Thursday, August 31, 2006

The terrific twenties

David Bodanis, a popular science writer, in his book E= MC2, says that one of the many similarities between Newton and Einstein was that both produced their best output before they turned thirty.

Newton achieved much of his success, in his mid-twenties. Back at his mother’s farm after his University had been closed because of the Plague, in an incredibly brief period of about eighteen months, he did fundamental work on developing calculus, conceiving the law of universal gravitation as well as working on key concepts for a study of mechanics that would apply throughout the universe.

Einstein, in a period of under eight months in 1905, again in his twenties- and while putting in full days at the Patent office where he was employed-came out with his first theory of relativity, the equation E = MC2, as well as his work that helped lay the path for lasers, atom bombs, space travel, computer chips, key aspects of modern pharmaceutical and bioengineering industry and all Internet switching devices.

Mozart in his teens had performed in many countries, but it was in his twenties that his composing talent blossomed. He started writing operas in German, a novel innovation as the tradition up to then was to write in Italian. He was keen on new instruments - he wrote major works for the early piano (which was smaller than the 19th C piano by at least two octaves). In his twenties, Mozart also composed horn and clarinet concertos for musician friends who specialised in these instruments but had no music to show off their skills. They are still the definitive concert works for horn and clarinet.

In my twenties, I became skilled at whistling in the bathroom, discovered that I could grow a beard if I didn’t shave for ten days in a row, managed to drive an Ambassador car up to third gear, started using spectacles, figured out the difference between billiards and snooker, learnt how to wear a tie and still breathe and as a traveling salesman was a storehouse of knowledge on the hundreds of railway stations and bus stands in South India, especially with respect to the location of the toilets in each of these places,.

So, as you can see, there is a definite pattern. So many creative geniuses have been most productive and prolific in their twenties.

One Wednesday evening on a flight from Dubai

He was the last passenger to board the plane at Dubai. Armed with two large shopping bags that had been picked up in the duty-free shops at the last minute and a suitcase which should never have cleared the weight/volume criteria laid down for hand baggage and got past security, he puffed and panted his way in. All overhead luggage space was taken, but as he was blocking the passage and being a nuisance, a flight attendant put him out of his misery and accommodated his suitcase and packets somewhere.

He settled down in his window seat, in the row just ahead of mine, and asked the flight attendant to get him a glass of water. He gulped it down and asked for some more, still struggling to recover his breath.

The flight was taxiing down and about to take off, when he rang the bell again and asked for an English newspaper. And for a magazine, soon after.

Once air-borne and the drink trolleys were sighted, he ordered a glass of red wine. A packet of peanuts came along with the wine. He polished off the peanuts in record time and asked for one more packet... and one more. Also, another glass of red wine.

Food was served. His came last, as he had ordered some special meal. As the food was being kept on the folding tray, he asked the attendant to give him some extra bread. And, another glass of red wine, if she didn’t mind.

Half way through the meal, he decided he needed to have another portion of the rice and the curry. The attendant managed to locate this somewhere and had it brought to him. Clumsily, he dropped one of his forks on to the floor and rang the bell again. A replacement fork was soon delivered free-on-board his seat.

At this point in the proceedings, he realised that he needed to use the toilet. He put his tray under his seat, and then forced the aisle seat passenger to get up and make way for him. He returned in a few minutes, made the aisle seat passenger get up again (the latter holding the food tray in his hand, in both instances) and got back to the unfinished task of eating.

He asked for one more glass of red wine to wash down his meal. And when coffee was offered, he asked for an extra packet of cream and sugar – to fetch which, the attendant had to walk back to her cabin with the coffee jug in one hand and tea jug on the other. Having finished the coffee, he enquired if cognac was available. The attendant obliged. A repeat order was placed soon and the second glass of cognac was also supplied.

The meal over, he pushed his seat to the ‘fully reclined’ position, took out his pillow and blanket and was about to doze off, when he decided that he must have an extra pillow for his back. By now, the attendant had realised, “Ask not for whom the bell tolls. The bell rings for thee” and, presently, the second pillow materialised.

All this while, he had the ear phones on, listening to the in-flight music. Suddenly, he woke up from his sleep, rang the bell again and told the attendant that the ear phones were not working and could she please bring him another set?

Thirty minutes before landing, he asked for the Customs Immigration Form, filled it up and tore it in disgust realising that he had made some mistake. A fresh form was sought from the attendant and this was soon brought to him.

After gulping down two glasses of water which the attendant was thoughtfully passing around, he felt the urge to go to the toilet again, just when the captain announced that ‘we would be landing in Chennai shortly”. The process of the aisle seat passenger getting up, making way, getting up again was repeated.

When the plane landed and was moving to the parking bay, he jostled his way to the front to pick up his suitcase and duty-free packets and was the first to get out of the aircraft. He was gone with the wind.

