Friday, May 30, 2008

The perfect voice

In my previous post, I had referred to the plight of frogs and crickets whose mating calls get drowned in the high noise generated by human beings and, sadly, do not reach the intended recipients.

The problem is no less acute for the human race, believe me. There is far too much competition. And far too many voices riding the sound waves.

So, if you are a human being, as I suspect you are, and you want your voice to stand out amidst that of thousands of human beings and reach out to your potential mate, what do you do?

What you need to do is speak in such a manner that you utter no more than 164 words per minute and pause for 0.48 seconds between sentences. Sentences themselves should fall rather than rise in intonation. Make sure that your voice exhibits vocal traits associated with positive characteristics, such as confidence and trust. (source)

Using that formula, unleash the cultivated voice in the vicinity of the prospective mate and watch him or her, as the case may be, swoon and drop into your waiting arms.

And, when you arms are free, remember to send me a ‘thank you’ note


While on a trek through the elephant sanctuary near Thekkadi, after we had walked a couple of km, the guide asked us to stop, to remain absolutely silent and to start behaving like animals. Not what you imagine. What he was trying to tell us was that, once we were inside a forest, we should alert all our senses and watch out for small cues such as footmarks, or pick up sounds from different types of birds and animals. In a matter of a few minutes, he identified and pointed out the sounds from twelve different bird types, bearing exotic names such as blue-billed cockatoo, white-eyed mockatoo, red-tailed sockatoo, green-winged lockatoo, etc.

That was many years back. Today, if you were to go into the same forest, you will not be able to hear the cockatoo or the mockatoo, or for that matter the sockatoo and lockatoo. That’s because their characteristic sounds have been drowned by the racket made by human machinery.

Bernie Kraus, a field recording scientist, says that the natural sound of the world is vanishing. He'll be deep inside the Amazon, recording that cricket, but when he listens carefully he also hears machinery: The distant howl of a 747 or the dull roar of a Hummer miles way. (source)

Krause has a word for the pristine acoustics of nature: biophony. It's what the world sounds like in the absence of humans. But in 40 percent of the locations where Krause has recorded over the past 40 years, human-generated noise has infiltrated the wilderness. "It's getting harder and harder to find places that aren't contaminated," he says.

According to Kraus, in a biophony, animals divide up the acoustic spectrum so they don't interfere with one another's voices. So, a spectrogram of a wilderness recording, in which all the component noises are mapped according to pitch would look like the musical score for an orchestra, with each instrument in its place. No two species are using the same frequency. When they issue mating calls or all-important warning cries, they aren't masked by the noises of other animals.

But what happens when man-made noise — anthrophony, as Krause dubs it — intrudes on the natural symphony? Maybe it's the low rumble of nearby construction or the high whine of a turboprop. Either way, it interferes with a segment of the spectrum already in use, and suddenly some animal can't make itself heard. The information flow in the jungle is compromised.

So, if you are a male frog and you send out a mating call hoping to get a favourable response from a female of your species ( or vice versa to keep this blog gender neutral), you might not get any, as your croaking for all its sex appeal would have been jammed by the noise from a tractor nearby. Soon, no frogs and no Prince Charmings would be around.

All due to the anthrophonic acoustic imprint that you selfish human beings imposed on this planet.

Shame on you.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Well fed

“For 50 years, the Dalai Lama asked us to use peaceful means to solve the problems, and that achieved nothing. China just criticizes him. After he’s gone, there definitely will be violent resistance”- a monk is quoted as saying in an article titled “Fed up with peace”.

Whereas Gandhi used non-violence as a principle and as a tactic, the Dalai Lama, according to his critics, has mistaken non-violence for mere, passive resistance and has been ineffective.

Observers also point out that such a weak movement is unlikely to cut ice with the Chinese, who unlike the British against India, and without the burden of democracy, don’t have to worry about public sentiment.

