Thursday, May 31, 2007

Animal instinct

In an earlier post, I had referred to a book called, “Pulse : How Nature is inspiring technology in the 21st century” which explains how many of the modern designs and advances in material science have been made possible merely by observing Nature.

In his book titled, “ The Case of the Bonsai Manager”, published very recently, Mr R.Gopalakrishnan, Director, Tata Sons argues that management science can also draw several lessons from Nature, particularly the animal kingdom.

Just as crocodiles bred in a confined space tend to be much smaller in size, managers without adequate exposure to a variety of experiences will also have stunted growth. Snails grow longer when predatory lobsters are introduced in their midst, showing that hidden resources get stirred when threatened. Similarly, every company must be shaken out of its complacency and out of its comfort zone, by presence of strong competition, for it to survive and flourish. And many such examples.

Reading the book, I felt that it would be interesting to examine the possibility of distilling the strength of each animal and combining these strengths to create a hybrid manager. Say, someone who combines the speed of the cheetah, the competitive instinct of a snail threatened by a lobster, the nurturing instinct of a bird to create successors, the adaptive intelligence of monkeys, etc. This theme has already been explored in a Hollywood movie, “The Animal” where the hero would receive organ transplants from different animal donors and will find himself taking on the traits of those animals..

Not that the idea is new in real life too. As Ambrose Bierce says in his Devil’s Dictionary, “In each human heart are a tiger, a pig, an ass and a nightingale. Diversity of character is due to their unequal activity.”

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Mango leaves

The friend that I had cited in my previous post, at least, was unabashed in his beliefs and made no attempt to couch them in pseudo-science. But, I can’t be so charitable with another friend who I ran across at a function.

Pointing to the traditional festoon of mango leaves at the entrance, he asked me if I knew what its real significance was. I mumbled something about decoration, how the green colour symbolized prosperity, and how mango leaves are of the right length and so lent themselves very well to being bent and tied around the rope. Besides, traditions need no justification; they are, traditions and I was all for following traditions, in a light-hearted way.

Friend, who is an engineer and who applies many of the analytical methods to make his living, said that there was much more to the mango leaves and we ought to give our forefathers more credit than what we do now.

Knowledgably, he explained that the mango leaves, were tied at the entrance of a hall where there was a function, because our ancestors knew that a congregation of tens of people resulted in large release of CO2 in a confined area, and the leaves, as students of botany know, have the ability to absorb CO2 and infuse fresh oxygen. And, why only mango leaves, I asked him. “Because”, he stated with authority, “only mango leaves have the ability to absorb CO2, even after they are removed from the parent tree”.

What he was trying to convince me was that a few, dead mango leaves had the amazing ability to absorb the CO2 released by hundreds of people in a packed hall and that our forefathers were blessed with so much intricate knowledge which scientists following western traditions have managed to figure out only now.

It is true that Indian philosophers and thinkers had several original insights, but, alas, the mango-leaves theory doesn’t count as one such.

The friend, in the previous post, who had no pretension of being a science student and who had unquestioning faith in his superstitions was not harming anybody but himself. He was cocooned in his own world and was perfectly comfortable in that environment.

This mango-leaf friend who felt the need to explain an old tradition in terms of modern scientific theory but without observing the other rules that scientific reasoning requires, was a complete hypocrite, capable of causing harm to society at large, by popularising myths in a thin garb of scientific argument.

Several self-styled spiritual leaders practice this deception with consummate ease, as is evident here and here., where the same mango-leaves theory has been propagated. These gurus seek to increase the acceptability of their ‘message’ among the more educated of their devotees, by giving a scientific spin to their discourse..

Given the Hobson’s choice, I would much prefer a godman who proclaims that he has some mystic powers that science cannot explain to one who uses bad science to hoodwink people.

In fairness to godmen however, they are not alone; many advertisers, companies peddling alternative medicines and quick cure devices, play this trick all the time, as this column in The Guardian keeps tracking..

