Thursday, February 26, 2009

Go home and multiply

CNN reports:

“Even before one reaches the front door of Canon's headquarters in Tokyo, one can sense the virtual stampede of employees pouring out of the building exactly at 5:30 p.m.

In a country where 12-hour workdays are common, the electronics giant has taken to letting its employees leave early twice a week for a rather unusual reason: to encourage them to have more babies.

Japan is in the midst of an unprecedented recession, so corporations are being asked to work toward fixing another major problem: the country's low birthrate”

Employees of Canon, a leading manufacturer of copiers, certainly ought to know how to multiply. (“I have two daughters, the original is named Kate; the other one is DupliKate.)

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Remote Remote control

Among the inventions of the twentieth century, the remote control device for televisions must surely have pride of place. Imagine how dreary our evenings would be without this invaluable gadget in our hands.

Alas, too often, this tool tends to be misplaced or dropped carelessly somewhere. Or, even worse, it can get stuck in the sides of the sofa.

Apparently, Sony has taken customer feedback seriously and has come up with another innovation- a remote controlled remote control. (RCRC)

The new device, which can be controlled via remote control through the use of a second remote control unit, will replace older models that needed to be held in the hand to be operable.

"Constantly leaning forward to pick up the remote control from the coffee table is a tiresome, cumbersome chore that will soon be a thing of the past," Sony director of product development Dan Ninomiya said. "These new remotes, should they be left on the coffee table or in some other barely-hard-to-reach place, will not need to be picked up and actually pointed at the screen in order to work."

The new remote control—along with the additional remote it is designed to control—will soon come standard with all Sony televisions, allowing viewers to remain "more immobile, more stationary, and more physically inert than ever before."

As an added convenience, in the event that the RCRC itself is accidentally placed in a less-than-immediately-accessible spot, it will come with an additional third remote control.

"Should the second remote end up under a magazine or newspaper, the third remote will still be capable of controlling the second remote, enabling the second remote to change channels on the first one, and ultimately the television itself, with just the touch of a button," Sony spokesperson Rich Hervey explained. "Regardless of the location of the remote control unit, the ease and comfort of remote-control television viewing will be assured.

You know where this story is picked up from! (via)

Saturday, February 21, 2009

The orchestra of life

“I am looking at my baby son, as he thrashes around in his crib, two arms flailing, hands grasping randomly, legs kicking the air, head and eyes turning this way and that, a smile followed by a grimace crossing his face. . . And I’m wondering: what is it like to be him? What is he feeling now? What kind of experience is he having of himself?”

“Then a strong image comes to me. I am standing now, not at the rail of a crib, but in a concert hall at the rail of the gallery, watching as the orchestra assembles. The players are arriving, one by one – strings, percussion, woodwind – taking their separate places on the stage. They pay little if any attention to each other. Each adjusts his chair, smooths his clothes, arranges the score on the rack in front of him. One by one they start to tune their instruments.The cellist draws his bow darkly across the strings, cocks his head as if savouring the resonance, and slightly twists the screw. The harpist leans into the body of her harp, runs her fingers trippingly along a scale, relaxes and looks satisfied. The oboist pipes a few liquid notes, stops, fiddles with the reed and tries again. The tympanist beats a brief rally on his drum. Each is, for the moment, entirely in his own world, playing only to and for himself, oblivious to anything but his own action and his own sound. The noise from the stage is a medley of single notes and snatches of melody, out of time, out of harmony. Who would believe that all these independent voices will soon be working in concert under one conductor to create a single symphony…”

That’s an extract from an essay, “One Self: A meditation on the unity of consciousness” by Nicholas Humphrey. While comparing the baby with an orchestra, Humphrey realizes that the conductor in an orchestra actually plays a minor role. What truly binds them into one organic unit and creates the flow between them is something much deeper and more magical: namely, the very act of making music; that they are together creating a single work of art…

Parts come to belong to a whole just in so far as they are participants in a common project? Try the definition where you like: What makes the parts of an oak tree belong together – the branches, roots, leaves, acorns ? They share a common interest in the tree’s survival.What makes the parts of a complex machine like an aerorplane belong to the aeroplane – the wings, the jet engines, the radar? They participate in the common enterprise of flying.

