Monday, April 30, 2012

The Brahmin and the microscope

The Scrinium, in two volumes, by Rebecca Edridge,  published in the year 1822, has the following anecdote on Page 336, about a Brahmin who was a die-hard vegetarian. 

The Bramins abstain not only from what Europeans call with limitations, animal food, but also from feeding on anything that has life. 

Once in India such abstinence had been the theme of conversation in the presence of a Bramin, who was a very learned and a very liberal minded man, strongly attached to the doctrines of the religion in which he had been brought up, and deeming himself perfectly innocent of deviation from its injunctions.

Mr. Forbes, to convince bim that in every morsel which he put into his mouth and in every drop of water which he swallowed he destroyed millions, produced a microscope of prodigious magnifying power: and gave him some fruit to examine through the glass. 

The astonished Bramin, when be beheld the myriads, whose existence constituted the bloom of the plumb, was overpowered by his conviction. He investigated by the same microscopic means many other things that were upon the table, and all proved the wonderful gradations of life, and the universal prey of animal on animal. He became extremely melancholy and pensive, and appeared to be much distressed by the discovery he had made.

The next morning Mr. Forbes heard a noise under his window, and looking out, he saw the Bramin, who with a large stone was crushing the microscope. When Mr. Forbes remonstrated with him, he said, that whatever might be the value of what he had destroyed, he would pay it; or he would pay double the value of it, or any sum that might be required; but that having been made unhappy by seeing that it was impossible to sustain his own life, without destroying other lives, he was determined to prevent the same knowledge from reaching his brethren, and making them as wretched as he should be forever.

Update 01/015/12:
I’ve read earlier ( as cited here) that Lord Tennyson used to narrate this anecdote in a manner as to depict the Brahmin as one who destroyed the microscope because he foolishly believed that we could destroy facts by refusing to see them. 

Whereas the above description of the same incident- as it really happened- reveals a different dimension. The Brahmin accepts the fact and reality of animal life, but did not want to burden his fellow-Brahmins with a sense of guilt.What they won't know won't hurt them.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Hair today, gone tomorrow.

According to this report in The Daily Mail, UK, a real-life Rapunzel girl cut her hair for the first time to earn $ 5000 to give her family the fairytale home they always dreamed of.

Natasha Moraes de Andrade, 12, wept as her 1.6m mane was sheared for the first time ever. But now she says it has given her a new life. It’s given her the much-needed freedom to do what she wants.

Incident has shades of O Henry’s story “ Gift of the Magi”, don’t you think? Just in case you've forgotten the story, Della had such long and beautiful hair that “had the queen of Sheba lived in the flat across the airshaft, Della would have let her hair hang out the window some day to dry just to depreciate Her Majesty's jewels and gifts.” One day, she decides to sell her hair for $20 to gift a watch chain to her lover Jim, who at the exact moment is selling his watch to get money to buy ivory combs for her long hair.

Anyway, it’s good to hear that the real-life Rapunzel is happy that she’s cut her hair and is not regretting it.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Money, money, money

A favourite theme of e-mail forwards is that ‘money isn’t everything’ and ‘do what you love doing, answer your calling, money is secondary”. These mails make you feel good momentarily, especially when you don’t have too much money or not earning as much as your neighbor. The famous debates in Tamil TV channels invariably come out in favour of ‘love’ over “money” so that everyone can go home without regretting that they don’t have too much money.

Scientists don’t take such mail forwards or debates at face value. They dig deeper. They get hold of hundred people who are happy, another hundred who are not happy and question them to find out if money does play any role. Does more money lead to more happiness or less happiness?

Well, the answer is….

The researchers discovered that money is indeed a major factor in day-to-day happiness. You need to make as much money as to meet all your basic needs as well as cater to a higher Maslowian need- like buying an iPad product. But the money vs happiness curve reaches a plateau. In the US, the researchers found that the threshold was $75000. Up to this point, the happiness level keeps going up. Beyond this pojnt, it doesn’t make too much of a difference. A person making $250,000 a year has no greater emotional well-being or a sense of happiness than the person earning $75000. (source)

I wonder what’s the figure for us in India. What do you think?

