Thursday, 29 January 2009

Bernie Madoff

Shocking skeletons are coming out of the closet from the Madoff scandal as revealed by a recent editorial in NYT:

I’ve obtained a list of nearly all the private foundations that invested money directly with Mr. Madoff, at least at the time of their most recent tax filings. Even in the unlikely event that they cashed out since then, they may still have to repay the money to others.

What is staggering is how many of these 147 foundations had all their assets invested with Mr. Madoff and may have been wiped out as a result. For example, the Avery and Janet Fisher Foundation, which supported everything from various museums to meals-on-wheels programs, appears to have been fully invested with Mr. Madoff. And the same is true of dozens more.

The Picower Foundation of Palm Beach, Florida, with nearly $1 billion in assets and a major contributor to non-profits across the nation, has already announced that it will close down because of its Madoff investments. Its beneficiaries have included a neurological research institute at MIT, the New York Public Library and the Children’s Health Fund.

The MIT institute mentioned is the "Picower Institute of Learning and Memory" which stands opposite the Stata center on Vassar street. I pass through the building everyday on my way to the campus and I often think of taking courses there in my future semesters given my developing interest in neuroscience. Now its very survival seems to be a matter of speculation.

Wednesday, 28 January 2009

The Story of India (BBC documentary)

Some days ago, I got a chance to watch "The Story of India" which is a six-episode documentary produced by the BBC. Conceived and narrated by historian Michael Wood, it is a panoramic sweep on nearly six-thousand years of Indian history. The perspective of curious enthusiastic westerner is dominant throughout the film, but it is a substantial effort on the part of the crew and deserves to be watched as a fitting acknowledgment to their meticulous attempt. Therefore -Highly recommended!

The first episode presents a few glimpses into the pre-Aryan history of the subcontinent, finally culminating in the Indus Valley period. What particularly got me interested was the presentation of small investigations that possibly hold answers to the anthropological history of the Aryans in the subcontinent. First, satellite topographic images showing compelling evidence of the past existence of a river in the North West frontier have been published by a group in Imperial College, London. Though they don't mention it explicitly in the episode (to the best of my knowledge), this is a clear reference to the river 'Saraswati' which is mentioned in the Vedas (on a tangent, the other river that finds mention in the Vedas is 'Suvatsu' loosely translated to 'white serpent'. The associated valley is now known as the Swat region in Pakistan where the Taliban have taken over and are wreaking havoc). Then follows a cute part where Wood goes around the streets of Afghanistan trying to re-create 'Soma-rasa' that is frequently mentioned in the Rig Veda (The climate of the Indian plains is supposedly not conducive for this plant to grow). But the most fantastic part was the visit to an archaeological site in Turkmenistan (Central Asia) where remains of a lost civilization that reared horses and used chariot-carts (raths) have been excavated.

I got interested on this debate some months ago and though it's completely baseless, my gut inclination has been towards the invasion hypothesis. Prima facie indications responsible for this are two - 1. the Indus Valley script has no seeming resemblance whatsoever to Sanskrit or Tamil. 2. Anthropological and archeological evidence state that the horse (which finds very common reference in older Hindu texts) was first domesticated in Central Asia and not in the plains. Anyways, I'm neither skilled nor qualified to be able to authoritatively comment on this issue; it is just something that interests me and I have gathered some superficial knowledge on the issue based on recent reading. The last part of the episode deals with the excavation of (the possible) Hastinapura, the capital city of the Mahabharatha by the Indian archeologist B. B. Lal (incidentally, this research is discussed in length in William Dalrymple's City of Djinns)

The second episode deals with the extraordinary life of Buddha (who is one of my personal heroes) and Alexander's famed attempt at invasion through the Khyber pass. Subsequently, the rise of the Mauryan empire is presented at length, with primary emphasis on the lives of Chandragupta and his grandson, the emperor Asoka. The story of Asoka is the stuff that legends are made of. We owe it to the British for bringing us this part of our history into our consciousness starting with William Jones who founded the Royal Asiatic Society in Calcutta in the 18th century (V. S. Ramachandran calls him the 'father of comparative linguistics'). I remember being deeply inspired by Asoka's story when I heard it as kid from my grandfather during bedtime; those memories were revisited when I went to the National Museum in Delhi in the summer of 2008. Outside the main entrance is one of Asoka's stone edicts, where he proclaims the message of universal tolerance and compassion with an emphasis extended to the animal kingdom.

