Saturday, July 25, 2009

The steam ship, Enterprise

Jules Verne could write his book “Around the world in eighty days” in 1873 and show that such a fast journey was indeed possible.

But a few decades before that, the voyage from Britain to India was still done in sail ships that took well over 150 days.

Around the year 1815, the British inhabitants of India entered into the scheme for establishing steam communication. Not aware of all the difficulties of the undertaking, they were blinded by the possibilities of conveying letters and passengers to and from England in the short space of two months, instead of five or six by sailing vessels,

Tait’s Edinburgh magazine ( pages 571 and 572), published in 1838, provides a fascinating description of how the first steam ship sailed to India, in 1825,through a combination of private enterprise and incentives.

For the last fifteen years, the British inhabitants of India have been making the most strenuous efforts to establish a communication with England by steam-vessels…. In the infancy of steam navigation, it was a bold design, and perhaps premature, to attempt to carry steamers half the circumference of the globe, when the practicability of steam navigation had been demonstrated only for coasting voyages, or short trips of a few days, in Europe and America.

To promote this object, it was considered that the best means would be to offer a handsome reward to those who should first accomplish the voyage to India by steam, leaving the parties at full liberty to make their own arrangements, and follow their own plans ; and a subscription was accordingly opened, to raise the sum of £10,000 to be given to the first steam-vessel that should arrive at Calcutta within the space of seventy days after leaving England.

Captain Johnston, who had assisted in the plan formed at Calcutta, proceeded to England with the view of engaging with parties there to fit out a steamer, and secure the prize offered. On his arrival, a society was formed and the Enterprise, a vessel of 470 tons, was purchased, and fitted out either for sailing or steaming, with engines of 120 horse power. She was loaded with coals for thirty-five or forty days' consumption, which is four times as much as she ought to have carried, and only one depot was provided—at the Cape of Good Hope—where she could obtain a further supply, during the whole voyage.

The consequence of these arrangements was, that, on leaving England, the Enterprise was brought so low in the water, that her progress was much retarded, and her coals were all expended long before she arrived at the Cape; the same thing happened again, on the passage from the Cape to the river Hooghly, where she arrived in December 1825, having been 113 days from England instead of 70. This was doing very little better than a sailing vessel ; but one great point had been established—that the passage between England and India was quite safe and practicable for steamers; and the arrival of the Enterprise was therefore hailed with delight.

Friday, July 24, 2009

The stroke of genius

Many of you, dazzled by the brilliance of my blog posts, must be wondering how I manage to come up with these masterpieces. Do I have it all in my mind, as I start typing on the keyboard? Do I plan out the template and the paragraphs before I sit down in front of the computer, just as Hitchcock thought through every single frame of his movie, before he began actually shooting? In other words, do I have a pre-existing vision that I merely transcribe into words later?

I can’t reveal my methods, of course. Few artists or writers of any sort can and will tell how they do their fine things, says Professor Alexander (I don’t know the guy from Adam, but he was quoted in an essay that I read recently in an antique book that I bought for Rs 50.). Prof Alexander then goes on to provide some valuable hints on how geniuses like Shakespeare, Leonardo, Raphael and me actually work.

Pre-existing vision does not pre-exist at all. It only comes into existence while the technical and physical work of painting or writing goes on. To what may end by being a masterpiece an artist may come at first with a mind empty and stone-cold. It may be that “another commonplace model to paint” was all that Raphael thought as he began the Sistine Madonna.

Suppose it so.

Well, he gets his tackle out and starts. In a little while the mere feel of the brush in his hand begins to excite him; the cold engine of his mind is warmed a little; it inclines to move; there kindles in him a faint spark of curiosity about the being who is before him; the quickened mind enlivens the hand, and the brush moves more featly; eagerness is growing in all the employed faculties of the man; images, thoughts, memories crowd in upon him till he wonders at himself with a kind of alarm mixed in his delight - will he ever able to keep himself up to this pitch, he is now so much above par, so strangely endowed, for while it may last, with spiritual insight and also with an unwonted dexterity of hand?

