Monday, February 27, 2012

Tackling multiple challenges at same time.

In the short-story “Strychnine in the soup” by P.G.Wodehouse, Cyril Mulliner is in love with a girl called Amelia and she loves him too. Unfortunately, her aunt-an explorer- disapproves of the match as she feels he is a weak and spineless pipsqueak. The groom she has in mind for her niece is Lester Mapledurham, a hunter. When Cyril musters up the courage to ask her for Amelia’s hand, the following conversation ensues.

“What, pray, would you do if faced by a charging rhinoceros, Mr Mulliner? enquired Lady Basset.

“I am not likely” said Cyril, “to move in the same social circles as charging rhinoceri.”

“Or take another simple case, such as happens every day. Suppose you are crossing a rude bridge over a stream in Equatorial Africa. You have been thinking of a hundred trifles and are in a reverie. From this you wake to discover that in the branches overhead a python is extending its fangs towards you. At the same time, you observe that at one end of the bridge is a crouching puma; at the other are two head-hunters- call them Pat and Mike- with poisoned blowpipes to their lips. Below, half hidden in the stream is an alligator. What would you do in such a case, Mr Mulliner?”

Cyril weighed the point.

“I should feel embarrassed,” he had to admit. “I shouldn’t know where to look”.

“Precisely. Such a situation would not, however, disturb Lester Mapledurham.”

“Lester Mapledurham!”

“The man who is to marry my daughter Amelia. He asked me for her hand shortly after dinner.”

Cyril reeled. The blow, falling so suddenly and unexpectedly, had made him feel boneless .And yet, he felt, he might have expected this. These explorers and big-game hunters stick together.

“In a situation as I have outlined, Lester Mapledurham would simply drop from the bridge, wait till the alligator made its rush, insert a stout stick between its jaws, and then hit it with a spear, being careful to avoid its lashing tail. He would then drift downstream and land at some safer spot. This is the type of man I wish for a son-in-law.”

Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Hindoo men (FAIL!) and Hindoo Women (WIN!)

The Monthly Miscellany brought out by the East India Company, in its edition of March 1816, carries a description “On the persons of the Hindoos". Here is an extract.

…. very few of the inhabitants of Indostan are endowed with the nervous strength, or athletic size, of the robustest nations of Europe.

On the contrary, southward of Lahore we see throughout India a race of men, whose make, physiognomy, and muscular strength, convey ideas of an effeminacy which surprises when pursued through such numbers of the species, and when compared to the form of the European who is making the observation. The sailor no sooner lands on the coast, than nature dictates to him the full result of this comparison; he brandishes his stick in sport, and puts fifty Indians to flight in a moment: confirmed in his contempt of a pusillanimity and an incapacity of resistance, suggested to him by their physiognomy and form, it is well if he recollects that the poor Indian is still a man.

The muscular strength of the Indian is still less than might be expected from the appearance of the texture of his frame. Two English sawyers have performed in one day the work of thirty-two Indians: allowances made for the difference of dexterity, and the advantage of European instruments, the disparity is still very great; and would have been more, had the Indian been obliged to have worked with the instrument of the European, as he would scarcely have been able to have wielded it.

As much as the labourer in Indostan is deficient in the capacity of exerting a great deal of strength at an onset, so is he endowed with a certain suppleness throughout all his frame, which enables him to work long in his own degree of labour; and which renders those contortions and postures, which would cramp the inhabitant of northern regions, no constraint to him. There are not more extraordinary tumblers in the world. Their messengers will go fifty miles a day, for twenty or thirty days without intermission. Their infantry march faster, and with less weariness than Europeans; but could not march at all, if they were to carry the same baggage and accoutrements.

Exceptions to this general defect of nervous strength, are found in the inhabitants of the mountains which run in ranges of various directions throughout the continent of Indostan. In these, even under the tropic, Europeans have met with a savage whose bow they could scarcely draw to the head of a formidable arrow, tinged with the blood of tigers whose skins he offers to sale. Exceptions to the general placid countenance of the Indians, are found in the inhabitants of the woods, who, living chiefly on their chase, and perpetually alarmed by summons and attacks from the princes of the plains, for tributes withheld, or ravages committed, wear an air of dismay, suspicion, treachery, and wildness, which renders them hideous; and would render them terrible, if their physiognomy carried in it any thing of the fierceness of the mountaineer.

