Saturday, March 31, 2007

Here froggie, catch this fly...

In his book, “Marketers are liars”, author and blogger, Seth Godin makes this interesting point :

"An average frog’s brain weighs ten grams. A human’s weighs about sixty times as much. Despite the substantial evolutionary investment in human brain power, despite the vast number of brain cells devoted to our eyes and our ability to process what we see, most people are unable to snatch a housefly out of midair, with or without their tongue. The fly is too fast and we are too slow.

Yet frogs do this every day.

How does a frog get by with so little? How can a frog, with its minuscule brain, find a fly, track it, aim its tongue, launch it and then capture the fly in less than a second?

The frog has optimized its brain for hunting flies. It turns out that a frog is unable to see anything that is motionless. A frog surrounded by recently killed bugs will starve to death, unaware there is plenty of nutrition just inches away. At the same time, a frog can grab a fly out of the air with its tongue faster than any person can.

The frog’s secret?
It watches only for changes in the environment. It has a brain that can only do one thing well, and that’s watch the sky for moving bugs. By ignoring the static environment and only focusing on what’s new, it can be far more efficient than a human when it comes to catching flies.

Humans use the strategy far more than we realize. Not to catch flies, of course, but to keep up with the huge influx of data we wrestle with every day. We are constantly scanning the world around us for changes; Walk into your house and within a heartbeat you know if something has changed. . We can’t grab a fly, but we can walk into a supermarket and at a glance tell, if there’s a new brand of beer

This human trait to notice change is precisely what the advertisers target, to grab and engage your attention, and thereby promote a new product. We are all frog-like in our behaviour and can be enticed by moving flies or baits that marketers dangle in front of our eyes..

Reminds me of a cartoon by Don Martin in Mad magazine, in which the fairy-tale princess would kiss the frog and turn it into Prince Charming. Then they get married and ride off blissfully in the coach together, when the prince will suddenly notice a fly and zap it with his ten foot tongue.

Once a frog, always a frog.

Somewhere within your large brain, probably deep inside the reptilian complex, there lurks this frog mentality which is what the advertisers try to tap into.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

New species.

First came the news that Conservationists working in Peru got their first natural glimpse of a rare and unusual bird called the long-whiskered owlet last month while working in a private mountain reserve. With their diminutive size, bright orange eyes, and wild, wispy facial feathers, the dainty birds belong to their own genus, dubbed Xenoglaux, or "strange owl."

Next came the announcement that a monster ‘toxic’ toad has been caught in Darwin, Australia. Nearly 15 inches (38 centimeters) long and weighing about 2 pounds (0.9 kilogram), the croaker is one of the largest specimens ever caught in Australia. The toads were imported from South America to eradicate scarab beetles that were feasting on sugar cane crops. But soon it was the toxic toads that were the pests, causing the deaths of countless native animals that eat them, from snakes to crocodiles.

Finally, there is this report that the clouded leopard of the Southeast Asian islands of Borneo and Sumatra is its own unique species, according to genetic test results announced by WWF, the international conservation organization. Until now the cat was believed to be of the same species as the mainland clouded leopard.

In the case of the diminutive owl, I will give credit to the conservationists for tracking the rare creature in the wilderness. In the case of the toxic toad, I will give full marks to the scientists for wading deep into the waters and catching the giant creature. But, my prize for the most ingenious claim goes to the WWF for declaring the widely found clouded leopard as a different species and claiming brownie points for it. Next they will claim that the animal we always thought was an elephant wasn’t an elephant at all, but an identical animal.

Incidentally, what happens if the toxic toads take a liking for the whiskered owl and eat them all up? And then the clouded leopards swallow all the giant toads and die of toxicity? All three species will be wiped out. Too bad.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Conversation with daughter- 12

Daughter to wife: Can I borrow a book from the library today?

Wife: No way! You have your exams. Take out your text books.

Daughter to me: Can I borrow a book from the library?

Me: You just asked that question to Amma, and she said no.

Daughter: But, what is your answer?

Me: How does it matter? What if I said yes?

Daughter: Then I will take the book from the library.

Me: But, amma has said no.

Daughter: There are some circumstances when I will listen to Amma and some circumstances when I will listen to you.

Me: How do you decide under which circumstances you will listen to Amma and which circumstances you will listen to me?

Daughter: I listen to whoever has the answer I want

Reconciling my battling trinity...

