If you are not okay, then I am okay!

We all know from experience, as the article suggests, that for true happiness we should have - "experiences" over commodities, pastimes over knick-knacks, doing over having.

Economic prosperity and happiness are unrelated. The Economist writes:
"Happiness, as measured by national surveys, has hardly changed over 50 years. The rich are generally happier than the poor, but rich countries do not get happier as they get richer. The Japanese are much better off now than in 1950, but the proportion who say they are “very happy” has not budged. Americans too have remained much as Alexis de Tocqueville found them in the 19th century: “So many lucky men, restless in the midst of abundance.”

Lord Layard and Mr Frank both blame habit and rivalry for this stagnation of morale. People grow accustomed to what they have—however much of it there is. Moreover, having a lot of things is not enough if other people have more. A rising tide lifts all boats, but not all spirits.

For economists, this is radical stuff. They traditionally argue that people best serve themselves and the public by minding their own business."
.

As we well know, people do not mind their own business and there is a good reason for it. Quite sadistically, our own happiness is mostly relative; we are happier if we are better off than our peers. Your misery has a lot to do with my happiness. Economic growth is good but does nothing to ensure happiness. As the leader to the article (access required) points out - Capitalism ensures economic growth, but to ask of it to also ensure happiness is to ask too much of it.

Previous post on this topic.
* * * * *

In the same edition the Economist also surveys the big questions of neuroscience:
"Modern neuroscience has taken many directions, and this survey will not attempt to look at all of them. Instead, it will concentrate on four areas that may shed light on individual identity: the study of the emotions; the nature of memory; the ways that brains interact with each other; and the vexed question of what, exactly, consciouness is."

Babel

Alejandro González Iñárritu along with writer Guillermo Arriaga completes the trilogy - that started with Amores Perros (Love's a Bitch), which was followed by 21 Grams - with Babel. Iñárritu has been hailed as the finest talent to come out of Mexico in recent years and they above more than justify the claim. The director has fallen out with his writer Guillermo Arriaga over story writing credits and this might the last time we see them work together.

Most critics seem to be upset with what they call the usual Iñárritu tricks of using a non-linear storyline, intersecting lives and coincidences. So is this cutting and splicing getting too repetitive? Is it mere idiosyncrasy? Or a conscious attempt at making it his signature style. More importantly, one should ask whether it is really crucial to the development of the story and the film? Speaking of personal style, I am reminded of an interview in which Robert Altman explained why he wanted all his movies to be certified PG-18. His maverick reason was that his movies required a lot of patience and concentration which kids or teenagers do not possess and for the sake of his craft, a PG-18 rating would keep them out. Iñárritu has a long way to go to reach the stature of Altman, but he certainly has the talent and the boldness. In 21 Grams, Iñárritu clearly went overboard with his trademark routine and the mental exercise of piecing that story together was like having to perform long division. The resulting headache tends to distract you so much that you cannot appreciate the movie. With Babel Iñárritu has achieved the correct proportion where there is more substance to the style. A linear telling of this tale would have killed many of the effects of suspense, discombobulation and confusion.

Alejandro González Iñárritu says:
"I realized that what makes us happy as humans could differ greatly, but that what makes us miserable and vulnerable beyond culture, race language or financial standing is the same for all."


The story takes place in three locations - Mexico, Morocco and Tokyo. Gael Garcia Bernal is fantastic as usual as the Mexican maid's nephew Santiago. Anyone who is not a US citizen will emphathize with the of Santiago bristling anger at the border. When the cop at the border is a little gruff, Santiago sees it as another repeat humiliation and he snaps, setting another chain of events in motion. We know shit happens, but this movie is not about that. Butterflies might flap their wings that lead to disastrous consequences, but not before we have made our choices. All people make decisions at the margin in the movie; some work, some don't. The key difference is how they deal with what happens.

In Morocco, Brad Pitt takes his wife played by Cate Blanchett for a vacation in the vain hope of trying to repair their marriage. When at a roadside restaurant they are served water, Blanchett soon tosses the water and asks, "Why are we here?" This is not so much to question the quality of water in Morocco but the quality of their own relationship. It will take two brothers taking care of their goats and their subsequent fooling around with a gun for the husband and wife to rekindle and rediscover their love for each other. The most poignant story is of the beautiful Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi) who is deaf-mute and is desperately seeking a relationship, any kind of relationship. Finally, after a number of missed attempts, she and her friend have managed to make friends with some boys and go on to visit a hip disco. There are the usual frenzied laser lights, thumping electronic music and a crowd of bodies dancing like crazy. Suddenly, there is silence and we only see the laser lights moving. It is only then we realize how silent and lonely Chieko's world actually is. The realization is devastating. The movie is full of such moments wonderfully captured - sibling rivalry, the humiliation of taking a leak in public, the human need for simple affection, traditional wedding celebration. While is no surprise that the star-studded cast delivered incredible performances, the big 'discovery' was the stellar performance by the lesser known actors, such as the Moroccan Berber family, the cops investigating the scene(s), the Japanese teenagers and the two kids. While it may seem that Iñárritu's canvas has considerably expanded since the Mexico City chronicles in Amores Perros, he is really still exploring the same themes of relationships, love, loss and longing, only more polished this time around. Gustavo Santaolalla having given music for the movie makes it reason enough for me to watch. Quite clearly, this is one of the best movies of the year.

Pune, Horn Okay Please

So give me a... stage
Where this bull here can rage

from Raging Bull

If Jake LaMotta ever rode a two-wheeler in Pune he would find it an appropriate stage. In Pune, forget all the politeness that is associated with driving that one has been conditioned to in the US. On the first day, you wince every other minute because you feel that there is going to be a collison. Miraculously nothing happens. There are dangers, but foreigners and out-of-touch NRISs (Non-Resident Indian Students) tend to overestimate them. After taking to the road yourself, you see your old touch returning. Suddenly, you feel free like the caged beast who has been set free on the prairie. Only, Pune is not a prairie, but a minefield.

Donning my helmet and bestriding my rusty, but trusty M-80, I take to the streets. I can personally attest to the fact that zipping along at 30 kmph on a crowded street is infinitely more thrilling than a dull 190 kmph on the Autobahn. There is constant road construction, debris from construction sites, pedestrians spilling onto the streets, the odd cow who nonchalantly sits in the middle of the road. There are no 'STOP' signs, no question of giving way, or the hope of a friendly wave when you do. Blocking the intersection is almost an article of faith. Traffic lights are like Christmas decorations, just for show. In short - there are no rules. Riding a 2-wheeler in Pune is not for the meek, the weak or the faint hearted.

The greatest pleasure of driving, that the land of the free and the home of brave denies, is:
The right to use my horn whenever and however I want.
One cannot but admire the many innovative uses we have for the humble horn.

I use my horn:
a) to communicate to others that I too am sharing the street,
b) as an accompaniment when I sing my songs,
c) as a symphonic element at an intersection when the light turns green along with the rest of the band,
d) on empty streets to keep me company,
e) to warn others of the approaching menance of my M-80,
f) as a bell to call my friends from their third floor apartments.

The M-80 is not the kind of bike that helps you pick up the chicks. It is a veritable chick anti-magnet. The benefit is that there is rather slim chance that the mammas (or cops) will ever stop you and harass you for your license, papers, pollution certificate, etc. If you ride an M-80 with a helmet, you can ride pretty much as you please in Pune. Besides it has one of the most irritating horns in existence. Ah! The sheer annoyance of its neigh!

Dream Theater

A few days ago, I watched Almost Famous again. DVDs really spoil you and I am real sucker for all the extra material, outtakes, interviews, etc. Of course, listening to the commentaries is always informative, only if not done in the manner of Ridley Scott. The new DVD aspect has not escaped the filmmakers; they are quite conscious of shooting material with the explicit purpose of using it for the DVD version.

As I was watching the movie, I was reminded of the time I first watched it in Pune's Vijay theater. It perhaps has the lowest ratio of quality of theater versus quality of movie. The building is crumbling, the seats are bad, the sound even worse. Simply fitting a projector in the former stage theater into a movie theater is not a good idea. Yet, the box-office was often sold-out. Till the monstrous multiplexes came along a few years ago there weren't too many places to watch an English flick. The neighbouring Alka theatre, a much better theater, obliged less often and often with poorer films. Vijay theater is so bad that even the refreshments are terrible. How hard can it be to serve a half-decent wada-pav in city of Pune? Vijay has managed.

But as I flipped through all the fancy options on the DVD, I wondered if watching a movie at Vijay is perversely better. Vijay theater strips away everything that could possibly bias your judgement about the movie: plush seats, acoustically-aware design, better speakers, popcorn with seasoning, cup-holders; really the only things that the newer multiplexes have to offer. All the viewer is left with is the moviemaker and his movie.

In a few weeks, I will be home and I am looking forward to seeing the latest flick there. This time I will be better prepared and will bring my own wada-pav!

Genuine or Fake?

Take the test and find out if you can tell the difference. Just for kicks, I need take a look at some group photos. I bet most of them are fake.