The stature of the Indian is various: the northern inhabitant is as tall as the generality of our own nation: more to the south their height diminishes remarkably ; and on the coast of Coromandel we meet with many whose stature would appear dwarfish.
And what about the Hindoo women? The description is more charitable

Nature seems to have showered beauty on the fairer sex through Indostan, with, a more lavish hand than in most other countries. They are all, without exception, fit to be married before thirteen, and wrinkled before thirty—flowers of too short a duration not to be delicate; and too delicate to last long. Segregated from the company of the other sex, and strangers to the ideas of attracting attention, they are only the handsomer for this ignorance; as we see in them, beauty in. the noble simplicity of nature. Hints have already been given of their physiognomy: their skins are of a polish and softness beyond that of all their rivals on the globe: a statuary would not succeed better in Greece itself, in his pursuit of the Grecian form; and although in the men he would find nothing to furnish the ideas of the Farnesian Hercules, he would find in the women the finest hints of the Medicean Venus.
(Read the full piece here, Page 445-6)

To the enlightener of canopy of chastity

The “Oriental’ style of letter writing characterized by flowery language, sycophantic tributes and ornate sentences, is illustrated in this letter written by the Nawab of Arcot, to the Queen of England in the year 1816 ( Source. Page 325) This was probably because the original was written in Persian and later literally translated into English.

To the ornament of the veil of modesty and majesty, the enlightener of the canopy of chastity and magnificence, queen of the kingdoms of Europe, bright star of the constellation of glory and renown, to whom together with glory and prosperity, be health perpetual!

Although a longtime has elapsed since I have had the honour of giving that exalted personage an account of my health, whose known celebrity has been the cause of great pleasure and happiness to me; yet it is matter of great grief to me, that from the distance which separates us I feel myself withheld from personally presenting to that exalted personage, the tribute of respect and attachment which the writer and all his family cherish in their hearts for her; and therefore have taken the liberty to send by Sir Thomas Rumbold, a subject of her Majesty, a diamond seal-ring, in token of friendship, and I hope that as it is taken immediately from my own finger, to be forwarded thither, Her-Majesty will condescend to wear it upon her's, as a mark of the pure and unchangeable fond wishes I bear towards the English Queen. I intreat the Almighty for the good health of Her Majesty and children, as a cause of happiness to the King, and of glory to the English nation—and may she be happy!

The art of distraction.

Right from school, we are taught to concentrate on what we are doing and not let our mind wander around. Single-minded focus - whether in studies or in sports- is the secret to succeed.

At work, we are again rewarded for ‘hard work’ done in a coordinated, well-directed manner.

But, when stuck with a problem, or when struggling to complete a report, it may actually be more prudent to take a break and divert one’s mind, allowing the brain to organize the information overload.

Hanif Kureishi, writes about the ‘art of distraction’ in this piece in the New York Times. Reflecting on his own childhood where he was humiliated for not excelling in sports, he felt that he found his true calling- of becoming a writer- through the distractions that came his way. And this ‘art of distraction’ helped him overcome the writer’s block too.

…sometimes things get done better when you’re doing something else. If you’re writing and you get stuck, and you then make tea, while waiting for the kettle to boil the chances are good ideas will occur to you. Seeing that a sentence has to have a particular shape can’t be forced; you have to wait for your own judgment to inform you, and it usually does, in time. Some interruptions are worth having if they create a space for something to work in the fertile unconscious. Indeed, some distractions are more than useful; they might be more like realizations and can be as informative and multilayered as dreams. They might be where the excitement is.

You could say that attention needs to be paid to intuition; that one can learn to attend to the hidden self, and there might be something there worth listening to.
Obviously, one can’t allow the distractions to take one on long flights of fantasy, and a balance has to be struck.

It is said that distractions are too easy to come by now that most writers use computers, though it’s just as convenient to flee through the mind’s window into fantasy. In the end, a person requires a method. He must be able to distinguish between creative and destructive distractions by the sort of taste they leave, whether they feel depleting or fulfilling. And this can work only if he is, as much as possible, in good communication with himself — if he is, as it were, on his own side, caring for himself imaginatively, an artist of his own life.
That's why when the British designed the education curriculum, they placed equal importance to sciences, humanities and sports and enabled the right degree of distraction and to stimulate all parts of the brain.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Those lovely lines

I had a Maths teacher in school who, apart from his prowess in Maths, had this amazing handwriting and a fetish for drawing near-perfect circles and straight lines on the blackboard. The sense of aesthetics he brought into his drab work was admirable. His passion rubbed off on many of his students who consciously tried to get their diagrams right.

I was reminded of that Maths teacher when I came across this video of Walter Lewins, a renowned Professor of Physics at MIT, who is also famous for the lovely lines he draws on the board.

