Friday, June 26, 2009

Real freedom

Commenting on Sarkozy’s remark on the burkha being a symbol of subservience and calling for its ban, Amit Varma says that it is colossally wrong-headed, and goes against the very principles Sarkozy claims to uphold.

"Classical liberals who believe in individual freedom, as I do, are appalled by some societies for the way they treat their women. The burkha is a symbol of this oppression, and obviously our hearts go out to women forced to spend their lives hiding their faces and their bodies from the world. But the operative word here is ‘forced’.

We are troubled by burkhas because they represent coercion. But not all women who wear burkhas, especially in the West, do so because they are being forced into it. Many women wear them out of choice, and we should respect that choice. We may disagree with their reasons for it—but really, once that choice is established, those reasons are none of our business. They have as much of a right to wear a burkha as to not wear a burkha, and to outlaw that option amounts to the same kind of coercion that Sarkozy is trying to position himself against."

In his column in The Guardian, Stuart Jeffries is critical too, but provides a different perspective:
When the French president told a special session of parliament in Versailles earlier this week, "We cannot accept to have in our country women who are prisoners behind netting, cut off from all social life, deprived of identity", he would have done better to hold his tongue, and instead reflect on that passage in the Philosophy of Right in which Hegel distinguishes between abstract and concrete freedom.

The former means the freedom to do whatever you want, which, as you know, is the basis of western civilisation and why you can choose between 23 different kinds of coffee in your local cafe, or 32 different kinds of four-inch wedges the glossies tell you look sexy this summer but in none of which you can walk comfortably. Such is the freedom of late capitalism, which seems to systematically strive to deprive us of an identity that we might construct ourselves.

For Hegel this isn't real freedom, because our wants and desires are determined by society. By those lights, a western fashion victim is as much a sartorial prisoner as a woman in a burka.Neither is really free. Those that must buy what someone else tells them are this season's must-haves are as much in mental chains as those who put on head-to-toe garment with netting for the eyes because of the strictures of the society to which they belong.

So, by this reasoning, none of us is really free, in the true sense. When you are lured by advertisers and fashion designers into believing that the body-hugging clothes in synthetic material and tight-fitting, toe-crushing, pointed shoes are what you ought to wear for the party tonight, then you are as much ‘subservient’ as a woman who you believe is forced to wear a burkha.

Conversation with daughter-31

Daughter: Appa, I heard this one today. There are two types of parents in this world. The first type keeps feeding their children fish everyday. The other type teaches their children ‘fishing’, so that they can get their fish themselves. Which type do you think you belong to?

Me: Er, I guess I am the fish.

Daughter: That doesn’t make any sense. Give me a proper answer.

Me: Look, there are two types of people in this world. One type has a burning need to classify the people of this world into two types. And the other type doesn’t feel this need. Which type do you belong to?

Daughter: You can’t answer a question with another question.

Me: Yes, I can. There are two types of people in this world. One that answers questions with answers. And the other that answers questions with questions.

Daughter: Get lost. With you as a parent, I will neither get the fish nor learn how to fish.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Bible and the bullet

The original story:

A soldier leaving for battle was given a copy of the New Testament by his mother. She asked him to keep it with him always and that it would protect him. He did as told. One day, the entire platoon was ambushed and gunned down by the enemy. Only the Bible-carrying soldier survived. The bullet had been miraculousy stopped by the Bible in his pocket.

Woody Allen’s variant

Years ago, my mother gave me a bullet...a bullet, and I put it in my breast pocket. Two years after that, I was walking down the street, when a berserk evangelist heaved a Gideon bible out a hotel room window, hitting me in the chest. Bible would have gone through my heart if it wasn't for the bullet.

Mylaporean mystery

I just discovered that if you typed “Russian emphasis Mylapore” on Google search, and then pressed the “I’m feeling lucky” button, you would be instantly led to this blog post of mine.

Do you think that there is a sinister plot codenamed “Operation Plus Ultra” being unleashed by Mylaporeans to capture Russia? (Emphasis mine)

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Take that, you spoilt brats.

Stephen Moore, senior economics writer for Wall Street Journal reports:

Last weekend I attended my niece's high-school graduation from an upscale prep school in Washington, D.C. These are supposed to be events filled with joy, optimism and anticipation of great achievements. But nearly all the kids who stepped to the podium dutifully moaned about how terrified they are of America's future -- yes, even though Barack Obama, whom they all worship and adore, has brought "change they can believe in."

There was broad consensus, says Moore, that this generation (his) has bequeathed to the next a legacy of "greed, global warming, and growing income inequality."

