Saturday, December 10, 2011

How did Indians compute the lunar eclipse?

“Memoirs of the various modes according to which the nations of the southern parts of India divide time” published in 1825, carries an explanation of the trigonometric calculations found in the Surya Siddantha.

The author of one of the  memoirs ( page 325) combats the then-prevalent assertion among Europeans that Indians had been following certain methods without understanding them, by using the same methods to compute the lunar eclipse of November 1789. Though not wanting to stir a scientific controversy, he still concedes that it was possible that the Indians knew the principles and the theorems long before the Greeks.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

The mask of youth

I am fascinated by this development:

Japanese company REAL-f managed to design the most super realistic 3D face replica that you have ever seen.

The startup offers two versions, a mask type replica and the so-called mannequin type, a replica of the head. For creating these amazing replicas , REAL-f first shoots pictures from different angles of the person who's face will be copied. After that it imprints the image on vinyl chloride resin stretched over a mold.

REAL-f's unique production technology makes sure that even details like the iris and blood vessels are replicated accurately. REAL-f 3D face replica costs US$3,920 with additional copies US $780 each , while the head replica costs US $5,875 with additional copies US $1,960.

I am sure that the mask will be put to use in multiple and ingenious ways. But the biggest market will be from people who are 21 years old. They can make a few dozen replicas of their face and head and, for the rest of their lives, put one on as they keep getting old. They can permanently sport ‘young’ looks, without the need for botox or anti-wrinkling agents. It ‘s a pity that this invention didn’t take place when Simi Garewal was 21 years old.

Saddam's bottom.

In a post titled, “Movers and shakers of India”, I had wondered why we (Indians) are obsessed with ‘swaying bottoms’. All movie songs involve violent shaking of bottoms and cameras zoom in on these parts so as to appeal to this unique need of the discerning Indian viewer.

That’s why I feel that it will be an Indian who will make the winning bid for an item to be auctioned in London on October 27th. Here is the Al Arabiya News report on the said item:

A bronze buttock from the statue of late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein toppled in Baghdad after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 is to be auctioned in Britain, an auction house said Tuesday.

A former soldier from Britain’s elite SAS regiment retrieved the two-foot (0.6-meter) wide piece of history and took it back to Britain shortly after U.S. marines dragged the statue down on live television.

... Auctioneer Charles Hanson called the bronze body part a “piece of modern history” and said he expects it to be sold for at least £10,000 when it goes under the hammer on October 27.
May the best and most deserving Indian win the bid. We couldn’t get the Kohinoor diamonds back. Let’s get Saddam’s bronze buttock as our prize souvenir. It will be a good bargain.

Saturday, October 01, 2011


Transactions of the Literary Society of Bombay, published in the year 1823, carries an article ( page 79) titled “On the institution and ceremonies of the Hindoo festival of the Dusrah” written by Major-General Sir John Malcolm, G.C.B. & the year 1799, in the form a letter to someone.

In that piece of correspondence, he tries to explain the significance of Dussehra and Durga Puja as narrated to him by some Brahmins.

"A prince named Soorath was expelled from his kingdom by the rakshahs or demons. He for a long time wandered about in the woods, and happening to meet with a bankrupt merchant, they proceeded to relate to a hermit their misfortunes. This holy man gave the two unfortunate wanderers a long discourse on the vicissitudes of fortune, all of which he traced to Yoga Maya. The prince asking who she was, ‘She is’ said the recluse, 'the great goddess in whom are immersed the powers of creation, preservation, and destruction ; in other words, she is the eternal and illusive principle, she takes all shapes in order to enable her to destroy the demons, and protect the good and peaceable inhabitants of this earth.

"'In former days (continued the hermit), when the world was covered with water, and Vishnoo the omnipotent reposed on the great serpent Andi-Shashah (Ananta), two demons arose from the wax or dirt (myle) of his ears. They attempted to murder Brahmah, who called upon Yoga Nedra: this goddess, who is described as a personification of abstraction and delusive sleep (and ono of whose titles is the Great Darkness), instantly removed her influence from Vishnoo; who, seizing his chackra or discus, struck off at one blow the heads of the two demons, Mudh and Kythab, who had carried on a war against the gods for 5000 years.

After the death of Mudh and Kythab, Mheisasoor, or Buffalo-shaped (called the demon of vice), waged a successful war against the gods for 1000 years. Indra, Sooray, Cbandra, Agnee, Vayoo, Varoon, Pavana Kooverah, Yama, and the whole conclave of deities, were so distressed by the superior force of this terrible enemy, that they made their common complaint to Brahmah; this god proceeded with them to the celestial throne of the all-powerful Vishnoo, who was enraged at the tale of their sufferings.

His eyes, flaming like the fiery eyes of Siva, darted irradiant glances, which mixing with those proceeding at the same time from the eyes and bodies of the other incensed gods, combined to form a female of exquisite beauty, in whom the goddess of sleep predominated. The newly created goddess (Doorga) was a composition of all the deities who aided in her formation: from Siva she acquired her majestic head and flowing hair; from Vishnoo her arms and spirit; from Indra her breasts; her emanations from Varoona; Pavana gave her legs and waist; Brahmah her feet; her thumbs were from Sooraya; her nose from Kooverah; her fingers from Vayoo; Agnee gave her a third eye, and from the other gods she derived her remaining features; but, above all, she partook most of the qualities of Siva, who gave her his trisool, or trident, and infused all his fire into her third eye.

"' The armour and ornaments of this goddess were as generously bestowed as her qualities: the god of the winds gave her a bow and arrows ; Indra his thunderbolt; the god of the infernal regions his danda, or mace, and sword; Brahmah bestowed on her the cammundalum, or drinking skull; the Milky Ocean gave her a necklace of pearls; Viswakarman, the artificer of the gods, presented her jewels; Sumoodra, or the sea, several precious stones, and some offensive weapons; for her conveyance, Mount Hima gave her a lion; Kooverah (Plutus) bestowed on her a rich and beautiful drinking-cup; and the great serpent, Andishasha, a garland of snakes. Besides these, every god, according to his means, presented her with various gifts.

Thus armed and ornamented, the goddess sallied forth to fulfill her high destiny. She soon met with Mheisasoor, and a terrible conflict ensued. Mounted on a lion, she slew immense numbers of his demons ; but her followers fell in crowds before the paws, tail, and horns of the buffalo god. At length the goddess and the demon of vice encountered each other. Dreadful was the conflict! As Doorga aimed a terrible blow at him, the buffalo took a human form, in which he was slain, but reappeared in that of an elephant. He next assumed the shape of a lion, and then his original body of a buffalo.

The goddess, oppressed with heat and thirst, and fainting with fatigue, indulged in a draught of wine, exclaiming to her enemy, who shouted victory, "O Mheisasoor! roar as loud as you may till my cup is finished." Having drunk, her strength was redoubled; she seized her sword, and with one blow severed from his body the head of the demon. The dewtas, or minor deities, who had been spectators of the wondrous strife, sung aloud the praises of the goddess Doorga. In her next incarnation she also destroyed the two great malignant demons, Sambha and Nesumbhe. This was, however, in another avatarom, and must not be confounded with the appearance of the mother of nature, as Doorga, or virtue, for the destruction of Mheisasoor, or vice, as these were her acts as Kali, Chamunda, in her inferior manifestations as an infernal goddess.

