Saturday, December 29, 2007


Commenting on the assassination of Ms Bhutto, Bush condemned it as a ‘cowardly act”. He said the same thing about the 9/11 incidents.

Many of our own politicians typically react with the same statement whenever there is an incidence of terrorism. This is the expected response and standard rhetoric. Par for the course. And almost a requirement of protocol.

Paul Krugman in this column wonders why this inappropriate term is used at all in this context. He quotes from an article that appeared in The Slate in September 2001 :

“In truth, notions of "cowardice" and "bravery" are entirely irrelevant when we contemplate the horrors of terrorism.To call a terrorist “cowardly” is to substitute testosterone for morality. Somehow it isn’t enough to abhor an act of terrorism or even to promise to make the terrorist pay dearly. The rules demand that the terrorist be branded a sissy. This is not only a childish reflex, but one that weakens the moral force of the condemnation and thereby dishonors terrorism’s victims. After all, we don’t want brave people to slaughter innocent people any more than we want cowardly people to do so. Still, the public seems to demand that our presidents call terrorists cowards, and our presidents are too–well, cowardly–to deny them.”

Is it any better if a murderer of innocent people is a “brave murderer” instead of a “cowardly murderer”? The Slate article adds,

“Terrorism is inhumane and unforgivable--an offense to morality, patriotism, international law, and almost everything else we hold dear…The terrorists who commandeered the planes that leveled the World Trade Center and struck the Pentagon are mass murderers. In committing murder, they also committed suicide. That hardly makes them heroes. But in what sense does it make them cowards?"

It hardly matters what words we use to describe such reprehensible acts, but we cannot downplay the importance of semantics either. Politicians must learn to use more appropriate terms.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Who asked Symonds to read a book?

One of the tidbits displayed on the screen when the India-Australia test match was being telecast today was that the coach, Buchanan, had once asked Andrew Symonds to read a couple of serious books: Spencer Johnson's motivational tract “Who Moved My Cheese?” and Mitch Albom's “Tuesdays With Morrie”, an account of his conversations with his terminally ill sociology professor. Buchanan's intention, according to ex-captain Steve Waugh, was to "challenge and provoke" the world-beating team. (source)

Andrew Symonds, a cricketer of intimidating strength and speed, told Buchanan later: "Didn't read it. Don't read books." Simple. Succinct.

Why a seasoned coach like Buchanan should think that Andrew Symonds needed more motivation is something I am unable to fathom. If I were his coach, my worries would be different. I would think of ways to keep him less motivated and try to contain his exuberance, by administering a strong sedative or two. The guy certainly doesn’t need to be challenged or provoked with burning issues concerning movement of Spencer Johnson’s cheese. He can tear, with his raw hands, twenty copies of the book bound together.

Update 3/1/08 : The manner in which the guy batted yesterday! Australia 6 wickets down for 120, and then he knocks the stuffing out of our bowling. And, the way he stopped a ball near the fence today. He certainly doesn't need motivation books to pep him up further, trust me.

The musical mystery

When trying to read the reviews in “The Hindu” today of the many concerts in Chennai, as part of the ‘Carnatic Music season’, I found that I couldn’t understand a thing. Far from de-mystifying the music for the benefit of those less conversant with the nuances, the reviewers take delight in intellectualising and making it even more incomprehensible.

Attending these concerts, in the first place, can be an unnerving experience, as the musicians follow a strict protocol of not providing any pre-amble by way of introduction or explanation on what the song is about, what is the raga, etc. In fact, the regular patrons would consider that an insult and feel short-changed, as a good part of the thrill is in the light-bulb moment when they manage to identify the raga. This ability, they strongly feel, is what separates the ‘musical men and women’ from the ‘trainee boys and girls” and so insist that the tradition should continue. I remember that there was a Tamil movie called “Sindubhairavi’ directed by K.Balachander that dwelt on precisely this blinkered view.

R.K.Narayan, in one of his short-essays, described 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.

40 years after RKN wrote this piece, the truth can now be told. The anonymous friend in the article is actually me.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Dear Diary- 11

Two weeks back. Hired an auto-rickshaw to go from Point A to B. When we reached destination, the driver asked me to pay Rs 120/-. I was furious. Normal fare is only Rs 60/-. I kicked and ranted and finally we settled at Rs 80/-. Both auto driver and self parted ways in foul temper.

Today. Hired an auto-rickshaw from same Point A to Point B. At Point A, as I was boarding, driver informed me that the fare would be Rs 60. Was pleased. Chatted with the driver. Enquired about his family, his daily routine, the petrol prices, Tamilnadu politics, etc. As I got off at Point B, I decided to pay the driver Rs 80/- instead of Rs 60/- as I felt that he had been honest. Both auto driver and self went away in good mood.

Same distance. Same fare of Rs 80/- paid on both days .Wonder why I was in foul temper the first time and in a terrific mood, the second time.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007


Tired of the hackneyed ‘Frankenstein’ theme, wherein robots destroyed their creators, the science fiction writer, Isaac Asimov came up with stories of robots that obeyed his three laws, namely :

1)A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
2)A robot must obey orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
3)A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

In short, a robot was programmed to protect itself, so long as that act did not harm a human being.

Similarly, Libertarian philosophy preaches the principle of individual liberty, that an individual human being has sovereign rights over his life and property, making allowance only for the life, liberty or property of another human being. An individual enjoys total freedom, except when such freedom impinges on the freedom of another individual.

At a time when this principle was propounded or when Ayn Rand wrote her “Atlas Shrugged’ glorifying the role of entrepreneurial industrialists who created wealth in a free market, it was assumed that such acts did not harm any other human being and so were in consonance with the philosophy of individual liberty.

But, is there any act of an individual’s that does not impact another human being? . Bastiat, who came up with the definition, “Existence, faculties, assimilation—in other words, personality, liberty, property—that is what man is.”, also argued, in the same breath, that even the freedom to vote could be confined to the ones who have the capacity to weigh issues, :

“Because it is not the voter alone who must bear the consequences of his vote; because each vote involves and affects the whole community; because the community clearly has the right to require some guarantee as to the acts on which its welfare and existence depend.” ( via).

So, even my right to vote comes with a certain caveat.

But, back to the question, “Is there any act of an individual that does not impact another human being? Now, we are a little more enlightened on the matter than during the era of Ayn Rand. An American industrialist quietly pouring metal in his steel plant is consuming and depleting non-recyclable resources that belong to the earth, and emitting CO2 that adds to the greenhouse effect and changes the climate where I live. Every single substance that any one of us, using our individual freedom, quietly produce and consume - from a paper cup to pins to Coke and pizzas- profoundly impacts individuals in distant parts of the world.

That’s why the concept needs a re-think today. That’s why regulation becomes necessary. Libertarian cheerleaders again claim that a ‘carbon trade’ mechanism, when let loose in a free market, will automatically ensure the happening of whatever is intended to be achieved through regulation. This is saying that whatever harm the free market has created will be cured by the same free market, which certainly lacks credibility.

Note : Taking a cue from my previous post, a friend comments that he is not sure if I am trying nowadays to be the most humorous of the serious writers or the most serious of the humour writers and will the real Raj stand up and stop making an ass of himself? So, in deference to these sentiments, I shall label such posts as “boring stuff’ for ease of skipping. I am coming up with such posts merely to understand the subjects myself.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Quote-worthy 2

“Let it be clearly understood that the Russian is a delightful person till he tucks in his shirt. As an Oriental, he is charming. It is only when he insists upon being treated as the most easterly of Western people instead of the most westerly of Easterns that he becomes a racial anomaly difficult to handle” wrote Rudyard Kipling in his story, “The Man who knew too much”.

When I was around 28 years old, I used to experience a similar ambivalence. In a gathering of people of different age groups, should I mingle with the teenagers and be ridiculed as the ‘oldest among the younger lot’, or join the seniors and be ridiculed as the ‘most juvenile among the older lot”. Each had its merits and drawbacks.

Mercifully, this ambivalence passes when you reach 35, at which point you firmly ground yourself among the oldies. You don’t feel good, of course, but at least there is no ambivalence.

Every child goes through an emotionally-charged phase, as he or she moves from primary school to high school. From being the ‘oldest among the juniors’ to the ‘youngest among the seniors”. Calls for great mental adjustment. The transition from reigning supreme as a ‘bully’ to getting used to being ‘bullied’ prepares one for the vicissitudes of life.

Is this my last post among my first 300 ones or the the first among the next 300?

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Santa banter

In Finland, where I happened to be this week, there is concern about snow or rather the absence of it for the second Christmas in a row. Much as they look forward to warmer weather, Christmas isn’t Christmas without snow and the Finns are clearly disappointed at the delayed onset of snowing. Is it an effect of global warming? Possibly.

