Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Restrict the terrorists

Following the recent attempt by a Nigerian to blow up a plane in the last hour of its flight, new travel restrictions have been introduced in the USA that would prevent passengers from getting out of their seats in the last hour of the flight. By some strange law or understanding, the terrorist would follow the same pattern again and again, and so this restriction would thwart their sinister designs.

You can be sure that 70 minutes before landing, the flight steward would announce to the passengers that the ’60 minute’ restriction would come on in 10 minutes and those who desire to use the washrooms may do so right then.

So, 75 minutes before landing, I would start worrying that the helpful announcement about the 10 minutes left for the restriction to come into force, would be heard in 5 minutes and immediately after that one of the passengers would get up and blow the plane to pieces.

In one of his essays, R.K.Narayan writes about a childhood experience of an all-night journey that he had to undertake by bullock-cart to reach his home town after alighting from a train in a station thirty miles away.

“The bullock carts moved in a caravan, winding along a dark, tree-shaded highway. Robbers were known to attack such caravans about ten miles from the railway station at midnight. The menace was warded off by a simple expedient. One of the cart-men walked ahead carrying a lantern and a staff and throwing bloodcurdling challenges to the night air. “Hey, keep away, prowlers, if you don’t want your skulls pulped… Who goes there? and so forth, the other drivers also sitting up and urging their bullocks with the loudest swear words. This was kept up till we passed a jutting rock beyond the twelfth milestone; the moment we crossed this spot the challenger went back to his cart, curled himself up in his seat and fell asleep, the entire caravan following this example. By some strange law or understanding, the robbers never seemed to step an inch beyond the jutting rock. It always seemed to me that the robbers were missing a fine opportunity to attack with all the cart-men fast asleep and the only wakeful person being myself as I tried to sleep on a pile of straw expecting any moment to be killed.”

Anti-dacoity or anti-terrorist measures have always been reactionary, I guess. The measures aim at pre-empting the method followed the previous time. If the attack happened last time near the twelfth milestone, step up your vigil as you near that spot. Once you cross that, there’s nothing to worry.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Vacuous and Verbose-12

Hindol Sengupta, Associate Editor, Bloomberg UTV, in an article in 'The Hindu', desperately tries to earn some brownie points by projecting himself as the sole surviving torchbearer of the “Wear Indian clothes” movement and on whose broad shoulders rests the responsibility of liberating the nation from the grip of Western wear.

"..Why are we uncomfortable about wearing Indian clothes?

Look around you, office after office is bereft of Indian clothes. In the age of industry, connectedness and entrepreneurship Indian clothes are rarely seen because they failed, or we failed to make them, office wear, and thereby, everyday wear.

Since most of us no longer wear Indian clothes to work, since the “corporate wardrobe” for some reason does not include Indian clothes, they have become occasional wear — costumes not clothes.

Why don't we wear Indian clothes to work? Why don't Indian news anchors, for instance, wear bandhgalas instead of suits? Even in news TV, Indian clothes are costumes to be donned to festive days. Udayan Mukherjee, the face of the markets, wears dazzling bandhgalason mahurat trading but not otherwise. Rajdeep Sardesai wears the occasional kurta but is usually in his unkempt cool, about-to- run-out-of-the-newsroom light shirts and dark trousers. Prannoy Roy also dons the odd bandhgala but seems far more comfortable in his impeccable suits.

Can you think of any men in business who regularly wears Indian clothes? If you can, tell me on hindol.sengupta@gmail.com . I can't."

First, this sanctimonious kurta-promoter must realise that so many aspects of our lives have been touched or influenced by Western habits and we have willingly embraced this change. If I wear a shirt or jeans, it is because I find them more convenient than going around in a dhoti or pyjamas. It is my choice. If Hindol wants to flaunt his ethnicity, that’s his choice. It is also open to this Hindol to start an office and ban entry of employees clad in anything resembling Western wear.

Second, this ignoramus seems to believe that all of India lives in Delhi and Mumbai, and the number of businessmen in India is limited to those that regularly appear on NDTV or Bloomberg channels. If this blinkered moron would care to look away from the TV screen or care to look beyond CII and FICCI or care to cross the Vindyas, he will be amazed to know that there is more to India than what he has seen. For starters, if he would come to Chennai (any place in the South would do. Chennai is because I happen to live here), I would gladly introduce him to Mr. Nalli Kuppuswami Chetty, who runs a 500-crore enterprise and is rarely seen in a lounge suit.

