Monday, January 28, 2008

What's in a name?

There was a time when tennis used to be a simple, uncomplicated game. You had Rod Laver playing Stan Smith, and Pat Cash fighting it out with Boris Becker. All decent players, with easy-to-pronounce, run-of-the-mill, down-to-earth, no-nonsense names. No spraining or twisting the tongue, when you uttered them. No breaking the jaw muscles. No danger of gasping for breath and reaching for your inhalers. No straining your asthmatic lungs.

Then, mysteriously, somewhere down the road, the Russians, the Serbs and the Croatians with indecipherable, unpronounceable and unspellable names took over the game and started tormenting the followers of the sport. Letters of the alphabet such as ‘y’ and ‘z’ which had never been known for centuries by primates or human beings, suddenly made a startling appearance, causing much confusion and sending even seasoned commentators into a tizzy. One such worthy, suffered asphyxiation when he tried to read out the name of a Russian player, without the aid of an oxygen mask. Post mortem later revealed the presence of a few ‘y’ and ‘z’ chromosomes in his cells.

It all started with a guy from Croatia by the name of Goran Ivanesevic. It was believed that his most powerful weapon was his serve. But that was not the real reason. It was his terrifying name that did the trick. Imagine that a player with a timid name such as John Brown is on one side of the court and is about to receive a serve from someone who calls himself Ivanesevic. The name keeps ringing in Brown’s sensitive ears, he gets these involuntary convulsions, the pressure mounts steadily and, in the meantime, Ivanesevic has already delivered an ace. And before poor Brown can pronounce the opponent’s name in full and wake up from his trance, Ivanesevic goes on to win the match. Brown is carried out in a stretcher in a delirious state.

Or remember Slobodan Zivojinovic, the Serbian?. His name was so intimidating that opponents would break into a cold sweat, even when the referee announced, “ Jim Courier on my left and Slobodan Zivojinovic on my right. Play about to begin. Love all”. When someone sports a name like Zivoninovic, how do you love him? You can only fear him. In the blink of an eye, Slobodan would metamorphose into Fast-Bodan. No wonder Jim went into premature retirement and started his own Courier service.

Now you have Novok Djokovic who won the Australian Open, beating Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the finals. Before the match started, there were animated discussions between the two, with the former wanting to know if the ‘t’ was silent in the latter’s surname and the latter commenting on the utter stupidity of the former adding a ‘d’ to his surname. Finally Djokovic prevailed as his name conveyed a sense of raw power, that Tsongo’s name lacked. I somehow felt Tsorry for Tsongo, as he was simply out-named.

The women’s tennis circuit has some pretty formidable line-up as well. I remember that once upon a time there was just Navratilova and her eight sisters, Ekratilova, Do-ratilova, Teen-ratilova, etc. Then along came Anna Kournikova from Anna Nagar. But, now you have Anastiya Miskina, Yelena Dementyava, Vera Zvonaryova ,Svetlana Kuznetsova, Lina Krasnorutskaya and Myasthenia Gravis. What chance does someone with a tame and docile name like Sania Mirza have, unless she changes it to Sanialana Mirzavonsky through a gazette notification and produces photostat copies in triplicate certified by a notary public?

Yes, these Russian-types are taking over the tennis world. And looks like there’s no stopping these Djuggernauts.

In my opinion, the only way to contain the might of these Russians and Serbs is by unleashing the Brahmastra of a solid South Indian name. So, if you want to tackle Janko Tipsarevic, you send in someone with an impressive name of Jayamkondam Venkatasubramanian and rattle the hell out of him. Or Muttukadu Muthukumaraswamy. If you scan the general populace in Chennai, you will soon zero in on a few hundred names with 18 syllables each. Pack the Indian contingent with such luminaries. All these names like Leander Paes are completely useless and inadequate for the occasion. Though Maheshwaran Bhuthapathinathan may just about make it.

Even in cricket, I have always felt that the failure of Murali Kartick is because he has a pathetically truncated name. Remember that the famous spin quartet of the 70s had three South Indians by the names of Bhagwat Subramanian Chandrashekar, Erappali Anantrao Srivasa Prasanna and Srinivasaraghavan Venkatraghavan. When the batsmen realised that only 22 yards separated them from bowlers of such stature and such poly-syllabic names, they would simply surrender their wickets and abandon their positions. If Murali has to make it in life, he has to call himself Thiruvellikeni Muraliamanohar Karthikeyan. Then watch the wickets tumble.

Similarly, the story of P.T.Usha missing the medal by a whisker at the Los Angeles Olympics has been flogged long enough. Not many know that the media was responsible for the disaster, by referring to her as simply P.T.Usha. That proved to be her undoing. If only good sense had prevailed and her full name of Pilavulakandi Thekkaparambil Usha had been used, she would have won the gold by a good margin, leaving her opponents in a state of catatonic shock.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

The kangaroo court and after....