Another thing I noticed this time was the passion with which Santa Claus was claimed as a Finnish product. Finnair’s in-flight magazine says, “You can say many nasty things to a Finn. He may not agree, but he may not argue either. But, if you tell him or her that Santa Claus originated in some other country, you are in big trouble”. Finnair’s tag line for the season is “the official airline of Santa Claus”. Lapland in northern Finland is a popular tourist destination that promises a Santa holiday.

Santa is known here as “Joulupukki”, which means 'Yule Buck'. Joulupukki first came about as an evil, goat-like creature. Far from giving gifts to the children, he demanded their good behaviour and struck terror in their hearts. So much that in December, there were pagan festivals to ward off the Joulupukki.

So, where did the iconic, ho-hoing, red-cloaked, white bearded Santa come from? From America. Where else? As I had mentioned in an earlier post, it was a marketing creation of Coca Cola, no less. (source)

This is what Coke’s official website claims :

“Starting in 1931, magazine ads for Coca-Cola featured St. Nick as a kind, jolly man in a red suit. Because magazines were so widely viewed, and because this image of Santa appeared for more than three decades, the image of Santa most people have today is largely based on our advertising.

Before the 1931 introduction of the Coca-Cola Santa Claus created by artist Haddon Sundblom, the image of Santa ranged from big to small and fat to tall. Santa even appeared as an elf and looked a bit spooky.”

So, though the Finns have clear evidence that the tradition originated in their country, alas, the red Santa is but a branded, American caricature of their Joulupukki.

Update 25/12/07 : Here's more on Santa and Coke. ( via Seth Godin)

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Indo-Persian music

Massoud Shaari on the Persian setar ( not to be confused with the Indian sitar) and Darshan Anand on the tabla. (via BoingBoing and Raymond Pirouz). Great stuff.

Observes Raymond :

“This performance represents my belief that cultural isolationism — while helpful to further enriching an existing culture — need not be the sole mantra of culture.

The arguable lack of a cultural identity yet rich cultural diversity in America teaches us that it’s ok to let loose with cultural norms and mingle with those from different backgrounds. Collaborations such as this — in my humble opinion — can result in the most innovative outcomes.

I see culture as an opportunity to connect with the richness of one’s heritage where skills passed down from generations can be honed, and cross-cultural collaboration as an opportunity to share one’s skills and benefit from the richness of background and the honed skills of others.”

Wednesday, December 12, 2007


“Whether the shape or symbol be sonnet or sunset, curve of
fiddle-bow or curve of cricket bat, only with our own vision
may we see the light and be free to say,
“I was for that time lifted above earth
And possest joys not promised in my birth.”

Closing lines of Neville Cardus’ autobiography, “Second Innings”

I don't know

As an engineer, what I found interesting in the news reports on the delay in the launch of Atlantis, the space shuttle was NASA’s admission that they had no clue what the problem was. The fuel gauges were faulty, but the engineers had no idea at all what was causing the snags. “We are scratching our heads” said the launch director. "We are going to sleep on the problem a bit".

Such admission of ignorance is extremely rare and we don’t come across too many instances of a politician or scientist or a coach admitting that he or she did not know what the problem was. They are always required to act confident and state that they are in complete control, even when it is obvious they are not. To say “I don’t know” is to invite ridicule.

During his stay at Noakhali in 1947, Gandhi was heard muttering to himself, “Kya karun, kya karun” ( “what am I to do?”). The man who had demonstrated an amazing ability to pull out ready answers and responses to complex situations in four decades of the freedom struggle had the humility to admit he didn’t know what to do. Describing him as magnificent in this setting, V.S.Naipaul in his “India, the wounded civilization” admired Gandhi’s candour in admitting he didn’t have answers, while at the same time never losing the will to act.

If a Narendra Modi or Karunanidhi were to admit that they had no clue how to bring some situation under control, they would be torn to pieces by the opposition. So, with characteristic bravado, they will try to talk themselves out when they are cornered.

On the other hand, admission of ignorance, when stretched to an extreme can be exasperating as it was in the case of Tony “I don’t know” Snow, President Bush’s Press secretary, who used to stonewall the media with persistent replies of “I don’t know’ to any of their queries.

Also, as Donald Rumsfeld famously obfuscated once, “….there are known knowns. There are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say there are things that we now know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don't know we don't know. So when we do the best we can and we pull all this information together, and we then say well that's basically what we see as the situation, that is really only the known knowns and the known unknowns. And each year, we discover a few more of those unknown unknowns.”.

Do you have any clue what he meant. I don’t.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Records galore at Ban-galore

Rahul Dravid’s 19 runs in this test is the highest score ever by a right-handed, January-born, Mach3-using, clean-shaven, Indian ex-captain on a Saturday morning in the first innings of any test match against Pakistan in the month of December. It is true that Kapil Dev also January-born, had scored 21 runs against Pakistan at Bangalore in December 1989, after he became an ex-captain but that was on a Saturday afternoon, not morning. Moreover, he sported a moustache and was not clean-shaven. So, Dravid’s score can safely be taken into the record books.

So far, Tendulkar has scored 75 centuries in both versions of the game. Some fans say that if you counted as ‘deemed centuries’, the 25 times he has been out when he was in the 90s, the tally is actually 100 centuries. Opponents argue that if you watched the videotapes of all his 75 centuries and exclude those innings in which he had enjoyed ‘lives’, when the fielding team had dropped easy catches or when the umpire did not uphold a very confident appeal for lbw though Hawkeye cameras later showed that he was obviously in front of the stumps, then only 8 of his centuries would pass muster. But, the die-hard proponents hit back by saying that if Tendulkar had played this test in Bangalore, surely he would have notched up a century in each innings, when lesser batsman like Pathan could manage one. So, the tally according to them is 102. The argument continues. Meanwhile Tendulkar issued a typical pious statement that he would count the century he missed in Bangalore this time as one of the best he had not scored, but what was important was that the team must win, the country must get prosperous and the nation must stay united.

When Sourav Ganguly was on 178, he had created the record for the maximum number of blinks ( 7500) by any Indian batsman adjusting his contact lens. Previous record was held by Krish Srikkanth ( 7498) who had not even used contact lens.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

The delayed evidence

For more than 40 years, automobile makers, oil companies and additive manufacturers kept denying that tetraethyl lead was a serious health hazard, until a scientist named Clair Patterson hit upon a method to produce the evidence and create an awareness that ultimately led to the phase out of the chemical.

The whole story is narrated by Alan Bellows in his blog, “Damn Interesting”. Bill Bryson had also devoted an entire chapter to this subject in his best-seller, “Short History of Everything” and Alan Bellows acknowledges that his own research on the subject was inspired by that book.

The story underscores the point that it can take years or decades for clear evidence to be found, but where reasonable suspicion exists ( as it did in the case of tetraethyl lead), it is best to proceed with utmost caution, before commercializing or mass-producing anything. Alas, as we see too often, when corporate interest and profit motive become the prime drivers, reason and sanity take the back seat.

The same is true for carbon emission. There are many who feel that the whole thing has been hyped up, that no climate change has taken place or, even if it has, it is due to a natural cycle and not due to CO2, etc. Commercial interests and the lobbying power of coal producers and thermal plants keep obfuscating the whole issue. There are bloggers such as this one, who debunk the whole theory of global warming and seek out material to justify their stand. Even making allowance for different opinions to co-exist, the point is, while one can’t obtain clinching evidence to ground the theory, there are enough pointers and adequate measurements to validate the fear of irreversible climate change and to raise the red flag.

Two other interesting snippets from Alan Bellows.

1) That Thomas Midgley, who had developed the lead additive was also, in later years, the brain behind the invention of chlorofluorocarbons that caused enormous damage to the ozone layer, before they were banned. The guy was certainly talented.

2) That there is a correlation between high lead levels in the atmosphere and the crime rate. The sharp decline in US crime rates which began in the early 1990s dovetails perfectly with the reduction of leaded gasoline in the early 1970s; and other countries which followed suit saw similar declines, also delayed by twenty years. (Curiously, in the book Freakonomics, the author Steve Levitt had attributed the reduction in crime rate in the same period, to the legalising of abortion.)

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Calling all gourmets...

Tyler Cowen offers some tips for committed foodies:

For those looking to take a food vacation, I have a recommendation. Choose a country with a great deal of inequality. It sounds heartless, but look for a big gap between the rich and the poor. Iron bars on the windows and barbed wires on the fences, however bad for the residents or for your safety, are both good signs for the food.

The presence of a wealthy class of people, all other things equal, is good for food because the wealthy are a strong market for a tasty meal. That encourages quality food.

But, when we look at producers, a certain amount of poverty is sad to say, likely to produce gourmet meals. The higher the level of wages at the bottom, the harder it is to employ labour to cook the food, prepare the raw ingredients and serve and bus the tables. So, the committed foodie should look to regions where some people are very rich and others are very poor. The poor people will end up cooking for the good people. My meals in Mexico, Brazil and India are typically delicious and cheap.