Why is the Dalai Lama persisting with his policy of peaceful protests and not showing more aggression? One reason I can think of is that he is starving all the time. According to his official website, for breakfast, His Holiness typically has hot porridge, tsampa (barley powder), bread with preserves, and tea. For lunch, when in Dharamsala, he eats a light vegetarian meal. He has a cup of tea at 6 pm, and as ordained for Buddhist monks, skips dinner.

How can you expect him to shed his inhibitions and turn to aggression against the Chinese, when he is not feeding himself properly?

As P.G.Wodehouse wrote in one of his Mulliner stories, “"Why is there unrest in India? Because its inhabitants eat only an occasional handful of rice. The day when Mahatma Gandhi sits down to a good juicy steak and follows it up with roly-poly pudding and a spot of Stilton, you will see the end of all this nonsense of Civil Disobedience”

Bradbury tales

What is the earliest event in your life that you can remember? Think back. Maybe a wedding you went along with your parents or a vacation. It is unlikely that you were less than three years old then.

Ray Bradbury has claimed in his autobiography that he clearly remembers the day he was born. “"I have what might be called almost total recall back to my birth," he says.”This is a thing I have debated with psychologists and with friends over the years. They say, 'It's impossible.' Yet I remember." Ray had overstayed his time in the womb by a month, and it was his theory that the additional incubation time may have heightened his senses. (source)

A chapter titled ‘Can a person remember being born?”, in “How Stuff works” provides an explanation.

Psychologists refer to the inability of most adults to remember events from early life, including their birth, as childhood amnesia. More than a century later, researchers have yet to pin down a precise explanation for why childhood amnesia occurs.

For a long time, the rationale behind childhood amnesia rested on the assumption that the memory-making parts of babies' brains were undeveloped and that, around age 3, children's memory capabilities rapidly accelerate to adult levels. However, psychologists have discovered that children as young as 3 months old and 6 months old can form long-term memories.

To form memories, humans must create synapses, or connections between brain cells, that encode sensory information from an event into our memory. From there, our brains organize that information into categories and link it to other similar data, which is called consolidation. In order for that memory to last, we must periodically retrieve these memories and retrace those initial synapses, reinforcing those connections.

Now we know that babies have a strong implicit memory and can encode explicit ones as well, which indicates that childhood amnesia may stem from faulty explicit memory retrieval. Unless we're thinking specifically about a past event, it takes some sort of cue to prompt an explicit memory in all age groups [source: Bauer].

What are those cues?

Language skills.

Our earliest memories may remain blocked from our consciousness because we had no language skills at that time. A 2004 study traced the verbal development in 27- and 39-month old boys and girls as a measure of how well they could recall a past event. The researchers found that if the children didn't know the words to describe the event when it happened, they couldn't describe it later after learning the appropriate words [source: Simcock and Hayne].

In addition, we develop knowledge of our personal past when we begin to organize memories into a context. Many preschool-age children can explain the different parts of an event in sequential order, such as what happened when they went to a circus. But it isn't until their fifth year that they can understand the ideas of time and the past and are able to place that trip to the circus on a mental time line.

So, Ray Bradbury may have had a brain structure that was superior to that of all other babies ever born, but he would not have had the language skills, the sense of self, or the awareness of the context, for him to retrieve the moment of his birth from memory.

So, how do you explain his claim then? Simple. He was just pulling a fast one.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Were Tamilians the first Pakistanis?

Here is someone putting forward a theory – or, perhaps reviving an old one- that there was an Indus Valley civilization which belonged to the Vedic culture. The Aryans, the horse-chariot people, displaced and pushed it south. The horse-people with no culture of their own adopted the Vedic culture and the Vedic Indus Valley civilization had a second innings.

Also, he adds, while an entire swathe of land stretching from Gujarat to Spain shares an Indo-European family of languages, a notable exception is the Kalat region of Baluchistan, where more than two million people speak Bruhai, a Dravidian group of language. Ergo, Tamil is the oldest of all present Indian languages and Tamilians were perhaps the first Sindhis.