In the third episode we visit the south, which, towards the beginning of the first millennium AD traded gold and lapis lazuli among other things with the Roman empire and even with the Hellenic world. A short glimpse into the unique Graeco-Indian empire that ruled India in the early part of this millennium with the Kushan king Kanishka is provided. This empire, that made its capital the city of Peshawar, was primarily responsible for opening up trade routes like the Silk route from China. Incidentally, the progenitors of this civilization were nomadic tribes from China; by what wand of nature they settled in the northwest and developed a beautiful synthesis of Buddhism and Hellenes remains an enigma.

In the fourth part, we come to the Gupta dynasty, supposedly referred to as the Golden age of India. This was the time when Vatsyayana wrote the Kamasutra, Kalidasa and Asvaghosha wrote their plays, Aryabhatta brought in the zero and Bhaskara estimated the circumference of the earth. However, the revival of Hinduism by Adi Sankaracharya does not find mention and we immediately jump to the south of India to the time of the Cholas (giving the Chalukyas, the Rashtrakutas and the Pallavas a slip for considerations of time). The art and the legacy of the Cholan empire is discussed in some detail (they are to my knowledge the first Indian empire to engage in colonial expansion through sea-routes) and there are glimpses into the beautiful temples of Tanjore (which happens to be my native place too!).


I wanted to finish the blurbs for parts five and six but am feeling increasingly overpowered by sleep. They shall follow. But I shall mention in passing that all the facts covered by this documentary is a small subset of the spread that Nehru provides in his 'Glimpses..' or alternatively 'Discovery of India'. I have come across many people to have a very narrow and monolithic view of Nehru based (I believe) primarily on preconceived notions. We thus fail to understand his significance as a writer and historian of rare skill and erudition whatever be his political legacy and personal life scandals. I recently achieved my first 'conversion' on this issue - my victim being my own father who has started reading 'Glimpses..' to bedtime :-).

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Why does it keep repeating?

1. "Sri Ram Sena" and the Mangalore Pub
2. Shiv Sena and Hotel Intercontinental Grand.
3. MNS and Mumbai University

Embittered. Hurt. Depressed.

I don't want to think or write about it. I have nothing to state except the naivest of hopes that such vandalism ends and the youths, who are the principal instruments for effecting the will of fiends and demagogues against other youth find better avenues. Having stared at the computer screen for more than fifteen minutes without being able to continue, I give up, weary and helpless. One cannot be creative about issues that drive one to mad rage.

Unfortunately, mental disengagement seems difficult at the moment to do anything productive. Hence, capitulated sleep.

Monday, 26 January 2009

Boca Raton, Fl

I arrived earlier this afternoon in Boca Raton with my dad. While he is here for a business conference, I made use of the opportunity to make a getaway from the Boston freeze. As he got busy with his meetings immediately on arrival, I sought to explore the place on my own. Besides it had been a while since I could afford to go out on the roads with only one layer of clothing and roam around in shorts. The absence of public transport was expected; so, armed with my i-pod (which was resurrected from idleness after a whole semester), I started walking on the street right off the coast listening to my favorite Jim Morrison songs. They somehow fit snugly into the mood. The sun, somber yellow now, was on its way home mixing its warm benedictions with the cool sea breeze blowing soft and flat. I passed by a group of fat men smoking cheroots in a communion after a swim in the sea; behind them stood a bunch of pretty young girls drying themselves up and playing some sort of catch-and-run while at it. Their liveliness seemed inviting but I don't think they would have been even slightly impressed if I removed my t-shirt and joined them in their game. Besides, it seemed the boys they came along with were playing volleyball at a distance, so I looked askance and trod along the concrete road with 'Feast of Friends' playing inside my ears. Morrison's songs were getting somber and heavy down the playlist. It was then that I passed by a car whose music seemed to overpower the volume of my i-pod and my attention was all of a sudden beleagured. The driver of a car, a man of about twenty-five, had his stereo on full volume and was singing along in the loudest and the most monochromatic of voices:

How does it feel
How does it feel
To be on your own
With no direction home
Like a complete unknown
Like a rolling stone?

