Saturday, January 27, 2007

The research that the Dalai Lama initiated

A blogger (alas, I forget who) had linked to this fascinating article, that made me hold the Dalai Lama in high esteem. The Dalai Lama alone, among religious leaders, seems to possess the open-mindedness to question old beliefs and subject them to the rigour of scientific scrutiny. Every now and then, he invites a group of scientists to his home in Dharamsala, to discuss their work and how Buddhism might contribute to it.

In 2004, when discussing the subject of neuroplasticity with some visiting scientists, the Dalai Lama asked them a question. Scientists have explained, he said, that mental experiences are a result of chemical and electrical changes in the brain. But something had always bothered him about this explanation. Could it work the other way around? That is, in addition to the brain giving rise to thoughts and hopes and beliefs and emotions that add up to this thing we call the mind, maybe the mind also acts back on the brain to cause physical changes in the very matter that created it. If so, then pure thought would change the brain's activity, its circuits or even its structure. Something as intangible and insubstantial as a thought would rewire the brain.

While some neuroscientists summarily dismissed the suggestion as absurd, there were some who took up further research on Buddhist monks, to check if meditation and mental training produced enduring changes in the brain. Experiments under controlled conditions showed that as the volunteers began meditation, gamma waves of a fairly high intensity could be detected. In each case, monks with the most hours of meditation showed the most dramatic brain changes. That was a strong hint that mental training makes it easier for the brain to turn on circuits that underlie compassion and empathy.

"This positive state is a skill that can be trained," the scientists concluded. "Our findings clearly indicate that meditation can change the function of the brain in an enduring way."

If only some of our indigenous religious practitioners and scientists would collaborate in a similar manner, displaying the same degree of open-mindedness- maybe we could distill some ancient wisdom out of the plethora of myths and superstitions.

Neighbourhood news..

Satya Sai Baba has been camping in my locality and his devotees have descended here in droves. Thousands of people have been queuing up or squatting on the road, to catch a cursory glimpse of his face as his convoy whizzes past. Enterprising vendors have been selling Baba calendars, photograph, chains, posters, etc and making a pile. Eateries have sprung up and are doing brisk business.

I have been quite irritated by this intrusion into our privacy and disruption of our normal routine. How can one man and his devotees take over an entire neighbourhood, hold up traffic and bring life here to a standstill?

Musing thus, I switched on the TV to watch the relay of the cricket match being played in Chennai today. It was then that I realized that 50000 boisterous fans would be setting Chepauk ablaze this afternoon while their 20000 cars would have already choked the bylanes of Triplicane, causing much misery to the residents there. And, by watching the match on TV and by being a fanatical follower of the religion called cricket, I have been a party to the disruption of life in the area around Chepauk. How is this behaviour any different from that of the Baba devotees?

But, what about the questionable methods adopted by Sai Baba, to create an aura around himself and entice gullible people? Again, as I argued in an earlier post, Sai Baba is no more guilty of deceit than many of us in the corporate world. When Coca Cola creates a brand identity and claims in its ads that things go better with Coca Cola; or when TVS Motors makes you believe that just because Sachin Tendulkar drives one of their bikes, we should all buy that model, or when Lux tries to convince you that using their soap would give you the same complexion as Sushmita Sen’s, they are merely creating an illusion and we accept this practice as perfectly legitimate. Why should not Sai Baba build his own brand image then, if there are willing buyers and there is no coercion involved in the process?

To an ardent Baba devotee, my patronage of a game like cricket must strike him as pretty weird and senseless, just as I view his belief in the supernatural powers of a fellow human being quite irrational. Of course, the people who fall in both categories and who worship Sai Baba and cricket must be a contented lot, completely at peace with themselves.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Which bank does Lara like?

As I have confessed in the past, I have always been fascinated by these SMS contests on FM Radio. The one I heard today, sponsored by ING Vysya Bank, asked readers to SMS their answer to the question, “Which bank does Brian Lara like the most?” Options were a) Piggy Bank b) River bank and c) ING Vysya Bank.

Now, on the face of it, this looks like a ‘no-brainer’ or rather a ‘yes, Brianer”. But, life has taught me that these advertisers, unlike Humpty Dumpty, don’t choose to mean exactly what they say. There’s always something more, or something else. One has to look beyond the obvious.

As the sponsors have promised an opportunity to meet up with Brian Lara in person, I am naturally keen on getting the answer right. So, I decided to dig and probe further.

