Monday, December 27, 2010

CGI as an Art-form?

We saw it last year with Avatar and again this year with Tron Legacy: spectacular special effects, no real story to speak of.

CGI (computer generated imagery) has evolved by leaps and bounds over the years. The original 1982 Tron is movie is one of the earliest examples of use of CGI in a movie. In fact, the original Tron wasn't nominated for awards in special effects because people felt they'd cheated by using computers. Today, it would be unthinkable to NOT use a computer for special effects.

CGI can be spectacular. As Avatar showed us last year, you can make a grandly successful movie by just showing people something on screen that hasn't been seen before. But Avatar got a lot of flak for it's lack of a serious storyline. More so did Tron where only a semblance of a story was maintained, if at all. But Tron was spectacular too.

Perhaps it is time to see CGI as an art form in itself and free it from the yolk of movie-like story-telling? Would it not be better if, rather than having to sit through a 2 hour atrocity, we could just go watch a short (like a music video) and get our fill of eye candy? I think the web can become an efficient platform for CGI as an art form.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Apples and Oran..., er, Mangoes

I'm reading this fascinating book called 'The Botany of Desire' by Michael Pollan. I must confess I have become something of a fan of Michael Pollan. It is hard to place his writing. It's non-fiction but I don't know what else to call it. He has a knack for combining history with folk-lore, scientific truth and a very poetic understanding of this world together into an engrossing reading. He is a miracle worker with words because nothing else explains why I'm so enamoured with a chapter about apples.

Yes, apples. Pollan traces the history of apples in the American continent. Apples were, of course, brought to America by the Europeans. But then they gained a life of their own in the New World. Pollan takes us on a journey through the life of the legendary and somewhat mythical Johnny Appleseed who is credited with the rise of apple in the US. He tells us about the origins of many different varieties of apples, the Red Delicious being the most prominent of them, and diversity that existed during the heyday of the apple. He finally brings us to rest in an exploitative monoculture that favours a few choice varieties over the myriad flavours that apple had to offer in the days gone by.

Apples in the US have some of the same status that mangoes do in the Indian subcontinent. But they are fruits separated by the gulf of time. The mango is an ancient fruit. It is entrenched in the Hindu religious life as no other fruit. The wood used in a yagya is often mango. Mango leaves are auspicious decoration on happy occasions. India cuisine is infused with mangoes -- chutney, pickle, aamras, or just eaten raw and ripe. There are hundreds of varieties of mango, each different and distinct.

The apple is similar. It is infused in the American life in the same way. There are hundreds of varieties, each distinct. And there is the cider, the pie, the sauce and what not. But unlike it's sub-continental counterpart, it's a modern fruit. It's been first domesticated and then industrialised. It's part in culture has been decided as much by tradition as by trade and commerce. "An apple a day keeps the doctor away" is a clever marketing slogan. It's breeding criteria -- beauty and sweetness -- are dictated by the exigencies of being able to market the fruit in superstores.

Reading the book, I realised how difficult it is for an outsider to really know a culture. Growing up in India, one has a very different relationship to the mango. One has seen mango groves, climbed on mango trees, seen one's grandmother pickle raw mangoes. Growing up in the the US, one sees cider presses and apple orchard and grandma's making apple sauce and apple pies. It is hard for an outsider to have the same relationship with the cardinal fruits of another culture.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Cooking and Baking

These days I’m reading the book “A Place of My Own” by Michael Pollan. In this book, the author, tired of living in a world of words and ideas (he’s a writer/journalist/editor by profession) decides to build himself a cabin out in the woods much like in ‘Walden’ by Thoreau.

The author notes that while writing is like cooking, architecture is like baking. With cooking you have a general plan but after that you improvise. You can take liberties with what you throw into the pan and how long you stir the pot. Baking is more precise. The ingredients must be mixed in a just so proportion, the over just this hot and for just this long.

Really made me wonder how baking-centered American cuisine is. (Some of you might be sniggering at this -- the stereotype is that Americans don’t cook.) Indeed, everything you but at the store comes with precise instructions on how to cook it. Families cherish ‘recipes’, again precise instructions on how to make what. There seems to be a lack of cooking styles like various regional styles in India or the shechuan and hunan styles in Chinese cuisine. Indeed, an American friend how was learning Indian cooking had great difficulty wrapping her mind around that idea that there was no recipe to follow. We all just have a general idea of how stuff is made and then just improvise over it.

The fast food and processed food industry continues with this mentality. It is sad that fast food and ready to eat meals have taken over to such an extent that real cooking has been relegated to expensive ‘gourmet’ restaurants. It’s hard to find inexpensive slow cooked food in America.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Information Addiction

It has been quite some time since I’ve had a long stretch of uninterrupted reading. This isn’t due to lack of time. This is due to the availability of a computer with internet. As soon as I encounter a word or phrase that I do not understand I need to google its meaning. Coming across a reference to another book, author, movie or historical fact triggers another session of googling. And it’s only after several minutes of information consumption that I’m able to get back to what I was reading. Needless to say, the flow of reading is completely destroyed.

The internet has made us addicted to information. We have to satisfy our curiosity right now. We cannot wait even a minute!

This is changing the way we consume information in two key ways.

Breadth vs. Depth
Before the internet, information was difficult to obtain. You had to go to a library to look up information. Most information was available in long form – books and articles. The number of sources was limited. As a result, information consumption was depth first. We used to read something in its entirety, say a book. Of course, several things piqued our interest. But we decided to follow through with one or two of these curiosities. And so on. This led to a consumption pattern that led us depth first into a subject. Or at least our progression was linear.

Compare this to what happens with the internet. We search for something and a hundred results pop up. We open many of these in tabs. Each tab possibly leads to several more tabs. We quickly scan through the gist of each page, often being led far away from our original topic very soon. We learn about a wide variety of subjects which are only loosely related at best. We might even get distracted by lolcats and giving up our quest for knowledge altogether. That is, our consumption is shallow, breadth first. We learn a little bit about a whole lot of topics.

Since information is so easily available, we do not spend much effort into remembering stuff anymore. This makes our consumption even shallower. We learn a little bit about a wide variety of subjects and retain very little of it.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Saving Time

The famous Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano says, “I’m not particularly interested in saving time; I prefer to enjoy it.”

What a delightful way to put it. Indeed, many of us are so busy saving time that we hardly get any time to enjoy it. The urge to save time comes from a culture that teaches us to defer enjoyment for a later time. We work hard at college so we can get a cushy job and enjoy all the money. We work hard five days a week so we can party on the weekend. We work hard through our youth so we can retire in luxury.

Of course, getting a good education, doing well at your job and planning for the future are important. But what stops us from slowing down a little, doing less, wanting less and just enjoying what we have? What stops us from focusing on the few important things, doing them well and enjoying them as we ride along?

So stop saving time today and take the time to enjoy it.

Friday, December 17, 2010

For Minimalist Living – Finish it Off!

Do you

1. Start a new book before finishing the current one?
2. Buy more food before the fridge is empty?
3. Buy new appliances before the ones you own break down?
4. Buy new clothes before the current ones become unwearable?
5. Move on to a new hobby project before you finish this one?