This man's appropriation of any other singer/group would have put me off, but this was just the change I needed. And I was happy to search and find that my derelict i-pod had all of Bob Dylan. I walked aimlessly for another hour or so (no intended metaphor with the song there please) and returned back to the hotel to find my dad still engaged in his meetings. He was finally relieved and we went out for dinner at an Indian place with a couple of his colleages. The were busy discussing business over dinner and there was very little I could participate in it except when they discussed current political affairs. I was quite up-to-date on the Satyam story and I was found useful when the others were trying to remember names from the new board of directors, their older CFO and CEO (I have a useless memory for such details; I wish I could remember facts from molecular biology/biochemistry with the same level of comfort). As I was relishing an especially good Masala Dosa, they started speculating on some M&A plans for the future. Though by then I had stopped paying attention and was on my own stream of thought, I could hear fancy words like profitability, revenue model, core-competency come up again and again. I recollected then the short period of my IITB life when I engaged in some serious preparation for interviews with consulting firms with some of my favourite people. Little less than a year before, I could fancy myself being quite interested in making sense of such conversations and trying to show off some of my own gyaan on this matter, given that I had the pride of being recruited on a hot-shot consulting job swelling up my chest. Presently however, the time, the thrill and the illusions are long gone. An ordinary graduate student with ideals in his mind and a hope of finding vitality in his work is all that remains.


My dad is an interesting character. In spite of being a pucca man of business (which he undoubtedly is) he sometimes shows a childlike curiosity for matters of science that are of little use to him. When we were still in Boston yesterday, after relishing a lunch of rasam and pongal that his soon assiduously prepared, he asked me to sit down and explain what 'entropy' and the 'Gibbs free energy' meant. He confessed that he had never understood these things while he was himself a student of chemical engineering and all the books he read subsequently never really provided a clear understanding of these concepts. Over the twenty minutes or so, I tried my best to use simple examples (which included a most wonderful example I stole from Richard Feynman's Cornell lecture titled 'The distinction between past and future', the video recording of which I had seen recently during MIT IAP series. Interested people can find it in his collection of popular lectures called 'The Character of Physical law' available in paperback) and illustrations to explain the general concept of thermodynamic potentials and the corresponding consequences of the second law. My dad would incessently interrupt me to ask questions and make me constantly reflect on whether I was being effective in transferring what I understood about these quantities to him. He smiled when he finally understood one of the points I was trying to make - that the law of increasing disorder was not a consequence of some cosmic force in the universe but that it can be simply understood as the sheer statistical preponderence of disordered states over ordered states (once again here, Dawkins' nice analogy with a 'library' presented in his essay 'Darwin Triumphant' from 'The Devil's Chaplain' proved handy) and then he said that would be enough for the time being. I am not sure I entirely convinced him at the end and it made me realize that it's difficult teaching someone who has had a principal role to play in shaping your own conventional wisdom both by nature and nurture. I am sure he took his siesta that afternoon thinking that he sent me to all these colleges and bought me all the books I wanted in my 'pursuit of learning' but that the returns of those investments were not entirely evident at the moment. :-)

Saturday, 24 January 2009

Taliban and Arjun Singh

Rarely have I been as scared in the recent past as I was while reading this article in the NYT earlier today. It describes the Taliban gaining consolidation in the Swat valley in Pakistan and their flouting of every law of the land while spreading a wave of unspeakable terror among the natives. Every line is shocking beyond description. Doubts to whether the US reporting was cooked came to my mind, so I did a simple search on google Pakistani newspaper reports on the same issue. They resonated with the NYT report, for instance this one and this one. The Dawn article also glibly reports some spineless political moves that the civilian government is making to "keep the Taliban at bay".

Among the many things that the Taliban have kept themselves busy with, one is the "blowing up of approximately 150 schools in the Swat area" 100 of which were schools for girls. As the Dawn article states, one of the 'strategic measures' being employed by the Zardari government to reach a compromise with the Taliban is the promulgation of Shariah law in the region. Shariah, among many other things, forbids women from attending schools and permits only madrasa education for the men. In the light of all this, let us also remember with pride that not more than a few days ago, our wonderful HRD minister passed a law which places madrasa certificates on par with CBSE and SSC certificates (Read this article) for government job applications. What a travesty!