I read these lines here and have been profoundly impacted:

"It is said that we are all three different people: the person we think we are (the one we have invented), the person other people think we are (the impression we make) and the person we think other people think we are (the one we fret about). You could say it would be a lifetime's quest to reconcile this battling trinity into a seamless whole "

What this means is that when the person who I think I am is writing this piece to be read by the person who I think you are, it is actually the person who you think you are that is reading the piece that you believe was written by the person who you think I am. Meanwhile, the person who I think you think I am is logging on to your blogsite trying to understand the mind of the person who you think I think you are.

All very complicated, if you ask me. Six different people, two sets of trinities at work sitting on just two chairs and trying to reconcile into two different seamless wholes. Makes my head spin. In fact, when it turns 180 degrees during each spin, I can look down and see my own backside. But, wait a minute. How do I know that it is my head spinning? Maybe it is my body spinning and creating the illusion of my head spinning.

Reminds me of a story about the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who one time asked a friend "Tell me, why do people always say it was natural for men to assume that the sun went round the earth, rather than that the earth was rotating?" His friend said, "Well, obviously, because it looks as if the sun is going round the earth." To which the philosopher replied, "Well, what would it have looked like if it had looked as if the earth was rotating?"

If you really are the person I think you are, you will make sense of what I think I am trying to mean.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Why we lost ......

In the hullabaloo and hysteria over India’s loss in the World Cup, so many different theories have been put forward to explain what happened. Women have joined in too in the bashing, with their herteria.

Some say that India should never have batted first against Bangladesh and, in the match against Sri Lanka, should never have asked the opponents to bat first. In the match against Bangladesh, the Indians appeared to be saving their energy for the next encounter against Bermuda; in the match against Sri Lanka they appeared quite exhausted after the Bermuda match in which they had given all that they had.

Others have questioned the exclusion of Kumble, Dinesh Kartik and Irfan Pathan from the team and have criticized Dravid for his shortsightedness in limiting the number of players to eleven, in a crucial match.

A blogger has suggested that Indians lacked the hunger to win. The trick is, he concluded in his thought-provoking post, is to pack the team with millions of hungry men.

A famous ex-cricketer has opined that our fielding let us down and observed that in the race involving the ball and Indian fielders up to the boundary line, the former invariably won. In his own time, he pointed out, fielders used to be strategically positioned outside the boundary line.

Media has been quite vocal in its criticism. One newspaper has written in its editorial that the cricketers got carried away by all the hype that was created by the media and strongly recommended that newspapers must be banned.

My own theory- and I could be wrong occasionally- is that one of the main reasons that India lost to Sri Lanka was because we failed to score as many runs in the match as the Sri Lankan batsmen did. In the final analysis, this cost us the match.

In fact, I would be so bold as to predict that the winner of this edition of the World Cup would be the team that scores more runs than its opponent in the final. Duckworth-Lewis could prove me wrong, but I am sticking my neck out.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Welcome to my Space.

I am gladdened by the news that India's latest communications satellite, INSAT-4B, was successfully launched on Monday by Arianespace's Ariane-5 vehicle from the Kourou Island in French Guiana.

I remember when INSAT-2B was launched some years back, many people had serious reservations about the whole program. Incorrigible cynics in distant hamlets soliloquized loudly, “INSAT-2B or not 2B, that’s the question’. Only Dr. Abdul Kalam and I were convinced that it would work.

Anyway, the purpose of this post is to share with you what President Kalam had to say when the INSAT-4B was launched. Some of you have subscribed to the RSS feed of my blog just to keep yourself updated on the President’s articulations and I won’t let you down. I will tell you know in just a minute what he remarked soon after the launch. But, before that, let me give you some background.

The Universe came into being through a cataclysmic event called the Big Bang that happened billions of years back. That was so long ago that even Vajpayee was yet to be born. Why am I rambling about Vajpayee when you wanted to hear about Kalam, some of you ask in righteous indignation, especially you there from Boise, Idaho who Google-searched for “role model Abdul kalam’ and was led to this eminent site. Why, sitting in Boise, Idaho, you want to know about role model Kalam is more than I can understand. Anyway, Boise will be Boise. I’ll let that pass. But, I forgot, you wanted to hear the statement issued by President Kalam soon after the launch. Be a little patient. I am coming to that, but I have to touch upon something quite important.

