Saturday, March 28, 2009

The compromise

“Whenever I want a thing, and my wife wants another thing, and we decide upon the thing that my wife wants--as we always do --she calls that a compromise” explains the narrator in Mark Twain’s short story, “The Burglar Alarm”

That is what Gen.Musharaf means when he talks of compromise. India and Pakistan must overcome their burden of history and take bold and tough decisions to address the core dispute of Kashmir, he says. Otherwise, there will be more Kargils.

And, what’s a fair compromise?

If India says it won’t give up Kashmir ever, and Pakistan says we must give up Kashmir, and if we end up giving up Kashmir, then according to Pakistan it is a ‘compromise’ and a ‘realistic approach’.

A 180-mile journey on a 'palankeen'.

In my new role of amateur historian, with special interest in the era of British rule, I have spent quite some time engrossed in Google Books. The British traveler of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was a compulsive recorder of events and took copious notes. John Keay notes in his book, “The Honourable Company” (which is a history of the East India Company) that voluminous records were available for the chronicler and the only difficulty was in sifting the relevant from the irrelevant.

The early missionaries also recorded their observations on the customs, the rituals, the festivals and the long journeys that they undertook.

Here is an extract from Personal Narrative of a Mission to the South of India, from 1820 to 1828 : By Elijah Hoole, (pages 32 to 34)where he describes a 180-mile journey from Madras to Negapatam on a palankeen. It took him 8 days to reach his destination.

On Tuesday, 24th of October, 1820, at 4 P. M., I set out on my journey; having ten bearers to my palankeen, and six men to carry my baggage, cooking utensils, etc. The palankeen with which I was provided, differed from those commonly used in India, being a double tonjon, admitting two persons to sit face to face, and being sufficiently long, for one person to recline in. The possibility of thus changing the position, on a journey, is a great advantage; the common palankeen does not admit of it, but requires a position like that of sitting up in bed, supported by pillows; easy at the first, but when long continued, very tiresome to persons unaccustomed to it.

In the first stage, I sat or reclined about two hours and a half, the poles of the palankeen supported on the shoulders of four men, who were relieved about every ten minutes, by four others; those who were not actually carrying, running before or behind; the whole party talking, laughing, and singing, and moving at the rate of about five miles an hour.

When I first saw this mode of conveyance, I heartily pitied the men employed in bearing the palankeen; and could not dismiss a strong sense of self-disapprobation, for allowing myself to be carried by them. But this method of travelling, is often indispensable to an European, in a torrid clime like India: and in a country so extensive, where the roads are commonly little more than tracks, through swamp and jungle; where bridges are comparatively rare, and the passes of the mountains not unfrequently impracticable to any beast of burden, without extreme difficulty nnd danger; experience has fully established its necessity. Travelling on horseback, is the only alternative; nnd with this mode, tents are required; the stages, too, must bo short, unless the traveller can bear exposure to the dews ivf the night, and the heat of the day.

Observation has convinced me, also, that there is no description of men in India, better satisfied with their employment, than palan- bearers; they are cheerful in the performance of the journeys they undertake; and though they run thirty or even forty miles at one stretch, in the course of a night, they are prepared to recommence their task on the succeeding evening. Six men once carried me thirty-two miles, between sunset and sunrise; and on another occasion, six men took up my palankeen, at the Mission-house door in Madras, with the intention of performing a journey of six hundred miles; and said, they were ready to travel with me even to Kasi, or Benares, (the most distant place a southern Hindoo thinks of visiting,) if I desired it.

As their caste does not allow them to eat promiscuously with others, one of the party is usually occupied in carrying their pots for preparing food, and in cooking their meals, which consist chiefly of rice. Whilst at rest during the day, if they do not sleep, some amuse themselves with cards, or a sort of backgammon; the more thrifty employ themselves in spinning cord, of which their fishing nets are made; or in weaving the nets, with which, in passing through the country, they almost every day provide a plentiful fish curry to their rice.