Walter Lewins, world-renowned professor emeritus of physics at MIT, is incredible. You might think he is incredible because he's a world-renowned physics professor, and I don't want to take anything away from that little accomplishment. But because I'm not great with physics, the part of Lewins' game I find most remarkable is that he can draw a mean line. Rhythmic, precise, and clearly well-practiced, Lewins draws lines like Mozart conducted. Or like George Costanza worried. Or like Guy Fieri diners, drive ins, and dives. He's just good at it, and it's a delight to watch him nail it on each try.
Do watch the video that appears in the same link.

Good teachers can influence and inspire in so many different ways.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The sagacity of an elephant

The Asiatic journal and monthly register for British India and its dependencies, Volume 27 published in March 1829, has this interesting, even poignant tale to narrate, on the sagacity of an elephant. (page 343)

Lieut Shipp, in his Memoirs, relates the following anecdote of an unmanageable elephant, who broke loose and. killed his keeper.

The instant be had struck his keeper, and found he did not rise, he suddenly stopped, seemed concerned, looked at him with the eye of pity, and stood rivetted to the spot He paused for some seconds, then ran towards the place whence he had broken loose, and went quietly to his piquet, in front of which lay an infant, about two years old, the daughter of the keeper whom he had killed.

The elephant seized the child round the waist as gently as its mother would, lifted it from the ground, and caressed and fondled it for some time, every beholder trembling for its safety, and expecting every moment it would share the fate of its unfortunate father; but the sagacious animal, having turned the child round three times, quietly laid it down again, and drew some clothing over it that had fallen off. After this, it stood over the child, with its eye s fixed upon it and, if I did not see the penitential tear steal from, its eye, I have never seen it in my life. He then submitted to be re-chained by some other keepers, stood motionless and dejected, and seemed sensible that he had done a wrong he could not repair. There was a visible alteration in his health after his keeper's death, and he fell away and died at Cawnpore six months afterwards; people well acquainted with the history of the elephant, and who knew the story, did not scruple to say, from fretting for his favourite keeper.'' 

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Sophia Loren

“What a subject: her nose is too big, her mouth is too big, she has the composites of all the wrong things, but put them all together and pow! All the natural mistakes of beauty fall together to create a magnificent accident.” — Rex Reed on Sophia Loren, review, Oct. 23, 1968. (source)
Yes, some actors manage to have a great stage or screen presence. There’s more to them than just good looks. Sophia Loren was one such. In an Italian movie titled “A Special Day” set in the 1940s, Sophia Loren stars opposite another great actor Marcello Mastroianni ( she went on to act in 40 movies with him totally). The movie is black & white, is entirely shot in one building, and Sophia Loren wears the same dress throughout the film. Yet, she leaves you captivated in the end.

That’s why I read this recent interview with her in Vanity Fair, with interest. By way of preamble the interviewer writes:

You haven’t lived until you’ve seen Sophia Loren walking. Bare-legged and pregnant on the stony streets of Naples in Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow or walking through the war-ravaged Italian countryside while balancing a suitcase on her head in Two Women. “It’s like watching all of Italy walking—there’s the Tower of Pisa, here’s the Pitti Palace, there’s the Uffizi … the gondolas of Venice,” Roberto Benigni rhapsodized for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences tribute to Loren last May.

Loren’s is perhaps the most famous walk in the history of movies; you can see it as early as 1954 in The Gold of Naples: a languorous walk through rain-soaked streets in which she exults in the movement and the feel of wet fabric clinging to her skin as the men around her look on in wonder. They still do.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Banana chips of Kerala

I can’t remember a single trip to Kerala when I did not come back with a packet or two of fresh banana chips. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, when I used to travel to Kochi (or Cochin, as it was then) very frequently, I would head to a favourite shop in one of the narrow side lanes ( and side lanes in Kerala can be very narrow), order the banana chips, watch in fascination as the bananas were being sliced, thrown into the boiling oil and packed in my presence. A separate 250 gm packet would be packed for consumption in the train and would vanish before the train reached Trichur.

So, for me to think of Kerala without the banana chip is rather tough.

That’s why I was dismayed at first when I read that Kerala’s banana chip was under threat from potato wafers made by global brands. The vacuum-packing, the standardizing, the longer shelf-life make the potato wafers far easier to transport, stock and market. And youngsters seem to be switching over in droves.

The heart-warming thing is that the banana chip makers are fighting back, as this report says:

The traditional banana and tapioca chips industry in Kerala worth around 750 crore is in a changeover mode. Under threat from brands like Lays and Bingo, the local industry is trying to make banana chips more appealing to the young generation.

"Attractive packaging, convenience and a variety of flavours have lured youngsters to potato chips. To win them back to our traditional snacks, we too have to upgrade," said Alex Thomas, managing director of the newly-launched Tierra Food India. The company is coming out with 10-15 flavours in trendy packets with prices from 5 to 20 to beat competition from potato chips.
Way to go, guys. You have my unstinted support.