The Bushmen of Jalandhar

The movie “The Gods must be crazy” starts with a scene set in the Kalahari desert, where Bushmen live a blessed life without any knowledge or wants of the ‘civilised’ world beyond and limiting themselves to their primitive tools and implements. Into this world, an empty Coca Cola bottle is dropped from a plane above. Initially this is viewed as another gift from the Gods, but soon it becomes a ‘property’ to be owned and this leads to clashes and violence among this hitherto peaceful tribe.

In the Boing Boing Blog, Lisa Katayama seems to suffer from severe pangs of conscience and wants to know if she had unwittingly dropped a “Coke bottle” in the midst of a bunch of poor kids in a town ‘called’ Jalandher and sullied their technology-free lives with the temptation of electronics.

“A few years ago, I went on a trip to northern India to see the Dalai Lama. I traveled with a lawyer, a politician, a publicist, and a translator. One of the places we visited on the way up from Delhi was called Jalandhar — it's in the Punjab region and is home to a lot of sweatshops.

While we were there, we met a bunch of kids who lived with no electricity but told us that, when they grew up, they all wanted to be computer scientists. So we whipped out our cameras and iPods — the closest things we had on hand to real computers — and showed them how technology works. We figured they would enjoy it, and thought it could be a valuable experience that would stay etched in their minds as something to aspire to as they continued their studies.

Later, I found out that one of my travel mates thought what we had done was cruel. We had seduced these poor kids with luxuries they will probably never be able to afford, and sullied their pure, technology-free lives with the temptation of electronics.

So who's right? Did we ruin these kids for life or give them hopes for a better future? Does it not matter? Is there even a right answer to this question? What do you guys think?

Poor Lisa Katayama. Can some of you go across to the Boing Boing post and put her conscience at rest please?

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Piracy Ltd.

Somalian pirates who have made tons of money through ransoms now have set up a ‘stock exchange’ of sorts to manage their hard-earned investments, says Reuters in this report.

"The shares are open to all and everybody can take part, whether personally at sea or on land by providing cash, weapons or useful materials ... we've made piracy a community activity” says one of the pirates. "Ransoms have increased in recent months from between $2-3 million to $4 million because of the increased number of shareholders and the risks," he said.

This is hardly an innovation, considering the origin of joint stock companies and exchanges.

The British East India Company (probably only the second company, after the Dutch East India Company, to be formed as a joint-stock company) while ostensibly chartered to carry on trade with India actually built its fortunes by plunder. Here is a description in page 253 of a book “The reign of King George III” by Robert Bisset, published in 1816.

"Thus have we seen a mercantile company, in less than ten years, acquire by war and policy, more extensive possessions, and a richer revenue, than those of several European monarchs. This was an epoch in the history of conquest. Nations of merchants had before conquered very extensive dominions, but this was a mere corporate body of private subjects. The principles on which the servants of this company of merchants proceeded were formed in a great degree by the habits and conditions of the masters. The leading object was gain; ambition was only secondary and instrumental: power and dominion were esteemed merely as the means of profit.

Where the Romans carried their arms, they sought warlike glory, victory, and the splendor of triumph, as well as the gains of plunder ; they took their superstition with them : and from the conquered countries made additions to their gods, as well as to their treasury. The Spaniards, the creatures of gloomy bigotry, carried to Mexico their zeal for making converts, as well as for acquiring silver and gold. These and many other victors were actuated by various passions; but the British conquerors in India directed their pursuits to one object exclusively, the acquisition of money. They considered, in every transaction of war, peace, or alliance, what money could be drawn from the inhabitants.

In their modes of exaction from the feeble natives, they observed the systematic regularity of commercial habits; they made bargains; and for the money received, stipulated value delivered. They pillaged, not with the ferocity of soldiers, but with the cool exactness of debtor and creditor. Instead of saying to the sovereign of Hindostán, "You have a very rich territory, and we must have a great part of the product," (which might have appeared the language of robbers,) they adopted a mercantile mode: " We shall collect your revenue for you, reserving to ourselves " only eighty per cent, for factorage :" this was the spirit of their agreements. Before they planned aggression, they calculated the probable proceeds, the debts that they might extinguish, and the addition, on the balance of accounts, which they might make to the sum total.

