage appears to be suggesting, it featured the “Best of the Best” short cat videos. Did anyone tell her friend, “hey I am going to this FFF thing, do you want to check it out?” Or is that an unintentional harmless ploy by the mad random generator that governs the world? Is it a mere coincidence that the three f’s are lower-case? I don’t know.

I approach the car and for the umpteenth time take pleasure at the fact that the hatch opens upon my touch. Wonders of technology! I am carrying a pendant that belongs to this iron and plastic creature in my pocket and therefore it listens to me without the need for me to ask it to. That is enjoyable. I am a master and the black bent down piece of technological marvel is my obedient servant. And what’s more, I don’t need to feel any agony when I make it accelerate and maneuver as I wish. Which slave owner of the eighteenth century would have hesitated upon learning about this possibility?

As I feel and enjoy the inner warmth that is sliding on my skin in this cold November day, I feel something else bubbling up inside me. B., K., the triple F, words start spilling out. I run into the cafe and start typing “It is 2:37 pm on Sunday November 11st, 2018”.

Addiction 2.0: What would Schopenhauer say?

These days I am receiving a steady dose of Schopenhauer through my ear canals and while that gives me a sense of admiration for the exquisite individual that the German philosopher was, at the same time I cannot help but imagine the horror that he would have felt had he been transported to the year 2018 and had, unavoidably, observed and, quite possibly, grappled with the digital ether that has swallowed the contemporary human brain. What would Schopenhauer do? How much more bitter and condescending would his thoughts and writings have become had he observed the “human bipeds” as they are glued to and fed by their digital obsession?

I spent last evening in an innocuous-looking room on the second floor of a building at the University of Toronto campus on St. George Street. The sign on top of one of the two doors that led to the classroom stated that the space could serve about ninety two people. During the three hours that I spent in the room, however, no more than twenty people were present in there. On the blackboard mathematical notes that I could decipher as describing a multi-variable normal distribution integrated on a manifold were in stark contrast with the topic of the talk. On the surface, one could have easily fouled herself that this was another cold and impersonal analysis of some aspect of existence. Attention to the terminology used in the presentation and the intermittent chuckles of the presenter and the audience made it clear, however, that this meeting happened on the sharp edge that separates the current perspective into human cognition from shamanic rituals that I imagined are being reproduced in student housings around the campus and, frankly, in many other places in Toronto and potentially other cities in Canada.

I was expecting the legalization of Marijuana to cause a sizable uproar. In reality, I, for one, did not observe almost any reaction in the streets and by the public. Whatever the dynamics of the Canadian society are that yield such a reserved response, the acceptance of being “high” as a decent pastime would, to my understanding, encourage the risk-taking sections of the Canadian society to brave up and consider the topic of psychedelics as a matter to be discussed, rather than feared and despised. Whatever the outcome of such a process may be, it might not be the most pressing matter when one considers the prevalence of another, more pervasive and hazardous, type of substance abuse in the contemporary society and its implications on human psyche and its prospects for contentment.

And that is where I would let my imagination fly, rather widely, and consider how Schopenhauer would have rephrased his observation that “If we do not want to be a plaything in the hands of every rogue and the object of every fool’s ridicule, the first rule is to be reserved and inaccessible”. To be safe, I cannot confirm if this is a statement made by Schopenhauer or an assertion opined by Yalom. Nevertheless, having spent the last two weeks sifting through Schopenhauer’s mind, albeit through the lens of Yalom in his book “The Schopenhauer Cure”, I am willing to take a leap of faith and assume that this is either a Schopenhauer quote or a close rendition of his perspective towards human interaction and the futility and hazard of being accessible to fellow human beings.

On my phone, if I allow it, I am going to be accessible through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Telegram, Whatsapp, old-school text message and call, email, and a few other mechanisms. Does that make me happy? Indeed not. I have been a netizen for too long in order to be under the impression that these brand names are merely innocent pieces of code. The tools in reference should be more accurately called Drug 2.0. They are adaptive mechanisms for stealing and exploiting my attention. They experiment with everyone in order to become adept in keeping everyone hooked. Their livelihood, and that of the giant multinationals that feed off of them, strictly depends on these potent potions not losing their hold on the human psyche. Under the guise of posing as freebie gifts to humanity, in order to allow us to rage against supposedly strong oppressors, such as tradition, they strangle the human mind in a glass cell of accessibility and spontaneity.