Why have a jury?

In the famous movie, “Twelve Angry Men”, the jury trying a young man for murder charges is convinced that it is an open and shut case and that there is nothing to discuss. All they needed to do was deliver the verdict of ‘guilty. Slowly and gradually, one of them- played by Henry Fonda-plants some doubts into the mind of each of the other members, one at a time, and finally the verdict is “Not guilty”.

Would a single judge or a bench consisting of 2-3 judges have come to the same conclusion?

If all the cases that are popularized on TV news channels (the Aarushi murder case, etc) are tried in a jury system, what will the verdict be?

Why did Britain have the jury system in the first place? Isn’t knowledge of law and its various nuances necessary and best left to specialists like judges who have risen from the system? Why did India, which adopted several aspects of the British legal system dispense with the jury?

G.K.Chesterton explains in this essay why ordinary people are trusted to take the final decision, rather than the specialists.

The trend of our epoch up to this time has been consistently towards specialism and professionalism. We tend to have trained soldiers because they fight better, trained singers because they sing better, trained dancers because they dance better, specially instructed laughers because they laugh better, and so on and so on. The principle has been applied to law and politics by innumerable modern writers. Many Fabians have insisted that a greater part of our political work should be performed by experts. Many legalists have declared that the untrained jury should be altogether supplanted by the trained Judge.

Now, if this world of ours were really what is called reasonable, I do not know that there would be any fault to find with this. But the true result of all experience and the true foundation of all religion is this. That the four or five things that it is most practically essential that a man should know, are all of them what people call paradoxes.

…..the horrible thing about all legal officials, even the best, about all judges, magistrates, barristers, detectives, and policemen, is not that they are wicked (some of them are good), not that they are stupid (several of them are quite intelligent), it is simply that they have got used to it.

Strictly they do not see the prisoner in the dock; all they see is the usual man in the usual place. They do not see the awful court of judgment; they only see their own workshop. Therefore, the instinct of Christian civilisation has most wisely declared that into their judgments there shall upon every occasion be infused fresh blood and fresh thoughts from the streets. Men shall come in who can see the court and the crowd, and coarse faces of the policeman and the professional criminals, the wasted faces of the wastrels, the unreal faces of the gesticulating counsel, and see it all as one sees a new picture or a play hitherto unvisited.

Our civilisation has decided, and very justly decided, that determining the guilt or innocence of men is a thing too important to be trusted to trained men. It wishes for light upon that awful matter, it asks men who know no more law than I know, but who can feel the things that I felt in the jury box. When it wants a library catalogued, or the solar system discovered, or any trifle of that kind, it uses up specialists. But when it wishes anything done which is really serious, it collects twelve of the ordinary men standing round.
Update: Apparently, in the US system, they have something called a Grand Jury. This article explains:
While a regular trial jury hears both sides of a criminal case and renders a verdict, the grand jury only hears the prosecution’s side of the case and decides only if there’s enough evidence to officially charge the defendant with a crime. Essentially, they act as a filter for criminal trials.

In grand jury hearings, there’s no judge, no defense attorney and no defendant. The State’s prosecutor simply puts a case before the jurors and attempts to show that the defendant should be indicted and go to trial. The defense is not permitted to attend the hearing, question the State’s witnesses, or present witnesses or evidence of their own. 
This system may seem a little skewed in favor of the prosecution, but grand juries don’t just “rubber stamp” the cases brought before them. They often wind up not handing down indictments because the cases aren’t strong enough to go to court. And just because the defense attorneys can’t be there for the hearing doesn’t mean they can’t intercede.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

How to propose to a woman.

“It cannot have escaped your notice that I have long entertained toward you sentiments warmer and deeper than those of ordinary friendship. It is love, Susan that has been animating my bosom. Love, first a tiny seed, has burgeoned in my heart till, blazing into flame, it has swept away on the crest of its wave my diffidence, my doubts, my fears and my foreboding, and now, like the topmost topaz of some ancient tower, it cries to all the world in a voice of thunder: ”You are mine! My mate! Predestined to me since Time first began!” As the star guides the mariner, when battered by boiling willows, and heaves him home to the haven of hope and happiness, so do you gleam upon me along life’s rough road and seem to say, “ Have courage, George! I am here!” Susan, I am not an eloquent man- I cannot speak fluently as I could wish- but these simple words which you have just heard come from the heart, from the unspotted heart of an Englishman. Susan, I love you. Will you be my wife, married woman, matron, spouse, helpmeet, consort, partner, or better half?”