Amit Varma links to a transcript of the ‘verdict’ delivered by Mike Procter after a brief hearing, in the Harbhajan case.

There has been much criticism over the manner in which the hearing was conducted and non-adherence to the basic rules of evidence. It doesn’t require Soli Sorabjee to tell us that any higher court will tear this verdict to pieces.

We are all so conditioned by the belief that ‘let a thousand guilty go unpunished, but let not an innocent be victimized” that we insist on presence of unimpeachable and incontrovertible evidence. If a trial has to be fair, it must necessarily comply with this tradition, nay these rules, we scream.

But Mike Procter is not steeped in these legal niceties and relied entirely on his instinct. Absence of evidence, according to him, was not evidence of absence. And he ruled Harbhajan guilty.

Actually, I find merit in this approach. The bane of our legal system is that it lets too many criminals off the hook, merely because adequate evidence is not presented in the manner acceptable to the court, or because the Prosecution had not substantiated its argument with photographic proofs, certified by experts as genuine. The result being that a thousand obviously-guilty persons manage to slip through the loopholes in the system.

A fair trial does not necessarily render justice. If Harbhajan had really uttered those insults at Symonds, and got away due to absence of unassailable evidence, wouldn’t injustice be done to the latter? In a case of this sort, unless a camera happened to zoom in on the individual and also record the words spoken, no evidence can be presented, even though the event might have really occurred

In his book, “Moral Minds”, the evolutionary biologist, Marc Hauser has explored the theme of human morality. He proposes that people are born with a moral grammar wired into their neural circuits by evolution and that the grammar generates instant moral judgments which, in part because of the quick decisions that must be made in life-or-death situations, are inaccessible to the conscious mind. People are generally unaware of this process because the mind is adept at coming up with plausible rationalizations for why it arrived at a decision generated subconsciously.
So, by trusting his instinct to sum up the situation and satisfying himself that the insulting words had indeed been uttered, Procter was being guided by this moral grammar. By not clinging to conventional norms of fairness, Procter may have delivered justice in this case.

I have heard that the Australian tribunals that used to investigate charges against health professionals could decide on the case, expeditiously, through such an informal hearing. Some years back, the rules were amended to allow the accused the right to insist on a formal hearing.

The same recourse is now available to Harbhajan, He has gone on appeal and will be tried by a New Zealand Judge. No doubt, one who would stick to the book and, in the absence of evidence, dismiss the charges against Harbhajan as the Prosecution had not proved its case beyond reasonable doubt.

Of course, you might argue that Procter may simply be biased against Indians. I will accept that statement if you can furnish clear evidence to back that up.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The enterprising natives

"A VOYAGE to India has hitherto been regarded as a very arduous undertaking. After being confined for five months in a ship, crossing the equator twice, rounding the Cape of Good Hope, and being exposed to many of the trials and dangers of the ocean, one is quite prepared to welcome the sight of the port whither he is bound.

No sooner is the anchor cast in the Madras Roads, than we seem in a new world; natives crowd the vessel, show you a number and variety of testimonials which they have received from gentlemen both in and out of India, and describe to you, in strange English, the inconveniences to which you must be exposed, should you venture to land without their guidance and protection.

Both sides of the ship now appear in a state of siege. Catamarans and Masula boats wait to be engaged, and their owners are anxious to gain your approbation. You can scarcely keep your gravity while you look at the grotesque appearance of the natives on the Catamarans, sitting on a small and contemptible raft in the midst of the sea, and steering the frail bark in triumph through the waves. It is a more serious concern when you descend into the Masula boat, which is to bear you through a surf that often dashes, with tremendous violence, upon the shore.

Sitting under an awning which shelters you from the sun, and embarked in a boat which, though strong and serviceable, is entirely under the management of a Hindoo pilot and Hindoo sailors, you advance in safety, through the breakers, in which a jolly-boat or a wherry, though manned with British tars, would be dashed to pieces in a moment; where many a brave man has been lost, and where many more would have perished, but for the expertness and enterprise of the natives on the Catamarans, who dive into the deep, lay hold of the sufferers, and bear them in safety to the beach.

Sure as you are that they will deceive you, if possible, and that for money alone such deeds are per-formed, yet the first services which the natives render to you, inspire you with confidence: you feel yourselves secure under their superintendence, in the midst of danger; and some of the best feelings of your nature are called into exercise, while the missionary remembers that he is the ambassador of mercy to them.