If the answer to any of these questions is yes then you should probably consider finishing it off! Finishing it off is a great way for minimalist living. Do not move onto a new thing before you've finished off the current one. Consume less, spend less and find more time and space for what you really care for.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Mathematics Education and Software Freedom

Conrad Wolfram has an interesting suggestion. He says that kids spend most of their time in school learning how to do arithmetic by hand (long division and such like). This is not only tedious and boring it’s also stupid to do it by hand when we have computers! Computers are good at precisely these kinds of repetitive tasks. Instead of spending grueling hours practicing long divisions, kids should be formulating problems, thinking logically and exploring realistic problems.

According to him, math education should be computer based, using programming at its core.

I agree with this, more or less.

However, there’s a curious thing about doing long division on pen and paper. Once you learn doing that, it’s yours. You can go home and do it on another sheet of paper with another pen. You can go on the beach and do it on the sand with a stick. (Yes, a rather sad way to spend your time on the beach.) You can go mountain climbing and carve it out on a rock with a chisel. You can travel to another country and teach it to a foreigner. You can write and sell a book explaining how it works.

In other words, you own long division. You can do with it as you please. You don’t have to buy it from somebody. You don’t have to pay royalties every time you use it.

However, you have to do those things with computer software.

What software are we going to use to teach our kids math? It is going to run on windows? If yes, can he come back home to a Mac and do his homework? What language is he going to program in? Will he be able to run his program on another compiler on another platform? Is he required to pay a royalty to someone every time he needs to run his software? Will he be able to share his work with his buddies?

Remember that Wolfram is not talking about using computers to teach math. He’s talking about using computers to do the math. He isn’t talking about presentation and animations. He’s talking about programming and simulations.

It is clear that unless a completely free and open software environment is adopted for learning, we run the risk of teaching our kids knowledge that’s owned in large parts by one or two companies. Free software is going to play a key role in how learning takes place in the 21st century.

Monday, December 13, 2010


Today we feature a guest post by Behzad Larry.

I moved to Kigali, Rwanda this October. Kigali is a spectacular city- not in the way that New York or Paris are spectacular, but rather because of it's order and uniformity. Qualities that make it the most unique city I have ever lived in.

The main roads are well paved and wide. The traffic is orderly. And the city is clean. Clean? What? Let's take a step back- I know what dirty is. I know what filthy is. I know what downright disgusting looks like. I have stood in the middle of one of the filthiest landfills in India, I’ve breathed in the putrid stench, and I've re-visited it, over and over. For two whole years, I spent most of my waking hours thinking about trash, planning about trash, or looking at trash. I can discuss efficiency rates for compactors and hook-loaders, lecture on concepts of zero-waste, and then some.

What I can't do is come to terms with how clean Kigali is.

The very first thing that struck me as the taxi wound through Kigali's hills towards what would be my home for the next few months, was the stupendous lack of visible garbage. On every sidewalk in New York City one can see an overflowing trash can. There are piles of black 50 gallon bags on alternate sides of the streets. Garbage is a part of life. Our parking system accommodates our compactors along with their slow daily progress through the mountains of trash that the city of New York generates.

It is much more personal in India. There, we can often pin-point that empty plot of land in our neighborhood where all the trash seems to end up. We see the litter as we walk on the roads, even when we drive through the countryside. Plastic bags, crushed water bottles, decaying vegetable matter. All these are familiar sights.

I've been thinking for a very long time now for a solution that will drive us to cleanliness in our cities. Nothing exemplary, just basic sanitation. We do have rules about all this- stuff to force us into behaving. I'm no saint, I've littered on the street, I've tossed that wrapper in the gutter. But then, it's not like the rules on disposing our waste are the only ones we openly flaunt. India is rated 87th on the international corruption perceptions index. 87 out of 178. We don't need Wikipedia to tell us that we are corrupt, though. We know that. A cursory look at the Times of India can tell us that. Scam and ghotala. We know these words well.

But how are corruption scandals, scams that scalp the tax-payer, and a blatant disregard for the rules that govern the disposal of our trash connected?

Move, if you will, your minds back to Rwanda now.

President Kagame is hard on corruption. His government does not tolerate it. Is there still corruption? Sure. So how is it different? Instead of hearing in the news about a new scam, or another corrupt official, one reads about their arrest. One reads about the repercussions and reactions to corruption and corrupt officials. This has an effect that can be seen on the street. It means that someone is enforcing the law. This means that the fines connected to littering are imposed when a litterer is caught.

Enforcement- that is what we lack. Respect for the law cannot come without respect for it's enforcers. And respect cannot be given to the corrupt. Nor can we claim it if we enable the corrupt. Are the bribers as guilty as the one's taking the bribe? Perhaps. One can argue that if one did not bribe, the work would not be done. Or one could argue that if no one gave bribes then no one would ask for them. But life is not a zero sum game. Neither is Kigali, or Rwanda. Outward order, with proper enforcement, is very possible- but one should not make the mistake of trying to understand a society merely through it's external facade.

In the same way, though our image is marred by our corrupt, and often times dirty exterior, we must dig deeper to understand how to bring effective and long lasting change to India. If a strong president and a unified cabinet can bring such remarkable change to Rwanda, a country that experienced a horrific genocide and civil war only 16 years ago, then perhaps there are lessons we must earnestly learn.

It is easy to blame inept leaders. It is easier still to not vote. It is easiest of all to complain.

Change, however, is only possible if we decide to act. If we decide to participate, and if we decide to lead.

Behzad J. Larry is Director of Policy and Development at the Open Learning Exchange (OLE). OLE's mission is to support the spread of literacy and numeracy through the adoption of open educational resources by providers of basic education world-wide. Previously, Behzad spent a year working in Patna, India on solid waste management initiatives as a William J. Clinton Fellow. He implemented a livelihood generating recycling project for rag-picking women and developed and executed the master plan for solid waste management for the city of Muzaffarpur, Bihar. Behzad currently resides in Kigali, Rwanda.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Re-reading Harry Potter

I’m re-reading Harry Potter novels these days. Rather slowly, I must admit because I’m really busy on other fronts. However, some observations are interesting to note.

1. I’ve read too much by now. I last read Harry Potter in high-school. That was between 2001 and 2003, I guess. I think it was the very first fantasy I’d ever read. I was amazed. Rowling seemed so imaginative and new and cool. I was completely floored. Since then, I’ve read Tolkien, Gaiman, Pratchett, and several others. Rowling doesn’t seem that cool anymore. She doesn’t even seem like a very skilled writer. Don’t get me wrong. She’s still fun, but not that much anymore.

2. I’m noting how she has so many woman characters. Of course, there’s Harry and Ron and Dumbledore and Snape. But then there’s also Hermione, Ginny, McGonnagal and several other woman characters. Quidditch is a co-ed sport which has more than a single token girl in it. Maybe this is the reason for Harry Potter’s immense popularity. Many books alienate at least half their audience by being male-centric.

3. I noticed how Rowling ‘writes in scenes’. While this technique is often taught in writing workshops, I’m not entirely sure this is the best way to write. That’s why she doesn’t come out as a skilled writer in a re-read. That might also be the reason why the Harry Potter movie adaptations aren’t as good. The book too strictly defines every scene. Becomes harder for the script writer to change anything and not spoil the effect. Compare this to the Lord of the Rings which is writer in the epic format and was wonderfully adapted to screen.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Smartphones and Tablets are Spurting OS Diversity

Everyone knows how I’m not happy with the growth of smartphones and tablets because I believe they are cluttering our lives with too many devices that we may not really need. However, I am happy about one thing – they are increasing OS diversity.