In her combat with the giants, who were impelled by their evil spirits to action, she appeared with a countenance inspiring terror, and her eyes red, glaring with blood; she was wrapped in an elephant's hide, and, not satisfied with the usual means of destruction, she grasped men, elephants, and horses, with her hands, and swallowed them up like grains of barley!!! Kali was, however, in this action severely pressed by the strength and increasing number of her enemies; but the gods who watched the conflict sent her seasonable aid. Sacred birds, animals, and shells conveyed her female allies (for they were all of that sex) to the field.

The war, after some terrible battles, in which the goddess gave astonishing proofs of her courage and prowess, terminated by her slaying the two demons, Sumbha and Nisumbha, and eradicating the race of rakhush, or demons, from the earth. The being who had conferred on mankind this great benefit was called the Omnipotent, and was worshipped under various names. But some reformed sects of Hindoos, making objections (and apparently not without reason) to her sanguinary proceedings, refuse adoration to Budra Kali, and the Vishnoo Hindoos celebrate this festival in the name of Suruswatee and Lachmee, the wives of Vishnoo and Brahmah, and goddesses of wisdom and of wealth, who, though they had been allies of Kali, were not polluted, like her, by drinking blood, After this war Kali retired to a mountain, but foretold her return to punish evil spirits, which would in her absence reappear. On her departure, however, the goddess enjoined her votaries, when they commemorated her victories, to represent her with red teeth, and to offer her red flowers. They were also commanded to offer prayers to her on certain days, which they were told would propitiate her favour, save them from their enemies, and secure to them health, wealth, and good fortune.

This is the substance of what the holy man related to the wandering prince, Sooradha, or Soorut; who in consequence devoted himself in sincerity of heart to prayer at the shrine of Doorga. He was rewarded by becoming in another birth Saverna Menoot, and it was during the period in which he governed the world that the sage Makundrah related these wonders to the Prince Jayanee. The latter, on hearing the narration, instituted the festival in question, and fixed the dates for its observance agreeably to those named by the goddess, as the best to obtain her aid and favour. Future ages have continued to solemnize this festival by prayer, festivities, gymnastic exercises, and every kind of warlike sport.

Not that we need to learn the story from the British, but the point to be noted is that they made elaborate effort to understand the customs and traditions in India, and recorded all that they had heard or understood. Sometimes, they heaped scorn on the heathen practices and paganism of the natives, but quite often they recorded their observations dispassionately.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

The tough little bird.

Robert Krulwich has a great post on the Bar-tailed Godwit.

They are the only birds known to fly more than 7,000 miles nonstop, that means no food breaks, no water breaks, no sleep breaks, no pausing, just pushing through cyclones, storms, headwinds, flappity flap, flap for days and nights- and this is their championship season. In September and October, they leave Alaska, head straight for the ocean. Though they are land birds, and cannot fish or rest on the sea, they will cross most of the Pacific Ocean, and fly all the way to New Zealand. Many of them are young, and have never done this before.
Every year, between August and November, these birds wait for the cyclonic storms that generate favourable wind for southward departure. “Once they hit mid-passage, equatorial breezes slow and the bird has to beat his or her way south without much help. They burn half their body weight as they fly, and sleep, bird-style, by shutting down one side of the brain at a time. Past the equator, they bump into the southeasterly trade, which is the runner's equivalent of an uphill slog, pushing them west, so they have to navigate to keep on course.”

What an amazing feat! Why does this bird do this long-distance flying non-stop? What is the purpose of this whole exercise? A comment on the article explains “ If it is accustomed to a diet of a certain type and surroundings of a certain temperature and form that is nearly polar, it is unlikely to achieve this other than by traveling to nearly the opposite pole”.

What a tough little bird!

Three men and a baby

In the film, “Buona Sera, Mrs Campbell,” that was a hit in the ‘60s, an Italian woman (played by Gina Lollobrigida) sleeps with three American soldiers in the course of ten days, during the war. By the time she discovers she is pregnant, all three of them move back to the US. Not sure who is the father, she decides to get all three to support ‘his’ daughter. And all three keep remitting money to her.

I remember laughing quite a bit at the many comical situations in the movie.

But, as they say, life can be more dramatic than anything that a fiction writer can possibly imagine. As this news story in the Indian Express today illustrates:

The seven-year-old may not have a dad, but in the space meant for ‘father’s name’ on his birth certificate, there are three names — of the three men who allegedly raped his mother when she was 15.

…in the records of the primary school where the child studies, the ‘father’s name’ column has been kept blank. The extraordinary entry on his birth certificate came to light when the child was brought for admission to the school.

The panchayat that issued the birth certificate said they put the names of the three accused on it as the grandfather had told them one of them was the child’s father.

I can’t see anything funny in the movie, “ Buona Sera, Mrs Campbell” any more.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Lady Divine, would you like some wine?

Christopher Hitchens, in an article three years back, writes about the obnoxious practice of restaurants trying to speed up the consumption of expensive wine by pouring it out into glasses that are still not empty.

The vile practice of butting in and pouring wine without being asked is the very height of ..  bad manners. Not only is it a breathtaking act of rudeness in itself, but it conveys a none-too-subtle and mercenary message: Hurry up and order another bottle. Indeed, so dulled have we become to the shame and disgrace of all this that I have actually seen waiters, having broken into the private conversation and emptied the flagon, ask insolently whether they should now bring another one. Imagine this same tactic being applied to the food
Once at a 5-star restaurant, I was playing host to a team from Finland. The steward, undermining my prerogative as the host, went directly to one of the ladies and asked her if she would like some wine and she said ‘yes, maybe some red wine”. The next thing I know he brings up a bottle of expensive wine, asks her if it is ok and pours it into her glass and offers some to the others too. After an hour or so, when food had been ordered, he goes again to the same lady and asks if she would like ‘some more red wine’. She says ok, and he opens up another bottle and pours out the wine.

At this point I was fuming. I excused myself from the table, went across to the manager and asked him how much the bottle of wine cost. Rs 6000 + taxes, he said. I blasted the hell out of him and said that the steward had no business to take the order directly from a guest and expect me to pay up. A compromise was reached that I would pay for only one of the bottles. I went out kicking and ranting and swore that I’ll never go there again.

Another common trick is to place some fancy foreign brand of mineral water (without the price tag of Rs 400) on the table and casually ask the foreign visitor if they would like some mineral water. Quite often, the Indian ‘host’ would feel awkward to stop this ‘transaction’ and end up paying good money for nothing.

If you must go these fancy restaurants, never forget the rule: Caveat emptor. And don’t hesitate to recommend an Indian red wine to a foreign guest.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Mr. Walker.

While in Kenya last week on an official trip, I drove down from Nairobi to a small town called Magati, past the Rift Valley. I was headed to a site that had been identified for a project, which involved participation of the local community. The site was a few kilometers away from a point ahead of Mogati on the highway.

A colleague from Nairobi who was accompanying me said that an ‘elder’ from the local community would like to meet us. Should we meet him at Mogati or should we request him to come straight to the site, he wanted to know. Meeting him at the site at 2 pm would be more convenient, I said, and would save us some time.

As we reached the point that would lead us to the site, we were informed that the approach road could not be accessed as a river was overflowing due to heavy rains the previous day. A local person said he could take us to the site on a different route and we decided to use his services.

