Monday, January 24, 2011

A salute to my XBOX

Ever since as a kid when I first saw an Atari console at a friend's place, TV video games always fascinated me. However they were quite pricey then and I didn't dare ask my dad for one.
Even when I got my first computer while in college. I had to convince my Mom that I was going to use it strictly to supplement my engineering education (i.e. programming, research etc).
With computer a whole new avenue of education and entertainment (mostly the later) opened up. Soon enough I found myself fighting with my brother over usage of the computer. Both of us were completely hooked on to computer games (mostly strategy and simulation). Given that we were in our teens we also used it for educational purposes (perhaps not the education that my Mom intended .. but you get the point).

Years passed, I graduated with flying colors (i.e. managed to clear all subjects and got a job). The gaming hobby was now in my blood but being away from home meant I was away from my dear computer as well. Soon enough I found myself in an "Electronics City" store in the US staring at a whole bunch of different gaming consoles. My research had already narrowed the choice between the Playstation II and XBOX. There I was staring at all those consoles with a look of "the kid in the candy store". It was the day after Thanksgiving sale and while rest of my roommates were busy coming up with strategies to lay their hands on the best deals on their electronic gadgets (cameras, mobile phones, laptops and so on). Here I was in the gaming section, staring at the XBOX (being sold at its regular price), a 10 year old kid caught inside the body of a 23 yr old me. Finally the temptation, to own the only gaming console in the neighborhood, won (definition of neighborhood here is limited to the few Indians who lived in the same apartment complex and worked for the same client).

On day one I got my first controller and a Star Wars game. Of course no one else among my roommates were interested in Star wars itself, let alone being interested in seeing me play a unskilled Obi-Wan on the only T.V. available in the room. So I had to struggle to get hold of the T.V. for games. I figured the only way I could play games on that T.V. if they were all interested in playing the same game as me and I had to have extra controllers.

Thus I got Dead Or Alive III and one extra controller. Soon enough everyone found that with human opponents button mashing the controllers, the fighting games provided far bigger challenges then the ones they had scene as kids. When I returned to India, it was even easier to get my roommates hooked onto games. Soon we found ourself planning new strategies, learning new attack - defense combos to beat each other. Of course DOA was not only about fighting. The beautifully designed female fighters added to the visual treat - of watching the ladies gracefully execute the moves. I think we eventually got over the visual treat and were all interested in beating each other fair and square. Although the best fighters - Jan lee, Hayabusa and Brad Wong (think mostly due to the ease of controlling them) were all male, who can ignore Helena, Kasumi, Leifang or Ayane.

I think the funniest fight I can remember was a day before leaving Bangalore for good. Me and two of my dearest roomies most of us drunk to the point of being emotional. Then we got in to a discussion about who amongst us was a better fighter. Obviously being the owner of the console, I had to bet on being the best. While being a few pegs down and barely able to keep my head stable let alone being half asleep, I was betting against all odds. More so because the other guy who used Hayabusa to very good effect, had already beaten all of us and he had not been drinking that day. Since I was drunk, it had to be Brad Wong, the drunken master who was my character of choice. After all this way I could feel one with the character that I was playing online. I don't remember how many fights we had decided on, but half way through my only supporters (the other two drunk guys) fell asleep. Then it was only me, with no cheering concentrating as hard as I could. The only other sane person in the room (chacha) was having a hearty laugh watching my butt (or rather brad wong's behind) getting kicked as also watching me move in the same way as my character moved on screen. After a lot of effort I did eventually I win (or was it that Hayabusa let me win). However all the effort meant that I stayed away from drinks for a long while after moving from Bangalore.

My second trip to US brought with it a few more new roomies and opportunity to improve my portfolio of games (which was limited to 2 at that point). So the famous Halo - a game largely considered the reason for the popularity of the XBOX itself, made its debut on my console. Soon enough I found myself playing the Mithun da / Rajnikanth of gaming aka Master Chief. Master Chief provided me with several hours of the vicarious thrill of shooting several evil Aliens. Most missions typically started with a few supportive fellow humans (computer controlled dumb soldiers who usually died long before a particular mission was accomplished). However soon enough, I would find myself the lone soldier taking on hordes of Aliens.