Soon after the Big Bang, the Universe started expanding in all directions and it still is. After some eons, interstellar clouds condensed to form galaxies, stars and planets. Fusion of hydrogen atoms led to formation of other higher elements, one by one. Some people mistake fission for fusion. That’s confusion. Suffice to say that all elements including gold were created through fusion in a star or by a supernova. Isn’t it a humbling thought that the gold ring that you presented to your boy/girl friend on Valentine’s Day owes its existence to the element created by inter-stellar clouds? And, do you know why Valentine’s Day is celebrated on February 14th? That’s because it is exactly 9 months before Nov 14th, Children’s Day. But, I digress. You don’t want to hear about Nehru. You are waiting to hear what Dr Kalam said after the launch of INSAT 4B. I can see the reader there, yes you with the IP code 74.121.235, tearing your hair and chewing your nails unable to stand the suspense. Hang on, for just a while. I am coming round to the speech presently.

The Universe is believed to have 80 billion galaxies, each containing an average of 80 billion stars. That makes it sound as if the Universe is over-crowded. Actually it is not. Most of it is empty space. But, there’s lot of diversity. Why, as George Lucas brilliantly captured in his movie Star Wars, there’s even a Bar in Outer Space, where you will be served exotic drinks. You can see the bar there in front of you. No, not on the monitor. On your key board. The long key at the bottom. That’s right. The Space Bar.

Now, I can see you hopping mad. I can sight some of you backbenchers removing your slippers menacingly, to beat me up. “We want Kalam”, I hear you shout hysterically. Hey, that person over there, yes the one from Bangalore – I can spot your company’s URL – calm down. Browsing on official time, are you? You are going to be stressed out completely if you don’t control your rage. What? You will kill me if I don’t reveal immediately what President Kalam said soon after the launch of INSAT 4B? Are you seriously threatening me?

I confess that I am getting irritated with this constant and rude interruption. In fact, I will go to the extent of saying that I am infuriated. Are you all under the impression that I am some kind of a chronicler of all the President’s activities? Here I am trying to educate you on the origin of the Universe and all about the galaxies and stars – believe me, it is a vast subject- and you don’t let me get in a word edgeways. All you want to hear is ….. Forget it. Those of you who want to know what he said, log on to his personal website and dig it out yourself.

As for the few others still hanging around, I will continue. When the Universe was around 5.6 billion years old…………

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Caveat Emptor

A friend – an IIT/IIM combo- works for the credit card business of a multinational bank. His job, as I understand it, is to comb and mine the rich data available with the bank on purchases made by millions of customers, identify people with similar spending patterns and lump them in clusters. The bank would then indulge in some ‘focused marketing’ and approach each cluster with appropriate offerings, brochures, etc that would have maximum appeal. Some complex mathematical modeling is involved, but my friend tells me that this is a fairly reliable science and he can claim a success rate of over 90% in his predictions. I have no reason to disbelieve him. After all, his pay and incentives are linked to the accuracy of his forecasting.

It is fascinating how our purchasing behaviour is subtly manipulated by so many different agencies, using methods that have been validated by psychologists in scientific studies. Why do most malls sell perfumes in the ground floor, as close to the entrance as possible? Why not have the perfumes counters in the top floor? That’s probably because some study done by one of the Universities in the US would have shown that more the number of senses that are stimulated, the more favourably disposed the customer would be to part with his money. As he enters the mall, his eyes feast on the colourful displays, his ears hear some soothing music and his nose picks up the fragrance from the perfume spray. He is ‘pre-sold’ by the time he reaches the clothes section. Like those sublimal messages reportedly planted by advertisers, indiscernible to the conscious mind, but perceived by the sub-conscious mind. So, just before the intermission, a sublimal message, “Drink Coke” is embedded on the screen and you, like a zombie, walk to the counter outside and pick up a Coke tin, as if it was the most natural thing to do.

When you went to the white goods shop to buy a microwave oven, were you first shown a model that costs Rs 10000/- , but you ended up buying one that costs Rs 8000/- ? The 10000-Rs model was probably a ‘decoy’ planted there, to provide the right contrast or the frame of reference. In other words, Rs 10000/- was planted in your mind as an anchor and helped in showing subsequent, slightly cheaper models in a favourable light.

Or, when you went in to buy the used car, did the broker say that he had already received better offers and it was already sold, but later called you up to break the news that there was a slight chance that the earlier deal he had may fall through, and you could have it if you paid up the advance amount the same day? The broker is applying the ‘scarcity’ principle. People tend to buy and pay a higher price when there is perceived scarcity.

Did you get an offer from Reader’s Digest to buy a book titled “The Home Cure Manual’ that you could return in ten days if you didn’t like it and get full refund? What they are trying to exploit is the principle that the pain experienced by people in losing what they already possess is far more intense than the pleasure gained when they are acquiring something. So, the trick is to lure you to ‘possess’ a book. You won’t part with it too easily.