So, was Moore apologetic about it? Was he going to say ‘sorry’ to the next generation?

No way, he says.

I have two teenagers and an 8-year-old, and I can say firsthand that if boomer parents have anything for which to be sorry it's for rearing a generation of pampered kids who've been chauffeured around to soccer leagues since they were 6. This is a generation that has come to regard rising affluence as a basic human right, because that is all it has ever known -- until now. Today's high-school and college students think of iPods, designer cellphones and $599 lap tops as entitlements. They think their future should be as mapped out as unambiguously as the GPS system in their cars. CBS News reported recently that echo boomers spend $170 billion a year -- more than most nations' GDPs -- and nearly every penny of that comes from the wallets of the very parents they now resent. My parents' generation lived in fear of getting polio; many boomers lived in fear of getting sent to the Vietnam War; this generation's notion of hardship is TiVo breaking down.

So there, kiddos. Stop cribbing. Be thankful to your parents.

Leadership is all about.....

I am a fairly contented person and usually go around with a satisfied grin on my face. I am generally happy with my station and feel that life has been quite kind to me. But, there are moments when I do feel a tinge of sadness on being an under-achiever. One of those moments is when I listen to the ‘inspiring sermons’ delivered by highly successful men and women.

The other day, I heard Dr Narayana Murthy of Infosys, on a TV channel, waxing eloquent on what leadership is. “To me” he said, “leadership is all about creating dreams, building hopes…. To be a leader you don’t need to have money or fame or power. When you walk into a room and are able to bring a smile on everyone’s face, including your own, then you are a true leader.”

Meanwhile, the indefatigable Dr Abdul Kalam, at an event organised by Times of India, narrated the story of his life; how he used to wake up at 3 am everyday, how he used to sell newspapers, etc. “Dream big, work hard” he exhorted.

In London, on a holiday, Sachin Tendulkar talked to newsmen and explained for the umpteenth time that records and money don’t matter to him; what matters is the joy of playing for the country. Every time he goes out to bat, he can still hear the national anthem in the background that gives him a tingling sensation in his spine, a patriotic flutter in his heart, and a gushing blood flow in his arteries.

I am quoting all this from memory, so don’t sue me if I haven’t got the entire text right.

But, back to my point on the tinge of sadness I experience when I listen to these worthies spinning their gyan. Note that I am not being critical. I am just plain jealous.

It must feel awesome to be able to walk into a room full of people and then mouth such nonsense in an unrestrained manner, without the slightest worry that someone would stop you midway. As a successful person, you have earned this privilege. And it is the bounden duty of the less successful people to give you their undivided and rapt attention and absorb whatever you hold forth on.

This facility– the right to lecture and pontificate at will- is a perquisite that I would die for. “Leadership”, I would tell the hapless interviewer, “is all about knowing the difference between the snakes and the ladders which life throws at you at a random sequence”. Or, “To me, leadership is all about having followers to lead. When you look behind you, do you find someone tailing you? That’s leadership”. Or better still, “Money, fame, power. That’s not what success is all about. When you enter a room, are people out there able to switch off all the lights in the room, and get illumination only by the glow from your radiant face. To me, that’s success”.

What I would give to talk such crap and still get people to ‘put their hands together” for a round of applause!

Sunday, June 21, 2009

The next bonanza for IT

Ever since the Wrong Brothers caused the first air crash a century back, efforts have been on to reduce human error. One way to do that, it was believed, was to let computers do the flying. An old joke among pilots is that to fly a modern aeroplane all you need are a computer, a pilot and a dog. The computer’s job is to fly the plane. The pilot’s job is to feed the dog. The dog’s job is to bite the pilot if he tries to touch anything.

That may be an exaggeration, says The Economist, but not by much: most long-haul flights are handled by autopilots from just after take-off until right before landing. And if the airport has the necessary technology, even the landing can be handed to the computer.

Trains are going the same way, adds the article: driverless metro systems exist in several cities.

‘Engineers have long dreamed of fully automating the motor car. Cars are more complicated because they must navigate a road system that is much more extensive and much less standardised than a rail network. Roads are anarchic places compared with railways, which tend to be fenced off. That helps to stop people or animals getting on to the tracks. An automatic car would have to deal with all sorts of unexpected hazards, from accidents in other cars, to steering clear of emergency-service vehicles, to stopping when a football rolls out into the road—with a child, still hidden from view, in hot pursuit. ‘

I predict that this is the next big opportunity ( after the Y2K goldmine) for the Indian IT industry. The Economist describes a situation, in which a solitary child pursues a solitary football as anarchy. This betrays a terrible lack of undersatnding of the complexity involved. Look at this video of a railway crossing near Bengaluru. Do you think any programmer from any other country would be able to comprehend or imagine these conditions that a fleet of computerised cars and trains must be designed for? No sir, this is a job for the IT Supermen from India.

