Monday, March 30, 2009

credit where it's due

This wonderful picture is adorning my computer desktop for several months. We have dual monitors in the lab, so every passerby can see the full picture on the uncluttered monitor. I am used to the following dialogue:
"Nice background. Is that near BU?"
"Yes, river side. Near Marsh Chapel. Taken last fall."
"Very relaxing picture. Taken by you?"
"No, I wish! Someone I know took it."
I cropped the image. A few people made a special note of how the bench is enhancing the mood of the image ... that is my contribution to this beautiful piece of art ;-)

Friday, March 27, 2009


The civilised food industry has found a new cheerleader - Omega-3 fatty acid. Good for them, I say, for their earlier darlings have lost their charm.

The food lobby comes up with these keywords, scary and deary alike; once it was cholesterol, then trans fat. MSG came into spotlight probably a decade ago. Several years ago, it was egg in UK (successively as hero and anti-hero). When I was young, I remember a crusade against potatoes. Dietary fiber is still going house-full. After red meat, yellow meat has followed leaving the rather tasteless white meat on the table.

The tag lines for these often read clinically proven. Of course, we should follow what is clinically proven. But should we banish wisdom from our menu? Does being rational entail brainwashing by commercial manifestos, supported by cleverly manipulated statistical results, which were in turn commissioned by the food lobby themselves?

I read such reports all the time in the news. E.g. today I read a BBC article saying

Drinking steaming hot tea has been linked with an increased risk of oesophageal (food tube) cancer, Iranian scientists have found.

The British Medical Journal study found that drinking black tea at temperatures of 70C or higher increased the risk.

The article then goes into some details of the test and its speculative nature. The actual report, I presume, is more detailed. But the news article could very well be used to promote iced chai latte (eeks!).

My problem here is two fold. Primarily, now I find the shelves of the supermarket loaded with all kind of synthetic junk labeled as "yummy yummy and with Omega-3". Am I supposed to eat for dinner huge portions of fish fillet, coated with strange seasoning and dipped in an unfriendly batter, deep deep fried and with a side of french fries sprinkled with extra salt to make it palatable? And feel good? Just because the fish has omega-3 fatty acid and the oil has no trans fat? I wonder which is worse, a normally cooked chicken leg quarter or a chicken breast cooked with extra salt and cheese.

The problem is partly due to the super-sized fantasies among the people here. Having created a perfect consumer market, they almost develop a fetish for products (apparently) guaranteed to have some good effect. But eventually we learnt that coke with no sugar is still bad; it has to be also caffeine free. Eating burgers fried in no-trans-fat oil is fine as long as part of a balanced moderate diet (anyone remembers McDonald's initiatives on obesity issues?). Vitamin supplements should be taken only when advised. A modern study (yet another!) even reported that egg has moderate cholesterol, safe enough to be consumed regularly by normal people.

Why can't the food lobby put up an ad saying, eat what your forefathers ate, home cooked food from fresh natural products. Genetics ensure that people from a particular locality thrive best on the local food that the race has consumed for centuries. If bored, try cuisines from other locality, but again choose fresh, natural goodies.

My other concern is that since the developing countries like to copy the habits of the developed countries, the mutated food habits find no time in invading the poorer regions of the world. The fun begins then. Western food industry, giving in to consumer demands or pure health concerns, fixes the problem. However, that "fix" is usually expensive or not so tongue-friendly, so it seldom crosses the ocean. Viola! Most Indo-Chinese food in India have high amounts of MSG (which is by the way, a synthetic version of a chemical found naturally e.g. in tomatoes and its fatality is still being debated) whereas, Chinese menu cards in the USA are often marked "No MSG".

I am glad that most people in India are so poor that they cannot afford brown bread made from enriched flour.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Jai Ho Naari

Today is Women's day. Now in a different timezone, as the city for the first time appears lifeless and lacklustre, an intellectual from Mars indulges in pensive thoughts while sifting through the pages of the Times of India. A poll conducted by TOI shows that more (67%) women consider family over career (24%) ... the question of choice should not ever arise but for the fact that marriage is a binding social contract, full of negotiations and plannings to maximize some utility function unclear often to the parties involved. Less than half of the fairer force decide how to invest their own money (46% in general and ... alarming ... 49% for single working women).

Why is it that women are always at the receiving end (no pun intended) ?

Cat fight is futile. There is no point in blaming today's men alone. Again less than half of the women polled (46%) are capable of planning their evenings. There might be a few cases of social pressure, but most of them do not even want to weigh their options. Such has patriarchy found its roots deep in our veins and arteries and neurons. Reverting this major "magaj dholai" will require a billion clones of Soumitra from Hirak Rajar Deshe, if not more. The casual sympathetic among us often pass the buck by asking the women folk to protest. And then we feign helplessness when they do not. Suo moto action is uncalled for, unless there is a promised reward for the chivalry. How can we adjudge the self-mortification of many very mentally strong women ?