We got off the highway into a muddy road, which after 500m led us to a thick forest. The guide expertly navigated us through the trees on narrow dirt tracks. How he knew the general direction or where to turn, I couldn’t figure out as all trees looked the same to me. I had assumed that this was going to be a short drive, but found the journey stretching interminably. At one point, the jeep got stuck in the slush, and was extricated with some difficulty and some clever maneuvers from the driver.

We reached the spot after covering 22 km in slightly more than 2 hours. It was 4 pm.

The village elder was there, all alone and waiting for us. He had reached the spot at 2 pm as scheduled.

How did he get there, I asked my local guide. He had walked. Was there a shorter route for walking? No, he said, the old man had to take the same route that we had taken. As soon as he was informed that he had to meet us at the site, he had started walking in that direction, armed with a stick. Aware of the swollen river, he set out on the longer route that we later took. He walked the entire 20 km and reached the place on time. How long did it take him to cover the distance? Oh, maybe 2.5 to 3 hours, replied my local guide, nonchalantly.

We asked the old man to get into the jeep and started our way back on the same route. I certainly wanted to get back to the highway before it was dark. After 5 km or so, our jeep got stuck in the mud again and simply refused to budge, either forward or in reverse. If we had to walk the remainder of the distance, there was no way we were going to make it out of that jungle before it got dark.

As I was worrying myself with thoughts of giant mosquitoes, tse tse flies and snakes, I saw the old man pulling down some branches from a tree. He plucked out the leaves and heaped them in a pile near the tyres on the rear wheel of the jeep. Using that as leverage, the driver managed to pull the jeep out a few metres behind, then picked up full power and drove it past the slush.

What a man!

Not far from the spot we visited is the hilly region surrounding the Rift Valley, which has produced so many marathon runners and Olympic medalists in long-distance events. What is special about the region, many have wondered. Some have attributed it to the lung-capacity of the runners developed due to exercising in the high-altitude region. Some explanations point to the ‘birdlike legs”. And some to the fact that, historically, the men of the Kalenjin tribe had to move fast and over long distances to round up cattle, as those with the most number of cows managed to garner more wives.

I wonder how many cows and how many wives the old man I met has.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Chennai Chunam

Recreations in Agriculture, Natural History, Arts and Miscellaneous literature, by James Anderson, LLD was published in April 1799.

James Anderson was a distinguished personality who was based in Chennai and whose botanical garden in the city was world-famous. The suffix to his name, apart from the LLD, reads

“FRS. and FSA.E . Honourary member of the Society of Arts, Agriculture, Sec. Bath; of the Philosophical Society, Manchester; of the Agricultural Society, Altringham ; of the Philosophical So-ciety, Newcastle; of the Society for promoting Natural History, London, of the Academy of Arts, Sciences, and Belles Lettres, Dijon; of the Royal Society of Agriculture, St. Petersburg; of the Royal Economical Society, Berlin; of the Philosophical Society, Philadelphia; correspondent member of the Royal Society of Agriculturet Paris; and Author of several performances.”

Here, he describes the virtues of ‘chunam’- or limestone used as cementing material in India, and recommends it for use in England as well.

No cement for building hath as yet been discovered in Europe that can be compared with the fine Chunam of India for closeness, toughness, durability, and beauty. It sets as quickly as stucco, and at the same time acquires a hardness greatly superior to our best lime mortar, and is alike proper for works under water, as for those that are exposed to the air; so that it supersedes the use alike of gypsum and of puzzuolana, or terras.

It can be made here at all times, only that, during the monsoon or rainy season, it does not dry so soon, and causes more trouble to the workmen; I do not see therefore why it might not be done in England; and if houses were built in England as in India, there never would be the smallest danger from fire; for whatever accident might happen to the furniture, scarce any of our houses here can be injured: the walls are all of brick and mortar, and when fine-chunamed are exceedingly beautiful; as any colour, or variety of colours, may be given to it.

The wood of the doors and windows are never so much connected with it as to cause any danger: our roofs are equally secure, and probably the strongest and most durable in the world, being with difficulty broke down; the whole forming a solid mass, and the mortar harder than the brick. If a room does not exceed twenty-five or thirty feel breadth, large solid beams of teak (tectonia grandis), of about sixteen or eighteen inches square, are laid across from wall to wall; and at the distance of twelve or fourteen feet asunder. Joists of about seven inches depth and four inches breadth are then laid across the beams about a foot asunder.

When these are all properly fitted, and the wall all around raised to a level with them, the bricklayers begin at one corner, and go on diagonally to the other with great quickness, placing the bricks On their edge and applying them close to one another, after having covered their surfaces well with mortar mixed with a considerable proportion of jaggary, or coarse sugar, and also the top, on which they lay it thick. The workmen sit upon moveable planks laid across the joists. The under surface has a curious appearance, from the bricks seeming to have no support.

It is astonishing how few bricks thus jammed fall down, although I have seen terraces made when rain was falling very heavy, and running through in all parts as through a sieve; and those are reckoned strongest that are built in the wet weather, as there is less danger of vacuities than in the dry season, from the quick drying of the chunam.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

He will be missed

While paying her last respects to Shammi Kapoor who passed away last week, actress Madhuri Dixit was quoted as saying "He was a very fine actor and will truly be missed,”

Considering that Shammi Kapoor had been bed-ridden for many years, and had not acted for many more, that statement makes no sense. His ‘acting’ would have been missed- if at all-after his retirement. Death cannot be cited as the reason for his not acting. If he had continued to live on, he was unlikely to get back to his swashbuckling not-to-be-missed roles.

The ‘will-be-missed’ phrase is so clichéd and when used in the passive voice rings completely insincere. Will be missed by who? When in the future? How long?

Yet, I realized that bereavement evokes irrational responses.

Returning home today after attending the funeral of a cousin, I found myself reminiscing about the days, decades back, when we spent hours playing cricket or badminton or just shared some jokes. Yes, I am certainly going to miss him, I grieved.

This cousin was not snatched away at an early age. He had been ailing for some time, and the last instance both of us played cricket or badminton together was 25 years back. Had he not died today, would we have got back to playing those games? Impossible. Would we have got back to our exchange of jokes? Sadly, no. He had ceased to be a sparkling conversationalist, some years back. So, what is it that his death has caused me to miss afresh? What is it that I am deprived of now that I wasn’t a week back?

I don’t know.

But, at least, I used the cliché in its active voice.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Husband- the visible God.

In a post dated October 2005 and titled, “Dark thoughts of a closet MCP”, I had imagined the mind of a chauvinistic male. The post began this way:

You should have seen the fuss that my wife made and the tantrums that she threw up when I woke her from an afternoon siesta yesterday and asked for a cup of coffee!

Why she should go ballistic over such a simple request, I could never fathom. It would have taken her hardly a couple of minutes to warm the milk in the gas stove, mix the instant coffee and sugar and serve it to me, along with some chocolate biscuits, as I was on my recliner chair reading a book. Nothing complicated about it. Minimum physical labour involved.
It is not as if she had to slog it out like my multi-tasking grandmother who had to wake up at 3 am everyday, have a cold dip in the Cauvery (cleverly dodging the lurking crocodiles), finish her pooja, run after the cows, pin them down, milk them herself, then grind the coffee seeds, roast them, prepare the decoction, and get the steaming coffee ready for my grandfather at 5 am sharp, before he commenced his morning ablutions. All this, while she continued to prolifically deliver several babies a year.
I thought I was using my humourist’s licence to freely exaggerate and to sound funny in the process.

