Saturday, October 31, 2009

Vacuous and Verbose-4

(A random compilation of jargon, motherhood statements and high-sounding nonsense)

"Experts from the tiger range countries have called for a collective political commitment from all levels of the government to save the animals and enhancing the capacity of the Interpol and other international agencies and enforcement networks to combat illegal trade in wildlife.

…the experts gave a clarion call for strict protection of the beast and its core breeding areas. They asked the tiger range countries to stop infrastructure projects in core breeding areas and appealed to financial institutions to avoid financing development projects that adversely affect critical habitats.

They recommended conservation and management of buffer zones and corridors that connect core breeding areas in tiger landscapes, empowering local communities in and around the landscapes with sustainable economic incentives, and appropriate technologies to minimise human-tiger conflict. Making core/critical habitats truly inviolate with incentive-driven, generous, participatory and voluntary relocation was also suggested."

( Source)

When you come across a long report such as this, you cannot but get impressed. Experts have met in a workshop, deliberated for four full days and come up with a clarion call and a set of recommendations to save the tiger.

Nobody can find fault with any of the recommendations. I mean, would you dare question the need to introduce “appropriate technologies to minimize human-tiger conflict? But when you read through the entire report, you realise that it is a lot of hot air. It doesn’t require experts to state these points. Any idiot can.

Or maybe the job of the expert is to come up with these general banalities ( or banal generalities). A small set of committed workers have to then do the detailing and solve the problem on the field.

Monday, October 26, 2009

The Dinner table pep talk

INDIA SNUBS CHINA”, screamed the TV headlines in Font size 72. By way of explanation, it added in slightly smaller font size, “PM tells Chinese Premier that Dalai Lama is our honoured guest and free to travel anywhere in India”.

I don’t know about you, but whenever I see such headlines, I have this tendency to form quick mental images. The one that I formed in this instance was of our PM barging into Mr Wen Jiabao’s room in the middle of the night, shaking him by the collar, pushing the muzzle of his gun into the latter’s nose, and yelling into his ears in FONT size 72, “ THE DALAI LAMA IS OUR HONOURED GUEST. HE IS FREE TO TRAVEL TO AP, ANDHRA OR ARUNACHAL, GOT IT?”. And of a terrified Mr Jiabao nodding his head to convey surrender.

On calmer reflection, I realised that our PM was too gentle a person to attempt such heroics. Perhaps there was a better explanation.

There was. The morning newspapers quoted the PM as saying that he had sat next to Mr Jiabao during the dinner, in the course of which he had passed on this message concerning the Dalai Lama.

As nobody overheard this conversation, and as there were no interpreters sitting in between the two, we have only our PM’s version that such a conversation took place. We will never come to know the Chinese version.

As our PM is far too honest a person to claim that he had uttered something that he had not, the only explanation is that he must have done an “Aswathama’. As the Wonton soup was being served to all, and in the general noise of soups spoons hitting the sides of the bowls, and soya sauce and vinegar bottles being passed around, our PM must have slipped in the sentence in Font size 8 italics and in his muffled tone, “The Dalai Lama is our honoured guest. He is free to go to any corner of the country, by train, air or by foot”. Mr Jiabao must have heard only the last word and to continue the polite conversation, would have asked the PM, “ Did you try the foot massage here?”, which our PM would have interpreted as “ Yes, I get the message”.

On such exchanges and conversations are TV headlines and Govt press releases made.

Sunday, October 25, 2009


How did the custom of ‘raising a toast” originate? Why is it called a ‘toast’? What is the significance of the ritual of the ‘clinking’ of the glasses?

It all began with the fear of being poisoned as Joe Kissel explains.

The Phrase Finder adds a few more details on the ritual.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Vacuous and Verbose- 3

(A random compilation of jargon, motherhood statements and high-sounding nonsense)

"Railway Minister Mamata Banerjee today reviewed the safety measures in railway operations with the entire Railway Board here today. In the meeting, she categorically stated that the safety of the passengers should continue to be given top priority as safety never sleeps. She said that there should be no compromise on safety matters and any laxity on this will not be tolerated. She further pointed out that anyone found wanting on this vital aspect of railway operation will not be spared and stern action will be taken against those playing with the lives of passengers. She directed Railway Board to closely monitor all spheres of railway operations connected with the safety and hold periodical reviews on this subject." (Source).

