Thursday, January 01, 2015

Why sportsmen's autobiographies disappoint.


When Sachin Tendulkar released his autobiography recently, I knew that at least one person would not be buying or reading it.  Me.
While I’ve always considered him an intuitive batting genius, I’ve never heard him utter an intelligent remark about the game. So, even if it was going to be ghost-written, I was under no illusion at all that the book would offer any insight either on how he approached or planned his innings or any other nuances of the game.  
But, given his stature, there was tremendous anticipation before the release of the book. I am sure it sold well, even if the reviews were not too favourable.
Why are autobiographies of most geniuses invariably disappointing and why do we feel the need to read autographies of sportsmen, at all?
In his review of tennis-player Tracy Austin’s autobiography (“Beyond Centre Court”) David Foster Wallace writes (you can find a pdf version here.) :
Almost uniformly bad as books, these athletic “My story”s sell incredibly well; there are so many of them. And they sell so well because athletic stories seem to promise something more than the regular old name-dropping celebrity autobiography.
Here is a theory. Top athletes are compelling because they embody the comparison-based achievement we revere- fastest, strongest- and because they do so in a totally unambiguous way. Questions of the best plumber or best managerial accountant are impossible even to define, whereas the best relief pitcher, free-throw shooter or female tennis player is, at any given time, a matter of public statistical record. Top athletes fascinate us by appealing to our twin compulsions with competitive superiority and hard data.
Plus they’re beautiful. Great athletes are profundity in motion. They enable abstraction like power and grace and control to become not only incarnate but televisable. To be top athlete, performing, is to be that exquisite hybrid of animal and angel that we average unbeautiful watchers have such a hard time seeing in ourselves.
So, we want to know them. These gifted, driven physical achievers. We too, as audience, are driven: watching the performance is not enough. We want to go intimate with all that profundity. We want inside them; we want the Story. We want to hear about humble roots, privation, precocity, grim resolve, discouragement, persistence, team spirit, sacrifice, killer instinct, liniment and pain. We want to know how they did it. What goes through their minds? Is their Agony of Defeat anything like our little agonies of daily frustration?
So ,the point then about these sports memoirs’ market appeal: Because top athletes are profound, because they make a certain type of genius as carnally discernible as it can ever get, these ghost-written invitations inside their lives and their skulls are terribly seductive for book buyers. Explicitly or not, the memoirs make a promise- to let us penetrate the indefinable mystery of what makes some persons geniuses, semi divine, to share with us the secret and so both to reveal the difference between us and them and to erase it, a little, that difference …to give us what we want, expect, only one, the master narrative, the key) Story.
However seductively they promise, though, these autobiographies never deliver. And “Beyond Centre Court” is especially bad. The book fails not because it’s poorly written, but because what any college sophomore knows is the capital crime of expository prose; it forgets who it’s supposed to be for…. None of the book’s loyalties are to the reader. The author’s primary allegiance seems to be her family and friends.
DFW then talks about the air of robotic banality that suffuses the sports-memoirs genre and how the books turn out to be disappointing and stunningly inarticulate about just those qualities and experiences that fascinate the readers.
It remains very hard for me to reconcile the vapidity of Austin’s narrative mind, on the one hand, with the extraordinary mental powers that are required for world-class tennis, on the other.
Real indisputable genius is so impossible to define that maybe we automatically expect people who are geniuses as athletes to be also geniuses as speakers and writers, to be articulate, perceptive, truthful, profound.
The real secret behind top athletes’ genius, then, may be as esoteric and obvious and dull and profound as silence itself. The real, many-veiled answer to the question of what just goes through a great player’s mind as he stands at the centre of hostile crowd-noise and lines up the free-throw that will decide the game might be : nothing at all .
It may well be that we spectators who are not divinely gifted as athletes, are the ones truly able to see, articulate and animate the experience of the gift that we are denied. And those who receive and act out the gift of athletic genius must, perforce, be blind and dumb about it- and not because blindness and dumbness are the price of the gift, but because they are its essence.
I felt that this, to a large extent, explains why Sachin – undoubted genius, though he is, when batting- was unable to offer any insights in his autobiography ( As I admitted, I haven’t read it. I’m going by some of the reviews I came across).  Unfortunately for him, his ghost writer too lacked an understanding of what to provide to the readers.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Peak-end rule


Some year-end reflection. How was 2014 for you?