Amsterdam

Well-known for its poke and toke tourists, Van Gogh and bikes. Amsterdam is the only major city in Europe not to have a major landmark. This is because the self-effacing Dutch believe not in ostentation but in practicality. The celebrated liberal attitudes of city are a result of the apathetic nature of the Dutch.

On Hunters and Gatherers

If you were ever a part of the madness called the Day-After-Thanksgiving Sale a.k.a. Black Friday you know what I mean:
Malls are not for men. These are places where men are least welcome, least required and least comfortable.

There are only a few ways you can get a guy to go to a mall:
a)He was told he will surely find something nice and was 'tricked' into coming
b)He was emotionally blackmailed
c)There is a really huge sale on electronic items
d)This is his first visit

Shopping is the same, but on Black Friday, everything I describe below should be viewed at a magnification of 10x. Most stores are of little interest to men. In the big stores - Sears, JC Penny, Macy's, etc. almost all the space is devoted to women's products. Somewhere, tucked away in the corner there will be a tiny men's section. Even there you will find women furiously turning everything over and you start feeling as if you were intruding. In fact you are since you have no interest nor inclination to buy.

Then just are you are beginning to adjust you will be startled by a voice crying out behind you - "Are you finding everything okay?" It is the salesperson with a beatific smile. While you are far from feeling comfortable, you mumble that you are "Doing okay!", "Fine!", whatever. Then most guys, like me, will start playing with their cell-phones. There is no TV to watch, beer to drink, games to play, trails to follow or animals to hunt.

In the mall context women are the hunters and men are the gatherers. As women collect their various trophies obtained at an 'incredibly low price', they cannot but tell the tale of the capture of the elusive bounty. "You know I have been looking for this colour for months? I finally, finally found one and it fits perfectly. It was the last piece too!" The men patiently listen and gather the shopping bags.

If you want an greater sense of alienation then try walking into a shoe store, alone. After being bored in exactly 1 minute and 23 seconds, I decided to conduct a spot-survey. There were 35 women and exactly 5 guys (including myself). An important observation was that all of the guy captives were being escorted by women. These gender ratios would be completely reversed in say, in a Best Buy. Talk about sexism!

Another piece of advice: Never mess with women drivers in trying to beat them for parking space in the mall. You will not win on their home turf.

This tongue-in-cheek article called:How to Buy nothing, had me rolling on the floor laughing. It does have a few sensible ideas. I suspect that the page has been created and edited mostly by men.

Measuring the Unmeasurable

Natures reports on the latest scientific effort at measuring happiness.

There is further debate as to whether trying to do something about people's happiness is feasible in principle. Some researchers favour the idea that people have a 'hedonic setpoint' that stays remarkably constant in the face of bouquets and brickbats. Such a setpoint need not in principle be unalterable, but its alteration might require an approach with a pharmacological component, raising the problem that one of the things we value about happiness is its authenticity. Another is its autonomy. Governments may guarantee citizens freedom in their pursuit of happiness, but we bridle against the idea of its ever being enforced.


Further it seems that
This contributed to the notion of a 'hedonic setpoint' to which people return no matter what life throws their way. And based on studies showing similar levels of reported happiness in twins, the setpoint appeared to be genetically determined.

Determinism triumphs! Not too happy about that! :(

Is Development * Culture = K ?
or, Why India =Turbans and Camels?

Most books on India have a disproportionate number of pictures and stories from Rajasthan. To outsiders, the idyllic world of camels, cows, colourful saris and handle-bar moustaches seems to convey a more authentic feel that the rest of homogenized India. While relative proximity to the nation's capital has helped, I feel that the Rajasthan theme is rather overworked and it is time that writers and cameras moved on. Simply being drawn to the visual appeal of Rajasthan is rather superficial. To me, local culture in other regions is equally rich. Reflecting on William Dalrymple's essay on the oral tradition of Rajasthan titled "Homer In India" (The New Yorker, Nov 20, 2006, Issue 38), I feel I might need to alter this view.

A young Harvard classicist named Milman Parry had a brilliant theory that Homer's works, the foundation upon which all subsequent European literature rested, must have originally been oral poems, and that they contained certain recurring formulas that he thought were a product of traditions of oral transmission. He believed that to study Homer properly you had first to understand how oral poetry worked, and that since Yugoslavia was the place in Europe where such traditions had best survived he caught a ship to Yugoslavia in 1933 to prove it in the field. Parry was described as a sort of "the Darwin of oral literature".

He writes:
While I was staying at Rohet, I heard about what seemed to be the most remarkable survival of all: the existence of several orally transmitted epic poems. Unlike the ancient epics of Europe--the Iliad, the Odyssey, Beowulf, and the Nibelungenlied (the basis of Wagner's "Ring Cycle")--which were now the province only of academics and literature classes, the epics of Rajasthan were still very much alive. They were preserved by a caste of wandering bhopas--shamans and bards--who travelled from village to village, staging performances.

It is perversity that the most backward, conservative regions are often culturally the richest? More than any other part of the country, large chunks of Rajasthan remained under the authority of the local hereditary rulers. It was only after the abolition of the privy-purses in 1971 that the age-old feudal structure started to really erode. This raises a difficult moral question.

Moreover, the Gujars are very often illiterate, and illiteracy seems an essential condition for preserving the performance of an oral epic. It was the ability of the bard to read, rather than changes in the tastes of his audience, that sounded the death knell for the oral tradition. Just as the blind can develop a heightened sense of hearing, smell, and touch to compensate for their loss of vision, so it seems that the illiterate have a capacity to remember in a way that the literate simply do not.

This was certainly the conclusion of the Indian folklorist Komal Kothari. In the nineteen-fifties, Kothari came up with the idea of sending one of his principal sources, a singer from the Langa caste named Lakha, to adult-education classes. The idea was that he would learn to read and write, thus making it easier to collect the many songs he had preserved. Soon Kothari noticed that Lakha needed to consult his diary before he began to sing. Yet the rest of the Langa singers were able to remember hundreds of songs--an ability that Lakha had somehow begun to lose as he slowly learned to write.


In the Yugoslavian case the recordings survived, but the actual oral tradition did not. Death of oral tradition takes along with it an entire subset of culture, leaving behind only a skeleton of words preserved in mummified form on CDs. Sad, but can it be preserved in a living form? If it can, then what about the moral implications as suggested above?

I agree that it is a bit of a leap to generalize from oral tradition to culture in general; but, are more developed regions of India culturally shallower than more backward regions like Rajasthan? Local culture in other regions are equally rich, but not as well preserved. If so, then I should not begrude Rajasthan's preeminent position on the covers of those books.

When I read about traditions dying, I feel that I am personally responsible in a way.
Yet, culturally we are relatively better off as this paragraph from the essay suggests,

Anthony Lane noted in this magazine in 2001, in the aftermath of the attacks on the United States, that the people of New York again and again compared what had happened to them to films: "It was like 'Independence Day' "; "It was like 'Die Hard' "; "No, 'Die Hard 2.' " In contrast, when the tsunami struck at the end of 2004, Indians were able to reach for a more sustaining narrative than disaster movies: the catastrophic calamities and floods that fill the Mahabharata and the Hindu tradition in general.


But then, we might have much more to lose too.

(If want a copy of the article write to: A C H I L L E S - G M A I L)

The Game

I am not much of a spectator when it comes to sports. But today is different, so I am told. Michigan (ranked No.2) plays arch-rival Ohio State(ranked No.1). The rivalry is like India vs. Pakistan in cricket. This is not taking the analogy too far, since supporters are equally fanatic and these two states of the union have also gone to war against each other. While the two states have since sublimated their mutual animosity on the football field, it is not unusual to get honked at if you happen to drive in Columbus, Ohio with your blue Michigan plates. The breathless excitement is well conveyed by this local newspaper:

But never has there been so much at stake.

This is the first time they have met as No. 1 vs. No. 2. Both are 11-0 and the winner will earn the Big 10 championship and a spot in the Bowl Championship Series title game on Jan. 8.

This meeting, in my eyes, is the de facto national title game.

It's No. 1 vs. No. 2.

What else could you ask for? It doesn't get any better or bigger than this.


This can get pretty crazy. At the community wrap-up event for the Royal Shakespeare Company Residency the audience was asked to sing the Michigan fight-song for ESPN. Why ESPN chose the people who come to a discussion of the plays for singing the Michigan fight song was strange to me? It was a personal shock to observe that I was perhaps the only one in the audience who did not know the words to the song and I was raising my hands at the completely wrong times. In Ann Arbor lovers of the stage also seem to know the way to the stadium.

Today, I will watch the game and proudly announce the score to my labmates on Monday. (I have been threatened that I will not be given my Ph.D. degree if I don't know the fight song.)

The Taxman Cometh...

... and this time with reinforcements. Forget VDIS. This might perhaps be the best strategy ever. This is good in so many ways.

Schulz Quote

Sometimes I lie awake at night, and I ask, "Where have I gone wrong?"
Then a voice says to me, "This is going to take more than one night."

