February 22, 2010

A Prickly Conscience

As usual, I was returning home to Gurgaon late on Saturday night from Delhi and saw these two kids at a traffic stop plying some sort of business. This is of course usual at every traffic light in Delhi.

Only thing that struck me was that it was 11:30 PM at night when I saw these kids ... they can't be more than 10 years old, I think. One can take solace that at least the 5-6 year-old street kids who strut their business during the day time are hopefully blissfully asleep for the night ...

I think it is such a shame for us Indians that we let this go on ... I think this is a crime that all of us are guilty of.

Another day, another story: I was just doing an evening walk in posh Gurgaon and I saw a ragpicker girl - may be 6-8 years olf - carrying a sack and crying. I felt like crying as well. Luckily, a man, most probably her dad, came and handed her some money and the girl cleaned her tears and started walking.

The good news is that she was not lost - her 'home' was nearby. She walked some distance and waited for the traffic to clear so that she could cross the street. There were these street vendor families living there - plying earthenware. This was clearly her 'home.' What a loss ...

A last tale: I was recently in my home state of Orissa. I was travelling on some local train ... I don't quite remember and then these two kids - not even 5 years, may be - came near the seat where I was sitting. I started taking photos of them on my cell camera and the kid brother started posing for the camera like a Bollywood hero. I took photos so that I will remember their story - it's so easy to forget these tragedies while going about our daily lives and worrying about how to buy the next big-screen LCD TV and the latest flashy car.

I think Indians should somehow take it up on a war footing - a project to make sure that no kid is deprived of the opportunity to go to school. Certainly, no kid should be forced to make a living - whether by begging at traffic lights or doing other menial labor.

I need no further proof that we live in a God-less world ... but of course the idea of God is laughably childish.

Indians clearly have a very pliant conscience ... I see my colleagues loudly complaining about the taxes they have to pay to the government. I do not see them similarly worried about these street kids. Of course, as far as females are concerned, it's all about their kid, how smart and cute and clever and intelligent the kid is ... what crap!

February 14, 2010

Debating Religion in Public Life

A very interesting article about a very vibrant debate.


It's noteworthy that such a debate is happening in a developed nation.

I wonder about the time in the future when people in India acknowledge that there's a direct conflict between the teachings of Darwinian evolution and the teachings of religious texts.

I can't believe that people of India are more intellectually secular than Americans.
The events in Ayodhya a couple of decades ago could be a trailer.

It's not that Indians are more 'secular' than Americans or Europeans but their belief system has not been challenged.

So, Indians comfortably continue to have a dual system of belief: at home, Indians are incredibly archaic people with weird belief systems harking back centuries ... worshipping idols of strange Gods.

But, at school, Indians study and absorb and analyze textbooks that propound a purely Western-generated scientific way of looking at the world.

This dichotomy strikes me as particularly incredulous. It's just that religious rituals become almost a part of one's unconscious and people take them forgranted without analyzing the basis for them.

The NYT article BTW generated many, many interesting comments.

It was interesting to see so many readers blithly hoping for Texas to secede ...

And enlightening to read about the Founding Fathers and their religious inclinations ... or, lack thereof. It's truly extraordinary how foresighted the Founding Fathers were more than 200 years ago.

It's worth remembering that Darwin's great idea of evolution still lay in the future and science & technology was really in a rudimentary state when the United States was founded.

On a somewhat different note, is it a cautionary tale that Hitler was a legitimatly elected President of Germany?

Ironically, the one political system that was explicitely predicated on atheistic principles has collapsed - Communism!

What a tragedy ...

February 12, 2010

Charlie Wilson

The Congressman has died.


I remember reading recently about him in Colin Powell's autobiography.

Powell narrates an incident where the famously playboy Congressman wanted permission from Powell/Pentagon to take along his girlfriend with him to Afghanistan on an official military aircraft. Powell would have none of it.

When the Congressman reminded Powell that he might need him to pass legislation, Powell just asked the Congressman to use his best judgment and told him that he was just trying to do the best he could.

The military aid that the Congressman so heroically arranged for the Mujaheddin of course had some unintended consequences. The ISI managed to divert some of the Stinger missiles to Kashmir although I believe that militants in Kashmir have never utilized the deadly missile.

That old adage again: one man's freedom fighter is another man's terrorist.

February 11, 2010

Symbol Shifters

A came across this wonderful quote via a colleague:

Homo sapiens is the species that invents symbols in which to invest passion and authority, then forgets that symbols are inventions. -Joyce Carol Oates

That led me to reflect ...

Humans are so much more than other species on the planet …

‘Symbol shifters’ is a phrase I remember Carl Sagan using to describe humans.

Language is indeed one of those defining characteristics that separates us from other species.

We have managed to learn so much about the structure and evolution of the universe and managed to store that knowledge for future generations using the power of language.

And so each succeeding generation is able to profit from the accumulated knowledge base of its predecessors.

We are literally ‘star stuff’ as well … another phrase I remember from Sagan.

Humans tend to confound me when they choose to give equal importance to man-made things such as cultural stuff (traditions, rituals) as they do to laws of nature (gravitation, how stars are made).

There are plenty of options to choose from when it comes to man-made things … and that includes language as well.

There are no options to choose from when it comes to any law of nature — we are all bound by them.

A Soviet nuclear bomb works by the same principle as an American one.

An Indian fission device works the same way as a Pakistani one.

An Iranian weapon would use the same principles as an Israeli one.

The only difference I can observe is this: most of these man-made conventions are pretty old and therefore they have become quite ingrained in us. Science, on the other hand, is a relatively recent phenomenon. The laws of nature have been discovered in the last 300 years or so.

As we continue to progress, humans will surely learn to give less and less importance to man-made rituals.

Medical Ghostwriting

It would seem that this should be treated with the utmost amazement.

But apparently, many major academic medical centers have no policy guidelines in place that deal with this:


There are tangled webs of relationships between academics in medical centers and pharmaceutical companies. It's common for department heads of medical centers to be on the boards of pharma companies. Such situations can obviously lead to conflicts of interest. People who hold these dual responsibilities might have very high ethical standards but it would appear prudent to put in place a system that would altogether remove this possibility.

It's perhaps similar to something like this ... when you are celebrating your marriage anniversary, would you like to invite not only the parents of your present wife but all of your previous girlfriends as well? I think that might complicate things ...

A President of the 'People'

I was thinking if the present system of voting needs to be changed in a country like the United States.

After all, people are probably more passionate about their reality TV shows and social networking fora such as Facebook, etc.

So, instead of mounting a nationwide voting exercise, perhaps a poll could be set up on Facebook where people could vote for their favorite candidate.

Of course, there would be scope for various frauds such as multiple voting ... mechanisms would need to be devised to prevent them.

Similarly, people could vote for the President on other online platforms as well.

Perhaps, simply put, the idea should be that if someone goes online, there should be around 90 percent chance of that person coming across the Presidential ballot.

All the major email providers must host it.

The benefit of this method is obvious: people would find it far more convenient to vote for a President this way and therefore would bother to vote.

At the end of the day, it might turn out that more people effectively participate in the voting process using this 'new' way rather than when people needed to go to a voting booth to choose their Prez.

What do you think?

I think this will eventually come to pass.
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