There is another thing that deeply bothers me. I haven't yet come across one article in the Indian free press questioning this decision. Google for the subject and you will find a couple of dozen newspapers reporting the decision but I would be grateful if someone could find me an article by any journalist/op-ed speaking critically on this issue. One only finds comments and outburst such as the following (taken from an online discussion forum) :

The foolish rulers thinking this step will bring the muslim community in to national mainstream,no. psudo secularists betrayed hindu community by giving unconstitutional rights to minorities. where is our SNDP,NSS leaders who are always talking and fighting each other in the name of reservations? Why they are not open their mouths

hindu wake up.. wake up.


BJP will do nothing
If any one expects to BJP to do any thing, they are living in a fantasy world. BJP too is now behaving "secular" and would agree with this move. It is upto a Hindu at an individual level to understand his true situation and make his kids hard fighters. Let them use the existing schools and facilities, study hard and win in competetive exams. No madrassah based idiot would even come close. And let hindus start getting into every government job through sheer merit. Muslims then can do what they do best, Jehad and kill innocents.

A nation where public dialogue is of such stellar quality deserves such laws :-)

Friday, 23 January 2009

Strike one and two

True to his word, Barack Obama issued executive orders on two fronts immediately after the transfer of powers - to close the Guantanamo prison camp in no more than a year's time and to reverse the many bans and restrictions imposed by the Bush administration on abortion aid programs. Stellar!

I watched the inaugural speech alongside a number of MIT students. The unanimous verdict was that the speech was inspiring and one noticed jubilant approvals when the new President assured his audience that scientific research will not be compromised any longer (Bush and Cheney were booed correspondingly). Yet, one finds Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman playing Devil's Advocate in his recent editorial in the NYT on the economic policies addressed by Obama in his inaugural speech. Though Krugman doesn't go beyond criticism in this particular article, he has attacked specific policy initiatives of Obama ever since the latter's election.

It is reassuring to know that there exist smart and honest people out there who constantly question and criticize the administration even when the public opinion is largely approving. This might be a direct consequence of the skeptic outlook of the intellectual elite; but then, not everyone can pull it off in a scholarly manner. An ordinary chap like me finds it difficult to keep up with each and every topic that is important to the world. Skepticism that doesn't have information and depth to back it just amounts to pigheadedness. And to be perfectly honest, I've never had a intuition for economic concepts except the most rudimentary ones - if a million monkeys like me were laid end to end, we wouldn't reach a conclusion on an economic policy ;-). Besides, I have other fish to fry.

I have recently developed a great regard for dissenting voices across history. I wish I had the time to explore Voltaire, Rosseau, Bakunin, London, Thoreau and the likes. They were necessary in the absence of democracy, but now they are all the more important in democracies like America where propaganda is much more subtle. There probably exist dissenting voices in India too but the frequency of their appearances in popular newspapers is quite rare. On this thread of thought, I am reminded of a passage about the famous evolutionary biologist J. B. S. Haldane from an essay by Ramachandra Guha:

In 1957, Haldane left England to make his home in Calcutta. Several years later, an American science writer referred to him as a "citizen of India"**.Haldane replied: "No doubt I am in some sense a citizen of the world. But I believe with Thomas Jefferson that one of the chief duties of a citizen is to be a nuisance to the government of his state. As there is no world state, I cannot do this ... on the other hand I can be, and am, a nuisance to the government of India, which has the merit of permitting a good deal of criticism, though it reacts to it rather slowly. I also happen to be proud of being a citizen of India, which is a lot more diverse than Europe, let alone the U.S.A., the U.S.S.R., or China, and thus a better model for a possible world organisation. It may of course break up, but it is a wonderful experiment. So I want to be labelled as a citizen of India."

**There is very likely a typo here. It ought to be "citizen of the world"


Appa arrives in Boston tomorrow. We're going to Florida on Monday where he has to attend a conference and I will be making sand-castles on the beach. Presently, I have rediscovered:

1. that molecular biology is quite interesting. And that experiments can be wonderful. I read about the Meselson-Stahl experiment a few weeks ago; I cannot believe how it escaped my attention during undergrad. It is one of the most beautiful and simple experiments that I have come across and should be regarded as textbook in experimental design.