The accompanying sketch represents a palankeen of the common construction; the bearers at rest; one employed in spinning, and another in weaving a net

Sunday, March 22, 2009

The case of the XXXL passenger

For an early-morning flight to Mumbai last week, I had done a tele-check in and had managed to get my favourite seat - Aisle seat in the front row- 10C. I was looking forward to catching up on an hour of sleep, when a man of size XXXL, high BMI and high diameter-to-height ratio shoehorned himself into the middle seat- 10B. The rest of the journey was fairly uneventful, with me pressed against the armrest of the aisle seat, and barely managing to breathe.

Now, I am a fairly seasoned traveler, and know that the law of averages determines one’s fate. If you are a frequent traveler, you must put up with such minor inconveniences, every now and then. You must accept the situation philosophically and with equanimity. After all, you can’t choose your fellow travelers. And, as lightning does not strike the same place twice, the odds of getting an XXXL person next to you on the next flight are pretty slim. In fact, the odds of sitting next to a pretty, slim girl on a subsequent flight improve dramatically .

So, imagine my dismay, when I got into the evening flight to return to Chennai, and find the same ‘high BMI’, XXL individual firmly ensconced in same seat 10B. And I had thoughtfully telechecked into the same seat 10C.

What are the odds of getting as one’s co-passenger the same person on more than one flight? And, why does it have to happen to me?

Ok, I am being mean and inconsiderate. I am sure that many others have suffered the same fate. When I googled, I found quite a few complaints on the same subject. Here is a case of an irate passenger writing to Southwest Airlines. He managed to get a full refund.

Another blog which calls itself, “The view from the window seat”, asked its readers this question:

Just saw a piece from Aviation (via that lists the various airline policies for dealing with overweight passengers. Some, like Southwest, have clear policies in place while others, like United, have no policy at all. Most airlines fall somewhere in the middle with hard-to-enforce informal policies.

I am really curious to know what you all think about this topic and what YOU think the airlines should to accommodate overweight passengers (or not accommodate as the case may be). I am aware of the sensitive nature of this topic but think it is a valid one, especially considering that having an empty seat next to you seems to be, for the most part, a thing of the past.

One of the comments received was:

I have sent inquiries to both American and United asking what their policy is for dealing with passengers who buy only one coach seat but cannot fit into that seat. Both said that they will not discriminate against any passenger, and that an obese passenger would not be asked to deplane. I asked what my recourse was if I was seated next to them and could not fit into whatever remained of my seat. I was informed that I could purchase an upgrade, if available, or ask to be put on the next flight, although there was no guarantee of getting to my destination on the same day. So apparently you cannot discriminate against an obese passenger, but it’s OK to discriminate against a normal size passenger. For the life of me I cannot understand why it is OK to buy one seat and expect 1.5 seats, if you are fat, but if you are normal size and buy one seat, you cannot necessarily expect only 1 seat.

If only I had found a slim, pretty girl in the adjacent seat on the return flight, I needn’t have engaged in such painstaking research on the subject of overweight travellers and their overhanging flesh. Sigh.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Conversation with daughter-29

Daughter came up to me holding her Maths book in her hand, and asked solemnly, “Appa, can you help me with this problem? I have been struggling with it for an hour now”

As I didn’t have a clue how it had to be done, I responded with equal solemnity, “Let me tell you a story I heard today.”

Daughter looked at the clock with dismay.

“There was this Swamiji”, I continued bravely ignoring her disinterested looks, “who was so wise, that one of his disciples, wanting to prove him wrong at least once, came up with an ingenious plan. He would carry a bird in one hand, hide it with the other hand, and pop a question, “ Swamiji, I have a bird in my hand. Is it dead or alive?” If the Swamiji answered, “Dead”, he (the disciple) would open his hands and let the bird fly, proving the Swamji wrong. If the answer was “Alive”, he would crush the bird between his hands and show the dead bird, proving the Swamiji wrong again.

So, next day, he goes to the Swamiji with the bird and asks the question if the bird in his hands was dead or alive. The Swamiji, the smartass that he was, looked him in the eye and replied, “My son, the answer is in your hands”.

Unimpressed, as always, daughter wanted to know why I was telling her that story. I replied, “My daughter, the answer to the Maths problem is in your hands”.