Then, he digresses slightly and wonders if the Ramayana took place in Russia? The epic mentions horses, which were not to be found in India then. Was Ram a Cossack, the most famed of all horse-people? Doesn’t “Valmiki” sound Russian, perhaps a corruption of Vladmikhailovich, who lived in the present Russian town named Sverdlovsk, formerly perhaps Swargalok?

My own theory is that the Ramayan wasn’t written by Valmiki at all, but by someone else bearing the same name.

Chatter, beware.

As a frequent traveller, I’ve had my share of aggressive co-passengers intent on starting a conversation and hell-bent on ruining my sleep. Not that I am particularly unsociable or hostile, but there are times when a man just wants to be left alone.

How does one stop the nuisance without appearing too rude or impolite?

Charlie Brooker, a columnist in The Guardian, who had a similar misfortune of being driven back home by a garrulous taxi-driver, recalls a passage from a book he had read once and which might just do the trick :

“Turn to your unwanted companion at the first opportunity, and explain to him or her that you have a condition which makes you sleep with your eyes open. It's harmless, you say, but it can be quite creepy - so you're taking the opportunity to warn them in advance so they don't freak out later. Then you sit back in your chair and silently wait a while. After about 10 minutes, slowly loll your head sideways toward them, keeping your eyes wide open the whole time, and stay there, staring at the side of their face, for as long as possible. They'll be far too weirded out to utter a word”

I will try this out next time.

Raw carrots and processed tomatoes

Numerous studies show that people who consume lots of vegetables have lower rates of heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, eye problems and even cancer, according to this article.

But, you’ve got to find the best way to eat them.

If you eat them raw, you will have high levels of Vitamin A and relatively high dose of beta carotene, but you will fall short on lycopene. On the other hand if you cook spinach, you rob it of 64% of its Vitamin A.

Processed tomatoes actually have higher lycopene than fresh tomatoes. Boiling is better for carrots than steaming, frying or serving them raw, though it results in the complete loss of polyphenols.

Broccoli is best eaten after microwaving or pressure-cooking rather than boiling or steaming, as it then retains 90% of its nutrients.

So, don’t take chances. Hedge your risks by eating a variety of vegetables with a variety of nutrients and prepared in a variety of ways. By consuming tons of these vegetables, you will prevent heart attacks, hypertension, diabetes, eye problems and even cancer. You may die of lycopene poisoning or carotene toxicity, though. Too bad.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Look what I found in a New York cab...

Via Kottke, I came across this recent piece in The New York Times, that gives a list of interesting things that were lost and found in New York taxi cabs. Unbeknownst to the driver, one of the lost suitcases contained 31 diamond rings and he got a $100 tip for returning it to the owner.

The list reminded me of a lovely short story by the Italian author, Corrado Alvaro, in which a ruby as big as a hazelnut, a famous stone, bearing a famous name and said to be of enormous value, is left behind in a cab, by an Indian Maharaja travelling to New York. It is picked up by an Italian emigrant, a simpleton, who is about to return home. He had a habit of picking up odds and ends and was thrilled to add this red crystal to his impressive collection of twelve fountain pens, hair clippers, American cloth and a metal object whose function mystified him.

He decides to keep it as a lucky charm for the future, reasoning that “ the various objects one picks up just before leaving a foreign country are apt to acquire an extraordinary souvenir value, giving one, as it were, a foretaste of distance and nostalgia”. It was just such an affection he felt for this lump of crystal. He regarded it as a kind of talisman. “It became one of those useless objects we cherish all our lives and never have the strength to get rid of, so that in the end they become part of us and even family heirlooms.”

Whereas important things that we watch over or hide away disappear, trivia such as the crystal lump he had never got lost, he noted. It would always remain with him and remind him of the day he was returning home to his village in Italy, after 5 years in New York.

One day, his son picks up the crystal to use as a missile in a game played by boys of the village, that involved knocking down castles of hazelnuts by throwing a heavier one at it. And, that was the end of the priceless ruby or the lump of crystal.

