Saturday, December 29, 2007


Commenting on the assassination of Ms Bhutto, Bush condemned it as a ‘cowardly act”. He said the same thing about the 9/11 incidents.

Many of our own politicians typically react with the same statement whenever there is an incidence of terrorism. This is the expected response and standard rhetoric. Par for the course. And almost a requirement of protocol.

Paul Krugman in this column wonders why this inappropriate term is used at all in this context. He quotes from an article that appeared in The Slate in September 2001 :

“In truth, notions of "cowardice" and "bravery" are entirely irrelevant when we contemplate the horrors of terrorism.To call a terrorist “cowardly” is to substitute testosterone for morality. Somehow it isn’t enough to abhor an act of terrorism or even to promise to make the terrorist pay dearly. The rules demand that the terrorist be branded a sissy. This is not only a childish reflex, but one that weakens the moral force of the condemnation and thereby dishonors terrorism’s victims. After all, we don’t want brave people to slaughter innocent people any more than we want cowardly people to do so. Still, the public seems to demand that our presidents call terrorists cowards, and our presidents are too–well, cowardly–to deny them.”

Is it any better if a murderer of innocent people is a “brave murderer” instead of a “cowardly murderer”? The Slate article adds,

“Terrorism is inhumane and unforgivable--an offense to morality, patriotism, international law, and almost everything else we hold dear…The terrorists who commandeered the planes that leveled the World Trade Center and struck the Pentagon are mass murderers. In committing murder, they also committed suicide. That hardly makes them heroes. But in what sense does it make them cowards?"

It hardly matters what words we use to describe such reprehensible acts, but we cannot downplay the importance of semantics either. Politicians must learn to use more appropriate terms.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Who asked Symonds to read a book?

One of the tidbits displayed on the screen when the India-Australia test match was being telecast today was that the coach, Buchanan, had once asked Andrew Symonds to read a couple of serious books: Spencer Johnson's motivational tract “Who Moved My Cheese?” and Mitch Albom's “Tuesdays With Morrie”, an account of his conversations with his terminally ill sociology professor. Buchanan's intention, according to ex-captain Steve Waugh, was to "challenge and provoke" the world-beating team. (source)

Andrew Symonds, a cricketer of intimidating strength and speed, told Buchanan later: "Didn't read it. Don't read books." Simple. Succinct.

Why a seasoned coach like Buchanan should think that Andrew Symonds needed more motivation is something I am unable to fathom. If I were his coach, my worries would be different. I would think of ways to keep him less motivated and try to contain his exuberance, by administering a strong sedative or two. The guy certainly doesn’t need to be challenged or provoked with burning issues concerning movement of Spencer Johnson’s cheese. He can tear, with his raw hands, twenty copies of the book bound together.

Update 3/1/08 : The manner in which the guy batted yesterday! Australia 6 wickets down for 120, and then he knocks the stuffing out of our bowling. And, the way he stopped a ball near the fence today. He certainly doesn't need motivation books to pep him up further, trust me.

The musical mystery

When trying to read the reviews in “The Hindu” today of the many concerts in Chennai, as part of the ‘Carnatic Music season’, I found that I couldn’t understand a thing. Far from de-mystifying the music for the benefit of those less conversant with the nuances, the reviewers take delight in intellectualising and making it even more incomprehensible.

Attending these concerts, in the first place, can be an unnerving experience, as the musicians follow a strict protocol of not providing any pre-amble by way of introduction or explanation on what the song is about, what is the raga, etc. In fact, the regular patrons would consider that an insult and feel short-changed, as a good part of the thrill is in the light-bulb moment when they manage to identify the raga. This ability, they strongly feel, is what separates the ‘musical men and women’ from the ‘trainee boys and girls” and so insist that the tradition should continue. I remember that there was a Tamil movie called “Sindubhairavi’ directed by K.Balachander that dwelt on precisely this blinkered view.

R.K.Narayan, in one of his short-essays, described the agony of a musically-challenged man, forced to attend a Sunday evening concert of Carnatic music.

