September 25, 2009

Small Cars and more

Alan Mullaly was here in New Delhi, India to launch Ford’s small car named Figo. This shows the importance of the small-car thrust of the global major as well as the key role to be played by India in that endeavor.

Next in line are Volkswagen with their Golf or Polo and also Toyota and Nissan Renault. That will bring things full circle. That will mean all the global biggies will be here:

· Toyota
· Ford
· Volkswagen
· Honda
· General Motors
· Mercedes
· Audi
· Ferrari
· Porsche
· Nissan Renault
Wow! One can say: ‘What a country!!!’
I guess it might be easy to forget in this festivity that there are still kids begging at many traffic stops on the streets of New Delhi.

Julia and Rahul

Julia Roberts is in India and as usual there’s breathless reporting of the event — quite sickening. It always happens, of course — in my short life, I recall similar stuff from Michael Jackson’s visit to Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s visit. Also, Princess Diana’s visit had generated some amount of breathless reporting. But I guess the Princess must have been used to much worse tabloid and paparazzi stuff back home and in Europe and America.

Rahul Mahajan wants to follow in the footsteps of Rakhi. Both are birds of the same feather of course. I wonder what people feel now that Rakhi has decided not to marry the guy she chose during her swayambar. Do people feel like she took them for a ride??? Or, are people still game for one more ride? I think there will be enough girls who would apply to be Rahul’s bride in spite of the fact that he is a once-married man who divorced his pilot wife. India is in the early stages of following a Western-style celebrity-culture and we can boast of our own Paris Hiltons and Kim Kardashians, etc. in due course.

BTW, I had a thought — what if Rahul Mahajan and Julia Roberts were to tie the knot??? Naaaaaahhhhh, I think it’s unlikely in the extreme (well, that’s an understatement) that Julia would have heard of our desi eligible bachelor. Of course, our Indian celebrities sometimes tend to over-rate their fame — as happened with the saga of Shah Rukh being held at an airport in the U.S. I wonder what’s behind the fuss that he created about that. I think Mr. Khan is smart enough to realize that he’s no global celebrity that INS or Homeland Security officials would recognize him. Was he trying to garner some free publicity in which case of course he was mightily successful! I would have thought that a veteran like him won’t necessarily adopt such desperate measures for publicity but then you never know. Celebrities probably need publicity more than they need food …

Pushing the envelop, Indian Style — Ever so gingerly

Let’s not talk about boring stuff such as Ahmadinejad denying the Holocaust or Netanyahu scoffing such talk or India discovering water on the Moon!

Instead, let’s talk about more interesting stuff — let’s talk about Indian women’s attitude towards sexuality.

Just looking at things rather randomly, as you move across India, you find people’s (or women’s) attitudes varying somewhat. Women have developed different comfort levels with their sexuality. In North India, you find a typically ‘Punjabi’ attitude with females wearing ‘tight’ — body hugging — clothing that reveals the various ‘curves’ of their bodies. I am, of course, at a loss to understand the logic behind this. I mean, in the broadest sense. When females try to ‘show off’ their bodies — and what this means of course varies extravagantly when considered on a global scale — what does that mean, basically? I think she’s trying to say: look at me, admire me, look at how great my body is, how sexy I’m! Anyway, that’s not the point I am trying to address in this piece.

So, females in North India have gotten somewhat comfortable with displaying their physical attractiveness in a rather explicit manner. This is very much in contrast to other regions of India. In Eastern India, say, moms would definitely have fits if their ‘young’, college-going daughters wore body-hugging textiles.

But, though this might suggest that there’s a major difference between females in different parts of India, I think the difference isn’t that much. I think females across the board still have a rather 19th century — Jane Austen — kind of attitude when it comes to topics like sex. It’s still considered a rather taboo subject and attitudes are in general as ‘rooted’ in culture and tradition as ever.

I somehow think that Indians have an attitude towards sex that it’s a ‘big’ deal. In fact, I think, for Indians, it’s the biggest deal.

