Tuesday, 28 January 2014

On Philosophy as an Alternative to Pepper-Spray

A friend of mine has successfully fended off the attentions of miscreants by asking the question "Why?" Based on a small sample size (n=2), it seems like an effective strategy. (I should say at this point that my friend is one of the least threatening-looking people I know, so the threat of physical resistance is unlikely to have been a big factor.)

Incident 1
My friend was walking alone down a dark alley in London when she was accosted by two muggers.
Mugger 1: Give me your phone.
friend: No.
Mugger 1:
(thrusting his hand into a jacket pocket and pretending to reach for a gun) Give me your phone or I'll fucking kill you.
friend: Why will I give you my phone?
At this, Mugger 1 grew confused, and Mugger 2, perhaps sensing that all was not going to plan, told him to leave her alone. Both muggers disappeared into the night.

Incident 2
My friend sat next to a creepy guy in an auto rickshaw in Calcutta.
Creepy Guy: Are you going to tuition?
friend: No.
Creepy Guy: Is that a camera bag?
friend: No, it's my handbag.
Creepy Guy: What is your good name please?
friend: Why?
Creepy Guy: Umm, err... just like that.
Creepy Guy kept to himself after that and meekly got off at the next stop.

It is worth noting that the "why" questions in the two incidents were slightly different. The first asked for a reason in the normative sense, i.e. why she ought to do a certain thing. Interestingly, Mugger 1 had already answered this question: "or I'll fucking kill you," a statement which offered my friend an extrinsic motivation to hand over her phone, in the form of a threat of bodily injury, if not death, in the event of non-compliance. I believe it was in fact my friend's implied second-order question, "Why is handing over my phone preferable to the possibility of death?" that stymied the mugger. Assuming the mugger's threat was credible, my friend, by refusing to hand over her phone, would effectively be committing suicide. But the mugger could not, on the spot, come up with a convincing argument why she should not. As Albert Camus said, "There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide."

The "why" question in the second incident is more ambiguous (and perhaps therefore doubly effective). It could be interpreted as asking for a reason in the normative sense ("Why should I tell you my name?") or in the explanatory sense ("Why are you asking me my name?") Note that Creepy Guy's response, "Just like that," could potentially be an answer to both questions (and indeed to most of the fundamental questions in philosophy). But perhaps he felt that a more specific answer was owed, and in this he came up short.

Possible answers could be, "Because exchanging names is a preliminary step in social interactions between strangers," or "So that we can get to know each other better," but these are susceptible to second-order "why" questions: "Why do names matter?" or "Why would I wish to know you better, or indeed, at all?"

The "why" question is so powerful because it resonates through many levels; an answer to a "why" question can always be interrogated with another "why" question until the would-be miscreants are confronting – perhaps for the first time in their lives – their most fundamental beliefs and assumptions.

Thursday, 23 January 2014

Changes at the Gay Hussar

Much to the dismay of its loyal clientele, the Gay Hussar, a 60-year old Hungarian restaurant on Greek Street in London, is up for sale. In a last-ditch effort to save it, Gay Hussar faithfuls formed a consortium – the Goulash Co-operative – to buy the restaurant, but they lost the bid last month.

I had dinner at the Gay Hussar once after I got a raise, and though it is more expensive than the restaurants I usually eat at, it was worth it just for the atmosphere. The interior is elegant but cosy, the service is courteous, and the shelves of political biographies and the framed political cartoons on the dark-wood walls bear testimony to the restaurant's place in 20th-century British political history. The restaurant's quirky charm is perhaps a legacy of its founder Victor Sassie, who was quite a colourful character.

The Gay Hussar is your quintessential relic, a London speciality. In the 60 years of its existence, 'gay' has taken on other connotations, and culinary tastes and diets have undergone many changes. But at the Gay Hussar there was never any question of a name change, and the menu and recipes remain faithful to the original, so much so that the food tastes unfamiliar to some Hungarians; the recipes have changed in Hungary but the Gay Hussar is in a time warp. "The menu has changed," insists Edwin Passus, 92, who has dined at the Gay Hussar for half a century. "They changed the typeface once."

I happened to be walking around Soho this week, and took the opportunity to photograph a section of the aforementioned menu.

The fonts appear to be Monotype Corsiva for the Hungarian text and Cambria for the English, neither of which, to my eye, is consonant with the Gay Hussar's character. Most people go with the easy alternative of using fonts distributed free with Microsoft Office, but it would have been cool if the menu used, say, Janson which was actually designed by a Hungarian (and which I like more than either Monotype Corsiva or Cambria).

Sunday, 12 January 2014

Karma Chameleon

My father found this beautiful fellow basking on our window grill, in the cool green shade of our bittermelon vine.

I wasn't sure if I could see desert loving in its eyes, but then I'm a man without conviction. I would have liked to see it in breeding season when it turns crimson and black, and its colours are like my dream. Eventually I came too close and it scurried off into the undergrowth, which was hardly surprising, for it is wont to come and go, come and go. I did not bother looking for it. I know that when it's gone, it's gone forever.

Before someone calls me out, the references in the foregoing paragraph are not wholly accurate; it was an oriental garden lizard, not a chameleon. But true chameleons are rare in Calcutta, and the opportunity was too good to resist.

Friday, 3 January 2014


Every morning while I have been in Calcutta, I have woken up to the sound of a purple sunbird pecking at my bedroom window.

Like their American cousins the hummingbirds, sunbirds feed on nectar and have the ability to hover. Our feathered visitor spends hours hovering outside my window, pecking at the pane. Maybe it sees its reflection and thinks it is in the presence of another bird; sunbirds have not been documented to pass the mirror test. This seems unlikely because our panes are only slightly reflective, but I can think of no other explanation.

Judging by its eclipse plumage, our visitor is a non-breeding male. When its breeding season begins before the monsoons, maybe it will have other things to occupy its time. I have gotten used to its pecking; the next time I am in Calcutta, I will be a bit sad if the bird is no longer coming to the window.

I have clearer photos of the bird, but my favourite is one I took through the windowpane.