Last night, while watching a debate on a Tamil channel, I realized how wrong I had been. I had not only ‘not exaggerated’ (pardon the double negative) but had not known that many women actually liked their male partners to be completely domineering and demanding. This was a complete revelation to me.

This debate was between two groups of women, with one group arguing that husbands were ‘visible Gods” who needed to be served and obeyed unquestioningly and the other group defending the view that the husband was a friend in an equal partnership.

That such debates should happen at all in this age is a reflection of our society. The participants were well-educated (in the conventional sense of the word) and I heard one of them – belonging to the group that venerated husbands- say that she held an MBA diploma and that it did not make any difference to her convictions. She revealed that as soon as her husband came home from work, she insisted on removing his shoes and socks not just because she felt she ought to, but she enjoyed doing it. None of the women in the ‘husband is God” group attributed the behaviour to ‘traditional values”. All of them said they actually liked placing their husbands on a pedestal and being as obsequious as they could.

The thought did cross my mind that perhaps this was a stage-managed debate. If so, the women were exceptionally good actors.

Maybe this was a freakish group rounded up by the TV studio to make the show livelier? No, I don’t think so. I suspect that this was a good sampling size, one that is representative of a pan-Indian society,

It is pointless to talk about ‘subjugation of women’ when there are educated women still around, who volunteer to be slaves and derive masochistic enjoyment while being treated thus.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011


Caught in the humdrum of life, we dismiss many things as ‘routine’ or ‘mundane’. Because of this tendency to trivialize, many important things pass us by, unnoticed.

Take the simple matter of sneezing. Do you remember when you sneezed last? Why? Where? What was the intensity? How many sneezes at a time?

Shame on you, if you can’t recall.

A blogger has shown us the way. Starting from June 2007, he has sneezed 2590 times and he has recorded details of each one of them in a separate post. Where was he when the sneeze happened? Was it a weak one, moderate or strong? What activity was he engaged in at that precise moment? For example, his entry # 2588 reads “Kitchen; Strong; Transferring falafel(s) into a Tupperware”.

He follows precise rules. All sneezes are timed and dated. All times are GMT. Avoids confusion when he has to record a sneeze that has happened when he is abroad. Also, he might sneeze on one side of the International Date Line, then cross the International Date Line, and then sneeze again. Using local time, the second sneeze would have occurred the day before the first sneeze, generating confusing and nonsensical data.

The strength of the sneeze is recorded as “Mild, Moderate, Moderate to strong, Strong, Very strong or Very mild”. However, he cautions scientists that these are completely subjective impressions, and almost certainly not consistent, or independently verifiable. And Seismologists to please note that this scale is non-exponential.

Why does he document his sneezes? He explains,

I started counting my sneezes on 12 July 2007. What started out as a little conceptual art joke, a playful satire of the “blogosphere”, and a mock scream against the futility and emptiness of modern life, turned into something more intriguing.

Counting my sneezes, and documenting the time and place of each sneeze, has revealed curious regularities in the way I live my life. For example, it has revealed how much time I spend in the ‘Office/spare bedroom”, in front of a computer. It is interesting to note how much time I spend in this place, and compare it with how little I manage to get done.

Although sneezes are sufficiently unpredictable and involuntary, the act of counting them offers an interesting new take on the old theoretical physics line about events being affected by the process of observation. Sneezecount makes each sneeze matter. It is no longer possible just to blow one out and forget about it . Now that sneezes had a name, an identity.

I am very impressed. I am thinking of doing something on these lines, to bring a sense of purpose to my life.

Saturday, July 09, 2011

Vacuous and Verbose-28

Would you buy the book based on this review?

The Vice President of India Shri M. Hamid Ansari released a book entitled “Man’s fate & God’s choice” written by Shri Bhimeswara Challa at a function here today. Addressing on the occasion, Shri Ansari said that the book is an intellectual journey in a classical sense. Congratulating the author for such a valuable book he said that yhe book addresses a perennial theme- the man, his environment and his creature.

The book posits that any betterment in human behaviour needs a cathartic change at the deepest levels. That requires diluting the dominance of the mind and reawakening the long-dormant intelligence of the human heart. To meet that challenge, we need minimum numbers, a 'critical mass' to create self-sustained momentum for transformation through consciousness change. And every single human of this generation should behave in such a way that he or she is that single person whose transformation could make the decisive species-scale difference. The book offers a menu of ideas and an agenda of action.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

The Tirunelveli Brahmin.

A Christian Missionary touring South India, in the year 1842, provides this description of the Tirunelveli Brahmin, which I found quite amusing. ( source) (page 46)

The Bramins here… assume a haughtiness of air, which is rarely seen in the neighbourhood of Madras.

They consider themselves exalted so far above other human beings, as to lose sight of all distinctions of rank in those below them; and they hold all, including Europeans, in equal contempt. If you meet a Bramin in the road, and ask the way to any place, he will very seldom condescend to speak, and yet, with true native courtesy, he will never rudely pass you by; he will stop and point with his finger to the right direction. If you further inquire of him the distance, he will hold up his fingers, according to the number of miles, and if you still ask if the road is straight or winding, will draw his finger through the air to mark the various turnings; and when he has satisfied all your inquiries, will again move on in perfect silence.

Indian architecture, circa 1850

The Journal of the Society of Arts, Britain, 1870, reproduces a speech delivered by Lord Napier on the subject of ‘aesthetics’ in design of buildings. He deplores the tendency of ‘natives’ to copy European design using material not compatible with Indian conditions. He urges the use of indigenous material that are available in abundance and that are perfectly suitable. He advises the local people not to be enamoured of the modern architect and to follow the instinct of the maistry form the mofussil area who has preserved the traditions of the forefathers. An extract. ( read full speech here)

If the rules concerning material which are here enunciated are correct, I need scarcely say that they are in every respect so violated in India as to rouse the regret and condemnation of' all reasonable critic. Madras is the epitome of every error that an architect can commit with reference to material.

Look at the railway station, the High Court, the Custom-house, the sea front of the fort buildings, all discovering the same shameful condition of chronic disfigurement and decay; all blistered, discoloured, and crumbling, the victims of an unequal strife between the element and stucco. Yet at no great distance, there are inexhaustible supplies, the finest stone, and the very soil beneath our feet teems with clay, which only requires the skilful exercise of a familiar art to yield qualities of brick and terracotta, competent to resist the attacks of the blast and the spray forever.

The Presidency College and the Sailors' House are the first attempts to build in an honest manner with undisguised materials, but the act of preparing them is not attained in a day, and I fear that we can scarcely regard these buildings otherwise than as the forerunners of a better era.

It is possible that I may be speaking in the presence of some native gentleman who has made a fortune by the exportation of cotton, and who is about to build a new house. The case is not common in Madras, but it is not incredible. If there be such a one here, I beseech him to pause before he sanctions the modern "Muster" which I mentally see before me. I say to him, 'Discharge your Madras architect, and take a maistry from some remote part of the Mofussil, where the traditions of the fathers are still preserved. Determine to have a national house, but such a house as an Indian gentleman should inhabit under an honest government, in an age of peace, justice, and learning, a house in which the light of heaven, and reason, and freedom can penetrate.