This unfortunate obsession or lack of proportion stems from lives lived within very narrow confines. I mean, when you consider the life story of the average Indian, it’s spent in one or two villages. They spend their lives surrounded by family mostly. And they are ‘busy’ mostly with celebrating their endless (stupid?) rituals, etc. So, they are basically doing everything but thinking or questioning existing value systems.

Indians mostly don’t go through life-changing experiences or wrenching change. And they don’t go out seeking such cliffs. Indians don’t believe in stretching the envelope called life experience. They are mostly just content to do things mechanically, to just repeat existing stuff: have babies, keep busy with the babies, do gossiping, get the babies married off when they are grown up, etc.

I can’t imagine Indians crossing the Atlantic, for example, to settle a new continent, as the Spanish did or the French did or the English did and others as well. That’s the undoing of Indians and that’s what keeps us back and will keep us back. The history of the world is the history of those people who are willing to venture into uncharted waters and those who are curious when they look at the endless ocean stretching till the horizon about what lies beyond the horizon. We live on this tiny planet, this tiny island in the vast ocean of space, this tiny, fragile, vulnerable blue marble. We can’t hope to last long if we are just content with worrying about our daily bread … or, the daily roti or naan or butter chicken, as the case may be.
We have to go beyond worrying about our kith and kin and how wealthy others have grown or how much weight we have acquired.

I feel what has made people out in the West rather restless is their traumatic experiences in the two world wars. So, that’s sort of a beneficial heritage of those brutal experiences. When a nation has been through those wrenching experiences, they have really understood the truth about life being like a soap bubble: not as a well-worn metaphor, but as a personally experienced ‘fact.’ It must be quite something to see someone young in the family die in the war, must be quite an experience for a 19-year-old or 20-year-old young man to be pulled from his daily routines and be asked to go off to a foreign country to fight a meaningless war. I am sure all wars must appear meaningless to the average 19 or 20-year-old.

It simply boggles the mind to realize that millions upon millions of people have gone through these experiences — and these experiences have got to be absolutely life-changing. But the positive aspect of these brutal experiences is that you learn to put things in perspective. So, I sometimes wish India and Indians had been through some such experience.

I mean, I can’t make Indians understand anything when that touches upon any of their ‘holy cows.’ It’s astonishing, for example, to see how blindly Indians cling on to their particular religious beliefs. A person might be born in a particular state, say Orissa, and may have grown with some particular ‘flavor’ of Hinduism. And for that person, that flavor is somehow the ‘revealed truth’ version of everything. No mater how hard you try, you can’t hope to change that person’s thinking or perspective.

I try to persuade people to put themselves in someone else’s shoes: just for a moment, to assume that you were not born in Orissa, but in some other state. And that would be a ‘gamer changer’ as they say. The problem with religions tends to be that those religions are followed only in a particular state or a part of a particular state. So, why can’t folks just for once try to cast a skeptical eye on their inheritances? Just once, try to imagine that you were not born where you were and instead were born in Germany or Liberia or Uganda or wherever. And try to look at your religion from the perspective of someone from one of these countries!

I believe that would put things in perspective.

Oh, that was quite a meandering tale!

September 24, 2009

Japanese Tuna, John Edwards and Iwo Jima

The Japanese have a legendary appetite for seafood — much to the misfortune of sea life. Tuna fish happen to be one of the victims of this food fancy. Of course, just as the Japanese have pretty much hunted whales almost to the point of extinction, the seas near Japan have similarly lost much of their population of tuna fish. The Japanese have such a legendary appetite for such stuff that they even import seafood (specifically, prawns) from Orissa in India which happens to be my home state.

It seems somewhat astonishing or bewildering that we humans who occupy less than one-third of the planet’s surface which is land should be able to deplete resources from the oceans which occupy more than two-thirds of the planet’s surface.

On a completely different note — global warming deniers claim that humans are too insignificant a presence on the planet to be able to affect something as vast as the planet’s climate as the planet is too big. As the state of marine life shows, we humans certainly have acquired the critical mass necessary to affect things on a planetary scale.

The saga of John Edwards continues … it has aspects to it that remind one of the Lewinsky saga where Bill went from flatly denying that he had anything to do with ‘that woman’ to indulging in verbal gerrymandering.

I don’t know what is the ‘critical’ issue in this though — if it’s the fact that a presidential candidate had sexual relations with a woman other than his wife or that he lied about it. In France, the aspect of sexual relations would hardly matter. The more serious issue seems to be that the candidate would lie about it. But then, as happened during Clinton’s escapades, Edwards could say in his defense that he was merely trying to protect his wife who was, as it happened, suffering from cancer, and therefore even more deserving of solicitude.

It’s interesting to see how deeply the Second World War is etched in the American psyche — as it should be, really. It’s a battle which really sucked in those nations who were part of it — whether they be winners or losers. The War probably affected every family in one way or the other in countries such as the United States, Russia (or the then Soviet Union), Japan, England, Italy, France, Germany, etc.

This is in contrast to the over hyped Indian freedom struggle. I like to play the Devil’s Advocate and say that our forefathers didn’t really make much of a sacrifice in the so-called ‘freedom struggle.’ The historical reality as far as I know is this: the British lost so much in the Second World War that they were literally broke financially and didn’t have the wherewithal to continue to make the required investments in their ‘Empire’ and the ‘natives’ were getting smart and rising in revolt as well. So, the business of running Empires was becoming an unprofitable one. So, the British pretty much decided to ‘Quit India’ on their own.

Of course, now a day, Indians are on a ‘Quit India’ mission of a different kind. I am referring, of course, to the craze that Indians have acquired for getting out of India and settling somewhere else: U.S., Canada, England, Australia, etc.

I am unhappy myself with many aspects of Indian life — with its moribund rituals and over-abundance of gods. And I admire the spirit of inquisitiveness and subversion that’s there in ample measure in Western society. But I believe the solution to the problems afflicting India doesn’t lie in talented Indians leaving India but in reforming India itself. I guess that’s a fond and futile hope and folks like me with ‘atypical’ attitudes are destined to live an unhappy life. The reigning motto/philosophy of Indians seems to be: don’t question existing systems/ traditions/ beliefs. I, for one, can’t live by that philosophy. I believe that humanity is making progress everyday and we should be part of that process and love the idea of living in a changing world.

September 22, 2009

Interesting times

Here are some random occurrences that together make for an interesting tapestry/collage.

  • Abramovich has fitted his yatch with fancy laser devices that will disable digital cameras ... this to protect himself from the prying eyes of the paparazzi.

  • People are committing suicides just because some politician died ... this in apna AP. Or, are they???

  • Some ladies are using breast enhancement techniques ... but, that's old-fashioned now. So, some who want to be at the vanguard — Pam Anders, Vic Becks — are starting an opposing trend ... that of breast reduction. I say, cheers to that!!! I don't know why though ... I just have one thought. Will Indian ladies follow their Western counterparts as usual??? But then, since things tend to happen in India with a certain time lag, will Indian ladies first go for breast enhancement in the years to come or will they skip that part and go straight for breast reduction??? Interesting possibilities indeed.

  • Talking about contradictions, there's this fascination people have for skin color ... including me, of course. People in India have a great deal of desire for 'white' or 'fair' skin. This madness, meanwhile, is completely beyond comprehension to a Westerner where people spend humongous amounts to appear less white, to get a 'tan,' as they say. I guess this is all about the grass being greener on the other side.

  • And, of course, that ultimate irony: while folks in India do not need any inspiration or motivation from the government to go ahead and make babies, out in the West, governments try to play matchmaker by trying to get people to marry! And then governments try to bribe people into having babies!!! What heaven#@$#@#$@#$!!!

  • Not to mention the fact that unemployed folks in America get unemployment allowance — I say that is the HEIGHT of socialism!

The Secret to a Short Life

A recent article in Medscape said that you can shave 10 years off your expected lifespan by adopting these practices: smoke, have high cholesterol and high blood pressure.

I am happy to report that I qualify on all of those fronts.

September 18, 2009

When Babies Die

When celebrities die — and these past few months seem to have seen more than the usual quota of celebrity deaths — we see an overwhelming outpouring of public grief and grieving and reminiscing.

What a contrast this is to a true tragedy such as when a baby dies.

The doctors at AIIMS recently performed a rare surgery to treat an infant who had been born with her heart outside her rib cage.

The doctors created a cavity inside her chest and put the heart where it belongs. However, 22 days later, the baby dies.

One story of death in a nation of billion-plus people which didn’t get the attention it deserved. Because of the unique nature of the problem and the treatment, it at least made it to the news media.

What I want to say here though is this: what does this story tell us about life? Is there anything we should learn about life or question — does this story have the power to unhinge us to our cores?

It’s easy to read about this news item and forget about it in due course. But I’m sure we would not forget it in a hurry if the kid was our own kid. Then, it would stay with the parents forever. Although, even then, time being the great healer that it is, the intensity of their grief would vanish over time, though perhaps they would never forget.

But the baby not being my baby, the life and death of such an infant at least tells me that at some level life is meaningless. We try to make what we can of our lives but at the end of the day, in the larger scheme of things, when looked at in terms of the unending vistas of time, our lives are very insignificant things indeed.

I am therefore astonished when all too often people tend to attach “cosmic” significant to their own lives by saying that the Almighty is looking after them or watching over them. The universe we inhabit is plainly too big for any god to be able to keep track of all the insignificant triflings who inhabit it.

The entire premise behind religion is that there is a beneficent God who has created us and all of creation and who is looking after us and who cares about our wellbeing. This is ridiculous as well as funny. In a universe run by an “intelligent” creator, there would not have been instances of kids being born with their hearts outside their rib cages and kids getting leukemia and dying from the same and many other similar instances of meaningless tragedy.

We humans have a unique capacity to make light of tragedies that others are suffering and only tend to focus on our own lives. We are mightily pleased when we achieve something trivial in our lives … but we are hardly bothered when someone else is faced with a life-altering tragedy.

The other argument about the non-existence of god is of course articulated very beautifully by Richard Dawkins. He says that in a universe that has evolved according to the laws of physics and following the uncertainties and randomness of the evolutionary process, God is redundant.

Of course, Dawkins is not going to “convert” any believer into a non-believer. But, at least, for congenital skeptics like me, his persuasive presentation of what all of us atheists understand and agree with is very empowering. It’s comforting to know that I’m not the only one in a planet of 6.5 billion people who thinks that the concept of God is totally ridiculous.

When I observe the growing tide of skepticism towards the mythology of the Christian faith in intellectually advanced Europe — unlike the intellectually impoverished landscape of the United States — I take heart in the fact that such skepticism shall also grow in my own God-crazy country.

Alas, I won’t be alive when the people of India come to the inevitable realization that there never was a God looking after them … and that all this while they were merely worshipping … well, they were worshipping nothing basically — fictional creations of a fertile human mind.
Hinduism holds the record of being the oldest of the existing world religions. That’s unfortunate as the age of the religion is showing in its concepts. Hinduism is full of anthropomorphic gods and silly concepts which clearly originated thousands of years ago when our ancestors were extraordinarily ill-informed and primitive compared to us.

With all the advances in science and in our understanding of the working of nature, it has become silly to consider the Sun, or the Moon as gods. Hinduism is full of numerous gods, in fact. There’s a god of rain, a god of wind, a “king” of all the gods who ‘runs’ heaven and similar silly concepts. They all appear so quaint in the 21st century! And yet people are willing to suspend disbelief and worship gods some of whom have ten heads while some others have ten hands!

500 years from now, I’m sure, humans will look back with a measure of disbelief at our gullibility. They’ll have some fun also I’m sure at our expense. Jay Lenos of the 26th century will crack jokes at the silly belief systems of the people of the 21st century.

September 16, 2009

Faux Austerity

Or, should this be called "pseudo austerity?"

Congressmen are basically like a flock of sheep who like to move in a herd and have a deeply ingrained "follow the leader" mentality.

So, we are seeing the sudden emergence of all these various austerity measures being adopted by the ministers.

Let me clarify that I am not one of those who like to villify politicians for all tha ails this country. It's certainly not the politicians' fault that this nation boasts a population of 1.2 billion — well, except, may be a few 'exceptional' ones such as Laloo Yadav.

But, on the whole, as someone had said, "we deserve the politicians we have."

We should not forget that after all we are the ones who have voted these folks to power.

The "standard" of our politicians is merely a reflection of our standards as voters.

Be that as it may, the pious proclamations and demostrations of various austerity measures are of course pretentious. But, I guess, to be charitable to them, one can argue that it doesn't do anyone any harm!

Interesting Zip Codes

Arlington, VA22222
Fort Lauderdale, FL33333
Newton Falls, OH44444
Young America, MN55555
Topeka, KS66667
Beaumont, TX77710
Austin, TX78780
Scottsdale, near Phoenix, AZ85001
1600 Pennsylvania Ave. NW Washington, DC20500
Schenectady, NY12345
Virginia beach, VA23456
Scottown, OH45678
New York City, NY10001
Washington, DC — 20002
Norcross, GA — 30003
Bardstown, KY — 40004
Albion, IA — 50005
Arlington Heights, IL — 60006
Los Angeles, CA — 90009

What's the address of the White House?

1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Washington, D.C. 20500

September 15, 2009

Celebrities and Cancer

Recent days have seen some known personalities succumb to various types of cancer.
  • Patrick Swayze
  • Farrah Fawcett
  • Sen. Ted Kennedy

Lisa Ray has recently revealed that she has been diagnosed with multiple myeloma.

I wonder what effect these sort of news have on the general population. People in India, in particular tend to have strange attitudes towards diseases in general ... huge numbers of Indians still believe in quaint stuff like astrology. Indians probably still believe that if somebody gets cancer or some such dreadful disease, it might have something to do with their past misdeeds and the disease might be a manifestation of God's anger writ large.

When faced with personal disasters such as these, Indians tend to react in weird ways. They tend to start visiting temples and stuff and do more than the usual quota of beseeching God(s).

I find this silly, hilarious, and even irritatingly stupid. Let me explain.

I can say from personal experience how medical science has been a real miracle and a life-saver. The story in gist is this: someone in my family who is about an year younger than me suffers from Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia(CML). The standard of care for that often fatal disease is Gleevec, a medicine developed by Novartis.

This is a 'miracle' cure really as it helps patients survive for much longer periods than they would have managed to without this medicine.

Even my family member has benefited from this. But, somehow they still feel that they need to seek out god men and other miracle-mongerers rather than depending on medical science.

This is not to say that Gleevec is a 'cure' for CML ... far from it. I am reminded of Ted Kennedy and what a shock it was to hear about his death. Even someone like him with access to the finest medical resources that the world has to provide could not defeat cancer — in his case, glioblastoma.

So, I don't know what people expect when they seek out these charlatans and what exactly are these charlatans offering ... do people expect to become immortal with the help of these folks? If that is the case, I have not yet heard of anyone yet becoming immortal with the help of any of these tele-evangelists ... indeed, why don't these folks themselves become immortal if they have all these supernatural 'powers' as they are probably claiming to have?

Even so-called 'educated' people tend to make a beeline to these know-alls ... which is really sad as it sort of tends to defeat the purpose of education in my opinion.

I mean, if someone has gone through the a comprehensive scientific education and yet believes in all these mumbo-jumbo, then what has the person learnt out of his scientific education? The fundamental aim of a science education — or, for that matter, a liberal arts education — should be to teach a student the faculty of critical thinking. If a person with scientific education continues to merely follow the herd, then in my opinion, the person is not really all that different from any illiterate person in a village...

I wonder when people will come to terms with their own mortality ...

Sheraton Maurya Krishna and Shashi T’aj’haroor

The saga of the new-age Krishna/Balaram pair is truly curious. In the age of mythologies, Balaram used to be the elder of the brothers, but now it’s Krishna who is playing elder brother to Balaram, a.k.a. Shashi.

The Full-bright Krishna is normally used to all the ‘amenities’ and creature comforts of his heavenly abode, so naturally he found his ‘respective’ State Bhavan not quite up to the mark — quite understandably.

Also, in his new role as India’s official globetrotter, he must be used to diverse locales and cuisines and peoples, etc. So, may be he was just choosing to stay in a place that has been home to many a world leaders including Bill Clinton and myriad others. Surely, that is part of his job-brief. This way, he could continue to sample a lot of ‘global’ offerings without burdening the meager taxpayer-funded resources of the Government of India with endless jaunts abroad.
But, alas politics is a strange profession and though sometimes it might seem that the game is bereft of any rules whatsoever, politicians discover to their chagrin at times that there are some rules that you can’t ignore. Even Madame Gandhi — from the land of pizzas and Milan fashion — has made the humble Indian sari her uniform.

So, the message to be learnt for future ministers: even if you are rich enough to be able to make it to a State-level 100 Richest People list, you have to maintain a pretense of poverty if you are a Minister of the Government of India.

This reminds me of a former Vice President of India — and a self-proclaimed Gandhian at that to boot — who renovated his official VP residence in New Delhi by spending a few crores of rupees out of his own pocket. Now, that might offer a possible solution to the vexing issue of Govt. issue Type VIII bungalows in New Delhi’s Lutyen’s Zone not being quite up to the mark by the exacting standards of the latter-day avatar of a once playful (and once youthful) God.

Meanwhile, his younger colleague — obviously inspired by his elder brother and minister — also took up residence in what is probably not luxurious accommodation for him but rather utilitarian … consider that this former globetrotter has been a United Nations mandarin for long and as such a long time resident of that throbbing heart of global living, New York City.

T’aj’haroor has even been a celebrated author — including of a rather mythically named book ‘The Great Indian Novel’ — himself and that might be the secret of his ‘personal’ wealth.

Again, the young MP discovered much to his chagrin that politics does have its shortcomings. You can’t operate in a bubble of sanitized cleanliness if you wish to be a politician in India. India is this messy, dirty, unorganized, unpredictable, illiterate, mythology-prone, God-crazy, cow-worshipping ancient land and a dapper, handsome, smart, educated, rational author/global diplomat is not going to be able to change that.

So, Krishna’s younger cousin has learnt some early and useful lessons from the old and wily Pranabda who has prospered so prodigiously by being such a longtime devoted servant at the court of the Almighty.

If you want to be a politician in India, you have to be able to take the grime with the grease paint, be able to maintain a wide grin when you’re surrounded by smelly cows and smellier cow dung — or, learn your lessons from the ‘master’ himself who is nowadays no longer running his fiefdom in Rail Bhawan.

Perhaps, both the ministers thought they could escape to the barricaded seclusions of multi-storied glass and concrete structures and thereby manage to avoid the hordes and throngs of inevitable hangers-on from the ‘heartland.’ But you can’t be an MP and choose to shut out the very people you claim to represent.

And the common folk of India would rather meet their representatives in the tree-lined environs of Ashoka Road/Akbar Road/Janpath/Shahjahan Road rather than the air-conditioned artificiality of exclusive hotels.

The open-air nature of the places where ministers of the Government of India live has its advantages. To detail just one — if you’re waiting for rather a long while to have a ‘darshan’ of your representative and nature calls, you can always use the next available tree or wall to answer it. The hoi polloi find the sanitized environs of a ‘washroom’ with fancy fittings rather forbidding which might in fact create unforeseen problems … such as stopping or preventing the flow.

And so, the junior minister also learns some important lessons … that appearances do matter, that gray hairs do matter, that longevity matters, at least in Indian politics and in the Indian psyche.

September 09, 2009

Heart Attacks and Car Sales

Ramalinga Raju has apparently suffered a heart attack. So, the usual trend of VIPs in jail suffering from a heart attack continues. So, nothing new there and nothing much to comment about.

All I would like to say is that I do not agree with the overall condemnation of Raju ... the kind of massive avalanche of criticism that he had to face when he admitted to falsifying Satyam's accounts.

People were being too sanctimonious, I thought. I want him to get the credit for building a successful IT company from scratch — a company that has generated direct employment for some 50,000 youngsters and many more if you consider all the trickle down effects of that.

In other news, car sales in India in August have zoomed according to industry data. This is very much a counter-cyclical trend in the global automobile industry. The industry is is decline in much of the world. So, global automakers are all making a beeline to the Indian market which is basically the only game in town.

This upstream swim might be explained by the fact that the market in India is still in relative infancy compared to four-wheeler markets in the West which have basically reached a plateau and are sort of in decline.

This is quite understandable — the bitter truth is that a car is still seen as a symbol of luxury in this poor country while in advanced nations having a car is nothing to shout about.

This is the bigger truth which we need to repeat and repeat and take to heart. We need to aim for the day when Indians will have the same number of cars per capita as people in the advanced nations have today. Is that possible? Ever? Sounds unlikely, right!

That shows how far behind we are. Just an year or two ago, the United States had a 15-million vehicle market while India had a market of about a million vehicles. Remember that the population of the United States is about 300 million while that of India is about 1,200 million.

So, if India and the United States had the same number of cars per capita, India should be having an annual vehicle sales figure of 60 million vehicles. So, we are at one-sixtieth of that right now...


Gold Getting Costly — so, what's new?

Well, what's new is that it's getting costlier than ever.

It seems people's insatiable and unquenchable thirst for the precious metal has reached some sort of epidemic proportions. Or, may be, it's just simple mathematics. Since, gold is found only in limited quantities, and the number of people on the planet and therefore number of people who desire to own gold is endlessly increasing, the price of gold will continue to increase ad infinitum.

I fail to understand this craze, of course. This craze is particularly endemic in our blessed land where marriages don't happen without the presence of the yellow metal.

Will someone explain to the people that this is just a metal like any other metal, say, iron, or aluminum, etc.? Well, I don't think people will understand it anyhow. So, it's basically a hopeless situation.

People's fascination with gold will be there for the forseeable future and so the price of gold will continue to increase ... unless, of course, the ancient art/science of alchemy is at last mastered and scientists learn how to convert other ... ordinary ... metals to gold.

Imagine if a cheap process is invented whereby something commonly available like iron or steel is easily converted to gold. Then, that will definitely impact the price of gold — as the availability increase, so the price will definitely decrease.

Amen to that!

The Terrible Tragedy of Encounters and State Sponsered Terrorism

The metropolitan magistrate's report which describes the cold-blooded murder of Ishrat Jahan needs to be an eye-opener for all those who care about democracy in this country called India.

When the entire heavy apparatus of the State moves in orchestrated fashion against a lone individual, it becomes very difficult for the individual to fight back ... or, for that matter, for that individual's family to fight for justice.

In India, the judicial system still seems to be working, at least on the surface. The press also sometimes seems to perform its role as a watchdog that will try to catch public servants from performing misdeeds.

However, these vital pillars of a functioning democracy are semi-functional at best. Therein lies the danger that if we don't stay vigilant enough and don't care enough about democracy, the edifice of democracy itself might well collapse.

The core question of course is how truly democracy-minded the people of India are. I think the answer is — not all that much!!!

That is a separate topic though and will be addressed in a separate blog.

In this case of Ishrat, we see the deadly mix of police encounter killing and the specter of 'terrorism.'

Two unforgivable errors have been committed in this case: one is that of assuming that those innocent people were terrorists and two is that of killing them in a stage-managed 'encounter.' These encounters have almost become a way of meting out justice — instead of following the lengthy procedures of going to a criminal court and having to prove your case, governments have come to feel that the police can mete out justice themselves by simply killing the suspect and assuming that the suspect is guilty.

This is a very dangerous trend indeed.

Even assuming that Ishrat and the others were terrorists, they deserved a trial in a court of law which could have then led to their getting a just punishment. Encounters are not the way to go to punish terrorists — either suspected ones or proven ones.

September 06, 2009

Replicating the Human Brain

Prof. Henry Markram of the Brain Science Institute in Switzerland says that it's possible to replicate the functions of the human brain on a supercomputer in the next ten year.

This has many interesting possibilities. For neuroscientistss grappling with the mysteries of the human brain and the many diseases that afflict the brain, the modelling of the brain might offer insights into its workings that in turn will help to develop treatments.

On a more subtle level, understanding the neuronal mechanisms might offer some clues to understanding complex human emotions and "higer order" skills that only humans have.

Might we someday understand the physiological basis of such uniquely human attributes such as fear, anger, love, envy, anxiety, hatred and many others?

And how does one allocate scare financial resources to such a project with uncertain benefits? We live in times when communities and nations have to choose between conflicting priorities: some priorities seem obvious as they have direct implications for the wellbeing of that society and some other priorities are difficult to go for as their benefits are more nebulous.

Consider a few cases in point: when it comes to human diseases — such as AIDS or the more recent swine flu — allocating resources to the 'war' against them is a no-brainer as the benefits are self-evident.

Then there are other challenges such as the looming food scarcity facing the ever increasing population of the planet. Again, the attempts to increase food production are completely understandable.

Basically, no one would argue when more and more resource is allocated to finding cures for human diseases or fighting other existential challenges.

The challenging decisions are those which involve projects which do not have an obvious benefit. Some of these projects include: the entire space program, from the days of the Apollo moon landings to the Shuttles and the International Space Station and the explorations of the Solar System.

Much of pure science work doesn't provide immediatte benefits as well. The Hubble Space Telescope is a wonder of science but with no explicit benefits in terms of improving the lives of human beings.

So, what does one do? Does one stop supporting such endeavors? Or, pursue such projects as a last resort, with utmost reluctance?

I believe humanity would be well served to find as much resource as possible rather than as little to devote to research initiatives which are theoretical and fundamental in nature rather than practical research inititiatives. The push for fundamental research should not be at the expense of practical or applied science but decision makers should have the foresight to look beyond the horizon at possible benefits of such research.

The danger lies in having an attitude too mired in shortsightedness ... where all the resources are merely devoted to solving the problems of today with no resources whatsoever being devoted to fighting unseen challenges.

The poorer nations of the world (such as India and China) tend to be laggards in fundamental science for obvious reasons. It's up to the advanced and rich nations to devote more resources to such projects.

As long as somebody is doing that, humanity will hopefully be okay. I have in mind such 'pure' science as these: the continuous and vigorous research into the mystery of what led to the extinction of the dinosaurs, the evolution of stellar structures (including galaxies), the probability of large meteors striking the Earth and the NASA/US Air Force project which tracks large near Earth orbits to prvent this likelihood.

The efforts to 'model' various systems and processes are all in the spirit of this endeavor: whether it's brain modelling or climate modelling or any other type of modelling. Hopefully, with ever increasing computing capabilities at our disposal, we will continue to venture ever forward in our modelling expertise ...
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