…He sits silently in his seat. He feels bored. He tries to count the electric bulbs in the hall. He studies the faces around him. He studies a watch on someone’s wrist four chairs off. He reads an advertisement board stuck on a pillar, forward and backward, spelling it out letter by letter. He sits back in a mood of profound resignation. He looks at the dais...

The programme is attaining its zenith; the singer and his accompanists are negotiating their way through a tortuous Pallavi. Our friend notices that the drummer is beating the skin off his palm, the violinist is jabbing the air with his elbow while attempting to saw off the violin in the middle, and the vocalist is uttering a thousand syllables without pausing for breath. A triangular skirmish seems to be developing among the three on the dais. Evidently someone seems to have emerged a victor presently, for the audience which was watching the fray in rapt attention suddenly breaks into thunderous applause. There is a stir in the crowd and a general air of relaxation as the instruments are being tuned and touched up after the terrific battering they suffered a while ago.

Our friend hopes that this is the end of all trouble, but he notices, to his dismay, that it is only a pause. The audience shows no sign of leaving. The musician clears his throat and starts once more and involves himself in all kinds of complicated, convulsive noise-making. Our friend, who had a brief moment of joy thinking that it was all over, resigns himself to it again, reflecting philosophically, “Everything in this world must end sometime, even music”. A most consoling thought.

40 years after RKN wrote this piece, the truth can now be told. The anonymous friend in the article is actually me.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Dear Diary- 11

Two weeks back. Hired an auto-rickshaw to go from Point A to B. When we reached destination, the driver asked me to pay Rs 120/-. I was furious. Normal fare is only Rs 60/-. I kicked and ranted and finally we settled at Rs 80/-. Both auto driver and self parted ways in foul temper.

Today. Hired an auto-rickshaw from same Point A to Point B. At Point A, as I was boarding, driver informed me that the fare would be Rs 60. Was pleased. Chatted with the driver. Enquired about his family, his daily routine, the petrol prices, Tamilnadu politics, etc. As I got off at Point B, I decided to pay the driver Rs 80/- instead of Rs 60/- as I felt that he had been honest. Both auto driver and self went away in good mood.

Same distance. Same fare of Rs 80/- paid on both days .Wonder why I was in foul temper the first time and in a terrific mood, the second time.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007


Tired of the hackneyed ‘Frankenstein’ theme, wherein robots destroyed their creators, the science fiction writer, Isaac Asimov came up with stories of robots that obeyed his three laws, namely :

1)A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
2)A robot must obey orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
3)A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

In short, a robot was programmed to protect itself, so long as that act did not harm a human being.

Similarly, Libertarian philosophy preaches the principle of individual liberty, that an individual human being has sovereign rights over his life and property, making allowance only for the life, liberty or property of another human being. An individual enjoys total freedom, except when such freedom impinges on the freedom of another individual.

At a time when this principle was propounded or when Ayn Rand wrote her “Atlas Shrugged’ glorifying the role of entrepreneurial industrialists who created wealth in a free market, it was assumed that such acts did not harm any other human being and so were in consonance with the philosophy of individual liberty.

But, is there any act of an individual’s that does not impact another human being? . Bastiat, who came up with the definition, “Existence, faculties, assimilation—in other words, personality, liberty, property—that is what man is.”, also argued, in the same breath, that even the freedom to vote could be confined to the ones who have the capacity to weigh issues, :

“Because it is not the voter alone who must bear the consequences of his vote; because each vote involves and affects the whole community; because the community clearly has the right to require some guarantee as to the acts on which its welfare and existence depend.” ( via).

So, even my right to vote comes with a certain caveat.

But, back to the question, “Is there any act of an individual that does not impact another human being? Now, we are a little more enlightened on the matter than during the era of Ayn Rand. An American industrialist quietly pouring metal in his steel plant is consuming and depleting non-recyclable resources that belong to the earth, and emitting CO2 that adds to the greenhouse effect and changes the climate where I live. Every single substance that any one of us, using our individual freedom, quietly produce and consume - from a paper cup to pins to Coke and pizzas- profoundly impacts individuals in distant parts of the world.

