Sunday, August 30, 2009

Rite or wrong?

“Last rites performed for Edward Kennedy” read the tickertape on Doordarshan yesterday in reference to his funeral.

While the term ‘last rites’ is used by Hindus (and therefore, solemnly, by the Indian media) to describe the rituals involved in the act of burial or cremation of a dead person, I understand that Catholics use the term to describe the act of ‘anointing the sick” or administering ‘holy communion’ to a dying person or one who faces the threat of death. The dying man can use this opportunity to 'confess' his sins and seek forgiveness.

Incidentally, Senator Kennedy did receive the last rites ( of the Catholic variety) two days before he died.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Banana, Banana

The banana can be a rather pedestrian fruit. When I am hungry and need something quick, it is the banana that I reach out for, but other times, the fruit simply fails to excite me.

In his essay titled, “The nutritive qualities of a banana”, Robert Lynd explained that the banana owed its popularity among us, not to any good qualities it possessed, but to bad qualities in ourselves.

“It is the lazy man’s fruit all the world over” he wrote. “We eat bananas not because we like them, but because they give us less trouble than any other fruit. One has to peel an apple or pear carefully, but the banana almost peels itself. In grapes, there are pips and skins to be got rid of, an endless inconvenience; but after the first stripping of the banana, there is no further labour.

The banana is free from nearly all the objections that can be taken to a fruit, except on the score of its taste. It is clean; it has neither pips nor core; it can be eaten if necessary without the aid of a knife; and not even a child has been known to eat it to excess. It may not have a single positive good quality, but it has all the negative good qualities. That is why it would be almost impossible to introduce it into a lyrical poem. The church bells may chime the praises of oranges and lemons, but not the bananas.”

In his blog, “Damn Interesting”, Matt Castle explains why the banana is a fortuitous fruit. “The banana is a freakish and fragile genetic mutant; one that has survived through the centuries due to the sustained application of selective breeding by diligent humans. Indeed, the “miraculous” banana is far from being a no-strings-attached gift from nature. Its cheerful appearance hides a fatal flaw— one that threatens its proud place in the grocery basket. The banana’s problem can be summed up in a single word: sex.”

“Stuck with the clunky, inefficient cloning of asexual reproduction, the sterile banana is at a serious disadvantage in the never-ending biological arms race between plant and pest. Indeed, it is a well-established fact that bananas are particularly prone to crop-consuming insects and diseases ”. A banana apocalypse is a distinct possibility.

So, let’s enjoy the humble banana as long as it lasts.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The masochistic bibliophile

There are books that one genuinely wants to read and those that one feels one ought to read. Into the second genre fall classics, epics, self-help books, autobiographies and books written by prominent personalities.

In recent times, I’ve had to plough my way through books such as “Imagining India” by Nandan Nilakeni and “A Better India, A better world” by N.R.Narayana Murthy.

Nilakeni took it upon himself to list down all the problems that are plaguing India and went on to describe each of them in painstaking detail. Narayana Murthy pondered over weighty questions such as “When will the fruits of development reach the poorest of the poor, and wipe the tears from the eyes of every man, woman and child, as Mahatma Gandhi had dreamt? And how should this, our greatest challenge ever, be negotiated?”

In both the books, the intention and determination of the authors to inflict third-degree boredom on their readers come through clearly. But, I slogged on gamely and finished reading them. I complimented myself on my staying power and on clearing the endurance tests with my sanity still intact.

But more challenges were to come my way. Last week, I picked up from the library the latest book of Amartya Sen’s, “The Idea of Justice”. After reading through 250 pages of the book, I can honestly state that not one page has made any sense to me so far. Intellectual stuff can also be made intelligible, but Amartya Sen makes no such attempt. The experience was akin to watching a Polish movie without the sub-titles. The saving grace was that I had the sense not to buy the book, paying the full price. I have borrowed it from a lending library at 10% of its cost.

Why did I have to read 250 pages to realise that I didn’t understand a word of what was written? As I mentioned in the beginning of this post, I didn’t want to read it but thought that this was one of those books that I ought to read. From now on, I must learn not to indulge in such masochistic rituals.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Stick to plain vanilla

The Economist calls for an end to the gadget features race.

“Why is it” the article asks “so many manufacturers cannot leave well alone? They go to great pains to produce exquisite pieces of technology. Then too often, instead of merely honing the rough edges away to perfection, they spoil everything by adding unnecessary bells and whistles and unwarranted girth. In the pursuit of sales, they seem to feel they must continually add further features to keep jaded customers coming back for more. It is as if consumers can’t be trusted to respect the product for what the designers originally intended.”

