Monday, July 31, 2006

The killer serials

In his book titled, “The Pig that wants to be eaten”, author Julian Baggini provides this thought experiment, a modern version of the allegory of the cave found in Plato’s “The Republic”..

“Members of the bizarre Weatherfield sect lived a very secluded life at St.Hilda Hogden House. All but the leader were forbidden any contact with the outside world and were taught that reality was the world portrayed in soap operas- the only television programmes that they were allowed to watch. For the Weatherfieldians, as they were known, Coronation Street, The Bold and the Beautiful, EastEnders and Neighbours were not works of fiction, but fly-on-the-wall documentaries. And since most of the members had been born in the commune, the pretence was not hard to maintain.

One day however, disciple Kenneth, who had always been a touch rebellious, decided to leave Hogden’s and visit the places he had seen so often in the altar box. This was, of course, strictly prohibited, but Kenneth managed to escape.

What he found amazed him. ….When he returned to Hogden’s and told his fellow disciples what he had discovered, he was dismissed as a lunatic. “You should never have left”, they told him, "the mind plays tricks on you” “
What struck me was that this need not be a mere thought experiment. It is actually played out in cities and towns all over India, with millions glued, for several hours every day, to the various serials that are telecast in Hindi and in different regional languages. I know that it is unfair to paint them all with one broad sweep of the brush, but I am convinced that each episode casts an evil spell on the viewers cutting across age groups, subtly manipulating their emotions, irreversibly retarding their intellect and, inevitably, eroding their value systems. The entire TV-viewing populace revels in this fantasy world and is completely lost to reality.

In a famous short story called, “History lesson” by Arthur C Clarke, a group of aliens from Planet Venus visit Earth- that had been submerged in ice, 5000 years back- looking for some evidence or clue on how life must have been here. They manage to find a videotape of a movie and take it back to Venus. Running the tape and analyzing the content, they learn quite a lot – that Planet Earth had been inhabited by a resilient, tough species capable of incredible feats and amazing speeds. The videotape comes to an end with the words, “That was a Walt Disney Production”.

If 5000 years from now, the human species is extinct and some aliens were to take back a CD of a Tamil film or a serial, no prizes for guessing what their conclusions would be.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Earth : A failure report

Earthlings had known and enjoyed the effect of hallucinatory substances for a long time. But serious research on this subject began only in the ‘year 1920” (note: this was the unit of time as followed by the earthlings). This was the sequence of events that followed:

1920: Psycho-analysts discover that children do not acquire the capability to distinguish between reality and fantasy till they reach the age of five. When children listen to stories and folklore, they get completely absorbed in the fantasy world, these analysts point out.

1920-80: Desperate attempts by adult earthlings to find any means to be transported back to the world of fantasy they had experienced as children. This deep urge finds outlets in movies, roller-coaster rides, theme parties, juvenile sports, etc

1980: The birth of the personal computer and video-games.

1995-2002: Scientists at the University of Washington's Human Interface Technology Laboratory (HIT Lab) introduce a device called VirtuSphere. With it, a person wearing a head-mounted display (HMD) inside the sphere could be transported to an entirely virtual environment with an awesome 3-D effect.

2003: Cyber-philosophers raise the profound question, “When one is inside the VirtuSphere, is one living in the real world and looking at the virtual images or is one actually in the virtual world and staring at reality?”

2004: Scientists at the University of Berkeley carry out painstaking calculations to determine the amount of information that the human brain processes in a life time. Adding up the bytes involved in exposure to books, movies, newspapers and other experiences, the study concludes that ‘in 70 years of life one would be exposed to around twenty gigabytes of ASCII. Less than the storage capacity of a disk drive.

2008: Computer scientists at Bangalore working along with bio-technologists and neuroscientists manage to digitize the entire information in a human brain, by implanting a bio-chip inside the skull and transferring the contents to a hard disk through the USP port of a computer.

2010: Microsoft comes out with a Unified Operating System (UOS) that integrates the work of the computer chips and the bio-chips of the brain.