“Oh, George!” said Susan. “Yea, yea, ay, aye! Decidedly, unquestionably, indubitably, incontrovertibly, and past all dispute.”
That was George, a crossword buff proposing to Susan, another crossword aficionado in P.G.Wodehouse’s short story “The truth about George” in the book “Meet Mr Mulliner”.

Brought to you by Raj, on the occasion of Valentine’s Day.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Manipulative music

In a fascinating piece, Bear McCreary explains the pattern and physics behind the theme music of some famous science fiction movies such as “Star Wars”, “2001 : A Space Odyssey”, etc.

When you think about science fiction theme tunes, chances are there are a few that are especially stirring and heroic. Star Wars. 2001: A Space Odyssey. Star Trek: The Next Generation. Superman: The Movie. And all of these theme tunes have something in common: they rely on the same basic intervals.

We talked to music experts — including legendary composer Bear McCreary — to find out why so many famous theme tunes use the "perfect fifth" for their hook.

Most people will instantly recognize the first few notes in 2001: A Space Odyssey, which was originally known as "Also sprach Zarathustra" by Richard Strauss. It starts with a low C, and then goes up five notes to a G — that's a perfect fifth right there. And then the next note is another C, up an octave from the first C.
Once, this ‘perfect fifth’ was used in 2001: A Space Odyssey, it registered in people’s mind as “ the musical characterization of the cosmos or transcendence or generally mind-blowing scenarios in film." That series of ascending intervals "acts as an iconic symbol of things that are uplifting, progressive, bold, active - all heroic traits associated with space explorers and adventures”.

We have similar musical characterization in Indian movies as well. Early mornings are depicted with the music of flute wafting by usually in a certain ‘morning raaga’ ( Bhupalam in Tamil), or the haunting violin melody that formed part of the signature tune of All-India Radio. Tamil devotional movies relied heavily on the sound of the veena when showing the actor praying to God. As Charulata Mani wrote in a piece in The Hindu:

In moments of quietude, I wonder, “If a raga were to be given a form, what would it look like? A beautiful maiden or a handsome man?” This form that we conjure up in our mind's eye on listening to the melody of a raga defines its personality, and thereby the mood that it conveys. That's why certain ragas like Shubhapantuvaraliare used to highlight sad scenes in movie background scores while ragas like Bilahari are used to bring out cheer and brightness (recall Omana Penne from Vinnai Thaandi Varuvaaya).
 Amazing how music can be used to manipulate our moods and emotions.

Do you have any insights to offer on the techniques used by music composers to characterise certain situations or circumstance?

Update 13-02-12:

In this WSJ article titled, “Anatomy of a tear-jerker’, Michaeleen Doucleff explains

“Though personal experience and culture play into individual reactions, researchers have found that certain features of music are consistently associated with producing strong emotions in listeners. Combined with heartfelt lyrics and a powerhouse voice, these structures can send reward signals to our brains that rival any other pleasure.

The tear-jerkers contain a musical device called an "appoggiatura."

An appoggiatura is a type of ornamental note that clashes with the melody just enough to create a dissonant sound. "This generates tension in the listener. When the notes return to the anticipated melody, the tension resolves, and it feels good."

Chills often descend on listeners at these moments of resolution. When several appoggiaturas occur next to each other in a melody, it generates a cycle of tension and release. This provokes an even stronger reaction, and that is when the tears start to flow.

Chill-provoking passages shared at least four features. They began softly and then suddenly became loud. They included an abrupt entrance of a new "voice," either a new instrument or harmony. And they often involved an expansion of the frequencies played. In one passage from Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 23 (K. 488), for instance, the violins jump up one octave to echo the melody. Finally, all the passages contained unexpected deviations in the melody or the harmony. Music is most likely to tingle the spine, in short, when it includes surprises in volume, timbre and harmonic pattern.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Laugh out loud

I came across this video of the climax scene of “Star Wars’ – but with a slight difference. It’s got a laughter track added. So, what was intended to be a tense, grim scene turns out to be more of a spoof.

Someone on Twitter spotted this site called “Lolinator’ which helps you add a laugh track to any video available on YouTube. So, you can download the final scene of a Sivaji Ganesan film, say “Devar Megan” and add canned laughter at appropriate places.

Just as DVDs offer you the option of sub-titles, they should provide this feature too – laughter track, to enhance the viewing experience of those like me who hate tear jerkers and emotion-charged scenes.

In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that there should be a portable device with embedded earplugs for use in real-life situations, to lighten the atmosphere. Say you are with your boss for a performance review and he is pulling you up for falling short of your target. You can activate the laughter track which will be audible only to your ears. It will help you cope with the situation much better. It will enable you to see the lighter side of life. Needless gravitas will turn to endless levity.