The fact that Facebook is not yet a regulated substance bewilders me. Use of Telegram, to my understanding, precisely fits the bill on what constitutes substance abuse. I pay for the cellular data that allows me to converse with others in a way that has no precedence in human history, and I am expected to do it the way that is prescribed, not because that is how I want to do it, but because the cartel that explores and expands the evil reach of Drug 2.0 has decreed how people ought to connect to and communicate with each other. Facebook used to give me the option to “Like” things. Now, I can show “Love”, “Rage” and a few other emotions. I am not me on Facebook, I am who Zuckerberg wants me to be, and his prescription for me is in sync with his business plan. The fact that the revolution to free us all from the grips of the digital exploitatory machinery has not started yet awes me.

What can be done? That is the key question and I don’t have an answer for it. I know two things, though. One, survival of the Homo sapiens, as a species, is dependent upon enforcing a leash around the many necks of the digital Chimera. And, two, the fact that no one may have an answer for a question of such magnitude and implication is in fact a key reason why the question must be asked and pondered upon.

And here is the question: What do we do with Addiction 2.0, personally and societally?

What do we do now that Capitalism has swallowed the web?

I have more than once been called an Anarchist and having read Noam Chomsky’s “On Anarchism”, I have found the A word a more accurate description of my disposition, compared to the other terms that have been used to describe the inner dynamics of the contents of my cranial cavity. I am an Anarchist. I get that. What does it mean, though, to be an Anarchist in the age of Capitalism? How can an Anarchist be involved in the use and development of Machine Learning, a technology that is destined to be the most severe blow to the dignity of the bottom of the pyramid of humanity?

A new friend, upon hearing that I have active presence on all major social media websites, suggested difficulty in understanding why I would not depart the latest manifestations of human exploitation instantly. I had, a few weeks prior to that interaction, heard Chris Hedges pose the rhetorical question “Why would anyone want to be on Facebook?”

Why am I on Facebook? And Twitter, and Instagram?

There are practicalities. The logistics of human survival in the second decade of the twentieth century makes it hard to leave Facebook. For example, I got to know about Chris Hedges’s talk through a message that I received from an acquaintance on Facebook. Moreover, the person in reference, who suggested that I should leave the sweatshop of human interaction, i.e. Facebook, was in fact introduced to me through a mutual friend whom I met on Facebook. The matter of fact is that I know many of the people in my life almost exclusively due to my presence in the online world. I am under the impression that if I categorize my acquaintances according to how I befriended them, then there will be a clear correlation between how I got to knew a particular person and the quality and longevity of my connections with her. I am aware that I have never executed a systematic assessment of my friendships as pertaining to how each one came about and was maintained. Nevertheless, I only need to look at my most fruitful interactions with humanity to recognize that I am indebted to the masters of human exploitation for the life that I live.

And that’s where the second important function of the social media in my intellectual well-being becomes apparent. I have seen multiple plays, watched numerous films, read shelves of books, only because I have received a pointer to them through the social media. Although sometimes implicit, for example when a “friend” on the social media refers to the book that she is reading, in many other instances the guiding hand has been explicit. I once received a package from a never-met “friend” who leaves in the northern shores of Europe. The package contained a book with a simple note that was delivered later on Instagram. “I read the book and liked it. I hope you like it as well.” The book in reference was Kader Abdolah’s My Father’s Notebook. Indeed one of the best books that I have read in 2018 so far.

Should we quit the social media in droves? Or, put alternatively, is there any justification for remaining on a platform that is built around the exploitation of the human urge for socialization and group bonding?

Important questions, indeed. Does the human predicament improve if every one of us reforms herself voluntarily in order to become a Daniel Blake? Before attempting to scratch the surface of a question of this magnitude, I would ask an alternative question: Four hundred years ago, Prince Hamlet contemplated whether existence is a binary situation, to be or not to be. The question whether or not one can hold up a life that has any touch of value while being an accomplice in the digitization and commodification of the human social tendencies is, to my understanding, a similarly complicated philosophical question.