It concludes: “The poet-aviator Antoine de Saint Exupéry, who pondered the meaning of flight as he ferried mail through the North African night in the 1920s mused : “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”

The cry for simplicity is quite common these days. But in fairness to the gadget manufacturers, what they offer is a ‘buffet’ of options. A buffet meal may look like an unnecessary big spread, but it operates on the principle that different people will opt for a different set of dishes to suit their tastes. For the restaurant, management of the process becomes simpler, as the menu is standardised for the day.

Similarly, a laptop manufacturer offers an array of features numbered say 1 to 10. I may use features 1, 3, 5 and 7 only, whereas you might use features 2, 4, 6 and 8. Someone else may use 1, 2, 9 and 10 and so on. Each of us will find additional or redundant features, but the standardisation of the model helps the manufacturer save on design costs, inventory, channel costs, etc. Sometimes, offering ‘more’ can work out ‘cheaper’.

Madras Day

Today (Aug 22) is being celebrated as the anniversary of the founding of Madras City. As a ‘chennaikaran’ and an armchair, amateur historian ( even if self-styled), I felt that I must try to find, via Google Books, one of the earliest references to the city.

There are some books in the Google library that are dated 1650-1699, but they make only a fleeting mention of the city. The first exhaustive account that I could come across was in The Gentlemen’s Magazine ( page90), published in 1747 that carries this description of Fort St George, Madras, when rumours had reached London that the fort had fallen into the hands of the French. Madras would have been in existence for about a century when this was written 262 years back.

A succinct account of the City of Madras and Fort St George
FORT St George stands upon the coast of Coromandel, in the latitude of 13°. 30'. and is looked upon as the most considerable place in the possession of our East India company. It lies about eighty degrees in point of longitude, east from London, which makes about fix hours difference between time there and here ; so that six in the morning with us is their noon, and our noon about their fall of night, for the days are very near of an equal length in that country all the year round. Fort St George is very happily seated in the midst of the white town, with the road before it, and a river behind it. It is a regular square, of about 100 yards, fortified with four bastions, and built with what they call the iron-stone.

The west gate which looks towards the land is large and magnificent, and a company of foldiers keep guard there ; the opposite gate, towards the river, is small, and is guarded only by a file of musketeers. The white town is of an oblong form, well built and except towards the river, has a good wall. To the northward lies the black town, which is properly called Madras, and by the Moors, Chinepatan, inhabited by Portuguese, Indians, Armenians, and many other nations. The streets are wide, and many of them well planted with trees, so that having the sea on one side and a river on the other, it may be truly said that few cities stand so pleasantly or better supplied with provisions………

….This is a place of vast trade and all the officers have such perquisites that they soon become rich. There is no place in the world where money is more plenty and where traders have better credit.

….. The town, as well as the fort, have very good walls with bastions at proper distances. The situation is very proper for defence, they have several outguards and taking their artillery all together they have at least two hundred pieces of cannon….The fort is a regular and good fortification, kept in constant order, well supplied with artillery, ammunition and provisions, and a garrison of competent strength, under the command of officers of experience, who are regularly and handsomely paid by the Company….

It is not therefore easy to conceive that there is any truth in a flying report we have from Paris, in relation to the French making themselves the masters of this settlement. "

Alas, this confidence was misplaced and the French did take over the Fort for a brief while.

Friday, August 21, 2009

One of the first, well-behaved girl students

The Missionary Register, published in 1828, contains a sketch of one of the earliest girl students in India. It carries this brief description on page 175.

"The accompanying Engraving is taken from a Portrait of one of the Scholars attending the Schools in Calcutta ; she is represented in the Native-Female Dress, which is called a " Sarrie:" the same is a long piece of white muslin, folded round the body and thrown over the head and shoulders. The book in her right-hand shews that she is a scholar : the sight of a girl with a book in her hand, however common in England, was till lately very unusual in India. In her left-hand she holds one of the work-bags sent out by Ladies in England as rewards for the best behaved Girls."

Thursday, August 20, 2009

In the name of my father...

As is the case with many people from this part of the country, I don’t have a surname. When asked to fill in a surname, I follow the practice of writing down my father’s name there. This can cause some awkwardness when I check into hotels abroad and they inform any callers who ask for me by my first name, that nobody by that name is staying with them.

Apparently, Europeans adopted surnames only in the sixteenth century. France and Germany were the first to do so, but Italy systematized it slightly later. That is why, says this article in Slate, we refer to Galileo only by his first name, as the system came to be implemented after his time.