Long ago, computing hardware was inextricably linked to software. Every brand of machine came with its operating system. Then Microsoft and IBM teamed up and came up with the idea of IBM compatibles. All the myriad OSes died out and all we had left was Windows, Mac OS and Linux. (Sure, there are others but they weren’t major players anymore.)

But with the advent of smartphones and tablets, the diversity in the OS ecosystem is back. We have the iOS, Andriod, Symbian, Blackberry OS, MeeGo, Windows Mobile and what not. Sure, not all of them are open but at least we don’t run the risk of a Microsoft like monopoly in the smartphone and tablet market.

All is not hunky-dory, of course. I’d really like to see more openness in this market segment. Wouldn’t it be fun to see the iOS run on the Driod X?

Friday, December 10, 2010

Corporations are Bad for Dissent

Wikileaks has become big news with what is now being called cablegate. The merits and demerits of wikileaks and the morality and ethics of the way governments are trying to silence them are matters of debate. I do not wish to get into this debate on my blog. I do however want to point out one crucial lesson we can all learn from the whole fiasco.

I think we can all agree that dissent and freedom of speech is fundamental for a healthy democracy. The idea is that dissent is the internal check and balance that keeps people in power doing the right thing, brings about needed changes and challenges established notions.

But the wikileaks scandal has shown how easy it has become for governments to squash dissent in the internet age. A massive denial of service attack was launched on wikileaks. Their move to the Amazon cloud was promptly shut down too. Paypal then refused to handle payments for wikileaks. Their DNS service was shut down. And now it seems that twitter is censoring its trending topics to not show wikileaks at all.

I won’t be surprised if ISPs are asked to completely block wikileaks.

The problem here is that while people and institutions take moral and ethical stands (see statement by a SIPA dean), corporations don’t. Corporations care about profit and not freedom of speech or dissent or human rights. We may harp about the freedom of the internet and all that but the truth is, a vast majority of the internet infrastructure is owned by corporations and there is no way that’s going to lead to any freedom or the so called democratization of information.

To be clear again, I’m not defending or attacking wikileaks here. I’m just saying that corporations are bad for dissent and that the internet is not the magical democratic tool that it’s often made out to be.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Don’t Do Zazen When You Want to Do It

I’ve been practicing Zazen meditation for a few months now. As a newbie to meditation, it’s been a challenge incorporating Zazen in my life. The first and foremost issue of course was making time for it in my daily schedule. I started with doing meditation in the evening after getting back from work. This worked for me because that’s when I felt least guilty about taking time out for myself. Also, I am not an early riser.

But as I progressed in my practice I discovered that it also tended to become an escape mechanism. Procrastination is a major problem for me and Zazen became a way to avoid work. As soon as I was faced with work that I didn’t want to do I’d sit down to do meditation. The good think about Zazen is that as you watch your thoughts flit about in your cranium, their nature becomes evident soon.

So here’s what I did.

I’ve now decided on a strict timetable. I do not do meditation outside of the allotted time. The funny thing is, once you allot a fixed time, you never feel like doing it at that time. And once that time is passed you feel like doing it all the time – to avoid doing something else.

Hence – don’t do Zazen when you want to do it. Do it when you’re required to do it.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Dirty India and Ritual Purity

The first thing that Indians notice when they travel abroad is the difference in public cleanliness. And this isn’t just limited to comparisons with the US or Europe. A friend is right now working in Rwanda and says it’s the cleanest place he’s ever seen. Another friend who visited Ethiopia recently had reports the same from there. Makes me wonder – why is India so dirty?

Of course, there’s that general lack of civil sense in Indians. There’s high population density and the consequent inadequacy of infrastructure. (Although I don’t quite buy the population argument. Sure, there’s a lot more trash to clean but there are also lot more people to clean it, right?) But I also wonder if the brahminical concept of ritual purity has something to do with it too.

When we do a pooja at our house, the remains of the ceremony are supposed to be discarded in a manner that prevents their desecration – they shouldn’t get under one’s feet, for example. Sometimes you feed them to animals or throw them in a river. It’s the latter that my mother often insists on doing. Never mind that the river is so dirty that I wouldn’t step into it even if someone paid me to do it. On any given day, my feet are positively sterilized compared to the river. And yet, the river is more “pure” than my feet.

The same is true for all of our major rivers like the Ganga and the Yamuna which are facing a pollution crisis. It’s ironical that we don’t bother to keep our holiest of holy rivers clean.

This time during my India trip I was forced to visit the Khajrana temple in Indore. (I often have to be forced into temple visits.) It struck me as oddly dilapidated and unclean. There was trash and rubble all around. The walls looked like they hadn’t been painted in ages. Again, ironical that one of the most holy temples of the city (and also the richest) should be this unclean.

Makes me think that Indians aren’t really bothered about real physical cleanliness. As long as the ritual of cleanliness is maintained, they’re happy. As long as the pooja remnants are thrown in the river, they’re happy. As long as no one wears a leather belt in the temple, they’re happy. Who cares if there are heaps of trash in the temple and sewer slurry in the river?

This attitude probably carries into other spheres as well.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Lessons Learnt from Blogging, Phase 2

I started blogging in 2005. I was barely past my second year in college and undoubtedly young and naïve. Over time, the focus on blogging has waxed and waned. As regular readers of the blog must have noticed, there has been a sudden flood of posts on this blog. I’m calling it blogging phase 2.

Some lessons have been learnt from over two months of posting each day. Two months might not seem that long but writing one post every day isn’t easy. I admire those who write more. Here’s what I’ve learnt.

1. Be regular. The most important way to maintain your readership is to be regular. As a reader, I myself do not like bloggers who are irregular or sporadic. Decide a posting frequency for yourself and stick to it. I do one post per day. Some bloggers do twice a week. Other, highly prolific ones post several times a day.

2. Say something interesting. Put yourself in the shoes of a reader and imagine what they’d find utterly boring. Then don’t write that.

3. Pay attention to the design. Design your blog with care. Make it pretty but not gaudy. I’ve chosen a minimalist design which emphasizes the latest post and recent comments. Do not cram your blog with non-essential widgets and make it ugly.

4. Find avenues to promote your blog. Twitter and facebook are okay but they often get limited to just your friends. Find other avenues to promote your blog. Avoid sites that are too big. Go for medium sized ones. I found that was very useful for me. It is a network of Indian bloggers.

5. Maintain privacy. I have posts from my younger days that I’m embarrassed of now. Most often these are about friends or people I know. Be careful while mentioning people on your blog. What seems like a good rant today might become embarrassing when your anger has cooled down or 5 years later when you can’t even remember the person you wrote about.

6. Do not stare at statcounter. Staring does not bring more readers. Go do you work. Let statcounter do its.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Why Buttons are better than Touchscreens

The current trend in technology is to replace all screens with touchscreens. The trend has started with smartphones and is gradually spreading to netbooks, ebook readers, tablets and also mainstream computers. I can’t say I’m happy with this trend.

Sure, touchscreens look nifty and flash and when they’d first come out I was completely floored. The idea that you could touch something on the screen and have it respond was completely miraculous. Out went the mouse and keyboard. You could do anything on the screen. Having lived with touchscreens for a couple of years now, I’m not so sure.