They considered war with the natives, merely as a commercial adventure: by so much risk encountered, a certain quantity of blood spilt, and a certain extent of territory desolated, great sums were to be gained. In all their intercourse, however, with the natives, in the plans which they devised, and the efforts which they employed for the accumulation of wealth, they manifested the immense superiority of the British character with a rapidity of success, that brought an unprecedented influx of opulence to this country, and effected a considerable change in the sentiments, habits, and pursuits of Englishmen."

Vacuous and Verbose-11

Chetan Bhagat has an op-ed titled “Indian Institute of Idiots’ in the TOI in which he not only identifies the fundamental flaws in the Indian education system but goes on to proffer amazingly simple and elegant solutions.

The first problem, as he brilliantly explains, is that there is a serious short supply of good college seats. He then gives an awesome solution that this shortage can be overcome by the simple expedient of building more colleges and more Universities and inducting more professors and teachers. Voila, there will be more seats! He provides an astoundingly splendid example: The Govt can easily buy up acres and acres of land on the outskirts of Gurgaon and create a University that is four times the present size of Delhi University.

Where will the Govt find the funds for such Universities? Here, Chetan Bhagat excels himself. When funds can be found for miles and miles of malls, why not for these colleges? Duh?

The second problem, as he enlightens us, is to do with the course content. It is quite irrelevant in today’s world, he pinpoints wonderfully. Unlike other critics who merely keep cribbing about the system, Chetan has an extraordinary solution for this problem, one that no one has thought of before - which is that the HRD Minister must take note and do something.

For this insightful piece, I am sure Chetan deserves every rupee that TOI would have paid him. What an eye-opener. What breathtaking ideas to radically overhaul the moribund system.

After his stint at IIT, Chetan seems to have become a real doer. As the crossword buffs would say, an anagram of a 5-letter word formed by adding IIT to ‘do’, perfectly describes him.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

It's a record anyway.

At the end of Day 2 of the third test match against Sri Lanka:

Sehwag set to become the first batsman in Test history to score three triple hundreds!!!!!! (source)

At the end of day 3 of the third test match against Sri Lanka:

“Along with two triple hundreds, I have a 293. Nobody has done that” said Sehwag after getting out early in the day. (Source)

Vacuous and Verbose- 10

“Inflation has gone up because prices of food articles have gone up” the Finance Minister Mr Pranab Mukherjea told reporters today. (source)

I am reminded of:

1) The standard reason for delay as given by airlines : "The departure is delayed on account of late arrival of incoming aircraft” . As if the airline is not responsible for that.

2) A statement attributed to Calvin Coolidge: “When people lose jobs, unemployment results”. What Pranab is saying is similar “When food prices go up, inflation results. Don’t blame me or the Congress party for that”.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Why do I travel?

I accept my frequent traveling as something that is part of my job and for which I get paid my salary. I travel because, if I don’t, my boss will kick my ass. So, I don’t need to ask myself metaphysical questions such as “Why do I travel?”

But Jonah Lehrer of Frontal Cortex, being a writer can afford to ask the question, “Why do we travel?” and then proceed to answer the question as well

Travel is a basic human desire. But, is this collective urge to travel - to put some distance between ourselves and everything we know--still a worthwhile compulsion?

The good news, at least for those of you reading this while stuck on a tarmac eating stale pretzels, is that pleasure is not the only consolation of travel. In fact, several new science papers suggest that getting away—and it doesn't even matter where you're going--is an essential habit of effective thinking. It's not about vacation, or relaxation, or sipping daiquiris on an unspoiled tropical beach: it's about the tedious act itself, putting some miles between home and wherever you happen to spend the night.

The reason such travels are mentally useful involves a quirk of cognition, in which problems that feel "close"--and the closeness can be physical, temporal, or even emotional--get contemplated in a more concrete manner. As a result, when we think about things that are nearby, our thoughts are constricted, bound by a more limited set of associations. While this habit can be helpful--it allows us to focus on the facts at hand--it also inhibits our imagination. Consider a field of corn. When you're standing in the middle of the field, surrounded by the tall cellulose stalks and fraying husks, the air smelling faintly of fertilizer and popcorn, your mind is automatically drawn to thoughts that revolve around the primary meaning of corn, which is that it's a plant, a cereal, a staple of Midwestern farming.

But now imagine that same field of corn from a different perspective. Instead of standing on a farm, you're now in the midst of a crowded city street, dense with taxis and pedestrians. (And yet, for some peculiar reason, you're still thinking about corn.) The plant will no longer just be a plant: instead, your vast neural network will pump out all sorts of associations. You'll think about high-fructose corn syrup, obesity, and Michael Pollan; you'll contemplate ethanol and the Iowa caucus, those corn mazes for kids at state fairs and the deliciousness of succotash, made with bacon and lima beans. The noun is now a web of tangents, a loom of remote connections.