Then, here’s the question: What makes the parts of a person belong together – if and when they do? The clear answer has to be that the parts will and do belong together just in so far as they are involved in the common project of creating that person’s life.

Humphrey concludes that the baby he was watching was the coming together of several mini projects to achieve the miracle of unification, through the power inherent in all his sub-selves for, literally, their own self-organisation.

I read this in Richard Dawkin’s collection of science writing, brought out by Oxford University Press. Dawkins clarifies that it is a collection of good writing by professional scientists, not excursions into science by professional writers. It makes for great reading.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

The horrorists

There was a recent news report that a resident of Chennai, aggrieved by the war in Sri Lanka, had committed ‘self-immolation’. Except for some political parties trying to get mileage out of the incident, I did not find anybody getting horrified that someone would actually choose to set himself on fire in full view of passers-by.

Terror attacks too suffer the same fate. When terrorists first resorted to suicide attacks or when they planted bombs, they created a sense of horror amongst the public. No longer. Anger, may be. But not horror. It is, of course, tragic for the kith and kin of those killed, but fails to horrify the desensitized public.

The terrorist who wants to make an impact has to think out-of-the-box and come up with new ways to cause that sense of horror.

In his essay, “The Greatest Sorrow”, Amitav Ghosh recalls the day from his childhood when he stared at a newspaper, mesmerized by a picture of a Buddhist monk burning at a road junction in Saigon. This was the incident, he says, that inaugurated the era of political suicide in the modern world. Since then such suicides have become so commonplace as often to go unreported. They have become a part of the unseen foundations of our awareness, present but unnoticed, like the earth beneath our basement.

‘The thickening crust of our awareness’, Amitav argues, ‘is both a sign and reminder of our unwitting complicity in the evolution of violence; if that which mesmerized us yesterday ceases to interest us today, then it follows that the act which will most claim our attention will be even more horrific, even more resistant to yesterday’s imagination than the last. The horror of these acts is exactly calibrated to the indifference upon which they are inflicted. Their purpose is not warlike, in the sense of achieving specific ends through violence, their purpose is horror itself”.

‘What a terror attack tries to do is to radically interrupt the procedures and protocols that give the world a semblance of comprehensibility. Its objective is to cause long-lasting confusion and utterly disproportionate panic; it tears apart the stories through which individuals link their lives to a collective past and present. Everyday life would be impossible if we did not act upon certain assumptions about the future, near and distant; about the train we will catch tomorrow, as well as the money we pay into our pensions. Not the least of the terror of a moment such as that of 9/11 is that it reveals the future to be truly what it is: unknown, unpredictable and utterly inscrutable.’

That is why it is foolish to delude ourselves that we won the ‘war on terror’ after the 26/11 attacks. The terrorists’ purpose was ‘horror’ and that was achieved. Another lesson is that the terrorists are unlikely to come up with similar attacks, as they will fail to horrify the public in the same manner. They will try to come up with new tricks that will defy public imagination. That’s what we are up against.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

What's in a name?

Any school teacher who has had a long stint would be able to provide some insights on the evolution of names of students over two or three generations.

Take Tam-Bram male names. In my father’s time, the popular names would have been Venkataraman, Ramamurthy, Krishnamurthy, Vishwanathan etc. My own classmates tended to have shorter names such as Ramesh, Suresh, Kumar, Shankar, etc. My daughters have classmates bearing names such as Bhargav, Aditya, Pranav, Jaidev, etc.

Female names have undergone a similar transformation, from the Visalakshis and Saraswathis of my mother’s generation, to the Geethas, Seethas and Ushas of mine, and the Ankitas, Sadhikas and Priyankas of my daughter’s.

In fact, a cousin of mine tricks any new, unsuspecting kid that he comes across, with the question, “ Do you know Lakshmi Miss who is a teacher in your school?”, or “ Is Aditya your classmate?”. Invariably the answer is “yes, how did you know?”.