Henceforth, I suggest a rephrasing of the question from “Should one use Facebook?” to “How can one be present on Facebook and still live a life of value?” This is, evidently, only a minuscule step towards attempting to understand the question. One important step, however, as it, correctly, to my understanding, opens up the list of potential options from the stay/leave dichotomy to a plethora of possibilities.

I would like to give this topic ample attention, pending, obviously, the availability of time. As the late Iranian poet Ahmad Shamlu wrote “If the lust for bread allows me to”.

eternity.py: what it is and how it happened

Writing has been a passion for me ever since I started reading the short stories that I found in my father’s library in our basement. At that time I was supposed to put in everything in my disposal towards landing on one of the sought after seats of one of the “Ivy League” universities in Tehran. With a maximum of four universities on the roster, each admitting a few thousand fresh students and about a million students competing for the prize, this was not a task to be taken lightly. That is how it started: I would read and reread my high school books for hour after hour. In between that activity I would indulge myself in our garden or spend some time with a book.

I had been sent to a room in the basement so that I was safe from the daily deluge of the main floor, where my smaller sisters would be living their usual lives that included the TV and other sources of distraction. In the silence of the basement I did take the mission seriously, and yet, at the same time, I developed a love affair with the written word. Coincidentally, the room that I was dispatched to also contained my father’s collection of leftist books and contemporary short stories in Farsi.

The plan worked. I got admitted to a top engineering school in Iran and I packed up and returned to the surface. The books, too, followed me. And they stayed with me until I left Iran thirteen years ago.

Passion towards the act of writing is a curious business for an immigrant, whose communication skills are one of the first casualties in the new home.  How could I write when the mechanism for writing was alien to me? I did insists, though. First, writing in Farsi for a long while at Persian Kamangir. That effort was interjected by attempts at writing in English, a project that reincarnated itself a number of times before landing here, at English Kamangir. I also did a sizeable amount of “serious” writing, on matters related to data clustering and signal processing and also on Iran’s lively quest for democracy and freedom. Those were both pleasurable experiences, and yet, neither was sustainable. My work on mathematics and machine learning was soon cordoned off from the public through subsequent non-disclosure agreements (NDA) that were a basic requirement for my paycheque.  Around the same time, I started to have misgivings regarding the subliminal function of the Internet in closed societies. Books such as The Net Delusion were a major contributor to the fact that I started to have serious concerns about “The Dark Side of Internet Freedom”. Was the Internet a means of colonialism in the digital age, disguised under the innocuous facade of cute cats and hashtag activism?

There was only one way to know. I had to retreat to the basement and work on it. I enjoyed and cherished working on mathematical problems during the day and writing about them for employers and receiving a properly sized cheque in return. That activity, therefore, was going to persist. I was, on the other hand, going to quit writing about democracy and human right until I had a better understanding of the dynamics of the digital world and its relation with the power dynamics of late capitalism.

The closure of my breathing channels garnered the ideal environment that after a few experiments resulted in eternity.py. eternity.py, as its name implies, is a script written in Python and although I used the Anaconda platform, the story of eternity.py shares nothing with the tale of the large snake in the Amazonian wilderness. Since parting ways with the dying alternative Matlab, I had been using Python on a daily basis, in order to experiment with mathematical concepts and to build machine learning models, amongst other tasks. A sizeable portion of these usages occured in Jupyter Notebook, which is a browser-based platform for combining code that is executed with text that may be read by a flesh machine. Breathing day in and day out in this environment, it is no wonder that I started to write my short pseudo-novel on Jupyter and in Python.

eternity.py is the story of a Python script that starts its execution on the eve of the departure of its author. The script has access to half a million dollars in cash, that it uses to throw parties every year on the same day. The script spends the rest of its time assessing and analyzing the activities of the list of 256 people who have acquired its copies on the social media. At the end of that excruciating period, a subset of the 256 people are considered to be intellectually alive and are invited to the festivity. The details of the implementation of eternity.py that allow it to shoulder this task constitute the bulk of the human-friendly text of the script. The rest of it is the actual implementation of those ideas.

eternity.py is also responsible for maintaining itself. It creates a backup copy of itself every time that it is modified and it publishes its 256 copies. And that is a unique feature to that script; there can only exist 256 copies of eternity.py and these copies are all created by the script itself. Practically speaking, after the script executed, I was left with 256 html files that I had to print on an Epson LX-350 impact printer that I had acquired for the purpose of printing the copies of the script. I had also sourced continuous paper, that I purchased as heavy boxes, each of which provided the material for about 70 copies. I also purchased black printer ribbons that I could use for printing 20 copies until the ink faded. I would then roll the copies and send them to the individuals who acquired them on the social media or through Amazon. Here is a snapshot of the list of files that were created.