…We travel because we need to, because distance and difference are the secret tonic of creativity. When we get home, home is still the same. But something in our mind has been changed, and that changes everything.

Now, I know why I travel. It removes the cobwebs from my mind. It makes me the creative genius that I am.

Madness is well distributed.

In his column in the Hindustan Times ( link not up. Read page 8 of e-paper), Vir Sanghvi recalls a story narrated by his Professor, on the negotiations between the Nato and the Soviet Bloc at the height of the Cold War,

Apparently, Kissinger had a bright idea to convince his Russian counterpart that President Richard Nixon was unstable. Nixon drank late into the night, flew into rages, went down on one knee at the Oval to listen to the voice of Jesus, Kissinger would point out. In simple words, Nixon was a madman. Who knows, Kissinger would hint to the Russians, if mad Nixon was provoked, he might press the red button and nuke Moscow. This tactic, explains Sanghvi, proved to be a very effective negotiating ploy and helped keep the Russians in check.

Sanghvi then argues that Pakistan has been using this Madman theory to perfection against the Indians for decades. Years after she quit power, Benazir admitted to Sanghvi that the militants were pushed into India by the ISI, but that she couldn’t control them. Nawaz Sharif would blame the military for the Kargil invasion. Musharraf would wash off his hands and say that it was the mujahideen factor. So, each time an ‘uncontrollable madman’ was invoked and held responsible for any misadventure.

Whereas, says Sanghvi, whenever an Indian leader talks to Pakistan, he acts like a statesman showing flexibility and a willingness to go the extra mile. There is no passing of the buck; no third party is brought into the picture.

This is where I don’t agree with Sanghvi. While we may not have used the Madman theory against Pakistan, Indian prime ministers have routinely used Pakistan as a bogey- the Madman, if you will- to create a perception of a serious threat to the nation and to divert attention from internal issues. One cannot downplay the threat, but if we let that dominate our policies and relationships with the rest of the world- as we have- we are plain mad. Madness is not a monopoly of the Pakistanis. It is well spread on both sides of the border.

As a metaphor on Indo-Pak madness, I recall this hilarious story called “Toba Tek Singh” (I found the reference in one of the essays of Salman Rushdie) by Hasan Munto. It describes the scene in a lunatic asylum near the frontier, at the time of Partition. A decision has been taken that the lunatics too must be partitioned, Indian lunatics to India, Pakistani lunatics to Pakistan. Utter confusion prevails as the exact location of the frontier is not known, nor the places of origin of insane persons. But the partition of lunatics had to be done anyway. A character called Bashan Singh who keeps muttering nonsense such as "Upar di gur gur di annexe di dhiyana di mung di daal of di Pakistan and Hindustan of di dar fatay mun!" reminds me quite a bit of the speeches delivered by our politicians from time to time..

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Ubiquitous, unquitting, Amitabh

The omni-presence of some of the film personalities – Amitabh Bachchan, Shahrukh Khan to name two- affects me profoundly. I feel haunted, hounded and hunted all the time.

Take Amitabh. He stares at you 24 x 7 and leaps out of TV channels ( as part of the regular programme content, and on commercial time as well) newspaper ads, hoardings, posters, airport screens, railway station walls, bus stop shelters and even peanut packets that are sold near traffic junctions. You simply cannot avoid his mug. Like Sinbad’s Old man, you can never be rid of him.

In the last 40 years, I am sure that he has taken on every conceivable role- cook, gardener, driver, priest, teacher, saint, barber, doctor, gangster, tailor, policeman, millionaire, billionaire, coolie, lawyer, old man, blind child, deaf transvestite, dumb woman, sick patient, ministering angel, devout Muslim, pious Hindu, true Christian, brave Sikh – you name it. And, the best part is that in each of these roles, he has managed to look like, talk like and walk like Amitabh Bachchan. His mannerisms remain the same, regardless of which role he plays.

Ha, you tell me, I ought to see the movie “Paa”, where one doesn’t get to see Amitabh at all. Such is the brilliance of his acting that you only see the cute character called Auro that he has played.

If one can’t see him in the movie, then why did they have to cast Amitabh in that role? Heh? It might have been anybody passing off as Amitabh playing the part of Auro without looking like Amitabh.