Galileo referred to himself sometimes by first name only, sometimes as Galileo Galilei, and sometimes as Galileo Galilei Linceo (a nod to his alliance with a progressive group of scientists, which served, in part, as a kind of honorific). The governments of the various Italian city-states eventually grew frustrated by their citizens' constantly shifting last names—without standardization, it was difficult to levy taxes or enforce military registration requirements. Beginning in Galileo's lifetime, therefore, laws swept through Italy requiring parents to record both first and last names for their children. If a family had a traditional surname, they usually used that. If not, they resorted to town of origin or occupation, and then these names were passed down through the generations.

Do you think it would be a good idea to enforce, by law, the system of surname in those parts of India that are still holding out?

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

I am indeed the father...

I received a message from Facebook that someone had listed me as her father, and would I please confirm the relationship? After the initial panic and concerns if I was being slapped with a paternity suit, I realized that it was indeed my daughter who was updating her Facebook profile and that I was in no danger.

The incident got me worried. I could create a virtual persona and make it list some other virtual entity as its father and so on. A virtual web of relationships and families could be created on Facebook and made to evolve independent of the real world. Soon, as in The Matrix, the distinction will blur and we will realise that what we now understand as reality is actually a simulated one created by Facebook, so as to draw upon the energy and heat emanating from our bodies. This energy, in turn, will power the Facebook server farms so as to create more simulation……

The brave freedom-fighter

“They fought for India's freedom, now they battle penury” says this report, narrating the plight of around 5000 surviving freedom-fighters in Karnataka.

"I actively took part in the Quit India movement in 1942. I was a student in Mysore's Maharaja College at that time. I was part of the non-violent brigade and a part of various protest marches against the British rule. I was also jailed for a few months.” a visibly proud 88-year-old freedom fighter, now settled in Bangalore says. "Today I sell newspapers and tea in a stall. I get only Rs.3,000 as a freedom fighter's pension from the state government. It's difficult for me and my wife to survive with a paltry sum of money. It is a hard life for us," he lamented. …..

Freedom fighters have given their blood and soul to get India's independence. Now, in their old age, freedom fighters deserve an increase in their pension and medical benefits", said Sreenivasaiah, 85……

One of their demands is “jobs and education for their children and grandchildren and continuation of their pension to family members in case of their death.”

"Why do we have to beg for our rights? It's the duty of the state to look after the needs of the freedom fighters," added an 89-year-old freedom fighter.

Now, any octogenarian living in penury or having to labour for his survival deserves our utmost sympathy. As a minimum welfare measure, the state must take care of its senior citizens – freedom fighters or otherwise - who do not have other means of support.

But, 62 years after Independence, we still have people demanding special rights, claiming that they had shed their blood and sweat for our freedom, (as if they did not have their own freedom in mind) when all they did as teenagers or 20-something kids was walk out of school/college and join the mass protest. They genuinely believe that this was a daring and selfless act (ok, a series of such acts, if you insist) that conferred on them the right to eternally enjoy the status of ‘freedom fighter’ with all its attendant benefits.

The bonafide persons who played longer and more meaningful roles in the freedom movement must be tossing in their graves. Bless their souls.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Without exception.

Without getting into the merit of the case involving the detention of Shahrukh Khan at Newark airport, or the breach of protocol in the frisking of Dr. Kalam earlier at Delhi, we can treat these incidents as evidence that the screening processes followed by US are working fine, and that they are not vulnerable to distortion or discretionary interpretation by the person responsible for carrying out such checks.

After the controversy broke out over Dr Kalam’s frisking by the security staff of Continental Airlines, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), a US government law enforcement agency, asserted “that the American carrier was merely following regulatory requirements that require that all passengers and their accessible property are screened for any items listed on the prohibited items list.” No apologies were offered. As an Indian, I may find this insensitive, but if I were a traveler to or out of the USA, I would derive comfort in the robustness of the security system and feel a lot safer.

Similarly, if the immigration official at the airport had the slightest of doubts over the credentials of Shahrukh, he was right in questioning him, instead of succumbing to the protests of Indian passengers in the flight, or getting overawed by the actor’s reputation in India. If it turns out to be a mistake, too bad. Far better to err on this side than the other. This is the only way Security screening can be made water-tight and free of human errors.

VIPs in India are used to breaking queues and breezing past the security gate, with their side-kicks in tow. The security staff can be seen going through the motions, but with an apologetic air.

Used to such treatment and adulation, Shahrukh has a right to feel humiliated when he is not allowed his usual breeze-past, but he should understand that this is the inconvenient side of a water-tight, discretion-proof, security system. If such a system gets diluted, sooner or later, someone with wrong intentions and armed with a fake passport, will impersonate Shahrukh and slip past security.

(If it is any consolation to Shahrukh, even Bob Dylan, the rock legend was stopped recently by a police officer on the road and asked to prove his identity. (source)).