Adhere in general to the ancient plan, and especially to the court and colonnade; collect all the best models and patterns of native mouldings and sculpture; use brick of the finest quality from tho School of Arts for the exposed surfaces; employ timber for the pillars within, Cuddapah stone for the pillars without, glazed tiles for the floors; make a liberal use of ornamental stucco and painting where the rain cannot penetrate; fill the unglazed apertures with the beautiful tracery of which Indian art offers an unrivalled variety. For glazed windows, authentic models may be wanting; but they can be treated in the spirit of the style ; and the government architect can show you how.

Get all your carpets from Vellore, and your stuffs from Madura and Tanjore. Where the Hindoo patterns fail you, borrow from the Mussulmans. Make a sparing use of European furniture, and endeavour to harmonise it with the native forms. But in doing this, make everything lofty, light, bright, spacious, and accessible.

Theo task would not be easy, but it can be done; and every effort would be better than that which preceded it.

Endeavour to realise this, that the Indian arts which you are at this moment casting away here, are at this moment, in London and Paris, an object of inquiry and study to the most learned and cultivated minds. Do not imagine that you are required to do anything unprecedented. All I ask you is to do has been done in Europe itself. In Europe, the ancient national arts were, for a couple of centuries, as much forgotten and despised by us as the ancient national arts of India are now forgotten and despised by you. You have hitherto imitated our errors, I call upon you to imitate us in correcting them

Advice is relevent even today, don't you think?

The Durable Village

South Indian Sketches, written in 1842, is a compilation of letters from a Christian Missionary, S.Tucker, (who is touring India), to a young friend, Lucy based in England.

Here, Tucker gives a lovely description of a typical village in India and explains how it is vastly different from the villages of England.

If you, my dear Lucy, know as little of the internal state of India as I have done till lately, you will have the same confused and incorrect idea of an Indian village as I used to have, and will take it for granted that it is much like our own; with a population more or less fluctuating, and subject to no other authority than the general laws of the land, or the peculiar regulations of the district in which it is situated.

But the villages in India are very different in these respects from ours. They are all little separate "republics, having everything they can want within themselves, and almost independent of any foreign relation. They seem to last where nothing else lasts.

Dynasty after dynasty tumbles down; revolution succeeds to revolution; Hindoo, Patan, Mogul, Mahratta, Sik, English, are all masters in turn; but the village community remains the same. In times of trouble they arm and fortify themselves; a hostile army passes through the country; the village communities collect their cattle within their walls, and let the enemy pass unprovoked. If plunder and devastation be directed against themselves, and the force employed be irresistible, they flee to friendly villages at a distance; but when the storm has passed over, they return and resume their occupations. If a country remains for a series of years the scene of continued pillage and massacre, so that the villages cannot be inhabited, the scattered villagers, nevertheless, return when the power of peaceable possession revives.

A generation may pass away, but the succeeding generation will return. The sons will take the places of their fathers; the same site for the village, the same position for the houses, the same lands will be re-occupied by the descendants of those who were driven out when, the village was depopulated; and it is not a trifling matter that will drive them out, for they will often maintain their post through times of disturbance and convulsion, and acquire strength sufficient to resist pillage and oppression with success.

This union of the village communities, each one forming a separate little state in itself, has, I conceive, contributed more than any other cause to the preservation of the people of India, through all the revolutions and changes which they have suffered, and is in a high degree conducive to their happiness and to the enjoyment of a great portion of freedom and independence.

The boundaries of their lands are accurately defined and jealously guarded under the superintendence of the headman, who is the chief person in each village, and whose business it is to make arrangements with the government for the revenue—to apportion the payment of it among the villagers—to let such lands as have no fixed tenants—to settle disputes or refer them to higher authorities,—and, in short, to perform all the duties of a municipal governor.

The office is hereditary, and he is the representative of the head of the first family who settled in the village. Sometimes there are several headmen, arising probably from more than one family having originally settled in it. The headman is assisted by different officers—the accountant, the watchman, the money-changer, the priest, the astrologer (who is sometimes the schoolmaster), the smith, carpenter, barber,potter, minstrel, all of whom are part of the regular village establishment, and are supported by the community. They have existed (and apparently unaltered) since the time of Menu.

There is in all the public works and institutions of India, a character of largeness, whether in number, size, or durability, to which we have no parallel in our smaller and comparatively modern countries; and one might almost fancy that the height of the mountains, the vastness of the forests, and the grandeur of the general scenery had, in times past, communicated their influence to the native mind.

Every village has its tanks, smaller or larger according to circumstances, but always sufficient to contain an ample supply of water for general use; and you may judge of the scale on which these works are sometimes carried on, when I tell you that in the collectorate of South Arcot, a considerable extent of country is watered by the tank, or rather artificial lake of Veeranum, twenty-five miles in circumference, into which the waters of the Coleroon are conducted.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Wanted: An authoritarian rule

In one of his lectures, Francis Fukuyuma summed up “Asian values” ( as popularized by leaders like Lee Kuan Yew) as “a system in which people are born not with rights but with duties to a series of hierarchically-arranged authorities, beginning with the family and extending all the way up to the state and emperor. In this world, there is no concept of the individual and individual rights; duties are not derived from rights as they are in Western liberal thought."

“Indian values’ too have the same elements. In an essay titled. “Authority and Identity in India”, T.G.Vaidyanathan, an English professor and regular columnist in The Hindu in the 80s and 90s, showed that 'in the Indian ethos, the guru-sishya relationship is the paradigm of all relationships. Whether it is the relationship of a devotee to his creator, of a servant to his master, of a friend to friend, of lover to beloved, of parents to children, and even of enemies to each other.'

Few principles, he says, are exempt from the influence of the guru principle, including games. In fact, to be Indian means to respect authority- all the way down the line. It is not surprising, concluded Vaidyanathan that for many Indians insecurity is nearly always a consequence of the withdrawal of external authority but never of its presence.

So, counter-intuitive as it may sound, a western system of constitutional democracy that we adopted after independence and that promised us freedom and liberties, may have been completely incompatible with our genetic make-up. To function as a cohesive nation, perhaps,we need the reassuring force of an authoritarian rule. Denied the guru-sishya framework that is hardwired in our brains, we tend to get disoriented, undisciplined and to slip into complete chaos. We simply need an 'authority' to submit to. Without a teacher watching over us in the classroom, there is mayhem. Without a traffic cop around,  we will just not bother to stop our vehicles when the signal turns red. "Shame of punishment if caught' rather an 'innate sense of guilt in breaking rules" is what shapes our behaviour.

Would a more authoritarian system have worked better for us? One that took away a share of our individual rights but, as a trade-off, ensured a more disciplined, orderly society? Would the Singapore model work in a large country like ours?

This question need not be just a hypothetical one. Results of an experiment performed in India are available to corroborate the theory. I am talking about the Emergency period from 1975-1977.

The imposition of the Emergency was based on dubious arguments, but few would dispute that it resulted in a period of absolute calm. Just four months after the Emergency was imposed, Time magazine would call it a ‘needed shock” and report :

These days India is engrossed in a frenzied campaign to encourage discipline, punctuality, cleanliness, courtesy. Placards appear everywhere, some of whose messages of inspiration are attributed to Mrs. Gandhi but most not. On a street corner in New Delhi: ECONOMIC OFFENSES BRING STERN PUNISHMENT. Another, quoting Mohandas Gandhi: A BORN DEMOCRAT IS A BORN DISCIPLINARIAN.