But before I tell you why I don’t like touchscreen, let me tell you why I do like them. Touchscreens are very good for “point-and-click” operations – typically the kind of stuff that you’d do with a mouse. What better pointing device than your hand? Instead of using the mouse as a metaphor for the moving cursor on screen, you can directly touch what you want to touch. That’s why touchscreens work great on things like smartphones or tablets. It makes up for a missing mouse on these devices.

What a touchscreen doesn’t make up for is the keyboard. A keyboard is good because it helps the user form spatial memory. Edit -> Copy will always be on a different location on screen. But CTRL + C will always be at the same location on the keyboard. Think touch typing – the whole idea is that spatial memory makes you much more efficient at doing well practiced jobs. I’m also a big fan of dedicated buttons for volume control, playback etc.

Moreover, a virtual keyboard on screen takes up too much screen real estate. There is no physical response. Physical response is shown to increase the accuracy of typing.

So touchscreens are okay for small devices because providing a full-fledged keyboard is difficult there. But for slightly larger devices, keyboards rule. I don’t, however, have anything against throwing the mouse out!

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Computer Distractions – Too Many Choices

An overwhelming amount of our modern lives are being spent in front of a screen. While computing devices are useful tools to get a myriad of jobs accomplished, they are also a major source of distractions.

Why are computers so distracting? Human beings have been using tools for millennia. Yet, it wasn’t until the invention of computers that we started getting distracted by our tools.

Part of the problem, of course, is that computers are not just tools but also media for communications. As you work on a computer, you are constantly barraged with an endless volley of emails, tweets, instant messages and facebook updates. It is hard to keep track of all this information.

But even if you turn off the internet, computers are still distracting. If you use a word processor to write your documents, it is not unheard of to be lost, fascinated by the many functions, the in-built thesaurus or the wonderful drawing tools.

Computers are distracting because they offer too many choices. We don’t get distracted by a screwdriver. That’s because all you can do with a screwdriver is screw screws. It doesn’t offer any more choices.

Thus the trick to taming computer distractions is to limit your choices. It might seem like an alien idea in the modern consumerist culture, but it is a good idea. Simplify your software and online life. Limit your choices and see the kind of difference that makes in your life.

Here are some suggestions

1. Don’t install too many software that provide the same functionality. Have one software per functionality. For example, keep one word processor, one email client, one media player or one web browser installed. Uninstall all software you do not need.

2. Prefer simple software to complex one. A text editor is enough to write text. You don't always need a full fledged word processor. Don't use a lathe machine where a pen-knife would suffice.

3. When possible re-use software functionality. For example, if your needs simple, you might just keep all your notes as documents. No need to use a dedicated note taking software. You might use your video player to play audio files. Of course this may or may not work for you depending on your needs. For example, you might be a music collector and want something more sophisticated to manage your collection.

4. Do one task at a time. I do this by maximizing all my windows and focusing only on one window at a time.

5. Try opening as few tabs in the browser as possible. I like to limit myself to a number that completely covers the width of my screen.

6. Try limiting the number of online services that you use. If you’re on facebook, try deleting your orkut or myspace or twitter accounts. Don’t worry about ‘losing touch’ with people. If they really think it important to communicate with them, there’s always email or phone.

Some time ago, renowned computer scientist Donald Knuth said that he’d stopped checking email. He said that “Email is a wonderful thing for people whose role in life is to be on top of things. But not for me; my role is to be on the bottom of things.” He only accepts physical letters now.

While shutting off email might be disastrous for us mere mortals, his sentiment is worth thinking about.


Saturday, December 04, 2010

Stumps All Around

Dilip D’Souza wrote about how a stump of concrete remains outside Bandra station. The concrete pillar was erected to support a skywalk when it was being built. Once it was done, no one really cared to remove the now useless stump of concrete. We love to build skywalks but don’t clear out the rubble.

We have such stumps everywhere. I remember with much annoyance how they used to dig up water or telephone or electricity or some such thing in my neighborhood but never pave it over once it was done. Often, they wouldn’t even fill it up again. The dug up mud cause inconvenience for the residents for months! Moreover, there used to be absolutely no coordination between departments. Following Murphy’s law to the word, the telephone dept. HAD to dig the whole road up as soon as it was paved anew.

A couple of years ago my home town got a brand new city bus system. Mucho money was spent and new bus stops made. They had those modern aluminum cladding. The aluminum cladding was put in but the plastic covers on them were never removed. What’s the point of having a flashy design if you never unwrap it?

When I visited India this time, I had to spend a whole night at the New Delhi station. Since I had a 3AC ticket, I got to sit in the “Upper Class” waiting room. Apparently the only difference between an “Upper Class” waiting room and a “General Class” waiting room is the AC. The Upper Class waiting room had a split AC in one corner which wasn’t running because it was November. It also had a false ceiling that I always tend to associate with too much money.

It had a toilet which was, well, a railway station toilet. There also was a huge dust-bin in the corner which was, well, a railway station dust bin. Why they could spend money on an AC and a false ceiling and not on a clean toilet and dust bin is beyond my comprehension. I’d much rather have a clean toilet than an AC any day.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Vestiges of the Varnashrama System

It is sometimes surprising how deeply ingrained in the subcontinent some concepts of Hindu philosophy are. One such concept is the whole idea that when you’re young, the only thing you’re supposed to do is studies and only studies and anything and everything else is completely forbidden. And that once you’re done with that, the thing you’re immediately supposed to do is marry and that you’ll be able to switch between these two completely different lives at the snap of a finger. Totally successfully too.

How often have you heard things like – “college ye sab karne aye ho ki padhne aye ho”? (Have you come to college to study or do all this?) Or, “abhi apne career par dhyaan lagao, ye sab baad mein kar lena”. (Pay attention to your career right now, do all this later.)

Nothing could be more absurd. Life doesn’t come to a standstill just because you’re going to college. You will have other aspiration, feelings and desires. And it is not wrong to shape your life around them.

It seems ridiculous that all you’re supposed to do until college is study and then suddenly within a year or two you’re supposed to get married and take on the full-fledged responsibility of being married. They don’t even give you much time before you’ve got to have kids!

Thursday, December 02, 2010

A (Re) Definition of Karma

Karma is a fundamental concept in Hindu, Jain, Buddhist and Sikh philosophies. Like any other concept, there are many definitions of the word. As Rama Kandra in the Matrix says, karma is a word. It is a way of saying “what I’m here to do”. What is it that I’m here to do?

The basis of karmic theory is the idea of causation – that every event has a cause and every action has a consequence. Thus, to understand what you’re here to do, you must understand cause and consequence.

You open your refrigerator, fetch a can of soft drink, pop it open and take a swig. A simple action: but a culmination of complex causes and the initiation of complex consequences. Whence does this soft drink come from? Where was it made? Who made it? Did it pollute the environment that it was made in? Were the people who made it given fair wages? Did people have to leave their homes and livelihood for the factory to be set up? Where politicians bribed, media played with to obtain permit to set up that factory? Was advertising subtly used to manipulate you into desiring something that you don’t really need? What does the intense amount of sugar and caffeine do when you gulp down this drink which you’ve been deluded into believing is refreshing? When you throw away the can, where does it go? What becomes of it?

