Thursday, February 28, 2008

The scientist and the story-writer.

Sujatha, the Tamil writer who passed away yesterday, was not only a gifted and versatile novelist and columnist; he was also a reputed scientist, who had led the design team at Bharat Electronics Ltd, that developed the electronic voting machine. This fact, I learnt, from the obituary that appeared in several newspapers today.

Popular perception is that scientific temper and literary orientation are not compatible. But, clearly, some individuals such as Sujatha seem to have been blessed with heightened capabilities, with respect to both the left and right sides of the brain. The nuclear scientist, Raja Ramanna, was also an accomplished pianist and had given several solo performances. Former President Kalam, a scientist by training, breaks into poetry, at the slightest opportunity.

In an article titled,” The scientist and the poet” Paul Cantor, Professor of English, University of Virginia, wrote:

….the scientist and the poet seem to us to be perpetually at odds. To the poet, the scientist seems unimaginative and literal-minded—with his head buried in the ground of facts, incapable of comprehending the larger significance of what he does. To the scientist, the poet seems to have his head up in the clouds, indulging in fantastic visions of what might be and losing sight of the way things really are. It is difficult for us to imagine a successful conversation between a scientist and a poet—they seem almost to speak different languages.

But before positing an unbridgeable gulf between science and poetry, it is well to remember that the great poet Goethe was also a scientist. He is of course best remembered for his imaginative works, such as Wilhelm Meister and Faust, but his contributions to science were not insignificant. Among other things, he was an accomplished botanist, he helped found the field of comparative anatomy, he coined the term morphology, and he anticipated the theory of evolution

Paul Cantor goes on to narrate how poets and writers, including die-hard romantics like Wordsworth, came to recognise the creative power in science. The same Wordsworth who was known more for his evocative images of towering mountains and thundering waterfalls even wrote a sonnet where he had described steamboats, viaducts and railways, as ‘sublime’.

Richard Feynman responded to criticism that a cold scientific view of the Universe robbed it of all its beauty :

Poets say science takes away from the beauty of the stars — mere globs of gas atoms. Nothing is "mere". I too can see the stars on a desert night, and feel them. But do I see less or more? The vastness of the heavens stretches my imagination — stuck on this carousel my little eye can catch one-million-year-old light. A vast pattern — of which I am a part... What is the pattern or the meaning or the why? It does not do harm to the mystery to know a little more about it. For far more marvelous is the truth than any artists of the past imagined it. Why do the poets of the present not speak of it? What men are poets who can speak of Jupiter if he were a man, but if he is an immense spinning sphere of methane and ammonia must be silent? ( wiki source).

Feynman also came up with this lovely poem, imagining himself standing on the sea front::

There are rushing waves...
mountains of molecules,each stupidly minding its own business...
trillions apart...
yet forming white surf in unison.

Ages on ages...
before any eyes could see...
year after year...
thunderously pounding the shore as now.
For whom, for what?...
on a dead planet
with no life to entertain.

Never at rest...
tortured by energy...
wasted prodigiously by the sun...
poured into space.
Its might makes the sea roar.

Deep in the sea,
all molecules repeat
the patterns of another
till complex new ones are formed.
They make others like themselves...
and a new dance starts.

Growing in size and complexity...
living things,
masses of atoms,
DNA, protein...
dancing a pattern ever more intricate.

Out of the cradle
onto dry land...
here it is standing...
atoms with consciousness..
matter with curiosity,
stands at the sea...
wonders at wondering...
I,.a universe of atoms,
an atom in the universe.


Well done, Hayden

After my post on IPL brand of tribalism, there have been some interesting developments. Hayden has been reprimanded for referring to Harbhajan as an obnoxious little weed. There is much discussion in the media.

On behalf of the fans of Chennai Super Kings, I would like to voice my protest at the treatment being meted out to Hayden, one of our star players. If the Mumbai team thinks that one of their members can continue to be an obnoxious weed, but one of our players cannot say so, they are sadly mistaken. As for you, Dhoni, can you please shut up and stop supporting Harbhajan?. Hell man, we have paid you Rs 6 crores and we expect you to get along amicably with your Chennai team mates, without bad-mouthing them.

And, will Shahrukh Khan please tell his auction prize, Ishant Sharma, to be a man and step into the ring, as suggested by Chennai star, Hayden, so that the matter can be settled in a gentlemanly way?