Young Mr. Munro, afterwards Sir Thomas Munro, on his arrival at Madras, engaged one of these men, and congratulated himself on meeting with such a clever fellow. His servant, after looking into his sea-chest, said, "Oh, sir! this will never do; nobody in this country wears buff waistcoats, and breeches, and thread stockings, nor sleeps upon mattresses: sheets and blankets are useless in this warm climate. You must get a table and chairs, and a new bed." He carried off all the clothes, which he valued at six guineas, to dispose of them, and never -returned".


Money's worth at Perth

Kangaroolations to the Indian team on winning the Perth test. I am glad they took my well-timed advice seriously. Call me a maverick, rebel or a freak, but in the face of such strong criticism, I have always believed that, at the end of the day, the team that bats more sensibly, bowls more intelligently and fields more diligently gets to win. At the end of the day, your total number of runs in both the innings must be more than your opponents’.

Some cynics insist that what is more important, at the end of the day, is that you must humour the umpires and keep them on the right side. But, I have always believed that you can keep the umpire on the right, only if you are bowling over the wicket. When you bowl around the wicket, he will necessarily be on your left. Of course, if you are a left-arm bowler, it works the other way, but you get the message.

Incidentally why do commentators keep using expressions such as “at the end of the day” and “ I have always believed…?

As Don Bradman said once, “At the end of the day, what matters is not only what you did at the end of the day. What you did during the rest of the day is equally important.” You won’t find this in any compilation of quotations, and this is the first time that it has appeared in print. I heard that famous quote of Don Bradman in a Tamil remake movie called Billa Bradman. I have always believed that movies are better than books.

There were several interesting moments in the test match. But, when the task was daunting, Ponting was found wanting and this will keep his critics taunting and haunting him. He batted miserably. He was quite comfortable against R.P.Singh, but struggled against Ishant Sharma. No wonder that , by the end of the day, (this time it is literal), he kept humming the tune, “I shall Singh, I shall Singh, I shan’t Sharma, I shan’t Sharma”. This soulful humming provided him some much-needed relief. I have always believed that music is a great palliative for a troubled mind.

Some people describe this as the biggest win ever for India. This is meaningless. When a nerdy looking commentator asked Rahul Dravid, which win he considered more special, Perth, Adelaide, Trent Bridge, Johannesburg or Kolkata, he rightly said that he had always believed that, at the end of the day, each was special in its own way.

I am reminded of the questions addressed to a guy called Arasu in a Tamil magazine, “Kumudam”. A typical question would be, “Compare : Sridevi’s eyes, Khusboo’s teeth and Hema Malini’s cheeks”. The venerable Arasu’s answer would be, ‘One twinkles, the other sparkles, the third wrinkles” or something equally profound. What he means to convey is that each is special in its own way. Don’t compare. I have always believed that the same truth applies to test match wins as well..

Can we repeat the performance at Adelaide? I have always believed that once is a fluke, back-to-back wins a mere coincidence and 16 consecutive wins a freakish streak. So, let’s keep our fingers crossed. Although, I admit, it is tough to walk around for a week with crossed fingers. But, I have always believed that no sacrifice is too big for the cause of the nation. At the end of the day, each one of us must do whatever we can and always believe in ourselves.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Conversation with daughter-21

(Walking back with daughter after her ‘theatre’ class)

Daughter: Where’s the car? Don’t tell me we are walking back.

Me: We are going to walk back, you brat. It takes just 10 minutes to reach home.

Daughter: 10 minutes! My aching feet!

Me: You know, I used to walk for miles, when I was your age. School, shop, playground, everywhere.

Daughter: But, it must have been so easy those days. Not so much of traffic….

Me: That’s why you need to walk now. There’s simply too much traffic already. Why add one more car?

Daughter: But, your parents let you go walking alone. I am sure you will never permit me.

Me: Suppose I permit you, will you go walking to school?

Daughter: No.

Me: So, it’s nothing to do with my permitting you.

Daughter: Oh, Oh. You are dragging me into a complicated conversation again.

Me: What do you mean, I am dragging you?

Daughter : And I know why you are doing it. You are searching for something to blog about.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

News round-up

I understand that the orange colour of the carrot is the result of Dutch cultivation in the 17th Century, when patriotic growers turned a vegetable which was then purple into the colour of the national flag.

How terrible. Was the orange also purple in colour originally? Imagine having purple juice every morning. And, imagine if a patriotic Indian had attempted a tri-colour carrot. Having two red Karats in the CPI is bad enough.

Anyway, scientists in the US say they have created a genetically-engineered carrot that provides extra calcium.

They hope that adding the vegetable to a normal diet could help ward off conditions such as brittle bone disease and osteoporosis in older women.

