Thursday, November 29, 2007

Conversation with daughter-20

Daughter: Appa, if two of your friends did something wrong, would you confront them or would you ignore them?

Me: Give me an example of such a situation.

Daughter: See, two of my best friends cheated during the test today. They copied from the textbook. Should I have reported this to the teacher or should I have looked the other way?

Me: What did you do finally?

Daughter: I told my friends that if they did it again, I would report to the teacher.

Me: Good, that settles it then.

Daughter: No, but I had told them the same thing when they had cheated last week.

Me: Yes, that does complicate things a bit; they seem to be habitual offenders…

Daughter: You haven’t answered my question. What would you have done in my place?

Me: Well, this is what is referred to by philosophers as a moral dilemma…….

Daughter: Appa, no big words and don’t try to change the topic. Tell me what you would have done.

Me: Let me put it this way. If you are walking on the road and you notice that a car is not stopping when there’s a red light on, will you keep walking or will you note the number and call up the police?

Daughter: Why should I? That’s the job of the policeman - to catch them.

Me: Isn’t it the job of the teacher to catch your friends copying then?

Daughter: It’s not the same thing. The car driver is a stranger; here I am talking about my best friends…..

Me: Same difference. In fact, you ought to go across to your headmistress and report that your teacher is not doing her job properly.

Daughter: Are you crazy?

Me: Why not? Then your headmistress will pull up your teacher. Of course, after that your teacher will kill you for squealing on her. While your two friends will get away without any punishment.

Daughter: Appa, you are absolutely of no use in a crisis. I will handle it myself.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Mass Man

There was a time when the activity of picking and buying fruits was a gamble. There was a 30% chance of the fruit being rotten, 40% chance of it being bland and tasteless, 20% chance of it tasting good and 10% chance of it being very good. The outcome would be known only after you brought it home and tasted it. So, it was an activity fraught with tension and thrill.

Enter these supermarkets and the age of standardization. Now you have the Washington apples, Fiji Pears, Malta oranges, you-name-it. Apples sold all over the globe look alike, feel alike, smell alike and taste alike. So do all the oranges and all the pears. And, the taste is uniformly bland. We have been robbed of all the satisfaction of celebrating on a lucky day when we have drawn the tastier fruit from the lot. To what purpose?

In an essay “Science has spoiled my supper”, the writer Philip Wylie laments the fact that, though modern food is handsomely packaged and is excellently preserved, it is getting less good to eat. It appeals increasingly to the eye. But, who eats with his eyes?

What happened? Science-or what is called science- stepped in. The old-fashioned cheese (or fruits) didn’t ship well enough or store long enough. Scientific tests showed that a great majority of people will buy a less-good-tasting item if that’s all they can get. The motto of “scientific marketing” is “Give the people the least quality they’ll settle for, and trade it off for durability and shippability”.

It is not possible to cultivate vast quantities of a food item at a low average cost. “Scientific sampling” got in its statistically nasty work. It was found that the largest number of people will buy something that is rather bland and tasteless. Nobody is absolutely delighted by bland foodstuff; but nobody is violently put off.. The result is that a reason has been found for turning out zillions of packages of something that will ‘do’ for nearly all and isn’t even imagined to be superlatively good by a single soul. Standardisation became the mantra.

Wylie bemoans, “ Agronomists have taken to breeding all kinds of vegetables and fruits- changing their original nature. They have developed improved stains for every purpose but eating. They work out, say, peas that will ripen all at once. It is extremely efficient and profitable to the farmer. What matter if such peas taste like boiler paper wads? String beans are straight instead of curved, and all of one length, to make them easier to pack in cans. But, when eating them, you can’t tell them from tender string. Ripening time and identity of size and shape are more important for carrots than the fact that they taste like carrots. Onions are hybridized till they are as big as your head, but only vaguely remind you of onions. If people don’t eat onions because they taste like onions, why do they add them at all to the recipe?”

As sociologists and psychologists point out. Mass Man is on the increase. Conformity, standardization, similarity- all on a cheap and vulgar level- are replacing the ideals of colourful liberty and dignified individualism. Wylie ends the essay with a clarion call for rebellion.

And he wrote this in 1954.

Table Talk

R.K.Narayan’s book, “Salt and Sawdust” has a selection called ‘Table Talk’, which according to RKN was a new form of writing, without the compulsion of an argument or conclusion on any theme and without too definite a form. As different from an essay which needed a structure. A precursor to what we now refer to as a personal blog.