That’s why the concept needs a re-think today. That’s why regulation becomes necessary. Libertarian cheerleaders again claim that a ‘carbon trade’ mechanism, when let loose in a free market, will automatically ensure the happening of whatever is intended to be achieved through regulation. This is saying that whatever harm the free market has created will be cured by the same free market, which certainly lacks credibility.

Note : Taking a cue from my previous post, a friend comments that he is not sure if I am trying nowadays to be the most humorous of the serious writers or the most serious of the humour writers and will the real Raj stand up and stop making an ass of himself? So, in deference to these sentiments, I shall label such posts as “boring stuff’ for ease of skipping. I am coming up with such posts merely to understand the subjects myself.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Quote-worthy 2

“Let it be clearly understood that the Russian is a delightful person till he tucks in his shirt. As an Oriental, he is charming. It is only when he insists upon being treated as the most easterly of Western people instead of the most westerly of Easterns that he becomes a racial anomaly difficult to handle” wrote Rudyard Kipling in his story, “The Man who knew too much”.

When I was around 28 years old, I used to experience a similar ambivalence. In a gathering of people of different age groups, should I mingle with the teenagers and be ridiculed as the ‘oldest among the younger lot’, or join the seniors and be ridiculed as the ‘most juvenile among the older lot”. Each had its merits and drawbacks.

Mercifully, this ambivalence passes when you reach 35, at which point you firmly ground yourself among the oldies. You don’t feel good, of course, but at least there is no ambivalence.

Every child goes through an emotionally-charged phase, as he or she moves from primary school to high school. From being the ‘oldest among the juniors’ to the ‘youngest among the seniors”. Calls for great mental adjustment. The transition from reigning supreme as a ‘bully’ to getting used to being ‘bullied’ prepares one for the vicissitudes of life.

Is this my last post among my first 300 ones or the the first among the next 300?

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Santa banter

In Finland, where I happened to be this week, there is concern about snow or rather the absence of it for the second Christmas in a row. Much as they look forward to warmer weather, Christmas isn’t Christmas without snow and the Finns are clearly disappointed at the delayed onset of snowing. Is it an effect of global warming? Possibly.

Another thing I noticed this time was the passion with which Santa Claus was claimed as a Finnish product. Finnair’s in-flight magazine says, “You can say many nasty things to a Finn. He may not agree, but he may not argue either. But, if you tell him or her that Santa Claus originated in some other country, you are in big trouble”. Finnair’s tag line for the season is “the official airline of Santa Claus”. Lapland in northern Finland is a popular tourist destination that promises a Santa holiday.

Santa is known here as “Joulupukki”, which means 'Yule Buck'. Joulupukki first came about as an evil, goat-like creature. Far from giving gifts to the children, he demanded their good behaviour and struck terror in their hearts. So much that in December, there were pagan festivals to ward off the Joulupukki.

So, where did the iconic, ho-hoing, red-cloaked, white bearded Santa come from? From America. Where else? As I had mentioned in an earlier post, it was a marketing creation of Coca Cola, no less. (source)

This is what Coke’s official website claims :

“Starting in 1931, magazine ads for Coca-Cola featured St. Nick as a kind, jolly man in a red suit. Because magazines were so widely viewed, and because this image of Santa appeared for more than three decades, the image of Santa most people have today is largely based on our advertising.

Before the 1931 introduction of the Coca-Cola Santa Claus created by artist Haddon Sundblom, the image of Santa ranged from big to small and fat to tall. Santa even appeared as an elf and looked a bit spooky.”

So, though the Finns have clear evidence that the tradition originated in their country, alas, the red Santa is but a branded, American caricature of their Joulupukki.

Update 25/12/07 : Here's more on Santa and Coke. ( via Seth Godin)

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Indo-Persian music

Massoud Shaari on the Persian setar ( not to be confused with the Indian sitar) and Darshan Anand on the tabla. (via BoingBoing and Raymond Pirouz). Great stuff.