Airlines vs passengers

As a disciplined air traveler who checks in his suitcase, and carries a small laptop bag always, I find it annoying when fellow passengers walk in with bulky cabin baggage and rush in to grab the overhead space. And, if returning home from international travel, people tend to pick up duty-free stuff at airports and carry 3-4 plastic bags filled with goodies. Some airlines are wise to this trick and weigh the cabin baggage (or check for bulkiness) at the point of boarding. They then force you to pay excess baggage or arrange to check it in. But this doesn’t happen always, and airlines leave passengers to fend for themselves. Economy class travel, therefore, turns out to be nightmarish.

The battle between airlines who want to milk the passengers for excess charges (citing load factor, safety, etc) and seasoned passengers who know how to work around the system rages on. If a passenger with excess baggage sights a co-passenger with lighter luggage, he immediately latches on to him with a request to check in together, and collude to fool the airline. Today, I guess, passengers are more wary and do not accommodate such requests from strangers, but there’s no harm in trying, is there?

An article in New York Times discusses this issue:

An entire cottage industry has emerged for products that help people evade the baggage-check fees, according to Kate Hanni, director of, a consumer group that represents airline passengers. Ms. Hanni uses vacuum-seal bags inside her carry-on bags, she said; the bags, which shrink down to a compact package when air is pulled out by a vacuum cleaner, allow her to fit considerably more items in a carry-on than would normally be possible.

“I can fit three times the amount of clothes in a carry-on than I used to be able to,” she said.

There is also the Scottevest line of travel clothing in which trench coats, vests and other garments are made with large built-in pockets that allow people to carry everything from folded shirts to an iPad.

“You can fit all of your folded shirts, iPad, cellphone, iPod, sunglasses, camera, passport, keys — you can put everything in the jacket that you would put in a carry-on,” Ms. Hanni said. “It’s sort of sweet justice.”

The fair way would be to fix a ‘total weight” and make each passenger stand on a weighing machine, with all his/her luggage, and to charge excess fee. This would mean that those who weigh more will either have to compensate by carrying less luggage or by paying excess fee. This will also act as an incentive for people to exercise and lose weight. The general health of the flying community will improve.

Writing in "The Age", columnist Tony Webber says:

To cut to the chase: people who weigh more should pay more to fly on planes - in the same way that people who exceed their baggage allowance must fork out extra.

The rationale is simple. The fuel burnt by planes depends on many things but the most important is the weight of the aircraft. The more a plane weighs, the more fuel it must burn.

If the passengers on the aircraft weigh more, the aircraft consumes more fuel and the airline's costs go up.

In turn, the airline will need to lift airfares to recover these additional costs. And when they do, the burden of these higher fees should not be lumbered on those who are shedding a few kilos or keeping their weight stable.

In fact, airline fuel costs have increased since 2000 not just because of higher oil and jet fuel prices - although these are by far the most important drivers of higher costs - but also because the average adult passenger is carrying a bit more heft.

Monday, February 06, 2012

A simple solution to a vexing problem

Smita Prakash, in a column in The Midday describes the travails of parents desperate to get their kids into nursery schools:

There are 4,500 nursery schools in Delhi, which means that for every seat there are about 53 applicants. In Mumbai the number of nursery schools is less than half of Delhi's. In smaller cities and towns the situation is just as bad. Middle-class parents spend close to half their salaries on admission fees and donations to private pre-schools. Many of the schools give no receipts for these donations varying from Rs 30,000 to Rs 1 lakh. Naturally, no prospectus ever talks about donations. But, sadly in most, if not in all schools, this is the norm.

Desperate parents have no choice. There is an abysmal shortage of schools in the country, whether in cities or towns. From the very poor to the middle class, there is awareness that quality education is the key to a better quality of life. Yet, local governments do not plan for schools in master plans. Townships mushroom without any care for educational requirement of the population.

…..Brutal knocks of life start early in India; as early as three years. No government pays attention to the woes of a toddler. He doesn't have a vote. He cannot agitate and demand more schools, better schools, lighter school bags, lesser homework, fewer tests.
This is an issue that has been written about for several decades now and the problem seems to be getting worse. What do you do when the demand exceeds supply by a factor of 10:1? It is far less formidable a task to eliminate 9/10 of the applications, than selecting the best 1/10. In any case what kind of criteria do you adopt when dealing with 3-year old kids? Any system is as good or as bad or as flawed as any other. Auctioning the seats, draw of lots, list based on political clout….

Here’s my idea. Have a CAT-style examination for the parents and come up with a percentile ranking. Test their numerical, linguistic, geographic, spatial and inter-personal skills. The average of the ratings of the father’s and mother’s can be considered as the score of their child.. The entire responsibility for getting the child into a good school will be on the parents. Imagine the situation where the mother has a high ranking, but the father – with his miserable score- brings down the average. All this will add more excitement and spice into their lives.