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

LPA

In a country where associations and clubs are started on the slightest pretext and for the most bizarre of reasons, nothing should surprise us. Yet, when I heard that a ‘Lovers Protection Association’ had been formed in Tiruchi, with one Karathe Muthukumar as its President, I sat up and took notice.

The Hindu reports that the association was formed ahead of Valentine's Day this year, to counter the menace of moral policing by the Hindu Munnani ( Note, this is a different Hindu and nothing to do with The Hindu). The Munnani had posted its volunteers at strategic points in the town to accost lovers and make tying of mangalsutras a pre-condition for the couples to enter the place as couples. The Lovers Protection Association then rallied to the support of these harassed couples.

Quite simply what these lovers wanted to do was to visit some temple or sit in a quiet spot, whispering sweet-nothings into each other’s ears. And the Munnani would not let them.

While I respect their right to keep whispering to their heart’s content, I ( a.k.a Mr. Unromantic) can’t help wondering, as R.K.Narayan reflected once, what these couples can possibly talk on for hours. Here’s RKN after a visit to a park:

Young couples sit in remote corners, in the shelter of bushes, conversing in whispers, their backs turned to the public. Day after day they sit there, I get very curious to know what they are saying. Of course, there must be an affirmation of each other’s dedication and devotion. It can’t go on repeated a thousand times day after day ad nauseam. They must have other things to talk about, their houses and parents or the hurdles in their way.

I would give anything to understand them. I wish them well and success to their romance. I know the whispers will cease ultimately, once they become man and wife. You can’t go on whispering all life. There will come a natural phase when you will shout at each other in the course of an argument or spend long pauses of silence, sitting in two chairs and staring ahead at a wall, a tree with no subject left for conversation. All that could be said has been said, followed by an unmitigated, pregnant silence. A perfect attunement and communication of minds has been attained where speech is superfluous. In Kamban’s Ramayana, where Rama and Sita are left alone after their wedding, they remain silent having nothing to say. The poet explains, “Those who were always together eternally as Vishnu and Lakshmi and separated only a moment ago have no need to talk”.



Had the British not been in India...........

At a seminar that I attended, a senior IAS official delivered a populist address in which he bemoaned the fact that the British had saddled us with bureaucratic processes and red tape that continued to plague us even today. He had no explanation to offer - nor did he feel that one was necessary- on why we have not changed the systems in the 60 years since they left us.

Another example of blame-the-British was an e-mail that did the rounds last year. It quoted Lord Macaulay as saying, in 1835, that the Indians were far too prosperous and knowledgeable and could be brought to heel only by replacing Sanskrit with English. A blogger, Gaurav Sabnis, had discussed this e-mail and had shown that it was a big hoax. (That the ‘true’ speech of Macaulay was even more damaging to our pride, we will not go into now)

Another of those curse-the-British claims is that India was one of the richest countries in the world when the British came in. India’s contribution to global GDP was 25% in the year 1750. And, when the British left us in 1947, they had stripped us dry and made us paupers.

Sure enough, charts such as this one below ( source) can be used to corroborate above claim. It does look like the rise in prosperity of Western Europe coincided with the drop in GDP share of India.



But, as many economists have pointed out, correlation is not the same as causation. For, till mechanization improved productivity levels dramatically, GDP was directly proportional to the manual productivity of the human population, assuming that there were no other adverse factors at work. If India had 25% of the world’s population in the year 1750, it was logical that its contribution to global GDP would also be around 25%. Industrial revolution in England in the late 18th century changed these equations dramatically, as a machine could produce more goods much faster than several individuals put together.

Why did industrial revolution begin in England and not in India or China? Or, for that matter, why not in France or Spain? Tim Harford provides some answers in the chapter titled, “A million years of logic”, of his book, “The Logic of Life”.

As Harford explains, human beings respond to incentives. And England happened to provide the right incentives and the right conditions conducive for mechanization to take place. In 1750, England had the highest labour wages, anywhere in Europe, and certainly far more than in India or China. It also happened to have the cheapest fuel- coal- that could be transported through short distances. There was a strong incentive therefore to replace high-cost labour with devices such as steam engines that would use coal. Also, higher wages meant that there was a good customer base for cotton clothing and this provided the impetus to develop cotton spinning machines. So, many of the important innovations of the Industrial Revolution were calculated and deliberate responses to high British wages and cheap British coal.