So, the next time you are in a New York cab, do not forget to slip your fingers under the seat cushion and grab whatever object you can find. And, unlike the Italian simpleton, remember it could be of enormous value.

Scientific faith

Neha argues, in a recent post, that it is futile to give a scientific spin to some faith-based action.

If, for instance, you believe in rahukala and auspicious time, by all means cling to that belief. I have no right to question your faith just as you have no right to impose said faith on me. If you want to tie mango leaves on your door on a festive occasion, you should go right ahead, without feeling the need to defend that practice in scientific terms. ( To absorb the CO2, as a friend claimed once).

In the case involving the Ram Sethu, several self-styled experts have tried to produce scientific proof ( NASA satellite photos,etc) or archeological evidence, and made complete fools of themselves. By their senseless arguments, they actually weakened the case. In contrast, senior advocate Soli Sorabjee, told the Supreme Court last week that it was not for the Court to sit in judgement on whether there was scientific evidence or not. ““There is no need to look for any historical or scientific evidences whether Lord Rama made it or not, but that it is the faith of millions of people in this country.”

Quite simply, it is an article of faith. No further explanation is necessary.

Update 20-06-08 : The Slate carries this article on the tendency of some to drape religious beliefs in a cloak of scientific legitimacy. Especially the propensity to quote Einstein. A recently unearthed letter ( written by Einstein in 1954) puts paid to the argument that he believed in religion and a divine presence. An extract from the letter:

"The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honorable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation no matter how subtle can (for me) change this. These subtilized interpretations are highly manifold according to their nature and have almost nothing to do with the original text. For me the Jewish religion like all other religions is an incarnation of the most childish superstitions. And the Jewish people to whom I gladly belong and with whose mentality I have a deep affinity have no different quality for me than all other people. As far as my experience goes, they are also no better than other human groups, although they are protected from the worst cancers by a lack of power. Otherwise I cannot see anything "chosen" about them. "

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The elements

In a collection of short stories that I read recently, the editor had taken pains to group together stories that had similar ‘elements’. The elements of a short story, he explained in the introduction to the book, are setting (time and location), plot (the sequence in which the author arranges events), conflict (one central struggle or one dominant struggle with other minor ones), character (persons or their characteristics), point of view (first person, character-centric) and the theme ( the controlling idea or insight). A good story is the price of admission into the ranks of good writers, but to engage your readers you’ve got to pay attention to all these elements.

All this may be old hat for students of English Literature, but I have never been taught this in my engineering course; so I read on.

Now different authors in different stories use different types and mix of these elements, to get the readers in their grip. So, if you were reading Hemingway and got conditioned to a certain set of elements in his stories, and then you suddenly shift to James Joyce, who uses different sub-sets of these elements, you are going to find it difficult to accept the change.

The idea in grouping together stories with similar elements was to spare the reader the discomfort and disorientation that are inevitable when moving from one ‘set of elements’ to another.

I guess that the same is true with long stories and novels too. If you try to read Tolstoy, after having finished one of Wodehouse’s Blandings Castle stories, you would do injustice to both yourself and Tolstoy. Not just because one is humorous and the other filled with melancholic stuff about the lives of poverty-stricken Russian peasants. Because, each employs a different structure and mix of elements. You get the point.

Authors ought to know this, right? That’s why I find Shashi Tharoor’s criticism of R.K.Narayan’s style surprising. Here is an extract from one of his columns written in 2001:

The gentle wit, the simple sentences, the easy assumption of the inevitabilities of the tolerant Hindu social and philosophical system, the characteristically straightforward plotting, were all hallmarks of Narayan's charm and helped make many of his novels and stories interesting and often pleasurable.