The God of small things

A friend was in hospital, undergoing treatment for a severe infection and I called him up on his mobile phone, prudently deciding not to visit him. He told me that he had gone, the previous week, to his ancestral village, to take part in a festival in the local temple. In the midst of all the cult worship and myriad rituals, he had gorged on the temple food and bathed in the pond nearby along with hundreds of other human beings and assorted animals..

The doctors attending on him, and while waiting for the blood reports, suspected that he must have picked up the infection from the contaminated food there, or worse still, it could be a case of leptospirosis from the bacteria-infected pond.

Friend ruled out this diagnosis as absurd. His strong belief was that God does not punish devotees or inflict suffering on those who have come all the way to worship him. When one goes to a temple and eats the food offered to the gods, or takes a dip in the pond there, one does so unquestioningly and with full faith. The compassionate, benevolent God reciprocates in full measure and does not let down his worthy devotees.

I told this friend on whom sixteen years of science education had been wasted, “Granting, for a moment, that there is a compassionate, benevolent God up there, what makes you think that He is on your side all the time? The omnipotent, almighty God presides over everything in the Universe, not just the human beings, and is equitable in His protection of all living beings. Do you know that virus and bacteria have been around for a much longer time than we human beings have and therefore have had a head start with God when it comes to seeking favours from Him? God, with His divine sense of fairness, doesn’t see you as a higher life form and doesn’t discriminate between you and an insect or the bacteria. So, it is utterly fatuous to presume that he will support you in your endeavor to finish off millions of bacteria with your arsenal of antibiotics. So, when you entered the contaminated temple pond or ate the food made in low-hygiene conditions, you invited trouble and I am afraid that God will not intervene in the battle between one life form and another. You are on your own. Good luck to you”

After hanging up, I realized that it was a stupid thing to do. This friend’s world was such an uncomplicated place, where he could simply shift the burden of everyday existence on to a superior being called God. If you fall ill, He will take care of you, whether or not you have controlled your diet, exercised regularly, avoided contaminated food or taken your medicines as prescribed by the doctors. If you have your exams coming up, He will see to it that you get through. If you are starting on a new building, you just need to perform the Bhoomi Pooja and He will take care of the structure from that point onwards. Such a blind belief transferred the responsibility of maintenance and sustenance from one’s shoulders on to God and made you feel a lot lighter.

Science, unfortunately, wants you to believe that you can control your destiny to a large extent and holds you accountable for your own actions. The rigour that Science demands, the constant observation of what’s going on around you, the analysis of data that assault your senses and the need to find patterns – all these place a huge burden on your narrow shoulders and disturbs your peace of mind.

So, I should have let my friend wallow in his own blissful world, instead of trying to effect a disruptive change in his belief systems. He is probably a lot happier as he is.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

End of history

The fourth and final part of my trilogy on “History of Chennai” that I had posted on Sulekha.

Due to popular demand, I had to stop the series with this piece.

Ayushman Bhava

I just read a report that a boy born in the mountainous enclave of San Marino in northeast Italy is likely to live to 80, the world’s longest life expectancy. For females, Japanese women traditionally lead the world tables- with a life expectancy of 86. You may ask who published the report and I will truthfully reply that WHO published the report.

Perverts amongst you will at once assume that an offspring of a relationship between a San Marino male and a Japanese female can then have the best odds of living well beyond 80. But, this is not correct, as life expectancy is dependant on a number of factors.

The spirit and rigour of scientific enquiry demand that we look at all the possible variables that can influence a result, observe afresh by eliminating one variable at a time and then zero in on the incriminating or the beneficial factor. That’s what we will do in this case as well.

Could it be the diet? I remember how, as a child, I used to be admonished by my great-grandfather for my tendency to eat fast food fried in crude oil, while he himself used to subsist on a frugal diet of hand-pounded rice and skimmed goat’s milk. But, as it turned out, I had the last laugh. The old man died long back, while I am still alive. So, it can’t be the diet.

Is it something in our genes? Sponsored by Levi’s and Lee, a team of scientists from the University of New Berkshire, worked, round the clock, for several years on a gene bank under controlled conditions and finally managed to isolate the one gene that controls the lifespan of human beings. For this breakthrough, they were awarded the Nobel Prize, posthumously, as the round-the-clock-working had taken its toll and they had died of exhaustion. So, the jury is still out on whether it is worth having the right genes. .