Saturday, April 21, 2012

"12 Angry Men" : The 1826 version.

12 Angry Men”, a film starring Henry Fonda is considered a classic. It tells the story of a jury made up of 12 men as they deliberate the guilt or acquittal of a defendant on the basis of reasonable doubt. A young Mexican is facing trial for murder and, after the trial, the jury retires to a private room to discuss the verdict. At this point, the members of the jury are convinced that the defendant is guilty- with the exception of just one jury member, played by Henry Fonda. The rest of the film is how, on the basis of his doubt, he manages to convince the rest of the jury, one at a time, that there was reasonable doubt about the guilt and it wasn’t such a water-tight case. The jury finally comes up with a verdict of ‘not guilty”, all thanks to the seed of doubt planted by one member. The entire film, barring 3-4 minutes, is shot in a single room and is gripping throughout..

No doubt, the film must have won several awards, including 'best story', The story was refreshingly different and original.

Hang on, was it original?

Surprise. An incident narrated in page 117 of  "The Oriental Herald and journal of General Literature", published in 1826, appears almost similar to the plot of “12 Angry Men”. Here is the narration and the context:

In the island of Ceylon, soon after the introduction into it of the noble institution, Trial by Jury, a Native of some consideration was put upon his trial for murder. The rank of the parties implicated, and the circumstances attending the deed, had occasioned this trial to excite the greatest interest throughout the country, and the Court was crowded to witness the proceedings. After a patient investigation of the affair, the Jury retired to consider of their verdict; and so plausible was the evidence against the accused, that the whole of the Jury, with one single exception, considered his guilt to be completely established. The individual who did not concur in this opinion, was a young Native, of about five-and twenty, of superior understanding; and the reasons stated by him for his dissent were sufficiently powerful to induce the rest of the Jury to consent to return to the Court, and give him an opportunity to cross-examine the witnesses whose evidence had made so strong an impression of the prisoner's guilt. The witnesses being recalled, this young Indian went through their cross-examination with so much skill, yet in so inartificial and straight-forward a manner, as to elicit the most complete proof of the innocence of the accused, and to establish, beyond all doubt, the existence of a conspiracy against his life by parties interested in succeeding to his property. The result was, that the arraigned individual, who, but for this subsequent examination of the witnesses, would have been condemned, and executed within four-and-twenty hours, was restored to his family, his reputation, and his property, by the superior intelligence of one of his fellow countrymen.

When the trial was over, the Chief Justice sent for the young Native, and expressed a desire to know what had been the course of study and occupation which could have given him such penetration and such skill; when he understood from him that he had been educated only in the usual mode adopted for persons of good condition in the country, and that there was nothing peculiar in this to account for the qualities which had excited the judge's admiration. But, he observed, that being naturally of a studious disposition, he sought out and read all the books he could procure on the learning of Europe, both in ancient and modern authors ; and having met with a Persian translation from the Greek of Aristotle's Dialectics, he had sufficient acquaintance with the language into which it had been translated to understand it well, and was so struck with its importance, that he made a translation of it from the Persian into the Sanscrit. It was to th;s masterly production of the mind of a Greek philosopher that he owed all his powers of analysis and reasoning; and the present instance of its successful application tq the great ends of justice would only stimulate him, he said, to new researches into the wisdom of other countries and of other days.

This fact is of itself sufficient to show what wonders might be wrought by a proper encouragement of such a feeling on the part of the nation in whose hands the destinies of the countless millions of Asia are now placed: Sir Alexander Johnston's introduction of Trial by Jury into Ceylon, is one example that has already produced immense benefit.

There it is. The same story, in real life, 130 years before the film came out.

If there is any award for investigative journalism, please be kind enough to nominate me.

Getting boulder.