Each one of these unique files contains an engraved ID and looks like below. Click on the image to enlarge.

At the time of writing of this text, 91 copies of eternity.py have been acquired. From these, 59 copies have been shipped and 52 copies have been delivered. Except for Africa, eternity.py has arrived in every other continent, in total to 12 countries. Click on the image to enlarge or visit the flattened map here.

A lot more could be said about eternity.py. Some of it is documented in the @Kamangir channel on Telegram. Instead of dwelling on this completed work, however, I will be spending my time on a second project that is still in its infancy. wish.mp3 will be a larger text, to be printed both in the conventional book format as well as the limited script style. It contains 1+11+1 chapters with the middle chapters acting as semi-independent narratives. The book utilizes an elevated regime of automation, with a separate Python script providing the back-end. While eternity.py resided on a linear scale of 0..256, wish.mp3 takes the readers to a three-dimensional space that utilizes encryption in order to protect the script IDs.

I will be posting additional information on wish.mp3 on its tracker and also in @Kamangir.

The Lure of the Ordinary

My parents are visiting me. This is the third time that they have travelled to Canada, from Iran, and, therefore, we have gotten used to the drill: don’t get into too many details, don’t discuss too many controversial issues too frequently, and, most importantly, focus on commonalities. Hence, Doug Ford’s reversal of sex education developments is to be touched lightly and Bruce McArthur is only a passing interest. The geographical distance has ushered us into intellectual differences and this by itself is an interesting topic for a conversation over some beer and sweet potato fries. The fact that people think more similarly when they are situated in similar circumstances is, to my understanding, a very good piece of evidence for questioning one’s authority over one’s most intimate thoughts and feelings. In other words, if A and B’s geometrical proximity is a good predictor of their shared beliefs, then one should ask how much authority either A or B has over how “they” think. But this is not the reason that I rushed to my laptop as soon as my parents left the apartment in order to attend to finding a couch for me, a presumably innocuous task that, I hope, will give them a sense of purpose and thus result in a more enjoyable stay for them. This is not about that, however. This is about 158 and this is about 168, both incrementing as I am typing this piece and as you are reading it.

I have been a resident of the different social media for what started with Orkut and then continued with Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and a few other online services. I can safely say that not one week has passed without me posting some content on at least one social media service. I have also written about the social media and the dynamics present in them as blog posts as well as more “serious” pieces for online magazines and media outlets. I can state, therefore, albeit cautiously, that I have casually investigated the dynamics of the social media and that I have attempted my share of experimentation hereto. From using the multiple-image feature in Instagram in order to capture motion in a scene, to attaching an image to a tweet in order to be able to surpass the 140 (and now 280) character limit, I have tried to both take use of this young phenomenon that has now engulfed a measurable portion of the humanity as well as to understand it. The social media, however, never ceases to amaze me. And this is about the latest incident as such.

I marked July 29th a few weeks ago on my calendar, as the day my parents would arrive from Iran. This was a Sunday, and, therefore, I spent the rest of the week until Friday evening as I would do otherwise. On Friday night I had a few friends get together for a potluck barbecue that, due to the pouring rain, and because another group had contemplated taking refuge in the gazebo in my building’s backyard sooner, digressed into a stay-in lower-key party with wine flowing and shots of St-Germain delighting everyone’s mood. That kept me up until late into the night, and, therefore, Saturday was the day to clean up the entire apartment. A great friend of mine also stayed behind in order to help me and the clean-up project took up until late into the evening. That was when we retreated back to St-Germain and the night collapsed. The next morning, I woke up at 7:30 and tied up the loose ends.  When at about 4pm I stepped back to look at the results, I was wholesomely satisfied, and I was accompanied in this delight by Sion, my seven-year-old cat. His posture was too cute for me to let go of, however. Therefore, I took three pictures of him and posted the results on Instagram (link). In the first and the third pictures he is seated on a high chair. In the second one, he is yawning, as if tired of doing some magnificent work, that he never attends to in reality.