However, don’t start taking calcium based on above study because calcium supplements may increase the risk of a heart attack in older women, New Zealand research suggests. The University of Auckland team followed 1,471 healthy postmenopausal women for five years. Each woman either took a daily calcium supplement, or a dummy pill. Heart attacks were more common in the group who took the supplements.

But, don’t stop taking calcium on the basis of this report. Anyone who has been advised by their doctor to take calcium supplements to protect their bones should not stop doing so in light of this study alone without medical advice, says Judy O'Sullivan, British Heart Foundation.

Good news elsewhere on the medical front. Finally, a drug has been approved for the treatment of Fibromyalgia. And now the bad news. Such a disease may not exist

India walks out of agreement ,with Australia, of trusting the fielder's word on contentious low catches. In retaliation, Australia reversed its earlier decision to sell uranium to India. (Source) as the latter had not signed the non-proliferation treaty. Should Indians try to hit back by injecting bacteria from cows into the intestines of kangaroos?

Meanwhile, the Americans are also bad-mouthing the Indians. Here is a comparison of quality of engineers from American and Indian universities. “Dozens of employers asked to compare American engineers to their much-vaunted colleagues from India and China agreed that “in education, training, quality of work, you name it, in every which way, Americans are better.” Even the best schools in those countries “don’t hold a candle to our best schools,” he continues. Newly hired American university graduates “become productive within 30 days or so. If you hire a graduate of an Indian university, it takes between 3 and 6 months for them to become productive.”

But, before recruiting Americans, bear in mind that many Americans remain ignorant about much of science,. Many are unable to answer correctly when asked whether Earth moves around the Sun (it does).

Monday, January 14, 2008

Cliche Corner

I understand that Sachin Tendulkar spent some time with Yuvraj Singh and gave him some valuable tips, to break his lean trot with the bat. And what were they? After analysing the latter’s game and thinking long and hard, he dispensed the wise advice that Yuvraj should tighten his game for the first 15 minutes of an innings.

You might think that such rudimentary stuff is meant for 12-year old schoolboys attending coaching classes for the first time, and not to someone playing Test cricket. But, apparently, it is never too late to be taught the basics. Any time is funda time. No opportunity is to be missed for mouthing cricketing clichés.

So, here are some useful tips for the Indian cricket team as they get ready to face the Aussies in the third test match to be played at Perth from the 16th.

It is absolutely important that the openers give us a good start and the middle order builds on that foundation and consolidates. The tail-enders should also chip in with some useful contribution. Every little bit counts, trust me..

Knowing the way the Perth wicket behaves, my advice to the batsmen would be to get their eyes in, keep their heads down, watch the ball carefully, leave the wide deliveries alone, punish the loose ones, keep the scoreboard moving with singles and twos, pierce the field for the occasional boundary or more by placing the ball well, rotate the strike cleverly, and avoid mix-up in running between the wickets.

When it is our turn to bowl, the Indians must pitch the ball at the right length and maintain a tight line. A couple of early break-throughs, followed by a few more wickets will put the team right on top, believe me. Medium pacers must make the ball move away or into the batsmen, depending on whether they are attempting an out-swinger or an in-swinger. Spinners should vary the arc, flight, spin and the pace judiciously to keep the batsmen guessing. Don’t believe the story spread by the Aussies that the ball spins in the opposite direction in the southern hemisphere, due to negative Coriolis effect. And, avoid bowling no-balls at any cost. Make sure that, at the point of delivery, both your feet are planted well behind where the umpire is standing.

The importance of fielding cannot be overemphasised. Every run saved when you are fielding is one run less to chase when you are batting. When throwing in from the deep, make sure that the ball goes straight into the wicket-keeper’s hands, unless you are aiming to knock the stumps at the bowler’s end. Grab all catches that come your way, for, if I may coin an ingeniously original phrase, catches win matches.

The wicket-keeper must not stand too close to the stumps as to be beaten by the faster deliveries, nor stand too far as to miss stumping chances. He should stand somewhere between first slip and leg-slip, on the line perpendicular to the one connecting the square-leg umpire and point.

And, finally, some words for the Indian captain. You must be in control of the situation at all times, either by leading from the front or by pushing from the back. Remember to win the toss and decide correctly on whether to bat or field first. Set the field to suit the circumstances and to contain the batsmen. Bear in mind that the Indian cricketers are our ambassadors and should, at least, perform as well as the cars of that name. Incidentally, I hope that you remembered to have your car removed from your garage in your residence at Bangalore. As Wasim Akram pointed out once, it is always a good idea to take this precaution.. If you win the match, the crowd will notice that you don’t have a car and will gift you one. If you lose the match, the crowd will not be able to find your car to burn it.