As I had noted in an earlier post, different methods have been adopted in different countries in ancient times, to move large objects. The 80-ton stone placed on top of the Brihadeswara temple in Thanjavur was moved from a quarry 200 km away, with the help of elephants and logs. A 200-ton stone was moved by the Chinese to the Forbidden City in Beijing by rolling it over ice in winter.

Recently, a 340-ton boulder was transported over 100 km, in 12 days in California. No elephants were necessary. They used a 200 feet long trailer. This feat will now feature in the Guinness Book of World Records. (source)

To make perfect hats.

In the short story,“ The Amazing Hat Mystery”, P.G.Wodehouse describes a hat-maker called Bodin’s who made the most perfect hats possible.

“People can say what they please about the modern young man believing in nothing nowadays, but there is one thing every right-minded young man believes in, and that’s the infallibility of Bodmin’s hats. It is one of the eternal verities. Once admit that it is possible for a Bodmin hat not to fit, and you leave the door open for Doubt, Schism and Chaos generally."
And when one of the characters, Nelson, is told by his girlfriend Diana that his Bodmin’s hat did not fit him, this is how he responds.

Over the door of his emporium in Vigo Street the passer-by may read a significant legend. It runs: “ Bespoke Hatter to the Royal Family”. That means, in simple language adapted to the lay intelligence that if the king wants a new topper, he simply ankles round to Bodmin’s and says     “Good Morning, Bodmin, we want a topper”. He does not ask if it will fit. He takes it for granted that it will fit. He has bespoken Jno.Bodmin and he trusts him blindly. You don’t suppose His gracious Majesty would bespeak a hatter whose hats did not fit. The whole essence of being a hatter is to make hats that fit, and it is to this end that Jno bodmin has strained every nerve for years.
Unfortunately, Wodehouse doesn’t explain in that story what magic or technique was used by Bodmin’s to achieve that degree of perfection. But I found a possible explanation in this lovely piece titled, “The magical way hats are made” :  "After dark, in the millinery workroom, mini maintenance workers construct hats in the most clandestine way." Straight out of Gulliver’s Tales.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Is that a plane?

Sitting on the sands of the Marina Beach in Chennai at night (sadly such occasions are getting to be less frequent ) I like to stare into the distance and watch the planes flying in from over the horizon. Quite a few planes come in at that hour and they – especially the Kolkata, Hyderabad and Delhi flights- cross the beach while approaching the airport.

The fascinating thing about the planes at night is that they would look like small dots of light located many miles away and appear to be stationary. One can easily mistake them for stars till- after a minute or two- they come closer and the movement becomes obvious. It is fun to engage kids with the question, “Is that a star, or is that a plane?”

For me and the kids, it was an idle pastime and no harm was done if we guessed it wrong. Not so with the pilot of an Air Canada plane who, two days back, mistook the planet Venus for an aircraft, and then sent his airliner diving toward the Atlantic to prevent an imaginary collision with another plane. This report from Reuters says:

"Under the effects of significant sleep inertia (when performance and situational awareness are degraded immediately after waking up), the first officer perceived the oncoming aircraft as being on a collision course and began a descent to avoid it," Canada's Transportation Safety Board said.

"This occurrence underscores the challenge of managing fatigue on the flight deck," said chief investigator Jon Lee.

The incident occurred at night on board a Boeing 767 twin engine passenger plane flying from Toronto to Zurich in Switzerland with 95 passengers and eight crew.
So, idle pastime for me. But a matter of life and death when a pilot of a real plane mistakes a planet for a plane or vice versa.

Monday, April 09, 2012

The Macguffin methods.

Have you ever wondered why they make you remove the laptops before you push your bag into the X-ray machine at Airport Security? As every second passenger carries a laptop, this ritual holds up the queue and causes much annoyance.

Is it really necessary? Do laptops have some special components that can defeat an X-ray machine, if kept inside a bag? Or do they help hide other dangerous items? What is the basis for the elaborate procedure?