Are you here to drink that can of soft drink? When you understand the causes and consequences of that simple action, you may be able to answer that question. Or you may not. Or the answer may change as you understand better. Sometimes understanding may become an end in itself.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

The Success of Linux

Every year, at an indeterminate time, we start getting a slew of articles on the interwebs titled, ‘The Year 20XX is going to be the Year of the Linux Desktop’. Or something like that. Or, ‘the Year of the Linux Server’. Or proving what the market percentage of Linux is and how it’s much more than Windows or OS X. Or way less. Or how it’s rising. Or how netbooks would put Linux into the lay consumer’s hand.

I can understand where all these articles are coming from. It is every geek’s pipe dream to see Linux running on every single item of computing hardware sold. We want Linux to be everywhere. We want Linux to be the boss. We want Linux to be successful!

But it really depends on how you define success isn’t it? I doubt if Linux is going to break the hegemony of proprietary OSes anytime soon. But to me, the existence of Linux is success enough. The very fact that free and open source software can not only exist but also flourish is remarkable. Sometimes the existence of an alternative is enough to make the mainstream less sinister than it could actually be without the alternative. Linux acts as a deterrent to complete monopoly. It acts as a safety valve in ideology and practice.

So for me, Linux is already successful. Of course, I still dream about World Domination ™ in the future. But success is already here.


Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Harry Potter and Internet Search

I am re-reading ‘Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone’ these days and found this paragraph to be utterly amusing:

They had indeed been searching books for Flamel’s name ever since Hagrid had let it slip, because how else were they going to find out what Snape was trying to steal? The trouble was, it was very hard to know where to begin, not knowing what Flamel might have done to get himself into a book. He wasn’t in Great Wizards of the Twentieth Century, or Notable Magical Names of Our Time; he was missing, too, from Important Modern Magical Discoveries, and A Study of Recent Developments in Wizardry. And then, of course, there was the sheer size of the library; tens of thousands of books; thousands of shelves; hundreds of narrow rows.

So real life is now better than magic, eh? If they’d been muggles in 2010, all they’d need to do is type ‘Nicholas Flame’ and press enter!

Monday, November 29, 2010

Is Stargate Universe going the Battestar Galactica Way?

I must say the more I watch Stargate Universe, the more it surprises me. It did start with the basic stargate premise. The crew lands on board ‘Destiny’ and ancient ship en-route the far reaches of the galaxy. It as a stargate on it and frequently makes stops in nearby star systems. With that kind of premise, you’d have expected a standard stargate storyline – go on new worlds, meet new aliens, gather token ethnic crew members, bring democracy to oppressed aliens by miraculously killing all their overly powerful overlords and be the good guys.

However, that’s NOT what SGU did. Instead we have a motley crew stranded on this ship with limited resources, lots of enemies and nowhere to turn back. We get people strugging emotionally with all the hardship and separation of loved ones. We get a detailed development of characters who aren’t clearly good or bad. We get a slow meandering storyline in which action takes a back seat and drama reigns supreme.

It’s hard to get used to all this, having years and years of stargate expectations in your head. And at times the whole thing does feel a bit awkward – especially the sentimental musical slow motion shots just don’t feel right on a show bearing the stargate name. But as the cast and crew get more used to this kind of storytelling, the viewers also get more and more absorbed into this completely different kind of stargate.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Movie Part 1

Watched Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (1) a few days back. I liked the movie. More so than the last couple of movies, perhaps. A few observations.

1. Voldemort was positively goofy. He smiled too much and his dialog delivery wasn’t menacing at all. The make-up made you laugh, it wasn’t scary at all. Felt as if someone had duct-taped his nose to the forehead. And he should seriously take some lesson’s on how to be bullying. Snape is a lot more frightening in the scenes they do together.

2. The kids on the other hand, do seem to be taking acting lessons. Radcliffe shows a whole lot more confidence and articulation on screen as do Emma Watson and Rupert Grint seemed a whole lot better too. I enjoyed their on screen chemistry.

3. The movie wasn’t as dark as the last couple. I mean, it was dark because the last book just is so depressing. But it did well with the screenplay and had good moments of comic relief and emotionally well-being.

4. Loved the few experiments they did with the visuals. Loved the scene where the death eaters snatchers come really close to Hermione but can’t see her because of the enchantments. The thing with the viewpoints was well done. Also loved the animated story of the three brothers.

Ethiopia – First Glance

Today, in addition to our regular programming, we feature a guest post by Aneesh Dubey, who is a first year MBA student at IITD. Aneesh loves traveling, writing poetry and critiquing movies. Here he shares with us his very first impressions of Ethiopia, a country that he's had the chance to visit several times in the past two years.

The problem with the media is that it often generates prejudices which are strong, and as I discovered – unfounded.

When the Ethiopian Air plane banked to begin its descent to land at the Addis Ababa airport, I was bracing myself to witness a rundown airport with visibly impoverished staff and almost no facilities. I was scared for the safety of my luggage and also in a vague sense, my own.

The point is that is what you are made to think of Africa – poor, famine struck and criminal. One can then imagine my surprise then, when the airport turned out to be better than most airports I have seen here in India. The immigration process was smooth and people smiled effortlessly. But none of this was to prepare me for what I was to see outside.

As the taxi waded through traffic, I could hardly believe what I was seeing, a large, rich metropolis; with its tall buildings, wide roads and large SUVs. Big Coca-Cola billboards on flyovers and a huge LED screen showing advertisements on the Bank of Ethiopia building. It couldn’t have been farther from what I had imagined. To add to the staggering impact, there was a certain sense of the ‘exotic foreign land’ which Indians generally associate with smaller European countries.

The cars were on the wrong side of the road (24 years of seeing vehicles drive on the right side of the road does make the other side ‘wrong’) which was lined with small bistros and cafes. The weather was chilly by Indian standards and young men and women in typically western clothes dotted the eateries. To add to the exotic was a large number of old VW beetles and buses on the road. The land was most definitely ‘foreign’.

I had read about the communist past of the country and the genocide, but it seemed that they had forgotten it and moved on to a better today. I was later to realize that they definitely had not forgotten the past. The memorial museum had a huge wall of human skulls and the caption said ‘never ever again’.

The half an hour drive to my father’s bungalow was full of prejudice killing moments. And as I got out, the driver who I realised hadn’t spoken to me at all throughout the ride held his hand out and said ‘Welcome to Ethiopia. How did you like my country?’

During my stay there, I did find out many things about the country, and not all of them were as shiny as the city, but still it looked like a country that was walking with an assured gait. A country full of energy and possibilities, and of people with amazing tenacity and verve.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Burqas and Fashion

Recently, there was some discussion on Clarissa’s blog about clothing of (Muslim) women and whether they should be allowed to wear Islamic clothes in western countries.

I don’t really have to say anything about this issue, because I really haven’t made up my mind about it. On one hand, one can conclude that a burqa is a symptom of the oppression of women and banning its wearing brings some amount of freedom to their lives. One the other, it’s an infringement of individual liberty, and insensitivity towards a different cultural ethos.

What I’m reminded of instead is my tryst with burqas a few years back when I was staying in Hyderabad in a Muslim majority area. Almost all women in that area were always seen wearing a burqa and the men always with a beard and skullcaps.

I had always thought of burqas as an austere and simple article of clothing. I had always expected it to be a simple, black, unadorned gown designed to ‘protect’ the modesty of women. But it only took a few days for me to discover burqa fashion.