- Charles M. Schulz

The Malaysian Position

On the heels of the previous post, I stumble across this story (via from Reuters) where government officials pulled up a newspaper for publishing a survey on the sexual attitudes of youth. The official position was that the article was distasteful and such articles would worsen their social situation. Hmm!

Quite tellingly, the Weekend Mail said its survey respondents only held one position in common:
"One point everyone agreed on was that sex and sex-related issues should be discussed openly to avoid any negative perceptions."

Double Standards Falling?

India Today's latest cover features the sexual attitudes of the Indian male from the ages of 16 to 25. Newspapers around the world have screamed the obvious headline that 63% of Indian males want virgin brides. Actually, I think we have come a long way and it should be reported that 'ONLY 63%', or better still '37% of Indian males do not mind not having virgin brides.'

46% said they have had premarital sex and about half had sex with prostitutes. If you are feeling bad for yourself already, then FYI the average age of the first male sexual encounter has fallen too -- to 18 years from 23. Ah! Romance, thou art dead! But with all that sex, standards of 'horniness' have really fallen, especially when only 34% of the current lot said they would have sex "anytime, anywhere." What a shame given that the 'younger' generation has had greater opportunities with the post 1991 reforms, the internet, access to condoms and also with, um... more scantily-clad women. They say that, 'women who wore revealing clothes were sexually liberated'. So, if you are a male between 16-25 and are still wasting time writing unsolicited scraps/comments attempting to seek friendships,loveships, etc. on Orkut, or on weblogs of the opposite sex it is time to make a 'real' move and leave those things to the geriatrics ie. greater-than-25-desperate-as-hell-but-still- not-bold-enough.
See the incredulity expressed in these articles in the foreign media prefaced with the usual "... in the land of the Kamasutra":
IHT Story and Reuters. If only they knew.

**
That being said, I would like to look more closely at the data when I finally get my hands on the juicy article. Sad that India Today does not have online access. While MARG is a respectable organization, the stats are poorly reported as is the case with most polls that appear in popular magazines. There were no error bars on the results and again they report only the average and do not mention the median.

A Tale of Two Finishers

The ING NYC marathon concluded today. Not only did it mark end of the inaugural year of the World Marathon Majors, but also two very special men made it to the finish line. These two men were not winners, or even close to that, but could do a lot more for the marathon than anybody else who ran today. Interestingly, they finished pretty close to each other.

1.
The first was a seven-time winner of one of most gruelling races on the planet - Mr. Lance Armstrong. About 30-40% of all marathoners are first-timers and there was no doubt that out of them all Lance was the world's fittest first-timer. Lance has a lactate threshold (indicator of endurance) of 85 which is identical to that of the world-record holder Paul Tergat and for the past few months, a lot of people placed bets on how fast Lance Armstrong would eventually run. Even with that legendary competitive spirit, not to mention the 8% body fat, Lance was not going to catch up with the gazelle-like, effortless running of the elite Kenyans and estimates ranged from 2:45 to 3:10. Lance wanted to commemorate the 10th anniversary of his cancer diagnosis and also wanted to use the occasion to raise money for his foundation.
As he found out,
"For the level of condition that I have now, that was without a doubt the hardest physical thing I have ever done,... I think I bit off more than I could chew, I thought the marathon would be easier."
- Lance Armstrong (856th, 2:59:36)

A few days after I finished, I myself wondered if I could have done better than my four hours and a few seconds. I felt that I had slowed down in the last three miles. It is comforting to know that even the great Lance had to virtually walk the last couple of steps and had issues completing the last 3 miles. While he did make it just under the three-hour mark, I found that he echoed my own sentiments just after the race,
"Before the race that was my goal, I wanted to break 3 hours. But if you told me with 3 miles to go, `You're going to do 3:05,' I wouldn't have cared," he said. "Honestly, at the end I was so tired, I couldn't care. Now I'm glad I did."
Regardless of the shape you are in or what time you finish in, the first time is going to be hard, but you will always be glad you did it. Lance announced that he will not run a marathon again, but did mention that he has reserved the right to change his mind. We'll see.
See Sports Illustrated story.

2.
While Lance will hog the publicity, a most remarkable feat was accomplished by Dean Karnazes. The NYC Marathon which he finished in 3:00:30 was the last of Dean Karnazes's Endurance 50 marathons. An attempt that cannot but be sheer insanity, Dean ran 50 marathons in 50 states on 50 consecutive days. Conventionally, it takes about 2 weeks to recover from a marathon. Dean had less than 24 hours to recover from each marathon and not to mention all that traveling across the country. Dean has redefined the limits of human endurance and achievement. What length we can go to do something that has never been done before. The more insane the idea, the more appealing it looks. And what did he have to say at the end of it all? He wrote on his blog
In fact, I’m having such a great time, why stop? Tomorrow, I think I’ll go for a run. A long one. Maybe I’ll keep going the next day, too….

So, where are your running shoes?

Religion: Caveat Emptor

In his remarkable book - Breaking the Spell, which I strongly recommend everyone to read (especially 'believers'), Daniel Dennett argued for the study of religion using principles of evolution. Leaving aside which flavour of religion you prefer, religion or faith has survived the test of time. Even in our modern age of science and reason, religious belief has not crumbled. Any organism or idea that has managed to survive for so long in humans has to confer some sort benefit or evolutionary advantage.

In my opinion, an easier and alternative way to look at religion is to treat it like a product. A product that satisfies and serves certain public needs.

Proving or disproving whether God exists is difficult (The quest itself does lead to more useful and tangible results as in the case of the Rev. Bayes). The priests, mullahs and rabbis who are the stewards of religion cannot but know that religion is nothing but a business enterprise. Belief of millions in the divine word of God is quite separate from the business of religion. Every religion, sect, cult is a product and needs good marketing and favorable advertising. But you have to come to America, the land of the free and home of the brave, to really appreciate how 'professional' religion and its marketing needs to be. There is much competition in the market to save people from damnation.

In my first semester, I often noticed flyers for a 'Free Fellowship dinner' or 'Come Dine with Us and practice English' and I am not one of those people who pass an opportunity for a free meal. The fine print below all these flyers always mentioned that the activity was sponsored by some church or the other. Oops! As it is November, I will have a few emails inviting me to a Thanksgiving Dinner with an American family. In the subtle guise of providing international students with a flavour of Americana, there is always some church behind it.

Truly speaking, Haggard should argue that as CEO of the New Life Church he has been exceptional in his professional duty towards Evangelism (a religious product) and his flock (clients) which should be separate from what he did in his personal life in his free time. He has made the Church popular (increased marketshare) in an increasingly competitive market and is a spiritual advisor to President Bush, so why should anyone complain? (See Ashutosh on Haggard).

Gaurav was surprised that he met a Mormon who knew about Hindi movies. Luckily or unluckily for him, she did not consider his soul worth redeeming as she did not thrust the Book of Mormon or take down his address to pay him a visit. I have had the unique opportunity to watch one of my Mormon colleagues in action and they are really smooth. In his own words: All of them are well-trained for their 1-2 year missions in foreign countries. They have crash courses in the language, culture and politics of the people whose souls they have to save. The moral is: If you have something hard to sell, which involves something like the person giving you his soul, you should do it slowly and gently. I see a very strong parallel to the strategies employed by them and the Amway folks (see: old post).

Like any medicine or product there are benefits to religion if taken in moderation. But religion can do you great harm and I wish it came with statutory warnings. Till then: Caveat Emptor.

Male-ism

Hey guys - stop popping the pill and slip into this.
(Another one of those inventions that you wish you had thought about. Duh!)

The economics of global warming

Last year, Al Gore made a rather spirited effort to inform the public about global warming, which he called 'An Inconvenient Truth'. In my opinion, those who deny global warming are not unlike the people who the deny that the Holocaust ever took place. Only now the stakes are much higher - this time it's the whole planet.

For a change, Tony Blair had a good idea. He had Nicolas Stern prepare a report on global warming and its economic consequences. Like any good bureaucrat Stern came up with a 700-page report.

From the Economist:
"The purpose of Sir Nicholas’s report—commissioned by Tony Blair—is to deal with the argument of people who accept that climate change is happening, but who say that trying to do anything about it would be a waste of money. This argument is heard occasionally in Europe and frequently in America, where, for added potency, it is combined with the notion that European attempts to tax carbon are part of a conspiracy by socialists determined to undermine the American way of life.

Sir Nicholas’s argument is that, far from undermining the American way of life, attempts to mitigate climate change may help preserve it. He argues this by setting the costs of allowing climate change to happen against the costs of mitigating climate change."


Further:
"Previous estimates of the costs of climate change—as a result of more hurricanes, more floods and rising sea levels, for instance—have been somewhere between nothing and 2% of global GDP... As a result, Sir Nicholas maintains that if greenhouse gas emissions go on increasing at their present rate, global output is likely to be between 5% and 20% lower over the next two centuries than it otherwise would have been."

Appealing to people's consciences about the consequences of their actions is not effective. Also, a holier-than-thou attitude turns many people off and you are left preaching to the choir. What is more effective is showing how it affects your wallet, not only tomorrow, but today.