Daughter merely opened her hands and asked me to show her where the answer was written.

All those stories of wise Swamijis are plain drivel. Don’t believe them. They don’t work in real life.

River water harvesting- 1812

The general impression that the history books prescribed in our schools, and the various ‘patriotic’ films manage to convey is that the intentions of the British were consistently malevolent and even technological developments such as the railway network were meant only to serve the purpose of looting the country and transporting the entire produce back to England.

Thankfully, Google Books enables us to dig into writings that date back to the eighteenth century and to gain a different perspective. In an earlier post, I had linked to a feasibility report prepared by a British engineer in 1847, on the wisdom of introducing a railway system in India. Justifying the commercial soundness of the project, he also talked of the benefits it would bring to the pilgrims and travelers in India.

Similarly, I came across a publication dated 1812, that suggests a system of water storage to benefit the poor peasant of India.

Lieutenant H. Harriott, 36th Rcgt. M. N. I., writing in the Madras Journal of Science and Literature, (pages 113-114)in the year 1812, offers hints for establishing a new system of supplying tanks with water, adapted particularly for the Carnatic, to enable the cultivation of rice and agriculture in general, to be carried to an indefinite extent without being dependent on the fall of rain in any particular district for a supply of water.

“Throughout the Carnatic there are large and rapid rivers which during some period of the year are filled from bank to bank, and during the remainder are mere beds of sand. Hitherto the useless waters have pursued their rapid course to the ocean without benefiting the country through which they pass, except in some cases, where the surface of the plain has been favourable to directing the stream into artificial channels and by that means irrigating a considerable portion of land, but this plan is naturally contracted in its operations and it depends on the ingenuity of man to retain those vast floods of water, which now flow by unused and unheeded.

I have generally observed that near most rivers and in many cases connected with them, are deep, and extensive ravines. It appears to me that at a small expense, small in comparison with the enormous sums lavished in keeping in repair the numerous tanks throughout the country, these ravines might be formed into basins, capable of containing an immense body of water, the said basins having a canal (the neck as it were attaching the head to the body,) between them and the river, with floodgates to be shut or opened at pleasure, should the nature of the ground be adapted for the purpose, and in most situations such will be found to be the case, the sides of the basin may be elevated considerably above the level of the river. To fill the basin, under such circumstances, a steam engine would be requisite for raising the water from the river and conducting it into its allotted channel.

And, then Lt Harriott speaks from his heart:

How often in this country, it may be asked, has the toil of the peasant and the seed been thrown away from the want of a small quantity of seasonable rain to bring the crop to maturity; so partial indeed is the rain, that whilst one part of the country is comparatively deluged, another within so short a distance as 50 miles is almost dry.

But, what about the expertise involved in operating the engines? Well, he says, the Indian natives can easily manage that.

At first from the novelty and difficulty of' procuring Engineers the expense of cultivation will be greater than when clever and scientific natives are brought forward, and I am sure there are many to be found both capable and willing after a little instruction to superintend the management of the engines : in proof of this opinion 1 would adduce the instance of how closely all mechanical improvements from England are copied by the Indian artisan.

Lt Hariott, goes on, to work out other details:

The path dividing the plots of paddy ground might be planted with palmyras and cocoanut trees, which during their growth would be useful in many ways and when old could be cut down and cut up into logs for the fires To prevent evaporation as much as possible, the form of the reservoir should be an oblong oval, the banks or bands turfed and planted with the most umbrageous trees, the roots of which striking into the earth, will give a stability to the soil, whilst the branches shade the water from the direct rays of the sun.

And concludes:

Surely no project can be more deserving of the attention and encouragement of a liberal government, than, the introduction of steam engines for the purpose of improving the agricultural process in India, as it will be the means of bringing large tracts of land into cultivation, which are now lying waste, and of rendering these territories independent of requiring foreign aid, as at present, in every occasion of scarcity.

There are numerous other advantages likely to arise from the adoption of this scheme, which are too obvious to require any lengthened comment, and I am sure that every generous mind would rejoice in the prospect of seeing India rise from her depressed state and condition by the very means which has raised England, to her present commercial superiority.