Here he is, in one of his table talk sessions, responding to rumours that his name had been considered for Nobel Prize, in 1986, and then dropped.

“If my name did come up, and then was dropped, I speculate on the arguments one might have heard from the committee room before the decision of October 16th.

“For half a century Narayan has been building up a world of his own and peopled it with a variety of characters, who have ceased to be fictional, but are recognized and loved in any part of the world by Narayan’s readers…it is an achievement which should be treated as a contribution to world literature,” argued one.

“To a certain extent, yes” said the arbiter. “This author’s work is diverting, amusing and readable, but possesses none of the elements that go to make great literature.’

“What are those elements of great literature?”

“All great literature must echo the soul of man, The struggles, agonies and anguish in the soul of the individual must be reflected in the work, against the background of historical and social convulsions of the countries in which the individual finds himself tossed about as a helpless victim. All the grimness of existence must find a place in a writer’s work. Above all a certain degree of obscurity and difficulty of idiom in the text enhances the stature of a literary work”.

“Applying these tests, Narayan’s work fails. His writing is too simple and too readable requiring no effort on the part of the reader. Mere readability is not enough. A reader must be put to work and must labour hard to get at the meaning of the sentence; only then can he feel triumphant at having mastered a page.

“Narayan’s further defect lies in his light-hearted tone under all cirumstances. Humour is all very well up to a point, but it is not everything in literature. Humour has a tendency to stimulate frivolity. Our Founder and Benefactor, Alfred Nobel, you must remember, invented the dynamite, which is no joke, and it would be inappropriate to award the prize in his name to a writer who is uncommitted to the serious and sinister problems of existence.

“We hope some day Narayan will develop into a full-fledged writer deserving our serious consideration”.

Friday, November 23, 2007

What Keats meant

John Keats wrote these famous lines in his poem, “Ode on a Grecian Urn”.

"Beauty is truth, truth beauty," - that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

As per the Wikipedia entry, , there has been much speculation over the meaning of the famous Ode, due to uncertainty over where the punctuation is placed. It is not clear, whether the last lines are spoken by the urn, or representative of the poet's view. Also, it may be that only "Beauty is truth, truth beauty" is spoken, and the rest is the poet's comment. Nobody is sure.

At last I have discovered what Keats meant .

This Keats character was one of those rare westerners who could read and write Chinese as well as Tamil.

Now, due to a linguistic coincidence, the Chinese word for beauty is ‘mei’, which in Tamil happens to mean “truth”.

So, Keats, in that convoluted manner typical of poets was trying to say that beauty in Chinese was truth in Tamil.
That is all ye need to know . Now run. ( "Run" in Tamil is "odu", which is what Keats wrotu.)

Thursday, November 22, 2007

The green, moral vegan.

According to this article in Salon, livestock accounts for 18% of the world’s greenhouse gas emission, more than the entire transportation sector. (via)

This happens in two ways. First, a lot of forest cover is cleared for pasture for livestock. Second, cattle emit methane, which causes 21 times more damage to the environment than CO2.

Much of the livestock is meant for meat production. So, for those interested in stopping climate change, is vegetarianism the best answer?

No. People who eat poultry, dairy and eggs, but not red meat, are responsible for fewer greenhouse gases than those who consume a vegetarian diet that includes dairy and eggs. "Astonishingly enough," says study co-author Gidon Eshel, a Bard College geophysicist, "the poultry diet is actually better than lacto-ovo vegetarian." In other words, a roast chicken dinner is better for the planet than a cheese pizza.

So, either turn vegan and avoid milk and eggs, or, the next best, take to poultry. A strict vegetarian but who consumes generous doses of milk, butter, curd and pastries is not good enough.

If climate change doesn’t concern you so much and you seek moral answers, look up philosopher Stephen Law’s post in which he tries to answer the question, “ Why are we morally permitted to treat the members of other species so very differently to our own?"

Stephen Law refers to a 1975 book Animal Liberation, in which the author Peter Singer presents us with precisely this challenge: to morally justify the way in which we discriminate between our own species and others. His conclusion, shocking to many, is that this discrimination cannot, in fact, be morally justified. Indeed, Singer believes that the vast majority of human beings are currently guilty of what Singer terms “speciesism” (an expression first coined by Richard Ryder) – a form of bigotry against other species comparable to sexism and racism.