With an ease and confidence that amaze him he sees, infers and conjectures new things behind the fleshen mask of the familiar model’s face. A wonderful creature, this sitter! Wonderful creature, a nursing mother! A marvel, all motherhood, all humanity. ‘What a piece of work is a man!’ So it goes on, and if he can hold long enough the pitch of his exaltation, this mutual stimulation of spiritual and technical power, a masterpiece may come out of it, a Sistine Madonna, a Hamlet or a Gioconda, a thing absolutely new and surpassing, where nothing like it has been before.

The portrait proceeds, not from the imaginative anticipation of the portrait that is to be executed, but from a lively and intelligent excitement, using the skilled hand
as its instructive organ

My methods are fairly similar. I start out with an empty mind, staring at the white space on my computer and press a few random letters on the keyboard. In a little while, the mere feel of the keys begins to excite me, the cold engine of my mind warms up and before I know it I have produced a masterpiece.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

On memorabilia

“Flamboyant Pakistan all-rounder Shahid Afridi's World Twenty20 jersey will soon find a rack at the historic Lord's Museum in London as MCC has requested the cricketer to donate his shirt for display says a news report today.

I have never understood the rationale behind such museum pieces. I came across a glass case once in some museum in Europe, that contained Napoleon’s hair (one hair). How do we know it really belonged to Napoleon, or even if it did, so what? What purpose did it serve lying in that glass case?

Same with Gandhi’s spectacles or his slippers. He might have been a great man, but his greatness would not have rubbed off on his glasses or dripped down to his slippers. These inanimate objects could not have acquired his aura. So, why all the fuss?

I watched a Grand Slam match on TV a few years back. After winning the match, Andre Agassi hit a couple of tennis balls into the stand, and they were grabbed eagerly. Then he removed his T-shirt and threw that too. There was a mad scramble, till one of the spectators emerged victorious with the spoils. What he would do with that smelly T-shirt is more than I can comprehend.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Blogging- dream and reality

Leave those monkeys alone

In his autobiographical series titled “Over Seventy”, P.G.Wodehouse referred to a study in which nicotine drops had been placed on a cat’s tongue. The cat’s blood pressure was measured before and after the drops were administered. Sure enough, it registered an increase, proving that smoking was detrimental to health.

Wodehouse protested: Are we to give up the pleasure of smoking merely because some dumb cat couldn’t hold on to its BP, he asked. He went on to advise the researcher to grow out of her addiction to the habit of placing nicotine drops on the tongue of every cat that crossed her path. If every morning she told herself, “Today, I will not place nicotine drop in a cat’s mouth”, soon she would get out of the habit, he counseled.

I have similar words of advice for a dumb researcher in Wisconsin, who experimented with diets of monkeys for twenty years ( via). One group was fed a restricted diet, while another was fed whatever it wanted to indulge in. Preliminary conclusions, published in Science two decades after the experiment began, “demonstrate that caloric restriction slows aging in a primate species,” the scientists leading the experiment wrote. While just 13 percent of the dieting group has died in ways judged due to old age, 37 percent of the feasting monkeys are already dead.

Naturally, the conclusion is that all of us must eat 30% less if we want to live longer.

Are we, evolved human beings that we are, expected to cut down on goodies and go on crash diets merely because some monkeys in Wisconsin died sooner when they ate normal diets? Actually, the real problem is that the researchers are perversely addicted to the habit of restricting the diets of monkeys. If every morning they tell themselves, “Today I will not cut any monkey’s diet by 30%”, I assure them that they’ll soon rid themselves of the habit. It just requires some will power.

Google Listener

On opening my Google Reader, I find myself staring at several hundred unread blog posts and magazine articles. In less than 30 minutes, with some swift scanning and rapid reading, I usually manage to clear the backlog, confident that I will not miss out on anything interesting. I marvel at my own speed.