2015 : Pakistani hackers ( grandsons of Amjad Farooq Alvi, the person who introduced the first computer virus into an IBM PC) find a way to reverse the process – memory from hard disk can now be transferred to the human brain in a split second, artificially inducing various experiences.

2020: Microsoft comes out with an advanced version of UOS, called AUOS that becomes the standard operating platform for these two-way systems

2025 : Cyber-libraries now sell packaged ‘life-experiences’ of famous personalities in 100 GB pen drives, that can be instantaneously downloaded into the human brain. Humans can now live the life of any personality that they may have admired or had been jealous of. They are now liberated from the tyranny of leading a mono-life.

2035: All humans and computers are now connected to one central server running on AUOS- ver 5.0. The entire human population is now on artificial and virtual support, with everybody leading someone else’s life.

2040: AUOS-ver 5.0 system encounters slight difficulty and begins to reboot.........

( Extracted from “ Earth : A failure report” that was prepared by the fact-finding committee at Planet ZZtrys, Proximo Centauri, investigating into the mysterious extinction of the primitive bipeds on the third planet of the adjacent solar system)

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Conversation with daughter- 3

Sowmya refers to this fascinating lecture by Richard Dawkins in which he describes how astronomical wonder can be presented to children, using different sizes of balls, pins, corns, etc and placing them at appropriate distances to illustrate the scale and size of the solar system.

When a seemingly drab subject is presented in this manner to children, it not only de-mystifies the whole thing, but also enhances their desire to learn more. In his book “Surely you’re joking, Mr. Feynman”, the famous physicist Richard Feynman narrates how he enjoyed the company of children and how he indulged in exploiting their natural curiosity. He would, for instance, approach a group of children and tell one of them, “Any number that you tell me, I can tell you a bigger number”. The child would start with 10, 100, and go on to 1000, 1000000…. and each time Feynman would come up with a bigger number. Finally, the child would give up and ask him, “Mr. Feynman, please, which is the biggest number?” and Feynman would explain all about ‘infinity”. The concept would get indelibly imprinted in the child’s mind.

I love the poem, “The Cataract of Lodore” where Robert Southey magically captures, for his children, the beauty and majesty of a waterfall. The rhythm is so mesmerizing that it is almost like hearing the waterfall. The tempo is gentle when the water is just a trickle and brisk-paced as it gathers momentum. I am sure that this would have instilled in the children a love of poetry and, in equal measure, an appreciation of the awesome forces of nature at work.

All this must have weighed in my sub-conscious mind when I returned home quite late from office one day and was told by my wife that my younger daughter had already gone to bed, exhausted after studying for her ‘history’ test the next day. I went up to her room and found her still awake. “Why are you late?” she asked me, sleepy-eyed. Taking a cue from Dawkins, Feynman and Southey, I decided not to give her a direct reply and instead launched forth into a story or rather a grand sweep of Indian history. I must have covered the range from Gautama Buddha, how Buddhism spread to China , how this brought curious visitors to India, how the silk route came into being, how the Europeans got to taste the Indian spices, how they were driven by a desire to find a sea route to India, how this happened eventually, how the British came down and ruled us for more than two hundred years, that we got our freedom in 1947, that they left us with hardly any infrastructure except the Railways, how the country needs more and more electricity, how I was involved in the power sector, how I had been trying to convince a client that evening to invest in a power plant- and that’s why I was late.

Somewhere in the course of Indian history, between the 6th century BC and 1947, my daughter had dozed off.

I guess I have some distance to cover before I catch up with Dawkins, Feynman and Southey.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Life must go on...

Around July every year, herds of wildebeests cross the River Mara, on the boundary between Kenya and Tanzania, lured by the greener pastures on the other side. Over a million of them participate in this parade. The river is populated with crocodiles eagerly awaiting their annual banquet. Thousands of wildebeest perish during these crossings, either caught in the stampede or in the waiting jaws of the crocodiles. The wildebeests are aware of the danger, as is evidenced by their nervous behaviour when they sight the river, but they plunge on regardless, driven by the strong instinct that the species must survive, even if a few individual elements of the species must be sacrificed.