A quick Google search on Lara shows that he was born in Trinidad. While there are quite a few rivers there, starting with Arima river and ending alphabetically with Yarra river, and many of these boast of excellent banks on either side, I can’t imagine Lara wasting his time there. He was far too busy playing cricket from the time he learnt to put his gloves on and wouldn’t have ventured within 22 yards of any river bank. So, option A is ruled out.

Option C, ING Vysya Bank, needed closer scrutiny. According to their website, ING`s mission is to be a leading, global, client-focused, innovative and low-cost provider of financial services through the distribution channels of the client’s preference in markets where ING can create value. I know for a fact that Brian Lara’s mission in life is somewhat incompatible with this. In fact, there is nothing that Lara hates more than being a provider of financial services, regardless of the distribution channel. Lara and other product-endorsing cricketers of his ilk, passionately subscribe to the view that the market has to add value to them, not the other way round. So, Option C is completely out of the question.

I need to dig no further, as I have hit pay dirt here. By the principle of reduction ad absurdum , if options A and C are ruled out as false, option B has to be the explanation. So, piggy bank it is.

I have sent the sms to the FM channel, on the strength of which I hope to have dinner with Brian Lara tomorrow. Wish me luck.

Monday, January 22, 2007

R.I.P Series-11

Thomas Alva Edison, prolific inventor, declared pompously in one of his incandescent light bulb moments, “Genius is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration”. Post mortem later revealed that Edison’s perspiration, when he uttered those words, had not been due to hard work, but was actually a classic symptom of an acute heart attack that eventually led to his 100% expiration.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

A carrot among the pigeons

At a dinner, during a recent visit to Manila, our host ordered pigeons, a delicacy that the restaurant was famous for. The cooked pigeons were carved out and dressed in our presence and everybody at the table, except me, dug into the dish with great relish.

The host went on to share details of other interesting culinary experiences. In his province, he said, rats were caught in the rice fields, cooked in an open flame and eaten by the locals. The meat was so tender and tasty. And, whereas the appearance of a python would make a person in the city recoil in fear, back in his province, it would make the farmer’s mouth water in anticipation.

It was a myth, he added, that only the Koreans loved dog meat. In his own province, he said, dog meat was highly valued. He then explained, in painstaking detail, how the dogs were hunted down and cooked.

How could he forget the time he was served scorpions, fried in his presence, when he was visiting China? He was initially quite nervous, he admitted, when he saw that its fangs were still intact, but when he put it into his mouth, it tasted quite delicious and he asked for some more.

But, the best and most exotic meat that he had had the privilege of tasting was the wildebeest meal that he tried out during his visit to Africa. The meatiest meal in his life.

Munching my meal of boiled carrots and broccoli, I wanted to cut him short here and share some interesting vegetarian culinary experiences that I have had. Like the time, I spotted this big purple brinjal in Pondy bazaar, brought it home, had it minced and turned into chutney. Or, about those ripe, juicy tomatoes which were ruthlessly squeezed, and added to boiling rasam. And the episode where we plucked out mangoes with our bare hands, cut them into little pieces and heartlessly pickled them with burning chillies. Not to forget the time we picked up a kilogram of potatoes, skinned them and mashed them out of existence.

I wanted to tell him all this, but I didn’t. All these gory details of brinjals being minced, tomatoes being squeezed, potatoes being mashed and mangoes being pickled were routine stuff for an hardened vegetarian like me. But I had to respect the sensibilities of my host, who could find such finer details highly disgusting and repulsive. No point in upsetting him. After all, he was footing the bill.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

R.I.P, Mondays

In the midst of my third 3-day weekend in the last four weeks, I have been engaged in the task of re-designing the calendar, with the avowed objective of liberating humanity from the tyranny of work. Or, at least, reducing the burden.

After analyzing the issue threadbare, I have come to the conclusion that what the world desperately needs to be a better place to live in are shorter weeks and more number of Saturdays and Sundays.

Who doesn’t hate the first day of the work week? Boring rituals to go through. Impatient customers to deal with. Mundane stuff to be endured. At least, from the second day onward, work becomes Tuesdane, Wednesdane…

So, what I propose is that we divide the year into 60 weeks of 6 days each, with each month having 5 weeks. Each week will have 4 working days and 2 holidays. Week will start on Tuesday. Mondays will be eliminated. We will have 12 months of 30 days each. No more worrying about changing the date on the watch when the month doesn’t’ have 31 days. No more 28-day Februaries.