Of course, all these studies talk only about probability. That is, they predict that 60-70% of the customers would behave in a certain way under certain conditions. The remaining will not succumb to these methods. The hit rate may therefore vary. That’s the chance that marketing companies take.

The IIT/IIM combo friend that I cited above may be smart, but my favourite salesman is a vegetable vendor near my house. Tomato prices, as we all know, can vary from Rs 5-20 per kg ( or even more). When the ruling price is Rs 5/kg, he would call out, “ Saar, tomato very cheap today. Rs 5 a kg”. When the price shoots up to Rs 20/kg, he would yell out cheerfully, “Saar, Tomato very cheap today. Rs 5 for quarter kg.”

Full disclosure : I am a flag carrying member of the Sales fraternity.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Conversation with daughter- 11

Guy Kawasaki links to an article titled The Effort Effect, about Stanford psychology professor Carol Dweck. It examines her thirty-year study of why some people excel and others don’t. The article postulates that people have two kinds of mindsets: growth or fixed. People with the growth mindset view life as a series of challenges and opportunities for improving. People with a fixed mindset believe that they are “set” as either good or bad. The issue is that the good ones believe they don’t have to work hard, and the bad ones believe that working hard won’t change anything.

The article has a sidebar called, ‘What do we tell the kids?” If you have a bright kid and you want her to succeed, do you tell her she is smart? No, Prof Dweck tells us ,because such labels, though positive, may instill a harmful mindset and all the baggage that goes with it, from performance anxiety to a tendency to give up quickly. Well-meaning words can sap children’s motivation and enjoyment of learning and undermine their performance.

Rather than praising their intelligence, Professor Dweck advises parents to focus on the processes the children use,. Examples :

“That homework was so long and involved. I really admire the way you concentrated and finished it.”

“That picture has so many beautiful colors. Tell me about them.”

“You put so much thought into that essay. It really makes me think about Shakespeare in a new way.”

When I read anything as instructive and enlightening as this, I naturally try to put it to use, at the first opportunity. So, imagine my happiness, when I found my daughter on her favourite sofa, engrossed in her homework. I started off with this perfect line, that would have made both Carol Dweck and Guy Kawasaki proud of me :

Me: That homework must be pretty long and involved. I really admire the way you are concentrating and finishing it.

Daughter: What?

Me: That homework. Must be long and involved. Admirable, the way you are concentrating and finishing it.

Wife, walking into the room, to daughter: What’s he saying?

Daughter: He is rambling something about how long and involved my homework is and how I am concentrating and finishing it.

Wife to me: Why don’t you leave her alone and let her complete her work? It is pretty long and involved and it must be difficult enough to concentrate and finish , without you interrupting her...

Me:I was just commenting that her homework must be long and involved and complimenting her on her concentration and her determination to finish it. Just as Carol Dweck has advised parents to.

Daughter: I don’t know what you are talking about, but if you leave me alone, I’ll be able to concentrate better and finish this long and involved homework much faster.

Me to other daughter: That drawing of yours has so many beautiful colours. Tell me about them……..

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Tyranny of freedom

In his book, “The Power of Persuasion”, psychologist Robert Levine talks about a recent series of experiments, in which social psychologists, Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper, demonstrated that too many choices could be overwhelming and counter-productive.

In their study, a group of Columbia University chocolate lovers were given a choice of six different flavors of Godiva chocolate and asked to taste a sample of any one. A second group was asked to choose among thirty different flavours. Subjects given the extensive flavour choices rated their selection as less tasty, less enjoyable and less satisfying than did the limited choices group. The thirty-flavour subjects expressed more regrets about their selection and were less likely to choose chocolate as payment for participating in the experiment.

In another experiment, Iyengar and Leppar set up a jam-tasting table in Draeger’s supermarket, an upscale grocery store in Menlo Park, California, with a reputation for extensive selection. In one condition, the researchers offered shoppers tastes of six different exotic flavours of Wilkin & Sons jam. In a second condition, they offered twenty-four different Wilkin & Sons flavours. Easy choices like strawberry and raspberry were left out. The displays were rotated hourly over two Saturdays. Once again, Lepper and Iyengar found, shoppers were won over by the smaller selection. 60% of the customers who passed by the 6-flavour table stopped for a sample, compared with 40% of customers who passed by the 24-flavour table.

Apparently, the human threshold for number of choices is 6. Beyond this number, the law of diminishing returns sets in.