The campaign for discipline may be having some impact on the country. In Bombay, for instance, streets are no longer littered with debris, telephone repairs are made promptly, and state ministers are arriving at their offices at the hitherto unheard-of hour of 9:30 in the morning. Police claim crime is down 10%, largely because they no longer have to spend so much of their energies controlling political demonstrations. One veteran foreign observer of Indian affairs believes Mrs. Gandhi "administered to the country a massive punch in the jaw, which it probably needed." He adds that if the government can bring the emergency to an end within six months, "the retrospective view will be that it has benefited the country and given a badly needed shock to a society whose values were crumbling."

On the first anniversary of Emergency rule, Time would again report:

Thanks to a record wheat harvest of 114 million tons last year—which in turn was produced by the most beneficent monsoon in modern history—the country is enjoying a period of rare prosperity. As a result of a two-year-old tight-money policy and a very tough economic reform program imposed during the emergency, India last year may have been the only major nation in the world with a negative inflation rate (-6%). India's educated classes still lament the suspension of civil liberties and the continuing detention of thousands of people without trial, but the country at large is reasonably contented.

Well, we all know that the rule did not last. It became evident that there had been gross abuse of power. Gory details of ‘excesses’ and high-handedness on the part of police officials and bureaucrats in North India surfaced– and the Govt was thrown out of power.

But, the part that is forgotten is that, the same Congress swept the elections in all the Southern states, losing just three of the seats. How did this polarisation take place?

It was argued that perhaps only the ‘beneficial’ effect of the authoritarian rule was felt in the South- which mercifully was spared the ‘excesses’.

I endorse that view. I lived in Chennai during the Emergency and remember that period for its ‘orderliness’. Trains ran on time, labour Unions did not resort to strikes at the slightest provocation, colleges were not closed due to students’ agitation and there was general contentment. The Emergency was welcomed. Most people agreed it had injected a much needed ‘dose of discipline’.

It is worth analyzing that phase more objectively? What was done right in South India? How was that optimal balance between discipline and ‘freedom’ struck- without resorting to ‘excesses”? Can we challenge the popular belief that ‘individual liberty" is sacrosanct and an inviolable right that Indians will not compromise on, even if it is for the common good?

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Hi ho, Eversilver.

A friend visiting Chennai expressed surprise that many restaurants here continued to serve snacks in stainless steel plates and coffee in stainless steel “tumblers’, and naturally attributed this practice to a South Indian fetish for anything glossy. Such preferences have deep cultural roots and defy explanation, we agreed. Coming to think of it, I have my coffee only in stainless steel ‘tumblers’ when I am at home.

My friend’s observation reminded me of an article written by Prof T.G.Vaidyanathan many years back. I managed to trace it in a book that contained a collection of his essays. Here is an extract from a piece titled “ The Stainless Steel Culture” written by the author after he attended a prize-distribution ceremony in Chennai, in which the prizes given away were – stainless steel buckets of different sizes.

The presence of stainless steel (or, should I rather say, ‘eversilver’ to give the shining metal its telltale Tamilian nomenclature) is ubiquitous to the Tamil heartland. Its unquestioned and commanding presence at weddings in the shape of the girl’s dowry is too well known to bear repetition here. Humble brass, delicate bronze and sacred, immemorial copper have long since fallen by the wayside and have now been relegated to some forgotten limbo of the mind. That ruthless and rampaging usurper, stainless steel, is now king. Long live, stainless steel. Swept unceremoniously under the carpet are those poor brass and bronze tumblers and coffee filters and dhamaras (small round containers with tiny protective walls) in and through which one first imbibed that magic South Indian brew: “decoction coffee”. No more bronze lamps or bronze bells for worship, In fact, no more vigrahams (idols) either in that sacred combination of metals (panchalokam). An unholy and satanic effect has imperiously ordained that henceforth every single thing on earth shall be in stainless steel and stainless steel only. What we are silently heading for is the ruthless dictatorship of one proud metal in place of the old, lazy democracy of several peacefully coexisting metals. One can only fervently pray that the gods themselves will be spared the final ignominy of being cast in stainless steel and be allowed to remain in humble stone at least in temples. But, who knows?
And he wrote this is 1991.

Friday, June 03, 2011


Every argument between a diehard devotee of Satya Sai Baba and a non-believer will end with the former saying, “Whether you believe in his powers or not, you can’t deny that he has done so much for the community. He has built hospitals, canals, roads, educational institutions…”.

This line of reasoning kills any objections one might have on the means adopted for making the money that later went into building roads, canals, etc. The message is clear: ‘Don’t be obsessed with the methods. Look at his large-heartedness. So many people have made tons of money. Not all have distributed their wealth for the larger good of people, as he has done’.

Without getting into discussions on Sai Baba’s methods of accumulating wealth that he then used for charity, let’s ask why we hold as ‘philanthropists’ only those who give away material goods in some form?

In fact, the word “philanthropy’, according to Wiki, etymologically, means ‘the love of humanity’. It is not to be confused with charity.

In her book, “Bazaars, conversations and freedom”, Rajni Bakshi provides a perspective:

The notion that commodity exchange is a higher form of civilization was a key element in the rise of the market from the eighteenth century onward. It followed that progress in the world would now be measured by the ability to accumulate material goods and money, even if some of the money is later given away through philanthropy. This partly explains why Bill gates as a billionaire philanthropist is treated as a folk hero and Tim Berners-Lee who gifted us the World Wide Web is not a household name.

..The emergence of the Internet itself has been a vast collaborative effort. But it was the crafting of the Hypertext markup language (HTML) and the Hypertext transfer protocol (HTTP) that brought order to cyberspace and gave us the easy access Internet that we take for granted. Tim Berners-Lee created these protocols and released them as a global commons.

Berners-Lee’s driving motivation was to ensure that the fundamental value of the web could be created by its users. He designed the hyperlink protocols to serve this purpose. Refusing to patent the protocols he created was for Berners-Lee both a technological and ethical imperative. This was the only way to ensure its universality, as opposed to competing webs.

As Time magazine put it, “You’d think he would have at least got rich; he had plenty of opportunities. But at every juncture, Berners-Lee chose the non-profit road both for himself and his creation.

Berners-Lee gifted away as much money as Bill Gates did. Only he did not accumulate it first for distribution later. His act of charity was in not charging for his invention worth several billions. He was a philanthropist in the classical sense.

Remember this simple distinction, and realise that by not charging you anything for the gyaan that I come up periodically, I am being a true philanthropist.

Update 040611: I realise I had omitted an important angle- the ability of godmen to distribute wealth by doing a Robin Hood act. Rich people, who would otherwise not part with their money, willingly and readily hand it over to godmen once they turn believers. Some of them may do so to atone for the methods adopted in accumulating their wealth. Some may genuinely believe in the power of the godmen. Whatever may be the motivation, money collected using the 'pulling power' of the godman brand, can be used for 'charity' -  to help the poor and the needy.

Look at it this way. When Coca Cola sponsors an event that brings about awareness of climate change, they earn brownie ( or rather 'greenie') points for their generosity. Nobody bothers to think that they earned their money in the first place by selling sugar water as the 'real thing'.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Why do we imprison people?