The Persian title of the Instagram post reads “After three days of cleaning up, in which he had no role.” The Instagram post is 19 hours old and it has received 160 likes. Let’s call them “nods of approval”. When I started writing this piece, the Instagram post had received 158 nods. The people who have given me jolts of pleasure for the trio constitute a curious group among whom stands, boldly and unapologetically, the second love of my life. The Instagram post is not the end of the story, however,

A few hours later, after I drove my parents back home and after we had had dinner in an Iranian restaurant in downtown Richmond Hill, I posted a second picture, this time in Facebook. In the picture my parents are standing, each with a red rose, and are smiling at the camera. I took the picture primarily for my sisters to know of our parents well being, and ended up posting it on Facebook anyways. The title of the Facebook post reads “Mother and father are here. I will be a family person for a month.” You need to be intimately familiar with the delicacies of the Persian language in order to absorb the deeper layers of this seemingly benign sentence. But that is not necessary. What is important is that 174 people have given me the nod of approval for that post. When I started writing this piece that number was 168.

There is nothing criminal about people approving each others’ actions when what is in question relates to welcoming a parent, going out with them, and, for what it takes, having a family life. These are actions that we enjoy, albeit the sought after vicinity of the same individuals becomes a suffocating leash as the number of the days grows. Why bother to discuss this matter then? People share their lives on the social media and people, the same people, give each other nods of approval. There are complications, of course. One example is the case of the 13-year-old Calgary boy who is suing his parents for “a decade of humiliation” exemplified by silly pictures of the claimant having been posted by his parents o the social media and thus “ruining my reputation”.

Ignoring rarities, what is wrong with sharing information about one’s ordinary life and receiving approval from one’s peers? The problem, I believe, is concentrated in the word “ordinary”.

I have not done any thorough research on the topic of what people share on the social media and what receives the most attention (I did look at Facebook IQ). Based on anecdotes and non-scientific personal observations, however,  my understanding is that eating at a restaurant, getting on a cruise ship, sunbathing, driving in Mexico, winning some award, getting married, and other topics of similar nature constitute the biggest share of the pie of the total attention paid to everything that is posted on the social media. My picture of the yawning Sion as well as the airport picture of my parents’ arrival sits well in this vaguely defined group. Notwithstanding, in terms of the aftermath, they indeed are an exception in the size of the reaction that I commonly receive on the social media. What I am used to is 80 likes on Instagram and 30 likes on Facebook, and, more importantly, these rewards are what I receive for a painstakingly taken shot, on Instagram, and a multiple-line blurb about the book that I am reading, on Facebook. Given that situation, it is no doubt an exception when I receive a reward many times larger for a piece of “content” that I have practically spent no time on. Speak of return on investment! No doubt the ordinary is significantly more economic when it comes to others’ reactions. And, I believe that’s how the full circle is completed. I explain.

I find it safe to assume that around me, i.e. in Canada, if not in the rest of the “developed” world, a sizable portion of human activity is driven, and more importantly is regulated, by considerations of return on investment. I would even step further and suggest that such considerations are so prevalent that the mere suggestion of their existence is alien to many people. This condition opens up the space for the provider of the return, which in this case is the crowd that “like”s what gets posted on the social media, to exert its defining power. Henceforth, and this is where the ordinary is cherished and rewarded, what people like in the social media is what people share in the social media. Therefore, if people allot more reward to “I just ate sushi” compared to “I just read a book”, then more people are going to share “I just ate sushi” compared to the number of people who would share “I just read a book”. This situation, I am speculating, subsequently develops further into not only sharing “I just ate sushi” more frequently, but also, and more importantly, in fact practicing the act of “I just ate sushi” more commonly compared to committing one’s time to “I just read a book”. One needs to merely consider the investment and the return associated with these two activities in order to realize that eating sushi is more affordable than reading a book whilst it also derives more return.

I am not going to draw any further conclusions in addition to what I have already stated. People celebrate the ordinary on the social media, therefore people discuss the ordinary more prevalently on the social media, therefore the same people steer their lives more prominently towards the ordinary. And that’s how the lure of the ordinary conquers our lives.