Burqas were not unadorned. They could be lined with lace, buttoned up or tied around, have frills, waves and falls. The younger women wore them tighter around the hips. Occasionally you even saw a dash of color at the sleeves, though that was rare. I even saw a burqa made totally from denim! You could also see that the whole range was present as far as what you wore beneath the burqa is concerned. You could see glimpses of saris, salwar-suits and even jeans and tops.

And now for something completely different.

I used to check emails at this cyber café across the street every evening. One evening there was a girl sitting in the kiosk next to me. She had some problem with her computer and asked me if I knew how to fix it. Normally, I’d have just fixed her problem and not even though twice about it. But in this case I got extremely uncomfortable. I didn’t know if my talking to this girl was appropriate or not!

Friday, November 26, 2010

Should Stop Saying Indian

I guess everyone in India grows up having a soft of dual identity. At least people in my generation do. There’s part of us that’s very western, that watches Hollywood movies and listens to rock music. But at the same time loves to eat out at their favorite dhaba secretly fantasizes about their crush in a sari.

Living in the US now, I can’t help but be more and more divided.

That’s why my reactions to anything are often colored with the differences between India and the US. I often find myself saying Indians are such and such and this is the way they do it in the US. And every time I post these thoughts on my blog, I’m gently (or vehemently) reminded by my readers that, deep down, things aren’t quite all that different.

Often I have to agree with them.

Perhaps I should just stop using words like ‘Indians’, ‘Americans’, ‘western’ and ‘eastern’. Human nature is human nature, after all.

Where does stereotyping stop and characterization begin? Is such characterization any use at all?

Thursday, November 25, 2010

The New House

Lady behind me at the airport on her cell phone:

“No. No. No.”

“No. No. No. No. NO.”

“Listen, Sonu, you know it’s a sentimental thing for me. It’s a new house! Do you know how difficult it was to get it? How much we had to sacrifice?!”


“It’s a very sentimental thing for me. You could have done anything. Why did you have to …”

“No. It’s a new house. You could have done something else! You could have cooked something nice! You could have ordered pizza or something!”

“You’re the elder one, you have to set an example for your brother, na? What will he learn?”

“We spend so much effort in getting this new house and setting it up and the first thing you do is this …”

“NO! You could have done anything! It’s a new house. You should cook something nice! Why did you have to go cook meat!”

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

IITK, Internet, Academic Stress and Other Miscellany

In interview form.

Q: Is internet a problem?

A: Yes, I suffer from internet addiction all the time. As I suspect do most people who are constantly connected. Internet is new and we haven’t woven it well into our lives yet. It will take time and conscious effort. Reminds me of when TV was new in India and moms all over were worried sick about the eyes and academic performance of their kids. No one worries about those things now. We’ve learned to live with TV. We will learn to live with the internet.

Q: Is banning internet a solution?

A: Yes and no. Yes, it will give people more time to do other things. Perhaps they will study more and be under less stress. But can you guarantee that? Can you be sure that they will not spend an equal amount of time playing phatta or doing bulla? When I came to IITK (we used to get only 300 MB of internet access at that time) I was warned against not the internet, but LAN gaming and, guess what, cricket! How about playing cards and carrom? I’ve seen people waste away nights on both. Are you going to ban those as well? Where will you stop? Are you going to chain students to their desks and glue them to their books?

Q: Should academic stress at IITK be reduced?

A: I don’t know. Depends on what you mean by that. Gaining knowledge involves working hard. That’s just the way it is. Working hard causes stress. Gaining knowledge also means that at some stage you will be evaluated by someone else. This also causes stress. So unless we’re willing to give away degrees to everyone who clears JEE and grant them a 10.0 CPI, there’s no way to ‘reduce stress’. And perhaps not even then, because I’m sure someone or the other will fret over the fact that such a degree doesn’t mean anything and that their childhood friend at IITB is getting a better job than they are.

The solution is to empower the students. Put in better exit strategies – perhaps get out with a minor degree if you don’t want to do the whole thing. More choice in coursework. Support for getting therapy and medication for depression, stress and anxiety. An awareness that you don’t have to feel that bad, that you can get out of that place and be happier.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

What IITK Actually Needs to do About the Suicides

In the wake of another suicide at IITK, the internet is again ablaze with a lot of discussion, thinking and soul searching about what’s going wrong. This I’m sure is also reflected much more strongly among the student community on campus which is deeply sensitive about this issue. In stark contrast is this ridiculous report which says that IITK administration is blaming the internet and mobile phones for a rise in depression, stress and suicides.

I mean, really?! The whole argument is so stupid that I’m not even going to dignify it with a comment. Instead I offer two humble suggestions, in case anyone is listening.

1. Hire some trained psychologists and therapists. Why are depression, anxiety, stress and suicidal tendencies being talked about like some supernatural occurrence that leaves us totally baffled?! They are relatively well studied phenomenon with established therapies and medications to help people overcome their problems. So hire some therapists and put them to work!

The counseling service does a great job and having personally benefited from it, I can vouch for its effectiveness. However, the fact remains that none of these people are trained psychologists and therapists and ill-equipped to deal with every situation.

2. Second, there will be a whole lot of taboo against going to these therapists and psychologists. So we need increase awareness in the students about the issues surrounding stress, addiction (internet and otherwise) and depression. We need to make people aware that it’s OKAY to seek out help and that counseling for depression isn’t the same as being ‘crazy’.

I’m not suggesting that this will solve all our problems. But these are simple, effective, tried and tested ways of dealing with depression in all modern communities. Why the administration can’t see this simple fact, is beyond me. Perhaps if they manage to thinking beyond childishly blaming internet and mobiles phones they’d be able to get it.

Update: Just as I was writing this, I got an email from the Alumni Association with this report that makes the same recommendation. The email says that it has been acted upon. This is good news. If anyone knows the details, please leave a comment.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Sanskritisation of Tattoos and Piercings

I’m constantly amazed by how everything does exist in the subcontinent, but has been what I like to call, ‘sanskritised’. That is, no idea or practice is really rejected. It’s just tamed, brought into the tradition and made okay to follow as long as you stick to the official template.

Take tattooing and piercing for example. The kind of tattooing and piercing that’s practiced by young people today freaks my mother out. And yet, these things are nothing alien to her. Although tattooing isn’t very popular in mainstream India today, it was very much part of everyday life fifty or so years ago. In a recent conversation my mother recalls how her grandmothers and aunts had tattoos. But they couldn’t get tattoos according to their whims and fancies. So no full body skull angels allowed. You could only get certain set patterns. Often the names of gods or little motifs. It was apparently believed that tattoos go with you even after you die.

Same with piercings. Most Hindu women at least get their ears and nose pierced. But that’s all that’s allowed. Anything else and they start freaking out. No personal freedom allowed here either.

I can think of other forms of sanskritisation. The use of ganja by many sadhu traditions and the rumors of necrophilia among the trantic sects are two such.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Dharma Punx by Noah Levine

Dharma Punx by Noah Levine is an autobiographic work detailing his early teenage life rife with drugs and punk rock and then his growing up search for spiritual meaning in life. It is both and interesting and a disappointing book.

The first half of the book is devoted to his life as a troubled teenager. He got into the punk scene at an early age and pretty soon into drugs. What was most interesting to me was the existence of these ‘scenes’. I don’t think I still quite ‘get’ why teenagers would build their identities around what sort of music they listened to and what kind of clothes they wore. I get the jocks vs. geeks divide, but I don’t get this one.