Ok, coal being there was a matter of geographical happenstance. But, why did England have higher labour wages ? Harford points out that this was a result of England, along with Spain, France, Holland, etc possessing a well-entrenched merchant class, having been involved in flourishing trade across the Atlantic for over two centuries. And, among these countries, England was the first to move towards a free market with property rights, fair taxation and minimal trade barriers. This provided the security blanket for more investments. A society with more capital investment and more entrepreneurship is also a society that is likely to enjoy more wages.

And, why did England have a freer society than Spain, Germany or France? Here, Harford admits, we hit bedrock. It was a combination of ‘luck, politics and even theology”.

So, with or without the British ruling India, the former was well placed to usher in the industrial revolution and reap the full benefits. And, the latter, was always vulnerable to the economic threat of having its share of GDP reduced, as the productivity of its manual labour would have been no match for the might of the machines.

But, wouldn’t India too, if left alone, have marched on to its own industrial revolution? Alas, no. If we go by Harford’s logic, the incentives were simply not there. Labour was abundant and available at very low cost. Why replace that?

( Disclaimer: This does not purport to be an endorsement of British rule in India)

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The IPL tribes

In an earlier post, I had quoted a professor describing modern-day tribalism as “a give-no-quarter and take-no-prisoners activism that demands satisfaction and accepts no compromise.”

Tribalism is most rampant in sports. Take cricket. An India vs Australia encounter, a Delhi vs Mumbai Ranji Trophy match or a South Zone vs North Zone Duleep Trophy match brings out the worst kind of tribalism.

So, when the IPL announced that the teams would comprise players drawn from different countries, as in the European football league, I heartily approved of the idea. Tribalism needs a geographical region (village, state, zone or country) to flourish and by removing this dimension, IPL was helping develop a broader mindset, I thought.

But, sports need sponsors. Sponsors look for returns. Crowds don’t come in, if the game is not competitive enough. It will not get competitive unless passions and baser instincts are stirred. And this stirring will not happen unless tribal feelings are invoked in some manner. So, all teams have been instructed to prefix the name of the city, Chennai, Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, etc. Even if most of the players in the team would be from outside the city, the name of the city would serve the purpose of kindling the tribal spirit.

I wonder how it would have panned out if the teams had been allowed to take on ‘neutral’ names, with no city tags. Would it have bombed totally, with fans unable to identify or align themselves with any of the teams?

It would be interesting to see the new shape that tribalism would assume. If Delhi were to play Chennai, would I root for Dinesh Karthik when he is facing Murali? The former may be playing for Delhi, but he hails from Chennai. The latter may be playing for Chennai, and is a Tamilian too, but he is a Sri Lankan, not an Indian.

And what if I were to attend a match in Chennai and refuse to take sides? Would you call me disloyal to my home town, disinterested and disengaged?

As Don Bourdreaux says in this post :

Being libertarian, I find no romance in collective action. The yearning to be part of a great collective "challenge or crusade" - be it conservative or "liberal" - reflects humans' tribal instincts. These instincts served a sound purpose during our hunter-gatherer past, but are today at odds with the individualism that makes us free and prosperous

…don't presume that if I choose not to join in any collective effort, or only in a collective effort involving fewer persons than the efforts you favor, that my life is somehow empty, my soul shriveled, my mind small, my heart uncaring, my habits contemptible. I myself might well wish to be part of a cause larger than myself -- I reserve that right -- but I promise never to force you to join with me; I promise never to presume that you are less of a person if you refuse to join my cause or even if you refuse to any collectively pursued cause

Saturday, February 16, 2008

My life! What a mess! Sigh!

An online magazine just published a book, Not Quite What I Was Planning. More than a year ago, they had challenged their readers to write their life story in six words. More than 15,000 did, and 832 of these life stories are in this book.

Apparently, the inspiration for this was Ernest Hemingway who is supposed to have written a six-word story:

“For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.”

He called it his best piece of work.

Hmmm.

Hemingway could get away with it. Once these authors become famous, they can write any nonsense and it will pass off as masterpiece. Readers will find some hidden meaning and deep insights.