I am sure that if these simple tips are followed, the Inspired Indians can take the pants off the Awesome Aussies.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

The moral sense

In an article in The New York Times, Steven Pinker asks:

Which of the following people would you say is the most admirable: Mother Teresa, Bill Gates or Norman Borlaug? And which do you think is the least admirable?

For most people, it’s an easy question. Mother Teresa, famous for ministering to the poor in Calcutta, has been beatified by the Vatican, awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and ranked in an American poll as the most admired person of the 20th century. Bill Gates, infamous for giving us the Microsoft dancing paper clip and the blue screen of death, has been decapitated in effigy in “I Hate Gates” Web sites and hit with a pie in the face. As for Norman Borlaug . . . who the heck is Norman Borlaug?

Yet a deeper look might lead you to rethink your answers. Borlaug, father of the “Green Revolution” that used agricultural science to reduce world hunger, has been credited with saving a billion lives, more than anyone else in history. Gates, in deciding what to do with his fortune, crunched the numbers and determined that he could alleviate the most misery by fighting everyday scourges in the developing world like
malaria, diarrhea and parasites. Mother Teresa, for her part, extolled the virtue of suffering and ran her well-financed missions accordingly: their sick patrons were offered plenty of prayer but harsh conditions, few analgesics and dangerously primitive medical care.

These examples show that our heads can be turned by an aura of sanctity, distracting us from a more objective reckoning of the actions that make people suffer or flourish.

Today, a new field is emerging, says Steven Pinker, that uses illusions to unmask a sixth sense, the moral sense.. Far from debunking morality, then, the science of the moral sense can advance it, by allowing us to see through the illusions that evolution and culture have saddled us with and to focus on goals we can share and defend. The science of moral sense can help in clarifying what morality is and how it should steer our actions.

We could do with a thorough grounding in this science, don’t you think?

And maybe, the next time, a Miss World aspirant, if asked who she would like to be born as if given a choice, would not come out with the cliched reply "Mother Teresa".

Dear Diary-12

Dear Diary,

I had to get up six times last night to apply Odomos on self. Otherwise, I would have been carried away by the mosquitoes into a far-off domain, unknown to and unseen by human beings.

I have been soaking up tons of this stuff and I suspect that I constantly exude the aroma of lemongrass from the tiny pores of my skin. This explains why people get alerted to my imminent arrival in a room, a few minutes before I reach there. They probably get this tingling sensation in their olfactory nerves that forewarns them.

If you have read the Asterix comics ( who hasn’t?), you will know that all the Gauls energise themselves with a magic potion prepared by their druid, before they get into battle. All except Obelix, who had fallen into a cauldron of magic potion when he was a baby, and consequently was conferred the benefit for life, and was spared the burden of having to re-charge himself every now and then.

I wish I had been dropped into a huge cauldron containing a concentrated paste of Odomos , when I was a child and had attained life-long immunity to mosquitoes. Would have saved me the hassle of getting up six times a night, for life.

Friday, January 11, 2008

To doubt is to rebel...

This absorbing report ( courtesy, Google Books) written by a British Railway Engineer in the year 1847, was in the nature of a ‘project viability study’ for the construction of railway lines in India, involving private capital and Sovereign guarantees..

It makes an evaluation of the potential for passenger and freight traffic, the fares that could be reasonably charged, the competition from conventional bullock carts and waterways, the likely return on capital employed, the inhibitions of the natives while accepting anything new, the availability of timber, the problem of white ants eating into the timber, the caste prejudices and the need for earmarking separate carriages for Mohamedans, upper caste, lower caste Hindoos and ladies, etc. It even addresses the concern whether “pilgrims in India would avail themselves of a railway, as the act of going on a pilgrimage was an act of mortification which required the pilgrim to walk on foot” and states confidently that “no pilgrim walks out of choice; all of them would take advantage of a cheap and quick conveyance if offered to them”

The report concludes with this grand vision:

…” In all probability, the line will not stop at the frontier, but will pass on into Persia, and perhaps eventually into Turkey, until at last it reaches Constantinople; and then we shall be able to pass from London to Calcutta in less than a week.”

Conscious of the disbelief that such a wild and reckless statement could cause, the author adds:

We know that to most persons this would appear a visionary expectation, but in everything relating to the achievements of steam, the visionary people have been far oftener right than those who plume themselves so much with their practical sagacity. It was visionary twenty years ago to talk of a speed exceeding ten miles per hour on a railway; it was visionary to expect steam vessels to navigate the open ocean; it was visionary to maintain a steam communication with India by way of the Red Sea and the Egyptian desert; it was visionary to connect Ostend by railway with Constantinople, which is now doing or done; and until the other day it was visionary to project a railway from Delhi to Calcutta;

Every great step in the world’s progress has at the first been visionary; but the rapidity with which steam works its enchantments, confounds the arithmetic of practical stolidity. Practical men, it appears, have yet to learn that in such anticipations, “to doubt is to rebel” and that in resolving the question of the probabilities of human progress, rashness lies in scepticism than in faith.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Had it been......