Maybe a simple, disciplined, lifestyle enhances the chances of living longer? Can brisk 5-km walks every day contribute to a longer life? Post mortem reports on a 250-year old tortoise that had been fitted with a walk-o-meter all its life, showed that the creature had managed to walk a sum total of 2.1 km during its entire life span, while twenty generations of zoo keepers who had attended on it, often walking 10 km a day from their villages to the zoo, kept dying with regularity. So, a sedentary lifestyle is not necessarily inimical to a long life.

As always, I will apply the principle of the Occam’s razor and accept the simplest explanation. The main reason why some of the San Marino men and the Japanese women are today over 80 years old is because they were born before 1927. Those of us who were born after this date will find it difficult to make such a claim. So, here’s the secret to a long life. Ensure that you are born early enough.

Finally, friends, countrymen, a touch of romance. As per Tamil folklore, a Japanese woman architect fell in love with an Italian man from San Marino and married him. When the man died at the age of 127, she was so stricken with woe that she built a memorial, which was an exact replica of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. She gave it the name of Nikkumo Nikkadho ( “Will it stand, or won’t it?”)

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Give me noise.

In his book, The Curtain, which he describes as an essay in seven parts, Milan Kundera refers to a book called The Internal-Combustion Monster, written by Jaromir John, a Czech novelist of the period between the two world wars. As Kundera explains,

The story is set in the year 1922 and has its main character, Mr Engelbert, moving to Prague from the countryside to live out his retirement years and struggling to cope with the aggressive modernity of the city. The horror is not the power of money or the arrogance of the people, but the noise; not the age-old noise of a thunderstorm or a hammer, but the new noise of engines, especially of automobiles and motor-cycles, the explosive “internal combustion monsters”.

Poor Mr Engelbert first settles in a house in a residential area; there cars are his first introduction to the evil that will turn his life into a never-ending flight. He moves to another street where cars are forbidden entry, only to hear the monsters roaring in the night, as the prohibition applies only to day time. From then on, he never goes to bed without cotton in his ears, realizing that sleeping is the most basic human desire and death caused by the impossibility of sleep must be the worst death there is. He goes to seek silence in country inns (in vain) and ends up spending his nights in trains, which, with their gentle archaic noise, provide him with a slumber that is relatively peaceful in his life as a beleagured man.

When this novel was written, Prague had probably one car to every hundred inhabitants, or perhaps to every thousand. It was precisely when it was still rare that the phenomenon of noise (motor noise) stood out in all its astonishing newness.

In 1920s, Engelbert was astonished by the noise of the ‘internal-combustion monster’; the generations that followed found it natural; after initially horrifying man, sickening him, noise gradually reshaped him; through its omnipresence and permanence it ultimately instilled in him the need for noise and with that, a whole different relation to nature, to repose, to joy, to beauty, to music and even speech. In the history of existence this was a change so profound, so enduring, that no war or revolution can produce its like, a change whose beginnings Jaromir John modestly noted and described.

I recently experienced Mr Engelbert’s plight, but in a reverse situation. I woke up early one morning, unable to bear the noise of a solitary bird outside my bedroom window. The incessant chirping or whatever it is that such birds do, drove me nuts.

On cooler reflection, I realized that on normal nights, the drone of traffic, the blaring of horns, the screeching of tyres, the din of garbage collection dumpers, the racket that water tankers make, the roar of earthmovers in the construction sites nearby, the chatter of pedestrians, all created a soothing, comforting noise to which I had got accustomed and which usually drowned out the chirping made by the occasional bird. During a rare break in the traffic, the cheeping and tweeting of the bird had stood out and shattered my sleep.

Engelbert may have been deeply disturbed by the newness of noise, but I require it with all its oldness.

Silence is something alien to our culture now and must be suppressed by noise, at all costs.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

History of Chennai

History of Chennai- Parts 1, 2 and 3 that I had posted on my Sulekha blog. The second part was published in the Deccan Chronicle today, fetching me a handsome prize of Rs 2000/-