Halo's music track was quite engrossing, the alien opponents were quite smart and switched their stance between being aggressive to being stealthy depending on the situation. While first person shooters have improved drastically over the years, I think the strong story line, engrossing sound track and most importantly the relatively smart AI really helped Halo gain its cult status. Once I had completed a significant number of levels, the challenge started to become redundant and only the number of aliens increased. A few new and hardy aliens came up to improve the challenge, but by now I realized that I needed to involve my room mates for lasting fun. Soon enough two more controllers were bought and saturday afternoons or friday nights became battle time.

After trying different battle configurations we found that all of us were pretty slow shooters and not meant for a fast deathmatch. However we all loved to play the hide and seek using sniper rifles. Again it is not really hide and seek if you can see through the eyes of all 4 players (i.e. 4 way split screen), but every now and then we managed to sneak into places that the other 3 guys wouldn't know and then the battle was on. I remember a short battle where me and one my roomie aka "Master Chef" (note the missing I) were literally facing off. Thanks to the split screen we could both see each other. One guy hiding in a den somewhere in the mountain and the other guy hiding behind a distant tree. We both kept moving and shooting at each other for a few minutes without a single bullet touching each other (so much for being good snipers and all ). During this whole battle we felt like those cowboys from the movies. Those few minutes we were pretty much in the same hiding place and those gun shots felt like taking an eternity to get close to the other guy. Yet when the fight was eventually settled, it had only been a little over a couple of minutes (I think). I think the Chef eventually won, gaining his crown as the best with the Sniper rifle, but we had just fought an epic battle (at least for epic for all the roomies).

Not all good things last and neither did our Halo battles. I had to move to a different location on project deputation and was now at a place where I did not have half a dozen friends or roommates. Then I discovered the fun of XBOX live with DOA2 Ultimate and Halo 2, the live versions of 2 of my favorite games. Playing over internet had its advantages and disadvantages.
On the bright side, I was never a lone player and with just a few clicks could play online and face off against world's best.
The disadvantages however outweighed the advantages. I was good at beating the computer and would often feel overconfident and decide to go online for a real test. Only then did I realize that the world's best were true pros. So not only that I lost, almost every time I suffered humiliating defeats sealing my status as an amateur at best. Besides having gotten used to playing on split screen, the lack of it meant that I couldn't see through my opponents eyes, which only made my situation worse. Even so I think I managed a decent amateur ranking later on in DOA. While playing on internet provided a challenge, the fun of beating roomates and teasing them in face was definitely missing. Nevertheless I still remember those good times of playing on internet.

Years have passed since those fun days. The live version DOA2 has been stopped for ever and replaced by its successor (DOA4). The XBOX console I used is now two generations (by gaming console age) old. My own console is rusting in peace underneath a cloth that hides it like a kafan. The few wires hanging from it serve as the reminders of those good times. Those memories itself have started fading in my mind. So I thought it would be best to post them online. It feels as if I am writing an eulogy for a dead pet just before doing its last rites. As I sign off, I have found a store which claims to be able resurrect my dear XBOX. So I sign off with the hope that I will be able to let it live an after life and maybe even relive some of those memories.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Are Vegetarians hypocrites ?

I happened to read a small article about PETA and their advertising strategy in India. Despite being a staunch non-vegetarian by diet, I believe in their purpose of treating animals with due respect. After all if I want to eat a chicken it better be a healthy well bred chicken. That however is besides the point. My little knowledge of PETA and most supporters of vegetarian diet (India surely has a very high proportion of Vegetarians) begs the question if they really mean what they say or are they plain hypocrites.