The second interesting thing was how each kind of music had certain ethos and ideologies. Punk, for example, was all about rebellion and anarchy. But then these ethos are completely without any context. Rebellion against what? Anarchy to achieve what? No wonder these kids felt completely lost and succumbed to drugs and alcohol.

The third interesting thing was the easy availability of drugs for these kids. Almost every adult around then seemed to be using drugs. Weed, acid, heroin, crack, all seemed to be just lying around the house. This is coupled with a nearly non-existent family structure. The author’s parents were divorced. His mother seemed to move from one bad boyfriend to another. His father was more stable. But the way the author as a kid kept moving places, I’m sure there was no place he could really call home.

All of this was a very interesting insight into a life and society that was completely alien to me.

But from there, the book starts getting disappointing. The author discovers as a late teen that he’s destroying his life with drugs and alcohol. Spirituality comes to his rescue and he gradually learns to find meaning in humility, service and gratitude. Which is all fine, until he starts having one spiritual experience after another. He gets involved with some megalomaniac cult guru and gets bitten. He then launches a several month long journey to the east where he continues to have more of these so called spiritual experiences.

And where does he keep getting the money to do all these crazy things?! He admits to stealing a lot but that still doesn’t account for the way he keeps flying around south East Asia on whim.

Given that the author identifies with Buddhism as his primary faith, he seems oblivious of the fact that several Buddhist traditions warn you against exactly these kinds of false spiritual experiences. In the Buddhist view, they are nothing but more thoughts, no more or less real than your desire to eat that lovely ice cream or your wish to own a hundred cars.

The author seems as lost as an adult as he was as a teenager. His personal philosophy is a comical potpourri of beliefs ranging from Christianity to Sufism to Buddhism to Hinduism – whatever he thought was cool. It’s utterly devoid of any context except that his life work is now focused on teaching meditation and helping others get out of addictions.

I can’t help but compare with ‘Sit Down and Shut Up’ by Brad Warner that I read before this. That book, while explaining the Shobogenjo by Dogen, got into real deep discussion about the nature of our mind and meditation. It warned repeatedly against the so called spiritual experiences. It was a learned book, knowing its place within the tradition and having a proper context. Incidentally, Brad Warner is a punk rock guitarist too.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Science in the Village

Much of my family still lives in a small village in central India. Although I haven’t been there in several years, I used to make yearly visits with my parents when I was a kid. I have fond memories of those trips because, believe it or not, that’s when I did much of hands on science.

Life in the city was tightly regimented. We had a small house, with literally no privacy at all. I was under my mother’s eye all the time and she wasn’t exactly happy with me playing around with stuff. I couldn’t go out much because it wasn’t exactly safe with all the traffic on the streets. And apart from school, I didn’t have many friends in the neighborhood.

But these things changed in the village. We had a large house where I could disappear into corners where my mother could not see me. I had kids my age to play with and, believe it or not, resources.

My grandfather had this huge stack of issues of this magazine called ‘Chakmak’. ‘Chakmak’ was supposed to be a science magazine for kids. It was full of interesting experiments kids could do. I spend countless hours reading the magazine and then trying out the experiments.

My favorite was the rainbow. Part of the house had a kuchha roof. Sunlight used to stream in through tiny holes in the roof into a very dark room. Not only could we see dust particles in that thin pencil of light, we could then reflect it off a mirror dipped in a wide dish full of water to create a rainbow on the wall. You could disturb the water a little bit and watch the colors dance. We spent hours mesmerized by this spectacle.

The second favorite thing was making a ‘projector’. One of the kids of the neighborhood lived in a house that had a long hall with a door at one end. The wooden door had a hole in it. We could place a mirror outside the house and reflect it onto the door, creating a light beam inside. We could then place a convex lens in the hole and make a primitive projector. The kids had small films of movie starts and film scenes that we could then project onto the wall.

Things were available! Lenses, small DC motors, films, plastic toy propellers, magnets etc. etc. Things that my mother would never let me go buy in the city. I didn’t even know where to get them in the city. We made primitive telescopes with the lenses and rolls of cardboard. We attached tiny propellers to DC motors and hoped they would fly. And when they didn’t we could open them up to see how they worked. We spent afternoons rubbing magnets on nails to magnetize them. And then the evening winding copper wire on the same nail to turn it into a electromagnet. We could cut out the star charts from the science magazine and identify all the constellations in the night. Starts were visible here, unlike the hazy and bright skyline of the city! The only time I’ve seen the milky way with naked eyes was in the village.

I find it ironical that I did more science with these improvised and cobbled together experiments in the village rather than in the relatively well equipped labs and classes at my school in the city. But well, such is life.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Proud to be a Hindu

After having spent much time thinking about religious matters, I’ve finally settled on being an atheist. However, being an atheist for me does not mean that I have rejected my cultural Hindu heritage. I celebrate all my festivals with gusto because for me they have ritual significance, much like a convocation ceremony at a university. I also delve deeply into Hindu mythology and philosophy because they fascinate me and give me a sense of where the contemporary Indian society is coming from.

There are aspects of the Hindu culture that I’m very proud of.

(Before I begin, I’d like to point out that there are aspects that I absolutely abhor. Two specific things come to mind. One is the idea that the coincidence of a person’s birth completely determines his destiny, incorporated in the varna/caste system. The second is the deep misogyny inherent in modern Hinduism.)

Vedic Skepticism
I strongly identify with the skepticism shown in the Rigved. The Rigved reads like a genuine and honest inquiry about the nature of the universe we inhabit and our place in it. This discussion gives excellent account of skepticism in Vedic India. There were not only strong skeptics within the mainstream but also alternate schools of philosophy that we seldom identify as ‘Hindu’. Charvak’s materialist school is an excellent example.

Polytheism for me embodies not a belief in a large number of deities but a belief that there are multiple truths and multiple explanations possible. It means looking at the world we inhabit from different perspectives. The Vaishnavites say that the world was born through the navel of Vishnu. The Shaivaites say the world came into being as a pillar of light that was the primordial shiv-linga. The Hindu mind simultaneously holds these multiple truths within itself without seeing a contradiction.

Enshrined in the Hindu practice of worshipping everything in the world around us is the idea that we are part of this world and our existence is meaningless without it. From this I draw the inspiration to protect the environment, our rivers and our jungles and our extraordinarily diverse flora and fauna.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Bhagvadgita and Mindfulness Practice

Hinduism and Buddhism have common roots. It is not surprising that the origins of mindfulness practice can possibly be traced back to early Hinduism. I am reminded of a couple of shlokas from the Bhagvadgita that show such a relationship.

Asanshayam mahabaho mano durnigraham chalam,
Abhyasena tu Kaunteya vairagyena cha grihyate.
-- Gita 6:35
[O mighty armed, the mind is undoubtedly restless and hard to control, but by practice and non-attachment, O son of Kunti, it can be controlled.]


In this shloka we see the fundamental understanding of the nature of the mind – it wanders. We also see the how we can ‘control’ it – by practice and non-attachment. That’s what mindfulness practice is. You practice letting go (non attachment).

Here’s another shloka from chapter 6 of the Bhagvadgita.