When newspapers began to be widely circulated and read, in the 1920s, Arthur Ransome lamented in an essay that there was far too much reading going on and at a galloping speed.

For a great many people, reading has passed from being a conscious into being an instinctive activity.

We are reading machines all wound up and going
And master whatever is not worth the knowing.

There was a time when a newspaper was a handwritten letter of gossip which, when came from town, would suffice a countryside for a fortnight.Then it became a printed folio sheet.Today, spread out, it becomes as big as a blanket, and we get new one wice a day.It is only when newspaper is a rarity that it becomes read in full….

Normally, in England, people do not read the whole paper. There is too much of it. Instead they have by practice learnt to look through it in such a way that they can be confident that nothing of interest would have missed their attention…

Once upon a time everybody recognised that reading was a form of frozen sound, and reading was then a form of listening. Today, with an over-developed ocular skill, we see a sentence, even a paragraph, at a glance and hear nothing at all.

So, the lesson? When you are reading, listen. If you are a writer, try to slow down your reader and force him/her to hear your voice. Resort to line breaks, pictures, smileys, wrong-spellings, whatever. Are you listening?

Saturday, July 11, 2009

What's a home plate?

For the benefit of Americans, Coyote Blog explains cricket, in baseball terms.

As a public service, here is my quick description of cricket in terms American baseball fans will understand. This will leave out some details and arcana (just as one can easily describe the basics of baseball without mentioning catcher interference or running on a dropped third strike). Commenters are free to get all over me with exaggerated anger for any small mistakes I make. Note that I purposefully am using some American baseball terms for things in order to make the translation easier (Read on…)

Now, will someone please explain baseball to me in cricketing terms?

Is he for real?

Is Roger Federer for real? Or is he just something out of “The Matrix”?

When his wife Mirka Vavrinec gives birth in the next few weeks, is there a case for the Association of Tennis Professionals to order a quick examination of what flows in the baby’s veins?

Roger Cohen explains why, in his NYT column.

The passionate worker

There are some who have the ability to infuse passion and zeal into the most mundane or dreary work. I remember a bus conductor who used to have his distinctive and ‘signature’ whistle, a musical one that helped in lightening the mood of the passengers. At a traffic signal on my way to office, I often spot a constable who swings his arms in an animated fashion and almost dances while directly traffic, obviously loving his job. With some creativity, one can convert any monotonous or routine task into a piece of art.

Why, even a murderer can be inventive and resourceful. Hitchcock often took pains to point out that murder could be a ‘fine art’ too. He wanted his movies to appeal to the true enthusiast, one who would be able to appreciate the ‘individual expression’ in the planning and execution of the crime, rather than the crime per se. Shooting down a person or poisoning him was too tame and insipid. A victim had to be subdued by more subtle and creative means, to win accolades from the true connoisseurs.

To this category of imaginative professionals must belong “Thikkuvai Ram” ( Source: TOI) who was arrested in Chennai yesterday. Where ordinary burglars would clinically rob a place and move on to the next site, Ram brings a certain finesse to his job. He goes around with a backpack and when he spots a locked house pulls out his tools from the bag and breaks in. His area of interest is only gold articles. Having stowed that away carefully into his bag, this excellent fellow would proceed to raid the refrigerator and eat to his heart’s content in an unhurried and laid-back manner. After which, to complete the full cycle, he would move to the toilet and make full use of the facilities there. Not for him, the frenetic pace of life and the ‘loot and scoot’ methods of his fraternity. For Ram, burglary has other perquisites that need to be enjoyed and moments that need to be celebrated leisurely.

Burglary can be such a dull and dreary job, often carried out alone. Instead of cribbing about his lot and the drudgery involved, Thikkuvai Ram goes about cheerfully and brings in the element of ‘joi de vivre’ into the proceedings. May his tribe increase.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

The bottom line

“Since the dawn of time, people have found nifty ways to clean up after the bathroom act” says this article in…. The ancient Greeks used clay and stone; the Romans, sponges and salt water. But the idea of a commercial product designed solely to wipe one's bum? That started about 150 years ago, in the U.S.A. In less than a century, Uncle Sam's marketing genius turned something disposable into something indispensable. "

And the size of the toilet paper market in the USA alone? $6 billions.