High Correlation: Or why you should not pay for marijuana using your credit card


You have spent the past 15 minutes in the back room of Café 66 on Fort York Boulevard in Toronto in utter fascination, staring at jar after jar of the green substance ever so beautifully packaged and presented on the shop shelves. You are now informed by the hip, young man behind the counter that “the seventh gram is on the house.” Indeed, this shop, at least on the surface, does not appear categorically different from any other shop wherein goods are exchanged for money. And that is how you might treat the upscale marijuana dispensary south of Toronto—like any other establishment. If you pay for your weed using your credit card, however, you have committed the most dreadful carelessness of the age of Machine Learning: you have provided the machine with a “link.”

A very good friend of mine took me on a tour of the “café”, and as she spoke at length with the shopkeepers about the properties of the high caused by different strains of weed, I tried to grasp the true nature of the place I was in. The roof was covered with closed-circuit cameras. Above the only door to the room with the product was a monitor showing the video feed of the camera installed just outside the room. Soon I also noticed the weak sound of a buzzer and realized why we had to ring in and wait for the mechanical click of the door lock.

My friend received a pitch–black, childproof bag, inside which individual pitch–black, childproof bags contained the different strains that she had purchased. She then reached for her purse and paid in cash. I had seen her use her credit card in shadier places. As we left, I could not stop myself from asking her if she was really concerned, for example, that news of her purchase might reach her insurance company. “There are strict privacy laws in this land, you know!” I said. “I would like to believe that you are right,” she replied. “However, that is only the most obvious way that this purchase can cost me dearly.” She then continued, under her breath, “and probably the most benign.”

Imagine a list of a few hundred million people, and imagine that linkage has been made between the credit card purchases of everyone on the list and the “unfortunate events” that have afflicted those individuals. An “unfortunate event,” in this context, can refer to anything from being involved in a car accident, to declaring bankruptcy, to getting a divorce. Now, imagine that privacy measures have been taken into account and that purchases are anonymized. In other words, given any individual of interest, one can only know that this individual spends her money on products and services offered by businesses A, B, and C; one does not know what line of business these establishments are in. For example, A might correspond to Café 66, B might correspond to Istanbul Café, and C might correspond to the gas station at the corner of Dundas and Church. So, any customer of Café 66 who has used her credit card in that premises would be linked with business A; however, no one knows what business A actually represents. Can this situation be considered “hazardous”?

Let’s assume that marijuana usage is correlated with risk-taking. If that is, in fact, the case, it is possible to imagine that the rate of occurrence of “unfortunate events” is significantly higher within the customer base of Café 66. This is where the link between Jane Doe and A becomes valuable to the machine for deriving an inference: because “unfortunate events” are assumed to be more likely between individuals linked with A, and although every other piece of information indicates that Jane Doe is a good driver, a careful spender, and in a happy relationship, for example, Jane’s link with A points to a heightened probability of future trouble. Therefore, Jane Doe is to be handled cautiously. When she applies for a mortgage, she is considered a higher-risk individual, and her insurance premium may rise ever so slightly.

The scenario depicted above is not the worst case, however. The situation becomes more concerning when the more cautious of the risk-takers start taking notice of the activities of the silent silicon surveyors and change their payment method in Café 66 and similar establishments. Such an imaginable and, frankly, optimal strategy will then strengthen the significance of a link with A. In other words, those linked with A are the ultimate risk-takers; they are the ones who take more brazen risks. And so increases the penalty of the mistake of paying at Café 66 with your credit card.

During his stay in Zion, Neo went on a midnight stroll with Councillor Hamann. While observing the marvelous machinery of the Engineering Level, Hamann queried Neo on his understanding of the concept of “control.” Hamann had trouble accepting the fact that life in Zion was only possible because machines tended to the needs of the occupants of the last human city on planet Earth. To him, it was only ironic that other machines were digging in in order to destroy the underground covenant. In response, Neo opined that one controls an entity only as long as one can turn that entity off.

The time for turning Machine Learning off has long passed, and the justification for doing so is even more distant. The situation is, in fact, even more ironic than Matrix Reloaded. One may argue that, today, one needs to start thinking the way the machine does in order to survive. And this, ironically, completes the circle. Humankind aspired to replicate its own cognitive abilities in order to delegate menial tasks to its creation. It now appears, however, that man is forced to adopt the machine’s way of “thinking” in order to survive the reign of its own creation.

