December 31, 2009

The Population Nightmare

Or, is it a ticking time bomb?

Call it what you will, but I think Indians are not adequately appreciative of the lurking dangers that lie ahead.

The United States has a population of just over 300 million. India's population is soon going to reach 1,200 million.

United States has a land area that is three times as much as India's. I do not think anyone will disagree that this is the most important 'natural reource' that a nation needs.

So, let's do some basic maths.

Four times as many people are crammed into an area that is one-third as much.

If my arithmatic is accurate, that simply means a population density 12 times that of the United States.

So, considering the land surface of India, it should be having a population of 300 million to start with — equal to that of the United States. But even then India will have three times the population density of the United States.

So, to match the population density of the U.S., India's population will need to go down to 100 million.

Clearly, we are on the right track to meet that target.

A New Year Reflection

I was thinking back to the days when I was younger and living at home.

My father was not so much into these festivities and would go to sleep early ... as usual.

He would wake up early next morning ... as usual and go to office at the appointed time.

I wonder if that work ethic is worth emulating or what.

We live in a time when we 'celebrate' so many things. It's not unusual now a days to see youngsters celebrating the birthdays of their parents!!!

Would have been unheard of in my time.

I will definitely feel a bit silly, I think, if my birthday were to be celebrated when I am 50 or 60 or 70 years old.

Anyways, a new year is beginning and also a new decade.

I wonder if I will live to see the end of this new decade and welcome another new decade.

If I were asked to choose one thing I would love to see happen before I die, I will say this:

I have thought about that and my only query about nature that I would love to see answered before my death is this: Are we alone in the Universe? Is there intelligent life elsewhere in the Universe? I suspect, as do scientists that life must be 'common' in this vast universe. It's just that we are a relatively primitive technological society and therefore we are just mastering the tools required to search for intelligent life elsewhere.

I would only ask scientists to 'hurry up' and find an answer before I die.

So, my answer to this question: What is the single most scientific endeavor that is ongoing at this moment? is obvious. It's the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.

December 30, 2009

That Bogey Again

The Ruchika case has attracted a lot of media attention.

There's talk of giving death sentence to the perpetrator. That's a question which might seem an easy one on the face of it but when you delve into it, there are complexities involved.

The obvious danger of course is misuse. Same goes for how stringent punishment for dowry related torture should be. One can think of the maximum punishment to deter people from committing these heinous crimes.

But in today's society, there's scope for people using these laws to blackmail innocent people.

When there's not a shred of doubt about the fact that such a crime has taken place, then there is really no problem with the death sentence.

India really needs some strict laws and some people to be punished in an exemplary fashion.

The desire to take short cuts in life needs to be curbed among the people of India. In a country that is beset with so many intractable problems and so much economic disparity, this desire is particularly rife.

But whatever problems bedevil India, they are all entirely the creation of the people of India. So, Indians might as well learn to live with them and poor people have to learn to live in poverty and not be tempted to commit burglary to get rich quick.

December 29, 2009

Still Battling Small Pox

Small pox has been eradicated since a long time with the help of vaccines — one of the major triumphs of medical science ever.

But scientists continue to do research on a few samples kept in highly secure locations such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

This is not an idle quest. When we have better understanding of how the small pox virus causes such havoc, we will be ready to face other similar viral foes in the future.

Here's a link ...

Terms of Bereavement

We often deal with grief with more resilience than we might have thought possible. This is one of the interesting themes of a book reviewed in the New York Times ...

I have no hesitation with agreeing with the above contention. The ease with which people cope with tragedy is commonplace ... it would have some relation to various factors such as how 'important' financially the deceased person may have been to the grieving one.

In India certainly, it's imperative to demonstrative one's grief in a very public and melodramatic fashion. I am one who would prefer to keep grief private.

In traditional societies such as India, society plays a part in how anyone copes with a death. There are a bunch of meaningless rituals which must be complied with at all costs.

People of India being exceptionally strong believers in a benevolent God take solace in ascribing some one's death to His inscrutable will and better judgment.

Interestingly enough, I have seen people rage at God when someone in the family had an untimely death. It would appear to me childish to first of all imagine God as having any sort of a role to play in any sort of human affairs: whether it's birth, marriage, death, or anything else.