I have heard about an incident that happened in one of those Kavi Sammelans. A famous poet took out a piece of paper from his pocket and read out in a lyrical tone,

Poet : “Ek Kurta”
Audience : “Wah, Wah”
Poet : “Do Pyjama”
Audience : “Wah Wah”
Poet: “Ek Kurta, Do Pyjama, Teen Banian.”
Audience : “Wah, Wah”
Poet : “Oops, sorry, that was my laundry list. Here’s the poem…..”

So, if you can somehow become famous, then the halo effect will take over. Even your laundry list will be conferred the status of poetry. Same with this Hemingway story.

Last year, Wired magazine had invited a few sci-fi authors and writers to come up with their own six-word stories. Here’s the article. I liked these short stories

.
"Failed SAT. Lost scholarship. Invented rocket."- William Shatner
"Automobile warranty expires. So does engine".- Stan Lee
"Epitaph: Foolish humans, never escaped Earth".- Vernor Vinge
"Computer, did we bring batteries? Computer?"- Eileen Gunn
"Dinosaurs return. Want their oil back".- David Brin
"Steve ignores editor's word limit and"- Steven Meretzky

Want to give it a try? If you can come up with six word stories, send them across to me. I promise to read them.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Adam or Madam

In his book, The Logic of Life, the author, Tim Harford applies economic theory while discussing the sensitive subject of marriage.

He explains that there is interplay of three factors- economies of scale, division of labour and comparative advantage, in assigning roles and responsibility in a marriage.

Let start with the male parent. For the sake of this discussion, let us give him a short and sweet name, say, Raj. And, let us refer to the female parent as – here we will let our imagination go wild- the “wife”. For the sake of convenience, we will drop the inverted commas and call her simply as the wife.

Now, let’s say that these two parents- Raj and wife- have two daughters who are growing up and need attention. Lunch bags have to be packed, pencils need to be sharpened, pens need to be inked, rulers have to be scaled, etc. So, money has to be earned to buy all these things and energy expended in managing the tasks that these things are meant for.

Adam Smith’s principle of division of labour says that each parent must do specialised work, just as in a pin factory, one specialist draws the metal, the other hammers the head, the third inserts them into a piece of paper. Similarly, it doesn’t make sense for each parent to share all the responsibilities equally. Two specialists in respective fields are many times better than two handymen. Make no mistakes, says Tim Harford, marriage is the oldest pin factory of all.

‘A household in which both parents work part-time on their careers and part-time looking after children and the home does not make rational economic sense. Two halves are much less than a whole. Economies of scale dictate that, logically, one partner should apply himself or herself full-time to paid work. The other should work at home-making, and only work for money if there is some spare time available after the household chores. So far this is classic Adam Smith.’

The rule of ‘economy of scale’ dictates that one parent working full time can earn more than two parents working half time each. So, only one parent must go out to work, while the other must get down to household chores. The question is who?

In the hunter-gatherer days and even upto the ‘50s and ‘60s, it was believed that the male parent was better at outdoor work ( and therefore ‘earning’) while the female parent was a specialist at managing household work. But, this was only a partial application of the principle of comparative advantage.

In the case where wife is four times better than husband at house-work and only twice as better at earning money, then it was wrongly concluded that the task of house work should be entrusted to wife. The fact that she was also twice as good in earning money was relegated to the background. ‘The logic of comparative advantage highlighted something that most men—except economists—have found it hard to get their heads around: there is no reason to believe that men were breadwinners because they were any good at it. They might simply have been breadwinners because getting them to help around the house would have been even worse.’

This truth, as we will see, applies to the couple, Raj and wife, who form part of our case study. It so happens that Raj is one of those poor suckers still stuck in an old-economy company, where an increment of 5% in salary, once in a year, is considered par for the course. Whereas wife is in the IT sector, where as is well known, employees go to office only to collect letters from employers that grant them increments once a week, plus stock options and a company-sponsored holiday for entire family in an exotic locale once a month.

So, it makes sound economic sense for wife to apportion her time equally between office and home, earning money for the family during the day and finishing all the household chores in the evening and night, she offering comparative advantage on both counts.

Now, Raj has his own strengths. He is a better blogger than his wife and is in the top one-percentile of the population of over a billion people. He is also a better golfer than his wife, and a better badminton player too. So, clearly, the family would immensely benefit from his specialist roles of blogger in the mornings, golfer in the afternoon and a badminton player in the evenings.

All in all, a happy family. What’s more, a sound economic unit, that Tim Harford would approve of. Each performing specialist roles that offer comparative advantages.