Personally I have been a vegetarian (Lacto vegetarian to be precise) in past and I am sure I am a hypocrite (although I try to convince myself otherwise) on several ideologies of mine . So I believe it qualifies me to examine certain arguments made in favour of vegetarianism. In India, generally or colloquially vegetarian means Lacto Vegetarian.The more restrictive Vegan, Jain vegetarianism also exist. In the rest of the blog Veg - means the Lacto vegetarian form unless otherwise specified.

Since me turning to the dark-side (read as as turning non-veg) I have heard several arguments about turning veg again. Lets examine some of them based on some actual arguments that I have had in past. To make this slightly intereting, I am now going to take some creative liberty and create a few fictional characters - Jimesh Jain (the name says it - staunch follower of the jain way), Madhav Oak (Hindu - Kokanastha Brahmin - a confused lacto vegetarian) and Shelly Fernandez (a recently converted Vegan ).
Me and my fictional characters are having lunch together and among other things mine contains a well done steak and some chicken nuggets.

Madhav Oak (Maddy) : Dude what is that dark red meat that you are eating.
Me : Steak.
Maddy : I mean is that mutton or pork.
Me : Neither. Its beef.
Maddy (Exclaims in shock ): How can you eat cow? You are an insult to Hinduism.
Me (Cool as a cucumber): And why would eating a cow be an insult to Hinduism.
Maddy : For one, Cow is worshiped as a holy animal, the Kamadhenu. Secondly you do drink cow's milk so in a sense its like your mother.
Me (Looking at Maddy 's footwear). Aren't those Lee Cooper shoes ?
Maddy (with a sense of pride) : Yup. Good quality ones and great style, not to mention the brand. But why? You are digressing from the topic.
Me : Hmm. Just wondering what kind material would it be. Are those made of cotton, linen or nylon.
Maddy : Moron, it is leather.
Me : So it is alright to be wearing the "holy cow" in your feet but it is unholy to eat its meat. Let me put it this way, I am just eating the meat from the dead animal which was killed to make your shoes. As far as Religious belief goes, I am not really that religious. I don't see such a great distinction between the Cow and any of the other animals we eat.
Maddy (Now a little defensive): Hey I don't eat any animals or their eggs. I am a pure veggie.
Me: So what's your definition of veggie. No animals or animal products ?.
Maddy : Of course. I take the point about leather. Will considering moving to non - leather alternatives for formal shoes (wondering if there are any formal shoes which are not made of some kind of animal skin). However in general, I think we should not be harming animals for food.

Me: Interesting point. In that case you should also stop having milk or milk products. (Maddy looks startled again).
Two simple reasons
a. It is an animal product. And if we go by the animal product = non-veg definition then milk definitely falls in that category.
b. If we go with no harm to animals, then think again. The calf isn't jumping gleefully when it is taken away from its mother so that the dairy farmer can take the milk and transport it to us.
(At this point Maddy is feeling dejected as if his principles of religion and vegetarianism have been blown inside out. Shelly decides to take my case now).

Shelly: Yeah.. Milk and eggs kind of blur the distinction between Veg and non-veg. That's why I have gone vegan. I eat neither milk nor eggs. Why should we harm animals so that we can have food. There are so many varieties of plants and their products that should suffice.

Me: So do you don't eat farm products - rice, wheat, and so on.
Shelly: Of course I eat them. Didn't I say plants / their products.
Me : No I mean't "no animals should be harmed for food". So obviously you shouldn't eat agricultural products.
Shelly : Why ? What's wrong with agriculture ? How does me eating agriculture products amount to killing of animals.

Me: Yeah.. That is true, you don't kill any animals for eating agriculture products.
You just happen to accidentally add boric acid or like to preserve rice. The bugs just get a high from that and decide to give up rice cause it is like having drugs ...
Oh come on, how can you forget all the insects and rodents that had to be destroyed so that that rice can make it to your table in one piece.