The Chicago Marathon

I woke up a number of times in the night nervous like I was taking a big exam and excited like it was my first outdoor picnic. I wonder why I even bother setting an alarms for such events since I woke up at 5am before the alarms went off. I purposely did not turn the multiple alarms off since it was chiefly for the benefit of my support team who really needed to be roused from their slumber. The weather did not look too good - it was raining, the temperatures were just above freezing and it was not going to get better.


By 6:30am when we managed to reach downtown(without getting lost), the place was already milling with people. For each of the 40,000 or so runners there would be about two to three other people who would be lining up at parts of the course to cheer them on. My friends dropped me off at the Millenium Park and after that I was on my own. Thanks to all the road blocks and fences around the course it took me about thirty minutes to get to the Asha tent in the Charity Village. The Charity Village, thanks to the rain, was a complete mess and the last thing I wanted was to slip and fall in the muck and sprain an ankle. I met the other Asha runners and almost all of them were first-timers and were equally nervous and excited. I tried to stretch but I did it half-heartedly. The chilly air was numbing and added to the tension in the air.
At about 7:45am, I lined up wearing a trash bag which was my modified rain-jacket. In the 37F weather I was really glad to have the $2 gloves. Crammed like cattle in that enclosure we all waited. As I waited, I thought about all the months of training and all the different runs - in the heat, in the rain, on dull cloudy days, on chilly autumn mornings and the accompanying aches and pains. Then I thought about the runs that should have been, runs abandoned midway because it hurt too much. Would I pay for those sins? Would I hit the wall at Mile 21? Would I fail to finish? As the time for the eight-o'clock-start approached people started throwing their jackets, gloves and sweats to the curbside. At five minutes before eight, the butterflies in my stomach disappeared and I felt ready. The horn went off exactly at 8 am, but it took me another 8 minutes to make it to the start. As my foot hit the mat, I broke into a jog and it took me a few seconds to realise - that the marathon had begun. I would be back at the Buckingham fountain after 26 miles and 385 yards.

Route Map

Mile 1-7
It was drizzling when the race started and I was glad to have that trash bag. The first part of the course would go north after crossing the river twice. There was a nasty wind and I tried to tuck behind a group of runners, but that did not help much. For the first two miles the road was packed and I could not speed up to my target pace which was a good thing. My problem while running is controlling my urge to speed up early in the race. One of the unique experiences of Chicago is running on the steel bridges. Running along the bridge between the great skyscrapers I could see the green Chicago river below my feet through the grating. Between Mile 3 and 4 I saw my support team - Sumedha, Darshan, Siddharth and Sreeja and it felt really nice to hear them screaming my name. I was warming up while running and I wondered how they were holding up in the cold. Today, the cold weather would not only test the runners but also the supporters. I learnt later, that my friends had to throw away the placards from the expo as their fingers went numb from the cold.

Mile 7-13.1
It was nice to get back between the buildings after the stretch on Lake Shore Drive.
A little before Mile 8 the loop turned around and went south passing through the gay district where the guys were immensely entertaining. Throughout this leg there was lovely music - folk music, rock music and even an Elvis look-alike. Around Mile 9, I felt a stabbing pain in my chest, the kind you get when you are close to the finish. I wondered, 'Was this the beginning of the end?'. It passed. Before getting back into Downtown, the route passed through the Scandinavian neighbourhood and there were people with Swedish and Danish flags. People bring all kinds of things that make noise - whistles, bells, old horns, drums. I don't know why but noise makes you keep going. We went pass the famous Chicago theater where a blues band was so energetic that we all got a rush. Again for a brief few seconds, just before the halfway point, I looked forward to meeting my my support team. This time Sumedha and Darshan ran bit and that felt really good.

Mile 13.1 - 20
As I passed under the green banner that read 'Halfway' I felt great. It wasn't long ago when the half-marathon distance felt like a lot. Now that distance was not special at all - it was just a statistic. The runner next to me and I high-fived and I said, 'Let's do this!'. He smiled - I would never see him again. In long races like these, you form instant and temporary friendships on basis of 'we-in-this-together'. I don't think the marathon distance would be that enjoyable or even achievable if it weren't for all the people. You encourage, support and smile at people you don't know and will never meet again. It is so much easier when 'I can do this!' becomes 'We can do this!'.

At Mile 15, I felt that my bladder would burst. It had been about two and a half hours after starting and I had a lot of water and Gatorade. While there are port-a-johns scattered throught the course, the lines are often long and in the interest of time runners urinate wherever they feel like. Most simply pick the nearest wall and even women who seem to have super-human self-control when it comes to such matters show that at least on the marathon course they are just as human and not too finicky about location. I was scanning the course for an appropriate wall to bless, when a set of blue port-a-johns appeared. I felt almost obliged to use them and I knew I was throwing away a fine opportunity to urinate with impunity. There was a line and it cost me two minutes and the extended stop made my legs feel heavy. But again, in a few minutes I felt okay.

Mile 20-25
They say that the marathon has two halves. The first 20 miles and then the rest. The longest run in all marathon programs is a long run of 20 miles about 3 weeks before the race and I knew that I would at least make it as far as the 20 mile mark, but what about the rest? After Mile 20 runners bonk or hit the wall and start hearing voices in their head. As I crossed the 20-mile marker, I wondered if I would be able to hold up for another hour for the last 6.2 miles. Frank Shorter at Mile 21 asked his fellow competitor Kenny Moore, "Why did Pheidippides not die at Mile 21?". In this leg I saw more and more runners stop and begin to walk. While you don't feel out of breath and your legs are not tired, you just feel the need to stop a bit. At Mile 22 I heard a voice in my head, "How about a really short walking break?". I knew that would be the beginning of the end. Very soon there would be more walking breaks and soon I would be walking and not running. After we crossed the Dan Ryan Expressway I hit the 23 Mile mark. I told myself, "This will be the last 30 minutes of running for a long, long time." Everything I had done the past 4 months now boiled down to keep those legs moving for the next 5 kilometers. Around me, people looked equally 'dead' and there wasn't much talking going on. The spectators were doing a great job in pushing the runners across the last few bits of the course. In these last few miles everything you hear within and without is prefaced with 'Just' - 'Just, hang on', 'Just 2 miles', 'Just a little bit more'. Even the nasty wind did not matter now. Everything around me seemed to be hazy and floating. I recall everything in the last 3 miles as if it was from a dream - the little children who I high-fived, the faces of the spectators who said "Almost there!", the guy at the water-stop.

The Last Mile
After running more between 25-35 miles a week, running a mile feels like nothing. The last mile in Chicago runs along Michigan Avenue, which a little further along is called the 'Magnificent Mile'. Except there was nothing magnificent about this mile. It was the longest and hardest mile that I have ever run. To make it more bearable I broke it down in four 400m laps. Yet, it seemed like an eternity to see that '800m' sign just before we turned onto Roosevelt. I was about ready to die at that point. It was still not over. There would be no redemption till I had run every inch of the 26 .2 mile course. You grit your teeth and hang on. I cannot get over that feeling of entering that final stretch along the wide Columbus drive where there were massive crowds on either side of the barricades. I felt that they were all cheering me. At this stage I was ready to believe anything. I have never felt a greater joy in my life than to see that large green sign that said "Finish". A few moments ago, I was ready to die and now I had this sudden burst of energy. With 400 meters to go I began to feel my legs turn over faster and faster, like I had no control over them. As I passed dozens of runners and I could hear people cheer my last sprint to the finish. Everyone loves a strong finish. I felt my left foot hit the mat and I may not have taken more than three or four steps before I stopped. I could not run anymore. My legs felt so heavy, that I could not stand. I was totally spent. I had done it. The first thing I did was cry.

(Un)Official Time & Splits

Marathon for Asha

As I have mentioned before and I will mention again until I grow tired of mentioning it - I am training for the Chicago Marathon that takes place on Sunday the 22nd of October. I was inspired by an old tagline for the Boston Marathon which read:
"You will know everything about yourself in 26.21 miles".

But, as I trained over the past year, I felt that simply achieving this difficult goal should have more meaning than personal vanity. I felt that a better reason and motivation for running would be raising money for Team Asha. Asha for Education is a secular organization that is dedicated to change in India by focusing on basic education in the belief that education is a critical requisite for socio-economic change.

My target is to raise $2620 (100$ for every mile). Details are on my
My Asha Runner's Page. After finishing my 20m run on Tuesday, I feel quite strong and I will make it to the finish line, but I am still quite short on reaching my fundraising target. Please donate if you feel this a cause that is worthy of your hard-earned $$.

For myself and for many people who have donated generously, I am sharing my accounts of my marathon trials, tribulations and insights on this blog.
Part I | Part II

This post will remain sticky, till I reach my target of $2620

Just when I thought

In preparation for SfN I have been working more than twice my usual hours and not surprisingly, making weeks' worth of progress in a few days. As a graduate student there is a lot of latitude with respect to working hours, but all students regardless of whether they are working hard, or hardly working cannot but feel the inescapable feeling of guilt. We often feel that like Boxer in Animal Farm we must constantly promise "I will work harder!".