Matt Richtel decided to investigate and contacted several agencies before publishing his findings in this piece in the New York Times. He writes:

As I did more reporting, the logic behind the rule grew as elusive as a free power outlet in the boarding area. Is size the issue? If so, security experts counter, today’s laptops are far thinner than they used to be.

Could it be because laptops, unlike tablet computers, have an easily removable battery compartment and hard drive that could be used to hide homemade bombs? But some netbooks and ultrabooks have similar compartments, and they don’t require separate screening. Strike two.

Perhaps, I thought, it’s because the circuitry of a laptop can be replaced with a device to send an electromagnetic signal to jam an airplane’s controls at takeoff or landing. But, as I soon learned, the same circuitry could be embedded just as easily in phones, watches or game players, all of which stay in the bag.
He finally stumbled upon the real reason:

. Until I happened upon a security expert who asked that he not be identified because he has worked on related issues with the Department of Homeland Security. He said that the laptop rule is about appearances, giving people a sense that something is being done to protect them. “Security theater,” he called it.
That’s it. The Security agencies merely adopt what Hitchcock described as a Macguffin technique in his thrillers. He explained that the plot was not so important. What was important was that the actors must be shown to be engaged in some plot, hurrying, agonising, fretting, fuming, etc. What they were hurrying for, agonising over, fretting and fuming about was immaterial.

Same it is with the Security agencies. What they are searching for or why they are searching for anything is not relevant at all. It’s the show that’s important. Seen those guys at the gate of a 5-star hotel searching under the bonnet of the car with a mirror? None of them know what they are looking for.

Not just Security, but almost all actions of the Govt follow the Macguffin method. When there’s an accident, even before the body count is done, an announcement will be made that “ Rs 1 lakh will be given to the family of the deceased”. When there’s a storm warning, TV ticker will proclaim that “fisherman have been asked not to venture into the sea”. All this is to give the impression that the Govt machinery is working and is responsive. But, nothing tangible needs to be done and the Govt knows this. The perception of action is what matters more than the action itself.

Friday, April 06, 2012

The tribal drive.

The thing about the IPL is that it promotes a new form of tribalism. Members drawn from different parts of India and different countries get together as a team. How do the local spectators relate to their team at all? Why would they root for a team that has just one or two local players?

This piece by biologist, E.O.Wilson, provides some answers.

The answer is that everyone, no exception, must have a tribe, an alliance with which to jockey for power and territory, to demonize the enemy, to organize rallies and raise flags.

And so it has ever been. In ancient history and prehistory, tribes gave visceral comfort and pride from familiar fellowship, and a way to defend the group enthusiastically against rival groups. It gave people a name in addition to their own and social meaning in a chaotic world. It made the environment less disorienting and dangerous. Human nature has not changed. Modern groups are psychologically equivalent to the tribes of ancient history. As such, these groups are directly descended from the bands of primitive humans and prehumans.

.. Today, the social world of each modern human is not a single tribe but rather a system of interlocking tribes, among which it is often difficult to find a single compass. People savor the company of like-minded friends, and they yearn to be in one of the best—a combat Marine regiment, perhaps, an elite college, the executive committee of a company, a religious sect, a fraternity, a garden club—any collectivity that can be compared favorably with other, competing groups of the same category.

.. Our bloody nature, it can now be argued in the context of modern biology, is ingrained because group-versus-group was a principal driving force that made us what we are. In prehistory, group selection lifted the hominids to heights of solidarity, to genius, to enterprise. And to fear. Each tribe knew with justification that if it was not armed and ready, its very existence was imperiled. Throughout history, the escalation of a large part of technology has had combat as its central purpose. Today, public support is best fired up by appeal to the emotions of deadly combat, over which the amygdala is grandmaster. We find ourselves in the battle to stem an oil spill, the fight to tame inflation, the war against cancer. Wherever there is an enemy, animate or inanimate, there must be a victory.

So, that’s what surrogate warfare such as the IPL does. Appeal to the emotions of deadly combat and to the innate tribal instinct in each one of us. Nothing wrong about that, but it’s interesting to know what the biological drive is.