In a related story I found in this blog of Jonah Lehrer :

Stanford professor Baba Shiv invented an experiment where he manipulated the "cognitive load" of subjects. Shiv gave half of the subjects a two-digit number to memorize (low load), while the other half were given a seven-digit number (high load). Subjects were then instructed to walk to another room in the building. On the way they passed by a table at which they were presented with a choice between a caloric slice of chocolate cake and a bowl of fruit salad. Fifty-nine percent of the people trying to remember seven digits (high load) chose the cake, while sixty-three percent of the two-digit subjects (low load) chose the fruit salad. In other words, having people memorize an extra five digits made them exhibit significantly less self-control.

Why did the number of digits have such a strong effect? Shiv speculates that the effort required to memorize seven numbers drew cognitive resources away from our ability to control our urges. Having to remember seven numbers occupied neurons that would otherwise help us decide what to eat, which causes us to become more reliant on our impulsive emotions.

As my loyal readers know, I don’t write book reviews just for the heck of it. I always look for some learning from each book and make it a point to enlighten and educate my readers. So, what I want to share with you this time is this.

In supermarkets, in various parts of the world, University professors are going around with crates of jam bottles and tins of milky chocolates and, in the name of research, are giving away free samples, to all and sundry, while you and I have been frittering away our time on the computer and reading up on some mind-numbing nonsense.

Quick. Memorise a 7-digit number, get out of that chair right now and head for the nearest grocery story. 24 different and exotic flavours of ‘Wilkin & Sons’ jams and 32 different types of Godiva chocolates are up for grabs, free of cost.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

How we won the World Cup

World Cup Cricket is round the corner and it is our patriotic duty to remind ourselves of our glorious triumph in the 1983 version of the tournament.Not that we are ever allowed to forget it , but I felt that I should do my bit for the cause of keeping the memory alive.

As studies have shown that the average age of the Indian blogger is 16.5 years, you were probably not around in 1983. Whereas, I was not only born, but had also been house-broken by then. So, the burden of providing the highlights of the tournament falls on my broad shoulders.

Remember that nobody gave us any chance whatsoever to return home with or without the Cup. The West Indies were ruling strong. There was England playing on their home turf. And, don’t forget that cricket was patronized by the Royalty. Even today, at the Buckingham Palace, Queen Elizabeth bats, while Prince Charles fields and Camilla-Parker Bowles.

So, to cut a long story short, we started as the underdogs. A ragtag outfit, straight out of Lagaan, but we had some hidden talent.

The lethal weapon in our hands then was the gentle medium pace of Mohinder Amarnath. After a leisurely stroll to the top of his bowling mark which was 1.5 meters behind the crease, Mohinder would run up lazily and toss the ball generally in the direction of the batsman, humming a Hindi film song in that rum-soaked voice of his. Legend has it that one of the balls he bowled to Viv Richards in that memorable finals in 1983 was so slow that it is yet to reach the other end of the pitch, at least till the time this post made it to the blogosphere.

Then, there was Balwinder Singh Sandhu, who could swing the ball both ways. ‘Ball Winder’ Sandhu he was called. A delivery that he bowled at Lord’s is still etched in my memory. It pitched slightly short, swung all the way to Ireland, swung back and knocked the stumps all the way to Scotland, leaving the batsman Gordon Greenidge dumbstruck in England.

And, Krish Srikkant. Simultaneously praying to the Sun God, wiping his nose and spitting on the pitch, he went down on one knee and knocked the stuffing out of a ball from Andy Roberts, sending it straight into the pavilion. Unfortunately, the knee wanted to continue to stay on the ground after that and Srikkant got out while bravely batting on with the rest of his body.

And the manner in which Viv Richards was dismissed! As I told you, Viv was still waiting for that ball from Mohinder to reach him, when the wily Kapil got Madanlal to bowl to him, with a different ball, which ricocheted off Viv’s bat and went straight to Kapil. Viv naturally thought that the whole thing was a camera trick and an optical illusion and squatted on the pich, till the Queen came up and said, “Rise, Sir Vivian” and knighted him.

By that time, the World Cup was ours.

We taught them Mathematics.....

In an earlier post, I had quoted some passages from a book, which gave a fascinating insight into India’s role as the epicenter of global spice trade for centuries.