Now that Ms Mamata has issued this stern statement, we can breathe easy. Railways will no longer compromise on the vital aspect of safety or play with the lives of passengers.

Vacuous and Verbose- 2

(A random compilation of jargon, motherhood statements and high-sounding nonsense)

Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, on the eve of his departure to Thailand for the ASEAN Summit issued the following statement:

"In pursuance of the theme of the ASEAN Summit of “Enhancing Connectivity, Empowering Peoples”, I will discuss with the ASEAN leaders new initiatives to accelerate the process of our engagement in areas such as greater economic integration, people-to-people contacts, agriculture, human resource development, education, science and technology and information and communications technology."

Is there any area left out?

Vacuous and Verbose- 1

(Beginning a new series that will provide a random selection of jargon, motherhood statements and high-sounding nonsense.. Editor)

"The fight against international terrorism cannot be successful by doing deals with terror groups for short term gains, India has said, as it asked for a comprehensive global movement against the menace. "


Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Nobel Prize and Noble values

Responding to reports that the Nobel Prize winner Mr Venkatraman Ramakrishnan had ‘expressed disgust at the outpouring of fan mail received by him from India, especially from Tamil Nadu, after the conferment of the Nobel’, Mr Abhishek Singhvi writes in his opinion piece in The Times of India of October 20th.

….What is deplorable is Ramakrishnan's equation and linkage of something as lofty and noble as patriotism and nationalism with something as banal and ridiculous as the clogging of his e-mail accounts and a general disgust at being troubled by his countrymen.

… Patriotism, at its core, has an intersection of noble values. … These are the values of link and affinity with a culture, a people, a territory and a national identity. It is his sentiment alone which connects India and Indians, despite this country being the greatest aggregation of diversities on this planet."

Once the old chestnuts of patriotism and nationalism are pulled out, it is impossible to argue further. From this self-righteous pedestal, the ‘patriot’ will dismiss or paint anyone who has even a remotely contradictory view as a treacherous traitor who is ungrateful to his/her mother/fatherland.

In fact, I face the risk of being branded a traitor because I referred to noble values such as patriotism and nationalism as ‘old chestnuts’

But if Mr Singhvi would cast aside his super-noble blinkers for a brief moment, he will realise that for a scientist engaged in pursuit of knowledge and truth, it is necessary to look beyond national identities. The research ecosystem has a global base and it is important that you don’t create barriers in your mind while seeking data or in assimilating the results from research carried out in some other corner of the world. Development in one’s field is dependent and closely linked to co-developments in various other fields and various other regions.

So, while Tamilnadu could claim proprietary rights over him because he was born here, or Gujarat could claim him as its own, because he did most of his studying there, Venky could respond in one of following two ways to such exuberance.

1) To come up with a lengthy statement acknowledging the role played by each one of his teachers from kindergarten onwards in shaping him, instilling the scientific spirit, motivating him for higher achievements, etc, and how proud he was to be born an Indian and a Tamilian, etc. Mr Singhvi would have loved it. I would have dismissed his statement as vacuous nonsense, even though it sounds gracious.

2) To tick the Indians off and tell them where they get off. Congratulatory messages are fine, but not ones that solely celebrate the fact of his being born here or hold this fact as being responsible for the Nobel.

He chose the second one. This gave Mr Singhvi the ammunition to shoot off an op-ed to TOI and to flaunt the patriotic badge on his sleeve. And me the material for yet another blog post to display my contrarian streak.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Product promotion

In all the episodes of “American Idol”, the camera repeatedly turns in the direction of the tall red glasses, with the logo of Coca Cola prominently displayed. Every now and then, the judges are shown casually sipping from these glasses. As this Slate article states: “The soft-drink maker is an aggressive sponsor of American Idol, not just via plain old ad time but through paid product placement—it's not a coincidence that Cowell and the other judges are constantly hoisting red Coke cups”. Subliminal advertising of this form, where product promotion is cleverly mixed with the content of the program being sponsored, is quite common.