2. that Jawaharlal Nehru remains my favourite historian despite his biases for China, Russia and the Congress. He can be forgiven for innocence on the first two. We all know he paid his price for China years later.

3. that not all the happiness in life is confined to human relationships. In fact, hardly any is.

Thursday, 22 January 2009


There must be cogent reasons behind it perhaps, but I am quite sad that 'The Dark Knight' did not make it to the top five :-(

Watched 'The Curious Case of Benjamin Button' and absolutely loved it (though it significantly diverges from Fitzgerald's original short story). Watched 'Slumdog Millionaire' and liked it too notwithstanding certain leaps of faith and willing suspensions of disbelief that were needed. 'Milk' and 'The Wrestler' are next on my list of movies to watch.

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Some more doublespeak

The following is an excerpt from a recent editorial in The Economist urging for a ceasefire between Israel and Gaza, an event that happened on the following day.

Some of the hypocrisy in the Arab world is unspeakable. Syria, for example, is one country to accuse Israel of “genocide”. But in 1982, when Syria’s own Muslim Brotherhood rebelled in the Syrian city of Hama, the regime responded by shelling the city indiscriminately for three weeks, killing about 20,000 or 30,000 civilians. In Gaza Israel has killed 1,000 people. It is not playing by Hama rules, let alone committing genocide. Russia’s onslaught on the Chechen city of Grozny in the mid-1990s is reckoned to have killed some 20,000 civilians. As for Hamas itself, it deliberately murdered hundreds of Israeli civilians in buses and restaurants in the intifada of 2001-03.

Before I sleep every night, I read about 3-4 news articles and the sites vary from day to day, all of them western newspapers. One is no longer surprised to find such glib language used with great facility to buttress the most ridiculous of arguments across respectable journalists in the west. It seems a pathological condition, a self-deception of an unprecedented kind in supposedly freethinking democracies - something that would have surprised Orwell himself. But it ceases to be funny when you remember that lives cannot be lumped in multiples of thousand. It is beyond belief that in a country where popular public discourse is so often conscious to the inherited "Judeo-Christian" values, it is so very difficult to find a voice in the popular media who opposes these west-supported invasions as 'morally outrageous' and not simply 'politically imprudent'. The article ends:
For Israel, however, the sword alone will never be enough. A small country with many foes cannot afford to become a pariah. And Israel has a particular reason to avoid killing civilians, since the people it is bombing are the neighbors with whom it so much needs to live in peace.

Some expedient reason to stop mass murder, isn't it?

Obama's inauguration

Yesterday, January 20th was a momentous day in the history of the USA. While President Obama made minimal references to this historical shift in his inaugural speech, he harmonized many emotions when he referred to the nature of improbability that "a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath".

His speech was forthright, emotional and pregnant with fresh confidence that we have come to regard as an epitome of great modern oration. In an attempt to be cordial on a day of celebration, he refrained from explicitly criticizing his predecessor other than saying that the present systemic failure was the sum total of the inability of "those who hadn't the courage to take hard decisions". He stressed on the immediate uphill tasks before his government - resurrecting and revitalizing the economy, demilitarization of Iraq and improving the health care system. There have been reports suggesting that he has immediate plans to disband Guantanamo Bay and also remove restrictions imposed by the Bush administration on pro-abortion groups, both of which would be immensely gratifying steps if implemented soon enough.

But there was one part in his speech that I was disappointed with (the constant references to God and Jesus throughout the proceedings was something that bummed me out further, but that's a given). Something, where I hoped the 44th President would have differed from his many predecessors. With sweeping patronization, Obama said “To all other peoples and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born, know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and that we are ready to lead once more.

Obama's election coincided with my birthday here. I have had deep admiration for man ever since I heard of him and my reading of his autobiography only entrenched my respect for his indomitable courage, conviction and more importantly his aspiration to the highest office of the biggest democracy with a principled heart beating in his chest. But since his election, my regard for him has vacillated and even gone downhill for a bit. One principal nail was his stance on the Israel invasion of Gaza which he met with calculated silence initially and in the passing, appraised it as yet another 'strategic blunder' or 'mistake' (the other was the Iraqi invasion). by the incumbent government. I had hoped he would correct this in his inaugural speech, but it was not to be so.