But I felt that they also pointed to the banality of Narayan's concerns, the narrowness of his vision, the predictability of his prose, and the shallowness of the pool of experience and vocabulary from which he drew. Like Austen, his fiction was restricted to the concerns of a small society portrayed with precision and empathy; unlike Austen, his prose could not elevate those concerns beyond the ordinariness of its subjects. Narayan wrote of, and from, the mindset of the small-town South Indian Brahmin, and did not seem capable of a greater range. His metronomic style was frequently not equal to the demands of his situations. Intense and potentially charged scenes were rendered pathetic by the inadequacy of the language used to describe them. In much of his writing, stories with extraordinary possibilities unfolded in flat,monotonous sentences that frustrated rather than convinced me, and in a tone that ranged from the cliched to the flippant. At its worst, Narayan's prose was like the bullock- cart: a vehicle that can move only in one gear, is unable to turn, accelerate or reverse, and remains yoked to traditional creatures who have long since been overtaken but know no better.

I was, I must admit, particularly frustrated to find that Narayan was indifferent to the wider canon of English fiction and to the use of the English language by other writers, Western or Indian……Narayan's was an impoverished English, limited and conventional, its potential unexplored, its bones bare.

Why should RKN not choose to limit his range? Why should he bother about the wider canon of English fiction, when his bare-bones style and methods managed to get him loyal readership? Why should he pretend to have a wide repertoire, just to impress Tharoor? Can’t this guy understand that RKN’s mix of elements was unique and certainly different from Tharoor’s? In fact, I am sure if RKN had to pick up one of Tharoor’s books, he would have tossed it into the River Sarayu, after reading a couple of lines of his pompous drivel.

And, why did I wait till 2008 to comment on Tharoor’s column of 2001? Because I didn’t know about the ‘elements’ then. Besides, I wasn’t blogging then.

Which reminds me. I read stuff written by more than 50 bloggers, and I realise that each one of them has a different style and ‘mix of elements’. Blogger A gets into the depth of the subject, analyses it threadbare and writes long treatises. Blogger B likes width and to flit from one subject to another, merely providing links. Blogger C sees the world through his lens of libertarianism, while Blogger D wants to project herself as a crusader against social inequity. All very different. So, when I keep surfing from one blog to another, my brain must be getting bombarded with rays of different frequencies.

To avoid a collapse of the hard-disc in my head, I am going to group ‘like bloggers, together in my Google Reader. Yes, that’s what I’ll do.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Tendulkar can do no wrong - 2

I had commented some time back on the ingenuity shown by the media in lavishing praise on Tendulkar, even on occasions when he had failed miserably.

The other day, he was out for 12 runs, with Jayasuriya firing on all cylinders at the other end. One of the papers reported that there was something about Sachin’s inspiring presence that brought out the best in Jayasuriya. “When you have someone of the stature of Sachin at the other end, you want to rise to the occasion too…..

In the next match, chasing a total of 66 runs, he got out for a duck. The champion batsman delighted the home crowd, by taking four catches, when Kolkata had batted, reported one of the papers.

Now, Sachin himself is quite level-headed and, in all his interviews, accepts his failures as an inevitable part of the cycle of ups and downs in one’s career. After all, you can’t score a century every time you go in to bat.

The spectators too come to terms with this reality and move on.

But, not some of these reporters. They have this compulsive need to shower accolades on him. Suffering from a variant of the Tolstoy syndrome, they simply cannot accept evidence that is contrary to some belief that they hold dear. Or, believe that their readers hold dear and want reinforced. It is almost as if the press wants to apply the maxim of ‘the king can do no wrong’ and, in the resulting cognitive bias, confer on Sachin, the immunity from any kind of criticism.

When Sachin himself seeks no such immunity or the demi-god status. And, I am sure, nor do most of the readers.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The boy in the well-2

In this post, I had wondered what was it about ‘boys falling into wells” that had the television channels pitching their tents to provide a minute-by-minute commentary on the rescue effort, when incidents involving lives of greater number of people do not get as much attention. For instance, thousands have died in Myanmar recently in the havoc wreaked by a cyclone. It doesn’t seem to capture so much of media space.

Jonah Lehrer links to a study done by Paul Slovic, a psychologist at the University of Oregon, on this subject.