While answering the question you will - in all likelihood- apply the “peak-end rule”.

The Peak-end rule, popularised by Daniel Kahneman, is a psychological heuristic in which people judge experiences largely based on how they were at their peak (i.e., their most intense point) and at their end, rather than based on the total sum or average of every moment of the experience. It occurs regardless of whether the experience is pleasant or unpleasant. According to the heuristic, other information aside from that of the peak and end of the experience is not lost, but it is not used. This includes net pleasantness or unpleasantness and how long the experience lasted. (source)
Even if a movie were to be good overall on average, you are more likely to judge it based on a high point (or low) and the end, which is why the director tries to pack more punch in the climax scene. Same thing when it comes to games. A cricket match with a prominent high-point and an exciting finish will be considered a more memorable one compared to one in which the winning team dominated the proceedings throughout.  If a person lives 95% of his life in poverty but strikes a fortune towards the end, he is believed to die happier than a person who was rolling in riches all his life on an average, but lost it all for some reason at the fag end of his life.
So, when judging the year 2014, you would probably give more weightage to the events that happened closer to the end of the year.

In his book, “Being Mortal”,  Atul Gawande cites Kahneman’s peak-end rule while discussing how people evaluate their experiences and their lives in their final stages.
“People seem to have two different selves- an experiencing self who endures every moment equally and a remembering self who gives almost all the weight of judgement afterward to two single points in time, the worst moment and the last one. Just a few minutes without pain at the end of a medical procedure dramatically reduced patients’ overall pain ratings even after they’d experienced more than an hour of high level pain. A bad ending skewed the pain scores upward just as dramatically. ..
In the end, people don’t view their life as merely the average of all of its moments- which, after all, is mostly nothing much plus some sleep. For human beings, life is meaningful because it is a story. A story has a sense of a whole, and its arc is determined by the significant moments, the ones where something happens. Measurements of people’s minute-by-minute levels of pleasure and pain miss this fundamental aspect of human existence. A seemingly happy life may be empty. A seemingly difficult life may be devoted to a great cause. We have purposes larger than ourselves. Unlike your experiencing self- which is absorbed in the moment- your remembering self is attempting to recognise not only the peaks of joy and valleys of misery but also how the story worked out as a whole. This is profoundly affected by how things ultimately turn out. Why would a football fan let a few flubbed moments at the end of the game ruin three hours of bliss? Because a football game is a story. And in stories, endings matter.
When our time is limited and we are uncertain how best to serve our priorities, we are forced to deal with the fact that both the experiencing self and the remembering self matter. We do not want to endure long pain and short pleasure. Yet certain pleasures can make enduring suffering worthwhile. The peaks are important, and so is the ending.

So, I hope 2014 worked out well for you, especially the ending.

P.S : I was rather disappointed that I did not write a blogpost for the entire year. Wanted to record at least one to maintain my "minimum balance' in the account.  

 