Some of you, I know, are pretty sharp. It must have occurred to you that 6 x 60= 360, whereas it is an unalterable fact that the earth takes 365.25 days to travel around the sun and complete one year.

My first impulse was to get down to basics and single-handedly work at adjusting the planetary orbit of the earth around the sun in a suitable manner. This, I later realized, would be unnecessarily tinkering with the forces of Nature. So, my simple solution to this seemingly unsolvable puzzle is that we declare those 5 days that are dangling loose, as holidays. Every leap year will have 6 such days. These days will not appear in any calendar and will not get recorded in any manner. They will simply get dissolved in the space-time continuum. The world will simply be placed in suspended animation on these days. Only Einstein and I can comprehend how all this works. So, don’t bother to Google.

Some cynics amongst you, no doubt, challenge the very idea. With shorter work weeks, output and productivity will suffer, you point out. That’s nonsense. It’s an accepted fact that half the stuff that gets passed off as work is completely useless. No good to man or beast, as Wodehouse would say. If people work less and are paid less, their consumption of goods will come down, factories will reduce their production proportionately, burn less fuel and emit less CO2. All this will slow down the global warming . This will trigger a virtuous economic cycle that will also be favourable to the environment. Good for everybody, I assure you.

These 5 or 6 days won’t even register as a blip in the history of the 10-billion and 20 year old Universe (I read in an encyclopedia once that the Universe is believed to be 10-billion years old. Since I read this in 1986, I have added another 20 years to its age). Besides, the calendar has always been a matter of convenience and has been altered to suit the need of the times. For instance, there is no evidence that Jesus Christ was born on December 25th. Nor did the months of January and February exist in the Roman times. In the 16th century, the dates October 5, 1582 to October 14th, 1582 simply vanished from the calendar, during the shift from the Julian system to the Gregorian system. The world is certainly not worse off, because this happened. It can be done again. The change will be as inconspicuous and unnoticeable as crossing the International Date Line.

And, my clinching argument is this. When the world transits from the 7-day week to the 6-day week, computers need to be told so, because they don’t have a mind of their own, the idiots. That means more programs. More programs = more software code= more work outsourced to India. Some say that the Indian success in IT owes much to the Millennium Bug that created an urgent need for Y2K-compliant software, an opportunity that the enterprising Indian techies grabbed and never looked back.

So, this could well be the next wave. Millions of Indian software engineers working tirelessly four days a week to make this happen.
Flash news : Prannoy Roy has just announced that he is changing the name of his news channel from NDTV 24 x 7 to NDTV 24 x 6 . Stay tuned for updates

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Do worry, be happy

Several prominent people have responded to the annual question asked by Edge Foundation, “What are you optimistic about and why?” These worthies are optimistic about a wide range of issues- better hearing aids, decline of cult and superstition, better understanding of religion, reduction in crime and terrorism, elimination of poverty, discovery of mental illness genes- you name it.

So, with such abundance of optimism and hopefulness, the world is bound to be a happier place and much joie de vivre will result soon. Right?

Well, since I asked that question, and given my warped mind, you know the right answer is “wrong”, right? You are right. Optimism is unwarranted and actually inimical to happiness. Read on. (Source)

It all started with the University of Leicester publishing a World map of Happiness that clearly brought out the fact that the Danes were the happiest people in the world. In fact, for over thirty years, this country with 5 million inhabitants has ranked first in Eurobarometer surveys.

So, the British Medical Journal decided to dig deeper into this and identify the causal factors. In its study, BMJ focused on accounting for why life satisfaction in Denmark substantially exceeded that in Sweden and Finland, the two Eurobarometer countries most similar to Denmark. It looked into various differentiating factors like climate, food, genealogy, hair colour, habits, marriage, prowess in sports, etc .

In the end they ‘cracked the conundrum of Danish contentment’. The main reason for Danish happiness, according to the study, is that their expectations for the year to come are consistently low. And when they find that things are not more rotten in the state of Denmark than what they had expected them to be, they are jubilant.

So, there it is, the secret to a happy life. Eschew optimism. Peg your expectations lower. Enter into a marriage with the expectation that divorce is imminent; you will find much happiness even if it lasts a month. Take up a job on Monday, accepting the inevitably of being fired any time. Believe me, you will experience such relief and bliss when you still are at your workplace on Wednesday. If you find a feeling of rosiness stealing over you, kill it immediately.