Some call it nature's fury, their destiny born as a girl but I refuse to buy the biological line of argument. Evolution ensures women are physiologically capable of child bearing and raising. Females of certain other species are born strong enough to independently look after their progeny but it is natural that we, as a species, might desire better security for our future race. But in the artificial social structure we invented, security has become a bad addiction; everyone wants security, of all kind and colours. Citizens agree to an Orwellian system for security from hooligans, parents seek security (huh!) in their old age ... this is now a matter of (Indian) legal technicalities, the illusion of the security of goernment job is strong enough for people to make compromises with their career. But the emotional blackmail faced by half of living humans is too widespread and ingrained. It cannot be mere the longing for security that incarcerated women are afraid to raise their voice. Domestic violence is present in the developed and developing homes alike.

It is not lack of strength, it is not want of security. What is it ... o Lord Buddha, show me the light. Show us the light.

I see the reason for the discrimination as evolutionary, but social, not biological. Human society invented certain systems to ensure parasitic propagation of its lineage. It was a requirement to guard women to protect foetus and bring forth pleasure to the "man"kind (who in turn, will create everything else but the foetus ... well, not directly). A system like this worked, with little ado, and our race reaped a lot of immediate benefit from it over the centuries. But the disbalance was there ... the intoxicated minds could never create much hullabulla about it. The master design of the system ensured that any turmoil would be local, confined only within families walls. Unity is strength - no chance to unify their plight, no strength to overcome. What is more, the system will condemn the outliers, including other women. A perfect matrix and no red pill.

But, any system has a tendency over time to stabilise to a local minima. After seeing thousands of autumns, when women are gradually understanding their identity, their position in the human race, finding self-respect, they find that they are hopelessly dependant on men ... spouse, father, brother, son, boss ... yada yada yada. And even though they dream about breaking off the shackles, they go at great lengths to make compromise with their life once they are awake. It's the system. When I ask "Why?" ... all I get is "Look, I am a woman".

"I need you" should be a spiritual confession, not a vapid social drama. Dear all, you gotta be toughie ... sweet and attractive ones. Like Erin Brokovich.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

End of paper NEWS ?

...a deep sound strikes like a rising knell! Did ye not hear it?
—No! 't was but the wind

This time it is not the wind. The catacomb are being dusted and readied for the eventuality that is striking everything around us in our passage in time. This time the victim are the newspapers. 33 newspapers in the USA have sought bankruptcy protection. The NYTimes probably used one of its lifelines in the $250 million investment - only time will tell if the Kohinoor of the news world will win the Who want's to be a survivor contest. Buy and store San Francisco Chronicle issues ... any day could be its last. The LATimes, the Chicago Tribu,e the Phil. Inquirer ... the list does not seem to stop.

Any toddler of generation Z could have predicted this. Internet, the jekyll and hyde child of technology, would wipe out many seemingly less efficient adornments of our modern civilisation. Who but hast resource to waste ?

Like audio/visual-cassette and book, newspaper face the imminent danger of being obsolete in the 24 hour timespan of a human day. It occupies precious space, in both the domain of time and desk space. Both are precious. Handling a newspaper requires more than a single key press by a single finger; never mind the chance of carpal tunnel syndrome which we smartly sidestepped by the dreary invention of speech-recognition software. Who needs fingers anyway ?

The end only came sooner. Usually the rich only gets richer and poor poorer. Millionaries are the product of natural selection said Andrew Carnegie. 2008-2009 would be remembered for a long time for bringing down everyone to similar level. The highrises are still there, this time rich and poor alike look at them from outside. And with no money and no time, who can afford to read newspapers ? Even more, print them.

I wish I could blame technology for the current economic debacle, some kind of software failure, like the ones that blew the space shuttles in midair. Fortunately or unfortunately, it is due to the collective failure of a group of minds. It is our joint responsibility, and I am sure, we, the human race will win over it. Maybe this year, maybe next. But on the way, we will leave behind some of our friends, dead or crippled.

There will be in future, a human race who will wonder how was it to flip a page of a book ? How was it to feel the paper with our fingers, read the words printed on a white page but sounding just like the author's husky voice ? How some people were irrationally biased towards one particular edition of a book because of its cover ? There is concerted effort in denouncing feeling from our actions. Evolution is not a consequence, a necessity. I miss horse carts, vinyl disks, but what replaced them was not lacking in warmth. Convenince came only in lieu of nostalgia. But a Kindle cannot replace the closeness of a book, an mp3 rip is no match for the affection I have for a V Balsara audio CD.

There is a redundancy in physical medium which makes it beautiful. Beauty is not for the mind to appreciate, it is beyond rationality and can only be absorbed by the synergy of our senses. There is no how or why for a great deal of things in humanity and these make our life worth living. Like a drunkard who knows not why he drinks, he merely drowns till the click of the door to tranquility sounds. Like parents who raise their baby without expecting anything in return. Like the unknown vagabond tramp helping the unknown blind whom he will never see ever again. Like the selfless love between two individuals, timeless in essence but packed in time in 2 days. Like the music of Beethoven, who composed 9th symphony when he was medically deaf. These are beautiful because they trespass explanation. Their essence is in their existence which can only be felt but cannot be justified by any balance sheet.

Is it too late to take control of technology and re-shelve it where it belongs, as a tool, an invention to make living memorable ? As heard in The Great Dictator,
Machinery that gives abundance has left us in want. Our knowledge has made us cynical; our cleverness, hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery we need humanity. More than cleverness, we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost.