June 30, 2009

A Tipping Point for the Planet

Paul Krugman had some harsh words for climate change deniers in his recent New York Times column:

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/29/opinion/29krugman.html?_r=1&em

With his customary clear-thinking, he has wondered about the implications of the narrow margin with which the Waxman Markey bill passed in the House.

The scary part about all this is if legislators in advanced nations find it hard to come to a consensus about climate change, what would be the fate of similar bills in legislatures in less developed nations such as China and India ...

Will people realize the gravity of the issue only when the dire consequences predicted by scientists become real and people start dying?

When hurricanes with the ferocity of Katrina become annual events rather than unusual anomalies and droughts become commonplace around the world, perhaps people will begin to realize that we can't go on burning fossil fuel without suffering consequences.

June 26, 2009

Death of Michael Jackson

This day marks the end of a tumultuous life … I was thinking oddly enough about whether MJ will be part of the In Memoriam section on Oscar night next year …

The extraordinary levels of fame that accrues to people in the entertainment industry is a strange and new phenomenon of the 20th century and beyond … the extraordinary power of music to touch people in the deepest possible way is something quite mysterious.

Bob Dylan talked about people listening and liking a song that he had written and thinking that they knew him … but really, of course, they didn’t. That’s true for all music and all musicians.
Unlike Bob Dylan, most musicians revel in the public adulation that they get … indeed, it tends to be the primary purpose of their music to gain that public acclaim.

But what’s it in a person’s ability to sing well or dance well that makes them so appealing to so wide a spectrum of the population? Are humans so fundamentally a species hardwired to ‘like’ these talents? From an evolutionary perspective, there seems to be no survival advantage to be had from having these skills.

Sometimes, political leaders have been similarly wildly popular — admittedly, quite rarely. Usually, of course, political leaders tend to be figures of derision rather than admiration and their passing away might be secretly celebrated by the public at large.

Some of the admiration for entertainers (and leaders on those rare occasions) might demonstrate our penchant to follow a herd. One of the reasons why someone may get liked might be that he is liked by others. So, adulation might grow on top of existing adulation. People might be innately inclined to like someone who’s already liked and admired by others. Certainly, with respect to religious teachings and rituals, that seems to be the case.

When one looks to all the odd and archaic rituals and beliefs that are part of any world religion, it seems that part of the reason for their popularity has to be the uncritical acceptance of those rituals and beliefs by people at large.

This would definitely help explain how in spite of so many advancements in so many different areas of science & technology, humans are so gullible and uncritical when it comes to religious rituals. People want to feel that they’re part of a larger group.

As long as people have this innate desire, entertainers and leaders will continue to ride the popularity charts.

June 25, 2009

Running A Marathon

I read just the other day that Mark Bittman is preparing to run the New York Marathon.
I find that astonishing as he's someone with a 30-year-old daughter.
It's also a challenge to a 30-something guy like me and to all persons who are in a similar age group.

Here's a link to the story:
http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/06/19/running-in-your-daughters-footsteps/?scp=2&sq=mark%20bittman%20preparing%20for%20marathon&st=cse

I have only just started walking a little bit whenever possible ... I try to do it everyday. Even that is a big achievement for me ... but I've realized the age-old wisdom of health is wealth after being especially ill for a somewhat prolonged period of time ...
I am unfortunately still carrying the damage sustained from a fall on the stairs on my right foot, which starts paining when I put too much stress on it ...

Not to mention, of course, the other manifold damages that I carry such as those from smoking ...

Be that as it may, if I can someday run a full marathon, I'd consider that a stupendous achievement!

June 22, 2009

Climate Change

Yesterday, I tried to view Dr. John Holdren releasing the latest report on climate change but could not download it after several attempts because of some intermittent power troubles ... even could not watch it from the White House page on YouTube as it was not playing in a continuous manner ... don't know if there was some issue with my net connection or with the speed of YouTube as I am usually able to watch streaming videos without much trouble ...

With respect to my broad opinions/inclinations about climate change, I can say that I've watched with fascination both of Al Gore's famous Senate depositions — the older one before the Senate EPW Committee and the newer one before the Senate FRC. Of course, I've watched An Inconvenient Truth.

Recently, I learned that Freeman Dyson is a 'skeptic' about the effects of human actions on climate change. I very much believe that the issues related to climate change need to be examined with proper scientific skepticism but when Dyson says that 'warm regions of the world are not getting warmer', I think I can dispute him on that score and people living in many warm countries of the world would also disagree with Dyson.

I think the debate about whether human actions have had detrimental effects on the environment is closed. The conclusion being that human action certainly has had negative consequences. To imagine otherwise would be extraordinarily childish and perhaps a case of extraordinary optimism or wishful thinking of the highest order.

We have substantially consumed fossil fuels such as hydrocarbons in the last one century — nature took millions of years to produce those hydrocarbons.

We have not run out of coal but the amounts of greenhouse gases that thermal power plants are emitting is leading to a fundamental change in the basic composition of the atmosphere . . . the amount of CO2 in the atomosphere is rising to unheard of levels which will definitely have consequences ...

Nobody disputes that the climate of the planet is dynamic ... the geological history of the planet is there for all to see. Nobody should have any issue with acknowledging the fact that there are long term cycles of climate change due to the precession of the equinox and other causes.

It is also a fact that the most recent ice on the planet peaked about 20,000 years ago. We are currently living in a moment in our planet's history when it's going through a relatively warmer period of its life.

All this having been said, it is transparently clear that human action is causing harm to the earth's environment and it would be in our own interest to try and understand as much as possible what harm we are causing. As we understand this cause and effect relationship, we may be better able to protect the people around the world from major natural disasters or climate disasters.

June 09, 2009

The Perils of Tradition

Today the news pages report that Aamir Khan is going to have a baby.
Today also marks the end of a life — Habib Tanvir.
And a celebrity has been arrested for carrying declared jewellery into the country.
The stock markets continue their see-saw movements.
dead bodies continue to be found from the Air France plane crash.
Some trifling developments from the T20 World Cup.
Federer of course has equalled Pete Sampras' career Grand Slam wins.
A random day in the life of India.
"The Perils of Tradition" basically references the fact that Indians tend to be happy to live their everyday lives.
People basically don't like upheavals in their lives.
Even the young generation isn't necessarily designed to seek out revolutions.
That's a sad fact that I've discovered recently.
Perhaps, someone like Jawaharlal Nehru who lived almost a century ago was more progressive than most Indians who are alive today.
Come to think of that!!!

When Sex Leaves the Marriage

Tara Parker Pope wrote this interesting article and there have been many interesting comments on it ... basically, people sharing their own stories.

I thought to post a comment as well and here it is:

http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/06/03/when-sex-leaves-the-marriage/?apage=17#comment-329013

June 08, 2009

Obama and the Clash of Civilizations

President Obama was in Cairo recently and addressed students of Cairo University.
Egypt is of course one of the oldest civilaztions on the planet with the pyramids having been built some 5,000 years ago — the human mind with a human lifespan of 60/70 years is certainly incapable of making sense of a timeframe that long.
A city like Cairo must have seen so much through the thousands of years of its history.
Today, it stands at the crossroads of the 'Clash of Civilizations' debate between Western and Islamic civilizations.
President Obama sought to 're-connect' with the 'alienated' Muslim world by this speech.
He addressed some central issues:
  • Iran's march towards acquiring nuclear weapons,
  • Israel's right to exist,
  • the right of the Palestininian people to a homeland,
  • the threat of Al Qaida and Taliban in Pakistan/Afghanistan,
  • the plight of women ... or, the 'right' of women to live the way they want to ... whether they want to get educated and pursue a career or wear burqas and stay home, and
  • the indispensable need for 'education.'

The students seemed to agree with Obama's take on these issues — only issue seems to be whether the students of Cairo University are representative of the population of the larger Muslim world.

In the Indian context, one can certainly say that students of St. Stephen's College in New Delhi do not represent the average Indian . . . which is unfortunate, but also the plain truth.

About the clash of civilizations issue, it is kind of unfortunate that this likelihood at all exists . . . I think the root cause of this is because people tend to take religion too seriously. So, to start off, people need to take a more critical look at their religious heritage. One can say this without any sense of bias that people in the West broadly have enough people who are skeptical about the contents of the Bible . . . more so in Europe, perhaps, than in America.

Unfortunately, there are not nearly as many skeptical Muslims on the planet who are willing to be skeptical about the contents of the Quran.

As long as people want to hold on blindly to old ways of thinking and old ways of doing things, the scope for conflicts will persist.

With all the insights into the workings of nature that science has afforded us, I find it astonishing that people just continue to overlook those insights . . . and this includes so-called 'educated' people as well ...

Does India Need an Obama?

There was an interesting debate/discussion on TV a month or two ago on the subject of whether India needed an Obama ...
I realized some time later as I was thinking about the topic that India has had a few leaders in its recent history who have been Obama-like in many ways ...
Who would dispute the fact that Nehru was an ideal kind of leader — someone who combined democratic thinking with a rational/scientific spirit and great intellect/intelligence.
Nehru was a great writer and a good orator as well ...
So, do we need an Obama? Well, one could rephrase that and say: Do we need a Nehru for the 21st century?
And the answer to that would certainly be 'Yes.'
Nehru was probably more 'progressive' in his thoughts and beliefs and actions than most Indians living today.
Nehru was famously an 'agnostic' — perhaps that was more of a nod to the age and the country that he lived in ... if he didn't have to make allowances for the fact that he was a public person in a backward country like India in the middle of the 20th century, he would probably have declared himself to be an atheist ... may be, that's just me daydreaming.
There haven't been many others like him in India, unfortunately ... people would point to Subhash Bose and Sardar Patel who had particular areas of brilliance but not the kind of broad sweep that Nehru had ...

Do Gray Hairs Signify Wisdom?

In traditional societies like that of India, old people are accorded a lot of respect.
Is this well-deserved or a relic from the past?
I believe the 'tradition' of respecting one's elders is a relic from a time in our past when society was essentially agrarian.
If you think of how such a society functions, skills are handed from generation to generation — farmers' kids grow up to become farmers and carpenters' kids grow up to become carpenters, and so on . . .
In such a society, kids acquire their 'professional' skills from their fathers . . . so, obviously they need to 'respect' their elders as the elders are the ones with the 'knowledge.'
In the modern world, kids acquire their life skills in schools and colleges and make of their lives whatever they wish to by learning the necessary skills.
As far as the color of the hair goes, scientists can tell you about the technical reasons behind hair turning gray.
Black hair is black because of the melanin content in it. That chemical also determines the color of skin — so, you have people in the tropical countries whose skin tone is darker than people in the northern latitudes whose skin tone is lighter.
As people age, the hair coloring mechanism begins to falter with a build up of hydrogen peroxide in the hair root which leads to black hair turning gray — it has absolutely nothing to do with 'wisdom.'
I can think of 'wise' old men like S. Chandrasekhar and Albert Einstein and many others . . . but at the same time there have been such spectacularly young geniuses . . . from Beethoven and Mozart to Srinivas Ramanujun and many others.
Indeed, even if great scientists live to be 'old', their most important life work tends to be something that they would have done when young.
So, this business of respecting one's elders is way, way over the top.
Just one more meaningless relic from a bygone era that we need to jettison forthwith.

June 04, 2009

The Miracle of Flight

The recent crash of an Air France A330 over the Atlantic Ocean reminds one what a miracle of technology aeroplanes really are.
They're truly a marvel of technology and engineering — no words can really capture how fascinating this technology is for me.
From the halting baby steps taken by Orville and Wilbur Wright in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina some 106 years ago to the transoceanic flights of today — humanity's genius and ingenuity has produced quite an extraordinary piece of equipment.
As with everything else in life, of course, we don't appreciate how astonishing this all is — we have gotten used to the fact of 400 people flying on a airplane for 15 hours non-stop and crossing continents.
These aeroplanes fly at a cruise altitude of some 35,000 feet where the atmospheric temperature is about minus 30 degrees Celsius.
These airplanes fly at a speed of some 800-900 kms.

Need to condemn homeopathy?

Researchers have urged WHO to "publicly condemn homeopathy as a treatment for serious diseases, such as HIV/AIDS, TB, and malaria."
The researchers are concerned as some patients have reportedly paid with their lives as a result of choosing homeopathy over more effective treatment options.
Homeopathy may not be the only culprit of this nature — one wonders how many Indians take the nonsense propounded by sadhus/yogis and other varieties of Godmen seriously.
These self-proclaimed "learned" folk don't hesitate to propound remedies to all sorts of diseases — whether it be AIDS or cancer or any other life-threatening or serious condition.
These claims are never put to a scientific scrutiny — the kind of scrutiny that every drug goes through before getting to the market.
These Godmen are allowed to escape scot-free no matter how many people might have died as a result of following their hair-brained advice.
People of India are of course very fond of "miracle cures."
People don't consider it as anything out of the ordinary when they're cured of a disease by taking a medication prescribed by a medical professional — they would rather be cured by some mumbo-jumbo performed by some Godmen.
And when someone does get cured — purely a statistical matter — the stock of these Godmen obviously rises.
But unfortunately, when people die as a result of following their rank bad advice, the stock of these folks unfortunately doesn't go down . . . as people basically want to believe in various miracles.
One wonders when will the people of India (and others as well) rise from their slumber and "Grow Up!"

Drink — and earn bowel cancer

Researchers have found a connection between excessive drinking of alcohol and the incidence of bowel cancer in that population — apparently, more than seven drinks per week leads to a 60 percent greater probability of acquiring the disease.
The ill-effects of smoking are of course too well known to need any repetition whatsoever.
One is likely to acquire — or the probability of one's acquiring increases — about 50 different types of cancer on account of smoking.
With all the links that researchers have found between smoking and disease in particular, one would have thought that non-smokers would be immortal. But that doesn't seem to be the case apparently . . .

June 02, 2009

Reevaluating Reagonomics

Sometimes knowledgeable people have the tendency to show off their knowledge too much by intentionally complicating their message.
Then there are others who make it their business to communicate complicated ideas to the general public using language that everyone can understand.
In the sphere of science, no one comes close to Carl Sagan when it comes to explaining science to everyone using spectacularly passionate language.
Paul Krugman's columns are similar — bereft of economic technobabble and illuminating.
http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/01/opinion/01krugman.html
His latest column in the New York Times makes interesting reading — if nothing else, it was good to see someone criticizing Reagan.
I've been watching with some skepticism all the praise that has been praised on President Reagan — particularly since his death(?).
Apart from all the logical historical analysis, it seems somewhat implausible that a minor Hollywood actor would necessarily have the qualities required to make for a great president.
"Reagan ended the Cold War" — his supporters might proclaim. But historical events such as those happen on a timescale that is a product with a multitude of factors — no single person should get much credit for those happenings.
If any single person is to be credited for the end of the Cold War, it should be Mikhail Gorbachev.
By the same token to judge presidential qualities, George W. Bush seems to lack the qualities on the face of it that might have made him a good president.
The better presidents in the 20th century seem to have been the following (going back chronologically): Bill Clinton, Nixon, JFK, Eisenhower, FDR, ...
It is odd to put Nixon on that list, of course . . .
But apart from the obvious paucity of character and other moral deficiencies that Nixon ample demonstrated, if one were to judge his presidency on the basis of pure accomplishments, the report card might be fairly impressive.
Would it be fair to credit him with the achievement of bringing to an end the Vietnam War?
Bill Clinton was an exceptionally brilliant student and law school teacher and a precocious politician and governor — kind of like the ideal person who should be president and who's likely to make a 'good' president.
But, again, one should always put a man in the proper historical context . . .
Clinton had many successes as president — mainly, the fact that America went through a long period of economic expansion.
But that expansion could have been the result of a confluence of many historical reasons — the rise of the Internet and other technologies which helped increase the productivity of the American worker. Technology also enabled the creation of a seamless global financial market — perhaps too seamless, the flip side of which is perhaps only too apparent right now.
JFK was a similarly talented person from a competitive family background who was brilliant academically. He was also tempered by his experiences in the Second World War and his many battles with death.
He was also very well read in the liberal arts — having a sense of the large sweep of human history. Something that Bill Clinton also must have had.
It seems that is an essential quality — the present president is also someone with a rich liberal education and exceptional appreciation for history.
One hopes this is a good prognosis that his presidency will be a success as well.
Eisenhower of course was a military general who led the Allies in the Second World War and obviously led America as president at a time when American power was in a way at its zenith.
Colin Powell, if he had chosen to enter politics, would likely have made a great president.
Same goes for Al Gore as well.

Summary and conclusion: For all the parents who have got young kids and want to see the kids grow up to become president, the message is clear.
  1. Get your kids a great liberal arts education so that they appreciate the intricacies of humanity's history and human nature.
  2. Ensure that they have good to great oratorial skills.
  3. Ensure that they should be telegenic.
  4. Get the kid interested in outdoor sports.
  5. Whatever you do, make sure that the kid has good eyesight — well, the key is not to wear spectacles. So, those with eyesight problems need to wear contacts, that is all.
  6. If you can, please try not to push them too hard.
  7. Try to make sure that the kid doesn't develop a sense of personal insecurity.
  8. Give the kid a middle class upbringing so that the kid needs scholarship to go through college.
  9. Teach them a foreign language or two — that will come in handy as president.
  10. Don't take them to Kennedy Space Center when they're kids to see a shuttle launch. Or else, they might get too interested in all that space stuff and might want to become astronauts or scientists . . . of course, if you're OKAY with that, then no problems!

June 01, 2009

The Australian Prophecy

The recent 'outbreak' of 'racist' attacks against Indian students has created quite a stir in India.
Indians — some of them, at least — have suddenly discovered that Australians are a racist bunch . . .
I wonder what happened to all the happenings on the cricket field from years past which gave very voluminous hints that Australians were not quite a combination of Mahatma Gandhi/Nelson Mandela/Dr. Martin Luther King . . .
I am completely at a loss to understand why some Indians expect to be treated as anything but 'outsiders' in a foreign land . . .
I do not understand why Indians have to go to Australia . . . Oh, they apparently go there to 'study' . . .
Well, I don't know that Australia boasts of many world-class universities . . .
I am sure India has got many institutions of caliber . . .
Somehow, I suspect the reason why some Indians like to go to Australia is not purely because of 'academic' reasons — I think these folks just want to get out of India and go to any country that will take them in . . . and Australia happens to be a destination simply because of the fact that it's willing to offer visas to Indians . . .
The real mystery isn't that Australians are attacking Indians but why do Indians want to go to Australia in the first place . . .
There must be very few countries in the world whose people are so desperate to migrate to any country that will accept them . . .
What is it in the make-up of Indians that makes them want to do this?
Have Indians so completely given up on their own country?
India certainly has no shortage of problems of its own . . . but at least this is a country we can call our own . . . we can never migrate to a different country and hope to become a part of the fabric of that nation . . . not at least in one generation . . .
And the irony often is this . . . Indians who migrate to America for instance continue to hold on to and indeed promote their own 'Indian' identity . . . so much so that there are associations and othe myriad groups of Indians that are based on particular Indian states . . .
It is difficult to comprehend the logic of Indians celebrating Navratra or Shiv ratri or Rakhi or Durga Puja or Holi or Rath Yatra in America . . . but that's precisely what Indians do . . . and when asked why do they want to preserve these aspects of their inherited Indian characteristic, their reply inevitably tends to be that they are 'proud' of these inheritances and 'love' these inheritances . . .
The obvious question that then arises in one's mind is if one is so fund of one's 'Indianness', why must one 'Quit India.'
Will someone explain that please . . .

General Motors is Bankrupt

This day marks the end of the road for an icon of American industry . . .
Such is the nature of free-markets and capitalism . . .
This is good actually — even dinosaurs dominated the planet in their own heyday, but when they could not adapt to a changing planet, they perished entirely . . .
GM is trying to evolve from a dinosaur to something more agile and nimble . . . may be, become a mammal like a cow or something that would be more in tune with the planetary environment of today . . .
This is of course a novel and unprecedented experiment in corporate evolution whose eventual outcome is far from certain . . .
The eventual shape of the global automative industry is pretty unclear and not many experts would dare to stick their neck out and predict a definitive direction that this process is going to travel in . . .
Who knows whether the coming decades will see a predominance of hybrid vehicles or electric vehicles or hydrogen-powered vehicles or whether we will see the creation of nation-wide grids as envisioned by Shai Agassi.
In this uncertain environment, only the nimblest players will be able to adapt and survive. GM could be one of the survivors if it's nimble and agile and sharp enough . . .
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