It's extraordinarily vain to think of ourselves as important enough on the scale of the universe that the Creator of the entire Universe would bother Himself with our fate.

Correct me if I am wrong ...

December 28, 2009

Still Trying to Save the Tiger

I say let's give Tiger some slack.

May be this will help put things in perspective.

1. Tiger didn't murder anyone, did he?
2. He didn't inspire some suicide bombers, did he?
3. He didn't steal taxpayers' money, did he?
4. He didn't set up phony financial schemes to cheat people, did he?
5. He didn't rape or molest women or minors, did he?
6. He didn't pontificate about leading a 'moral' life or doing 'God's work,' did he?
7. He didn't point fingers at others or blame others, did he?
8. He didn't act as if he was entitled to anything, did he?
9. He didn't break the law, did he?
10. Unless of course sex between two consenting adults means breaking the law.

December 25, 2009

Throwing Sand in the Voters' Eyes

India's Ministers and Members of Parliament are extremely proficient in this. They are aware that most of India's voting electorate is illiterate and too worried about earning their daily bread to follow the goings on in a parliament in distant Delhi that is light years removed from the reality of their lives.

So, the lawmakers do not mind framing and passing into law a bill that offers more free airline tickets to their own relatives as well as 'companions.' It's an interesting word to include in the bill. It seems our members of Parliament have become quite modern and want to take along on their free junkets people who may not be their spouses or children or relatives.

Case in point: Suppose I am a powerful MP or better still, a minister, I might get to become 'friends' with models or other members of the Page 3 fraternity. So, when I go on vacations to Goa or elsewhere at the taxpayer's expense, I would also like to take along the beautiful female 'companion' rather than the long-suffering wife or the progeny. The current legislation did not cover that possibility. So, the rulebook has been changed.

It helps that the rulemakers are themselves framing the rules that concern themselves. It's no wonder that they have been rather generous towards themselves. Who would not be?

In other countries, I am sure, some sort of professional body would have recommended a suitable law in this domain. Did not it occur to the Government to ask some retired judge to help frame the bill?

The Power of Prescription Drugs

Being a regular user of amlodipine and atenolol for controlling high blood pressure, I am somewhat aware of the power of prescription drugs.

I had carelessly taken more than what my doc had prescribed for a few days and my blood pressure went sharply in the other direction — from too high to too low.

Hollywood has seen some untimely deaths due to misuse of prescription drugs. Last year saw the death of Heath Ledger and this year has seen the death of Brittany Murphy. Michael Jackson's is a somewhat different story, I guess.

So, the lesson to learn is to beware of prescription drugs — these are not things to play with. These powerful substances can be extremely helpful to the body but when not used properly, they can cause havoc as well.

December 15, 2009

The Islam Question

It's a complex issue but one that needs to be confronted head on.

All religions are old belief systems and naturally reflect their age. All religions need to change to keep up with changing times and advances in human civilization.

There's no way that one can cling on to ways of life propounded in texts written thousands of years ago — no matter how suited those ways of life might have been to the times and climes they were written in.

Let's face it: religions came into being as humans tried to make sense of a perplexing universe. There was no science then. So, religions provided simplistic explanations for natural phenomena. Pretty much all religions have concepts of heaven and hell. They talk about living a pious or righteous life here on Earth so that one gets to go to heaven in the afterlife instead of getting punishment in hell for eternity.

This is certainly as silly as it sounds. I don't know how people can believe in childish stuff such as this.

Beyond this, different religions have different idiosyncrasies. The problem with evangelical religions is that they proselytize. The problem with expansionist religions is that they believe in going to battle to fight for their religions. The particular problem as I see it with the religion that I was born to — Hinduism — is that it has got rather peculiar practices of worshipping idols which is unique to this religion only. Nothing wrong perhaps with worshipping gods who might have four heads or ten hands — it's just silly as hell!!!

If some religion proclaims that all those people who don't follow that particular religion are infidels and must be either converted or killed, well, that's dangerous. People must stop believing such nonsense and must not be and cannot be allowed to act upon such nonsensical beliefs. It would appear some sections of the Muslim world believe in this. May be this is not unique to Islam. But because of various historical circumstances, Muslims feel victimized and have reacted to that sense of victimization by resorting to violence.