Update (14/02/08).

I am surprised that a reader has presumed that the character Raj is me, and wife is my wife . I ought to have mentioned that this was merely a case study and that if any of the names or characters bears any resemblance to any living person, it is purely coincidental.

I also discussed this case study with a Professor of Economics and sought his opinion. He agrees that the conclusion follows sound reasoning grounded in classical economic theory. He however cautions that some narrow-minded economist might give a twist to the last part and say that Raj cannot, on the one hand, give up work citing reason that he is not a specialist and, on the other hand, choose to be a generalist dividing his time between blogging, golfing and, er, badmintoning. He must specialise in one of these.

As an aside, wasn’t it Harry Truman who said, “Give me a one-armed economist. All the ones I know keep saying, on the one hand, on the other….”

So, if Raj can only find an one-armed economist, he can become a generalised specialist of all three activities and contribute to his family welfare.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

The tribal spirit

According to a study conducted by Robin Dunbar, a British anthropologist, there is a “cognitive limit (roughly 150) to the number of people with whom one can maintain a stable relationship”. Beyond 150, the human brain must resort to some combination of hierarchical schemes, stereotypes, and other simplified models in order to understand so many people.

This 150 itself can be achieved only under circumstances where more than 42% of the group’s timing was spent on social grooming. That’s why only groups under intense survival pressure, such as subsistence villages, nomadic tribes, and historical military groupings have, on average, achieved the 150-member mark

The Dunbar number of 150 is directly proportional to the size of the neocortex of the human brain. For primates with smaller brains, the number is even smaller. Thus, the tendency to limit group sizes is hard-wired in our brains and, at different stages in human evolution, has manifested itself as a different form of tribalism. Malcolm Gladwell touched on this aspect while discussing social groups in his book, The Tipping Point.

Up to a degree, tribal behaviour needed to be encouraged as it conferred evolutionary advantage on the group. In the past, this helped in formation of small homogenous groups (villages, townships, religious groups, etc) but once the critical number was reached, fissiparous tendencies took over. It could be in the form of fratricidal or territorial battles, religious wars or disputes over languages. History is replete with such examples.

Is tribalism a thing of the past and only to be found in history books?

No. An article by Dave Frohnmayer, President, University of Oregon (written in 1998, I found this by following a wiki link) argues that tribalism is well and alive. And what is New Tribalism? It is the growth of a politics based upon narrow concerns, rooted in the exploitation of divisions of class, cash, gender, region, religion, ethnicity, morality and ideology. A give-no-quarter and take-no-prisoners activism that demands satisfaction and accepts no compromise. It is a raw permissiveness that escalates rhetorical excess sometimes even to physical violence. And it is an environment where our political system of limited government is asked to take on social and religious disputes that the system cannot possibly resolve.

The group size may have exceeded the Dunbar number due to explosion in population, but the behaviour remains.

Thus, when Karunanidhi uses the Tamil card and rhetoric to fan the flames of linguistic fervour, when the Thackerays ( Bal or Raj) invoke the Maratha spirit to drive their followers into a state of frenzy, or when the BJP plays the Hindu vs Muslim game, they are simply exploiting the innate tribalism that is woven into our genes. In short, “the monkey in us” unconsciously responds to these calls of the wild.

Nationalism is also a form of tribalism, but which we need to put up with. It ensures a larger group identity, reduces the number of such tribes globally and provides administrative and logistical convenience. Global trade ought to have provided the impetus for breakdown of national borders and man-made barriers.

Alas, however much Thomas Friedman may rave, globalization of trade and commerce cannot happen when tribalisation of mind-set is rampant.

So, the only development that can bring human beings together is if an alien group from a distant star was to attack Earth. Perhaps then, our tribal instinct will make us cling to one of our kind, against a common enemy.



Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Conversation with daughter-22

Daughter: I am a little confused with these proverbs. One tells me that ‘too many cooks spoil the broth’, while another tells me that “more hands make light work”.

Me: You mean like “the early bird gets the early worm”, but “the early worm gets eaten by the early bird”?

Daughter: I don’t get that, but what I meant was if “two is company, three’s a crowd”, how can “more the merrier” be true?

Me: You don’t question proverbs. And, they are not meant to advise you how to handle a situation. They are used to explain a situation after you have messed it up.

Daughter: Thanks. As always, you were a great help.