Kwame Anthony Appiah, a philosophy professor at Princeton University, in his article in the Washington Times on the subject of “What will future generations condemn us for?” had listed, among other things, our practice of imprisoning people, which, he believes, is certainly destined for future condemnation.

Coming to think of it, what do we really intend to achieve by imprisoning people? Prevent them from committing more crimes? Set examples that would serve to deter other budding offenders? Satisfy a principle that the ‘guilty should not go unpunished?

Two philosophers, Ken Taylor and John Terry, have tried to tackle the issue. They ask, “ What are prisons for? And run through five reasons. (source)

. retribution, crime deterrence, rehabilitation, restitution to the victims, or social denunciation.

In the first case, we should set up the system so that criminals are justly punished for what they did, though of course that raises the exceedingly thorny question of what, exactly, constitutes just punishment.

In the second case, however, we are concerned with affecting the criminal’s cost-benefit analysis, so to decrease the chances that he (most criminals, particularly of the violent type, are men) will not in fact engage in the crime to begin with.
In the case of rehabilitation, one cannot even properly talk of punishment, but rather of an attempt to change the ways of the individual and turn him into a productive member of society.

Restitution to the victims is yet another concept possibly informing how and why we imprison people, where the goal is to set up conditions that make it possible for the criminal to compensate (according to whatever parameters) the victim or the victim's family.

And finally, the social denunciation approach says that we imprison people because we wish to send the message that certain kinds of behavior are unacceptable in our society.

Naturally, we may wish to achieve more than one of these goals, but the point is that we ought to be clear on which ones, on how to prioritize them (is retribution more important than deterrence?), and especially on how to go about maximizing the likelihood of the intended outcome(s). But we don’t. The public and politicians don’t seem to make these (not so subtle) distinctions most of the time, let alone engage in serious reflection about what they mean and how they can be pursued. This is bizarre, considering that the prison system is dramatically affecting the lives of literally millions of people, many of whom arguably shouldn’t be there in the first place, as well as costing the rest of us an increasingly large bundle of money, at a time when cries of cutting the budget are all the rage

So, tell me, what is Kanimozhi in jail for?

'We will get him, wherever he is".

After Bin laden was eliminated, I heard a US media person (sorry, I didn’t note his name, but trust me, I heard him) say that it was a clear message sent to terrorists that you can’t mess around with America. “We’ll come after you wherever you are and get you’.

This is the classic response of those still living in a world of the past and conditioned by fairy tales, where victory in the last page of the story was what mattered. The villain may have led a jolly life for 70 years. But if you manage to score over him in the end, you are the real victor, even if you have been knocked around your entire life.

By executing the operations clinically and flawlessly and bringing down the WTC towers like a pack of cards – which should rank as one of the greatest engineering achievements ever, if you ignore the wrongness of the purpose- Osama had achieved what he wanted to. There was no more ‘victory’ that was left to be grabbed by the US. It was all over on 9/11.

Similarly, when Kasab was handed the death sentence by the Court, P.Chidambaram had come out with a statement: “The verdict (against) was a clear message to Pakistan. “If they do (export terrorism) and we apprehend the terrorists, then we will bring them to justice.”. This was just idle boasting. 26/11 was a plot planned meticulously and carried out efficiently. The intended purpose was achieved on that day, and victory was theirs. Catching one Kasab and hanging him is not going to send any message to the terrorists who are holed out in Pakistan. He was sent here to die and he came here mentally prepared to die on 26/11. He is now on extended time. A bonus period, so to say.

Just as rules of conventional warfare don’t apply in the case of war against terrorism, certain beliefs and honour codes that held sway in the era of conventional warfare need to be abandoned when dealing with terrorism. Victory is when you foil an attempt to blow up a building or when you nab the planners in their den based on intelligence tip-offs. It is when you manage to close in on the institutions that are operating as terror factories. Any post-facto action after the disaster cannot be claimed as a victory. It is too late by then.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Coverage of Rajinikant's illness

Once, during my school days (many decades back), a dreaded Science teacher was asked to stand in for a History teacher who was absent on that day. Many of us were convinced that, true to her Science class tradition, she would make us draw a picture of Emperor Akbar and name all the parts.

I remembered this when I saw a story in Times of India on Rajinikanth’s illness. I think the regular photographer was absent, so they deputed their science reporter to the hospital to get the full details. And sure enough, he drew a picture of Rajinikanth and named all his parts in gory detail.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Chinese typist deserves respect

In his book, “Mother Tongue", Bill Bryson explains the difficulty of designing a typewriter to type out Chinese letters:

Since every word requires its own symbol, Chinese script is immensely complicated. It possesses some 50,000 characters of which about 4000 are in common use. Chinese typewriters are enormous and most trained typists cannot manage more than about ten words a minute. But even the most complex Chinese typewriter can manage only a fraction of the characters available. If a standard Western typewriter keyboard were expanded to take in every Chinese ideograph, it would have to be about fifteen feet long and five feet wide.

An article in “Wired” carries a photograph of a monster typewriter on display at a museum in Barcelona and explains how it worked.

The only part that resembles a QWERTY typewriter is the rubber roller at the back. From there, things quickly become absurd. Take a close look and you’ll see that the flat bed is in fact full of tiny metal symbols, similar to a letter case used for traditional typesetting.

In that case there are a couple of thousand characters, and other cases can be swapped in as needed. You’ll notice that there’s no keyboard — instead, the operator uses the levers to line up a kind of grabber over the required letter. Then he hits a switch and the letter is moved up to the paper and the letter printed. Slow? Very. Apparently a good typist averages just 20 characters per minute

What about computers? The “Wired” article adds:

It doesn’t get much easier with computers, either. Because Chinese is made up of meaningful symbols instead of letters built in to words, a keyboard simply can’t contain everything without being the size of a table. To get round this two methods are commonly used. Wubi is similar to actually drawing the ideograms — the typist hits keys one by one to build up the picture from a series of strokes marked on each key. This is then translated into the correct symbol.

Better is Pinyin, which involves typing the letters phonetically in Roman letters (the ones we use). The computer then translates these into symbols. This is still something of a pain, but short of dropping their entire alphabet, what are the Chinese to do.

Here’s a photo of a Chinese keyboard that I came across today and which prompted me to come up with this post. (via)

Bill Bryson, in the same book that I referred to in the opening para, points out another limitation of the pictorial language:

The consequences of not having an alphabet are considerable. There can be no crossword puzzles, no palindromes, no anagrams, no games like Scrabble, no Morse code. In the age of telegraphy, to get around the last problem, the Chinese designed a system in which each word in the language was designated a number. Person, for instance, was 0086. To this day in China, and other countries such as Japan where the writing system is also ideographic, there is no logical system for organizing documents. Filing systems often exist only in people’s heads. If the secretary dies, the whole office can fall apart.


Thursday, May 12, 2011

Start...don't stop.

Jason Kottke links to a video of a wooden box with a flip switch. Once the switch is on, a bent rod pops out of the box and switches it off.

Here is how Arthur C Clarke described this mechanism that was invented by Claude Shannon, an American mathematician, electronic engineer, and cryptographer.