It's a basic, inconvenient fact that 19 or 20 people decided to fly airplanes into buildings and managed to kill about 3,000 people. They had lots of help and they had lots of grouses. And they want to kill even more people. This is pure madness. People continue to kill almost everyday using the almost invincible method of suicide bombing. Another monstrous caricature of religions teachings.

Be it on the record that other beliefs have prompted nations to commit murder and slaughter on far larger scales. Let us not forget the brutal history of the Second and First World Wars. Killing civilians or soldiers in the millions cannot be redeemed by any explanations. Nuclear weapons are not less brutal ways then using suicide bombings. Fire bombings, gas chambers, napalm, machine guns, etc. — each one is equally bad.

The nationalistic pride and notions of racial superiority which led to such barbarity for centuries has hopefully come to an end.

The religious zealotry of a few fanatics can hopefully be dealt with in this century using a combination of education and opportunities for self-growth.

Saving Quarters for Diapers

Americans are having to scrimp … saving quarters for diapers … Americans luckily have access to a few social safety nets provided by the government such as Medicaid, unemployment benefits, food stamps, etc. Then, non-governmental organizations and religious charities pitch in to provide whatever help they can.

The effects of this prolonged recession are definitely going to be far-reaching on the psyche of those who will have gone through long periods of unemployment. This is happening after some seven decades. So, very few are alive today who had experienced it the last time it happened.

The last recession was followed by an economic boom aided by both government policies as well as the ‘martial’ nations of Europe who still wanted to fight one last great, climactic mother of all wars after the Great War.

The lessons for India? I think the message is a very sobering one.

If a nation as advanced and prosperous can suffer such havoc from economic cycles of boom and bust, what chance does India have of escaping from such cycles?

None, I think.

And how can India prepare to face such cycles? First, India must wake up to these possibilities. India has taken baby steps towards globalization and achieved a modicum of economic growth and development in the last decade or so.

The lesson to learn is to stay alert and not become complacent. Growth and prosperity and development are not preordained. Second, India must begin to think in terms of creating safety nets similar to what is available to citizens in the more developed nations.

Of course, the creation of these safety nets will require enormous amounts of resources. India clearly lacks the resources. The fundamental problem is that so many millions and hundreds of millions of Indians live near the edge of a precipice. My fear is that when things go even slightly wrong, the repurcussions will be stunning. The problems could come in the form of any of a multitude of ways.

We are utilizing natural resources like there’s no tomorrow. The greenhouse gas emissions from all the fossil fuels that we burn could yet come to haunt us. Even slight changes to the climate patterns could cause havoc to the farming cycle leading to catastrophic crop failures.

India is still massively and overwhelmingly dependent on rainfall during the harvest seasons.

If the rains fail, India will starve.

Climate of course is a dynamic system. It will change in the future as it has in the past — with human intervention or without it.

As people become more advanced and prosperous, they tend to consume more and more resources on a per capita basis. People in general tend to consume more non-veg food which is in general more resource intensive. People will buy more furniture causing more damage to forests. In simple terms, the “footprint” of a single individual grows ever larger as he or she becomes more affluent.

It’s said that a baby in the U.S. consumes about 40 times as much resources as a baby in India. Unfortunately, Indians are still clinging on to some traditional ways of thinking … which includes the desire to have multiple progeny and large families. Having babies is considered almost a sacred birthright and a duty.

While people hold on to these traditional beliefs, some of the other realities have meanwhile changed. Infant mortality rates have declined precipitously with the widespread availability of antibiotics and other advances in medical science.

Remember that the land area of a nation does not grow whether the population of a nation increases or decreases. So, as India’s population has grown from somewhere around 100 million at the turn of the 20th century to nearly 1,200 million today, the land area remains the same. Perhaps this is an exaggeration. Perhaps, 200 million lived in the land area that is India today. At the time of India’s independence, the population was 320 million. Now, at 70 years of age, India is on course to become four times as populous.

This is clearly unsustainable. If we want every Indian to live a good life, then we must find a way to make sure that there are not that many Indians. This is a simple truth. If I may propose a brutal truth here — we must find a way to make sure that India’s population starts declining gradually.