After having got not much sleep in the past few days reading this article from Nature makes me feel better about my usual lifestyle and suggests that my current 'overdrive mode' might not be too productive in the long run.

This article from Nature Jobs writes:

"Ernest Rutherford once asked a student who was working one evening whether he also worked in the mornings. The student proudly answered yes. "But when do you think?" Rutherford replied. He was convinced that the creative scientists spent evenings and holidays relaxing with their families, and imposed strict limits on the hours his students worked. A high proportion of them went on to win Nobel prizes."

Marathon Diary - Part II, or Sex and Sexism in Marathons

Why do men have nipples?
Mark Leyner and Billy Goldberg tried to answer the question in this book. If as a guy you never wondered or even paid much attention to your diminished twin assets then you will once you try to run more than 7 or 8 miles. God bless you if do this on a hot day with a cotton t-shirt. This is just one of the many things that you learn along the way. A little lubrication goes a long way.

Can they do it or should we allow them to do it?
The jockstrap was invented in 1874, and the jog bra was invented in 1977. This just goes to show the sexism rampant in sport. In sport, it is most apparent when it comes to the marathon. During the Boston Marathon in 1967, race official Jock Semple yelled at #261 - Katherine Switzer, "Get out of my race!" and then tried to rip off her bib number. Since women were not allowed to compete she had registered illegally and she showed women could run 26.2 miles. It took another 5 years till finally in 1972 women were officially allowed to compete in Boston. The IOC took another 12 years before the made it an Olympic event, a full 88 summers after Spiridon Louis won the first Olympic Marathon in Athens.

My own Stanford Prison Experiment
Occasionally I do get honked at when I am running, since I sometimes run red-lights or do not strictly cross at zebra-crossings. But more than a couple of times I was simply honked at while I wasn't annoying any drivers. And always, it has been a bunch of a girls in the car who honk, then scream at me, laugh and then zoom off. I am always taken aback at first, since I don't expect that, then flattered, and then I wonder - "Lord, why me?". Was it something to do with my high-cut running shorts? (The reason for the sexy shorts is related to the problem described at the start, but let's not go there!) Were they cheering? If they were, then why did they always laugh and drive off? It is flattering to teased by eves and a moment to be treasured, since how often does this happen, huh? It does make me think more deeply about eve-teasing. While it is often a yucky guy-thing to do, I think that anyone will do it provided he or she is in a powerful or advantageous position. Often, men are in a position of advantage should a confrontation occur. In my case, the usual positions were reversed in favour of these girls. They were in a group, in a car and I was alone and on the road running alone in skimpy shorts. It set up a situation where they could get away with it. Only in this case, as I guy, I felt it was as much fun for me as it was for them. Eve-teasing is a product of the environment that gives a certain set of people power over another set, as shown by the Stanford Prison Experiment. The Blank Noise Project is one of the most courageous and powerful attempts at changing the status-quo. They have hit the nail on the head with their direct action program. Women need not constantly feel vulnerable and passively accept the humiliation of being eve-teased. The best way to deal with the problem is to tackle it head-on and challenge the perception that there is indeed an asymmetry of power. So guys, be prepared to be honked at!

Camping out for Shakespeare

Courtesy the UMS, The Royal Shakespeare Company(RSC) will be in residence in Ann Arbor once again, and will perform Shakespeare's first Roman play - Julius Caesar, the sequel - Antony and Cleopatra, and his last play - The Tempest.

Tickets were up for advance purchase early this March at ridiculously high prices and were bought by people, to borrow from Lennon, who jangle their jewellery. Tickets that went on sale to the general public were also sold-out in a week. Students had to wait a little for the cheap tickets to not-so-cheap-seats. Patrick Stewart a.k.a. Captain Jean-Luc Picard, who performs the leading roles of Antony in Antony and Cleopatra and Prospero in The Tempest, had some role in the frenetic sales by appealing to the Trekkies. The University, in its infinite wisdom and judgement, reserved 2500 tickets for 'poor' students, but quite characteristically did not forgo the opportunity to make a few extra bucks. Tickets were reserved for students registered in classes that teach drama, Shakespeare, acting, etc, which earn fat fees for the University. So, in effect only 443 tickets out of the 2500 tickets were available to the general student population.

So what do you do to ensure you get tickets? Camp outside the box-office door! So On Friday at 9pm, exactly 12 hours before the doors opened, we took our folding chairs and stood in line. We were still #22 in the line. There were other crazy people before us and after us. Not long after we settled ourselves in our chairs, a guy walked in with a shoulder-bag packed with a poncho, bananas, a flashlight, a blanket, energy bars and hat. Almost instantly, he took charge of policing the line and ensuring there were no crooks jumping the line. Then a guy walked in with his guitar, people got out their cards, scrabble sets and it did not take long for it to soon turn into some sort of picnic. Waiting in a line overnight is the safest and best way to experience a refugee-camp situation. People were willing to share coffee, keys to nearby building with restrooms, extra blankets, space in the tent in case it rained.

We, the the people who came before midnight, felt we were the 'privileged few' since we were almost guaranteed tickets unless 120 people emerged from a large tent at the head of the line. It was suspiciously large and rather quiet, and it seemed to suggest to the rest of us that at the moment those chaps were digging a tunnel. As the night progressed, more people showed up and set up shop behind us, and all that seemed to be missing from the scene was a camp-fire. Throughout the night we were visited by people from the UMS checking to see if were okay. From the glimmer in their eye, I could tell that once upon a time, they too had camped out and had loved every moment of it. At 2am, the director Ken Fischer showed up with a camera and members of the Emerson Quartet who performed that night to show off the legendary Ann Arbor fanaticism for art and culture. It became colder and started to rain, but the thought of those folks who would wake up at 4am and still find themselves ticketless made us feel happy and warm. In the morning we gloated even more as the line by then had gone around the sidewalk, to the street, and around the block and we couldn't help but smirk at the lost causes who trooped in at 6 am. For the ones who walked in after 8am we had no respect whatsoever.

The funny thing about all the people who camped out that night was that none of us were Shakespeare fanatics, but rather we were all doing this because we all wanted a story to tell - 'How we slept on the sidewalk in the cold and the rain, to get tickets to a play that we couldn't afford otherwise'. If you ever wonder whether you had a good life or not, just think about whether you have these stories to tell...

By morning we were rather groggy and I almost lost the hard-won tickets by misplacing them somewhere. That would have been some story!
Hmmm,so much drama, for drama.

1950 -

Just when we thought that we had almost accomplished victory, India takes another step backwards. Religion becomes the defender of Polio. It is such a shame!
My earlier post on Polio

Marathon Diary - Part 1

Things to Do Before I Die?

I am training for the Chicago Marathon that takes place on the 22nd of October. Why? Because, it's on my list and I am better off doing this when I am younger than older. Some people think that's plain crazy. For example: as encouragement, the M.D. in my lab told me that the "human body is not supposed to run 26.2 miles" and asked me, "What happened to the first runner of the marathon - Pheidippides?" Well, he ran from the town of Marathon to Athens to announce that the Persians had been miraculously defeated in the Battle of Marathon and after passing the message of victory, he did not just pass out, he dropped dead! So, the first goal is not to complete the distance, but - "Try not to die!". But, now runners are a little better equipped with scientific training programs, shoes for particular foot types, refuelling gels, GPS systems and adequate hydration. I told him if you think this is crazy, I'll show you crazy - Dean Karnazes.

Recent Comment

Another anonymous comment:(sic)


Yes, I support Parimal in all his efforts. Maharashtra needs to be saved from vulutres of south and north.

We have certain danger from these vultures whose population is growing like cancerous cells.

How many Marathis have migrated to Kerala, TN, Andhra, Rajasthan, UP and Bihar? They why should we respect chutyas from these states?


I was little disappointed by the rather tame tone. When will I succeed in getting some real hate mail or comments full of spite? Who are these people anyway?

Grad Students Cheat

Grad students cheat . The MBA student excuse is that it prepares them for the real world where cheating is an accepted business practice. Aha! Interesting demographics. 50% of engineers cheated. While arts majors were the most honest lawyers were rather honest too. Did the budding lawyers lie on the survey since lying in law is an accepted practice?

Memories of My Melancholy Whores

See review of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's not-so-recent, but latest book Memories of My Melancholy Whores on the book blog.

Reply-All

The "reply-all" option is probably one of the most misused inventions of mankind. Inventions that seemed like a good idea at the time but opened a whole can of worms, e.g.: CFCs, breast enhancements, Duckworth-Lewis Rule, polythene bags, etc.

On September 11, 2006, a sociology student at the University of Michigan posted an invitation for a "Ladies Bible Study". Quoting from a quote in the original email - Who Can find a virtuous woman for her price is far above rubies?

The mail might not have been such a bad idea, but sending it to almost every single listserv on campus certainly turned out to be not such a good idea. The email probably went out to atleast 10,000 students who were members of some listserv or the other. While the student can hardly be blamed for the umpteen nincompoops who hit (mercy me!) the 'reply-all' button asking to be (guess) taken off the list and then the bigger unsolicited guardians-of-the-flame who replied to all asking people 'DO NOT HIT REPLY-ALL'.