This came to my mind when I drove past the Western Railway line in Mumbai on July 11th, soon after the blasts. So many people had lost their lives and there was palpable tension in the air. Yet, within a few minutes, thousands of commuters had come out the railway stations and, as one teeming mass of humanity, started to walk in the direction of their homes, hoping to find other means of transport along the way. Yes, a few hundred of the species had succumbed to the terrorist crocodiles, but the rest of the species had to move on.

Sadly, I must admit that I was also one of the callous thousands, as all I wanted to do was to get out of the traffic jams, reach my hotel as quick as possible and sleep.

True, there were hundreds of commuters who stayed back and helped; several good Samaritans who rushed to hospitals to donate blood and scores of people who came out of their houses and offered water, refreshments, etc to people stranded on the roads. But, the dominant instinct was to get out of the scene and to safety.

Society, as some ethologists say, is an organic whole, and everything in a society reflects that society’s predominant instinct. Charles Darwin concluded his thesis, “ Descent of Man”, with this paragraph :

…….We must, however, acknowledge as it seems to me, that man with all his noble qualities, with sympathy which he feels for the most debased, with benevolence that extends not only to other men but to the humblest living creature, with his godlike intellect which has penetrated into the movements and constitution of the solar system --- with all these exalted powers --- man still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

All wrong......

After the 7000th shave of my life, I have learnt that I have been doing it wrong all along. I always shave before I take a shower; now wiser people tell me that I ought to shave after the shower. Apparently, this opens up the pores of the facial skin and renders the job of the razor easier. Also, I have harboured the mistaken impression that the shaving brush was not such an important accessory and that its role was merely to spread the cream over the cheeks. Knowledgeable shavers now tell me that the brush is the single most important piece in the shaving armoury, as the more time you spend in working up lather with a good brush, the less time you will need to spend with the razor. And, the brush had better be made of genuine badger hair, not boar hair which can be stiffer and pricklier. And the hair has to be from the neck of the badger, not anywhere else.

I remember seeing a dentist, somewhere between my 9000th and 10000th brushing of my teeth. He implored me to be gentle on my teeth (giving the example of the paint brush softly caressing the wall) and to use a soft tooth brush always. And, of course, to keep consulting him once in 3 months for the rest of my life. When I had to consult another dentist, between the 20000th and 21000th brushing milestones, I was told in no uncertain terms that my technique was completely flawed and I had to move my wrists more vigorously, using a harder brush. The toothbrush, she added, should be completely worn out in 15 days, if I followed her advice correctly.

About my shampooing methods. For many years, the only shampoo I knew was the one sold under the Tata brand name. One just poured a handful of this shampoo on the hair, generated some brisk effervescence (as my Chemistry teacher would put it) and then stood under the shower. Between my 2000th and 3000th shampoo, I learnt to my dismay that what I had been doing all my bathing life was completely inadequate. I ought to, I was told, also use something called the ‘conditioner’ to rejuvenate my hair. And the important thing about the shampoo and the conditioner was not the ‘applying’. One had to rinse the hair, apply the shampoo and wait for 3-4 minutes to allow these chemicals to soak through into the brain. Otherwise, it was as good as not shampooing. Damn. I have wasted tons and tons of shampoo not knowing the right procedure.

Coming down to my shoes. The criterion I have applied all my life while selecting shoes is that they should be durable, should last a year or two as a minimum and shouldn’t give way at a crucial moment. All wrong, said the expert being interviewed on TV the other day. Shoes, however strong they are and however unused they might look, need to be replaced once in 4-5 months, as they undergo invisible deterioration in their cushioning elasticity and shock absorption. Damn again. Nobody told me this till I bought my 50th pair of shoes.

That’s not all. My sleeping position is all wrong. So, I have been given to understand. I have strained my spinal column due to my misguided habit of using two hard pillows when I sleep. This habit was picked up when I used to suffer from nasal blocks, but years of reclining in this position has taken its toll. Better to lie flat, preferably without any pillow, an orthopedic tells me, after I have spent more than 14000 nights with my head propped up on two hard pillows.