At lunch, on the last day of the second test match at Sydney, I heard an animated discussion between Ravi Shastri and Wasim Akram over a ‘life’ that Dravid had enjoyed. Andrew Symonds had just dropped a catch that Dravid had offered. But, to complicate matters, the replay showed that it was off a no-ball. To further complicate matters, the umpire had not declared it a no-ball.

So, Ravi Shastri’s sage comment was that, had Symonds caught the ball, Dravid would have been out, even though it was off a no-ball, because the umpire had not called it so. So, Dravid should consider himself very lucky. I switched off the TV at this point, as my head was spinning like a ball delivered by Shane Warne, had he been playing that day and had he been bowling, which he wasn’t, because he had retired and wasn’t in the team..

When I started to appreciate the game of cricket, many decades back, things were blissfully uncomplicated. There was no need to worry over imaginary situations or agonise over missed chances or earned lives. Batting was simple and binary. Either you were out or not out. And you moved on or moved out.

Not so, today. You have to consider all likely outcomes in all parallel universes, weigh all possibilities and discuss all hypothetical angles. All. Not many.

What if the bowler had bowled a no-ball, the umpire had not called it so, then Dravid had offered a catch, Symonds had caught it off the second bounce, but claimed that he had actually caught it, and the umpire had given Dravid out?

What if the bowler had not bowled a no-ball, but the umpire had called it that, Dravid had spooned the ball to second slip, and the fielder had taken it, but Dravid continued to bat?

What if the umpire had not called it a no-ball, Dravid had offered a catch, the fielder had taken it, Dravid had walked back, but the camera had missed out the angle in the first place and Ravi Shastri did not know that it was a no-ball and nobody was any wiser?

What if, just at the time Harbhajan Singh had called Andrew Symonds an oversized primate, a huge tree had crashed in the forest close by, and the resulting noise had drowned out the racial abuse that Harbhajan had hurled, and nobody had heard it , least of all Ravi Shastri? What would Mike Procter’s verdict have been, if the matter had been referred to him? Harbhajan uttered those damaging words all right, but nobody heard him in the din of the tree crashing. Would he be guilty or not guilty?

Yes, one has to consider all possibilities. And, as Sherlock Holmes liked to pontificate, once you eliminate all that is impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, is the truth.

But, here’s a rider to that. Nothing is impossible for Ravi Shastri.

Update : What if you had not read this post or if I had not heard Ravi Shastri talking about the no-ball that the umpire had not noticed and which might have accounted for Dravid’s wicket had Symonds not dropped the ball? Would the world still be the same? Wouldn’t it be an interesting thought experiment like the Schrodinger’s cat?

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

On mobile phones.

There’s this old yarn about a man who was in a bar, merrily drinking away, when his mobile phone rang. It was his wife, on the other end. “How did you find out I was at the bar?” he enquired incredulously.

I thought this was dumb, but Police in South Africa's capital, Pretoria, claim to have caught the "dumbest criminal" this year. (Source : BBC News)

The man walked into a station to report that he had been held up at gunpoint by a gang who had stolen his mobile phone.

But when the detective phoned the number of the phone reportedly stolen, it rang in the complainant's pocket.

My advice to all of you is to keep your mobile phones in silent mode. Just in case you have to carry it in your pocket to report its loss to the Police.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Goodness Gaseous!

In the circles I move in, I am viewed as quite a broad-minded chap. Just because I am an engineer by profession, I don’t look down condescendingly on those less-fortunate ones such as doctors, teachers, pilots, accountants and scientists to name a few.

There are people ,I know, who make a living out of exploring the Antarctic, some who specialize in the study of the behaviour of wart-hogs in Africa and even those like Red Adair who get a high out of putting out wild fires from oil wells. It takes all sorts to make this world.

So, when I read that Dr.Michael Levitt, the gas guru, has spent the better part of his life, comparing the, er, exhaust emissions of men and women and publishing factoids about, flatus, my reaction is quite subdued. To each his own fetish, I say. To each his own chosen vocation. Each to answer his own calling, I conclude and leave Dr.Levitt to his, er, fartistic pursuit.

I also have this ability to look at the brighter side of things. So, when I come across this piece which explains that scientists in Australia are trying to inject kangaroo bacteria into the intestines of cows, to make the latter let out methane-free gas like the former, I don’t complain, “ Why can’t cows learn to keep their rumblings abdominal less phenomenal like the kangaroo?”. Instead I thank the benevolent Lord that he had not programmed the methane-rich cow to jump 9.14 metres into the air like the kangaroo and with each leap spread its gaseous bounty all over the place. The Lord God made them all, I reason, and ours is not to tinker with his creations. He who made it knew what it needed to emit, better than a man like me, I praise Him and move on.