This soon snowballed into a 2-week 'mail storm' which has not abated. It did bring out a number of parallel threads which involved jokers, anonymous annoying personalities and the administration to vent their anger against the church, the First Amendment and stupidity of Arts Majors. Yesterday, some bright spark designed a T-shirt to commemorate the event which reads "DO NOT REPLY ALL!" at the back.

Since this whole episode can be an interesting study of public response to such provocation, my friends and I created a wikipedia article this morning presenting the entire episode and its various flavours on Wikipedia (where else?). Already, there is a request to have the page marked for deletion. So while it lasts, check out Ladies Bible Study

Remember: DO NOT HIT REPLY-TO-ALL

Update: It's official the article has been now deleted. The discussions are very interesting. Democracy in action!

Pass the Decaf

If you have had it with music geeks, wine geeks, pasta chefs and other forms of pretension, consider adding coffee geeks to the list of people who annoy you.
As I sip my drip-coffee (< 10c a cup) made on a 15-dollar machine from Jewel Osco, I get this feeling that I was somehow cheated out of it all. Do drinkers of country liquor know what fine whisky is?

Appreciation: It's a matter of taste, training and a little stupidity.

Am I Back?

I was away in beautiful Cape Cod for a 2-week workshop which ended two weeks ago. Back in rainy and cold Michigan I have only wanted to simply curl up. I continue to feel lazy to post or even comment on blogs. That's what holidays can do to you. It has been a nice and long summer and I am just not ready for Fall. Just as I was about to wake up from blog aestivation I ran across this . Perhaps, I better go back to sleep.

Talk to the Hand

Talk to the hand because the face is not listening. Lynn Truss tackles rudeness in her most recent book - Talk to the Hand. This book was not as captivating as her previous bestselling book on punctuation - Eats, Shoots and Leaves . On the Book Blog, I give my explanation for breaking a bad(?) habit, why the book did not work and an entertaining digression on pedantry regarding non-restrictive clauses.

A Man Without a Country


Kurt Vonnegut is now eighty-three and one of my favorite authors. He is endlessly fascinating and a far cry from the academics who put can put you to sleep writing about the same topic in a dead-pan style. I reviewed his book - A Man Without a Country on the book blog.

Kurt Vonnegut is among the few grandmasters of American letters, one without whom the very term American literature would mean much less than it does.

Backseat Driver

Finally! A backseat driver who knows how to shut up.

Blogger Personality Disorders

Every few months, the blog world and the real world collide. The past week has been one of them. While we DO have the right to say whatever we want, we DON'T always make sense.

"Just because your voice reaches halfway around the world doesn't mean you are wiser than when it reached only to the end of the bar."
- Edward R. Murrow

Blogging, like most things on the web, is so darned convenient. It's easy, you can be anonymous; in fact, you can be whoever you want. Not only can you make your own rules, you can live out your wildest fantasies. So at some point, all of us become somebody we aren't. I looked at some of my old posts and I wonder, "Aren't we all a little schizophrenic?" I look at my own posts; posts and comments on other blogs and I see a number of personalities surface. The convenience of not having to physically face someone or tackle reality makes us armchair experts on everything and turns even the most mild-mannered Dr. Jekyll into a Mr.Hyde in a few keystrokes.

The Born-Again Blogger
Who doesn't believe in reincarnation? Larger-than-life personae are constantly being created and reinvented in the blogworld in bigger and better versions.

The Cerebral Cerberus
These are the people for whom blogging has less to do with exploration of ideas and civilized debate but more to do with attacking other people, often without provocation.

The Cowardly Custard
Shares all the characteristics of the above and invariably fails to leave an address or name behind. Occasionally hides behind some alias. Tends to be more inclined towards rude behaviour.

Grammar, Damn Her!
Everyone makes the occasional typo, grammatical error and usage error. But this lot lives without shame. They seem to be literally throwing themselves at the keyboard with scant regard for the gentle reader who can't help but cry out,

Wrote yet another guy who stings like a bee,
What keys get hit, his eyes can't see.
You mumble man mumble, I fumble man fumble


Dear Diary Blogger
Very few of them around that I know of.
"Today, was a Sunday ..." As Holden would say, "Spare us the David Copperfield crap!"

The Eve-Pleaser
These guys seem to be trying their luck with every female blogger they can('t) lay their hands on by leaving little puppy-notes. (The Orkut variety is decidedly more more pathetic!)

The Crapal Tunnel Syndrome
While these chaps don't seem to suffer from CTS, you can get one by simply having to scroll reams of screens. Reading such posts is like entering a deep, dark tunnel with only a faint hope of light at the end.

The Hyper-Linker
Some deserve 'The Tim Berners-Lee Lifetime Achievement Award' for creating blogs that contain only links. No content, no explanation, just links.

The CutPaste Copycat
This one is like the above, but saves you the trouble of reaching for your mouse. The 'benign' type acknowledges the "stealing" and the 'thief' type seems to be more interested in the AdSense revenue.

The Papal Bull
Cannot help pontificating (Like this post!). Mostly all bull.

Common diseases and ailments:

Verbal Exhibitionisist: They feel morally compelled to follow the adage of "Use it or lose it!" and you are in turn impelled to look up every fourth word in order to stop feeling like a dummy. Those Word-a-Day calendars!

E(pi)-llipses
The kinds who cannot supress the desire to hold the flow of ... Kindly use a .

Bloggorhoea: Too many posts, all full of **it!

Blogstipation: Infrequent and irregular blogs that tend to be painfully produced.

Sigh! Pod

“Curiouser and curiouser!” Cried Alice

Why I feel like Alice. (The thong is a cute idea!)

We Didn't Start the Fire

Last week, a few blogsites were blocked in India by ISPs. Bloggers were up in arms within a click of the 'Publish' button. Now the government is claiming that they wanted to block only 17 or 20 sites and not entire domains and the ISPs screwed up. But, even blocking a single site is an infringement of freedom. The fanatics, cranks and crackpots are the ones who really make the blogosphere interesting and provide endless entertainment. With petitions filed by a number of people, I would like to see how the government now passes the buck.

The Cost of Things

Terrorists committed a heinous, horrible and cowardly crime in Mumbai again today.
Mumbai will be back on its feet again tomorrow and will not let you terrorists scare or rob it of its spirit. Shame on you!

In a way it was an odd coincidence that I went to see Al Gore in an Inconvenient Truth today. I wanted to stay away since I have been subjected to a lot of Powerpoint Poisoning in my short life, but reviews from my labmates, Roger Ebert, Lawrence Lessig and Ashutosh were too overwhelming to ignore. Al Gore makes a presentation - even the great Edward Tufte would approve - that would be no small crime to ignore.

As Al Gore compared 9/11 and global warming, I thought about today's blasts and last year's downpour (which figures in the movie) in Mumbai. I can see why Gore is having so much trouble getting his point across. I am reminded of Peter Sandman (via Freakonomics):

According to risk communications consultant Peter Sandman, “risks that scare people and risks that kill people are different."He uses the equation: Risk is equal to hazard plus outrage (hazard + outrage = risk) to assess situations and determine people's reactions. The equation is quite simple, according to Sandman. "When hazard is high and outrage is low, people under-react and when hazard is low and outrage is high, they overreact."

While the bomb blast toll figures are still being updated, last year 750 people died from torrential, record-setting rains that soaked Mumbai. While murder and violence is definitely deplorable, I consider it one of the great injustices in the world that we cannot punish ourselves or others for being accomplices in the murder of the planet and its ecosystems.

While India is still nowhere near the USA in terms of its emissions, we and other developing countries are fast catching up. While I am all for rapid economic growth, it often and unfortunately correlates with a larger ecological footprint. Will we choose to be different? Historically speaking, we won't. We see this with regards to health: Richer and more educated people are in better health than poorer and less educated counterparts. Substitute people with countries and health with the environment and Bjorn Lomborg's assertion that "... air pollution diminishes when a society becomes rich enough to be able to afford to be concerned about the environment." makes perfect sense (hat tip: Amit Varma).

I am all for economic progress but the environment is too important to be expected to simply piggyback on a prosperous economy. As Jared Diamond has pointed out in his book Collapse - (review), China and India's economic success might be a Pyrrhic victory. "Sin now, atone later", might have worked in the past, but if the Gore charts are to be believed, we might not have the luxury of turning the clock back on the damage done. It is easier said than demonstrated. Only if environmental costs and benefits were as tangible and easily quantifiable as economic success stories via freer markets, or terrorist attacks. Cracking ice-shelves will never beat bomb blasts in terms of outrage.

More:

The best way would be to reconcile market forces and environmental issues. The set of articles in this issue of the Economist make very interesting reading(see). There are some excellent ideas.

But it is very, very tricky.
In one of the examples the writer talks about Panama. It is more economically and environmentally advantageous for Panama to bottle and sell its water from its freshwater lakes than allow it to flow out into the Miraflores locks for operating the Canal, but the US will never allow it.

So even in such cases where both economic and environmental imperatives are aligned reality pans out differently. In any case, sooner or later, rich or poor, the whole planet will have to pay.