Apparently, such manipulation happens in films as well. The admirable “Letters of Note” website has published a copy of a letter written in 1983 to actor Sylvester Stallone, on behalf of the (now defunct) tobacco company, Brown and Williamson, agreeing to pay him a sum of $500,000 for “incorporating personal usage’ of their cigarettes in scenes in five of his forthcoming films. Stallone had also conveyed his acceptance of these terms here.

More examples of ‘product placement’ can be found here. Can you think of any Indian examples?

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Sacred cows make the best beef.

We may hold cows as sacred (or holy), but that doesn’t stop us from being the 4th largest producer of beef (after the USA, China and Brazil), if we go by the graph provided in this site. 2.7m tons per year. No less. With rise in per capita GDP, our beef production has been steadily going up from 1963.

Restoration of interactivity

My daughter signed up for a Vodafone Plan that included an allowance of 5000 messages (sms) every month. Why this ridiculously high number, I wondered. Would any sane person be able to send around 170 messages every day?

In the first month, her message score was 4000 and by the second month she had comfortably broken the 5000-barrier. Casual conversation with some of her friends revealed that this really was no big deal.

What kind of idiocy has gripped this generation, I thought. We cannot let new-fangled technologies rule our lives.

Then I came across a link to an article that Douglas Adams had written in 1999 soon after the Internet made its presence felt. Commenting on the view that it was just another silly fad, Adams wrote:

I suppose earlier generations had to sit through all this huffing and puffing with the invention of television, the phone, cinema, radio, the car, the bicycle, printing, the wheel and so on, but you would think we would learn the way these things work, which is this:

1) everything that’s already in the world when you’re born is just normal;
2) anything that gets invented between then and before you turn thirty is incredibly exciting and creative and with any luck you can make a career out of it;
3) anything that gets invented after you’re thirty is against the natural order of things and the beginning of the end of civilisation as we know it until it’s been around for about ten years when it gradually turns out to be alright really.

Apply this list to movies, rock music, word processors and mobile phones to work out how old you are.

And on the specific subject of messaging (the facility had just been introduced on phones in Finland) he wrote:

“Our children, however, are doing something completely different. Risto Linturi, research fellow of the Helsinki Telephone Corporation, quoted in Wired magazine, describes the extraordinary behaviour kids in the streets of Helsinki, all carrying cellphones with messaging capabilities. They are not exchanging important business information, they’re just chattering, staying in touch. "We are herd animals," he says. "These kids are connected to their herd – they always know where it’s moving." Pervasive wireless communication, he believes will "bring us back to behaviour patterns that were natural to us and destroy behaviour patterns that were brought about by the limitations of technology."

Another interesting point that Adams made was that, for much of human history, entertainment had always been interactive (theatre, music, sports...). Twentieth century with its entertainment forms (movies, radio, TV) of the non-interactive variety was actually an aberration. Internet merely restored the interactivity.

Update : Tyler Cowen explains, in an article, that far from reducing our attention span, technologies such as the Internet help in widening it.

Delivery in 30 minutes.

The Dalai Lama is credited with these lines:

"We have bigger houses but smaller families:
We have more degrees but less sense;
more knowledge but less judgements;
more experts but more problems;
more medicines, but less healthiness.
We've been all the way to the moon and back,
but we have trouble crossing the street
to meet the new neighbour.
We build more computers
to hold more information,
to produce more copies than ever,
but we have less communication.
We have become long on quantity
but short on quality.
These are times of fast foods,
but slow digestion;
tall man, but short character;
steep profits, but shallow relationships.
It is time when there is much in the window
but nothing in the room."

I came across another profound piece of Internet wisdom today:

“We live in a society where pizza gets to your house before the police”.

My advice to you would be:

1) Don't eat fast food

2) Don't eat food. Fast.

Good looks or job?

Career coach Marty Nemko writes:

"Hire ugly. All other things being equal, I'd give the nod to an ugly candidate. It’s not charity: They have less value in the marketplace and can be hired less expensively, even though looks have, for most jobs, little or no bearing on job performance. I've found that, on average, ugly people are more likely to be kind and to work harder because they know they're working at a disadvantage. And unattractive people are more likely to stay with me because they tend to have a tough time getting hired, in part because they generally don’t network efficiently. If I treat unattractive employees well, they’re usually very loyal. (source)"

If every employer follows what the good coach says, the candidate will have to confront one of following truths:

1) He/she is beautiful: Sorry, he/she won’t get the job.

