Saturday, March 29, 2008

When the floods come...

There is a story on Israeli tenacity, that goes like this::

“Scientists predict that in a month's time an enormous natural catastrophe will be visited upon the earth as a result of which the whole surface of the globe will be covered with water. Thereupon the Pope issues from Rome an encyclical exhorting his flock to make use of the remaining days of grace to seek salvation in Christ and to hope for resurrection. The chief Mufti of the grand mosque on Mecca issues a fatwa to all the true believers in Allah and His prophet Mohammed assuring them that they will go straight to Paradise where great pleasures await them. And the Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem calls upon all his brothers, the Children of Israel, saying, “We have four weeks to learn how to live under water."

I was reminded of this when I read this interview ( via Sepia Mutiny)) of Lee Kuan Yew. Minister Mentor, Singapore, in which he discusses the possibility of the island getting flooded due to global waming and then adds nonchalantly: “ we are already in consultations with Delft in Holland to learn how we can build dikes!”

While many of the countries keep talking about global warming or wishing it away, it is typical of Singapore to take a pragmatic approach and start preparations to tackle the eventuality.

My luxury splurge

Happened to pick up a copy of today’s issue of Mint, at the Mumbai airport. It carries a special feature on “Luxury Splurge”.

It has some useful tips on how you can spend your annual bonus that your company has generously doled out to you. The ideas are divided into three broad categories, for those earning bonuses under Rs 10 lakhs, for those earning between Rs 10 lakhs and Rs 50 lakhs and finally, those over Rs 50 lakhs.

Pleased that I was fitting into one of the categories, viz the one between zero and 10 lakhs, albeit closer to the former than the latter, I read the whole piece.

The suggested ways to spend the bonus are :

1) Participate in Bloomsbury Auctions, London on 22nd May, for collection of classic works such as Henri Cartier- Bresson’s “Marseilles” at Rs 4.8 to 5.6 lakhs
2) Buy a Vellus Aureum Zegna Suit for Rs 6 lakhs ( note Suit is spelt with a capital “S’)
3) Enjoy a 30-course dinner at El Bulli, Spain ( price around Rs 1.43 lakhs, plus Business Class Air fare approximately Rs 1.43 lakhs)

None of these appealed to me and just when I was beginning to lose interest, I spotted this suggestion to go in for a Vu LCD Television, costing only Rs 29,000. The kind of price, at last, that was within my striking distance. The fine print however said that this was a water-proofed, 15 inch TV, perfect for in-shower channel surfing. Meant, I surmised, for those who suffer from severe withdrawal symptoms if denied the facility of watching TV while in the bath.

I think I will spend my entire bonus on fitting a shower in my drawing room, so that I am not denied the pleasure of having a bath, while watching TV.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Only 99.5% similar.

The journey of mankind spanning 150000 years. (via).

So, we all originated from one place, kept multiplying and moving from place to place. So, that should make us all genetically quite similar, right?

Mark Bagel, evolutionary biologist, says we could differ more than we thought. Modern genomic studies reveal a surprising, compelling and different picture of human genetic diversity. We are on average only about 99.5% similar to each other genetically. This is a new figure, down from the previous estimate of 99.9%.

Isn’t 99.5% good enough? Why is this Bagel being so finicky about a mere 0.5%? To put what may seem like miniscule differences in perspective, he says we are somewhere around 98.5% similar, maybe more, to chimpanzees, our nearest evolutionary relatives. Modern humans spread out of Africa only within the last 60-70,000 years, little more than the blink of an eye when stacked against the 6 million or so years that separate us from our Great Ape ancestors
Bagel says that the new figure for us, then, is significant. It derives from among other things, many small genetic differences that have emerged from studies that compare human populations. Some confer the ability among adults to digest milk, others to withstand equatorial sun, others yet confer differences in body shape or size, resistance to particular diseases, tolerance to hot or cold, how many offspring a female might eventually produce, and even the production of endorphins — those internal opiate-like compounds. We also differ by surprising amounts in the numbers of copies of some genes we have.

He concludes, “What this all means is that, like it or not, there may be many genetic differences among human populations — including differences that may even correspond to old categories of 'race' — that are real differences in the sense of making one group better than another at responding to some particular environmental problem.”

I am not sure if Bagel is right when he says that we are more different than we had thought, but I am more than convinced that we remain much closer to chimpanzees than we would like to believe.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

On skirts, hairstyle and stubble

We are all aware of the old theory about economic cycles in the USA and how the wearing of shorter skirts by women is an indicator of prosperity. Shorter hemlines were in fashion during the Roaring twenties and the Swinging Sixties, both periods of boom. During the great depression of the thirties, long skirts were in vogue.

Now comes a theory, based on data collected over 20 years in Japan, that show that it is the length of the hair that really matters. Japanese women start wearing their hair short when the economy is worsening and let it grow longer when times are getting better.

Indian women have had long hair all the time and only a tiny minority wears skirts. So, we may not be able to find statistics to link these with our GDP growth. Maybe, we could cull out data on the neckline of blouses of heroines of Bollywood movies over the decades, to see if there is some correlation.