Is that such a preposterous idea? I don’t think so. Name any advanced nation of the world and their population is already on a downward slide as we speak. Nations such as Japan, Russia, Italy and others are not concerned about burgeoning populations but are providing incentives to their citizens to persuade them to have more babies. We in India of course do not need to persuade or incentivize our people to procreate. They are unfortunately motivated enough themselves to do this.

That might have been a good thing per se, but under the present circumstances, it’s clearly not at all a good thing. Or, may be, this is too much of a good thing. So, we need to find a way to curb people’s desire to procreate.

This is the ultimate “who will bell the cat” situation. Do Indians have the vision and foresight to put some sort of a voluntary ‘moratorium’ on the uncontrolled population growth rates? If we don’t, then of course, nature will find a way, as it always does. Nature will find a way to control our population — it will do so brutally, through starvation and floods and earthquakes and tsunamis, through heat waves and cold waves.

The choice is ours.

December 14, 2009

The Search Continues ...

The Large Hadron Collider is back in action ... this time without the hoopla and the misunderstanding.

It's great to see a pure science project of this magnitude getting completed in the current global economic climate.

December 13, 2009

Celebrating the vision of 2012

I admire the visionary thinking behind 2012. It's easy to dismiss it as typical Hollywood production-line stuff but I think the movie has a message if only people are willing to ponder.

Of course, the movie could have done without all the razzmatazz: the special effects and the biblical allusions. But that's perhaps necessary to engage an audience with very short attention spans.

I would perhaps have preferred a movie that debated not only this particular possibility that might put a spanner in all our corporate-ladder-climbing careers but other possibilities as well. But may be that's up to Seth Sostak and Discvoery Channel.

The world may not quite turn turtle come 2012 and the Mayans may not quite have gotten it right — I certainly hope so — but there are dangers on the horizon for humanity. This permanent fiesta can't last. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction, as Newton's Third Law says.

What we are doing to the planet will have an equal and opposite reaction. Then there are the imponderables. It's churlish of humanity to imagine that we have a 'spcial' place in the universe. The reality is that planet Earth is a speck of dust and an oasis in an universe that is essentially a place of endless darkness.

As we go about our daily routines, it's worth remembering that our planet continues to rotate ... endlessly, unceasingly, relentlessly ... suspended in space, in nothingness.

And it continues to revolve around its star, the Sun ... some unseen force binding it to its parent. Imagine that ... imagine the blackness of space and imagine this fragile, blue marble in the vastness of space.

No religious philosophy can exceed the beauty of this reality of the universe we inhabit.

The Ordinary and the Extraordinary

I was wondering about how great the differences are ...

Most of the people on the planet live engrossed in the occurences of their daily lives. Without giving much thought to abstract issues.

Then we have other people who devote their lives to the same abstract issues. I have particularly great respect for scientists/physicists. Where would humanity be, or rather how poor would humanity be without the contributions of Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, Richard Feynman, Carl Sagan, and so many others like these.

There are great scientists in the biological sciences who have found cures for diseases and contributed so much to our understanding about our own selves.

Great scientists in the various physical sciences who have helped invent so many of the tools that have helped improve the quality of our lives.

And we take all of these things for granted ...

And continue to live in our tiny, little rat-holes.

It's like much of humanity is like parasites that lives off of the greatness of a few human beings.

Let's hope the supply of geniuses does not dry up any time soon as humanity has got limitless potential if only we are willing to raise our eyes upwards and think about the endless possibilities.

Save the Tiger

The way Tiger Woods is being hounded, it would appear as if he were an elected official who had been caught with his hand in the till.

But this is not the case. So, why all this fuss? Why do people want to foist greatness on someone?

Tiger's genius lies in how he can hit the golf ball. Nothing has changed on that front.

His golf skills enabled him to earn millions. His skills are exceptional. So, is his wealth.

Why do people expect him to live an ordinary life like the rest of us ... the no-skills folks? What is the purpose of slogging so hard and having all that money if you can't go out and spend it the way you like?

Why do people expect that everyone will accept the moribund rules of our society? Let's face it: the rules and regulations that govern our society are pretty old-fashioned and not really suited to our times and realities. If people are not brave enough to dump those rules in their entirety, that's people's problems.