Lower intelligence cannot be the justification, for we do not think of eating the mentally impaired among us or the babies. The proposition that animals don’t feel pain the way we do is simply not convincing. After all, we know, do we not, that animals suffer? They are also, to differing degrees, capable of enjoying pleasurable experiences as well

Singer argues that there is no moral justification for the way in which we currently discriminate. Discriminating solely on the basis of species is no more justified than was our earlier discrimination on the basis of sex and race. So far as justifying our current practices is concerned, whether or not sentient beings have feathers or fur, a beak or teeth, two legs or four, is simply irrelevant - as irrelevant as skin colour or sex.

When we now look back a few hundred years to how white people discriminated against black, and men discriminated against women, many of us are shocked. With hindsight, it can be difficult to understand how those who were engaged in these practices were unable to recognise that what they were doing was wrong. “How could they not see?” we ask.

“The day may come when the human race looks back on the way we currently treat other species – raising and slaughtering five billion a year, in many cases under the most horrific conditions, simply to satisfy our taste for their flesh – and ask that same question” Stephen Law quotes Singer.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

The convert......

Being part of the corporate world, and working for an MNC, to boot, I endorse and help promote capitalism. I naturally want to believe that whatever I am doing is right. I seek out opinions and writings that support my views and feed my confirmation bias.

Apart from reading up articles and books authored by champions of capitalism I tend to subscribe to the blogs of cheerleaders and badge-wearers of the Milton Friedman school, and consequently am filled to the brim with ‘free-markets principles” and right-wing ideology of the lassiez-faire variety, whatever that stands for..

Books by Noam Chomsky that I happened to read did sow some doubts in my mind and bring a sense of balance. A book by Naomi Klein titled, “The Shock Doctrine” raised more uncomfortable questions about the methods propounded by the “Chicago Boys” and the “Berkeley Mafia”.

A recent article by Gurcharan Das in the Times of India ( linked by Atanu Dey) caught my attention when I was still under the trance of Naomi Klein’s “Shock Doctrine”. In that piece, Das had sung paeans of praise about Monsanto’s transgenic cotton and had suggested that the Indian Govt without dragging its feet must immediately deploy such seeds in the cultivation of all crops such as rice, soya, corn, etc. I saw red and found myself describing Das as evil.

I am currently under the spell of Raj Patel, author of a book called, “ Stuffed and Starved”. He also has a blog by the same name.

Just to pick out two samples that he links to. In one, he refers to an article in Good Medicine magazine that explains why a salad is more expensive than a Big Mac, in the USA. The Farm Bill, a massive piece of federal legislation making its way through Congress, governs what children are fed in schools and what food assistance programs can distribute to recipients. The bill provides billions of dollars in subsidies, much of which goes to huge agribusinesses producing feed crops, such as corn and soy, which are then fed to animals. By funding these crops, the government supports the production of meat and dairy products—the same products that contribute to our growing rates of obesity and chronic disease. Fruit and vegetable farmers, on the other hand, receive less than 1 percent of government subsidies. “It's all grist for Cassandras like me, who ask where we're going, and why we are in this handbasket”, says Raj Patel.

In another post, he links to an article that explains the ‘nutrition transition’. The 'nutrition transition' describes the shift from one diet to another, specifically from the diets historically found in lower income countries to the diet found in predominantly urban and industrial societies. The shift away from nutritious food to less nutritious food didn't happen in a vacuum: it was a product of colonialism.

If you accept this, he adds, and it's hard not to, then one is forced to identify the forces through which colonialism worked - everything from enforcement of a specific national economic policy to 'education' to ecological destruction to advertising. This suite of tools didn't change dramatically after the end of colonialism. With few exceptions, particularly few in Africa, national economic policy in the Global South continued to be set by foreign powers who, begrudgingly, shared some of the spoils with local elites. Advertising, that singular badge of freedom, became more widespread. The tastes of the city became a beacon for national aspirations and dreams. In short, colonialism blended into neocolonialism, and history kicked the nutrition transition along.

Now I know why hand-pounded rice which used to be the ‘poor-man’s’ diet in South India, a few decades back, is now sold as a branded, organically-grown, premium product for the dieting elite in cities.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Prescription for peace

Atanu Dey has a post on the incident involving the recent destruction of a Buddha statue in Swat, Pakistan and recalls an earlier instance in 2001, when the Taliban destroyed the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanisthan.

“Nothing new here, That Islam mandated destruction of cultural and religious artifacts is really old hat” he says, painting all its followers with one broad sweep of his brush.