So, while I have not been able to track the economic cycles in India and the relevant correlating factors and metrices, what I have done is study the indicators of Tendulkar’s batting performance. Based on the records that I have painstakingly maintained for the last twenty years or so, I find that Tendulkar scores more runs on days that he hasn’t shaved.

Of course, we have to ignore the data for the first few years of his career, as he was not old enough to shave, but when you look at photographs after 1995 or so, on days he had scored over 50 runs, you will notice the unmistakable stubble.

So, the question some of you might have is why doesn’t Tendulkar sport a beard all the time? Why does he bother to shave when he knows that it impairs his performance?

My response to that is, why don’t the American women wear short skirts all the time, or the Japanese women grow long hair, when these are clear indicators of economic prosperity? Why bother to wear long skirts or cut hair shorter when such reckless acts are known to cause a downturn?

Never forget that indicators are what economists and analysts come up with, retrospectively, to prove a point about the past. They should never ever be used as pointers to the future.

Correct your diaries

In a significant study, scientists have determined that the Grand Canyon could be 11 million years older than previously thought. So, the correct age may be 17 million years and not 6 million years. In case you were planning to hire a Time Machine to go back to when the Grand Canyon was taking shape, it is going to cost you three times more than what you had budgeted.

On a related note, I am amazed that some people still cling to the view that the Triassic age began 230 million years ago. This is completely wrong. Paleontologists first postulated in 1862 that dinosaurs must have appeared 230 million years back. But, another 146 years have passed since. So, the Triassic Age actually began 230 million and 146 years back. You might think that the increase is a small percentage of the total, but remember that 146 years is not insignificant. Hell, it is nearly three times my age.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

India, the land of the elephant

As regular viewers of the Discovery or National Geographic channels know, elephant society, within a herd, follows a hierarchy that is strictly based on age. There is the matriarch at the top and below her, the other animals descending in order of age. Older elephants teach younger ones how to behave, when to move to a different landscape and where to forage for food. The story of the elephant’s phenomenal long-term memory is true and is a key survival mechanism. Matriarchs can remember the exact location of watering holes that they had visited many decades back, and can uncannily lead their herds to the spot.

The matriarch lives far beyond her breeding age, and it is thought that this added life span is mainly to serve the purpose of mentoring the younger generations Thus, the older the elephant, the more valuable she is to her herd.

The Indian society has followed a similar structure for many centuries, probably because the elephant has always been an iconic symbol for us. The belief that a person gets wiser with age is still so prevalent. True, not all old people are wise ( making allowance for senility), but most wise people are old. This explains why octogenarians and even nonagenarians continue to cling to power or dominate the political scene in many states.

That is why the the Prime Minister , Dr.Manmohan Singh, has referred to Mr Vajpayee as the “Bhishma Pitamaha” and has urged the latter to pay heed to his conscience and support the nuclear deal.

In one stroke, he confronts Vajpayee with a false dilemma (follow conscience, support deal, you are good; don’t follow conscience, no support deal, bad boy) and manages to invoke the guru-shishya paradigm that is sacred to most Indians.

In the various generations that Bhishma was believed to have lived through ( or in the elephant societies of today) , there wouldn’t have been any perceptible change in technology, metallurgy, skill sets, etc. So, the correlation that older = wiser might have been true. Sagacity was a simple, arithmetical aggregate of learning from experiences, retaining it in memory and applying it appropriately. More real-life experiences, more encounters with people, the better the understanding of human behaviour, natural incidents and cycles, dangers, etc..

This has changed in the last few generations. Technological changes happen and is understood best and absorbed by the ‘younger’ lot. In the corporate world today, I would put the peak age at around 30 years or so, till when you look up to seniors ( = older) to learn from. Beyond this age, if you need to learn and update yourself, turn to the younger lot.

Update 08.03.08 : Rahul Gandhi, the 38-year old icon of Indian youth is quoted as saying that when his father Rajiv Gandi died, the voice of the country’s youth had died. Rajiv had died at the age of 47.

Meanwhile, on March 1st, M.K.Stalin, son of Chief Minister Mr M.Karunanidhi, and leader of the DMK’s Youth wing, celebrated his 55th birthday.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

The death of the book?

An article ( Dec 2007) in The New Yorker, titled “Twilight of the Books’ discussed the decline in reading habit in the last few decades, coinciding with the advent and rise of television and, later, the internet.

This could affect the collective consciousness profoundly, it argues. If, over time, many people choose television over books, then a nation’s conversation with itself is likely to change. A reader learns about the world and imagines it differently from the way a viewer does; according to some experimental psychologists, a reader and a viewer even think differently. If the eclipse of reading continues, the alteration is likely to matter in ways that aren’t foreseeable.

This article is, of course, quite balanced and doesn’t argue that the change is necessarily bad; it merely states that the change will alter significantly the way we think. But there are many, (me, for instance) who cling to the view that there’s nothing to replace books.

Is this just a typical rant of a generation that was brought up to believe that reading books, the classics in particular, was the best way to educate self?.