Observes Raymond :

“This performance represents my belief that cultural isolationism — while helpful to further enriching an existing culture — need not be the sole mantra of culture.

The arguable lack of a cultural identity yet rich cultural diversity in America teaches us that it’s ok to let loose with cultural norms and mingle with those from different backgrounds. Collaborations such as this — in my humble opinion — can result in the most innovative outcomes.

I see culture as an opportunity to connect with the richness of one’s heritage where skills passed down from generations can be honed, and cross-cultural collaboration as an opportunity to share one’s skills and benefit from the richness of background and the honed skills of others.”

Wednesday, December 12, 2007


“Whether the shape or symbol be sonnet or sunset, curve of
fiddle-bow or curve of cricket bat, only with our own vision
may we see the light and be free to say,
“I was for that time lifted above earth
And possest joys not promised in my birth.”

Closing lines of Neville Cardus’ autobiography, “Second Innings”

I don't know

As an engineer, what I found interesting in the news reports on the delay in the launch of Atlantis, the space shuttle was NASA’s admission that they had no clue what the problem was. The fuel gauges were faulty, but the engineers had no idea at all what was causing the snags. “We are scratching our heads” said the launch director. "We are going to sleep on the problem a bit".

Such admission of ignorance is extremely rare and we don’t come across too many instances of a politician or scientist or a coach admitting that he or she did not know what the problem was. They are always required to act confident and state that they are in complete control, even when it is obvious they are not. To say “I don’t know” is to invite ridicule.

During his stay at Noakhali in 1947, Gandhi was heard muttering to himself, “Kya karun, kya karun” ( “what am I to do?”). The man who had demonstrated an amazing ability to pull out ready answers and responses to complex situations in four decades of the freedom struggle had the humility to admit he didn’t know what to do. Describing him as magnificent in this setting, V.S.Naipaul in his “India, the wounded civilization” admired Gandhi’s candour in admitting he didn’t have answers, while at the same time never losing the will to act.

If a Narendra Modi or Karunanidhi were to admit that they had no clue how to bring some situation under control, they would be torn to pieces by the opposition. So, with characteristic bravado, they will try to talk themselves out when they are cornered.

On the other hand, admission of ignorance, when stretched to an extreme can be exasperating as it was in the case of Tony “I don’t know” Snow, President Bush’s Press secretary, who used to stonewall the media with persistent replies of “I don’t know’ to any of their queries.

Also, as Donald Rumsfeld famously obfuscated once, “….there are known knowns. There are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say there are things that we now know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don't know we don't know. So when we do the best we can and we pull all this information together, and we then say well that's basically what we see as the situation, that is really only the known knowns and the known unknowns. And each year, we discover a few more of those unknown unknowns.”.

Do you have any clue what he meant. I don’t.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Records galore at Ban-galore

Rahul Dravid’s 19 runs in this test is the highest score ever by a right-handed, January-born, Mach3-using, clean-shaven, Indian ex-captain on a Saturday morning in the first innings of any test match against Pakistan in the month of December. It is true that Kapil Dev also January-born, had scored 21 runs against Pakistan at Bangalore in December 1989, after he became an ex-captain but that was on a Saturday afternoon, not morning. Moreover, he sported a moustache and was not clean-shaven. So, Dravid’s score can safely be taken into the record books.

So far, Tendulkar has scored 75 centuries in both versions of the game. Some fans say that if you counted as ‘deemed centuries’, the 25 times he has been out when he was in the 90s, the tally is actually 100 centuries. Opponents argue that if you watched the videotapes of all his 75 centuries and exclude those innings in which he had enjoyed ‘lives’, when the fielding team had dropped easy catches or when the umpire did not uphold a very confident appeal for lbw though Hawkeye cameras later showed that he was obviously in front of the stumps, then only 8 of his centuries would pass muster. But, the die-hard proponents hit back by saying that if Tendulkar had played this test in Bangalore, surely he would have notched up a century in each innings, when lesser batsman like Pathan could manage one. So, the tally according to them is 102. The argument continues. Meanwhile Tendulkar issued a typical pious statement that he would count the century he missed in Bangalore this time as one of the best he had not scored, but what was important was that the team must win, the country must get prosperous and the nation must stay united.