Acknowledgment: This text has been proofread by A. I wish to thank her.

The Missing Iranians at the Israeli-Iranian Initiative at the Agha Khan Museum

Saturday night, at the Agha Khan Museum in Toronto, Israeli and Iranian musicians joined hands in order to play pieces of music from two cultures that have been in antagonistic face-off at least since the 1978 Iranian revolution.

One in fact might be seduced to adopt the heartwarming assumption that the sore relationship between the two people is strictly and explicitly a matter between the two corresponding governments. As such, one would then possibly posit that it suffices to crack open the strangling fists of the Iranian establishment off the neck of the great nation taken hostage by it, and then watch a flourishing relationship between the said nation and the rest of the world. Given that theory, an Israeli-Iranian joint venture of the shape and content that unveiled in that beautiful glowing building on Eglinton East must have attracted a larger Iranian audience. The only difficulty is that it didn’t.

The program consisted of two sections, each lasting 45 minutes. While the first section did include a few Iranian pieces as well, the second section was composed exclusively of pieces of Iranian music. The out-of-this-world combination of Iranian and Israeli music, presented by a group of Israeli and Iranian musicians, reached a surreal apex, however, when the last piece in the roster was announced. Submerged in applauds of gratitude and shouts of excitement coming from the audience, the leader of the band stated that the group will play Morq-e Sahar. The highly political Iranian piece of music, which is based upon a poem by the “King of Poets” Mohammad-Taqi Bahar, is a “summary of hopes and fears” of the Persian Constitutional Revolution. More recently, Morq-e Sahar has become a signature piece of resistance music in Iran, and it’s no surprise that Iranians would relate with lines such as “The brutality of the oppressor, the cruelty of the hunter has destroyed my nest” (full text).

The announcement that Morq-e Sahar is to be played next, stirred a roar form the audience. More particularly, islands in the theatre erupted in mixtures of applaud and joy. Aside from feeling joyous, and even somewhat proud, I was also taken aback by the fact that it appeared as if the Iranian presence in the venue might be more limited that I had assumed.

“Where on earth can you listen to a group of Iranians and Israelis playing Arabic music?” This was the rhetorical question that a prominent Jewish-Iranian acquaintance asked when a small group of the Iranian attendees got together during the intermission. This exhilarating suggestion, however, was followed by a bitter questions about the absence of the Iranians in the concert. That was when I added that Abjeez did not find a large audience last night either. The duo sisters’ pop band plays music while voicing lyrics that are intimately charged with social and political messages, and although their performance was scheduled on a Friday night and at a club, the audience seemed to be limited to less than 200 people. I asked the group at the Agha Khan concert, whether there is a connection between the two events. Could it be possible that the Iranian diaspora has developed its taste away from content and closer to “Dumbool”, as a person in the group suggested? Dumbool in Iranian slang for music that lacks content and is a good excuse for shaking one’d body without the hazard of stumbling upon any hurdle that might involve one’s cranial content.

Left out with more questions than answers, I took to the social media in order to discover the reason(s) behind the Iranian absence from “All Rivers at Once”, as the event was titled.

A number of responders stated that one needs to focus on the presenter of the program, and not its content, in order to decipher the situation. As suggested, Agha Khan’s outreach program, the fact that it is an Islamic center, the location of the venue, and other aspects related to the Agha Khan Museum, function as prohibiting factors and limit its Iranian audience. I don’t think I can relate with that argument, because I have witnessed larger Iranian presence at other times in the center.

Another suggestion was the ticket price and the availability of other cultural events that coincide with any particular one. It definitely is a “concern”, albeit a first world one, that I have had to choose between different cultural events that occur at the same time and at the two ends of the city. Nevertheless, I am not aware of any other concert, play, or film screening that covered the same period as the Agha Khan concert. The issue with the price ticket, on the other hand, does hold some water. One can argue that $40 is a substantial amount of money for a recent emigrant or an Iranian refugee. Notwithstanding, I find it hard to accept that only less than fifty Iranians could afford to pay $40 for a performance that is categorically novel.