In his book, “The Stuff of Thought”, Steven Pinker devotes an entire chapter to this subject. How do certain names suddenly become popular?. You may want to give a distinctive name to your son or daughter and go through a long process of choosing the name. Then when you go to enroll him or her in school, you discover to your dismay that there are two more kids bearing the same name. Pinker cites several reasons, but one important factor in some names springing up is phonesthesia, according to which vocal sounds have the capacity to convey definite meanings. This, in turn, can be influenced by several social factors, unique to that region and to a specific era. It is therefore a shared cultural response.

Pinker points out that his own first name, Steven, was rarely used in the early part of the twentieth century, but suddenly became popular around the ‘50s.

Samuel Goldwyn, film producer, was supposed to have told a couple who were about to name their child William, “Don’t call him William. Today, every Tom, Dick and Harry is named that.”.

If any of the readers know more about this interesting subject, please do share.

Does a lion ever need a driving licence?

Among the many news items on Dr.Manmohan Singh in recent times, I found a couple of stories quite interesting.

One was about his visit to the RTO in Delhi to renew his driving licence. As required by the rules, he had to be present in person and he adhered to the procedure. In civil societies, compliance with rules even by the rulers, should be viewed as the default setting and should not be found worthy of special commendation, but in a country where politicians throw their weights around routinely, I found this act of the PM quite exemplary. At 76 years of age, he need not have taken the trouble at all to renew his licence, for, I can’t visualize any situation where he will not have a chauffer to drive him around, even if he were to step down or be removed from the PM’s post.

Second was the story that his wife keeps a tight watch over his diet, habits and exercise regimen. Once, after a quick meal, he tried to slip back to his office straight from the dining table. She stopped him and insisted that he should brush his teeth before he left. “Does a lion ever brush its teeth?” he is supposed to have shot back.

(I like that repartee. Must remember to use it sometime. “Get some bread on the way back from office” wife would tell me on the phone. “Does a lion ever buy bread?” I will reply and cut off the line.)

A third story which I heard, but which I refuse to believe, is the one that kept scrolling on the ticker-tape, the entire day after his surgery got over. According to this report, as he was recovering from anesthesia, his first words were, “When can I get back to work? I have so much more to contribute to public life.”. If after a bypass surgery that had him knocked out for several hours and when on ventilator support he had managed to say that, then he is no mere Manmohan Singh. He is Superman Mohan Singh.

Friday, February 06, 2009

The wail of the TV newsreader

Surfing the TV channels these days can be a miserable experience. “Four jobs being lost every minute” says one. “ABC Company has suffered huge losses, while XYZ Ltd has already declared bankruptcy” says the next. “Dow hits new low, Sensex touches rock bottom” screams the third. “The worst is yet to come” announces yet another. Doom. Depression. Disaster. Destruction. Death. Aaagh.

So, why not switch off the TV, or why not settle for less gloomy channels such as Pogo or Cartoon Network? That’s impossible. Once I have the ‘remote’ in my hands, my fingers can’t resist the urge to keep pressing the ‘program button” once in 30 seconds. Unfortunately, this narrow window of time is enough for each of the channels to bombard me with bad news and more bad news.

The Greek hero Odysseus was supposed to have had himself tied firmly to the mast, and, for good measure, also had the ears of his men filled with wax, to drown out the seductive song of the Sirens, and to avoid the fate that had befallen sailors on ships that had navigated that route.

Now, filling my ears with wax to avoid the wail of the TV news readers will not help. I need to be blindfolded too to avoid reading the ‘breaking news” and “flash news” not to mention the other stomach-churning details that keep popping up. That's cutting out two of my vital sense organs. Not practical.

So, a way must be found to keep me and the ‘remote’ separated. As it is difficult to exercise self-restraint, with the device looking at me seductively and begging me to caress it, the only sensible option is to get myself handcuffed, a la Odysseus. I may kick and rant and suffer severe withdrawal symptoms, but I will be spared the agony of listening to the news.