Aircraft maintenance practices also underwent a similar change many years back. Change of parts or frequency of maintenance is not left to the discretion of the individual (Remember your Ambassador car and the roadside mechanic?). If the manuals call for replacement of a part after 5000 hours of flying, it is not open to the airline staff to examine if the part has worn out, if more life is left or can it last for another 1000 hrs, etc. When the milestone of 5000 hrs is reached, the said part has to be replaced without question. Non-compliance will be viewed as a serious violation. Safety and reliability can be ensured only through strict observance of such practices, without exceptions.

Saturday, August 15, 2009


Dave and Jenny, two New Yorkers, who have been blogging about their Delhi struggles, have a post on the market that exists here for used liquor bottles. No, not for the more honourable cause of recycling, but “because empty liquor bottles, we were told, are bought by certain Delhiites for a very clever reason: so they can pour cheap swill into fancy bottles that flatter their guests into thinking they’re being served the good stuff.”

Apparently, Sheila, their maid, had been stashing away the used bottles, sensing the market opportunity.

Jet Waterways

In her book, “Bazaars, conversations and freedoms”, the author Rajni Bakshi argues that the economic downturn has revealed serious structural flaws and the lesson is that we must make markets work for society, rather than the other way around.

In one of the chapters, she recounts an incident involving the poet, Rabindranath Tagore. In the year 1920, on a blistering summer day, Tagore was traveling in a, then rare, motor car across rural Bengal. A defect in the car forced him to stop the car frequently and refill water in the vehicle. In village after village of a drought-affected countryside, strangers came forth to share their limited supply of water and refused to accept payment or reward. Tagore wrote later:

"In a hot country where travelers constantly need water and where the water supply grows scanty in summer, the villagers consider it their duty to offer water to those who need it. They could easily make a business out of it, following the inexorable law of demand and supply, but the ideal which they consider to be their Dharma has become one with their life. To ask them to sell it is like asking them to sell their life. They do not claim any personal merit for possessing it. To be able to take a considerable amount of trouble in order to supply water to a passing stranger and yet never to claim merit or reward for it seems absurdly and negligibly simple…but that simplicity is the product of centuries of culture, that simplicity is difficult of imitation."

Ironically, I was reading this passage while on a Jet Konnect flight from Mumbai. In Konnect flights, Jet Airways charges extra for food and even water. A 500 ml bottle is priced at Rs 20. Many passengers, who asked for water, when told they needed to pay Rs 20 for a half-litre bottle, chose to remain thirsty. At 35000 ft, and as the only supplier of water, it does make good business sense for Jet to charge a premium for that commodity, following the principle of supply and demand. But centuries of Indian culture would come in the way of the passengers accepting this practice in good spirit. It is going to rankle.

The road to success

According to this allegorical map drawn in 1913, the path to success is long and arduous. Once you get past the Gate of Opportunity, you need to resist pit stops at Comfort Inn, Garden of Bohemianism, Hotel Know-it-all, etc. Then by-passing the road that leads to illiteracy, and conceit, you need to board the train at Right System to cross the River called Failure and get through the Gate of Ideals to reach Success.

Will it really be worth the trouble, or as one of the commenters puts it, should we conclude that “Success is for losers. Give me bohemianism any day"?

The world should be flat, but only for me.

George Monbiot, a columnist in The Guardian, writes about the impending disaster in his small market town, Machynlleth, in mid-Wales:

"Last month Tesco submitted an application to subjugate us. It wants to build a store of 27,000 square feet on the edge of the town centre. This is twice the size of all our grocery stores put together, and bigger than our tiny settlement – 2,100 souls – can support. Tesco will prosper here only if other shops close and customers come from miles away.

If this monster is built, everything that is special and precious and distinctive about this town – the quirky shops, the UK's oldest farmers' market, the busy community – falls under its shadow. Tesco will suck the marrow out of us."

The thing about progress is that individuals indulge in cherry-picking. Each wants to selectively and selfishly take advantage of specific elements of new market models or concepts, while clinging zealously to his/her turf when it comes to certain other elements.

Imagine the same small town in Wales, in the mid seventies, when there were just one or two local newspapers and magazines rolled out in a press around the corner, with a circulation of a few hundred each, and providing the townsmen with all the news, gossip, details of upcoming weddings, obituaries, etc.

One fine morning, a national newspaper, The Guardian, makes its appearance in the town, with its columns, features, global news, sports coverage, etc. The local newspapers that till then were special, precious and distinctive, lose their appeal overnight and soon close down, unable to match up to the new entrant. George Monbiot, in his teens, gleefully subscribes to The Guardian and later gets to write columns and earn good money too. But, when a large retail chain wants to set up shop in his town, he cries foul. “It will suck the marrow out of us. We must fight it” he argues.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Cricket in lieu of war

“Sport gives the catharsis, pain-free drama, clarity and resolution that the world outside cannot. And nobody gets hurt” says Jonathan Freedland in his column in The Guardian, while justifying his fixation for cricket which, in turn, forced him to buy a Blackberry – just to know the scores in real time.