Remember that the Great Dane is one helluva happy dog, because he is one helluva pessimist to begin with.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Intelligence and Intelli-ladies

In an interview yesterday, Kapil Dev remarked that while Indian cricketers had loads of talent, they seemed to lack “cricket intelligence” or CI, as he called it. He said that the fact that Sachin had not won as many matches for India as he should have with his talent, made him believe that he was not in the same CI league as, say, Javed Miandad was.

Kapil makes an interesting point. I have often heard it said that Indians lacked killer instinct, but it is for the first time that I hear the word ‘intelligence’ applied in this context.

Howard Gardner was the first to theorise, in his treatise “Frames of Mind” that human intelligence was not a single entity that could be assessed by simplistic psychometric tests, but had multiple dimensions such as Visual / Spatial Intelligence, Musical Intelligence, Verbal/Linguistic Intelligence, Logical/Mathematical Intelligence, Interpersonal Intelligence, Intrapersonal Intelligence, and Bodily / Kinesthetic Intelligence. Later he added ‘naturalist intelligence’ and ‘spiritual intelligence’ to the list. All these intelligences are important, but each person has a unique blend of these intelligences. Gardner argues that the big challenge facing the deployment of human resources is how to best take advantage of the uniqueness conferred on us as a species exhibiting several intelligences.

Thus, you could have a brilliant mathematician like Ramanujam endowed with much logical/numerical intelligence but who could be completely lacking in musical intelligence. Or, an author like R.K.Narayan high in linguistic intelligence, but poor in inter-personal skills. Some with high spatial intelligence may solve the Rubik cube in a minute, but may flunk the maths test in school the next day. While I, an otherwise intelligent person, can’t crack the Rubik’s cube even if you taught me the steps. Learning/teaching should therefore focus on the particular strength of each person and appropriate teaching modalities applied. If you want me to learn to solve Rubik's puzzle, sing out the solution melodiously.

So, intelligence can be specific to one domain and in a limited arena. Just because a top batsman has bodily/kinesthetic intelligence to execute an exquisitive cover drive or an awesome square-cut, he may not necessarily possess Cricket intelligence or CI, which is something more or that extra bit that is required to win a match.

Maybe, there is something called Bloggers Intelligence (BI) as well. Notice how some bloggers make clever use of the medium, with the right mix of humour, sensationalism and conversational style of writing, while some like me don’t manage to figure it out at all.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

On being secular...

This post in the Brittanica Blog discusses the controversy surrounding the Italian law laid down by Benito Mussolini in 1924, and still in effect today, that every school, classroom, hospital, court of law in the country must display a crucifix of Christ. The law has been challenged several times and there have been several disputes, but it has stayed.

On the other hand The French law on secularity and conspicuous religious symbols in schools bans students from wearing conspicuous religious symbols in primary and secondary schools. France had begun to view faith as a matter for each individual citizen rather than for a nation as a whole As a result of this history, religious manifestations are considered undesirable in government-operated schools; primary and secondary schools are supposed to be neutral spaces where children can learn away from political or religious pressures, controversies and quarrels. Because of this neutrality requirement, students are normally prohibited from conducting religious proselytising on the premises.

Both these countries profess to be secular. So does India ,for that matter.

Whereas Italy did not see any inconsistency in the display of the crucifix and in its secular ideals, France felt that to be secular, ostentatious display of any religious symbol was undesirable. To them, secularism meant neutrality.

India , of course, claims to believe that secularism means that all religions must co-exist and that the Govt policy must encourage all religions in equal measure. Religion is so much a part of our lives here and permeates every other activity- business, sports, music- that we take it for granted. For other cultures, such ostentatious display of religious beliefs can be quite strange.

While on a recent visit to a consulting firm in Chennai along with some European colleagues I noticed that the persons sitting across the table were all in black attire, their faces unshaven, and sporting large, colourful marks on the foreheads. They were all set to leave for their annual Sabarimala pilgrimage. My colleagues, of course, were far too diplomatic to express any curiosity, but I wondered what they made out of the whole thing.

I guess, as in everything else, one size will not fit all, and each country will have to choose the appropriate doctrine or brand of secularism that it feels is the best suited. And, then deal with the conflicts.

What do you know?

All you readers out there who spend so many hours of your time, soaking in the wisdom that pours in generous measure out of my writing, don’t you find it strange that I continue to remain an anonymous entity and that you hardly know who I am or what my background is?