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Banking in India


The book ” The rise, progress, and present condition of banking in India” by By Charles Northcote Cooke, published in 1863 was the first to describe the prevailing commercial practices in the country and record the developments in western system of banking.  It notes (page 65-70) that the combination of railway network and availability of capital (through banks that were going to be set up) would unleash the potential of the country. It would release the natives from the tyranny of high interest charged by the traditional lenders of the land. 
"Nowhere is the investment of income more certain of good return, or more likely to be blessed than here. India has boundless resources, which merely require to be developed. If she has been hitherto a smaller producer than she might have been, it is owing to her being destitute of accessible markets for her surplus productions, in consequence of the rudeness of her productions. Every process, both in agriculture and manufactures, has been conducted with immense waste and want of ingenuity. The most simple methods of saving toil have been unknown. Husbandry is in a backward condition, and the implements both rude, primitive, and of the clumsiest construction. In fact, almost everything that is the produce of Indian rural labor is, when compared with that of people in a more civilized and favorable state of society, crude and unmarketable.
 There is, probably, no country in the world that has made such slow progress as India, when her antecedents are considered. Formerly, the natives of the soil, both morally and intellectually, stood higher than they do now, and excelled in all departments of science. But from this they have so completely, and for such a length of time declined, that it is difficult to believe that improvements in agriculture and manufactures were of very great antiquity in the provinces of Bengal. Indeed, were there not evidences of the truth of this statement, it would be scarcely possible to view it in any other light than as a jest, so completely have the implements of husbandry and agriculture, as well as the manufactures of the country, been stationary for centuries.
The state of the useful arts is scarcely more advanced than agriculture—probably little more so than it was a hundred years back:—and it is hopeless to expect much improvement until European skill and science shall be more extensively diffused over the country. There is, however, no absence of natural genius, nor want of conception in the people; and if only they will not allow their caste, (another name for idleness,) and their absurd religious prejudices, to raise difficulties and bar out the instructions of English science, an altered state of things may be anticipated. Until prohibitory rates of duty were placed on Dacca muslins—until Manchester and Paisley fabrics, of the same class, were admitted at lower rates of duty—what could compete with the former manufactures and the shawls of Cashmere, exquisitely delicate, and alike tasteful in fabrication and design? And what ingenuity could surpass the chaste workmanship of Delhi, Benares, Cuttack, and Trichinopoly in the precious metals?
"But for the future welfare of India," says a writer, "there is hope." When the steam engine shall have traversed the country from one end to the other, satisfactory results may be looked for. New wants will be created: her myriads will look to our work-shops and factories for the implements of toil and the adornments of luxury: capital, which is necessary to promote production, will find an outlet: opportunities will be afforded of employing it safely and profitably; and internal trade will consequently be stimulated and enlarged. It is from the absence of capital, properly directed, and from the want of those aids and appliances which are absolutely essential to the success of every country, that the resources of India remain to this day almost unknown. Until the commercial and agricultural interests of the country are properly advanced: until a considerable improvement take place in the products of the soil and in the implements of labor—her manufactures have little chance of being placed on a par with those of Europe.
And, foremost in the rank of those means that require to be used for a thorough development of India's resources, railroads must, as already stated, take a prominent stand. Before this mighty innovator, the oppressive barriers of caste will be thrown down; races, hitherto unknown to each other, will be approximated; and the internal commerce of the country, for many years depressed, will be fully opened out. Under the vivifying influence of British energy and capital, which a wider colonization will introduce; with good roads, good tramways, good feeders, and a sufficiency of steam on the rivers—trade and manufactures must make a step forward. If the waste lands, which Lord Canning's statesmanlike Resolution made attainable on fee simple, be taken up and properly cultivated, the enterprize and skill, which will be brought to bear, will result in improvements such as European capital and energy can alone effect; and conduce to the material and moral advantage of large classes of the people.
India has long suffered from the exclusiveness and monopoly of the East India Company. The senseless restrictions placed by that Corporation upon Europeans holding lands in the Mofussil, is one of the primary causes why the country has been retarded in her agricultural and commercial pursuits. Had there been a less restrictive policy, as well as less jealousy shown by the covenanted servants of the Company towards those whom they term interlopers, India would, at this time, have been in a position to render England independent of the United States' cotton. The fear of being dispossessed, and the dread of a too early enlightening of the natives, by leading the Government to oppose all attempts to improve the country, have obstructed the natural increase of capital, and, so far, tended to diminish the sum total of the revenue.
Colonization and capital then are the great desiderata for India.
By means of the former, the inland trade will be extended; commerce will increase commerce; and, although the area of territory is so vast, the progress of railways will influence both the money market and the development of the resources. By new facilities, new wants and new desires will be created; and neither climate,  religion, nor long-established habits, will refuse the benefits thereof.
By means of the latter—both the cause and result of industry—improvements will be made: better machinery will be introduced, and appliances, which involve considerable outlay, will be brought to bear. Without money, commercial operations must, naturally, be stinted and embarrassed. It is too much, however, to expect that any individual who shall embark his capital, whether it be money, machines, instruments of trade or other materials, can, however extensive his means, carry on his plans, on any large scale, without pecuniary assistance. And here it is that the utility of Banks will be apparent, in rendering active and productive that capital which it is their province to accummulate and distribute. Dr. Smith says, "The judicious operation of Banking enables the dealer to convert his dead stock into active and productive stock; into materials to work upon; into tools to work with, and into provisions and subsistence to work for; into stock which produces something both to himself and to his country."*
By "providing a sort of wagon way through the air, it enables the country to convert, as it were, a great part of its highways into good pastures and corn-fields, and thereby to increase, very considerably ,the annual produce of its land and labor." But it will do even more in this country. Banking will step in and relieve the borrower from the crushing effect of usurious dealings with the native money-lenders—a class of people the most grasping, relentless, and unprincipled to be found in any country. It will counteract the mischievous consequences, and the pernicious habit— so congenial to the natives—of burying money, or convertit into jewels for women and children—the fruitful cause of so many murders: it will bring forth and vivify millions of capital that lie dormant in the earth, or in secret hiding-places, while, by increasing the advantages of accumulation, and making saving available, as well for immediate profit as for a future resource, it will add new strength to the spirit of industry and to the principle of cumulation.