When Sourav Ganguly was on 178, he had created the record for the maximum number of blinks ( 7500) by any Indian batsman adjusting his contact lens. Previous record was held by Krish Srikkanth ( 7498) who had not even used contact lens.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

The delayed evidence

For more than 40 years, automobile makers, oil companies and additive manufacturers kept denying that tetraethyl lead was a serious health hazard, until a scientist named Clair Patterson hit upon a method to produce the evidence and create an awareness that ultimately led to the phase out of the chemical.

The whole story is narrated by Alan Bellows in his blog, “Damn Interesting”. Bill Bryson had also devoted an entire chapter to this subject in his best-seller, “Short History of Everything” and Alan Bellows acknowledges that his own research on the subject was inspired by that book.

The story underscores the point that it can take years or decades for clear evidence to be found, but where reasonable suspicion exists ( as it did in the case of tetraethyl lead), it is best to proceed with utmost caution, before commercializing or mass-producing anything. Alas, as we see too often, when corporate interest and profit motive become the prime drivers, reason and sanity take the back seat.

The same is true for carbon emission. There are many who feel that the whole thing has been hyped up, that no climate change has taken place or, even if it has, it is due to a natural cycle and not due to CO2, etc. Commercial interests and the lobbying power of coal producers and thermal plants keep obfuscating the whole issue. There are bloggers such as this one, who debunk the whole theory of global warming and seek out material to justify their stand. Even making allowance for different opinions to co-exist, the point is, while one can’t obtain clinching evidence to ground the theory, there are enough pointers and adequate measurements to validate the fear of irreversible climate change and to raise the red flag.

Two other interesting snippets from Alan Bellows.

1) That Thomas Midgley, who had developed the lead additive was also, in later years, the brain behind the invention of chlorofluorocarbons that caused enormous damage to the ozone layer, before they were banned. The guy was certainly talented.

2) That there is a correlation between high lead levels in the atmosphere and the crime rate. The sharp decline in US crime rates which began in the early 1990s dovetails perfectly with the reduction of leaded gasoline in the early 1970s; and other countries which followed suit saw similar declines, also delayed by twenty years. (Curiously, in the book Freakonomics, the author Steve Levitt had attributed the reduction in crime rate in the same period, to the legalising of abortion.)

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Calling all gourmets...

Tyler Cowen offers some tips for committed foodies:

For those looking to take a food vacation, I have a recommendation. Choose a country with a great deal of inequality. It sounds heartless, but look for a big gap between the rich and the poor. Iron bars on the windows and barbed wires on the fences, however bad for the residents or for your safety, are both good signs for the food.

The presence of a wealthy class of people, all other things equal, is good for food because the wealthy are a strong market for a tasty meal. That encourages quality food.

But, when we look at producers, a certain amount of poverty is sad to say, likely to produce gourmet meals. The higher the level of wages at the bottom, the harder it is to employ labour to cook the food, prepare the raw ingredients and serve and bus the tables. So, the committed foodie should look to regions where some people are very rich and others are very poor. The poor people will end up cooking for the good people. My meals in Mexico, Brazil and India are typically delicious and cheap.

….In India, the very poor cook for the wealthy, perhaps in restaurants but more commonly as their servants. It has been said that India consists of two nations. About 100 million people have living standards comparable to those of Europe and about 900 million people live in poverty, often on a dollar or two a day. The 100 million are all hiring domestic cooks and the 900 million are competing for the jobs of serving the food and doing household chores.

… Avoid desserts in ethnic restaurants in America. Calcutta may have some of the world’s best sweets but it takes a lot of time and trouble to make them right and to ensure that the ingredients are fully fresh. Quality Indian sweets are usually profitable only when the cost of labour is low and that is not the case in either Chicago or London.

- From the book, “Discover Your Inner Economist”