Use less useless stuff- 2

The Landfill Prize was launched in Britain last year with this stated objective:

"Thanks to modern high tech, we should now have all the gear we need to enjoy comfortable, contented lives. Our culture is easily capable of producing myriad consumer items that are durable, reliable and useful enough to give years of great service.

It's not like that, though. We're beset with messages that tell us that the stuff we've got now isn't good enough – that we need more stuff, that we need stuff that's somehow improved, with ever more extras and options. It's all got to be new, too, rather than, ugh, so last year.

We've got fixated on producing and consuming stuff that has no future. It's only there to take our money on its brief trip from factory to landfill.

Our instant scrap is becoming ever more sophisticated, complex – and planet-trashingly wasteful. That's why we're launching the first annual Landfill Prize."

Among the 2009 winners are the motorized ice cream cone, the digital electronic skipping rope and a fork that can automatically twist the noodles for you.

The nominations are closed. Otherwise, the item mentioned in this Reuters report would have eminently qualified. A dress that is designed to light up when the wearer’s mobile phone rings. No less. British fashion student Georgie Davies says that “the dress is designed to eventually be connected to the wearer's phone by Bluetooth wireless technology, so she can be alerted to a call even in noisiest of places. When you're in a pub or a bar, you can never, ever hear your phone"

Innovation in marketing is all about inventing new problems to fit solutions into.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Prim and Proper PM.

The poet, T.S.Eliot, was known for his orthodox style. He was always dressed in a 3-piece suit. He was never seen without a tie. He kept his hair neatly trimmed. He abhorred ostentation of any kind. He knew that people found him quite conservative and wrote this self-deprecating poem, which best describes himself:

How unpleasant to meet Mr. Eliot!
With his features of clerical cut,
And his brow so grim
And his mouth so prim
And his conversation so nicely
Restricted to What precisely
And if and Perhaps and But…

The poem, with a few minor changes, would fit Dr. Manmohan Singh very well. The man is so ‘standardised’ in his appearance and manners. He wears the same type of dress all the time; the only time I have seen him look different was when on a visit to Philippines, he obliged the host by wearing their national dress, the ‘barong”. Unlike Sidhu's, his turban is always the same shade of blue. He has not changed the frame of his spectacles ever since I started seeing his photos. His voice employs the same, flat monotone without any modulations or variation of pitch whatsoever. He never raises his eyebrows when he speaks, nor moves his hands. For that matter, he doesn’t even swing his arms when he walks. I am quite sure that even his ECG will register a perfect sinusoidal wave instead of the PQRST wave pattern of lesser mortals. And, when he smiles, you can discern only the slightest movement of the facial muscles. No wild gesticulation, guffaws or chuckles.

Angry, excited, disappointed, worried or jubilant – his facial expression remains the same. Does he never lower his guard or loosen up? Like Jeeves, who was bound by the rules of the Butlers Guild and, regardless of provocation, couldn’t raise his eyebrows more than an eighth of an inch, is Dr. Singh a member of some Club that stipulates such behaviour? Or is he guarding his carefully-cultivated brand image zealously and making sure that there is no dilution or inconsistency?

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Rare report discovered in a Google Book.............

A Times of India news item today claims that “rare 1857 reports on Bengal” have been unearthed recently. “Unlike what is commonly believed” it says, “the 1857 sepoy mutiny was not confined to cantonments in Barrackpore and Behrampore. Similar uprising started all over Bengal after these two were snuffed out in April, proof of which has just been found in the Bengal State Archives.”

It adds “Historians have found police/intelligence records that indicate that uprising also happened in Chittagong, Dhaka, Jalpaiguri and Tripura. Care was taken to suppress these records and so, no mention of these was found in text books”.

Atis Dasgupta, Director of the state archives and historian Barun De have been credited with this discovery.

While these poor historians had to spend days in murky, messy Govt offices, wading deep into smelly files that were more than a century old, we have the luxury of doing the same investigation on Google Books. Five minutes of such research produced this evidence that shows that the incidents at Chittagong and Dacca were no state secrets and certainly did not require to be ‘discovered’ afresh.

Colburn’s United Service Magazine and Naval and Military Journal published in the year 1868 contains a lengthy article pertaining to “An Incident of the Indian Mutiny” (pages 52-61). It provides exhaustive details of the mutiny at Chittagong and Dacca, written from a British viewpoint, of course.