The Mathematics of Music

An interesting article from Science on the The Geometry of Musical Chords by Dmitri Tymoczko. See related perspective by Hook.
(email me if you need access)

Water - The Book

You have seen the movie, now read the book! I received a few free copies of Water by Bapsi Sidhwa which is based on the film by Deepa Mehta. I also have umpteen copies of the poster for Water. Send me an email if you want a copy and are willing to pay for postage.
* *
Ashutosh reviewed the movie a few months ago.

India's Competitive Advantage

As the World Cup unfolds, there have been a number of articles and posts talking about - Why is a nation of a billion people not among one of the 32 teams in Germany? Here are a few thoughts that discuss the Ghost of India-in-the-World-Cup; Past, Present and Future . What's wrong, what's being done and what needs to be done. Shall we ever find 22 people to kick a ball around properly?

We might not be competing, but we are definitely participating. I am far from upset; in some sense, India has won the World Cup and the World of Sport. How?
Let me explain.

During the last WC, I was in India and hence could not appreciate or assess our contribution to the World Cup or any global sporting event, for that matter. Germany 2006 is my first experience of watching the World Cup in the company of people from all nations. The first big game Brazil vs. Croatia expectedly drew massive crowds in the 'student lounge'. (Note this exception to this post). Between 11am and 5pm on gamedays, graduate students are clearly not doing much work and can be found lounging in front of the massive TV screen in the Pierpont Commons.
Guess which country has the largest contingent? Mera Bharat Mahan! Isn't it remarkable that we turned out in such large numbers to watch a sport which is not even a minor sport in our country, and for whose biggest prize we have never qualified, except once (even then, we did not make the trip for tragic reasons). Amidst a sea of nations, the rather contented Indian faces (mine included) made me realise India's contribution to Sport. In this era of globalization and capitalism, should we not leverage our competitive advantage? India has a long way to go before calling itself a great sporting nation, but there is no doubt that we are truly the world's finest spectator nation. We would easily win every possible medal if 'Spectating' were a real sport. Why?

1. Sport Omnivores: We are truly catholic in our tastes - we watch anything you can throw at us.
2. Endurance and Stamina: We can watch forever. While the average American tires after 2-3 hrs, we can go on and on. We can watch for days on end. Why is cricket so popular in India? Because it provides so many hours and days of spectating. Too bad that even Tests have to end after 5 days.
3. Professionalism: We don't watch just for petty parochial or nationalistic reasons. We cheer teams from other countries playing sports we don't even play. We are truly professional in our attitude.
4. Intelligence and Agility: It does not take more than a few games, at the most half a season, for the worst among us to pick up the nuances of any sport and start talking like an expert. Plus, we don't even need to leave our armchairs to do this. Take American football or ice-hockey, two sports which most Indians have little experience playing, or would not be able to play even if they wanted to; yet we can advise Peyton Manning what to do next.
5. Indian women also rule: While watching and discussing sports is still largely a male bastion, relative to her sex the Bhaartiya nari kicks some serious **tt. I still do not know of any videshi female who can compete with the Indian female fan. She can often be any man's equal when it comes to watching sports.

So, whatcha worried about? Grab the remote and plonk yourself in the coziest chair. No matter who wins, we have won!

Ode to the Indian Spectator

In the shade, beside the green glade,
Wherever a game is being played;
Fought to be lost or won.
There will be at least one
Quick to grasp and understand
An alien game on an alien strand
Neither does he tire nor does he pespire
Going swifter, stronger and higher
Sports' common denominator
The Great Indian Spectator.

Update: India@the World Cup (from the official website)

More Good News for Coffee Drinkers

A recent study shows that Coffee may prevent Type II diabetes. It's not the caffeine but the anti-oxidants, so decaf coffee is just as good. One more reason to rejoice.

Previous post on the benefits of coffee

Ayn Rand - Darkly Roasted

Gaurav responded to my previous post on 'Ayn Rand' and I felt a few clarifications were due. Enduring a little repetition is not too much to ask of Ayn Rand devotees who are used to ploughing through 1000 or more pages of repetitive rhetoric, but I ask the others for their kind indulgence.

Firstly, I owe Gaurav an apology for calling him an 'Ayn Rand fanatic', which as his post clarifies, he certainly is not. Also, I mistakenly assumed that he is or was an Objectivist. My apologies. Secondly, I also need to apologize for a lack of clarity that suggested ad hominem. I thought that it was quite clear that the sentences in question were observations and chiefly, I assumed that the extensive links on this page and other resources on the web would prove adequate to settle the debate.

On Utility
Hard core Ayn Rand-ians are reluctant to concede what Gaurav and I both agree upon, as he writes,
"I completely agree with Hirak when he says that "Ayn Rand's philosophy is eventually mythical and full of too many big IFs and relying on too many conditions/assumptions for it to really work". He is speaking about the utilitarian value of Rand's ideas. Of course the world is not black and white."
A painting by Picasso doesn't need to have an immediate practical or utilitarian value. It's a painting, it's art; utility is not what it aims for. But is it unfair to demand of Objectivism which claims to be "a philosophy for living on earth", to have at least a few working examples of its practical utility? Doesn't its non-utility make the whole idea rather questionable?

If wishes were really horses?
But, there are lots of ideas that have no utility and they should not be dismissed offhand. So, is this one of them?
Firstly, you can't call Objectivism 'Randian' philosophy, because it borrows endlessly from other philosophers, chiefly Aristotle, Nietzsche and even from her arch-enemy -- Immanuel Kant. All that Rand should get is gift-wrapping credit. Her core ideas and principles have been questioned in articles like WHY I AM NOT AN OBJECTIVIST -
Michael Huemer
.
Personally, I do agree with the broadest brush-strokes of her ideas and who really doesn't? I have no moral objections to what she says, but I do have other objections. The problem with her philosophy is that is pathetically reductive. This is why it is appealingly simple and practically useless. So, as far as living in Rand's ideal world goes, my response is: "What exactly is her ideal world ?" I know what she is trying to say but I don't think she has defined or explained her terms properly. Terms like 'heroic being' or 'happiness' are floating. Like John Galt's motor, which he miraculously managed to conjure up using his reason and individuality, in complete defiance of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, the floating definitions are applied over and over again to create a magnificent edifice. Her concepts and Galt's motor, borrowing from Dennett(who used this analogy distinguish between the ideas of evolution and ID), are 'sky-hooks' as opposed to 'cranes' which are grounded in reality. How does one obtain the ideal government? How do we replace it? What about externalities that are imposed on people? (eg: global warming). In comparison, take Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennett's books which contain radical thoughts and ideas, but which are firmly grounded in reality.

* *
While fanatics are best left alone, there are those who want to debate ideas meaningfully and are willing to re-examine their beliefs. In the course of writing this post I stumbled upon this book -
Intellectual Morons : How Ideology Makes Smart People Fall for Stupid Ideas
. It is a rather ambitious effort that takes on not only Ayn Rand but even Chomsky. I would like to get hold of it and in case you have read it, please leave a short review.

Ayn Rand - The Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster

I had to step forward in defence of coffee. My friend Gaurav is known for his out-of-the-box views, but I think he really crossed the line here when he likened Ayn Rand's philosophy to black coffee. If you wish to be an Ayn Rand fanatic, great! But why blacken coffee's good name in the bargain? Aren't there better smilies out there?

Objectively speaking, Ayn Rand's philosophy is better compared to a Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster - the best drink in the universe, the ultimate drink fantasy. A drink one can logically make since it has a recipe, but only IF you can obtain the ingredients.

However, I am certain that even after having a Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster it will be hard to find any literary merit in Rand's work. But that was never the bone of contention; we are talking about the Ayn Rand Philosophy and Logic Package. A casual search on the web will yield a cornucopia of criticisms of her faulty logic, sloppy scholarship of philosophy and endless borrowing from thinkers and philosophers from the past. These have been discussed at length in any number of articles, some more casually than others. Upon reading the more scholarly ones, I think it would be better to hurl rocks than throw terms like metaphysical_realism, representationalism at you. We will have an Atlas Shrugged size post if we start talking about how the Grand Dame herself couldn't lift the weight of her own lofty ideals - her refusal to submit to peer-review, or willingness to publish opposing views in her own journal, her lover's tiff with one-time protege Nathaniel Branden and her unwillingness to stomach any criticism. In any case, the most common stance of Ayn Rand and her cultists is in the manner recently popularized by George Bush, Jr. - "If you are not with me, then you are against me!". When the Objectivists are not fighting the rest (a.k.a. the Collectivists), they are fighting amongst themselves, thankfully without the use of physical violence.

However at 18, I was very impressed and at that age Ayn Rand reads like nothing you have ever read before and it is very refreshing. I devoured her books and relished them one by one. But, then you grow up and realise even if you are like one of her cardboard cutout superheroes, not many women will want to submit to the really interesting concept of rape as a religious rite. No wonder the BDSM community considers Ayn Rand as one of their mascots. From personal experience, first you believe in Santa Claus, then you believe in Superman, then in Jackie Chan and in that chain, you later believe in Ayn Rand and then you move on.