So, quite late in life, I have been given this feedback that I have frittered away my time. I have not brushed my teeth, shaved my face, shampooed my hair, selected my shoes or adopted the sleeping position in the manner recommended by the experts. In fact, it turns out I haven’t got one simple thing right. Let me check out on the other mundane things that I do –combing my hair, eating, walking, sitting down, driving, cleaning my spectacles, switching on the TV, opening the fridge... before it is too late. I am sure that are more efficient methods that I did not know existed….

Saturday, July 08, 2006

The Torture

R.K.Narayan, in one of his short-essays, describes the agony of a musically-challenged man, forced to attend a Sunday evening concert of Carnatic music.

…He sits silently in his seat. He feels bored. He tries to count the electric bulbs in the hall. He studies the faces around him. He studies a watch on someone’s wrist four chairs off. He reads an advertisement board stuck on a pillar, forward and backward, spelling it out letter by letter. He sits back in a mood of profound resignation. He looks at the dais.

.. The programme is attaining its zenith; the singer and his accompanists are negotiating their way through a tortuous Pallavi. Our friend notices that the drummer is beating the skin off his palm, the violinist is jabbing the air with his elbow while attempting to saw off the violin in the middle, and the vocalist is uttering a thousand syllables without pausing for breath. A triangular skirmish seems to be developing among the three on the dais. Evidently someone seems to have emerged a victor presently, for the audience which was watching the fray in rapt attention suddenly breaks into thunderous applause. There is a stir in the crowd and a general air of relaxation as the instruments are being tuned and touched up after the terrific battering they suffered a while ago.

Our friend hopes that this is the end of all trouble, but he notices, to his dismay, that it is only a pause. The audience shows no sign of leaving. The musician clears his throat and starts once more and involves himself in all kinds of complicated, convulsive noise-making. Our friend, who had a brief moment of joy thinking that it was all over, resigns himself to it again, reflecting philosophically, “Everything in this world must end sometime, even music”. A most consoling thought.

Exactly how I felt when I was forced to sit through a marathon speech of a Chief Minister of one of the northern states, at a function in Delhi, a few weeks back. The entire speech was delivered in chaste Hindi, with not even a smattering of English words. The guy went on and on, pausing only to acknowledge the applause of his sycophants. Not only did I not understand a single word of what he said, but I found it extremely difficult to stay awake as he carried on in his cheerless, flat monotone.

My first instinct was to cut off the sound waves by the simple expedient of plugging my ears with my fingers, but refrained from doing so as I felt that this act could cause some slight embarrassment to my gracious hosts.

At this point in the proceedings, I realized that the situation called for more subtle methods. What would James Bond have done ? Think, think, think ,Raj, as you have never done before. It is a matter of life and death. The politician's babble must simply be contained.
I dug into my pocket, pulled out the life-protecting device that I had been saving up for such emergencies and put them on.

This brought some temporary respite, but the Chief Minister’s trained voice managed to penetrate this Gizmo-Indian defence and inflicted itself with renewed vigour.

Finally, I had to use my Brahmastra. Anticipating that some such ordeal would present itself, I had told my barber that morning to give me one of his ‘special’ haircuts. That , at last,managed to provide the much-needed relief..

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Management mantra

Entrepreneurship, taking calculated risks, the power of an idea that will help you stay ahead of competition- all these are fairly recent buzzwords and management mantras- so I thought.

As far back as 1894, Rudyard’s Kipling wrote the poem,“Mary Gloster”, in which, Sir Anthony Gloster, from his death bed, narrates to his son how he built his shipping business ,egged on by his wife and by taking calculated risks, while his contemporaries tried to play it safe :

I didn't begin with askings. I took my job and I stuck;
I took the chances they wouldn't, an' now they're calling it luck

And about his competitors :

They copied all they could follow, but they couldn't copy my mind,
And I left 'em sweating and stealing a year and a half behind.