Through all of human history, people have found various ways to skirt and manipulate those rules or have fun in spite of those rules.

Whether it be, JFK or Michael Jordan, Hugh Hefner or Magic Johnson, Tiger Woods or Bill Clinton, exceptional men will always live their lives in exceptional ways.

And I admire them all ...

Hubble Legacy

It's good that there are people out there who are involved in these endeavors and that there are nations who are willing to finance these intellectual endeavors.

It's not possible to put a price on what they find. How do you put a picture on Hubble's look at the edge of the universe?

When we are all consumed in various ways by various concerns in our daily lives, Hubble's images do help to put things in perspective.

Humans though are motivated by things that have a more immediate resonance for them. What a pity...

December 09, 2009

A Nobel Obama

Theodore Roosevelt's lasting legacy as a President is perhaps what he did to preserve and protect the extraordinary wilderness of America for posterity. The role he played in bringing to an end the war between Russia and Japan is open to interpreations. It may have indirectly led to Pearl Harbor.

Woodrow Wilson's exertions in forming the League of Nations are known. However, the eventual outcome of that endeavor might have been war rather than peace.

Nobody can argue with the true greatness of some of the other winners: King or Mandela. Gandhi of course remains a jarring omission from that roster of winners.

But overall, if one thinks of all the winners over more than one hundred years, does the list comprise of mostly great men and women with a few ordinary folks, or is the list mostly populated by ordinary people and even some very controversial winners such as Henry Kissinger?

In a hundred years from now, Obama would become a footnote in the story of human civilization and we would all be long since forgotten ...

December 07, 2009

Risible Rituals

India is a nation of meaningless rituals. Indians tend to their risible rituals with the utmost devotion so as to avoid the difficult task of having to think.

Indians like to celebrate various yearly rituals ... of both happy as well as sad occasions. One such recent anniversary was that of the Bhopal gas tragedy. Not long before that, there was the anniversary of Indira Gandhi's assassination. Then, people also remembered the Babri Masjid demolition. A more recent tragedy from Mumbai a year ago was also piously observed. Even Sachin's playing for 20 years occasioned an outpouring of admiration and adulation.

Sadly, I think people don't have any sense of proportion at all. Otherwise, we would not have seen the absurd eulogizing of Sachin.

Public outrage about the death of a model fortunatly led to the incarceration of a playboy-turned-murderer. Similar outrage is unfortunately completely absent when the dead happen to be the ordinary people of India. This dichotomy is deeply rooted in people's psyche.

Indians believe there are different rules that apply to the common people and those that apply to the ruling class. In earlier times, the ruling class comprised of kings and emperors. Today, the rich and the powerful constitute the ruling class who are automatically judged by different yardsticks.

The powerful are allowed a few transgressions. It's considred okay if they happen to break a small law here and there.

The definition of democracy itself of course gets buried when some people become members of a privileged class with a sense of entitlement.

That's Indian democracy for you. People won't rise up in revolt as long as they get to celebrate their daily and deadly rituals ... monotously pestering their imaginary gods and following other age old rituals with predictable passion.

Actions of course have consequences. What Indians are sowing today, they will be reaping the results tomorrow or a few decades hence. I feel lucky that hopefully I won't be around when Indians at last realize that no gods will come to their rescue when they start dying in their millions from the millions of stupidities that they have committed.

Caged Tiger

I didn't know that Tiger Woods was the first billionaire sportsperson of the world.

One doesn't become a billionaire without being extraordinarily driven.

Being rich has its advantages ... just as being powerful has its.

History tells us that Moghul Emperors had many wives in their harems — one of the perks of being an Emperor. Even some present-day kings continue to follow in their footsteps.

Today though, money mostly has become equivalent to power.

So. those with money can afford to lead rather laissez faire lifestyles.

I don't see any problems with that — as long as they don't preach and pretend to be modern day Mahatma Gandhis.

I am only thinking of how Donald Trump would react to Tiger's troubles: he would remind everyone again with his signature style how crazy it was not to have "pre-nuptials."

One's respect for the genius of Tiger on the course should not get diminished by all this. He has merely shown that he is as human as anyone else.

Let me confess: I would have done pretty much the same things...

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