….In India, the very poor cook for the wealthy, perhaps in restaurants but more commonly as their servants. It has been said that India consists of two nations. About 100 million people have living standards comparable to those of Europe and about 900 million people live in poverty, often on a dollar or two a day. The 100 million are all hiring domestic cooks and the 900 million are competing for the jobs of serving the food and doing household chores.

… Avoid desserts in ethnic restaurants in America. Calcutta may have some of the world’s best sweets but it takes a lot of time and trouble to make them right and to ensure that the ingredients are fully fresh. Quality Indian sweets are usually profitable only when the cost of labour is low and that is not the case in either Chicago or London.

- From the book, “Discover Your Inner Economist”

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Conversation with daughter-20

Daughter: Appa, if two of your friends did something wrong, would you confront them or would you ignore them?

Me: Give me an example of such a situation.

Daughter: See, two of my best friends cheated during the test today. They copied from the textbook. Should I have reported this to the teacher or should I have looked the other way?

Me: What did you do finally?

Daughter: I told my friends that if they did it again, I would report to the teacher.

Me: Good, that settles it then.

Daughter: No, but I had told them the same thing when they had cheated last week.

Me: Yes, that does complicate things a bit; they seem to be habitual offenders…

Daughter: You haven’t answered my question. What would you have done in my place?

Me: Well, this is what is referred to by philosophers as a moral dilemma…….

Daughter: Appa, no big words and don’t try to change the topic. Tell me what you would have done.

Me: Let me put it this way. If you are walking on the road and you notice that a car is not stopping when there’s a red light on, will you keep walking or will you note the number and call up the police?

Daughter: Why should I? That’s the job of the policeman - to catch them.

Me: Isn’t it the job of the teacher to catch your friends copying then?

Daughter: It’s not the same thing. The car driver is a stranger; here I am talking about my best friends…..

Me: Same difference. In fact, you ought to go across to your headmistress and report that your teacher is not doing her job properly.

Daughter: Are you crazy?

Me: Why not? Then your headmistress will pull up your teacher. Of course, after that your teacher will kill you for squealing on her. While your two friends will get away without any punishment.

Daughter: Appa, you are absolutely of no use in a crisis. I will handle it myself.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Mass Man

There was a time when the activity of picking and buying fruits was a gamble. There was a 30% chance of the fruit being rotten, 40% chance of it being bland and tasteless, 20% chance of it tasting good and 10% chance of it being very good. The outcome would be known only after you brought it home and tasted it. So, it was an activity fraught with tension and thrill.

Enter these supermarkets and the age of standardization. Now you have the Washington apples, Fiji Pears, Malta oranges, you-name-it. Apples sold all over the globe look alike, feel alike, smell alike and taste alike. So do all the oranges and all the pears. And, the taste is uniformly bland. We have been robbed of all the satisfaction of celebrating on a lucky day when we have drawn the tastier fruit from the lot. To what purpose?

In an essay “Science has spoiled my supper”, the writer Philip Wylie laments the fact that, though modern food is handsomely packaged and is excellently preserved, it is getting less good to eat. It appeals increasingly to the eye. But, who eats with his eyes?

What happened? Science-or what is called science- stepped in. The old-fashioned cheese (or fruits) didn’t ship well enough or store long enough. Scientific tests showed that a great majority of people will buy a less-good-tasting item if that’s all they can get. The motto of “scientific marketing” is “Give the people the least quality they’ll settle for, and trade it off for durability and shippability”.

It is not possible to cultivate vast quantities of a food item at a low average cost. “Scientific sampling” got in its statistically nasty work. It was found that the largest number of people will buy something that is rather bland and tasteless. Nobody is absolutely delighted by bland foodstuff; but nobody is violently put off.. The result is that a reason has been found for turning out zillions of packages of something that will ‘do’ for nearly all and isn’t even imagined to be superlatively good by a single soul. Standardisation became the mantra.

Wylie bemoans, “ Agronomists have taken to breeding all kinds of vegetables and fruits- changing their original nature. They have developed improved stains for every purpose but eating. They work out, say, peas that will ripen all at once. It is extremely efficient and profitable to the farmer. What matter if such peas taste like boiler paper wads? String beans are straight instead of curved, and all of one length, to make them easier to pack in cans. But, when eating them, you can’t tell them from tender string. Ripening time and identity of size and shape are more important for carrots than the fact that they taste like carrots. Onions are hybridized till they are as big as your head, but only vaguely remind you of onions. If people don’t eat onions because they taste like onions, why do they add them at all to the recipe?”

As sociologists and psychologists point out. Mass Man is on the increase. Conformity, standardization, similarity- all on a cheap and vulgar level- are replacing the ideals of colourful liberty and dignified individualism. Wylie ends the essay with a clarion call for rebellion.

And he wrote this in 1954.

Table Talk

R.K.Narayan’s book, “Salt and Sawdust” has a selection called ‘Table Talk’, which according to RKN was a new form of writing, without the compulsion of an argument or conclusion on any theme and without too definite a form. As different from an essay which needed a structure. A precursor to what we now refer to as a personal blog.

Here he is, in one of his table talk sessions, responding to rumours that his name had been considered for Nobel Prize, in 1986, and then dropped.

“If my name did come up, and then was dropped, I speculate on the arguments one might have heard from the committee room before the decision of October 16th.

“For half a century Narayan has been building up a world of his own and peopled it with a variety of characters, who have ceased to be fictional, but are recognized and loved in any part of the world by Narayan’s readers…it is an achievement which should be treated as a contribution to world literature,” argued one.

“To a certain extent, yes” said the arbiter. “This author’s work is diverting, amusing and readable, but possesses none of the elements that go to make great literature.’

“What are those elements of great literature?”

“All great literature must echo the soul of man, The struggles, agonies and anguish in the soul of the individual must be reflected in the work, against the background of historical and social convulsions of the countries in which the individual finds himself tossed about as a helpless victim. All the grimness of existence must find a place in a writer’s work. Above all a certain degree of obscurity and difficulty of idiom in the text enhances the stature of a literary work”.

“Applying these tests, Narayan’s work fails. His writing is too simple and too readable requiring no effort on the part of the reader. Mere readability is not enough. A reader must be put to work and must labour hard to get at the meaning of the sentence; only then can he feel triumphant at having mastered a page.

“Narayan’s further defect lies in his light-hearted tone under all cirumstances. Humour is all very well up to a point, but it is not everything in literature. Humour has a tendency to stimulate frivolity. Our Founder and Benefactor, Alfred Nobel, you must remember, invented the dynamite, which is no joke, and it would be inappropriate to award the prize in his name to a writer who is uncommitted to the serious and sinister problems of existence.

“We hope some day Narayan will develop into a full-fledged writer deserving our serious consideration”.

Friday, November 23, 2007

What Keats meant

John Keats wrote these famous lines in his poem, “Ode on a Grecian Urn”.

"Beauty is truth, truth beauty," - that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

As per the Wikipedia entry, , there has been much speculation over the meaning of the famous Ode, due to uncertainty over where the punctuation is placed. It is not clear, whether the last lines are spoken by the urn, or representative of the poet's view. Also, it may be that only "Beauty is truth, truth beauty" is spoken, and the rest is the poet's comment. Nobody is sure.

At last I have discovered what Keats meant .

This Keats character was one of those rare westerners who could read and write Chinese as well as Tamil.

Now, due to a linguistic coincidence, the Chinese word for beauty is ‘mei’, which in Tamil happens to mean “truth”.

So, Keats, in that convoluted manner typical of poets was trying to say that beauty in Chinese was truth in Tamil.
That is all ye need to know . Now run. ( "Run" in Tamil is "odu", which is what Keats wrotu.)

Thursday, November 22, 2007

The green, moral vegan.

According to this article in Salon, livestock accounts for 18% of the world’s greenhouse gas emission, more than the entire transportation sector. (via)

This happens in two ways. First, a lot of forest cover is cleared for pasture for livestock. Second, cattle emit methane, which causes 21 times more damage to the environment than CO2.

Much of the livestock is meant for meat production. So, for those interested in stopping climate change, is vegetarianism the best answer?

No. People who eat poultry, dairy and eggs, but not red meat, are responsible for fewer greenhouse gases than those who consume a vegetarian diet that includes dairy and eggs. "Astonishingly enough," says study co-author Gidon Eshel, a Bard College geophysicist, "the poultry diet is actually better than lacto-ovo vegetarian." In other words, a roast chicken dinner is better for the planet than a cheese pizza.

So, either turn vegan and avoid milk and eggs, or, the next best, take to poultry. A strict vegetarian but who consumes generous doses of milk, butter, curd and pastries is not good enough.

If climate change doesn’t concern you so much and you seek moral answers, look up philosopher Stephen Law’s post in which he tries to answer the question, “ Why are we morally permitted to treat the members of other species so very differently to our own?"