Barrier to entry

When the G8 countries force us to submit to safeguards, before permitting us to source fuel for nuclear power plants, or when they ask us to exercise restraint before adding more coal-based plants, I see red.

These countries have built up such a stockpile of nuclear arsenal and when India is poised to enter the club, they start sermonising us. And, when we try to improve our per-capita consumption of energy from the current pathetic levels, they warn us about the hazards of CO2 and global warming. This, after their vulgar consumption of energy for several decades now, during which they have wrecked the planet and brought us close to extinction.

What oligopolistic hypocrisy! Use up fuel mindlessly, spew CO2 recklessly, but introduce entry barriers for new entrants aspiring to cross the consumption threshold.

And now, I hear that Tata’s much-publicised 1-lakh car is about to hit the market.

I again turn red. As if our roads are not choked enough and as if our cities are not polluted enough. Do we really want to open the floodgates and unleash thousands of small cars into our roads and paralyse the arterial roadways and the bronchial airways? Why can’t these guys be contented with their scooters and mopeds?

Those of us who were the first to buy and own cars must get together and place some entry barriers to prevent these senseless new aspirants from crossing the 4-wheel threshold and choking the road with their 1-lakh cars.

Update : While I was trying to bring out the 'double standards' we all follow, blogger Coyote is quite harsh on the critics of the car, "This is just incredible arrogance, attempting to deny millions of people the prosperity which western environmentalists already share..".

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Use less useless stuff.

I had, once, done some back-of-the-envelope calculations which revealed that a total sum of Rs 2,50,000/- gets blown up each year by parents of 25 kids in my daughter’s class, in purchase of useless stuff for birthday parties.

It is an example of Metcalfe’s law that states that the value of a network is proportional to the square of the number of users. Though stated in the context of tele-communcations, this has implications in many fields.

For instance, greeting card companies exploit this law to good effect. I send cards to 25 people who in turn send them to 25 people (including me) and the number of transactions keeps growing exponentially. This must be a business worth several crores.

Someone gave me a calendar last week which contains ‘useful’ information on auspicious dates and other astrological details. I threw it in the dustbin, the minute the person left. I read somewhere that the printing of diaries and calendars is a multi-crore business, but more than 95% of the stuff produced is never put to use. Ten of you present me stuff that I don’t need and never can use. I do the same thing to ten of you. And so on.

The excuse that producing such stuff and distributing them, keeps several people employed should never be accepted. It can be argued, in the same tone, that smoking, bootlegging, drug-peddling, etc provide gainful employment to many and help their families.

Also, to justify the practice as a necessary part of social intercourse is wrong. Greetings and best wishes can be expressed verbally and passionately, without the accompaniment of material accessories.

As the “Story of Stuff” points out, a linear process of production-consumption-disposal in a single planet with finite resources simply cannot last indefinitely. We can start with avoiding distribution of the completely useless New Year gifts.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Visa Master

I had not heard of the Visa God of Hyderabad, before I saw this link to an article in WSJ. An extract:.

...., technical colleges sprouted up in the city's outskirts near Mr. Gopala Krishna's temple. Students started trickling by on their way home from school; many complained about their failed attempts to secure U.S. visas. That gave the priest an idea to sell the students on the deity by giving him a new persona, "Visa God." Mr. Gopala Krishna counseled the students in English, then told them to walk around the temple 11 times to get their wish. "I used to say, 'Go, this time you'll get it,'" he recalls.

Soon, Mr. Gopala Krishna started seeing dozens -- then hundreds -- of new visitors a day. In 2005, some local newspapers wrote about the Visa God, just as new U.S. visa restrictions were taking a toll. Mr. Gopala Krishna and his relatives also launched a Web site and a newsletter called Voice of Temples, with features like a primer of sample prayers for help in visa interviews.

Of course, this shouldn’t come as a surprise to us. Nothing ever happens in India without a religious ritual preceding and/or succeeding it. I am sure even the scientists at SHAR Space Centre consult astrologers before fixing the time of any launch. No design of any manufacturing facility or power plant in India is finalized without being cleared by experts on Vaastu Sastra. Religion, ritual, superstition, science and life are all rolled into a seamless, homogenous blurred reality..

In fact, we have been in this religious trance for several centuries, as Naipaul points out in his book, “ Area of darkness” that he wrote after visiting India for the first time in 1964. He says that it is just as well that Indians did not know or care too much about their history as they would not be able to bear to hear the terrible truth.