He had made sure that he had got good value for his money; the flight attendant could have a restful sleep that night with her conscience applauding her for putting in that extra bit more effort to justify her fat salary and I could go home with the feeling that I had never before been so well entertained on a 4-hour flight. Win-win-win situation.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

The Plutonic Dialogue

This has been an action-filled week. The sequence of events so far.....

Aug 22, 2006
: At a meeting in Prague, the International Astronomy Union adopts guidelines that downgrade the status of Pluto, from a full blown planet to a mere ‘dwarf-planet’.

Aug 23, 2006: The School of Phenomenal and Powerful Memory swiftly responds with a resolution de-recognising the trusted mnemonic to remember the order of the planets in the Solar System (My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas). The new mnemonic is "My Very Exasperating Manager Just Served us Notice".

Aug 24, 2006: The Institute of Phonetic Fanatics issues press statement that the silent ‘m’ in the word ‘mnemonic’ will no longer remain silent and the word will be pronounced as ‘menomonic’.

Aug 25, 2006: The Association of Dyslexic Orthographers lodges protest with Press Council on the complicated and muddled spelling in the statement issued by the Institute of Phonetic Fanatics, the previous day. The Press Council rules in favour of the Orthographers and changes spelling as “The Institute of Fonetic Phanatics”.

Aug 26, 2006 : The Fonetic Phanatics and the Dyslexic Orthographers together take on the International Astronomical Union and ridicule the members for meeting in Prague- a place mispronounced as “Pra- ha”, in a country called Cizech Republic misspelt as Czech republic.

Aug 27, 2006 : At a meeting of the Grand Council of Inter-Galactic Matters, held at ZZzvt ( pronounced Swaha), a star located several hundred light-years away, astronomers decree that the insignificant little fireball in ‘ the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy’ referred to as Sol by some primitive, ape-descended inhabitants of the little blue green planet that orbits it- will no longer qualify as a star, as it fails to meet certain basic criteria..

Saturday, August 19, 2006

The power of the brand

In his e-book, The Diamond Invention, the American investigative journalist Edward Jay Epstein says that for over a hundred years, a single company, De Beers, has been artificially propping up the price of diamonds, by creating an illusion of scarcity, when in fact, plentiful supplies are available. He writes

“…. The aura of the diamond has survived for over a century because two critical conditions were satisfied: the production of diamonds from the world's mines was kept in balance with world consumption; and the public restrained from attempting to sell its inventory back onto the market…. De Beers ensured the first of these conditions by owning and controlling the major sources of diamonds and the second of these conditions by fostering the illusion in the public's mind that diamonds are forever, even though diamonds can be shattered, chipped, discolored or incinerated to an ash.”

In other words, what De Beers has been doing successfully is creating and sustaining the brand of the diamond.

Marketers say ‘a brand image is a perception created in the mind of the target audience. A brand also stands for the immediate image, emotions, or perceptions people experience when they think of a company or product. A brand represents all the tangible and intangible qualities and aspects of a product or service. A brand represents a collection of feelings and perceptions about quality, image, lifestyle, and status. It is precisely because brands represent intangible qualities that the term is often hard to define. Intangible qualities, perceptions, and feelings are often hard to grasp and clearly describe.’

So what De Beers set out to do was to create a mass mentality in which men and women would perceive diamonds, not as precious stones that could be bought or sold according to economic conditions or fashions, but as an inseparable part of courtship and married life.

What Nike, Coca Cola, Starbucks and others do is founded on same principles- create a differentiated brand image that is perceived by the customer as something much larger than the cold functionality of the product.

I was somehow reminded of this when I read Atanu Dey’s recent posts on Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and his Art of Living (AOL) movement. Atanu concedes that the AOL is doing useful work, but is critical of the personality cult that it promotes in its gullible followers.

I have been quite disapproving of the methods followed by the likes of Sai Baba, Sri Ravishankar and, Mata Amritanandamayi, though, admittedly, they have channelised their resources into useful projects that serve the public cause. But, I now realize that they are no different from and no more guilty of manipulation than the aforementioned corporate brand-builders.

If Sai Baba had to draw attention and create a mass following, he naturally had to differentiate himself from other mortals and create a brand identity of his own. The flowing saffron-coloured robes, his distinctive hairstyle, the hype and the hoopla over his ‘magical’ powers to pull out watches and gold rings out of thin hair, his Bhajan sessions which would send his followers into a trance- all went into the creation of the unique Sai Baba brand . Without this brand pull, he wouldn’t have enticed his followers to come into his fold seeking mental peace and serenity.

So, how is this any different from an advertiser luring you into a make-believe world and leading you to imagine that by procuring a certain type of talcum powder, you would be transported to a sanitized world of blue skies and green grass , where you would have a wonderful spouse, a lovely home, a cute little dog and a smile on all the time ?