Jimesh Jain (JJ) (So far he has been quietly nibbling away his food and enjoying the lesser mortals squabble over veg - non veg). The true way is the Jain way. We do not eat any animal products. We do not believe in harming animals in any way. In fact to avoid eating animals we don't even eat anything that grows underground, as typically its the abode of some organisms. We believe that we should not have to consume anything that has life for the sake of self.

Me : Dude, with all due respect to your religious beliefs, I think you are being a hypocrite as well. Let us assume for the moment that some how, you only eat the unharmed, untouched left overs after any insects and rodents have had their share of the agriculture products. i.e. avoided harming life for sake of self. But farming itself requires so much land. To feed the ever increasing demand, we end up clearing vast parts of forest land for farming. Not to mention - that even existing farms employ all sorts of chemicals to kill pests even during the process of growing. So harming animals is not exactly something that you can avoid.

JJ (maintaining his buddha smile) : Yeah, with modern technology some things are inevitable. However at least we can avoid killing some form of life by staying veg. Think about the scene, where a huge knife is used to chop the chicken's head and the blood starts flowing through it. Don't you even have some empathy ?. We have so many laws prohibiting killing of humans, but that animal can't even speak against its killing. It feels so cruel.

Me : So you are saying that its cruel to be killing animals cause they can't even protest against it.

JJ : Yes. In general the we believe in non violence.

Me : Do you know how crops are harvested. All the plants (crops) in the field are cut from above the ground, which means that basically "killed" just that the name for this killing is a euphemism called harvest. So while it may seem non-violent as no red liquid gets spilled during this process, the killing still happens.

JJ (now sort of shaken off his foundations) : Yeah but we got to eat something to survive. In that sense plants are meant to be consumed as food. We make an effort to apply the bare minimum amount of violence as necessary for survival.

Me : I agree with that point to some extent. The only big difference is that I don't bother making a distinction between veg and non veg for the convenience of religious principles. I will have to eat some form of life and therefore I really don't care if that form is plant or animal. The only principle is survival. .....

This argument would probably continue (and might even get ugly) if JJ,Maddy and Shelly were real people. However I think I made my point. Stepping out of my imaginary conversation, I think there are some side effects of civilizations. One such effect is food is not meant only for survival. It has several socio - economic impacts. These socio - economic aspects associated with food mean that we as "civilized" humans have created very violent occupations which can be collectively pooled in agriculture and food processing (aka dairy farming, meat processing et all). Every morsel of food we consume, or cloth we wear almost always has some form of violence involved and with human population explosion that violence is inevitable.
What we call as civilization is perhaps worse in this respect than the aborigines or tribals who dwell at the fringe of civilization. At least they have learned to live in harmony with their surroundings.

The only real alternative to go the "non violent" way would be to go ascetic like an ancient sanyasi who would survive in the forest with only fruits and roots taking due care that no seeds (carriers of life) are harmed. Of course most of civilized beings aren't capable / ready to survive that way (not to mention the lack of sufficient forests to follow that lifestyle).

So until we accept true sanyas or invent /evolve a photosynthetic gadget to simply convert incident energy into food for survival, we will have to consume some life to survive. Which means there is no point whining about non - vegetarianism being unethical or violent. All veggies really do in the process is establish themselves as hypocrites.

Disclaimer -
This article is not meant to belittle or malign any religious faith. My apologies to any readers who feel that I may have harmed their religious sentiments. That was definitely not the intent.
This blog is only an attempt to rationalize the validity of the popular culture around vegetarianism.
You could be a vegetarian for various reasons like religion (the jain way), guilt (I saw blood spew out from the goat's neck at the neighbourhood slaughterhouse), fear of disease (e.g. bird or avian flu) or simply taste (I don't like meat). It is the reader's individual opinion and faith that governs their choice of diet.
All I am doing here is laying out my own opinion around the topic (albeit with the help of that imaginary discussion). There are also some very good reasons to being veggie (other than ethics or violence), but that is "besides the point".