There was a glorious past all right, but that was over by the 10th century. Later, when the conquerors arrived from the west, we chose to go into our religious trance (which was the cause and which was the effect can be debated) and, except for sporadic and token protests, remained unconcerned about who the ruler was. Though their intentions were not altruistic, it required the British to partially wake us from the stupor. As some commentators point out, the importance of the year 1857 did not stem out of the Mutiny alone; it was also the year when the three Universities of Bombay, Madras and Calcutta were formed. Enrolment of Indians and the consequent awareness it created led to the first pan-Indian calls for Swaraj.

Among the first generation of Indians to be educated, many could not come to terms with the dichotomy created by scientific facts on the one hand and religious beliefs on the other. The story of Ramunajam, the mathematician, is an illustration. Though the exposure to and the passion for the subject pulled him to England, he credited his acumen to the goddess Namagiri and continued to believe that he was merely an instrument to demonstrate her powers. In his biography of Ramanujam titled, “The man who knew infinity”, Robert Kanigel narrates several instances where Ramanujam was ‘haunted’ by what he thought were the visions of the goddess, that often disrupted the flow of his work.

Nothing has changed today, but we are more comfortable in confronting the dichotomy. It doesn’t strike us as funny that we should start a Research Institute that would seek out facts based on scientific rigour and methods, yet will carefully avoid the Rahukala while inaugurating the facility. Sophisticated fire alarms are installed in modern buildings, but are de-activated on Friday afternoons, when the weekly puja takes place.

So, if a student of engineering and an IT professional see nothing irrational in invoking the blessings of the Visa God, before going to the US consulate, should we be surprised?.

Friday, January 04, 2008

The face that dad drew

(Via), I enjoyed this three-part story (Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3) narrated by a son, looking into the history of a face that his dad had been drawing for the last 60 years.

"My father has been drawing this same ‘face’ on my birthday cards and cakes for as long as I remember. I recently started pressing him for info about this face that he’s been drawing for 60 years and it all unfolded with a completely unexpected and satisfying ending."


In her article in the “Corporate Dossier” ( supplement to The Economic Times), Rama Bijapurkar writes:

… Ironically, the infrastructure collapsing all around us will make some sectors gain. To illustrate this with an example. Too much air traffic and too little airport capacity may lead to enormous waste of time and energy and aircraft fuel. And for each person delayed at the airport, there is the cascading effect of at least three more people whose day is derailed as a result. But then the cell phone industry is laughing all the way to the bank- people are on the phone all the time, re-scheduling again and again and again. ..The food business at airports have gained- so many bored travellers, quaffing beverages and as the supply of food at airports grows (dimsums are now available at Delhi airport) they are spending more than they usually would have.

Though she hasn’t stated it in so many words , finally, I understand the business model of these low-cost airlines. Lure people with incredible low fares and ensure their footfall at the airport. Once they enter and are held captive there due to delayed flights, they will spend two to three times the cost of their airfare on mobile phone calls and snacks at the cafeteria. I suspect that the phone companies and the caterers then pass on a hefty commission to the airline that obliged them with the delay in the first place. The airline thus recovers more than the full fare. The whole thing is like the seemingly complicated but elegantly simple structuring that Enron used to conjure up.

Almost all the interactive and reality shows on TV collude with the mobile phone companies to make millions of viewers send out messages that are charged much higher. So, the theory of airline-phone nexus is not too far-fetched.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

(Un)real world

Why do children ( or,for that matter,adults) spend so much time in an unreal world of fantasy, when there is evolutionary advantage in learning more about the real world?

Alison Gopnik, psychologist, UC Berkeley explains in her article, while responding to The Edge Annual Question 2008 “ What have your changed your mind about?”

For human beings the really important evolutionary advantage is our ability to create new worlds. Look around the room you're sitting in. Every object in that room - the right angle table, the book, the paper, the computer screen, the ceramic cup was once imaginary. Not a thing in the room existed in the pleistocene. Every one of them started out as an imaginary fantasy in someone's mind. And that's even more true of people - all the things I am, a scientist, a philosopher, an atheist, a feminist, all those kinds of people started out as imaginary ideas too. I'm not making some relativist post-modern point here, right now the computer and the cup and the scientist and the feminist are as real as anything can be. But that's just what our human minds do best - take the imaginary and make it real. I think now that cognition is also a way we impose our minds on the world.

…..When children learn and when they pretend they use their knowledge of the world to create new possibilities. So do we whether we are doing science or writing novels. I don't think anymore that Science and Fiction are just both Good Things that complement each other. I think they are, quite literally, the same thing.

So, ‘pretend play’ is not without some use. So, go right ahead and pretend that you are Superman, or Rajnikanth or whatever. That’s the way to unleash your creativity.