A recent entry in the Brittanica Blog suggests that a by-product of the spice trade was that there was exchange of scientific knowledge, and in the process, mathematical discoveries of the ‘school of Madhava’ could have been passed on to the Europeans:

"As historical research on mathematics has improved, other claims to priority have been put forth for China and South Asia. Among the most interesting stories concerns the Indian mathematical school in Kerala, along the Malabar Coast. This region has been associated with the spice trade for thousands of years. Vasco da Gama arrived in India in 1498, and European traders were soon accompanied by Jesuits (after the order’s formation in 1540) intent on exchanging scientific knowledge—in particular, knowledge about navigation and how to reform the increasingly inaccurate Julian calendar. Among the most famous visitors was Matteo Ricci, an Italian Jesuit missionary instructed in astronomy and mathematics, who is best known for his 30-year sojourn in China. Less well known are the events of his two-year stay in Cochin, Kerala. Circumstantial evidence suggests that the mathematical discoveries of the school of Madhava in Kerala, such as infinite series (hundreds of years before Europeans would even consider infinity) for trigonometric functions, may have been transmitted through Jesuit reports, which were disseminated throughout Europe. Some Indian scholars go further, claiming that the calculus was actually discovered in India and that the priority dispute between Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz is therefore moot. "

Good to know about the glorious past. Now, to create a glorious future....

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Conversation with children -10

This conversation between Socratic-minded parents and children was reported in The Science Creative Quarterly.

OLDER CHILD: Remember that car we saw when we were walking to school, with the vapor coming out of its tailpipe?

YOUNGER CHILD: I made vapor come out of my mouth, too. It was cold.

FATHER: What do you suppose that vapor was that came out of the tailpipe?

OLDER CHILD: Was it steam?

MOTHER: Sounds good to me.

YOUNGER CHILD: Why was there steam coming out of its tailpipe?

FATHER: What is steam?

OLDER CHILD: Gaseous water.

MOTHER: So why would a car have gaseous water coming out of its tailpipe?

OLDER CHILD: Maybe there was water in the fuel tank?

FATHER: Can you think of any other reason?

MOTHER: What’s the fuel people usually put in the fuel tanks of their cars?


FATHER: That’s right.

OLDER CHILD: But how does gasoline end up making steam come out the tailpipe?

MOTHER: Do you know what the car has to do with the gasoline to get the energy out of it?


MOTHER: It has to burn the gasoline.

YOUNGER CHILD: Like a fire?

FATHER: Yep. And do you remember what a fire needs to burn?


MOTHER: That’s right.

FATHER: So, do you remember what happens when we light candles and then let them burn all the way down?


MOTHER: But if they just melted, all the wax that started out in the candles would end up dripping onto the table. We get a few drips, but not whole candles’ worth of drips.

OLDER CHILD: What happens to the wax?

YOUNGER CHILD: Yeah, where does it go?

FATHER: Let’s see if we can figure that out. (Grabs a tealight candle, a 4 ounce canning jar, and a lighter.) OK, I’m lighting the candle. What will happen if I lower the jar over the candle?

OLDER CHILD: The flame will go out!

YOUNGER CHILD: (As the flame does go out) It ran out of oxygen!

MOTHER: That’s right. So that must mean that the oxygen gets used up when something is burning.

FATHER: (Relighting the candle) What if I lower the jar more slowly so the oxygen doesn’t run out so quickly? Can you see something forming on the inside of the jar?

YOUNGER CHILD: Is that wax?


OLDER CHILD: Steam! It’s steam!

FATHER: That’s right. So, burning uses up oxygen …

OLDER CHILD: And makes water!

MOTHER: Do you know what else is produced when you burn something?

OLDER CHILD: Carbon dioxide.

YOUNGER CHILD: How do you know that?

OLDER CHILD: I don’t remember. I must’ve heard it somewhere.

FATHER: So, if burning the wax uses up oxygen and makes carbon dioxide and water, what can you say about what the wax is made of?

MOTHER: (After some blank looks) What is carbon dioxide made of?

YOUNGER CHILD: Carbon and dioxide.

OLDER CHILD: Carbon and oxygen.

MOTHER: And what’s water made of?

OLDER CHILD: Hydrogen and oxygen.

MOTHER: And you know that oxygen is getting used up when you burn the candle — the oxygen that goes to make the water and carbon dioxide.

OLDER CHILD: So the carbon and the hydrogen come from the wax?

FATHER: Yep. Wax has carbon and hydrogen, and so does gasoline.

MOTHER: Hydrocarbon fuels. And the foods your body burns for fuel have carbon and hydrogen in them.

OLDER CHILD: Like carbohydrates?

FATHER: And fats, and proteins.

YOUNGER CHILD: We burn our food?

OLDER CHILD: And sometimes have tailpipe emissions.