Stephen Law refers to a 1975 book Animal Liberation, in which the author Peter Singer presents us with precisely this challenge: to morally justify the way in which we discriminate between our own species and others. His conclusion, shocking to many, is that this discrimination cannot, in fact, be morally justified. Indeed, Singer believes that the vast majority of human beings are currently guilty of what Singer terms “speciesism” (an expression first coined by Richard Ryder) – a form of bigotry against other species comparable to sexism and racism.

Lower intelligence cannot be the justification, for we do not think of eating the mentally impaired among us or the babies. The proposition that animals don’t feel pain the way we do is simply not convincing. After all, we know, do we not, that animals suffer? They are also, to differing degrees, capable of enjoying pleasurable experiences as well

Singer argues that there is no moral justification for the way in which we currently discriminate. Discriminating solely on the basis of species is no more justified than was our earlier discrimination on the basis of sex and race. So far as justifying our current practices is concerned, whether or not sentient beings have feathers or fur, a beak or teeth, two legs or four, is simply irrelevant - as irrelevant as skin colour or sex.

When we now look back a few hundred years to how white people discriminated against black, and men discriminated against women, many of us are shocked. With hindsight, it can be difficult to understand how those who were engaged in these practices were unable to recognise that what they were doing was wrong. “How could they not see?” we ask.

“The day may come when the human race looks back on the way we currently treat other species – raising and slaughtering five billion a year, in many cases under the most horrific conditions, simply to satisfy our taste for their flesh – and ask that same question” Stephen Law quotes Singer.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

The convert......

Being part of the corporate world, and working for an MNC, to boot, I endorse and help promote capitalism. I naturally want to believe that whatever I am doing is right. I seek out opinions and writings that support my views and feed my confirmation bias.

Apart from reading up articles and books authored by champions of capitalism I tend to subscribe to the blogs of cheerleaders and badge-wearers of the Milton Friedman school, and consequently am filled to the brim with ‘free-markets principles” and right-wing ideology of the lassiez-faire variety, whatever that stands for..

Books by Noam Chomsky that I happened to read did sow some doubts in my mind and bring a sense of balance. A book by Naomi Klein titled, “The Shock Doctrine” raised more uncomfortable questions about the methods propounded by the “Chicago Boys” and the “Berkeley Mafia”.

A recent article by Gurcharan Das in the Times of India ( linked by Atanu Dey) caught my attention when I was still under the trance of Naomi Klein’s “Shock Doctrine”. In that piece, Das had sung paeans of praise about Monsanto’s transgenic cotton and had suggested that the Indian Govt without dragging its feet must immediately deploy such seeds in the cultivation of all crops such as rice, soya, corn, etc. I saw red and found myself describing Das as evil.

I am currently under the spell of Raj Patel, author of a book called, “ Stuffed and Starved”. He also has a blog by the same name.

Just to pick out two samples that he links to. In one, he refers to an article in Good Medicine magazine that explains why a salad is more expensive than a Big Mac, in the USA. The Farm Bill, a massive piece of federal legislation making its way through Congress, governs what children are fed in schools and what food assistance programs can distribute to recipients. The bill provides billions of dollars in subsidies, much of which goes to huge agribusinesses producing feed crops, such as corn and soy, which are then fed to animals. By funding these crops, the government supports the production of meat and dairy products—the same products that contribute to our growing rates of obesity and chronic disease. Fruit and vegetable farmers, on the other hand, receive less than 1 percent of government subsidies. “It's all grist for Cassandras like me, who ask where we're going, and why we are in this handbasket”, says Raj Patel.

In another post, he links to an article that explains the ‘nutrition transition’. The 'nutrition transition' describes the shift from one diet to another, specifically from the diets historically found in lower income countries to the diet found in predominantly urban and industrial societies. The shift away from nutritious food to less nutritious food didn't happen in a vacuum: it was a product of colonialism.

If you accept this, he adds, and it's hard not to, then one is forced to identify the forces through which colonialism worked - everything from enforcement of a specific national economic policy to 'education' to ecological destruction to advertising. This suite of tools didn't change dramatically after the end of colonialism. With few exceptions, particularly few in Africa, national economic policy in the Global South continued to be set by foreign powers who, begrudgingly, shared some of the spoils with local elites. Advertising, that singular badge of freedom, became more widespread. The tastes of the city became a beacon for national aspirations and dreams. In short, colonialism blended into neocolonialism, and history kicked the nutrition transition along.

Now I know why hand-pounded rice which used to be the ‘poor-man’s’ diet in South India, a few decades back, is now sold as a branded, organically-grown, premium product for the dieting elite in cities.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Prescription for peace

Atanu Dey has a post on the incident involving the recent destruction of a Buddha statue in Swat, Pakistan and recalls an earlier instance in 2001, when the Taliban destroyed the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanisthan.

“Nothing new here, That Islam mandated destruction of cultural and religious artifacts is really old hat” he says, painting all its followers with one broad sweep of his brush.

Elsewhere, in the blogosphere, Scott Adams of Dilbert fame, provokes his readers with this argument :

"America lives in fear of terrorist attacks. Most terrorists are Islamic who cannot co-exist with other belief systems. It really doesn’t matter to Americans what religion they belong to. There is no connection between religion and happiness, as there is clear evidence that happy people are found in every religion. So, if Americans are rational, they should all become moderate, peace-loving Muslims. Their happiness would stay the same, and Osama wouldn’t have as much reason to nuke them". QED.

But, as Richard Dawkins and others have argued, religion in any form is inherently divisive. At the level and size of a tribal society, religion may have been a unifiying force, but in a world that seeks globalisation, religion tends to split people and foster tribal behaviour, rather than bringing them together. Even in a world where there is only one religion, there would be intra-religious disputes among different sects.

So, religion must go. Atheism is the answer . Atheism, as in "no religion". Belief in God can be independent of religion.

But, even in an atheistic world, people will still fight over territories and turfs. Too bad. Nationalism must go. There should be one boundary-less world as visible from Space.

Alas, in an atheistic, geographically united world, the Karunanidhis would raise their shrill voices over language. Tamil vs Hindi; English vs French, etc.
Too bad. Language must go too. Won't make much difference, let me tell you. As the Brittanica blogger told us, all the text created in human history is good enough only in a closed system; outside that system it doesn't make any sense.

So, here's my simple formula for a peaceful world. No religion, no nationality, no language.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Rice, Roti and Sleep.

In his book, “Guns, Germs and Steel”, published in 1997, the author Jared Diamond tries to answer a question posed to him by Yali, a native of New Guinea : “ Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?" In other words, why did wealth and power flow from the west, instead of the other way round?

Jared Diamond, in attempting to answer the question digs deep into history and explains why the Fertile Crescent ( what is now Jordan, Syria and Iraq) or China lost their enormous lead of thousands of years to late-starting Europe.

The Fertile Crescent, he explains, arose in a fragile environment, and simply committed ecological suicide by destroying its resource base (woodlands, trees, etc) indiscriminately.

China, despite being blessed with ecological diversity, and undoubted technological prowess, suddenly became insular in the fifteenth century, due to an aberration of local politics, with one faction forbidding oceangoing shipping. China had always been a monolithic country (from 221 AD) and so one bad decision taken by a central command became irreversible and stifled the entire nation.

What about India? Jared Diamond doesn’t discuss this possibility at all, perhaps because India was never a single, homogenous entity..

But, I found an explanation in a theory propounded by Lee Kuan Hew, Singapore’s Minister Mentor and discussed in this paper presented by Michael D. Barr (Department of History, University of Queensland).

Brar explains that quite early in his life, Lee had been strongly influenced by the views of Arnold Toynee, the historian.

Central to the thesis propounded by Toynbee in “A Study of History”, was the notion that societies and civilisations develop in response to certain challenges. Toynbee argued that "civilizations come to birth in environments that are unusually difficult and not unusually easy."

Toynbee dwelt on the challenge of climate and more generally, of the environment, whereby those people whose civilisations grew in the "soft" life of the tropics were left behind by their hardier cousins in harsher climates. With a harsh climate go many challenges which develop a plethora of cultural and racial characteristics in a people.

For instance, the Sinic Civilisation, wrote Toynbee, was nurtured in the north of China, where the climate was severe, and swamps and regular floods made agriculture difficult, and so it became a "hard" society.

The connection was made by Lee himself in his 1971 commemorative lecture at his old college at Cambridge University, in which he argued: "It is the difference between the more intense and exacting Sinic cultures of East Asia and the less demanding values of Hindu culture of South and South-east Asia, that accounts for the difference in industrial progress between Eastern and Southern Asia. The softer and more benign Hindu civilisation spread through Burma, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia, meeting the Sinic civilisation on the borders of Vietnam....The reason for the lower achievement amongst the people of South ( read, India) and South-East Asia ( read, the Malays) is because these were ‘soft societies, in which expectations and desire for achievement were lower.