It’s only fair that I reveal some secrets of my past, where I hailed from and what my mission in life is. So, here goes.

1) Let me start with the most momentous event - my birth. When the stork came to deliver me, my mother wanted to keep the stork instead. But, SEBI authorities ruled in my favour, pointing out that it was against Stork Exchange rules. So, my parents put me in a basket which they kept outside their house, hoping that some kind-hearted couple will take me away. The next morning, they found that somebody had stolen just the basket and kept me behind. So, here I am.

2) When I was seven, unbeknownst to me, the stork delivered a baby to the couple who were later to become my in-laws. It is said, that when the baby was born, three stars were seen in the Eastern sky. Astrologers felt this was ominous, as on normal nights, there are 37,724 stars seen in the eastern sky. The foreboding proved right .Poor baby ended up marrying me when she grew up. So, here she is with me.

3) When the stork came to deliver our first daughter some years back, she took one look at us and refused to get off. The stork took her back home. Wife and I had to fly down to Sweden, to bring her back from Stork Home. So, here she is with us.

4) When the stork came to deliver our second daughter, we sensed something sinister. We had this growing suspicion that it wasn’t the stork that was producing these babies. It was the birds and the bees. We had been taken on a ride all along

5) These constant trials, tribulations and encounters with the stork have taken a terrible toll on my looks. However I owe it to my readers to, at least, reveal what I look like. So, here is a recent photograph that captures me in one of my rare moments when I am not Stork-raving mad.

There, thanks to the prompting by La Mukhs, I have unburdened all I had to disclose about myself. To continue with the chain, I wanted to tag La Tags, but I understand that she and her husband are currently out on a hunting expedition to the bird sanctuary, where they will shoot down certain rare and endangered species of birds, notably storks.

Friday, January 05, 2007

A centenarian teenager

All you brisk joggers, power-walkers and marathon runners, stop right there, hold your breath for a minute and listen to me.

If you are brisk-jogging, power-walking or marathon-running to stay young, live longer and remain fit, you are simply wasting your time. If these are your objectives, your role model in life should not be the sprinting cheetah or the springing deer or the galloping horse, but the humble, unhurrying turtle.

Jonah Lehrer, editor of Seed magazine, refers to an article in New York Times :

The liver, lungs and kidneys of a centenarian turtle are virtually indistinguishable from those of its teenage counterpart. Turtles have the power to almost stop the ticking of their personal clock. "Their heart isn't necessarily stimulated by nerves, and it doesn't need to beat constantly," said Dr. George Zug, curator of herpetology at the Smithsonian Institution. "They can turn it on and off essentially at will."

So, leave thy panting and gasping and mad pounding of the pavement. The secret to longevity does not lie there. If you really want to have a healthy heart ticking rhythmically like a teenagers’ even at the age of 100, go slow. Crawl. Speed limit must be 100 cmph. Better still, get into your shell and stay there. Aesop was right. Slow does win the race.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

What's your footprint?

Ever wondered how much of natural resources your lifestyle requires?

Try this Ecological Footprint Quiz. It estimates how much productive land and water you need to support what you use and what you discard. After answering 15 easy questions you'll be able to compare your Ecological Footprint to what other people use and to what is available on this planet.

My ecological footprint is 8.5 hectares, against India’s average of 0.8 hectares. Worldwide there exists 1.8 biologically productive hectares per person. If everyone lived like me, we would need 4.7 planets of the size of earth!

Hmmm. I guess, it’s time to conquer outer space and inhabit a few more solar systems.

The great African robbery

A paper published by the Institute of Physics Publishing in July’ 06 describes how the Amazon basin is fertilized with nutrients contained in dust blown from a single spot 5000 km away- the Bodele depression in northern Chad, Africa.

While that part of Africa languishes as a part of the Saharan desert, dust from there gets blown to a distant continent to enrich the soil and help create a flourishing eco-sytem. What a noble thing to do.

This seems to have been the story of Africa all along. Robbed by greedy human beings from other continents and stripped off her gold, diamonds, oil, rubber, wood and other natural resources. According to the Nobel-award winning economist, Joseph Stiglitz, historically, Africa is the region most exploited by globalization; during the years of colonization, the world took its resources and gave back little in return. Out of the eighteen poorest countries, fourteen are in Africa.

Now, it transpires that Nature has been part of the looting all along, quietly scooping up the Saharan nutrient-rich dust and ferrying it across the Atlantic. Robbing African deserts to enrich forests in other continents.