They're made out of meat

A classic 7-minute video of a sci-fi story. (via)

Tuesday, March 06, 2007


I heard a Political Commentary on Prannoy’s Channel that P.Chidambaram is to be Publicly Criticised for the Punishing Cess he has introduced on everything from Pillow Covers and Potato Chips to Portland Cement, Pepsi Cola and Personal Computers. It is Perfect Clear that Premji’s Company will not be such a lucrative Profit Centre any more. Nor, for that matter, Pizza Corner. True, he has granted Petty Concessions on food for Pet Cats and brought it under Price Control. But, People Complain & Protest Ceaselessly that he has Pitilessly Consumed most of what comes into their Pay Checks. But, Poor Chap, what can he Possibly Control? His Party Congress presides over a Precarious Coalition. He has to Please Constantly his Partnering Communists who claim to Promote Cause of Poor Comrades. Otherwise, his Parliamentary Career would be Pre-maturely Cut.

The Finance Bill will receive Presidential Consent, as soon as the Pontificating Chief at Rashtrapathi Bhavan takes a minute off from his Prior Commitments of having Periodic Conversations, nay Persistent Chats with Precocious Children.

But, all this is Pointless Controversy, when the Earth is Perilously Close to Permanent Collapse, as Conan Doyle Predicted Correctly in one of his Professor Challenger stories. Because atmosphere is filled with Poisonous Chemicals and there has been no Pollution Control, Polar Caps are melting. All of us - you, me, the Positively Charming Priyanka Chopra, ex-President Clinton and his wife Hillary, a Potential Candidate in next elections, Prince Charles and his wife Parker Camella, the Pakisthani Cricketers and their Portly Captain now camping at Paradise Caribbean, everybody- will have to abandon all this Puerile Crap about Pecuniary Concerns and, instead Prevent Contamination of environment. So, Pay Charges that P.Chidambaram wants to Painstakingly Collect from rich or Poor Citizens. Or Practise Conservation of Precious Commodities and help improve Planetary Conditions.

This Post Certainly is Pretty Contrived and Pathetically Constructed. But, at least it is not Plagiarised Content. Do Publish Comments. Pelt Curses, if you must, but my Preferred Choice will be Pleasing Compliments.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Mosama has his revenge..

Deep in thought, Mosama Po Navan stroked his seven-day old stubble. Though he shaved everyday, somehow, he never seemed to be able to clear the backlog.

He was all alone at home. His wife had run away with his best friend last year. It wasn’t that he had a best friend who had shamelessly snatched his wife away from him. It was just that Mosama considered whosoever the person was who ran away with his wife as his best friend and saviour.

But, that was the last time something good had happened to him. In recent months, life had been rather harsh on him. His pet dog had been bitten by the three-month old child next door and no amount of anti-babies injection had helped. Vandals had broken into his house and substituted his Apple iPod with a Pattani pea-pod. The software company he worked for had decided to close down and get into underwear business, where he was told, his code-writing competencies would be redundant.

As Wodehouse put it, it would be a slight exaggeration to say he was disgruntled, but he was certainly far from gruntled.

Yes, he took a vow, that very minute, to teach this inconsiderate society a lesson. Mosama would inflict a terrific blow and extract his revenge.

His first idea was to break into Aavin milk factory on the outskirts of Chennai and inject a strong dose of potassium cyanide into the milk concentrator vat, from which all the sachets would be filled and distributed far and wide. The Chennai citizen liked his morning cup of coffee and what better way to get some cyanide into his blood-stream than by poisoning the milk? Diabolical, but he aborted the plan when the auto-rickshaw driver demanded an astronomical amount of Rs 300 as fare to take him to Madhavaram, over and above the meter reading. Man proposes, auto-driver disposes, Mosama mused.

His next idea was to get on to a plane and carpet bomb the whole city. Unfortunately, Air-Deccan cancelled the flight he was booked on, and the whole plan fell through. Damn all these low-cost airlines, he thought.

Finally, Mosama hit upon the perfect idea. What do all citizens of Chennai have in common, he asked himself. All of them carry mobile phones. If he could somehow manipulate the radio-frequency signals embedded in the electromagnetic waves that emanate from cellular base stations, he could wipe out the whole population. Google search had told him that, “it has been known for many years that exposure to very high levels of RF radiation can be harmful due to the ability of RF energy to heat biological tissue rapidly. This is the principle by which microwave ovens cook food.” As a techie, Mosama knew that all he had to do was to transmit a radio-frequency signal well above the safe limit of 2 watts/kg of body weight and at a frequency of 100 Hz where the rate of absorption was the highest. And, the Chennai mobile users would be cooked alive.