"There is only one other civilization near the Equator that ever produced anything worthy of its name. That was the Yucatan peninsular of South America - the Mayan Civilization. There is no other place where human beings were able to surmount the problems of a soporific equatorial climate. You can go along the Equator or 2 degrees north of it, and they all sleep after half past two if they have had a good meal.”

You may agree or disagree strongly with the theory, but Barr explains that, in fairness to Lee, his views while undoubtedly racist, did not stem from the belief that any race was ‘created superior’ , but that some were sturdier and hardier than the rest ,shaped by the hostile environment they had to endure.

So, the reason Indians did not conquer the world was because we were ‘benign softies’, spoilt by a soporific climate and benevolent terrain. We need our afternoon siesta after a heavy lunch.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Dear Diary-10

Dear Diary,

I just read these lines in the Brittanica Blog :

The sum total of all the text we have collectively produced over the ages does not add up to anything more than a gigantic closed system with no real information value outside of this closed system.

Taking it a step further, let’s say we transmit all the English language books in all the libraries of the world and just to make sure we got it all, let’s also add the entire web – once again, just the text and nothing else. "
Do you think this will make any sense to the aliens outside the closed system? No way.

What this means is that whatever has ever been written by human beings, starting with the Sumerian civilisation is completely useless, outside this closed system.

No doubt, the closed system the author is referring to is rather big, but how does that help?

What’s the point in writing all this in one’s diary, if it has some value only inside this hermetically sealed enclosure ?

What is even more disconcerting is that if we were to read the text of a diary imported from outside this closed system, we won’t be able to make any sense out of it.

Most upsetting.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Yes,me worry.

Alfred E Neuman, the mascot and iconic symbol of Mad magazine graced the cover of more than 450 of its issues, appearing in a slew of disguises including Santa Claus, George Bush, Batman, Michael Jackson, George S Patton, Spock, etc. But, whatever the character, the grinning mug of Alfred E Neuman would shine through clearly and unmistakably, with his jug ears, missing front teeth and one eye lower than the other.

But, the grinning mug of Alfred E Neuman was confined to Mad magazine, and if one got sick of his face, one could discard the magazine and pursue other things in life.

Such an exit option, alas, is not available with the grinning mug of the more ubiquitous Shah Rukh Khan. Even if you have taken a vow, as I have, that you won’t be seen dead or alive inside a theatre screening a Hindi movie

There is simply no escaping from this guy. He has expanded the meaning, scope and dimensions of the word, “ubiquitous”. He grins at you from street hoardings, he grins at you from magazine covers, he grins at you from 90% of the ads that are screened on TV, he grins at you from the stands when a cricket match is on, he grins at you from the podium at the Hindustan Times Leadership Summit, he grins at you from blogposts including this one of mine ( Et tu, Raj?) and he grins at you from all news channels. Recently, all these channels went to town on how Shahrukh was the first human ever to celebrate his 42nd birthday and to have sighted 500 full moons. There he was with his trademark grin and mouthing some nonsense. He stalks and haunts you relentlessly and can materialize into being and grinning, whether you are high up in the mountains or deep inside a trench. You can never shake him away.

What I want to know is this. Is there any way I can avoid the third-degree pain of having to stare at this guy’s mug round-the-clock? Is there some method or mantra using which I can exorcise the grinning mug away from my life? Isn’t there some fundamental right that I can invoke to stop this assault on my senses? Can I file a PIL to get this national mascot replaced with something that grins less, like an elephant, tiger or peacock? In short, how can I lead a de-shahruked existence?

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Guppy behaviour

Though most women that I meet, these days, know that I am a long-married man, they continue to stare at me longingly and invitingly. I have always been puzzled by this behaviour. Most embarrassing it is at times and quite difficult to explain to the wife.

Now, I know the reason. Damn interesting. Apparently, this is due to ‘the guppy syndrome’.

To observe the effect one takes a large tank filled with female guppies, and adds about the same number of relatively indistinguishable male guppies. It doesn't take too long for the guppies to get adjusted to the new environment and, like any society, they soon begin mating. As is true with most species, it is the females who determine who gets to score, and an odd thing occurs: despite the fact that the males are all pretty much alike, some guys get all the luck, and others are spurned.

What is the explanation? Maybe the females assume that the male's previous partner had discovered some inconspicuous yet crucial quality that made him a superior mate. Or perhaps practice is the key to being a good mate, and females will always pick the male they know has put in some hours.

So, can we extrapolate this behaviour to humans?

An experiment was conducted where women were shown a series of photographs and asked to indicate which man they preferred. The moderately creepy cards had similar men's faces on the left and right, and a woman's face in the center; in each she was looking at one of the men, and wearing either a smile or a neutral expression. After perusing the array, the women generally indicated that the men receiving the virtual positive feminine attention were the more desirable.

So it seems there is some guppy in us and our mating techniques, though it's hard to say just how much.

That’s why I have a better chance of getting noticed by women when I go out with my wife than when I go alone.

I hope all you guppies out there get the point.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The disengagement

This is the 5th story in the Bata Thatha series. The earlier ones are here.

It was a glorious morning at the Marina. The sun was behind a cloud cover, the breeze was gentle and the sea had taken on that magical tinge of silvery blue. The Walkie-Talkies were thoroughly enjoying their leisurely stroll in the lovely weather so unusual for Chennai..

On the beach sands, a bunch of kids was engrossed in a game of rubber-ball cricket. A bowler had just accounted for a batsman, as was evident from his wild gestures, saliva-spitting and fist-pumping.

‘What’s with kids these days?” commented Polo T-shirt. “Why do they need to be so vocal and demonstrative? Why all this posturing and sabre-rattling? Back when we used to play, we would, at the most, clap our hands at the fall of a wicket, no more”.

“The fact is ”, remarked Nike Shorts, “, kids are taught, from kindergarten, to be aggressive and to develop that killer instinct. Absence of these traits is viewed as a sign of serious weakness.”

“I don’t understand the hype, one bit. After all, it is just a game”, chipped in Adidas track-pants.

“For old fossils like you and me,” said Bata Thatha, intervening in the absorbing debate, “cricket may be just a game, but for members of GenNext, it’s war out there. As Nike Shorts commented, the tendency to go for the jugular is instilled in children from an early stage, that when they grow up, they are constantly seen with war-paint on, yelling out blood-curdling battle cries. Those that don’t conform to this prescribed behaviour, fall by the wayside. Take the case of Geeta and Hari……”

“Did they both go around with war paint on”, enquired Nike Shorts.

“Not both. Only she did. That was the problem. But let me start from the beginning.”

My wife’s niece, Geeta, (said Bata Thatha) like many young girls of the current generation, works hard and plays hard. She exudes raw energy and packs in quite a bit of aggression, which she says is necessary if one has to succeed in life in general and sports in particular.

On the other hand, Hari, to whom she got engaged to early this year, is reserved, exasperatingly cool, believes that Life must be absorbed in small doses and that nothing is worth working up a sweat over.

A case of two dissimilar poles attracting each other, but we know that Cupid plays such pranks quite often.

All went well till about a month back or, to be more precise, till the day India won the Twenty20 World Cup. Over dinner, the next evening, Geeta declared, in that authoritative tone of hers, that Yuvraj Singh was the greatest cricketer the world had ever seen or was likely to see. “What aggression, what hitting” she exclaimed. Whereupon, Hari, without removing his eyes from the menu card that he was reading, remarked casually that, surely, that was too effusive a praise and there was no need to go overboard. He also volunteered the opinion that Geeta ought to view these games with some degree of detachment and not get emotionally entangled and, that too, with such fearsome intensity.

Dismissing this as a typical viewpoint of an intellectually- challenged person who was too weak-minded to take a position on any subject and who had no sense of passion, Geeta dared him to state who, in his considered view, was the best cricketer ever. Hari, tried to dilly-dally, but as Geetha wouldn’t let him off the hook, finally stated that, in his judgement, the title of best cricketer ever would rest on the lone Indian to have scored a six off the last ball, to win a match by one-wicket, against England. To wit, Bhuvan of Champaner.

Hearing this, Geetha went ballistic and made it clear to Hari with her characteristic bluntness that she was shocked at his shallowness, his retarded mental capacity and his inability to distinguish between real heroes and reel ones.

Hari, as is his style, chuckled and downplayed this incident, but Geetha was clearly not going to forget or forgive so easily.

The next week, while having dinner with another couple, Hari narrated this incident and laughed uncontrollably when he came to the punch line where he had named Bhuvan as the best cricketer ever. The story was a big hit with the friend’s wife, who found it extremely witty and said so.