According to Slovic, the problem with statistics is that they don't activate our moral emotions, which are what compel us to act. The depressing numbers leave us cold: our mind can't comprehend suffering on such an unimaginable scale. This is why we are riveted when one child falls down a well, but turn a blind eye to the millions of people who die every year for lack of clean water. Or why we donate thousands of dollars to help a single African war orphan featured on the cover of a magazine, but ignore widespread genocides in Rwanda or Darfur. As Mother Theresa put it, "If I look at the mass I will never act. If I look at the one, I will."

Or, as Stalin ( the original, not the one in Chennai) is supposed to have said, ““One death is a tragedy; a million is a statistic”

Statistics stay silent in us.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Light Bulb moments

I remember the first time that I convinced myself to buy a Compact Fluorescent Lamp (CFL), to replace one of the humble incandescent bulbs in my house. After all, as an engineer and one involved with the power sector, wasn't it my duty to set an example, save energy and reduce my carbon footprint?

The electrical shop owner had given me a sales pitch that, though the CFL cost 20 times as much as the bulb, it had a much longer life (around 10000 hours) and that a CFL of 25 watts produced the same luminescence as that from a 100 watt bulb. Considering that I would be using the CFL for a max of 4 hours a day, I calculated that it would last for around 8 years.

As an engineer, and one involved with the power sector, I ought to have known that the life of the CFL was dependent on voltage conditions (which in most parts of India can fluctuate wildly) and the number of times you switched it on or off (which, given the frugality that characterizes Indian mindsets, can happen many times a day, - every time you leave the room) So, instead of the 8 years that it was supposed to last, mine went bust in a few months. Payback calculations made with good intentions while buying the CFL were rendered invalid, for reasons that the Techno explains in this interesting conversation.

Ever since, I remain a CFL- skeptic and cling to the bulb, as much as I can.

So, this report in the L.A.Times ( via Boing Boing) about an incandescent bulb that has been burning continuously for 107 years, appealed to me greatly. Explaining the longevity of the bulb, Tom Brammel, the bulb-keeper says, “Most people just consider it a freak of engineering. But I believe the bulb has stayed alive so many years because the makers gave it a perfect seal, so no air gets inside the bulb to help disintegrate the carbon filament. This bulb operates in a vacuum and it doesn't burn hot. That's the secret."

To which, my question to the engineers in the power sector and the lighting industry is, “ Why don’t you provide a perfect seal in all the bulbs that come out of your factories, so no air gets into it to disintegrate the carbon filament? I realise that you may have to close down your factories, in the absence of repeat business, but we will build well-lit memorials for you, with plenty of your bulbs glowing. Think of the glory that will be yours.


Rice is in short supply, the world over. So is wheat.. Eating more meat is not the answer, as grain production will need to go up by a factor of 10, to feed the livestock.

The most eco-friendly and least resource-consuming solution is to eat insects, says David Gracer of the Gastronauts, as reported in Discover magazine. The practice, though jarring to western sensibilities, is quite common in many parts of the world.

“If you want to feed a lot of people, insects are the best choice in terms of getting the biggest bang for your buck.” Insects, he claims, are nutritious. Although they typically contain less protein by weight than beef or chicken—100 grams of giant water bugs or small grasshoppers, for example, have about 20 grams of protein, compared with 27 grams in the same amount of lean ground beef—they do have other benefits. For instance, grasshoppers contain just one-third of the fat found in beef, and water bugs offer almost four times as much iron. A 100-gram portion of the cooked caterpillar Usata terpsichore has about 28 grams of protein. In their dried form, as they are commonly sold in Africa, insects such as grasshoppers may contain up to 60 percent protein."

The Guardian also referred to a UN report of 2004 that promoted insects as an environmentally friendly food source: low impact, consuming very little in the way of feed, easy to harvest, with no special measures required for their husbandry. Insects are arthropods, like lobster, crab and shrimp. They are plentiful, and account for over half of the known species on the planet. We spend billions of pounds trying to control or eradicate them, when we could just be eating them. So why don't we?