Me: Now get lost, you precocious brat, while I record this conversation, for posterity, in my ongoing dad-daughter-dialogue series.

A week after my daughter had this moment of epiphany, I picked up a book called, “ A Man of My Words”, by Richard Lederer ( Original price Rs 1073, special price Rs 249, You save Rs 824, Landmark Sale), in which an entire chapter is devoted to this subject. Lederer observes :


“A proverb is a well-known, venerable saying rooted in philosophical or religious wisdom. Just about everybody knows some proverbs, and we often base decisions on these instructive maxims. But when you line up proverbs that spout conflicting advice, you have to wonder if these beloved aphorisms aren’t simply personal observations masquerading as universal truths:

How can it be true that you should look before you leap, but make hay while the sun shines? It’s better to be safe than sorry, but nothing ventured, nothing gained. Haste
makes waste, but he who hesitates is lost. Patience is a virtue, but opportunity knocks but once. Slow and steady wins the race, but gather ye rosebuds, while ye may. A stitch in time saves nine, but better late than never. Don’t count your chickens before they are hatched, but forewarned is forearmed. Never put off till tomorrow what you can do today, but don’t cross the bridge till you come to it. There’s no time like the present, but well begun is half done. All things come to him who waits, but strike while the iron is hot. Fools rush in where angels dare to tread, but faint heart never won fair maiden….. Absence makes the heart go fonder, but out of sight, out of mind.

......So, all you have to do is figure out which proverb to use under which circumstances. Quite apparently, whichever side of an argument one takes, one can usually find a proverb to support it. That’s why Cervantes wrote, “There is no proverb that is not true”, while Lady Montagu proclaimed that “general notions are generally wrong”.

I wish I had picked up this book before I had the conversation with daughter. I could have impressed her with some scholarly stuff. After all, opportunity knocks but once. But then, there's no point in crying over spilt milk.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Boyle's walk

Mark Boyle of the UK is travelling to India. That’s not big news, but he plans to walk the whole distance. Even that’s been done by travelers in the past. What makes his journey unusual is that he will carry no money with him. Not even traveller’s cheques or credit cards.

Mark Boyle is a freeconomist. No, not a freakonomist, but one who is part of the freeconomy movement which seeks to create a moneyless society. “The more money we accumulate” he says, “the more it leads to a breakdown of community”.

“We need to get back to a more communal way of living”, he believes.

Hmm, must be some rich kid wanting to do something different.

As I don’t have enough money to join him on his adventure, I will just wish him good luck.

And, what’s got into BBC News? The map that they have published in the article on Mark Boyle is neither authentic nor true. I have seen maps where the disputed area of Kashmir is shown in either Pakistan or India. Here they have represented the entire Jammu & Kashmir as an independent country. But, in fairness to BBC, they have left out Scotland and Wales from UK too. So, it squares things up.

Update 29/02/08 : Mark Boyle had to abandon his journey at Calais, France.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Quiet typewriter proprietor wrote quite proper poetry

Contrived, no doubt, but whenever Technorati decides to scan the blogosphere for the longest blog title typed out by using any one line of the standard Qwerty keyboard, I want mine to figure in the list of top 100. Wish me luck.

Try your repertoire too

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Let's join the crowd

Jonah Lehrer of Frontal Cortex links to a video of a prank ( The day New York froze) and says it reminds him of that Stanley Milgram experiment where people were made to stop on busy New York City sidewalks and look up. When only one person was stopped, about 4 percent of pedestrians joined the man and looked at whatever he was looking at. But as Milgram increased the crowd size, more and more people stopped and stared. In other words, it was a positive feedback loop. A bigger crowd staring at the sky led to even bigger crowds. And everybody was looking at nothing. Such is the power of "social validation", he explains.

Jonah then notes wryly that perhaps this is what explains the popularity of American Idol.

If I can add, equally wryly, this perhaps explains the popularity of Shah Rukhkhan’s movies as well as the several brain-stopping serials on television. The first 5000 na├»ve people fell for the publicity gimmicks, then the next 5000 thought that maybe there was something to it and joined in; then the next 10000 and so on, till the critical mass was acquired. Then the snowballing went on uncontrollably.

In some situations, I am part of the first 5000; in some other situation, I am in the ‘join-the-crowd’ mode and in certain others, I cling to the exterior of the snowball. The pull of the correspondence bias, is hard to resist.