This infuriated Geetha further. As they were driving back she accused Hari of trivialising an important argument and publicising a sensitive matter with unwarranted flippancy. For once, Hari’s composed demeanour developed some cracks and he snapped back, calling her a dangerous maniac and a menace to the public at large. Even if he had stopped here, he would have been in trouble, but he aggravated it further by adding that, had they been living in the Middle ages, she would have been burnt at the stake by now.

A heated exchange of such strong words can cause havoc and it did. The upshot being that Geetha broke off the engagement, refusing to waste her life with a weak-kneed, pussy-footed, jelly-boned, bradycardiac ,hypotensive creature and, worse, one who did not possess a rudimentary knowledge of the game of cricket. Hari merely mumbled something that was incoherent to Geetha, but had she listened carefully, she could have picked out stray words such as ‘divine intervention’ and “escape from combined might of bull dozer and steam roller”, etc. And they parted ways.”

Bata Thatha had an expression of deep melancholy as he concluded the story.

A Nike-shorts remarked, “That was quite a sad ending. But, that’s young blood for you”.

‘True” agreed Adidas track-pants, “Young and hot”.

“Well, I am not sure”, clarified Bata Thatha “if this was such a sad ending for Geetha. Far from being downcast, she continues to be her usual aggressive, go-getting self and has set her sights on winning the hand of Yuvraj Singh, no less. She has been plotting and scheming and who knows what will result from these machinations of hers?

“And what about Hari?” enquired a concerned Reebok Wrist-band, speaking for the first time that morning.

Bata Thatha shook his head sadly. “ Hari, I am sorry to report, is yet to recover, ill-equipped as he is to measure up to the demanding standards of today’s world. When I saw him last, he was muttering some nonsense about the fantastic achievements of Bhuvan and how he had delivered for India when it mattered most and why he deserved to be revered as the best cricketer ever. His family even got Aamir Khan down to their house to explain to Hari that it was all fiction, but Hari reportedly called Aamir an imposter and demanded that they fetch him the real Bhuvan. “

Disclosure : Idea for this story is borrowed from James Thurber’s piece “The break-up of the Winships”, in which the wife would go gaga over Greta Garbo, calling her the greatest actress ever, while her husband would insist that the greatest actor dead or alive was Donald Duck.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

The evolution of a ritual

I happened to be in Mumbai on Anant Chaturthi day in September when idols of Ganesh were taken out in grand processions and immersed in the sea/river/pond. I also happened to be in Kolkata last Sunday when Durga was being taken out in grand processions for immersion. I was stuck in traffic jams on both days.

What’s the point in decorating and worshipping the gods and goddesses in the house for 4-5 days and then unceremoniously drowning them in the sea? No, I withdraw the word, ‘unceremoniously’. In fairness, they are dumped in the water, with much pomp and ceremony.

I wonder how this tradition started? All such traditions originated in villages; villages had come up on the banks of rivers; perhaps, one of the idols had fallen down while being carried across the river, made a sensational splash, caught the fancy of the people, and soon this became an annual ritual.

Something like the story of the rishi, yagna and the cat that I had referred to in an earlier post.

I was witness to the evolution of a ritual in our office. Till a few years back, we used to distribute sweets on Ayudha Puja Day to all employees, The sweets along with the puffed rice, jaggery, etc were packed in a plastic cover. Five years back, someone suggested that we could use a jute bag costing Rs 40 each, instead of the plastic cover. Next year, the bag became bigger and the cost was Rs 60/- and kept going up year after year. Soon, the ritual seemed to be associated more with the bag than with the sweets, and preparations for the puja centred on the type of bag to be purchased, rather than how the puja ought to be performed or what sweets to buy.. This year, we cried halt and went back to plastic (alas, not eco-friendly) bags and stepped up the quantity of sweets.

If this simple ritual could evolve and undergo distortion in 5 years, imagine how other rituals that originated in a certain context and time, would have mutated over several centuries. But still clung to unquestioningly, if I may add..

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The sea and the sky beckon

Antoine de Saint-Exupery, French aviator and author of “The Little Prince” came up with this metaphor, “If you want to build a ship, don't drum up people to collect wood and don't assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”.

Don’t get into the tedium of teaching a child every step of the way, hoping to make him or her into a great scientist, musician or player. Just create the conducive grounds, inculcate that love for a subject and provide the platform for the child to build on. The rest will follow, was his message.

Did Alexander Bell wake up one fine morning and tell himself that he was going to invent the telephone? No, the seeds for the invention were sown many years back, through certain circumstances in his life.

Graham Bell had a fascination for ‘sound’ right from his childhood. His mother had been unable to hear and so he had grown up in a family where understanding how to communicate sound was central to every task.

His grandfather had been an elocution expert ( George Bernard Shaw had modelled Professor henry Higgins in Pygmalion partly on his example). His father had spent so much time helping his wife communicate that he’d done extensive research on the process of creating sounds. So, two generations of sound-researchers had preceded him.

And, when Alexander grew up, he fell madly in love with a girl called Mabel Hubbard who, due to a bout of scarlet fever when she was five years old, had suffered permanent loss of hearing. Helping her to communicate became an obsession.

So, the creation of sound had been Bell’s special interest and this ‘love of sound” put him on the path that led to the invention of the telephone. (Source)

Similar to this is the story of Dr. Katy Payne, naturalist and bioacoustics researcher, who after years of studying elephants in the wild, came up with the hypothesis that elephants communicated through infrasonic vibrations that are at frequencies below the audible range for humans. Elephants, according to her, can actually detect underground, seismic vibrations transmitted by a distant herd running away, or even the sound of rain many miles away.

What led Dr. Payne to this insight? “Standing close to some elephants” she says in her book “Silent Thunder’, “I felt that I was listening to a faint sound, that was strangely familiar. As a child, I had loved to be part of the choir in the local church and it struck me that the sound that I heard from the elephants was similar to the sensations I used to feel when the pipe organ struck a low note”. This ‘connection’ led her to explore further and to conduct more experiments which finally led to the discovery. Love of choir-music eventually led her to study elephant sounds.

So, if you want your son to become a Marine engineer, just take him to the beach every morning. Let him be charmed by the sea. He will automatically become a good sailor. Or, if you want your daughter to become an astronaut, take her to the balcony every evening and show her the stars. Not film stars on TV, the real stars in the sky.

Friday, October 19, 2007

The potent chemicals

He lay awake on his bed, thinking about the previous evening.

For some reason, his girl friend had been giving him the cold shoulder. Last evening, things took a turn for the worse. She had, inexplicably and in the middle of dinner, got up and sat on the next table.

Girls are notoriously moody and fickle, he knew, but this standoffishness had lasted too long. He had this grim foreboding that she was going to leave him for good.

A girl ought to, at least, tell the guy where he had erred and give him a sporting chance to correct himself. He felt utterly helpless and completely dejected. The whole future looked bleak and hopeless. There was only one option left. It was time to take some decisive, desperate steps.

By the time he got up from his bed, he had decided what he would do with his life. He walked to the bathroom and pulled out from the cabinet the tubular container that he had carefully preserved for this occasion. It contained a special mixture of potent chemicals such as sodium monofluorophosphate, hydrated silica, propylene glycol, tetrasodium pyrophosphate, not to mention pentasodium triphosphate and sodium lauryl sulphate. A peroxide and a hydroxide were also thrown in for good measure. Yes, he would use this mix and put an end to his misery.

He went out a little later and confronted his girl friend again. Surprise. She didn’t move away from him this time.

Yes, the chemical mix had worked. Just as Colgate had promised it would. He finally knew what his problem had been.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The two-language formula

While driving down from Belapur to the Mumbai airport today, I realized that the driver of the car was a cricket aficionado.

The 7th ODI between India and Australia was on, and he switched on the radio commentary. For the next 1-1/2 hours or so, the commentary alternated between Hindi and English, in 15-minute sessions.

What this meant was that, whenever the commentary was in English, the driver seemed clueless about what was happening, while I couldn’t make out the score, whenever it was in Hindi.

The whole experience left both of us dissatisfied, leading me to conclude that, if only one channel was available, then it might as well be entirely in Hindi. At least, one of us would have been completely satisfied then.

It is like the story about Gandhi losing one of his slippers, while boarding a moving train. He then threw out the other one also, reasoning that some poor soul would benefit by having a pair, instead of two of them holding one slipper each. ( As an aside, if all the stories attributed to Gandhi were true, he should have lived for 500 years, to have played a part in each one of them).

Coming back to the two-language formula. After I boarded the plane today, the safety instructions were, as is the practice, given twice, once in Hindi and the drill repeated with an English voice-over. Which led me to wonder, if the air pressure really dropped, will the oxygen masks drop down in two batches, one for the Hindi speaking and another one for the English speaking?

R.I.P.Series- 13

I am sure all of you would have read about the incident in which, “over 130 passengers on a Jet Airways flight, including the entire Australian cricket team and some members of the Indian squad, had a narrow escape on Monday when the plane carrying them to Mumbai made an emergency landing at Dr Ambedkar international airport in Nagpur after being hit by a bird.”