Remarkably, such a poor stance is highly regarded among the American intellectual elite as 'principled opposition'. The official and reports in the New York Times are so depressing- nearly 1400 Palestinian deaths as opposed to 13 Israeli deaths and vast areas of Gaza devastated and raped off civilian infrastructure - one wonders whether there is any need to speculate as to what the 'real' figures and picture might be! With such outright crime before our eyes, how can calling this or Iraq a 'strategic blunder' be regarded as 'principled dissent'?

Boston is one of the places where you could sit in a coffee shop and find your neighbours involved in passionately sophisticated discussions about art, science and politics - the city having a rich academic culture. When one is bored of one's own work/reading, it is always a great pleasure to eavesdrop into something interesting. Yesterday, on one such occassion in Huntington avenue, I found a group of women (who I suspect were liberal arts teachers) discussing the coming of the new President. Boston, unlike the south, is a place where people openly support abortion, same-sex unions, the right to an independent stand on religion and abhor conservatism. Yet five out of seven among these consented the American support of Israel! (one of them even quoted the death tolls and referred it to as an unfortunate statistical consequence) One is surprised to find so much obfuscation in the conscience in the most powerful democracy in the world (with the grand specter of the fifth amendment) to not realize that there is something grossly wrong in American interventionism over the years. Not surprisingly, the two women who did not support the America's policy on Israel called it a 'mistake'. This is the legacy that every such subterfuge since the Monroe doctrine and the white man's burden has left us. But this is by no means a principled dissent!

Monday, 19 January 2009

Another Ramble

I have often tried to reflect on my schooling experience and attempted to deconstruct its effects in shaping my overall personality, outlook and character. These were merely contemplative exercises but nonetheless I think they helped me form some strong opinions about how primary and pre-college instruction ought to be in a general sense. When I try to gauge the ten odd years I spent in schools in terms of learning, I look back with a lot of disappointment at a good deal of 'lost time'. That there was an absence of direction towards life's broader goals does not bother as much as the pestilential presence of rigid constraints that conspire to limit you to much narrower, pettier goals - passing exams and beating your peers at grades for instance. I recently read an interview of Noam Chomsky (incidentally, I also had the good fortune of hearing him speak on the Gaza intervention in a recent public lecture at MIT) where the interviewer asked Chomsky on his schooling. Chomsky attended an experimental progressive school until he was twelve when he was transferred to a "college-oriented school" in the city. He says:

" wasn't until I was in high school that I knew I was a good student. The question had never arisen. I was very surprised when I got into high school and discovered that I was getting all A's and that was supposed to be a big deal.

In fact, every student in the school I had previously attended was regarded as somehow being a very successful student. There was no sense of competition, no ranking of students..... Well, anyway, at this particular school, judging from my experience, there was a tremendous premium on individual creativity, not in the sense of slapping paints on paper, but doing the kind of work and thinking that you were interested in. Interests were encouraged and children were encouraged to pursue their interests. They worked jointly with others or by themselves. It was a lively atmosphere, and the sense was that everybody was doing something important."

- taken from The Chomsky Reader

Such 'progressive schools' do exist in India in a small number. But I am quite certain most of them are prohibitively expensive and accessible to only rich families. Most of the other supposedly 'good schools' which include the ones I went to are primarily concerned with populating 'merit lists'- a term that I have come to regard with utmost disdain over the years. The unfortunate consequence is that most students who out happen to be outliers; those who do well in spite of the system, not because of it. I was no outlier as a schoolboy. I did well in my exams and lived in a world of my own delusion thinking that was all there was to learning. My parents and teachers were happy with me and the sum total of this status quo was that I learned absolutely nothing in my school beyond mechanically chewing and regurgitating the regimented syllabus.

The unfortunate thing, in the words of a Brazilian educator, is that most schools are "more preoccupied with the transmission of knowledge than with the creation, among other values, of a critical spirit. From the social point of view, the educational systems are oriented to maintaining the existing social order and economic structures instead of transforming them".