The yogi should sit on a firm seat
That is neither too high nor too low,
Covered with sacred Kusha grass,
A deerskin, and a cloth,
One over the other, in a clean spot.

Sitting and concentrating the mind
On a single object,
Controlling the thoughts
And the activities of the senses,
Let the yogi practice meditation for self-purification.

Hold the waist, spine, chest, neck, and head erect,
Motionless and steady, fix the eyes and the mind
Steadily between the eye brows,
and do not look around.

Uncannily similar to the instructions for Zazen practice! Zen teachers instruct us to sit on a soft cushion. Much importance is placed on maintaining an alert posture and keeping the spine straight, eyes open and fixed on an unremarkable spot on the floor. Although it is possible that the practiced detailed in the Bhagvadgita is about concentrating on a particular thought, rather than just observing your thoughts as in Zazen.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Taxi Driver and Foreigners

AKA: The Perception of Foreigners in India

The journey to India this time was extra-long for me. After landing in the evening at IGI, New Delhi, I had to take a train early morning to Jhansi from where I then had to take a taxi to Chhatarpur where I was supposed to meet my family for Diwali.

After landing in Jhansi a little after noon, I hired a taxi for Chhatarpur. The driver was a 22 old boy named Rahul (name changed). Rahul was reticent at first but I soon got him talking.

Rahul told me that he was illiterate.

“But I don’t let that show,” he said, “I am always able to get by without reading. For example, I can’t read the sign boards on the road. But, say you want to go to Chhatarpur. I just take note of the beginning ‘Chh’ and using that as a guide, I’m able to go all the way.”

“If you’re smart, it doesn’t matter how educated you are,” he added.

I nodded in agreement.

“I’ve lived a short life,” he continued, “but I’ve seen a lot. I’ve met people from all over the country. I’ve even met people from foreign.”

“Do a lot of foreigners come here?” I asked him.

“They come to Khajuraho,” he said, “They often land at Jhansi and take a taxi to Khajuraho.”

Then he chuckles.

“The kind of things I’ve seen …”

“Like what?” I ask him, curious now.

“One there was this gori who rented my taxi. She wanted to go to Khajuraho. Just as we started to exit Jhansi she taps me on the shoulder and says, ‘I don’t have any money on me. You can do whatever you want with me but take me to Khajuraho.’ “

“What did she mean, ‘whatever you want’?” I asked him.

“You know …” he said and then added, “These foreigners, they are weird. Who knows what kind of stuff they are into. Maybe it was a trap to loot me or something.”

“So what did you do?” I asked.

“Nothing! I just turned my car around and dropped her back at the railway station.”

He paused as he tried to negotiate around a huge bus approaching from the other side.

“Maybe she really was in trouble,” he continued, “Or maybe she had been away from home a long time and really wanted ‘it’. These foreigners need ‘it’ regularly. If it had been someone else he could have taken advantage of her. Have you ever been to Orchha?”

“No,” I said, caught by surprise at the sudden question.

“There’s this five star hotel there where my friend works. We used to go there to watch the foreigners by the pool. They keep rolling about nearly naked all day. If it were up to them, they’d be walking the streets buck naked. They have no morals.”

“Hmm,” I said, not knowing how to react.

“It’s not safe for them to go out like that. Did you hear about the gora who was murdered a few months ago?”


“In Khajuraho. He was walking with his girlfriend. Some boys must have asked her for a kiss. She refused. They got into a fight over it and the guy was murdered. There was a huge uproar about it.”

“Of course,” I said.

“I really like my job,” he concluded, “I get to go a lot of places and meet a lot of people.”

I am sure that was the case.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Last Names and Choices

A few days ago, there was some discussion on this blog about how to choose last names for new born children. An intriguing suggestion came along

How about asking the child himself or herself to select his or her surname?

That is, whether the child would prefer to use his / her father's surname, or his / her mother's?

Let's give them a choice too.

At times, we simply impose our ideologies, and what-we-want-tos on them, without even realizing the fact that the surname that the new-to-the-family-individual is going to get will be a matter of his/ her identification for his / her lifetime.

This is an interesting possibility. Perhaps we could have a system where a children could have the name their parents gave them at birth till they become adults. After that, they could change it to anything that they wished. (Of course, in most countries you can legally change your name to anything you want at any stage of your life. I’m talking about social customs here.)

However, this line made me go on a completely different thought tangent.

At times, we simply impose our ideologies, and what-we-want-tos on them,

When is something an ‘influence’ and when is it an imposition? For example, even if the parents didn’t choose the last name for their kids, in contemporary society, most kids would likely just go for the father’s name anyway because that’s the norm. So where does the choice lie? After all, whatever we do, we are deeply influenced by our upbringing. What is the meaning of choice in such a situation.

To begin with, having a choice implies having multiple possibilities. Unless multiple possibilities exist, choice is non-existent. Second, choice also needs the power to make a choice. If the individual is not empowered to make the choice, the choice is non-existent again.

In real life, multiple possibilities are easy to find. The power to make these choices isn’t. To get back to the chosen example, you could choose any name you want to. But legal frameworks and social norms and conventions sap away your power to do so.

Monday, November 15, 2010

What is a University?

There has been some debate on this blog about how to improve higher education in India. From the comments it seems that different people have different ideas about what a university is or should be. This is alright as long as we have a diverse set of institutions catering to these diverse needs and viewpoints.

What is a university in my own, personal view? To me, a university is an institution that does the following three jobs.

1. Curation of knowledge: a university should act as a storehouse of knowledge. It does so through libraries (perhaps outdated in the computer age), conservatories, centers etc. For example, Sanskrit or Latin are dead languages but it is certainly or value to keep a classical languages department in a university where there are experts who can read and write fluently in these languages.

2. Dissemination of knowledge: universities should teach vocational skills so that people can find employment. But universities should also engage in raising public awareness, finding effective means to disseminate knowledge (online coursework, effective pedagogy etc.) and finally increasing access to the underprivileged in the society.

3. Generation of knowledge: universities should generate new knowledge though research and development.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

More Cell Phones Than Toilets

Read this report recently on how India has more cell phones than toilets. Really makes me wonder why. Why is it that we desire cell phones more than toilets?

Is it because when we open our TVs, what we see are colorful ads of people using cell phones. People looking blissfully happy as they talk to their loved ones. People even in small villages and dilapidated slums stuck to this magical device at their ears.

Rarely do we see a person enter a clean and well maintained toilet and coming out with a beatific look once he’s done.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Absence of Colonial Elements in Sherlock Holmes by Guy Ritchie

Got the chance to see the new Sherlock Holmes movie by Guy Ritchie a few days ago. It was pretty much what I expected – not my cup of tea. Part of the allure of reading or watching Sherlock Holmes is to relieve that prim and proper world of the British Raj. I know it annoys some people. But I enjoy it. So there.

But I was quite surprised to see the complete absence of any colonial elements in Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes. This is doubly surprising that much has been made of a post-colonial reading of the canon. The only ‘colony’ mentioned in the film is America and while there is some talk of rebuilding the British Empire, it’s amusing that the way to do it is to conquer the new world.

So is Ritchie staying away from the colonies to keep the movie in that comfortable territory where no one can accuse him of being a racist etc. (cf. reactions to Frank Miller’s 300)?

Or is he completely trying to deny that the colonies existed and that they had a role to play in the establishment of the British Empire?