Given the toughness of the exams and the intense competition, parents will have to start preparing two years in advance. Coaching schools will spring up all over and admission into the more prestigious ones will, in turn, be decided based on an admission test and so on. The economy will open up.

If you don’t like this idea, I have some more. I want to be part of the solution.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

'Offical" and "star" birthdays

Many years back, I decided I would call up my colleagues on their birthdays and greet them. The system was simple. The office had a data base of employee birthdays and my secretary would leave a reminder note on my table with the name of the colleague to be wished. To my dismay, invariably, after I had conveyed my greetings in the chirpiest tone possible, the other person would sheepishly tell me that this wasn’t his real birthday, only the ‘official’ one carried forward from his school records. His grandfather had given the wrong date to get him into school a year ahead. I gave up calling people.

This was quite common in the generation that was born till the ‘60s. Birth certificates were issued by the Corporation, but schools did not insist on the certificate for proof of birth date. They accepted the parents’ word. But the flip side was that these people who had advanced their birthdates were also pensioned off early.

It was only in the ’70s, I think, that it was made compulsory to obtain birth certificates and to produce them as proof.

So, when there is a controversy over the Army’s Chief’s actual date of birth and the one on record, those of my generation will readily understand the issue, though we may not sympathise with him. He got in a year early, and his tenure should be counted from that point, will be the general opinion.

If one is fudging one’s age , one should be careful to not to leave any trail, as in this incident narrated in the Open Page of The Hindu by P.M.Beliappa, a retired IAS officer. It involved the sitting Chief Justice of the Madras High Court, Hon S.Ramachandra Iyer. At that time, the retirement age of Judges of High Courts was 60. The presumption therefore was that the sitting judge was aged below 60, until one day an invitation was received for the Shastiabadapoorthi (60 years) ceremony of the younger brother of the Chief Justice. By inference, therefore, the Chief Justice had crossed 60 years and had no business to be on the Bench!

An article quoted by Belliappa, summed it up thus:

“The question of the true age of S. Ramachandra Iyer surfaced as a major issue after he became Chief Justice of the Court. It was then believed that he had a fair chance of being called to the Supreme Court. The declaration of his age was found to be not true when his younger brother sent out invitations for celebrating the completion of his 60th year. He was known to be a competent judge, but competence and ability are not synonyms for ethical or moral conduct. Nor the presence of ability and competence assure also the presence of ethical conduct in the discharge of duties. It became the unenviable task of the then Chief Justice of India, P. B. Gajendragadkar, to ease him out of the position without much damage to the Institution. Really age has nothing to do with a person functioning as a judge. Nor has it anything to do with the administration of justice. But once an age of entry and exit is fixed misrepresentation of age becomes unethical and continuation on such representation does affect the administration of justice, not because he is past the age but because he misrepresented to extend his tenure.” Hon. Justice Iyer resigned in 1964.
That’s the crazy thing about Indians. They have no qualms in lying about the age to extend their career, but dare not violate the tradition of conducting their Shastiabdapoorthi celebrations on the day laid down in the Hindu calendar. Consistency is not our strong point.

Saturday, February 04, 2012

Bring back those booths.

Everybody today rants about the pain inflicted by mobile phone users in public places. No place is safe- theatres, airports, trains, temples, schools, hospitals. Many get so engrossed in their conversations and do not realise that they are talking in an unacceptably loud voice, disturbing all around them.  Each one of us has committed the crime sometime or other.

Yet, the mobile phone is here to stay and it would be futile to try to ban it in any place. It simply won’t be obeyed. So,it's impossible to get people not to talk on the phone. Something must be done to stop the noise from reaching and distracting the people around.

I read this article today on the very subject. The writer calls for a return of those old phone booths which were so popular when landline phones were the norm. Place sound-proof booth inside theatres and restaurants and direct people to use them when they receive or need to make a call.

Perhaps, we need something more innovative, as people may still show resistance in getting up and walking up to the booth every now and then. The temptation to pick up the phone while seated is quite strong. Sound engineers could come up with a mouthpiece that can pick up just enough sound for communicating to the caller, while muffling the rest and avoid it being propagated to the ears physically present nearby. Till then we’ll have to put up with it.

Do watch this video and the classy response of the violinist when he was rudely interrupted in the middle of a concert by a mobile phone ringtone.

Inspiring and terrifying music

Using percussion and wind instruments to inspire awe or to frighten the enemy has been an age-old tradition. The Mahabharata describes how Lord Krishna blew his conch and caused terror in the hearts of the enemies. Cymbals are routinely used in temples to heighten and dramatise the feeling of awe and grab the undivided attention of devotees.