He adds,” Sport offers what the news cannot. Pain-free drama, to be sure – a clash of nations with an inevitable outpouring of patriotism, yet mercifully free of violence – but something else too. It promises clarity and resolution to a world short of both. Few political battles, outside elections, end with a clear winner and a settled outcome. They involve messy compromise, delay and necessary fudge. Few sporting matches end like that (though a drawn test match comes close). Most conclude with the catharsis of a decision. Our personal and our public lives are not like that. Sport gives us a certainty we rarely know.

In total control

Some statements on the H1N1 situation, pulled out from assorted news items.
  • Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Sunday asked Union Health Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad to step up the preparedness and ensure closer coordination between the Health Ministry and the State governments to check the spread of the highly contagious disease.
  • Dr. Singh, who called up the Minister to take stock of the situation, also stressed the need for creating more awareness and checking spread of misinformation on the disease, and asking State governments to create more isolation wards in hospitals and train more doctors and paramedical staff to deal with any eventuality.
  • Azad spoke to 22 CMs on Tuesday and asked them to take swift decision in controlling the virus’s spread.
  • Chief Minister M Karunanidhi directed officials to ensure that proper tests are being carried out on those exhibiting flu symptoms like cold, cough, body ache and diarrhoea. The officials were also asked to ensure immediate medical attention and treatment to those who tested positive.
  • Mr. Karunanidhi also advised medical officials to continuously monitor schools and instruct principals and headmasters to pay immediate attention to any student with swine flu symptoms.

These news stories are what Hitchcock would have referred to as McGuffins. The PM, Health Minister and CM all appear to be completely in charge of the situation, responding to the crisis with a burst of energy, analysing, troubleshooting, taking remedial actions on the spot at an awesome speed and displaying administrative skills of a high order. In reality, what they are doing is sitting down in one place and mumbling something to a subordinate that he should do whatever is required to be done at the appropriate time.

Everybody knows that no ideas or strategy would flow out of such meetings. What is important is to go ahead with the ritual of the meeting and make some noise. The media will then ‘animate’ it suitably and convey the impression of action.

Monday, August 10, 2009

May you be freed of Friedmanism

Most of you suffer from positive illusions, (built on a naive overconfidence in human capabilities and a nearly total disregard for human failings.). This illusionary belief is also known as Friedmanism, after Thomas Friedman the self-appointed cheerleader of the Human Team and whose job it is to make us all feel good about ourselves.

Thomas Friedman is like one of those characters played by actor Alec Baldwin in an episode of Friends. He is so positive that even when his girl friend Phoebe screams at him and throws him out of the house, he knocks the door again and asks her, " Wasn't that the best fight you've ever had?"

Back to the point. Freidmanism makes you all believe that life on this planet will go on as usual. Therefore the responsibility falls on my broad shoulders to disabuse you of this notion. I refer you to this article by Dave Cohen where he explains that we are well on the road to the Sixth Extinction, as the current rate of extinction of amphibians is 25,039–45,474 times the natural rate.

But don’t panic. This won’t happen till the next century. But, oops. This prediction was made in 1998. That means we are already in the next century.

And here’s the real good news. In a few million years after we are gone, the planet will fill up with life again. So, don't fall a prey to needless Cohenism.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Yin and Yang

“Getting down to first principles” wrote P.G.Wodehouse in one of his books, “accidents happen when two objects occupy the same point in space at the same time”. (Ok, it doesn’t require a Wodehouse to tell us that, but the fact certainly adds weight.).

The story in the New York Times about a mid-air collision involving a small plane and a helicopter over the River Hudson proves the point.

Apparently, the airplane took off from Teterboro at 11:50 a.m., after stopping there for a half-hour and picking up a passenger. The plane arrived over the Hudson at 11:52 and turned south.

Meanwhile, the helicopter, took off from the West 30th Street heliport at almost the same time for a sightseeing tour. The helicopter took off, headed out over the river, turned south and climbed to between 500 and 1,000 feet.

Soon the twain converged.

In 1912, soon after the sinking of the Titanic, Thomas Hardy shot off this poem by cable to the New York Times, in which he described the ship and the iceberg as two halves of the same august event. For, when “while was fashioning this creature ( Titanic) of cleaving wing, The Immanent Will that stirs and urges everything prepared a sinister mate for her--so gaily great--a Shape of Ice. And as the smart ship grew in stature, grace, and hue - in shadowy silent distance grew the Iceberg too." And soon the twain converged…

Sadly, the helicopter and the plane were two halves of a single tragic event. Hindus would have attributed it to Fate and Destiny. Hardy would attribute it to the machinations of the Immanent Will..