2) He/she got the job. Therfore he/she is ugly

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Suttee on the Nerbudda

Raja Ram Mohan Roy, the Bengali reformer, has been given a large share of the credit for stopping the practice of women being compelled to commit sati. But most of the widows seem to have voluntarily done so, genuinely believing that they would be reunited with their husbands.

Major Sleeman (he of the Eggs and Thugs fame) in his memoirs, “ Rambles and collections of an Indian official” (page 23) provides an account of a suttee and narrates a poignant tale of an old widow who simply could not be persuaded from being burnt at her husband’s pyre:

"On receiving civil charge of the district (Jubbulpore) in March, 1828, I issued a proclamation prohibiting any one from aiding or assisting in suttee; and distinctly stating, that to bring one ounce of wood for the purpose would be considered as so doing.

...On Tuesday, 24th November, 1829, I had an application from the heads of the most respectable and most extensive family of Brahmans in the district, to suffer this old widow to burn herself with the remains of her husband, Omed Sing Opuddea, who had that morning died upon the banks of the Nerbudda. I threatened to enforce my order, and punish severely any man who assisted; and placed a police guard for the purpose of seeing that no one did so. She remained sitting by the edge of the water without eating or drinking.

...Her sons, grandsons, and some other relations, remained with her, while the rest surrounded my house, the one urging me to allow her to burn, and the other urging her to desist. She remained sitting upon a bare rock in the bed of the Nerbudda, refusing every kind of sustenance, and exposed to the intense heat of the sun by day, and the severe cold of the night, with only a thin sheet thrown over her shoulders. On Thursday, to cut off all hope of her being moved from her purpose, she put on the Dhujja, or coarse red turban, and broke her bracelets in pieces, by which she became dead in law, and for ever excluded from caste. Should she choose to live after this, she could never return to her family.

...On Saturday the 28th, in the morning, I rode out ten miles to the spot, and found the poor old widow sitting with the dhujja round her head, a brass plate before her with undressed rice and flowers, and a cocoa-nut in each hand. She talked very collectedly, telling me, that "she had determined to mix her ashes with those of her departed husband, and should patiently wait my permission to do so, assured that God would enable her to sustain life till that was given, though she dared not eat or drink."

...She held out her arm, and said —" My pulse has long ceased to beat—my spirit has departed—and I have nothing left but a little earth that I wish to mix with the ashes of my husband—I shall suffer nothing in burning; and if you wish proof, order some fire, and you shall see this arm consumed without giving me any pain." I did not attempt to feel her pulse, but some of my people did, and declared that it had ceased to be perceptible.

...Satisfied myself that it would be unavailing to attempt to save her life, I sent for all the principal members of the family, and consented that she should be suffered to burn herself. As she rose up, fire was set to the pile, and it was instantly in a blaze. The distance was about one hundred and fifty yards—she came on with a calm and cheerful countenance—stopped once, and casting her eyes upward said—" Why have they kept me five days from thee, my husband!" On coming to the sentries her supporters stopped—she walked once round the pit, paused a moment; and while muttering a prayer threw some flowers into the fire. She then walked up deliberately and steadily to the brink, stepped into the centre of the flame, sat down, and leaning back in the midst as if reposing upon a couch, was consumed without uttering a shriek or betraying one sign of agony!

...I am persuaded that it was the desire of again being united to her husband in the next world, and the entire confidence that she would be so if she now burned herself, that alone sustained her. From the morning of the day he died, Tuesday, till Wednesday evening, she ate pawns or betel leaves, but nothing else and from Wednesday evening she ceased eating them. She drank no water from Tuesday. She went into the fire with the same cloth about her that she had worn in the bed of the river; but it was made wet, from a persuasion, that even the shadow of any impure thing falling upon her when going to the pile contaminates the woman, unless counteracted by the sheet moistened in the holy stream."