Military pageantry of the west, especially the musical part, seems to have drawn inspiration from Turkish practices, as explained in this post.

Beginning in 1299, the elite corps of the Ottoman armies, the janissaries, used military bands made up of wind and percussion instruments to inspire their troops and terrify their enemies. The music they played was called mehter, a stirring mixture of drums, horn and oboe with a distinctive marching rhythm based on the Turkish phrase “Gracious God is good. God is compassionate.” Often four to five hundred musicians accompanied the army. Sometimes the music alone was enough to drive enemy forces from the field.

The European troops encountered mehter music during the seventeenth century wars against the Ottomans on Europe’s eastern border. European civilians heard mehter music for the first time when Sultan Suleyman II presented Augustus the Strong of Poland (1670-1733) with a mehter band of his very own. Europe was fascinated by the new sound; by 1770 most European armies had bands featuring Turkish instruments and fanciful variations of Turkish costumes.

Subsequently, the tradition was passed on to the field of sports as well. Sports, after all, is surrogate war. The music during the IPL matches ( the louder the better) adds to the excitement level and serves to get the players and the fans charged. CSK’s choice of Sivamani is an inspired one. The Tamil fans have a natural affinity for percussion noise.

Just listen to the background music of some of the war movies ( here’s a link to a video which has compiled a few themes). The intent is clearly to heighten the emotion. The difference, of course, is that the full range of the orchestra is used, not just the wind instruments. Good directors will use discordant sounds to create a feeling of tension among the viewers, as this writer explains: 
The use of complex and unresolved harmonies is another technique used by composers to heighten tension or conflict within a scene. Humans naturally become unnerved when hearing dissonant or ‘clashing’ harmonies, whilst consonant sounds that ‘work’ together are generally much more calming. Using a progression of chords that does not resolve, or sound finished, is another way of keeping the audience on edge.

Yes, we can be manipulated in many ways by the tempo and rhythm of music.

Friday, February 03, 2012

Primum non nocere

“Primum non nocere”, Latin for ‘first,do no harm’ is one of the fundamental tenets of medicine and is part of the Hippocratic Oath that doctors are expected to abide by. As Wikipedia explains, Nonmaleficence, which derives from the maxim, is a fundamental principle for emergency medical services around the world. Another way to state it is that "given an existing problem, it may be better not to do something, or even to do nothing, than to risk causing more harm than good."

Nassim Nicholas Taleb in an essay writes:

Let's consider Medicine –which only started saving lives less than a century ago (I am generous), and to a lesser extent than initially advertised in the popular literature, as the drops in mortality seem to arise much more from awareness of sanitation and the (random) discovery of antibiotics rather than therapeutic contributions. Doctors, driven by the beastly illusion of control, spent a long time killing patients, not considering that "doing nothing" could be a valid option –and research compiled by my colleague Spyros Makridakis shows that they still do to some extent. Indeed practitioners who were conservative and considered the possibility of letting nature do its job, or stated the limit of our medical understanding were until the 1960s accused of "therapeutic nihilism". It was deemed so "unscientific" to decide on a course of action based on an incomplete understanding to the human body –to say this is the limit of where my body of knowledge stops.

The very term iatrogenic, i.e., harm caused by the healer, is not well spread -- I have never seen it used outside medicine. Sadly, further investigation shows that these iatrogenics were mere rediscoveries after science got too arrogant by the enlightenment. Alas, once again, the elders knew better –Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, and Arabs had a built-in respect for limits of knowledge. There is a treatise by the Medieval Arab philosopher and doctor Al-Ruhawi which betrays the familiarity of these Mediterranean cultures with iatrogenics.

I have also in the past speculated that religion saved lives by taking the patient away from the doctor. You could satisfy your illusion of control by going to the Temple of Apollo rather than seeing the doctor. What is interesting is that the ancient Mediterraneans may have understood the trade-off very well and have accepted religion partly as a tool to tame such illusion of control.
This is an interesting point. Religion by taming the illusion of control that people had and by forcing them to seek divine help may have prevented (and may still be preventing) them from going to a doctor who would prescribe needless medicines that would cause more harm than good.

George Bernard Shaw wrote a short story about the king of a country called Half-Mad. The king took ill and all the doctors of the kingdom attended on him and tried out different remedies to cure him. Nothing worked. Till a wise old man suggested that the king should go to a sea resort, “ Is it because you feel that the salt-laden air of the sea will have a therapeutic effect on him?’ the people ask him. “No”, the wise man replies, “ It will get him away from the doctors and cure him”.

Remember this may not work all the time. So don’t sue me if you decide to go to a temple instead of a doctor when you are ill.