Update 13/12/09: Sudhish Kamath writes, in his review of the film "Paa".

"You cannot make a film about the child being the father of man by simply casting the father as the child, no matter how brilliant the actor is. More so if the point is to show that the child is the father of the man.

….Auro is supposed to be 12-year-old child whose aging process is accelerated. One would then expect to see a child who looks like a frail old man and NOT an old man behaving like a child. There’s a fine line between the two and this is why Amitabh Bachchan as Auro is a huge casting mistake. How poignant and credible it would have been if it were Darsheel Safary (or someone his age) made to look scarily old with no eyebrows or hair and scaly skin!

This takes us back to why Balki made this film. It wasn’t because he wanted to tell us a story about a Progeria patient. He wanted to see Big B play son to Junior Bachchan. That was it. Everything else, including the make-up stunt, was an excuse to arrive at this casting coup even if it means that Bachchan is going to look like half a Zoozoo!

Monday, December 07, 2009

Vacuous and verbose - 9

Q: . Guruji, what is the purpose of my life?

Sri Sri Ravi Shankar: You are very lucky. So many people live life never asking this question. Nurture it. You have this question in your heart, you are very lucky. I will tell you one thing. One who knows the answer to this question will not tell you and one who tells you does not know.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

The Madras system

In the year 1786 the Court of Directors of the East India Company sent out orders to Madras, that a seminary-should be established there for the education and maintenance of the orphans and distressed male children of the European military

The superintendence of this asylum was undertaken by Dr. Bell, who was one of the directors of the institution, one of the ministers of St. Mary's, and one of the chaplains of Fort St. George

The proposed institution was limited at first to the support of an hundred orphans: half the expense was defrayed by the Company and half by voluntary subscriptions, with the Madras government providing support in the form of land and building at Egmore.

Dr. Bell, realizing that there would be a paucity of teachers came up with the innovation that the ‘best among the students would serve as teachers for the rest”. The scheme as explained by him (source : Mutual tuition and Moral discipline, manual of instructions for conducting schools through the agency of the scholars themselves, published in 1823)

1. The entire Economy of a Madras School is conducted by a single master, or superintendent, through the agency of the scholars themselves. For this purpose,
2. The school is arranged into forms, or classes, each composed of members, who have made a similar proficiency; and are occasionally paired off into tutors and pupils, the superior being tutors to the inferior boys.
3. The scholar ever finds his level, by a constant competition with his fellows, and rises and falls in his place in the class, and in the forms of the school, according to his relative proficiency. For the equalization of the classes, in point of proficiency, the scholar, who has held a high place in his class for some time, is promoted to the class above, and is placed at the bottom; but if, on trial, he proves unequal to his new class-fellows, he must revert to his former class; and the boy who fails, for some time, after due warning and trial, in saying his daily lessons, is degraded to the class below, and is placed at the head; but if he proves superior to his new associates, he then resumes his former class, on a new trial.
4. To each class are attached a teacher, and, if numerous, an assistant teacher; who are perpetually present with their class, and are responsible for its order, behaviour, diligence, and improvement. In large schools, an usher or superior teacher is set over every three or four classes, and a head usher over the whole.
5. Monitors are appointed to the charge of the books, slates, pencils, paper, pens, iuk, and of the various departments and offices of the school-room.
6. In charity, free, or other schools, supported by endowment, or voluntary contribution, there often presides over all, as in old times, a superintendent, or chaplain, or one of the trustees, directors, or visitors, whose province is to inspect, regulate, and control the scholastic machine in all its departments.
7. The daily lessons are marked in the teacher's books: and Registers are kept of admission; and of the progress of each class, and of the relative and individual proficiency of each scholar.
8. If any gross misdemeanor should occur, the accused is tried by a jury of his peers, and the sentence is inflicted, mitigated, or remitted, at the discretion of the superintendent, visitor, or master. But, when the laws of the school are duly administered, there will hardly ever be occasion for this instrument of discipline.

Such, was the scheme of a Madras School, wherein the” System hinges entirely on the tuition by the scholars themselves and in which every scholar finds for himself his level, and unceasingly rises and falls in his place in the form, and in the ranks of the school, according to his relative performance.”

Dr Bell’s system (and the Lancasterian system which had almost the same elements) became quite popular in the nineteenth century throughout the British empire. Gradually, the Madras system was replaced by other systems which advocated the importance of trained teachers.