On page 33 of the memoirs, Sleeman records a conversation that took place between him and a native gentleman. The latter provides him with a fascinating justification for the practice of suttee.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Describe the sky

Over the course of four years in the 1970s, artist G. C. Haymes sent approximately 500 letters to a wide-ranging selection of high profile people as part of a project entitled Skymail. Enclosed alongside the letters were return postcards, upon which the recipients were asked to 'describe the sky'. Here is a reply received from Isaac Asimov:

An inverted blue (sometimes black) semisphere, in which, when blue, a yellow circle is pasted, and to which, when black, some thousand of tiny sparks are affixed. There is also a dim yellow circle more noticable against the black, but sometimes seen against the blue which changes shape and is sometimes round, sometimes crescent, and sometimes in between. Often the semisphere is obscured by moving white or gray clouds.


Deadly missile

This news report says: “India on Monday morning successfully test fired one of its most sophisticated missiles, Prithvi II, from Chandipur in Orissa’s Balasore district. The 4.6 tonne missile can carry both conventional as well as nuclear warheads weighing between 500 to 1000 kg and has the ability to hit a target at a distance of 350 km.”

As there is nothing to the east of Chandipur, except the open seas, I carefully examined the map of India to identify cities/towns that could fall within the 350-km striking range of Prithivi-II. I am afraid that Kolkata, Jamshedpur, Rourkela, Bhubaneshwar, Cuttack and Puri are all potential targets that face the grave risk of being nuked out of existence. Let it not be said that they were not warned.

Keep it simple.

In his latest book, “The Greatest Show on Earth”, Richard Dawkins comments on Darwin’s understated writing style:
“Darwin’s treatment of human evolution in his most famous work, 'On the Origin of Species', is limited to twelve portentous words: “Light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history’. That is the wording of the first edition. By the sixth (and last) edition, Darwin allowed himself to stretch a point and the sentence became “Much light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history’. I like to think of his pen, poised over the fifth edition, while the great man judiciously pondered whether to indulge himself in the luxury of “Much’. Even with it, the sentence is a calculated understatement.”

Kurt Vonnegut, in a famous essay called “How to write with style” also dwelt on the need to keep things as simple as possible.

“As for your use of language: Remember that two great masters of language, William Shakespeare and James Joyce, wrote sentences which were almost childlike when their subjects were most profound. “To be or not to be?” asks Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The longest word is three letters long. Joyce, when he was frisky, could put together a sentence as intricate and as glittering as a necklace for Cleopatra, but my favorite sentence in his short story “Eveline” is this one: “She was tired.” At that point in the story, no other words could break the heart of a reader as those three words do.

Simplicity of language is not only reputable, but perhaps even sacred. The Bible opens with a sentence well within the writing skills of a lively fourteen-year-old: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth”

Fennel satisfied/unhappy/concerned

“Commonwealth Games Federation (CGF) Vice-Patron and Earl of Wessex, Prince Edward visited the Games venues and Games Village in the Capital on Sunday and expressed satisfaction at the infrastructure being developed in preparation for the upcoming international sporting event” reports The Hindu of October 11th.

“Commonwealth Games Federation chief Mike Fennell has warned India's capital Delhi that it faces a major challenge to be ready to host next year's games. Many facilities being built for the event have missed deadlines. Mr Fennell said there could be no more slippages” reports BBC News of October 12th.

Far from being satisfied, a concerned Mr Fennel has appointed a review panel to monitor the progress, as can be inferred from this report.

After reading different versions, what I conclude is that Mr Fennel was completely unhappy about the progress of work ( or the lack of it), but expressed the hope that with a top-level push and with work done at breakneck speed, the deadline may still be met.

This is the problem with news these days. Back in the days when we had just one newspaper to go by, life was quite uncomplicated. You just believed what was written there and carried on blissfully. Now, with multiple options, you are forced to read so many versions and then make a judgemental call.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Unclear tests

How successful were the nuclear tests conducted by India in 1998? So many experts have commented on and analysed the subject ad nauseum in recent weeks; yet we remain unconvinced.

When the tests were reported, in the pre-Internet era, we in India only had access to what the Indian media published. And they were toeing the official line that the tests went off very well and yielded more than satisfactory results.

Luckily, we now have access to the archives of several newspapers abroad and can find out what they had reported on the blasts in May 1998. Not because the ‘foreign’ version is always correct or more accurate. Just that it provides us with one more viewpoint, free of patriotic biases.