Moreover, I would argue, that affordability is a relative concept. I remember when I complained to a fellow Iranian theatre actress that $60 is too expensive a price for the cheapest ticket to Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot”. Her, rather irritated, response was that a person in my financial standing would pay $60 on a night out with friends, a pair of jeans, or a new gadget that I practically don’t need. Hence, she continued, it is not that “you cannot afford to pay for the ticket”, but that “you value this play inferior to your other options”. I went to that play, and having read the play, and having watched a video recording of the play beforehand, I found the experience the most exhilarating.

One must not succumb to the simplistic assumption that the financial affluence of the inhabitants of Yonge Street in Toronto is also prevalent on Jane and Finch. Nevertheless, Toronto contains too many Iranian home-owners with hefty mortgages and top of the line cars and shiny iphones and brand-name clothes to not be able to produce a hundred concert goers who can ditch out $40 per person.

The final suggestion came from a friend who is active in the Iranian music industry in Toronto.  He made a rather sarcastic comment that might in fact be the best theory that explains the absence of the Iranian delegation on Saturday night. “On the other hand, Hamed Homayoun is fully sold out and a second performance has been scheduled as well!!!” he wrote (the triple exclamation points are used by the original author of the comment). The referenced singer of “The Wet Umbrella”, “And I am in Love”, and “Love again”, seems to be faced with no difficulty in filling up the 3191 seats of Sony Center, some of which are sold for $165.

After the Saturday concert finished, and after the standing ovation for the musicians, I spent a short while discussing the event with a few Iranian and non-Iranian participants and headed to a friend’s place to finish off the night at the presence of a lovely group of friends, wherein we listened to and danced with Dumbool music, including a few pieces by Hamed Homayoun as well. On my mind, however, the question lingered: Why was the Iranians diaspora absent from the night?

I woke up Sunday morning with the same question on my mind an ended up going to the fascinating Istanbul Café to clarify my thoughts. On the way back, I stepped into the north branch of BMV bookstore to look for the next book that I will potentially read. A few seconds in the bookstore and I realized that I am listening to pieces of Iranian music dating before the revolution. Checking up the cashier, I had no doubt that this white man cannot in any way understand the lyrics and grasp the cultural context. Finally I had to ask, and received a most convincing answer. Apparently, the shopkeeper stumbles upon an Iranian CD at a record store and follows the trace of similar pieces of music and finds some so interesting that he indulges in playing them aloud at his hip bookstore on the intersection of Yonge and Eglinton on this chilly night.

The Iranian diaspora in Toronto is a curious case in cultural relationship, and sometimes lack thereof. In one direction, the non-Iranian community has taken notice of the Iranian presence on the land and mixed cultural events and collaborations have sprung up. As such, not only Zuze recreates Iranian folk pieces for a non-Iranian audience, but also, and more importantly, it recruits non-Iranian musicians and musical instruments for the task. At a more subtle level, the Circle Band uses non-Iranian musicians and pieces of Iranian music are played during the Canada 150 celebrations at the Nathan Philips Square.

While the highway of cultural interactions seems to be growing and vibrant from the outside towards the depths of the Iranian culture, the other pathway does not appear to be as animated. One must not limit the scope of the alleged lack of interest to non-Farsi plays and musical performances. In fact, many Farsi-speaking plays in Toronto have to accept that they will not run for more than a few times and that at none of those occasions they will enjoy a sell-out. And that is the big dilemma.

The Iranian establishment is no doubt a massive hurdle on the way of Iranian involvement with rich non-Iranian cultural activities. Outside the geographical borders of Iran, however, the same people seems to be following virtually the same forced habits. In essence, there is no doubt that an Iranian-Israeli musical collaboration inside Iran is out of the question, but why would Iranians not attend one that is happening in their city out of the evil reach of the “cruel hunter” that “oppresses” them, as Morq-e Sahar’s lyrics suggest?

One is left with the question, whether the apparent outside oppressor is merely a mirage and that some more thorough soul-searching is needed in order to identify the actual culprit. On the same note, is “The Regime” an entity that is confined within the borders of the geographical entity known as Iran, or is it possible that there exists a more deeply rooted phenomenon that Iranians transport with them, even after they pass a continent and an ocean and land in a foreign land?

Picture: (c) Agha Khan Museum