Even if we are staring at nothing.

Raj's heroism and moral courage

“The City Police on Wednesday presented an autorickshaw driver a cash prize for displaying honesty and sense of citizenship in returning a bag left in the vehicle by a passenger, which contained money and valuable documents.”
Once in a while we see such news items.

It is a sad reflection of the times that we live in that a simple act of honesty, needs to be rewarded. What is actually being recognised here is that the ‘auto-driver” deserves praise not so much for being honest as for not being dishonest, which he well could have been. For, isn’t that the default setting now? That’s why, such news items appear only “once in a while”.

(To test this theory, I am curious to know if such an act would fetch a reward in Singapore).

A very similar observation can be made in the case of the accolades showered on Adam Gilchrist, the Australian batsman, on his retirement. The man is eulogised for his willingness to accept that he is out. When he knows he has snicked a ball, he doesn’t wait for the umpire to lift his finger. He starts walking back to the pavilion. Just as Phantom was referred to as a “ghost who walks”, Gilchrist is a “man who walks”.

Nirmal Shekhar, sports writer for The Hindu, who tries to infuse as much poetry into his columns as possible, waxed lyrical on an incident in which Gilchrist had, you guessed it, walked:

There was not even the slightest hesitation as he walked. But, then, knowing the man, you would expect him to, wouldn't you?

So what's new? He did it in Chennai, when his team was staring at a possible defeat. He has done it before that. And, surely, he will do it again. In the event, what's the fuss all about?

Ah, how smugly we get used to goodness of character! How easily we brush aside moral issues of timeless significance! Almost dismissively we accept moral courage in the competitive cauldron of modern sport! We take for granted the behaviour of a few heroic men like Gilchrist as a matter of habit.

Here lies Gilchrist's greatness. He will live and play the only way he knows how to: fairly, honourably, as a good sport…….In the high-noon of professional sport when commercial pressures have re-ordered the sporting arena and have effected a evaluation of values, if someone had written a piece of sports fiction with a Gilchrist-like hero, he might have been thought of as old-fashioned.

…..Winning and losing pale into insignificance when compared to such matters of principle, when put alongside such heroic acts of moral courage as enacted by Gilchrist time and again.


From a simple act of honesty, the incident is blown up to be an exhibition of rare moral courage and extreme display of heroism! In fact, Nirmal Shekar goes out of his way to dissuade the reader from taking such behaviour for granted.

So, when I voluntarily pay my income tax on what I earn, when I stop at the red light even where there is no cop around, when I don’t steal my neighbour’s newspaper in the morning when it is lying outside his locked house, when I don’t purloin the paintings from the hotel room I stayed in, when I don’t walk away with the helmet that a scooterist has carelessly left behind on his vehicle while parking, I deserve all the brownie points. For, these are acts of rare courage emanating from a person of high moral fibre and exemplary character.

Makes me feel good.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Major and minor offence

In the Harbhajan Singh imbroglio, the text of the verdict delivered by Justice Hansen refers to the following cross-questioning of witness:

Mr V.R.MANOHAR (lawyer, defending Harbhajan) : I put it to you that apart from the other Indian abuses he said to you the words “teri maki”?

Symonds: Possibly; I don’t recall, I don’t know that language.”

Finally, as we all know, the more serious charge of racism was dropped and Harbhajan was punished for a smaller offence of having used abusive language. Sharad Pawar and others have gone on record that justice had finally been done, and he would never have tolerated it, if any Indian cricketer had been accused of racial abuse.

I am personally very unimpressed with this Manohar. Can’t the BCCI find a lawyer who is slightly more proficient in English? Someone who can use a grammatically more correct name of “I am Manohar” instead of “V.R.Manohar”?

That side, I am very impressed with his questioning technique and his understanding of the nuances of law. Should be used in other situations, say, one in which an accused is under trial, for an attempted rape.

Defence lawyer to victim: I put it to you that defendant was not trying to rape you, but merely trying to choke you to death.

Victim: Now that you tell me, that’s quite possible,. If he had only mentioned his true intentions, I wouldn’t have panicked

Judge : Case dismissed. Preosecution has failed to provide sufficient evidence. Defendant is acquitted of the more serious charge of rape. However, for the minor offence of attempted murder, which the accused has graciously admitted as true, I fine him an amount equal to half his monthly salary.