There is certainly a lot of truth in the above statement even if one were to refrain from sourcing these political accusations to an active agency in the system. But even then, this is a much more charitable position if we notice that even transmission of knowledge degenerates to rote learning in our schools- the pedantic recitation of facts as opposed to the assimilation of a principle and exploring its consequences thereon. To quote Richard Feynman from 'The Pleasure of finding things out', an inseparable part of robust learning is to realize the difference between 'knowing the name of something and knowing something'. The following is one of his famous anecdotes involving his early childhood experiences with his father:

‘See that bird?’ he says. ‘It’s a Spencer’s warbler. Well, in Italian, it’s a Chutto Lapittida. In Portuguese, it’s a Bom da Peida. In Chinese it’s a Chung-long-tah, and in Japanese it’s a Katano Takeda. You can know the name of that bird in all the languages of the world, but when you’re finished, you’ll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird. You’ll only know about humans in different places, and what they call the bird. So let’s look at the bird and see what it’s doing - that’s what counts!

The Necessity of Atheism

I recently came across a remarkable essay written by the famous English Romantic poet, Percy Shelley titled 'The Necessity of Atheism'. It was first published in 1811 when the author was merely nineteen and its "audacious content" led to his immediate rustication from Oxford. What surprises me is not that such an essay could be conceived and written nearly two-hundred years before this day- there had been a sufficient maturation of the scientific method and philosophical literature (with the exception evolutionary biology) for thinkers to be motivated in this direction and Shelley was by no means ordinary in his capacity to do so-, but that in spite of the avalanche of scientific work that was accomplished in the following two hundred years the kind of nonsense attacked in this essay still persists in the minds of the educated class (not the 'opiate masses' as Marx condescendingly put it). Shelley was writing at a time when western colonial powers engaged in slavery with impunity, sati and untouchability was shamelessly prevalent in India and the world was still in its infancy of socio-economic and political thinking. Undoubtedly, many of us can rationalize (Dawkins' saw-toothed shaped Zeitgeist curve for instance) as to why we haven't progressed in this direction - a big factor in contention is the championing of religion (or conservatism in a broader sense) by many managers of political power across the world to facilitate the propagation of their self-interest. But let me be infantile here for a moment and shout - this shouldn't be the case!

Sir W. seems to consider the atheism to which it leads as a sufficient presumption of the falsehood of the system of gravitation; but surely it is more consistent with the good faith of philosophy to admit a deduction from facts than an hypothesis incapable of proof, although it might militate, with the obstinate preconceptions of the mob. Had this author, instead of inveighing against the guilt and absurdity of atheism, demonstrated its falsehood, his conduct would have, been more suited to the modesty of the skeptic and the toleration of the philosopher.

Mind you, this was penned nearly sixty years before Bertrand Russell was born in Victorian England and readers would note that what I have marked as bold can be considered a trite version of Russell's famous 'celestial teapot' argument. What is more inexplicable is the observation that a book like 'The God Delusion' should be a bestseller two centuries later! In no way do I intend to disparage Dawkins' excellent book; I have to admit that in some manner, it led to my own 'conversion' or at least facilitated it greatly. Many of my friends would agree to this too. That is, until you read Russell and realize that he was much broader than Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens (the three 'bright' Musketeers of the present) put together. Perhaps in another ten years I will say the same thing about Kant and Bacon. But let me be childish yet another time and expostulate - My parents should have introduced me to this shit!

Sunday, 18 January 2009

India Inc.

While the Satyam fiasco is still fresh in the minds of the nation, news of India Inc.'s overwhelming endorsement for Modi as PM is the talk of the town. This support, apart from making L. K. Advani very pleased and encouraging him to express saffron solidarity with Modi in his latest blog entry has also frothed trouble for a little known CPI(M) MP in Kerala who talked a little too much by praising Modi's economic policies. The thought of Advani as PM sends shivers down my spine as such (being not so inconceivable a possibility); I fear a slip disk if the Modi speculation draws close to reality.

My trepidation reached highest levels when I saw a video that had Anil Ambani speak the following salutary words for Modi in front of an audience primarily comprising the hotshots of India Inc. It almost sounded as a call to arms:

"If one Dhirubhai can do so much for India, imagine what a thousand Dhirubhais can do. If one Narendrabhai can do so much for Gujarat, imagine what Narendrabhai can do as a leader for India."

A thousand Dhirubhais can ensure that India Inc. evades every possible taxation and can buy out every spoke in the central government with unprecedented impunity. As far as what a thousand Narendrabhais can accomplish for Gujarat or one Narendrabhai for India is concerned, I don't even want to indulge in speculation.