"Nothing could be simpler. It is merely a small wooden casket, the size and shape of a cigar box, with a single switch on one face. When you throw the switch, there is an angry, purposeful buzzing. The lid slowly rises, and from beneath it emerges a hand. The hand reaches down, turns the switch off and retreats into the box. With the finality of a closing coffin, the lid snaps shut, the buzzing ceases and peace reigns once more. The psychological effect, if you do not know what to expect, is devastating. There is something unspeakably sinister about a machine that does nothing - absolutely nothing - except switch itself off."

I can’t help thinking, rather cynically, that this box is a perfect metaphor for India. We’ve got sufficient resourcefulness and drive to switch ourselves on. But, as soon as we do this, a ‘hidden hand’ comes out and stops the process, preventing us from moving forward. It’s as if a Kareena Kapoor, like in her Airtel ad, is instructing us to ‘start’ followed immediately by a directive to ‘stop’.

We have the imagination to come up with grandiose schemes and the means to execute them too, but an inner, destabilising force soon materializes to put paid to the plans. All that energy that goes in to kick-start the process gets converted efficiently into a ‘braking force”. The gap between ‘intent’ and ‘achievement’ therefore remains huge. This is true for infrastructure projects, social welfare schemes, law making, reforms, etc.

To borrow from Clarke, there is something unspeakably sinister about a group of people who do nothing but pull others down, following the Crab principle. …

Learning from the metaphor, we will have to tweak the design a bit .Eliminating the ‘hidden evil hand’ is impossible. We’ll have to introduce another ‘rod’ that will spring into action a fraction of a second after the first one, and push the latter back inside before it switches off the box. What can that be?

Friday, May 06, 2011

On white dwarfs and Tamil

In an article in Science 2.0 that dealt with White dwarfs, Neutrons and Neutrinos, there is the inevitable reference to Dr Subrahmanyam Chandrasekhar, the Noble prize winner in Physics, for his calculations that showed that the weight of a white dwarf cannot exceed 1,44 times the mass of the sun.

The article carries a sketch that Dr Chandrasekhar had made in 1930 on his voyage to England. It is interesting that he wrote down the labels for the X axis and the Y axis  in Tamil.  Honestly, I didn't know the words, but the picture explains that they stand for ' radius' and 'mass'.

Dr Chandrasekhar had done his undergraduation course at the Presidency College, Madras where the subject must have been taught in English. But, the Tamil words must have come to him spontaneously, for some reason, when he was plotting the graph. Not that he knew that he was on to something big, when he was doing it.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

The debriefing sessions

The British had a meticulous system of ‘examining’ their officers returning from India and collecting evidence. These were  elaborate sessions and the evidence was patiently recorded and documented. The questions could cover a wide assortment of issues- administration, governance, justice, feedback on the perception of the natives and many other.  

This compilation of ‘minutes of evidence taken before the Select Committee on the affairs of the East India Company” and published in the year 1832 makes interesting reading. Here is an extract from one of the questioning sessions ( begins on page 153)


Captain Turner Macan, called in; and Examined.

In what service are you?

The King's military service, in the 16th Captain T. Macan. Lancers.

For how many years were you in India?

Twenty-three years

During that period did you discharge also any civil functions in India?

For the last 12 years of my residence in India, I held the situation of Persian interpreter to three successive Commanders-in-chief, Lord Hastings, Sir Edward Paget, and Lord Combermere. It cannot be called a civil function, it has always been held by a military officer.

Did the duties of that situation necessarily bring you in contact with the civil servants of the Company ?

With the exception of the Persian secretary to government, the residents at native courts, and political agents, the duties of that situation did not bring me in official contact with the civil servants of the Company, but it brought me in contact with the natives of India, both in correspondence and in personal intercourse.

Were you conversant with any other Oriental languages than the Persian?

The Persian, Arabic and Hindostanee are the languages I am conversant in, but most so in the Persian.

You have stated, that during your 23. years residence in India you have had occasion to make frequent tours in the provinces; has your intercourse with the natives on those occasions been considerable ?

It has, partly from official duty, partly from my Oriental pursuits. I have occasionally corresponded and held personal intercourse with almost every native of rank and talent

Generally speaking, how have you found the natives affected towards the British Government?

I think they have almost universally acknowledged the superiority of the British government over all former Asiatic government; and the learned men have frequently observed, that we have realized in practice the theoretical perfection of the Institutes of Acbar. They admit our intentions to be always good, but they censure many of our regulations and much of our system, both judicial and revenue, as not being founded on sufficient experience and data. The tardiness of justice they complain of as the greatest of evils. In giving these favourable sentiments of the natives on our government, I do not mean that there is one man of them that would take up arms to defend it; on the contrary, except the mercantile population of Calcutta, or those connected with the mercantile interests generally, I do not believe there is a native in India who would not desire a change.

You find, then, the educated natives universally conversant with the details of the British government in India?

Not universally conversant either with the regulations or details, but with the practical effects of the administration.

You have stated that you consider that for the most part they would desire a change; will you define more particularly what you contemplate by the word change ?

Any native government instead of that of the British; I mean that our rule in India is supported, not by the justice and wisdom of our laws or the love of the people, but by our military supremacy alone.

Do you consider that they appeared to feel themselves aggrieved by their exclusion from what they would deem a share of the civil administration of the affairs of their country ?

I think a due share in the administration of the country would tend to attach them more to our government, and make them feel an interest in it, which they now do not.

Will you state to the Committee your opinion of their capacity for being admitted to a larger share of the administration of the government ?

Their intellectual capacity is undoubtedly great; their moral capacity has been much doubted; but under an arbitrary government, where every man who holds a public situation was supposed to be necessarily corrupt in extent to his powers, and was treated as if he had been, whether innocent or not, there was no encouragement to morality or virtue, and a man who could not escape the suspicion of corruption, would endeavour to have the sweets of it. The natives of India are acute and intelligent, have great capacity for business, and, in fact, much of the business of India is now transacted by the native Omlah, without the responsibility attaching to it.

By what means should you propose to ameliorate any existing moral defects in the character of the natives ?

By education; more particularly instruction through the means of the English language, and employment in civil administration.

Do you believe that a general system of education, coupled with opening to the natives all such civil offices as they might become competent to fill, would have that tendency ?

I think it would; if you give a man something to lose, he will be cautious how he loses it. I think their employment should be limited to the judicial and revenue branches of the service. A great part of the expense of our executive administration would undoubtedly be lessened by the employment of more natives and fewer Europeans.

You have stated that you consider the introduction more generally of English language as a great object, with a view to the better establishment of our power in India; by what system does it occur to you that it might be more generally introduced ?

I would propose, that a proclamation be issued in Calcutta, stating, that at the end of a specific period, say five years, which I think sufficient, the proceedings in all the courts under the Calcutta circuit should be conducted in the English language. In the schools in Calcutta there are many Hindoo boys who can read English, even Milton and Shakspeare, with much fluency, and explain difficult passages in those authors. The language now used in the different courts of justice is as foreign to the natives of the country as the English language, except Bengal and Orissa, because in those provinces the use of the vernacular dialect is optional; in all other provinces the Persian language is used: it was forced into judicial proceedings by Mahomedan conquerors, and is not understood by any one of the witnesses that are usually examined, and but imperfectly by the native officer who takes down the evidence, and perhaps still more imperfectly by the judge.

(Remember that this was in the year 1832, much before the rumblings of the freedom movement were heard or felt. In fact, it was much before the British Govt took over the administrative responsibility from the East India Company)