Incidentally, the Madras Journal of Science and Literature seemed to have provided the forum for the British located in Madras to understand the local customs, rituals, issues, etc and share with each other.

Monday, March 16, 2009

It can't be verse.

I have been a regular visitor to Neha’s blog for a long time now and enjoy her lively posts. But every now and then she indulges in what she labels as poetry and I can’t make head or tail of what she is trying to say ( example, here) .To me, poems are about rhymes. If that’s missing, I may still like the piece, but I will not accept it as poetry. It’s like playing tennis without the nets, as Robert Frost is supposed to have said

Writing about the inventor of ‘vers libre’ or ‘free verse’ style that was gaining currency a hundred years ago, P.G.Wodehouse lamented:

" It is too early yet to judge the full effects of this man's horrid discovery, but there is no doubt that he has taken the lid off and unleashed forces over which none can have any control. All those decent restrictions which used to check poets have vanished, and who shall say what will be the outcome? Not only are rhymes no longer necessary, but editors positively prefer them left out. If Longfellow had been writing today he would have had to revise "The Village Blacksmith" if he wanted to pull in that dollar a line. No editor would print stuff like:

Under the spreading chestnut tree
The village smithy stands.
The smith a brawny man is he
With large and sinewy hands.

If Longfellow were living in these hyphenated, free and versy days, he would find himself compelled to take his pen in hand and dictate as follows:

In life I was the village smith,
I worked all day
I retained the delicacy of my complexion
I worked in the shade of the chestnut tree
Instead of in the sun
Like Nicholas Blodgett, the expressman.
I was large and strong
I went in for physical culture
And deep breathing
And all those stunts.
I had the biggest biceps in Spoon River.

Who can say where this thing will end? _Vers libre_ is within the reach of all. A sleeping nation has wakened to the realization that there is money to be made out of chopping its prose into bits."

I agree with PGW. Any time, regular or prime, don’t commit crime of giving me poems, however sublime, that don’t rhyme.

Stay right where you are.

If you have to choose between two options each of which requires you to act in a specific manner, do what this study says. Do nothing.

According to the New York Times, that is the surprising conclusion of a paper published by a team of Israeli scientists in Journal of Economic Psychology. The academics studied the behaviour of goal keepers trying to stop penalty kicks. Was the success rate higher when they jumped to their right or to their left? The team analyzed 286 penalty kicks and found that though 94 percent of the time the goalies dived to the right or the left, the chances of stopping the ball were highest when the goalie stayed in the center. In short, when they stayed put, right where they were.

But, why do the goalies try to jump to the right or left? Because they want to be seen doing something. The temptation to appear decisive — particularly when you’re being heavily scrutinized — can be overwhelming. This behaviour can be seen in other fields too. During periods of economic turmoil, C.E.O.’s might be tempted to change their corporate strategy, or investment managers to juggle their portfolios, even when staying put is the wisest course.

Mr P.V.Narasimha Rao was an exemplar of this ‘doing-nothing’ style. “Deciding not to do anything is also a decision” he used to tell his critics. His philosophy was that more than 90% of the crises will blow by on their own, without the need for any heroic or decisive action. So, don't think you need to plunge into action all the time. What a wise man.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Tips for interviews

A friend’s son, in his final year at college, appeared for a job interview and was asked to participate in a group discussion on, “Elections or IPL? Which should be postponed?”. Friend was furious that the selection process had been reduced to mockery and I tried to explain that the topic was irrelevant. What the interviewers looked for was how well the candidates marshaled their thoughts and presented their views.

I remember reading that Microsoft delighted in asking questions such as, “how many barbers are there in the USA?” You were supposed to start with a known premise (approx population of USA) and work your way through logically. The process of reasoning was what was evaluated, not the actual answer.

Richard Dawkins says in an introduction to an article, “Mirrors of the mind” by Richard Gregory,

“For years as a college tutor at Oxford, I would try the intelligence and reasoning powers of entrance candidates by asking them at interview to muse aloud on the conundrum of why mirror images appear left-right reversed but not upside down. It is a provocative puzzle, which is hard to situate among academic disciplines. Is it a question in psychology, in physics, in philosophy, in geometry or just commonsense? I wasn’t necessarily expecting my candidates to ‘know the right answer’. I wanted to hear them think aloud, wanted to see if the question piqued their interest and their curiosity. If it did, they would probably be fun to teach.”