Elsewhere, in the blogosphere, Scott Adams of Dilbert fame, provokes his readers with this argument :

"America lives in fear of terrorist attacks. Most terrorists are Islamic who cannot co-exist with other belief systems. It really doesn’t matter to Americans what religion they belong to. There is no connection between religion and happiness, as there is clear evidence that happy people are found in every religion. So, if Americans are rational, they should all become moderate, peace-loving Muslims. Their happiness would stay the same, and Osama wouldn’t have as much reason to nuke them". QED.

But, as Richard Dawkins and others have argued, religion in any form is inherently divisive. At the level and size of a tribal society, religion may have been a unifiying force, but in a world that seeks globalisation, religion tends to split people and foster tribal behaviour, rather than bringing them together. Even in a world where there is only one religion, there would be intra-religious disputes among different sects.

So, religion must go. Atheism is the answer . Atheism, as in "no religion". Belief in God can be independent of religion.

But, even in an atheistic world, people will still fight over territories and turfs. Too bad. Nationalism must go. There should be one boundary-less world as visible from Space.

Alas, in an atheistic, geographically united world, the Karunanidhis would raise their shrill voices over language. Tamil vs Hindi; English vs French, etc.
Too bad. Language must go too. Won't make much difference, let me tell you. As the Brittanica blogger told us, all the text created in human history is good enough only in a closed system; outside that system it doesn't make any sense.

So, here's my simple formula for a peaceful world. No religion, no nationality, no language.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Rice, Roti and Sleep.

In his book, “Guns, Germs and Steel”, published in 1997, the author Jared Diamond tries to answer a question posed to him by Yali, a native of New Guinea : “ Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?" In other words, why did wealth and power flow from the west, instead of the other way round?

Jared Diamond, in attempting to answer the question digs deep into history and explains why the Fertile Crescent ( what is now Jordan, Syria and Iraq) or China lost their enormous lead of thousands of years to late-starting Europe.

The Fertile Crescent, he explains, arose in a fragile environment, and simply committed ecological suicide by destroying its resource base (woodlands, trees, etc) indiscriminately.

China, despite being blessed with ecological diversity, and undoubted technological prowess, suddenly became insular in the fifteenth century, due to an aberration of local politics, with one faction forbidding oceangoing shipping. China had always been a monolithic country (from 221 AD) and so one bad decision taken by a central command became irreversible and stifled the entire nation.

What about India? Jared Diamond doesn’t discuss this possibility at all, perhaps because India was never a single, homogenous entity..

But, I found an explanation in a theory propounded by Lee Kuan Hew, Singapore’s Minister Mentor and discussed in this paper presented by Michael D. Barr (Department of History, University of Queensland).

Brar explains that quite early in his life, Lee had been strongly influenced by the views of Arnold Toynee, the historian.

Central to the thesis propounded by Toynbee in “A Study of History”, was the notion that societies and civilisations develop in response to certain challenges. Toynbee argued that "civilizations come to birth in environments that are unusually difficult and not unusually easy."

Toynbee dwelt on the challenge of climate and more generally, of the environment, whereby those people whose civilisations grew in the "soft" life of the tropics were left behind by their hardier cousins in harsher climates. With a harsh climate go many challenges which develop a plethora of cultural and racial characteristics in a people.

For instance, the Sinic Civilisation, wrote Toynbee, was nurtured in the north of China, where the climate was severe, and swamps and regular floods made agriculture difficult, and so it became a "hard" society.

The connection was made by Lee himself in his 1971 commemorative lecture at his old college at Cambridge University, in which he argued: "It is the difference between the more intense and exacting Sinic cultures of East Asia and the less demanding values of Hindu culture of South and South-east Asia, that accounts for the difference in industrial progress between Eastern and Southern Asia. The softer and more benign Hindu civilisation spread through Burma, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia, meeting the Sinic civilisation on the borders of Vietnam....The reason for the lower achievement amongst the people of South ( read, India) and South-East Asia ( read, the Malays) is because these were ‘soft societies, in which expectations and desire for achievement were lower.

"There is only one other civilization near the Equator that ever produced anything worthy of its name. That was the Yucatan peninsular of South America - the Mayan Civilization. There is no other place where human beings were able to surmount the problems of a soporific equatorial climate. You can go along the Equator or 2 degrees north of it, and they all sleep after half past two if they have had a good meal.”

You may agree or disagree strongly with the theory, but Barr explains that, in fairness to Lee, his views while undoubtedly racist, did not stem from the belief that any race was ‘created superior’ , but that some were sturdier and hardier than the rest ,shaped by the hostile environment they had to endure.