For several decades, De Beers and their advertising agency N.W.Ayer carefully cultivated the romantic image in the public's mind that a diamond was a unique manifestation of nature and the rarest of all precious objects in the world. What Sai Baba and Ravi Shankar do is to carefully create the spiritual image in the public mind that they are specially chosen by God to lead them out of their miseries and to deliver happiness and joy.

Same difference.

Friday, August 18, 2006

My secret love

All over the blogosphere, poems on love are being churned out with effortless ease and at an amazing frequency . Some bloggers even narrate details of the special circumstances and the precise moment in which romance had first entered their lives. So, what does a poetry-challenged and romance-starved guy like me do when he feels left out? Head for the trusted, Romantic Love-poem generator, of course, to produce this mother of all love poems.

My Love

Your skin glows like the jackfruit,
and blossoms thorny & prickly
as the cactus flower
in the purest hope of spring.

My heart follows your
deep pipe-organ voice
and leaps like a crocodile
at the whisper of your name.

The evening floats in on
the wing of a great hungry vulture.
I am comforted by your dupatta
that I carry into the twilight of incandescent beams
I hold next to my gall bladder

I am filled with hope that
I may dry your tears
of concentrated sulphuric acid.
As my ears fall from my monkey cap,
it reminds me of your non-stop chatter.

In the quiet, I listen for
the last shrill howl of the day.
My heated nose leaps
to my handkerchief.

I wait in the moonlight
for your secret goodbye
so that we may depart , back to back,
in search of the magnificent beyond
and mystical absence of love.

Update 24/08/06 : If you type 'love poem'in Blog Search, this post actually shows up in the top 10.That makes me a Crooning Casanova uh?

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Wanted : Better role models

Two achievers, in two different fields, have revealed the secrets of their respective success.

Ms. Indra Nooyi ( on being appointed the CEO-designate of Pepsi) : Simple. I realised early in my career that, to make it big in life, I had to work twice as hard as the others did. That’s exactly what I have been doing all these years.

Mr Abdul Kalam ( on Independence Day, replying to a student who wanted to know how he too could become an Abdul Kalam): Simple. hard work and sweat.

This is simply terrible. I am dismayed. Must Pepsi-Nooyi and Presi-Kalam attribute their success to Perseverance and Perspiration? And make lesser mortals like me squirm in shame and wallow in guilt because we haven’t been slogging our butts or sweating our skins out?

Instead, if only the indefatigable Kalam had said that his entire success was due to the fact that he was always laidback, never missed out on his 12 hours of sleep a day (“When India stayed awake, I slept on to my destiny”), never bothered to cut or comb his hair and never missed a cricket match or a vacation, I would have had a role model after my own heart. But that was not to be…

Eminently unreadable

As per this Readability Test, my blog scores 11.19 on the Gunning Fog index- which means it is as easy to understand as the Wall Street Journal.

The Flesch Reading Ease is 64.03- which is approximately the midpoint of the 60-70 range that authors must aim for.

And, the Flesch Kincaid grade level is 7.95, which is the number of years of schooling required to understand the content.

Out of the 15335 words that I have written, 10124 are mono-syllabic.

The verdict is out. Striving to be an author, I write in mono-syllables, churn out content suited for 8th grade kids in school and manage to sound like the editor of the Wall Street Journal. Sigh!

Sunday, August 13, 2006

High stakes

I remember a story that I heard a few years back on BBC about a punter from London, who sold his entire assets for something like 200,000 pounds, flew to Las Vegas without disclosing his plans to anybody, walked into a casino and staked the entire amount on a spin of the roulette wheel. The ball settled on his number and he walked away with double the money.

I love such stories involving interesting bets and high stakes. The Mahabharata was, of course, a famous example. So was Jules Verne’s “ Around the world in eighty days”, where Phileas Fogg would stake his entire fortune to demonstrate that one could travel around the world in – you guessed it- eighty days.

P.G.Wodehouse has spun several tales where his hapless heroes would get drawn into high-stake betting encounters. In one of the golf stories titled “High Stakes” in the collection, “Heart of a Goof“, two millionaires play out a game of golf which would decide who gets to keep the butler, with the outcome having serious implications on their respective married lives.

In Roald Dahl’s classic short story, “ The Man from the South”, an old man draws a young American cadet into a bet, that the latter would not be able to light up his cigarette lighter ten consecutive times without failing even once. The stakes? If the cadet would do it successfully ten times in a row, the old man would gift him a Cadillac that was parked outside; if he missed even once, the cadet would need to chop off the little finger of his left hand and give it to the old man. (This episode was ‘borrowed’ in a Tamil film. Aficionados will remember the hilarious exchange between Rajnikanth and Poornam Viswanathan in the ‘80s film, ‘Ninaithale Inikkum’ of K.Balachander. )

Interesting bets, high stakes, high reward-to-risk ratio help in spicing up one’s bland and dull life, what say?