"Late on Saturday night, the 21st of November, a letter forwarded by express, was received at Dacca, announcing the fact that the Sepoys at Chittagong had mutinied; and that, after burning their lines and destroying a great deal of property, they had marched off, apparently to join the 73rd Native Infantry and Artillery, who had engaged so much of our attention during the last seven months.

The Sepoys who thus commenced the bold game of rebellion, were the only men left of the 34th Regiment N.I., the headquarters of which had been ignominiously disbanded at Barrackpore on the 2nd of May, for the Mungul Pandy outrage, when the first blood of the mutiny was shed. As soon as the three companies at Chittagong heard of the disgraceful conduct of their comrades, they addressed to the Government a memorial, in which they declared that they would remain " faithful for ever." Even if at the time they meant what they said, no one believed or trusted them. They were individually as corrupt, in a military and loyal sense, as Mungul Pandy himself, the type of all mutineers, who after his cognomen, were nicknamed Pandies. " Shaky," as they were, however, few imagined they would be mad enough to rebel when the game was fairly up, and the tide of fortune had for some time been setting in strongly against their cause.

The time had evidintly arrived when it was necessary to act promptly and energetically. The Sepoys at Dacca were known to be in league with the 34lh N.I. at Chittagong, and the news of the latter having mutinied would be received by them through the post the next day—if indeed, it was not known already, for it is highly probable that they acted in concert with one another. "

After describing the turn of events and the manner in which the rebellion was quelled, the report concludes thus:

This was the last of the mutiny at Dacca. For seven long months the European inhabitants had been sleeping with revolvers under their pillows, and with their guns loaded by their bedsides, ready for immediate use. All care and anxiety were now removed. No one had any pity to spare for the wretched Sepoys. It was felt that they fully deserved their fate; and that the fortune of war alone had prevented them from inflicting upon the Europeans indescribable cruelties, compared with which hanging would be a mercy.

Should anyone feel inclined to condemn any of the actions which have been here described, it is hoped that before doing so he will count the odds which Englishmen had at that time to contend against in the East; that he will do his best impartially to realize all the dangers of the position which they maintained for so many months, and the feelings by which they could not but have been influenced ; and if this be done, his verdict can hardly he an unfavourable one.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

R.I.P. plump heroine

“For a long time you noticed only the curves, now you’re beginning to see the angles. Blame it on the Bollywoodisation of Tamil cinema, or the influx of more girls from Pune, Mumbai and Delhi, but Kollywood’s tolerance of flab is decreasing as sharply as the waistline of its leading ladies. Everyone’s working out, to avoid being shipped out” reports the cover story in New Sunday Express today.

Alas, in this decadent world, things degenerate far too rapidly for my liking. The vortex of decay spares nothing and sucks everything in. The last two bastions of plump heroines – Kollywood and Tollywood- have fallen and made way for the dreary world of anemic, anorexic, adipose-deficient heroines.

Ha, how our sensibilities keep changing. Back in my college days, when we frequented theatres with popping eyes and drooling tongues, we expected value for money. We wanted our heroines to occupy the full screen. If a movie director had dared to foist some ‘Size Zero’ actress such as Kareena Kapoor or Aishwarya Rai, we wouldn’t have wasted so much as a whistle on her. In fact, some of the more aggressive ones occupying the front seats ( Rs 1.25) would have smashed the benches in protest, while those privileged few in the back rows ( Rs 2.90) would have slit open the cushions of the seats, if denied the full quota of heroine mass. It was an era when people expressed themselves thus in a clear and simple manner.

These days, heroines defy mathematical laws. They maintain a waistline in such a way that its circumference is less than its diameter. In the good old days when we described someone as round shaped, what we meant was that their circumference around the waist was an ever-expanding, work-in-progress. Not that the identification of the waist was simple. Like the equator, the waist was an imaginary line somewhere around the middle, and one could only speculate. As for legs, none of these skinny types would pass muster. Thunder thighs they had to be.

I remember watching a movie (the name escapes me) in which MGR was the hero. For some reason ( I don't recall why) he grew up in a house in which there were four elephants too. Then he fell in love with and married the heroine (I forget who) who matched the elephants, foot for foot in dimensions and quintal for quintal in weight.

Those were the days, you see, when men were men, elephants were elephants and heroines were real women.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

The tie that kills - Part 2

The modern necktie (yuck!) and bowtie ( aaawwggh!) are said to have descended from the Cravat, a loose neck band that made its appearance in the 16th century.