He quickly made it to the Airtel Master Control room which oversees all their base stations, and when the inmates were watching the cricket match on TV, sneaked in and turned the frequency switch to the ‘extreme’ position and walked out unnoticed. This would activate all base stations and all mobile phones simultaneously. It would blanket Chennai with high-frequency RF signals and increase body temperatures drastically

Plan failed. What Mosama had not factored in was that the Chennai citizen was so used to the blazing heat that an addition of another 10-15 deg C around his vicinity did not have the desired effect on the tissues, which had a high melting point.

But, some neuroscientists say that the electromagnetic frequency that Mosama had used was, coincidentally, so close to the frequency of the signals in the neural circuitry of the human brain, and that this resonance could cause serious damage to the mental health of Chennai citizens. Their speech could become incomprehensible and their writing gibberish. They may bgdj maosie kasotr iwoppska &*()%$ wahddklf ooeuwnwnw sskskk ksk; 9ufjakls lillksksk aleosl lalsirr…………………………………………………………………….

Friday, March 02, 2007

What am I?

Via this blogsite, I came across a poll, where people of different countries were asked whether they considered themselves first as citizens of their country or as Muslims/Christians. Except for Indonesia, Muslims in most countries swore first allegiance to their faith. And, among countries dominated by Christians, America was where the most number of people (42%) considered themselves Christians first, citizens next. Though 48% of Americans polled did swear loyalty to the country first, the fact that such a high percentage (42%) of people had primary affiliation to their religion did cause some surprise, even concern.

In one of my posts, I had used the metaphor of a railway compartment- filled with people of different faiths, states, and food habits- to make a point about the amazing diversity in India and the fact that we take unique positions on different issues and find ourselves in different groups at different times.

Is your first loyalty to your nation, your language, your religion or your caste? Do I, for example, see myself first as an Indian or a Tamilian or a Hindu or a Brahmin? As we are divided in so many different ways, there could be a billion different answers if the same question is asked to each person in India. What is the collective identity we have in this melting pot?

Maybe, as the blogger suggests, nationalism itself is an outdated concept and needs to be abandoned in due course.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

On a scale of 1 to 10, how mad are you?

In case you missed out the news item, the Assamese chilli, known as Bih Jolokio Chilli, has been adjudged the hottest chilli in the world.

I wonder how the jury came to the conclusion. Did the members test each of the chilli samples on their tongues and set their pants on fire? Then arrive at a consensus? No, that’s not the way it was done.

Apparently, there is a unit of measurement called the Scoville heat Unit (SHU) which tells us how ‘hot’ a substance is. Bih Jolokia Chilli clocked in at 1,041,127 SHUs. The test procedure involves measuring the amount of capsaicin present. (capsaicin is a chemical known to stimulate the nerve endings) Thus, bell pepper which has no capsaicin at all has a SHU value of zero. Tabasca sauce is around 8000, Jamaican pepper 100000-200000 and so on. But, the winner, ladies and gentleman, is Bih Jolokio Chilli.

So, you don’t have to be vague when you describe the ‘hotness’ of a chilli; you can state with arithmetical precision how hot it is, thanks to Scoville.

But why this obsession with reducing everything to numbers. Taking the fun out of chillies and making life complicated for the chillee and the chiller. What kind of sadists inflict such scales on mankind? What a pain they are?

Speaking of pain, have you found it difficult to describe how painful something, is? If so, use the Wong-Baker Faces Pain Rating Scale. The Wong-Baker scale goes from 0 to 5, from 'no hurt' ( zero rating) to 'hurts worst' ( rating of 5)

What about specific pain, like that from an insect sting? Don’t worry. There’s a Schmidt Sting Pain Index which has classified the pain from stings of 78 different species. So, the next time you are stung by a Bullet Ant and experience pure, intense, brilliant pain, like walking over flaming charcoal, with a 3-inch nail in your heel, your doctor will take out the Schmidt scale and assess your pain number as 3.0 on the scale and prescribe medicines accordingly.

And, there is this Dr. Michel Welner, a forensic psychiatrist, who is working on a Depravity Scale that will help courts decide the seriousness of a crime in quantified terms, and decide on the sentence. There is a Goldberg depresssion scale available in case you want to monitor your mood on a daily basis and report to your shrink. There have been light-hearted proposals for emotional distress scale, and insanity quotient.

So, no more guess work. No more talking in vague terms. You have a scale and an index for everything.