Conversation with daughter - 32

Daughter: Appa, why are you looking so serious?

Me: I have to take a decision on something really important. I am unable to make up my mind. I am thinking and thinking very hard….

Daughter: You know what I do in such a situation. I take a piece of paper and make two columns, ‘pros’ and ‘cons’. …

Me: Hey, if ‘pros’ is the opposite of ‘cons’, then is the “Congress’ party opposed to “progress”?

Daughter: Very funny. Here’s what I do. I list down all positive points under ‘pros’ and negative points under ‘cons’. I go by whichever list is longer.

Me: Give me an example of when you used this method.

Daughter: Last Tuesday was a holiday for school, remember? I had to decide whether to go to school on Monday or just enjoy the 4-day weekend. So, I started jotting down the pros like “I can have lots of fun”, “I will have a long break”. “I can sleep late on Monday”, etc and came up with eight solid pros. There were only two cons, one that I would have to catch up on the homework later and the second, that I would have to hear out your long lecture on why I shouldn’t have bunked school.

Me: Your ‘decision grid’ has two basic flaws, you brat. First, you need to assign weightage to each of the points. For example, the intensity of the ‘pain’ of a stern lecture and the aftermath can be eight times the degree of ‘pleasure’ of sleeping late. Second, the list has to include points that are mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive. Having fun, sleeping late, etc are all parts of the same point and cannot be listed down as separate ones. Moreover…

Daughter: As usual, you are complicating a simple system. No wonder you are unable to decide……

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Unlinear, unpainterly

Being artistically-challenged, I have never been good at sketching or drawing. But, to my considerable surprise, I once re-produced a Picasso classic, with fair degree of accuracy. This was made possible by a technique explained in the book, “Drawing on the right side of the brain”. A logical brain that saw a picture as an aggregate of sharp edges and clear patterns was actually inimical to the process of painting or drawing, the author pointed out. If you are drawing a face, don’t focus on the eyes and the nose, etc but on the space in between. To prove the theory, the book provided an exercise in which the learner was encouraged to keep the Picasso picture upside down and draw it. And, that’s how I re-produced the masterpiece.

Later, I signed up for a short course and the instructor ( a kid of twenty) taught me to look at objects not as objects with clear distinguishing features, but as different tones of light and shade. I managed to get a few sketches done as taught, but realized that I simply did not have whatever it takes to be able to draw on my own. Either you have it in you or you don’t. It is not something that can be learnt, I concluded.

These thoughts crossed my mind when I read about the distinction between ‘linear’ and ‘painterly’ art in this review of Georges Seurat's “Embroidery: The Artist's Mother”

The Swiss art historian Heinrich Wölfflin coined the distinction between what he called linear and painterly art, in order to characterise – as he saw it – one of the big differences between the art of the Renaissance and the Baroque. It's a question of perception.

The linear is "the perception of the object by its tangible character, its outlines and surfaces". The artist dwells on the shapes and boundaries of things. The painterly, on the other hand, is "a perception by way of surrendering to mere visual appearance... The artist overlooks individual things, and observes the play of light and shade."

"In the former case, stress is laid on the edges of things; in the latter, the work tends to look without edges. Seeing according to volumes and outlines isolates objects, while for the painterly eye, they merge."

Linear against painterly, touching against seeing, outline against tone, objects against blur: such a distinction applies beyond the periods of the Renaissance and the Baroque, and they are more than perceptual terms too. They are psychological or conceptual categories. They are attitudes to the world. The linear is about control, clarity, grasping, defining. The painterly is about letting go, losing your focus and grip. There are linear paintings. There are painterly drawings
What are the options open for those aspiring artists who are linearly as well as painterly challenged?

London Diary

Checked in early at the airport and was given the good news that I had been upgraded to business class. Once I got into the aircraft, I looked first at the miserable bunch of economy class passengers and thought to myself, “Losers! I have paid almost the same fare as you guys, but I am going to have a good sleep tonight in my stretched-out seat”. And then I went to my seat in Business Class, looked at my fellow passengers and thought, “Losers! I have paid far less than you guys have, yet I am going to enjoy the same comfort.” I felt really good.