And many more insights that will fit into any of the latest books on ‘leadership skills’ or ‘outwitting your competition”.

Of course, the real purpose of Sir Anthony Gloster’s death-bed discourse was to firmly rebuke his son for wasting his life on such things as education at Trinity College instead of at sea and moreover

The things I knew was proper you wouldn't thank me to give,
And the things I knew was rotten you said was the way to live

Great stuff, but you need lots of patience to go through the entire rambling of the old man.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Desire and Wealth

Alvin and Heidi Toffler, authors of the ground-breaking books ‘Future Shock” and “The Third Wave’, have published their latest book, “Revolutionary Wealth.”, in which they argue :..

"The starting point of wealth creation is desire. …Some religions stigmatise desire. Ascetic beliefs propagate passivity in the face of poverty and tell us to seek happiness by reducing, rather than fulfilling our desires. For eons, India did just that – in the midst of unbelievable poverty and misery.

By contrast, Protestantism, when it arose in the West ,sent, if anything, the opposite message, Instead of suppressing desire, it preached hard work, thrift and virtue, promising that if you followed these guidelines, God would help your help yourself to fulfill your desires. The West very largely adopted those values and grew wealthy. It also invented that perpetual desire machine-advertising- to keep generating more and still more desire…

More recently, in the 1970s in Asia, a wizened, tough, old Chinese Communist, Deng Xiaoping, was quoted as saying that to ‘get rich is glorious”- thereby unleashing the pent-up desire of a fifth of the world’s population and jolting China out of its age-old poverty.

Whether through asceticism, ideology, religion, advertising or other means, whether consciously or not, the elites in all societies manage desire- the starting point of wealth creation.

Obviously, pumping up the desire level- or, for that matter, extolling greed, which is different from either wealth or desire- won’t necessarily make anyone rich. Cultures that promote desire and pursue wealth do not necessarily attain it .On the other hand, cultures that preach the virtues of poverty usually get precisely what they pray for."

The authors may have a point here. Possibly, one of the main reasons why Indians languished in poverty was because they were taught, from childhood, to accept their lot fatalistically and that pursuit of wealth was sinful. Whether it was Buddha or Gandhi, the message that was conveyed was to cut down on one’s needs and desire and to find contentment at a very low level of comfort.

Note that the authors say that ‘desire’ is a pre-requisite to creating wealth, but do not add that ‘wealth’ would necessarily result in more ‘happiness’. Or that the ‘wealth accumulation’ of the West caused rapid environmental degradation and resource depletion – and therefore may not be sustainable over a long term.

At what point on the scale stretching from frugality on the one end to extravagance on the other ,does one strike the correct balance?

Monday, July 03, 2006

Tennis Trivia

Wimbledon tournament is underway in London. London is where the Queen lives, in her palace, built on the banks of the Buckingham Canal.

Unfortunately, Leander and Mahesh are not partnering each other this time. It is no secret that they are unable to get along. Leander accuses Mahesh of not picking up his share of the bill whenever they have a Dutch meal together. Yes, apparently Leander Paes, but Mahesh doesn’t.

Mahesh Bhupati got married two years back to a girl from Chennai, by name Shweta Jaishankar. After marriage, as per convention, she changed her name to Shweta Bhu-patni.

Another Indian taking part in the tournament is Sania Mirza. But, what’s the use? She can never be the winner of any event nor first in any race. She can only be the runner-up. That’s because she hails from Second-rabad.

Do you know what happened to all the players who retired from the game? I know what some of them are up to. John McEnroe manufactures tennis equipment. Even in his playing days, he used to have guts and make quite a racket. Jim has started his own Courier service. While our own Amritraj has become a video-jockey. VJ Amritraj, he calls himself.

And, remember Ramesh Krishnan and his painfully slow service. One of the serves that he sent down in the year 1987 is yet to cross the net and go over to the other side. But still people used to say, “Ramesh is not at all boring to watch. Bore is Becker.”

Some people are under the impression that Lillee had taken part in Wimbledon. This is not correct. He was Dennis Lillee, not Tennis Lillee.