The New York Times, dated May 15, 1998,( just 4 days after the blast) carried a report that expressed anxiety that the monitors had picked up only 1 out of the 5 blasts. Presuming that India’s claims were right, the writer’s first conclusion was that the thousands of seismometers around the world had failed to detect the tests, landing a body blow to the international monitoring system set up as part of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Now countries could conduct tests surreptitiously, secure in the knowledge that they will escape detection.

But later in the article, the author realizes that there could be other reasons why the tests were not detected. He writes:

..Given the lack of independent evidence, the rest of the world only has India's word about the size and scope of most of the announced blasts, or even whether they took place at all.

Certainly India already seems to be exaggerating its achievement. Estimates by Indian seismologists of the explosive energy of Monday's large blast are more than double those of American experts.

For the Monday series, India said one was a ''thermonuclear device,'' meaning it had more force than an atom bomb. And it said the tests on Wednesday were in the ''sub-kiloton range,'' meaning they had a force of less than 1,000 tons of high explosive.

A bizarre twist, given that India and Pakistan are old foes, is that the best seismic data on the Indian blast came from a seismometer in Pakistan, 435 miles from the Indian test site.

The seismogram of a Monday blast, held a hint of what was perhaps another blast signature.

The clue is a tiny ripple in the flat line of the tracing before it zigs and zags wildly as energy from the blast was received and recorded. That tiny blip, he said, might have been caused by an earthquake or a small bomb detonated just before the big one.

…The energy of the large blast appeared to be equal to about 25,000 tons of high explosive, or about half of what Indian scientists have claimed.

This tallies with Mr Santhanam's estimate of the intensity of the blast.

Friday, October 09, 2009


The two New Yorkers, Dave Aur Jenny continue to write about their ‘struggles’ in Delhi. In their latest post, they talk about ‘Jugaad” or “make-do” mentality of the Indians and their ingenuity in the face of adversity.

Some examples being “a homemade vehicle made by cobbling together a wooden cart with the kind of diesel water pump farmers use for irrigation; motorcycles chopped in half and welded to carts to create centaur goods haulers. The way families would fit mother, father, and three kids onto a single scooter. The clever repurposing of used water bottles as cooking oil containers. Rope spun from discarded foil packets. Cricket wickets made from precariously balanced stacks of rocks..

But, the New Yorkers say, jugaad is not just about the clever mechanics. Jugaad is the philosophical outlook necessary to make it work, regardless of what “it” is. It’s about solving problems with what you have, not with what you wish you had…Jugaad is how everyone gets by;…..modern tools and technology are appreciated when they’re there, but they are not cardinal requirements for existence. Technology is a comfort, but not a necessity, and a lack of technology doesn’t change the fact that the job’s got to get done.

The Poms

The Kangaroos beat the Kiwis in the finals of the Champion Trophy. In the semi-finals, they had beaten the Pommies. Cricket correspondents and sub-editors love to use such terms.

One can understand “ kangaroos’ and ‘kiwis’, in reference to the Australians and New Zealanders respectively, and Springboks for the South Africans, but what about “pommies’? Where did that word come from?

There are many explanations: Pom is acronym of Port of Melbourne where British sailors used to land, or it stood for Prisoner of Her Majesty ( POHM) which later got shortened to Pom, etc.

The book, “Ballyhoo, Buckaroo and Spuds – Ingenious tales of words and their origins” by Michael Quinion cites this passage from D.H. Lawrence’s Australian novel, The Kangaroo’ to conclude that the word came from 'pomegranate"

“Pomegrenate, pronounced invariably pommygranate is a near enough rhyme to immigrant, in a naturally rhming country. Furthermore immigrants are known in their first months, before their blood thins down by their round and ruddy cheeks. So we are told. Hence again, pomegranate, and hence pommy. Let etymologists be appeased; it is the authorized derivation”.

Another version is that British sailors often were sent onshore, after the ship docked in Melbourne, to buy and stock up on pomegranates. For a similar reason, Americans referred to British sailors as ‘limeys’ for their habit of stocking up on lemons to avoid scurvy.