The article adds: “The spread of globalization can kind of be measured by the spread of Western bathroom practices," When average citizens in a country start buying toilet paper, wealth and consumerism have arrived. It signifies that people not only have extra cash to spend, but they've also come under the influence of Western marketing.

So how ‘westernised’ is India, going by this yardstick? Well, according to The Hindu that quotes the World Watch Institute, toilet paper sales in India in 2007 amounted to just $ 7.7 million. The per capita consumption is one of the lowest in the world.

Hmmm. “Per capita” means “per head”. Rather a wrong choice of words to describe consumption of toilet paper, don’t you think?

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Leading from the front.

Dhoni led from the front, reports The Hindu, after his match-winning performance.

This cricketing cliché “leading from the front” is something that newspapers love to use. Try Google search and the first page will throw up at least 3 entries pertaining to cricket.

Except when he leads his team in and out of the circular field, there is very little scope for a cricket captain to do justice to this expression. So, why this nonsensical headline?

Apparently, the usage is idiomatic and borrowed from the Army. The story goes that in World War I, there was an Army Major who believed in ‘pushing his troops from behind”. Once, when he sighted the enemy, he opened fire and was immediately rendered troopless.

So, during World War II, the Army manuals were suitably revised and the Majors instructed to ‘lead from the front” instead of ‘pushing from behind”.. Once, a Major who was following the rules laid down in the manual and was marching in front, instructed his troops to open fire. They shot him dead, rendering themselves leaderless.

Now, the manuals say that the leader must lead from the front, but must “pull to the side’ while instructing the soldiers to open fire.

Military techniques must keep evolving, you see. I hope someday that cricketing news headlines will too.

Friday, July 03, 2009

The "2009 BD Award"

If you scan the web, you will find several “bull shit generators” such as this one or this. These are indispensable tools to survive in the corporate world and to talk your way through. Without this in your armoury you are practically walking around naked, and will soon be dead too.

But, the good news is that, once you have mastered these tools and internalised it (see how I sneaked in one of the BS words), then the words start flowing effortlessly on their own. If you wake me up in the middle of the night and ask me what my business plan is, my rapid response would be” We are going to re-configure the processes and re-calibrate the metrices. We will clearly measure the deliverables, and then switch to delivering the measurables”. You get my point. Speaking such nonsense becomes second nature. I don’t need to outline any tangible plans .

And the beauty is that no one can question or find any fault in any of my statements. Will you dare disagree with me and say that “delivering the measurables” is not the right strategy?

For the youngsters among you, aspiring to become such garbage-spouting corporate leaders one day and seeking role models , my advice is that you should carefully read the “If I were the FM series” published by Livemint. Once every few days, a corporate leader is asked to reveal what would be the main issues he would tackle if he were to present the Union Budget on July 6th. Each of them has come up with mind-boggling fluff that not even the best of BS generators would be able to produce. Look no farther to choose your role models.

One worthy has stated,” Government should continue investment and accountability in infrastructural development, take comprehensive steps to address health and take broad steps in taxation, logistics, infrastructure”.

Another has pontificated: “Inclusive growth means a growth strategy where the aspirations of both India and Bharat are taken care of. (We should) initiate financial sector reforms for the development of a vibrant capital market.

A third declares authoritatively: Allocating higher expenditure for social sectors along with private sector partnerships to work towards sustainable incomes, education for all and health and medical services for all at affordable costs will receive topmost priority.

Yet another preaches: There is a need to define an ecosystem that will help track and realign implementation of policy reforms and increase speed of execution.

Ladies and gentlemen, the “2009 Bull-Diarrhea award” goes to, “To improve our current precarious fiscal situation, we have to look at both offensive and defensive aspects. We have to try to raise revenue, without raising taxes, and cut unnecessary expenses.”