An entry in page 32 of The Mirror of Literature, Amusement and Instruction” written in the year 1823, attributed the alarming increase in the case of apoplectic fits, to the practice of wearing cravats.

"A recent medical writer maintains that the alarming increase of apoplectic fits is attributable, in a great measure, to the custom of wearing cravats; an addition to our dress which was not made until the 16th century, previous to which period, he says, the disorder was met with but as one to three compared with the present. And he seeks to strengthen his hypothesis by observing, that women are less liable to apoplexy than men, “although the nature of their economy might be supposed to lead oftener to the complaint."

At least, the cravat was a loose neckband which allowed some air circulation. The damage therefore was limited to apoplectic fits. The necktie that evolved from it and became fashionable in the late nineteenth century and a rage in the twentieth century is a monstrosity that should have been banned by law. It chokes and constricts. Why otherwise sane men should sport this appendage and voluntarily cut off blood supplies to their brains is something I have never been able to appreciate.

And when you reflect that decisions involving billions of dollars are taken in corporate offices by men in neckties, with zero blood circulation in their brains, you understand why the global economy has collapsed.

As I posted earlier, I intend writing a book on sartorial styles and will devote an entire chapter ( “The tie that kills”) to curse the inventor of the tie.

(Full disclosure: Alas, I am a member of the "Choked-Neck Club" that obliges me to wear a tie, from time to time)

The price is not too bad really...

“Wobbly cardboard boxes tied with neon yellow twine. Rusty grandfather trunks emblazoned with peeling paper stickers. Cheerfully bulging, shapeless chequered suitcases. Indians have the dubious distinction of carrying some of the world’s ugliest luggage” writes Shonali Muthalaly in The Hindu Metro Plus, while welcoming a new range of trendy travel accessories that had been unveiled by a large brand.

She then adds this glowing tribute : “The pieces displayed were sleek, highly polished and shone with that self-confident sheen that invariably accompanies unabashed luxury. Prices range from roughly Rs. 2,000 to Rs. 15,000. Which is not too bad, really, considering in the global luxury market, you will easily pay about a lakh for a Louis Vuitton."

Forget the expression, “you will easily pay about a lakh” for a moment. What I understand from the article is this. If I am a buyer with even a modicum of decency, I should not swoon on looking at the price tag of any luxury item. When I am at the duty-free shop at the airport and I spot a Tissot watch with a price of say $200. I shouldn’t be a cheapskate and compare it with a Titan watch back home that costs an equivalent of $50. I should remember Shonali’s reasoning and convince myself that it is a steal at that price, for I would easily pay $2500 or more for a Longines or a Cartier, or some such fancy brand.

It’s all a matter of perspective, as I noted in an earlier post. Don’t worry that you are coughing up Rs 15000 for a suitcase. This is not too bad really. Be thankful that you are not shelling out Rs 1,00,000.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Off with the heads...

This TOI report says that as many as 145 of the 543 MPs elected in the latest elections had less than 20% of their electorate voting for them.

When you have a system based on ‘first past the goal post”, you can expect this sort of thing. Totally undeserving candidates can get elected.

But, then whichever electoral system you choose will, I am sure, have a flip side.

Unless you are willing to implement what the people in Italo Calvino’s short story “Beheading the Heads” practice in the distant future. Their method has no flaws whatsoever.

As the title subtly hints, the Heads would be beheaded, in full public display, on completion of the term in office.

But, why would anybody want to be elected, knowing what was in store?

It was a matter of honour. “Only heads of state can be beheaded, hence you can't wish to be a head without also wishing for the chop. Only those who feel they have this vocation can become heads of state, only those who already feel themselves beheaded the moment they take up a position of authority.”'

As one of the characters, a wise old man explains, “'Authority over others is indivisible from the right of those others to have you climb the scaffold and do away with you, one day in the not too distant future . . . What authority would a leader have without the aura of this destiny around him, if you couldn't read it in his eyes, his sense of his end, for every second of his mandate? Civil institutions depend on this dual aspect of authority; no civilization has ever used any other system.”'

“We can no longer imagine what it was like in the past, in times when public men died in private: we laugh today when we hear that they described some of their erstwhile procedures as democratic; for us democracy can only begin once we are sure that on the appointed day the television cameras will frame the death throes of our ruling classes to the last man, and then, as an epilogue to the same programme (though many will switch off their sets at this point), the investiture of the new faces who are to rule (and to live) for a similar period.

'When the fruit is ripe you gather it. You wouldn't leave fruit to rot on the branches, would you? Same with the heads of the Heads.

An excellent idea that can be implemented at the earliest, don’t you agree? Will make life more interesting for everyone.