We could all become cricket lovers, in a different sense

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Daddy's day out

“The kind of knowing you get from experience”, writes Joe Kissell in this post, “is qualitatively different from what you get by reading about something or hearing a story. This is why people travel instead of just reading travel books. However much you may trust other sources of information, they can’t provide what your own senses can. And just as some foods are worth eating even though they don’t taste good, some potentially unpleasant experiences are worth having.”

“From Descartes, who said, “I think, therefore I am,” through phenomenologists like Husserl and Heidegger, who tried to create a rigorous science of experience, philosophers have time and again reaffirmed the importance of one’s own experience in understanding the world. Yet it is a tacit principle of modern western culture that only pleasant experiences are worth pursuing, that any experience you can’t reasonably expect to enjoy should be avoided if possible. This attitude effectively puts the evaluation of experiences in other people’s hands, but other people will never experience things exactly the way you will. You may enjoy an experience someone else does not, and even if you don’t, you may appreciate the value of collecting that knowledge for yourself.”

That’s more or less how I felt too, yesterday, when I let myself be convinced by my daughter’s persuasion, to watch the cricket match at the Chepauk. Though I have been to the Chepauk several times in the past, the last time I went there was around 1980. Since then, I have dreaded the thought of even going there, getting put off by the prospects of navigating my way through the crowds, bearing the sweltering heat and humidity and finding the transport to get me back home. The pleasant thoughts of watching exciting cricket were always outweighed by these negative ones, and the couch potato always settled down in front of the television in the comfort of one’s home.

The transport issue was solved when daughter suggested that we could take the local train to Chepauk and use the same mode to return, as someone in authority had thoughtfully arranged for a train at midnight. The heat and humidity were tolerated admirably and the navigation through the crowd successfuly managed.

I must say that it was a great experience. The noise was deafening and the atmosphere at the ground electrifying. I realized that nothing can equal the pleasure of watching cricket live at the ground/ To settle for the sanitized version one is offered on television was a poor and unequal compromise. To avoid going to the match, fearing the crowd and the traffic, was to deny oneself the joy that comes with it.

It is so, too, with many other things in life.

Bring on the trainees...

In the barber shop that I go to, there is a certain protocol for training new hands. The first few weeks, the new recruit does some basic and miscellaneous work, like putting on the towel, spraying some water, handing over scissors or knife to the master, dusting the hair off the face – in short, activities with no scope for inflicting any harm on the customer. After some time, he moves up the ladder and tackles responsibilities such as shampooing, drying, an odd shave or two, head and neck massage and such stuff. Then he is gradually entrusted with the responsibility of hair-cut, through a surreptitious process. He will be inflicted on unwary customers or small boys who can’t complain or won’t spot the difference. If a trainee barber were to be assigned to a seasoned campaigner like me, the pretender will be pushed aside summarily and a demand raised for the real one.

So, how does the trainee get trained? If never allowed to get hands-on, he is never going to get the confidence and the master will never get to have subordinates he could delegate the work to.

If the training process for hair-cuts has to overcome so many obstacles, imagine the plight of the trainee surgeons in the medical profession. In his book, “Complications: Notes from the life of a young surgeon” written when he was a Resident, Dr.Atul Gawande observes :

In surgery, as in anything else, skill and confidence are learned through experience- haltingly and humiliatingly. Like the tennis player and the oboist, we need practice to get good at what we do. There is one difference though in medicine: it is people we practice on.

.. We find it hard in medicine to talk about this with patients. The moral burden of practicing on people is always with us, but for the most part unspoken. ..There is always that conflict between the imperative to give patients the best possible care and the need to provide novices with experience.

..By traditional ethics and public insistence, a patient’s right to the best care possible must trump the objective of training novices. We want perfection without practice. Yet everyone is harmed if no one is trained for the future. So learning is hidden behind drapes and the anesthesia and the elisions of language.

..Do we ever tell patients that because we are still new at something, their risks will be inevitably higher, and that they’d likely do better with others who are more experienced?.. I’ve never seen it. Given the stakes, who in the right mind would agree to be practiced upon?