So, the reason Indians did not conquer the world was because we were ‘benign softies’, spoilt by a soporific climate and benevolent terrain. We need our afternoon siesta after a heavy lunch.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Dear Diary-10

Dear Diary,

I just read these lines in the Brittanica Blog :

The sum total of all the text we have collectively produced over the ages does not add up to anything more than a gigantic closed system with no real information value outside of this closed system.

Taking it a step further, let’s say we transmit all the English language books in all the libraries of the world and just to make sure we got it all, let’s also add the entire web – once again, just the text and nothing else. "
Do you think this will make any sense to the aliens outside the closed system? No way.

What this means is that whatever has ever been written by human beings, starting with the Sumerian civilisation is completely useless, outside this closed system.

No doubt, the closed system the author is referring to is rather big, but how does that help?

What’s the point in writing all this in one’s diary, if it has some value only inside this hermetically sealed enclosure ?

What is even more disconcerting is that if we were to read the text of a diary imported from outside this closed system, we won’t be able to make any sense out of it.

Most upsetting.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Yes,me worry.

Alfred E Neuman, the mascot and iconic symbol of Mad magazine graced the cover of more than 450 of its issues, appearing in a slew of disguises including Santa Claus, George Bush, Batman, Michael Jackson, George S Patton, Spock, etc. But, whatever the character, the grinning mug of Alfred E Neuman would shine through clearly and unmistakably, with his jug ears, missing front teeth and one eye lower than the other.

But, the grinning mug of Alfred E Neuman was confined to Mad magazine, and if one got sick of his face, one could discard the magazine and pursue other things in life.

Such an exit option, alas, is not available with the grinning mug of the more ubiquitous Shah Rukh Khan. Even if you have taken a vow, as I have, that you won’t be seen dead or alive inside a theatre screening a Hindi movie

There is simply no escaping from this guy. He has expanded the meaning, scope and dimensions of the word, “ubiquitous”. He grins at you from street hoardings, he grins at you from magazine covers, he grins at you from 90% of the ads that are screened on TV, he grins at you from the stands when a cricket match is on, he grins at you from the podium at the Hindustan Times Leadership Summit, he grins at you from blogposts including this one of mine ( Et tu, Raj?) and he grins at you from all news channels. Recently, all these channels went to town on how Shahrukh was the first human ever to celebrate his 42nd birthday and to have sighted 500 full moons. There he was with his trademark grin and mouthing some nonsense. He stalks and haunts you relentlessly and can materialize into being and grinning, whether you are high up in the mountains or deep inside a trench. You can never shake him away.

What I want to know is this. Is there any way I can avoid the third-degree pain of having to stare at this guy’s mug round-the-clock? Is there some method or mantra using which I can exorcise the grinning mug away from my life? Isn’t there some fundamental right that I can invoke to stop this assault on my senses? Can I file a PIL to get this national mascot replaced with something that grins less, like an elephant, tiger or peacock? In short, how can I lead a de-shahruked existence?

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Guppy behaviour

Though most women that I meet, these days, know that I am a long-married man, they continue to stare at me longingly and invitingly. I have always been puzzled by this behaviour. Most embarrassing it is at times and quite difficult to explain to the wife.

Now, I know the reason. Damn interesting. Apparently, this is due to ‘the guppy syndrome’.

To observe the effect one takes a large tank filled with female guppies, and adds about the same number of relatively indistinguishable male guppies. It doesn't take too long for the guppies to get adjusted to the new environment and, like any society, they soon begin mating. As is true with most species, it is the females who determine who gets to score, and an odd thing occurs: despite the fact that the males are all pretty much alike, some guys get all the luck, and others are spurned.

What is the explanation? Maybe the females assume that the male's previous partner had discovered some inconspicuous yet crucial quality that made him a superior mate. Or perhaps practice is the key to being a good mate, and females will always pick the male they know has put in some hours.

So, can we extrapolate this behaviour to humans?

An experiment was conducted where women were shown a series of photographs and asked to indicate which man they preferred. The moderately creepy cards had similar men's faces on the left and right, and a woman's face in the center; in each she was looking at one of the men, and wearing either a smile or a neutral expression. After perusing the array, the women generally indicated that the men receiving the virtual positive feminine attention were the more desirable.

So it seems there is some guppy in us and our mating techniques, though it's hard to say just how much.

That’s why I have a better chance of getting noticed by women when I go out with my wife than when I go alone.

I hope all you guppies out there get the point.