Interestingly, at the end of the eighteenth century, when printing presses were well established and books were the primary tools of learning, William Wordsworth's friend Matthew, finding the poet sitting on a stone, urged him to quit dreaming and to read serious books--books through which the wisdom of the past sheds light on the problems of the present. Wordsworth responded with the poem, “The tables turned” in which he decried the reading habit and exhorted his friend to ‘quit his books, it’s a dull and endless strife; Let Nature be your teacher; One impulse from a vernal wood may teach you more of man, of moral evil and of good, than all the sages can…”. And concluded the poem with these stanzas, that have been much quoted since.

Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;
Our meddling intellect
Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:--
We murder to dissect.

Enough of Science and of Art;
Close up those barren leaves;
Come forth, and bring with you a heart
That watches and receives.

So, whenever a new order changes, there will be cribbers. The tussle between the change agents and those who resist change is an ongoing process.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

If not P, then Q

When Opposition members raised some objections to the generous Rs 60000-crore farm loan waiver in his Budget , the Finance Minister retorted with an obviously, well-rehearsed political poser, “Are you for the farmer or against the farmer? Stand up and be counted”. Implication being that if you are for the farmer, you won’t be opposing this waiver. On the other hand, if you are against the farmer, then stand up and say so, let the voters know….

Such arguments have been used before. The most famous one being that of George W Bush when he stated, “Either you are with us or against us in the war on terrorism”.

A form of logic or argument known as disjunctive syllogism starts with the premise that either condition P exists or condition Q exists, then goes on to claim that as condition P is not seen to be existing, therefore condition Q it must be then. You can either be pro-farmer or anti-farmer. As you are not speaking for the farmer, you must be against him.

As an argument, and if the premises are right, then disjunctive syllogism is a valid one. But, what Bush and Chidambaram did was to convert this into a false dilemma. one in which two alternative statements are held to be the only possible options, when in reality there exists one or more other options which have not been considered. In other words, even if the two options are mutually exclusive, they are not collective exhaustive. For example, I may be for the farmer, but against irrational, populist sops. This doesn’t make me anti-farmer.

Either you agree with me or you are a crook.


The Hindu carries a short report every day on some religious discourse or other that was delivered recently. Quoting from one such discourse , today’s edition said that due to the Lord’s inscrutable power of Maya, human beings were unable to comprehend his divine nature and power, but his compassion is nevertheless received and felt by his true believers. There are no calves which do not know their mothers, and the mother knows her calves too. Similarly, with God and believers, concluded the sermon.

To be a good salesman, wrote Mark Stevens in his book, “God is a salesman”, turn to God for a few lessons. Focus on educating and instilling faith, rather than on selling. Like God, the best salespersons are invisible. They never look like they are trying to sell anything.

Exponents of Harikatha and authors who resort to abstract metaphors and similes, rarely find it necessary to substantiate their statements with logic or reasoning.

But, the ‘scientist’ in me naturally militates against such nonsense. Why should the fact that a cow knows all its calves be used as an argument to claim that God knows all his believers? What is the evidence that something that works for God will also work for a salesman?

And even if we accept the fact of the invisibility of God, we hit another barrier. The Russian writer, Yakov Perelman, while discussing H.G.Wells’ famous story “Invisible Man” in his delightful book, Physics for Entertainment (1913), pointed out that the main drawback of the invisible man was that he would be blind himself, as the human eye could ‘see’ only through a medium that absorbs incoming light. So, even if were to grant the omnipotent God the powers to spot the right individuals to dispense his/her favours, then we should, at the very least, be able to spot his/her eyes somewhere, if not his/her entire self.

A friend of mine, a scientist and who is also deeply religious heard me out and said that I was only confirming what he knew all along, that I was an extremely confused individual. Why should I try to apply cold scientific reasoning in all areas of my life, he asked? He himself found his peace of mind by clearly compartmentalizing his work and his personal life into which he infused a generous dose of religion and worship of God. His 9-to5 work was all about scientific methods of questioning, collecting evidence, examining one variable at a time under controlled conditions, etc. The other part of his life involved unquestioning, total faith. These two were mutually exclusive. Problems arise only when you try to apply the rigour of scientific inquiry into the domain of religious matters and faith. Don’t waste your time in trying to cloak an ancient ritual or practice in the garb of scientific analysis. It does not require such validation.

He added that, incidentally, the history of pursuit of science itself was replete with examples of individuals who succeeded through irrational faith rather than proper reasoning. We praise Edison for his tenacity in perfecting the light bulb, when the odds were stacked up against him and it was completely irrational to battle with such improbability. “I succeeded in my 1000th attempt. I learned 999 ways of how not to develop a light bulb”, he famously proclaimed. He was guided by pure faith that his efforts would succeed. Not by reason.

Even in the argument between the creationists and evolutionists, it is not as if the former clearly comprise the religious-minded while the latter are all scientifically-trained. A fair portion of the scientific community is people of faith. So, the argument is not between believers and non-believers. The conflict is more between people of faith who insist on a literal reading of the Bible and those of faith who don’t.