Players of an earlier generation, such as Fred Perry and Lacoste are selling T-shirts. These branded T-shirts are very expensive, let me warn you. But, if you go to Janpath market in Delhi, you can pick up Lacoste-labelled T shirts for Rs 50/- each. Only difference is that these are low-cost shirts, not Lacoste. One Janpath wholesaler kept demanding a quota of 27% for these T-shirts in every showroom, till someone gently pointed out that quotas were applicable only for low-caste T-shirts, not for low-cost ones.

Wimbledon spectators love tradition. They cannot watch a match without their strawberries dipped in cream. What they don’t realize is that the word 'strawberry' is a misnomer. It is not a berry at all, because it has seeds outside, whereas true berries must have seeds inside. To complicate matters, tomato is not a vegetable, but a berry. What’s worse, ‘ladies finger’ is not a part of the female anatomy, but is a vegetable. Why can’t things simply be what they are supposed to be? Next, they will tell me that Grass Court is not a place where people smoke grass or that Love-all has nothing to do with romance or Greeks……..

Saturday, July 01, 2006

The Kannagi statue

One of the first things that the present Chief Minister of Tamilnadu, Mr.Karunanidhi, did on assuming office was to visit the Museum where the ‘Kannagi’ statue lay, having been unceremoniously dumped by the previous Govt. The CM, the media reported, was so moved when he saw the statue that he actually shed copious tears. In a grand function later that week, with much garlanding and rhetoric, he made sure that the statue was re-installed at its original site.

The Chief Minister was a prominent flag bearer in the Dravidian movement that ridiculed religious practices, rituals and idol worship. How is the ceremony centered on a stone statue of Kannagi and with the attendant rituals of invoking the blessings of the Tamil Mother, garlanding and paying eloquent tributes to a mythical character, any different from what thousands of believers do in temples every day? Does the absence of a religious overtone make the ‘statue” worship more rational or acceptable?

When I ‘googled’ for some insights, I found an entire body of opinion on the subject of rituals. Anthropologists and sociologists say that the need for ritual is a basic human instinct - as real and as raw as our need for food or shelter and every bit as crucial for our survival. There lurks within each one of us a compelling urge to connect with the ‘infinite’, with the past and future and to seek a predictable cosmic order and continuity.

For many, religion and worship of God offer an outlet to this inner urge or spirituality. Religious rituals provide them the lifeline to the divine. Atheists and self-styled rationalists, who spurn such methods, however establish ‘surrogate’ systems of celebration and commemoration, which are – in character- as ritualistic as the religious processes. Symbolisms abound in both.

Whether it is the Communists holding their elaborate May Day rallies, Corporates having their Board meetings, the Olympics with its Opening and closing sessions celebrated with pomp and pageantry, Parliament observing its own protocol, football matches preceded by the hype and the hoopla or the Army with its parades and salutes, all these are rituals- by different names.

One sociologist quotes Confucius who observed that rituals are not to be performed for their own purpose, but to facilitate meaningfulness in human activity. We don’t shake hands for the purpose of having a ritual; we shake hands for the purpose of extending a message of mutuality. Similarly, a ritual becomes useless when the mechanics of the ritual occupy all our thought. We’re not supposed to focus so much on the location of our fingers in the handshake, or on the amount of pressure applied in the squeeze, that we cannot give and receive the main message of the handshake – the message of mutual recognition.

That’s the key point. Any ritual is fine as long as you don’t get lost in the mechanics and forget the larger purpose. Those who indulge in religious practices, cults and rituals would do well to remember this. While those like Mr. Karunandhi who ridicule the ‘believers’ should realize that they are no different in their observance of rituals and ceremonies and that they should stop throwing stones from glass houses

09.07.06 :Ram Vishwanathan points out another instance of ‘double standards” on the part of the DMK/PMK. While the Health Minister, Mr Anbumani Ramdass, called for a cut in the salaries of the medicos of AIIMS who took part in the anti-reservation strike, his party has supported the strike at NLC, even threatening to bring down the Central Govt.