While you were all offering thanks to whichever gods you pray to and seek favours from, for saving the lives of the cricketers, did you spare a thought for the bird? Not Dickie Bird. I am talking about the poor, little bird that was killed by the plane-hit?

RIP, dear bird. You will be missed.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Law of Incremental service

On the Manila-Singapore leg of the journey last week, I decided to take an earlier flight instead of the one that I was booked in.

I made it through the wait-list. Soon after take-off, one of the flight assistants came down to my seat and informed me in a rather solemn tone that they couldn’t organise an Indian vegetarian meal that I had asked for, as I had made the flight change at the last minute. She would see what she could manage, she told me. Changers cannot be choosers; so I accepted the situation.

After 10 more minutes, she came back with a concerned expression and asked if any other vegetarian option (continental, Thai.) was okay with me. I said that would be perfectly fine. In fact, I felt like patting her on the back and telling her not to worry so much, as even men weaker than I am have been known to survive a 3-hour flight without food.

After another 5 minutes or so, she came back and broke the good news that she had located an Indian vegetarian meal, after all. And this was served to me, a little later.

I checked the tray for the meal tag that accompanies such ‘special requests” and sure enough, it was there, with my seat number filled in by the caterer. They had managed to load the meal at short notice. The flight assistant had not pulled it out of thin air, as she had tried to impress.

But, why at all did the flight assistant go through all that tension-building exercise? The charitable explanation would be that she had not located the meal initially but found it later. Or, more likely, she was pulling a fast one on me.

Actually, with my sales training, I appreciated what she did and my respect for that airline went up. The first and cardinal rule of sales is to deliver what you have promised. The second rule is that, if you are delivering more than what had been promised or exceeding the customer’s expectation, make it clear to him or her that something out-of-the-way was being done and take brownie points for it, in some form. That extra bit that you put in has some extra value and it should be perceived so, by the customer. Otherwise, it is lost forever, without you accruing any credit for it. Of course, this process of taking the credit has to be executed with finesse, without the customer feeling that you are being over-demonstrative.

Imagine if the meal of my choice had been brought to me without the drama that preceded it, would I have known or appreciated the fact that the airline managed to act within an hour?

Update 18/10/07 : My favourite barber once taught me a lesson in customer satisfaction. He had just finished cutting my hair and asked if I would like to have an oil massage too. It being a Sunday, there were at least six people waiting outside restlessly. I asked him if he wouldn't incur the wrath of those guys by giving me a 30-minute massage when they were waiting for a more basic need (hair-cut) to be met. He replied that once a customer sat on his chair, he would ensure that he left completely delighted with the experience, even if meant turning away a few others. Rather one totally satisfied customer than many partially-satisfied ones, was his gyan.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Ashta and other avadhanis

Alex Tabarrok of Marginal Revolution shares his secret fear:

My secret fear is that one day I will find myself working in Starbucks; the cashier will call out orders - double latte frappuccino, no whip, extra hot, tall; iced caramel macchiato grande; pumpkin spice crème with soy... I will become confused and disoriented, was that extra whip or no whip? Tall or grande? Soy or no soy? What am I doing? People will shuffle their feet impatiently, check their watch and stare at me with disdain as I struggle to keep up. I will start to sweat - now people are frowning. Aaarrgghh - take me back to my quiet office.

I don’t know why Starbucks strains the memory of its employees and makes them issue such verbal orders. I accompanied my daughters recently to Pizza Hut and found the waiter not writing down the order. He was committing it to his memory, then rushing to the computer to key it in and transmit to the kitchen. At least Anjappar restaurant, I am told, is sensible. The waiter keys in the details into his wireless whatever-it-is and issues remote orders to the kitchen.

I remember watching an amazing performance on Doordarshan in the ‘80s, when it was the sole channel available for love or money. It featured an Ashtavadani who could do 8 things at the same time. The audience would ask him questions in random sequence- like asking him to add up some numbers, to recite Kural no 785 of 1330, to remember a card taken from a deck, etc. He would commit 64 such questions to his memory. At the end of which, he would give out the answers, one at a time, all from memory. I am told that Ashtavadanis were patronised by Telugu kings and they could be seen performing even in the late twentieth century. I am not sure if this tradition exists any more. Does anyone know?

Did they have Yogic powers? Not quite. Actually, the quintessence of yoga or meditation was to rid the mind of multiple thoughts and get it to focus on just one object. Or to avoid multi-tasking as practised by the Ashtavadanis.

Update 16/10/07 : Bit Hawk has sent in a link to an article on Dr. Ganesh, the Shatavadhani

The guru-sishya paradigm

Soon after the announcement that the Nobel Peace prize had been awarded (jointly) to Mr Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) headed by Mr. R.K.Pachauri, the latter called the former and is reported to have said, “ This is Pachy. I am so delighted and so privileged to have the IPCC share the peace award with you…. I will be your follower, you will be my leader”.

Depending on one’s viewpoint, that statement can be described as admirably courteous, politically correct or disgustingly obsequious. We won’t get into that.

But, do Indians, by nature, look for a guru in any sphere of activity? In an essay titled. “Authority and Identity in India”, T.G.Vaidyanathan, an English professor and regular columnist in The Hindu in the 80s and 90s, showed that in the Indian ethos, the guru-sishya relationship is the paradigm of all relationships. Whether it is the relationship of a devotee to his creator ( Thyagaraja comes to mind), of a servant to his master, of a friend to friend, of lover to beloved, of parents to children, and even of enemies to each other.

Few principles, he says, are exempt from the influence of the guru principle, including games. Patrons of cricket know the colossal influence that the famous Ranjitsinhji wielded on his nephew Prince Duleepsinhji. P.T.Usha’s career burgeoned under the watchful eye of her guru, Nambiar. How much of the Guru principle can operate even in the field of literature can be gauged by the fact that Mulk Raj Anand, one of the pioneers in the field alongside R.K.Narayan and one with Marxist leanings, took the first draft of his novel, Untouchable, to Gandhi at Sabarmati Ashram. Anand desired the approval of his guru.

In fact, to be Indian means to respect authority- all the way down the line. Indians who have flocked to cities since the 50s and the 60s, have suffered disorientation that has created an unprecedented existential dilemma. Most Indians can deal with this crisis and bolster their weakened, wounded identity only by taking recourse to surrogate or suprapersonal figures that serve as modern gurus, of whom the perfect exemplar is the Sathya Sai Baba of Puttaparthi.

It is not surprising, concluded Vaidyanthan, that for many Indians insecurity is nearly always a consequence of the withdrawal of external authority but never of its presence.

So, if even in his most glorious moment, Pachauri instinctively seeks a leader, let us not be judgmental. After all, he is an Indian first and a scientist next. He could not have escaped the clutches of the guru-sishya paradigm..

Friday, October 12, 2007

The other award.

Details of the Ig Nobel awards - for achievements that first make people LAUGH then make them THINK- are as eagerly awaited every year as that of the Nobel prize winners. The prizes are intended to “celebrate the unusual, honour the imaginative -- and spur people's interest in science, medicine, and technology.”

This year’s awards were announced last month. Among the winners were:

Medicine : Brian Witcombe of Gloucester, UK, and Dan Meyer of Antioch, Tennessee, USA, for their penetrating medical report "Sword Swallowing and Its Side Effects;

Biology : Prof. Dr. Johanna E.M.H. van Bronswijk of Eindhoven University of Technology, The Netherlands, for doing a census of all the mites, insects, spiders, pseudoscorpions, crustaceans, bacteria, algae, ferns and fungi with whom we share our beds each night.

Linguistics: Juan Manuel Toro, Josep B. Trobalon and Núria Sebastián-Gallés, of Universitat de Barcelona, for showing that rats sometimes cannot tell the difference between a person speaking Japanese backwards and a person speaking Dutch backwards;

Chemistry : Mayu Yamamoto of the International Medical Center of Japan, for developing a way to extract vanillin -- vanilla fragrance and flavoring -- from cow dung.

Physics: L. Mahadevan of Harvard University, USA, and Enrique Cerda Villablanca of Universidad de Santiago de Chile, for studying how sheets become wrinkled.

This year most of the awardees actually attended the ceremony, made acceptance speeches and took home a much-coveted trophy – a hand-made model of a chicken and egg.

I like the spirit behind the awards and the fact that the awardees took it all in good humour. I am also happy to note, with pride, that the name Lakshminarayan Mahadevan stands up there ( albeit with an Ig attached) and shares the glory along with Chandrasekar Venkata Raman and Subramanian Chandrasekar.