Took a train from Heathrow to Paddington. I had been told that my hotel was just 2 minutes away from Paddington. Cautious enquiry revealed that the hotel was actually 500 yards away. Converting yards into metres, a unit I am more conversant with, was difficult after a 10 hour plane journey, so I used some quick thumb rules. A cricket pitch, I remembered was 22 yards long. So, the walk to the hotel was equivalent to taking 22 runs and getting run out when 6 yards short of completing the 23rd run. It’s ok when you are just carrying a bat, but I couldn’t imagine even Tendulkar doing it for his beloved country while lugging around a suitcase weighing 15 kg, and a laptop weighing a ton. Too much of a hassle. I took one of those black cabs and was at my hotel in 2 minutes.

A friend took me to an Italian restaurant where we ordered minestrone soup. I expected to see something reddish in a tomatoish base, but what was served was almost a clear soup, with big pieces of vegetables in it. Tasted real good, but looked more Cantonese than Italian. SShhh, advised my friend, don’t get the waiter started on a lecture on what authentic Italian food was all about. I reflected on this. With imitation Italian food available all over the world, the original Italian chefs have struck back, and re-defined what ‘authentic Italian’ was. Made a note that if ever the South Indian idli becomes a global rage, Saravana Bhavan must starting making the idlis in light green colour and claim that’s how the authentic idlis have been made here for centuries. Selling is all about differentiating yourselves from the crowd.

Loitering around Piccadilly Circus, I got caught in a torrential downpour, which showed no signs of abating. Decided to get into a theatre and watch a play. The cheapest ticket, I was informed by the kind lady at the window, was £ 12.5, but I would have an obstructed view of the stage. The next cheapest was £ 25, which had a slightly better view. However, if I was a student, she said, I could get this at a special price of £ 15. Though I was mightily pleased that she would even grant the possibility of me looking like a student, I had to be honest. I settled for the seat at the cheapest rate, but closest to the £ 25 seats. I looked at my neighbour on my right and thought, “Loser! I have paid just half the amount, and here I am sitting just next to you”. Made me feel good and made up for that nagging thought that I was blowing up Rs 1000 for a view of 50% of the stage. The play itself was a riot. A spoof on “Thirty nine steps’ and a cast of 4 actors playing 140 roles in 90 minutes.

I have finally understood the psychology behind airport shopping. The big brands that are displayed there are all red herrings. You look at the £ 200-1000 price tags and feel terribly small. All of a sudden you walk into a souvenir shop and find something with a price tag of only £ 14.99. You immediately pull out your purse and buy it, grateful for the favours dispensed by Providence. Only after you have boarded the plane, it hits you that you have just paid Rs 1200 for a T-shirt that would cost you no more than Rs 200 in Chennai, including the pictures of Big Ben and the double-deckers. And the T-shirt that you bought was probably made in Tiruppur too.

Monday, August 03, 2009


“It seems to me that, in gyms, you have two types of creature: the good-looking young, who are good-looking because they are young, not because they go to the gym; and the less good-looking middle-aged, who are trying really hard to be as good-looking as the young. Which will never happen because they’re not young any more. “writes a columnist in Times online.

…”I detect a trend” she adds.”As soon as you hit 40, putting your body through its paces is the new going out. You may have spent two decades clubbing (and the rest), but you’re not ready to embrace middle-age quite yet, no sirree. The gym is no longer enough, neither is having a six-pack: you need to turn yourself into some kind of Iron Man to prove you’ve still got it."

This makes me feel good. I am well over 40. I don’t go the gym. I don’t want a six-pack. I m perfectly fine with one nice pack. I don’t try to be as good-looking as the young. I merely try to be younger-looking than the ones who are older than me.

"shan gao, buang di yuan"

In an earlier post, I had quoted a passage from Lee Kuan Yew’s book, wherein he had talked about the multiplicity of dialects in China and corrected the general impression ( at least the one I had) that it was bound by a common language.

In a subsequent passage in the same book, he also demolishes another myth, that the communist system in China made for complete unified central control, and that the writ of the central rulers ran large throughout the vast country.

"Every province of China is different in geography, economy, education and standard of efficiency. The pre-occupations of their governers are different. Their accents, dialects and social habits vary. America may be a continent, but the population is not as large, and excellent communications allowed their elite to meet and interact regularly. China is too populous and until the 1980s, when they built up their airports and imported Western aircraft, communications were so poor that they lived in different worlds. There is strong interprovincial rivalry. Hence every leader who rose to the top in Beijing brought with him as many of his provincial colleagues as was decent without arousing resentment from those excluded. Fellow provincials understood and could best understand their leader’s mind.

I had assumed that the communist system made for complete unified central control. This never was so in China. From the earlier dynasties, provincial authorities have enjoyed considerable independence in interpreting imperial edicts, and further away from the center a province was, the greater its independence. Five words, shan gao, buang di yuan (the mountains are high, the emperor is far away) express the cynicism and skepticism of generations of the disaffected who have been shortchanged by the local authorities.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

A small sacrifice...