I wonder why the media doesn’t use any slang expressions in their headlines to describe Indians, Pakistanis or Sri Lankans?

Monied, but poorer..

John Michael Greer ( or The Grand Archdruid of the Ancient Order of Druids in America (AODA), as he modestly describes himself), has a brilliant post on the confusion between money and wealth. He explains

“For most people in the modern industrial world, the only way to get access to any kind of wealth – that is, any good or service – is to get access to money first, and exchange the money for the wealth. This makes it all too easy to confuse money with wealth, and it also fosters the habit of thought that treats money as the driving force in economic life, and thinks of wealth as a product of money, rather than seeing money as an arbitrary measure of wealth.”.

And adds::

The thought experiment of placing a hundred economists on a desert island with $1 million each but no food or water is a good corrective to this delusion. Unfortunately this same experiment is being tried on a much vaster scale by the world’s industrial economies right now. We have seven billion people on a planet with a finite and dwindling supply of the concentrated energy resources that are keeping most of them alive, and governments and businesses alike are acting as though the only possible difficulty in this situation is coming up with enough money to pay for investments in the energy industry.

And warns:

If economists took a wider view of the history of their discipline than they generally do, they might have noticed that what most of them consider a fundamental feature of all economies worth studying – the centrality of money – is actually a unique feature of an economic era defined by cheap abundant energy. Since the fossil fuels that made that era possible are being extracted at a pace many times the rate at which new supplies are being discovered, current assumptions about the role of money in society may be in for a series of unexpected revisions

Eggs and Thugs

While reading an article on the recent discovery of dinosaur eggs in Tamilnadu, I found a reference to a William Sleeman, who had made the first such discovery along the Narmada river, in 1828. The name rang a bell, and sure enough, Wikipedia tells me that it was the same Captain Sleeman who had busted the dreaded gang of the Thugees

In the eighteenth century, several cases of missing travelers, absconding sepoys and vanished money-carriers were reported. But it was generally concluded that the travelers had fallen prey to wild animals or that the money-carriers had cheated the owners. There were rumours of a secret society of murderers and dacoits, but this did not perturb the British officials, or was dismissed as yet another of those native legends.

It was not as if the methods of the thugs were not known. In 1816, a Dr Sherwood had published an article in the Madras Literary Magazine ( Sleeman has re-produced that report on Page 370 of his book) in which he had provided a chilling account of the murderous ways of the Phansigars in the South and the Thugs in the North. Sherwood had started his narration thus:

"While Europeans have journeyed through the extensive territories subject to the Government of Fort St. George, with a degree of security nowhere surpassed, the path of the native traveller has been beset with perils little known or suspected, into which numbers annually falling, have mysteriously disappeared, the victims of villains as subtle, rapacious and cruel as any who are to be met with in the records of human depravity….Skilled in the arts of deception, Phansigars enter into conversation and insinuate themselves, by obsequious attentions, into the confidence of travellers of all descriptions.... When the Phansigars determine . to attack a traveller, they usually propose to him, under the specious plea of mutual safety or for the sake of society, to travel together . and on arriving at a convenient place and a fit opportunity presenting . one of the gang puts a rope or sash round the neck of the unfortunate persons, while others assist in depriving him of his life."

But it was not till 1830 when Sleeman took charge of the investigations, and one Feringhea ( who was referred to as the Prince of Thugs) accidentally fell into his net, that the scale, intensity and spread of the Thugee operations came to be known. For the next two decades, Sleeman went about systematically to smoke out different thugs from their hideouts, interrogate them, learn their mysterious language ( Ramaseena), anticipate where the next hold-up was planned, nab the killers, put them on trial and have the guilty executed. Sleeman provides a fascinating account in his book, “ Thugs and Phansigars of India” published in 1839. And also in his memoirs, “ Ramblings of an Indian official” that reads like a series of long blog posts.

Dr.Conan Doyle had modeled Sherlock Holmes on his mentor, Dr Joseph Bell, arguing that similar reasoning powers based on deductive methods were called upon in both Medicine and Criminology. In Sleeman’s case, perhaps, the same methodical approach, was used in rooting out Thugee and in discovering the first fossilized eggs in India . He writes here ( page 127) briefly on how he zeroed in on the fossil spot.