Like the Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster, Ayn Rand's philosophy is eventually mythical and full of too many big IFs and relying on too many conditions/assumptions for it to really work. I have yet to meet or hear about a real-life John Galt or Howard Roark. Rand, herself confessed in one of her introductions - "My books are not about what things are, but what they should be". Sweet dreams! Even decades later while her theories have still to find consistent practical application, she has not even found much favour with serious scholars of philosophy or literature. Knowing this, the Ayn Rand Institute quite rationally cultivates her largest fanbase -- high-school and college students. I see it as more of a note of regret than of tribute that at her funeral they read Kipling's If.
* *
If you seemed to have missed out on the fun and want a quick start in the Ayn Rand scheme of things then follow these 10 easy steps . Once you master that make sure you don't say the 25 Most Inappropriate Things An Objectivist Can Say During Sex.

I do not wish to be a bore so I suggest that you read links on this page which is the source of many serious, and hilarious links above.

Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

Right from its cover everything about this movie is off-beat. If you are looking for a whimsical composite character check Steve Zissou out. He is Capt. Ahab, Yves-Cousteau, Capt. Haddock and a jaded James Bond all rolled into one. I cannot think of anyone else who can play the eccentric Steve Zissou other than Bill Murray. He manages to be all-at-once full of sadness, reckless bravado and ennui. Zissou says, "I thought I was going to go in a blaze of glory, but I think I am just going home." His best friend gets eaten by a shark, then he bumps into his illegitimate son, no one will finance his expedition, his wife(Anjelica Huston) leaves him, and a rather pregnant Cate Blanchett shows up to write a cover story. What could possibly go wrong here? The boat is then attacked by pirates and the crew threatens mutiny. Still there is no sight of the elusive jaguar shark.
The movie is of the sink-or-swim type. If it does not swim in the first 20 mins it's already a lost cause. But if it manages to hold your attention beyond that then this movie is treat in a way it's really hard to describe. It has so many bizarre things going all at once. Pele is constantly singing David Bowie songs on the acoustic guitar in Brazilian Portuguese. While there is that script girl who is always wandering around topless, the sparkling dialogue is more fascinating. Full credit to Wes Anderson & Noah Baumbach. They shot the Zissou documentaries in the movie using old Ektachrome stock to give it the saturated color look. There is an apparent method in this madness and one wants to indulge the director's idiosyncrasies. Now I sorely want to catch Baumbach's The Squid and the Whale and Wes Anderson's other movies.
* *
Steve Zissou to a pirate: Don't point that gun at him, he's an unpaid intern.
* *
Steve Zissou to the pregnant Jane-Winslet: You really think it's cool for you to hit the sauce with a bun in the oven?
* *
I liked the odd-ball scene where Zissou's team 'attacks' a fellow rival Allison Hennessey's (played by Jeff Goldblum) research station to find it locked.

Ned Plimpton: Who locked us out?
Anne-Marie Sakowitz: No-one, we're trespassing.
Ned Plimpton: Steve, are we allowed in here?
Steve Zissou: It's a scientific community, man.

Then Steve Zissou instructs his team to make off with the scientific equipment including a coffee machine after confirming that it can make cappuchino with the vague promise of returning it. (Coffee does fuel research.)

Two Poems by Wislawa Szymborska

On the lit blog:
Monologue Of A Dog by Wislawa Szymborska

The Mousetrap

In my best David Frost accent -
"According to the Guinness Book of World Records the Mousetrap by Dame Agatha Christie is the world's longest running play. It was first performed in 1952 at the Ambassador Theatre and is still running today at the St. Martin's theatre."

As a quizzer you tend to pick up all kinds of mostly useless information and I knew this fact before I had read any of Agatha Christie's works. The Mousetrap was a really cute Christie trap since it got me interested in reading her books, except the play in question which was hard to get hold of. Finally, I did get hold of the script and I was a little disappointed with this just-about-average Christie plot. I can imagine that the lighting, the colorful cast of characters and the eerie-in-the-context tune of the The Three Blind Mice might make a stage version more appealing, yet one would not think that this would be the story that will keep audiences entertained for 50 years. In any case, the play is a rich source of all kinds of trivia and the Wiki Page explains another question I always had - "Okay, you have the book and the play, where's the movie?"

BTW: For a long time, Guinness was more the book than the beer. Well, you live and learn.

Expose to Propose

A local naked story which might have been caused by the summer heat.

How's Life? It depends on the liver

I have already confessed . Now, since I have my a coffee machine on my desk a couple of cups a day is not uncommon. Coffee addition along with periodic depression and frustration are one of the occupational hazards of being a graduate student. In a recent trip to Pittsburgh, we wanting a quick caffeine fix so that we could stay awake during the talks. We stepped out in search of a coffee shop and I wondered, "How many minutes (seconds) does it take to wander in a college town without seeing a sign for a coffee shop?"
According to me - less than 100.
After obtaining our daily caffeine fix from the coffee machine, my labmate Tim and I often joculate (joke + speculate) if coffee drinkers will be in the position smokers find themselves today. In a few decades will studies show that excessive coffee drinking poses serious health risks? Will we ruefully say, while desperately trying to get rid of a serious coffee addiction -
"In our times everybody drank coffee. A pot of coffee a day was not uncommon. There were coffee shops on every corner and places like Starbucks were seen as cool places to hang out. Now they tell us that it is bad. Eat tofu instead."
So far, all research has shown that there are clear benefits to drinking coffee and the latest finding about coffee is even more encouraging Coffee & your Liver.

Protest, but protect yourself

If you try this at home, or in your city in addition to a helmet and a pair shoes I would highly recommend wearing bike shorts.

Inspiring story of a scientist

Please ignore the previous post. Even picking up the telephone might be rather unnecessary. This is a truly inspiring story of Theodore Hapner who has taken great risks to take the scientific method into uncharted waters ...

"Only months after abandoning a tenured position at Lehigh University, maverick chemist Theodore Hapner managed to disprove two of the three laws of thermodynamics and show that gold is a noxious gas, turning the world of scienceÂ?defined for centuries by exhaustive research, painstaking observation, and hard-won theoriesÂ?completely on its head."
(Read more...)

I would like to see such stories published in the Reader's Digest under the Stories to Inspire You section.

Academic Snake Oil

Got this in an email this morning and I would like to share it others who just might want to get on with life.


"Contact us NOW to receive your diploma within days, and start improving your life!

Bachelors, Masters, MBA and/or Doctorate (PhD)

NO ONE is turned down.
Call Now 7 days a week.

1-206-984-0002

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, with the following degrees, here is how much you can
expect to make in your lifetime:
High School Diploma: $1,100,000
Bachelors Degree: $2,100,000
Masters Degree: $2,500,000
Doctorate: $4,400,000
You Need a Better Degree, and we can Help!
Obtain degrees from Prestigious Universities based on you life experience.
NO ONE is turned down.
Call Now 7 days a week, 24 hours a day.

1-206-984-0002

Regards,
Professor. Barton Vick "

I am thinking of ordering two doctoral degrees.
Quack! Quack!

Burmese Days

See review of George Orwell's Burmese Days on the Lit. Blog

1-888-5-OPT-OUT

Another Friday afternoon; I fish in the mailbox and there is the usual pre-approved credit card application. Those folks in Wilmington, Delaware and that place in North Dakota must really love me to keep sending me this stuff again and again, often more than once a week.
I walk upstairs and enjoy the ritual of brutally ripping the envelope. It is so flattering to get these mails from them extolling my excellent financial record and my credit rating that they have made the 'simple' decision of pre-approving me for their Platinum/Gold/Rewards card with its customized clear plastic design with x % Cashback bonus/0% Intro APR/Balance Transfer. This time I saw a note at the bottom written in the fashion of the statutory warnings on cigarette packets:

You can choose to stop receiving prescreened offers of credit from us and other companies by calling toll-free 1-888-5-OPT-OUT

Really? I could be free of these people? who unfailingly find me despite the fact that I have moved 6 times in 3 years and given them no hints! (Yet, magazines that I subscribe to have not managed to implement this auto-detect mechanism. Why?) These people have persisted year after year, week after week despite the fact that I never once took up any of their offers. Now, I have the chance to be free of them forever. I almost pick up the phone to call and then hesitate.

If I take this step, there will be no more mails in the mailbox on most days. If it wasn't for them the mailman would think that I was probably dead or had moved without a forwarding address. I mean these people are the only ones who write to me in the old-fashioned way, using snail mail, and acknowledge my existence on this planet. Compared to email spam, this junk-mail is rather benign. These are people who flatter me by sending me these lovely letters and not the ones who try to demoralize me by suggesting that I need to enlarge my ___ ! Who in the world is willing to write testimonial after testimonial to my exemplary character and fiscally reponsible self? And what about all that fun of ripping open those envelopes and then gleefully chucking them in the bin? I am not quite ready to say good-bye to all that. Take me off your list... but not yet.

Update - 8th June, 2006
Not surprisingly, most folks have been irked by the junk. For more practical suggestions see: Reduce Junkmail.