Can people be persuaded to take on chances for societal benefit? We’d ask patients- honestly, openly- and then they say yes? Hard to imagine.

In fact, Dr Gawande answers that last question, by admitting that when he was confronted with a medical emergency involving his son, he decided to go to the cardiologist-in-chief, rather than a junior surgeon, as he wanted the best medical care for him. So, he concedes that, if at all the choice is offered, it is not done equally. The rich and the knowledgeable have and exercise that choice. The doctor’s child has that choice, but not the truck driver’s.

So, the next time you are at that humble barber’s shop, the swanky beauty parlour. in a plane or, unfortunately at the surgeon’s table, spare a thought for that trainee. Because, even if you don't spare that thought, the work is probably getting done by the trainee anyway. Who knows who is operating on you, under cover of anesthesia, or who is flying that plane inside that locked cockpit?


‘Revenge’ is such a recurring theme in our movies and is an important ingredient in the masala mix. Why, even in sports, a common headline in the media is that ‘so-and-so avenged their defeat’. A stated policy of Israel– well, I am not sure if it stated- is swift retribution. When Jayalalitha came to power last time, one of her first moves was to imprison the former CM, Karunanidhi. According to the popular story, she had vowed that she would make him eat from the same plate in the same jail that he had thrown her into, when he was in power. Kids caught red-handed in the act of knocking out another kid will come up with a solid defence, “ He hit me first, so I hit him back” and this is usually seen as fair. Taking revenge is ‘acceptable behaviour”.

In his absorbing article in the New Yorker, that I came across via Guru’s blog,( warning: do read the article first, as this post gives away many of the punch lines) ,Jared Diamond narrates a story of revenge set in the highlands of New Guinea. Daniel of the Handa clan was expected to avenge the death of his uncle Soll, who had been murdered by one Isum of the neighbouring Ombal clan. The act of revenge alone would redeem the family honour. Through a series of discussions with Daniel, Jared Diamond understands and explains that “we forget that before there were states, Daniel’s method of resolving major disputes—either violently or by payment of compensation—was the worldwide norm.” Even after nation states came into being and disputes are referred to the Govt for disposal, old tribal methods of personal pursuit of justice continue to co-exist with state legal systems. Fights between two tribes come to an end only when a third tribe emerges as a common enemy, or when the state govt introduces and administers effectively the apparatus to resolve disputes.

What Diamond found interesting was the fact that Daniel was completely at peace with himself after he had successfully avenged the death of his uncle, as if his life mission had been accomplished.

As a contrast, Diamond provides the story of his own father-in-law, Josef Nabel, who as a Jew in Poland was witness to mindless atrocities committed on his family. He then set out, a la Sholay, to nab the perpetrators an, indeed, came face to face with the man who had wiped out his family. Just when he was about to shoot the man , a thought ran through his mind, ““I’ve seen enough of people killing, and behaving like animals. I’ve done enough killing myself. This man behaved like an animal, but I don’t want to become an animal myself by shooting him.” Josef decided to hand over the man to the newly formed Polish Govt, only to see him being released in a year. According to Diamond, Josef died, many decades later, an embittered man overcome with guilt over the fact that he had let go of the murderer of his wife”.

Jared Diamond concludes “We regularly ignore the fact that the thirst for vengeance is among the strongest of human emotions. It ranks with love, anger, grief, and fear, about which we talk incessantly. Modern state societies permit and encourage us to express our love, anger, grief, and fear, but not our thirst for vengeance. We grow up being taught that such feelings are primitive, something to be ashamed of and to transcend” and adds, “state societies and their associated religions and moral codes teach us that seeking revenge is bad. But, while acting on vengeful feelings clearly needs to be discouraged, acknowledging them should be not merely permitted but encouraged”.

While I found the story itself quite gripping, that last line made me gulp.

Also, I see the story of “ Priyanka Vadra visiting her father's killer in Vellore jail to come to terms with his death” in a new light. Completely un-tribal.