Ought we to institute such awards for movies as well, if they don’t exist already? The Un Oscar awards for the silliest, most banal film or story? It will also give Indian movies a sporting chance of bagging a prize, in all categories? Or maybe our own Film-Un Fare award every year in a ceremony attended by the glitterati and the illiterati? There will be an In-Jury to choose the winner from among the Ig-Nominees? Who will get the Lifetime Unachievement award” Duh! I mean, Shobha Duh.

As I am Ig Norant on these matters, can I Ig-nite the mind of some kindly blogger to take on this Ig Noble cause?

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Blousy days ahead

Downloading tons of intellectual stuff from “The Hindu’ into my left brain, strains my system severely each morning and I try to neutralise the effect by flipping through the day’s edition of “The Deccan Chronicle”.

This morning, after soaking in intricate details from The Hindu about the trajectory of the Agni missile launched yesterday, I felt a throbbing headache and needed a quick palliative. And I reached for the Deccan Chronicle

It obliged, as it unfailingly does, by carrying an absorbing story. This one was on the wardrobes of leading Kollywood personalities and reported, among other things, that actress Khushboo possessed no less than 325 designer blouses.

With the headache now gone, I analysed the implications of this extraordinary piece of information.

325, I reasoned, was neither here nor there. What Khusboo ought to do, I felt, was to go to the designer and order 40 more blouses (Or go to the blouser and get 40 more designed- I am not sure how all this works). Which would take the tally to 365. This way, she can wear a different blouse on each day of the year, without ever having to repeat the same one again. She can number them and designate a specific blouse for a specific date of the year.

The next year, assuming she can still fit into the blouses, she can wear the same designated blouse on the same specific date of the year.

If she repeats this for a couple of years more, the public will soon see the pattern and match the blouse with the date. If she is wearing Blouse X, it must be this date. Quick mental association will be formed. Very Pavlovian, if you see the point .

Before the end of the decade the numeral-based calendar as we know it will cease to exist. Days will not be referred by numbers 1-31 any more. It will be Tuesday, the sky-blue-blouse-with-small-pink polka dots, or something like that

There is this oft-told story about an ancient rishi in Kerala who was disturbed by a cat when he was performing a yagna. He ordered the cat to be tied up. The next day the cat disturbed him again. He had it tied up. Soon, every time he performed this yagna, his disciples would find a cat to tie up, believing that this was part of the ritual.. This tradition continued for several centuries, with people unquestioningly introducing the cat into the proceedings.

Same with Khusboo’s blouse.. The cause and effect will be reversed. People would have forgotten that the dates existed first and the blouses next, and not the other way round.

Thousand years from now, people will read about the transition that happened in the 16th century, from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar and, in the 21st century from the Gregorian to the Khushbian calendar ( Note author’s clever coinage of adjective term ‘Khushbian” for Khushboo. on the lines of cat-feline, salt-saline, lion-leonine. Editor).

There are no records to corroborate the story of the rishi and the cat. But, thousand years from now, when people are curious to find out where the idea of the Khusbian calendar originated, powerful search engines will lead them to my blogsite in 0.00000001 seconds.

Note to Khusboo : The year 2008 happens to be a Leap Year and one extra blouse will be required.

Note to self : All this analysis again involved the left brain and will give you headaches.. Get out of this habit.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Conversation with daughter-19

Came across this dad-daughter dialogue, in one of Maxim Gorky’s stories called “The Nightingale”:

..Floating from somewhere a good way off, came a strange, husky whistling that resembled a yearning, a long-restrained sigh from some small but powerful, and very passionate breast.

“A nightingale!”, the old man exclaimed with a laugh.

The young lady, his daughter, smiled dreamily. The old man sighed and said,

“ There we have it, the playful and fantastic wisdom of nature! A small, useless bird is endowed with such a wealth of tone….but the cow, though a useful animal is capable of uttering a single, unpleasant, mooing tone. Both in our life and in nature, men find the crude and ugly useful, whereas, what is beautiful and enjoyable…..touching to the soul… finds useless”

“Don’t talk, Papa… I can’t hear”, the daughter exclaimed tartly

The father smiled skeptically and growled again, “But, you must agree that if cows sang like nightingales, it wouldn’t be at all that bad, eh?”

“Do stop it, Papa”, the daughter implored.

I must say that the wisdom and the profound philosophy embedded in that old man’s words appealed to me and I decided to try it out on my daughter.

“ Tell me, whenever I manage to go to Switzerland, would you like me to get you a cuckoo clock? There are two models. In the first one, a cute-looking cuckoo peeps out every hour and lets out a bovine“ Mooooooooo”. In the other, a cow pops its huge head and sings out a divine, “ cuckoo; cuckoo”. Which one would you prefer?

“I’d rather have a box of Toblerone chocolates”, replied my daughter.

I was disappointed. What’s wrong with modern-day kids, I thought to myself, as I walked down to the balcony for some fresh air. How can they prefer these synthetic chocolates to models of animals? Yes, times are changing.

I stood in the balcony for some more time, pondering over the future of the next generation. The moon was out, the stars were hidden in that glow, the air was fresh and the trees quite still. I enjoyed the silence of the night, till my neighbour’s Labrador spotted me, from across the compound wall and started meowing menacingly.

Thursday, October 04, 2007


Although I average 80 flights a year, I am still a nervous traveler. It is not the flying, per se, that gives me butterflies in my stomach. It is the process that precedes and follows it. The mad drive to the airport, the terrifying traffic, the serpentine queues for the baggage screening and check-in, the chronically constipated security guards frisking you in the midst of their nose-picking - all these are calculated to make you an agitated wreck by the time you board the aircraft and fasten your seat belts..

And then the announcements that accost your ear drums from all sides and with such relentlessness! There’s no escape from this Dante’s Inferno. Abandon hope all ye who enter here.

The other day, I got past security a full 45 minutes before departure and thought I couldl steal a wink while waiting for the boarding call. Within a minute I was bombarded by this announcement in bold, capital letters, “ LAST AND FINAL CALL FOR AIR DECCAN FLIGHT XXX TO BANGALORE. REPEAT THIS IS THE LAST AND FINAL CALL. REPEAT LAST AND FINAL CALL. REPEAT LAST AND FINAL CALL FOR AIR DECCAN FLIGHT XXX TO BANGALORE”.

I jumped out of my chair, doing a neat imitation of Mr.Bean. For the rest of the journey, my heart kept pounding LUB DUB LUB DUB instead of the normal lub dub lub dub that doctors recommend.

As Seth Godin mentioned in his blog once :

In a crowded terminal, when the folks making gate announcements start yelling or talking fast or acting panicked about a full flight, it makes everybody uptight. Even the little computerized voice that tells you which gate agent to talk to sounds a little annoyed.

What if the airlines realized that the product that they sell isn’t the plane, it’s the idea of a safe and comfortable (maybe even fun) trip. What if every announcement was pre-recorded by Clint Eastwood or J. Lo? Or if all the flight announcements were as funny as the one I heard today (your snacks are being handed out by Tom, who’s single and looking for love. Hey, if you marry him, you can fly free!)

Even simpler, what if every announcement was calm, slow and easy to understand? That’s free, but it’s worth noticing.

Now, unlike Seth Godin, I am a simple soul and will not expect pre-recorded announcements of J.Lo. All I want are announcements of V.Lo or Volume Low. Maybe, they ought to distribute the cotton buds at the check-in counter, instead of inside the aircraft.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Dear Diary-9

Dear Diary,

The whole of today, I had this claustrophobic feeling that I was slowly being enclosed by walls on all sides.

When I logged on to the computer, the first news item that greeted me was the one in the Wall Street Journal, which talked of how Wall-Mart was sourcing so much of stuff from across the Great Wall of China.

Switched on the TV. Turned on the wallume. The ODI was on and who was batting? None other than Dravid, the Wall. Changed channel. Big Fight on NDTV on Sethusamudram project and if it would damage the ancient bridge mentioned in Wall-miki’s Ramayana.

Picked up a book and, sure enough, there was this story written by a French author, about this ordinary character who suddenly realizes that he can walk through walls. Using this ability he frightens his boss ( by peeping through a wall), robs banks and when, finally imprisoned, keeps walking up to the Warden’s room every morning. He finally loses his power when walking through a wall one day and gets trapped inside for ever. Ending didn’t help my claustrophobia one bit.

Was this idea borrowed by Harry Potter to ram into the wall at the railway station, to get to Platform 9-3/4? Or to tackle his enemy, the dark wizard, Walldemort? Did Pink Floyd have Hogwart’s in mind when they sang, “Hey! Teachers! Leave them kids alone!All in all it's just another brick in the wall. All in all you're just another brick in the wall.”

What a stupid song! As the French satirist Walltaire remarked, "Anything too stupid to be said is sung".

So, the net result was that today was a complete washout. Nothing accomplished. But, wall's well that ends well. As Sir Wall-ter Scott said, " To all, to each, a fair good night; And pleasing dreams and slumbers light”.