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Does God exist?

An argument, put forward by those who hold creationist beliefs, goes like this. If, some aliens were to visit Mount Rushmore and see the colossal sculptures of the US Presidents carved out on the mountains, common sense would tell them that it was created by design and did not evolve from sand and rock spontaneously or through random mutation. An extension of this logic reveals to us that the entire earth, the flora and the fauna therein and the intelligent human species were surely created by a Supreme Being as part of a grand design.

Evolutionists debunk this theory as nonsense. They believe that natural forces, without any intervention or machinations of a Master Designer, aligned themselves in such a way as to trigger the process of creation and the evolution thereafter.

This ‘evolutionists vs. creationists’ debate has been raging on for several centuries. Consider this old example discussed in a book called “Philosophy Gym” by Stephen Law:

Believer: God is the greatest being.
Non-believer: Who said that?
Believer: The Bible says so
Non-believer: Who wrote the Bible?
Believer: God.

What Microsoft Excel would have pointed out as “circular reference”. But, the believer clings to his position, while the non-believer remains skeptical.

Julian Baggini, who writes regularly for The Guardian, discusses in his latest book, the gambler’s logic propounded by Blaise Pascal, the mathematician-turned-philosopher. Based on Pascal's theological work titled “Pensees” written in 1670, Baggini analyses the various scenarios on a Joharis window as follows:

1) If Goes doesn’t actually exist, and you believe in him
2) If God doesn’t actually exist, and you don’t believe in him
3) If God exists and you believe in him.
4) If God exists and you don’t believe in him.

In Scenario 1, there is no upside; the minor downside is that that you need to invest time and effort when you are on earth, in going to church, in prayers, etc

In Scenario 2, there is no upside; there is no downside either

In Scenario 3, the upside is that, upon dying, heavenly bliss is yours for eternity; the minor downside, as in Scenario 1, is that you need to invest time and effort in going to church, in prayers, etc

In Scenario 4, there is no upside; but there is a terrible downside- eternal damnation in Hell awaits you

So, if you gamble that God doesn’t exist, the best is a short, carefree, life on earth, but the worst is eternal damnation. If you gamble that God exists, the worst is a short, devout life on earth, but the best is eternal heavenly bliss.

So, if you need to gamble, you are much better off believing that God exists.

But, as Woody Allen said, “If only God would provide clear evidence of his existence, for example, by depositing a few million dollars in my Swiss account…..”

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Who said this?

Famous sayings get famous in the first place, not because they are worthy of fame, but because they are uttered by famous people……………Ralph Waldo Emerson

As you must have guessed, I made that up. But Ralph Waldo Emerson was perfectly capable of mouthing such pedestrian stuff, by the dozens. Flip through any of those self-help books and you will find a quote by this character, things like “As we grow old, the beauty steals inward” or “A man of genius is privileged only as far as he is genius. His dullness is as unsupportable as any other dullness” and other such mind-blowing nonsense. I suspect that his name “Ralph Waldo Emerson” had such a nice musical ring around it that it lent a stamp of authority to the banality.

Question: When does an ordinary utterance become a ‘saying” and when does it get elevated to the exalted status of a ‘quotation”?

Answer: It doesn’t depend on what has been said. What matters is who has said it.

Take Edmund Hillary. Or was it George Mallory? One of these guys was asked why he wanted to climb Mt Everest and he replied, puffing and panting, “Because it is there”. And this one-liner got reported all over the world. Also, Picasso’s when he said, “Others have seen what is and asked why. I have seen what could be and asked why not.” What pomposity!

Picasso, the famous artist could pull it off. Imagine that I am tapping away on my keyboard and my wife asks me, “Why do you blog?” and if I were to reply, “ I have seen what could be and asked why not I write?”, she would pack me off to the psychiatrist before I can say, “Sigmund Freud”.

And that smooth-talking Nehru. All that drivel about, “At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom.” which gets quoted ad nauseum. Didn’t’ anybody have the elementary sense to tell him, “Old man, there can never be a midnight hour when the whole world can sleep together. There are longitudinal differences and various time zones. So, will you skip this rhetoric and move on with it?”

Don’t get me started on Gandhi. At one time it used to be fashionable for any shop in the country to display the words, “A customer is the most important visitor on our premises. He is not dependent on us. We are dependent on him” and attribute this to Gandhi. Why should Gandhi have said this? What were his credentials to act as the mouthpiece of all customers? Gandhi, as far as I know, did not purchase a single thing in his life. Even his simple dhoti, he is said to have spun it himself. So, when did he get to see the customer’s perspective? Bah.

As Ralph Waldo Emerson didn’t say, “It is human nature to be carried away by the halo effect- and look for hidden wisdom where it doesn’t exist