So, it was the demonstration of passion that mattered, not how much you knew.

I could not find a link to Richard Gregory’s piece where he has explained the conundrum of why mirror images don’t reverse top-down, but if you wish to know the answer, here is one source.

Soaring over the clouds..

While on a walk this morning, I spotted an old friend up on a tree. Apparently, he was trying to help a small boy get back his kite from a branch on which it had got stuck. “Sighting a kite always takes me back to the carefree days of my own childhood. I could empathise with the boy completely. Losing a kite can be a major tragedy at that age”.

In a lovely short story called, “The kite” by Somerset Maugham, a mother gets her son, Herbert, a kite for Christmas. Soon, it becomes a passion with him. As he grows older, his mother gets him larger and better kites. Mother and son have a regular ritual of kite flying every Saturday. When Herbert reaches adulthood, he falls in love with a girl and leaves his mother’s house. His wife doesn’t have the same fondness for kites and Herbert misses the Saturdays with his mother. He gets jealous when she asks some other boy in the neighbourhood to fly her kites. Slowly, his mother lures him back to her fold, using his weakness for kites.

At the end of the story, one of the characters asks, “What do you suppose there is in kite flying that makes the damned fool so mad about it?” “I don’t know”, another character replies, “Perhaps it gives him a sense of power as he watches it soaring towards the clouds and of mastery over the elements as he seems to bend the winds of heaven to his will. It may be that in some queer way he identifies himself with the kite flying so free and high above him, and it’s as if it were an escape from the monotony of life. It may be that in some dim, confused way it represents an ideal of freedom and adventure. And you know, when a man once gets bitten with the virus of the ideal, not all the king’s doctors and not all the king’s surgeons can rid him of it.”

When the Taliban banned kite flying in Afghanistan, where it was a national pastime, it must have torn apart the soul of the country. How did the little boys escape the monotony of life? Or bend the winds of heaven? Heart-breaking. Glad I did not read Khaled Hosseini’s, “The kite runner”.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Browsing through the magical net

Arthur Conan Doyle, in one of his non-Holmes books, “Through the magic door” (actually a series of essays on the books he had read) begins his first chapter thus:

I care not how humble your bookshelf may be, nor how lowly the room which it adorns. Close the door of that room behind you, shut off with it all the cares of the outer world, plunge back into the soothing company of the great dead, and then you are through the magic portal into that fair land whither worry and vexation can follow you no more. You have left all that is vulgar and all that is sordid behind you. There stand your noble, silent comrades, waiting in their ranks. Pass your eye down their files. Choose your man. And then you have but to hold up your hand to him and away you go together into dreamland. Surely there would be something eerie about a line of books were it not that familiarity has deadened our sense of it. Each is a mummified soul embalmed in cere-cloth and natron of leather and printer's ink. Each cover of a true book enfolds the concentrated essence of a man. The personalities of the writers have faded into the thinnest shadows, as their bodies into impalpable dust, yet here are their very spirits at your command.

The only eerie thought that crossed my mind when I read those lines was that I was not doing so out of a book. I was reading it online here.

As if he had anticipated this treacherous act of mine, Conan Doyle writes a little later in the same chapter:

Reading is made too easy nowadays, with cheap paper editions and free libraries. A man does not appreciate at its full worth the thing that comes to him without effort. Who now ever gets the thrill which Carlyle felt when he hurried home with the six volumes of Gibbon's "History" under his arm, his mind just starving for want of food, to devour them at the rate of one a day? A book should be your very own before you can really get the taste of it, and unless you have worked for it, you will never have the true inward pride of possession.

I wonder what the atonement for my sin of easy browsing is. I did not even have to walk to a free library….

Security system

Remember the remote-controlled remote control?

Time now for a security protection system to protect your security system.

While on it, do read Mark Twain’s story on the burglar alarm, if you haven’t before.