Why do Delhi buses kill people with such regularity (115 people killed in 2008), ask Dave and Jenny, in their blog “About our Delhi struggle”. Despite the volume with which these buses roar down the street—you hear them coming from a quarter-mile away—they still manage to pounce on an astounding number of victims ( via Freakonomics)

Dave and Jenny then provide an economic analysis:

The Blueline’s grim numbers stem entirely from two perverse economic incentives: the driver’s salary is wholly dependant on how many fares he picks up, and each bus is in direct competition with every other bus on the route.

The Blueline buses are privately-owned, not city-run. While a city-run service would prioritize getting its citizens from A to B, a private driver is less focused on customer service than on overtaking the next bus down the road. After all, the faster he drives, the more competitors he passes, the more passengers he picks up, and the more money he makes.

The safer he drives, the more buses will pass him, and the less money he earns.

I am afraid that this is too simplistic an explanation. Indian traffic and road behaviour do not lend themselves so easily to economic analysis or reasoning.

When I watch, on National Geographic Channel, the story of the wildebeests of the Masai Mara region crossing the river to get to the Tanzanian side of the grasslands, I get a clue on our road instinct. These wildebeests, in their thousands, jump into the river, regardless of the fact that there are hungry crocodiles waiting for them. While quite a few succumb to the crocs, the victims still form a small percentage of the total herd. So, the species moves on to the greener side. If a few individual wildebeests had to die, so be it.

That’s the instinct that guides our behaviour on the roads. As an individual, of course, I may not want to die, but as a species as a whole, we are programmed differently. It is inevitable that some (or many) people will die in accidents. But that should not frighten us into introducing traffic rules and needlessly complicating our lives. 115 people fed to the Blueline crocodiles is no big deal, in a city of 10 million people. The species must move on.

Piracy on high seas and on land

An article in Wired explains the soundness of the business model followed by the pirates of Somalia.

“The risk-and-reward calculations for the various players arise at key points of tension: at the outset of a shipment, when a vessel comes under attack, during ransom negotiations, and when a deal is struck. As long as national navies don't roll in with guns blazing, the region's peculiar economics ensure that most everyone gets a cut. …

An ordinary Somali earns about $600 a year, but even the lowliest freebooter can make nearly 17 times that — $10,000 — in a single hijacking. Never mind the risk; it's less dangerous than living in war-torn Mogadishu.”

If you look at the map in that article, Somalia’s location provides the nation with a competitive advantage for piracy. Very close to one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world. It doesn’t call for too much innovation to come up with the idea of piracy.

If you are one those puritans shocked that someone would attempt an economic analysis of piracy, a commenter provides a link to a story on a scheme called “High frequency trading’ practiced by reputed financial firms on Wall Street, and gently reminds you that such methods are nothing but thinly-veiled piracy.

Again, when a company bombards you with advertisements and convinces you to cough up a good percentage of your income in patronizing its brands (so as to avoid living a miserable life), it is an act of piracy. (“If you don’t use Brand XXX toothpaste which has ingredient YYY, your teeth will fall out, your gums will rot, your breath will smell of gutter….”) . What you pay out is a form of ransom. No less. The real pirates hold a gun to your head and state their intentions. The surrogate ones simply smooth-talk you out of your money and you appear to be parting with it on your own volition.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

The Mandarins of China

In any comparison of China and India, the point is usually made that we are a country of multiple languages and dialects, whereas China is ‘monolithic’ in most respects, including a common language that binds most of its people.

That is not entirely true. Lee Kuan Yew, founding father of Singapore, writes in his memoirs, “From Third World to First”:

"I was impressed by the size of China and the vast differences between their 30 provinces. What I was not prepared for was the gaggle of different accents that I came across. It was difficult to understand many of them. The range of dialects and accents when they spoke “Mandarin” was so great that when when we got to Guangzhou, their interpreter who accompanied me, an excellent interpreter, could not understand the elderly member of the revolutionary council who came from Hainan Island, even though he was speaking what he thought was Mandarin.

This is a small example of the problem of unifying China through a common language. China is nearly twice the size of continental Europe in population and in area. The Chinese are 90 percent Han Chinese using the same script. But they have different consonant and vowel values for the same written word and have developed different idioms and slang in their various provinces and even in adjoining towns in the same province. They have been trying to unify their language since the overthrow of the Qing dynasty in 1911, but it will be a very long time before they succeed. With satellite TV, radio and cellular telephones, they may be able to achieve it in another one or two generation, but only for the better-educated or their younger population."

So, while India is divided by many languages, China is divided by a common language