The sink of the precious metals


We know that Indians love hoarding gold. The relentless demand for this metal has meant that huge quantity has had to be continually imported. This year, when a serious current account deficit resulted, he Govt had to bring in restrictions and impose higher import duty to curb the inflow. According to many analysts, this move did not provide desired results as the demand was met through illicit channels and smuggling.
This tendency to hoard metal has been ingrained in the Indian psyche for hundreds of years. The book, “The rise, progress, and present condition of banking in India” by Charles Northcote Cooke, published exactly 150 years back, in 1863, makes the following observation on Page 71 (link)
"The eagerness of the natives for gold and silver ornaments will account, in a great measure, for the great importation of silver, and its disappearance in India, which PLINT aptly terms " the sink of the precious metals." The extent to which hoarding has been,and, in the Upper Provinces, is still practised, is almost incredible. Money-lenders generally keep their whole fortune, in coin, hidden about the house, and merely produce it when needed. Rich natives hoard as well as poor. Some years back, the King of Oude had half a million sterling secreted in coin. At Benares, a Rajah had a quarter of a million. Runjeet Singh, in the Punjab, one million. The late King of Ava a million and a half. When Scindia's fort was taken, there was found at least a quarter of a million. At the siege of Bhurtpore, one million is said to have been found by the British troops. At the taking of Seringapatam one million was found: and, it is positively asserted, that when the Emperor Shah Jehan died, he left no less a sum, in coin, than 24 millions sterling, all wrung from his impoverished subjects.
In the early part of 1856, Colonel Sykes, the Chairman of the East India Company, published an interesting paper on the External Commerce of British India, in which occurs the following passage:—" The excess of exports (from India) over imports is constant, owing to the gradual improvement in the producing powers of the country, and the small wants and hoarding habits of the natives in their present low state of civilization.Within the present century, India has received above 100,000,000 pound Sterling, which has never left the country. The silver received has been chiefly in coin, yet it has not in any appreciable manner affected prices." There is little doubt but that just before the mutiny of 1857-58, the expectation, throughout the country, of some great and terrific event, led to a more than ordinary absorption and secretion of the precious metals, which were converted into bracelets, anklets, earrings, necklaces,and waist-bands, as the safest mode in which treasure could be preserved. At the late sale of Kirwee prize property by Messrs. Hamilton and Co., there were to be found massive silver trappings of an elephant with chains sufficiently thick and large to serve as the ground tackling of a vessel of twenty-five tons."

 

Saturday, October 12, 2013

The solemn ritual

Delhi airport.  Boarding will be announced,for my flight,  in ten minutes. I am at a showroom, a 10-minute walk away from my boarding gate. I like one of the shirts there but I don’t have time to try it on. “Don’t worry, sir”, says the helpful, smiling  salesman. “Any problem, you can exchange it easily in any of our showrooms in India. No questions asked”. Reassured, I pay for the shirt and rush to the gate.

Delhi airport again after two weeks. Back at the same showroom.   I want to return the shirt and take one of a larger size.  Bespectacled salesman turns stern. “What’s the problem with the shirt?” he asks. “No problem, but I want to return it and take another one”, I reply. “But there must be a reason”, he says.  “There’s no reason. I just feel like exchanging”, I tell him.

Nodding his head disapprovingly, he pulls out a thick book. Turns the pages one by one.  Inserts carbon paper between the pages.  (I can’t recall when I’ve seen carbon paper last).  Places the book in front of me and says, “Please write full name, address, contact number, reason for return of material”.  “And why should I do it?” I ask.  “Because we have to follow this procedure whenever a customer wants to return some material” he explains. “That may be your procedure. Why should I follow it?  I can’t believe that you have such red-tapism?” I tick him off.  “The procedure is same in all our showrooms in the country”, he tells me, adjusting his spectacles to look sterner.

I give up. I fill up the form with imaginary name, address and phone number. Against reason for return I write, “Because I want to”.  Seeing a lot of blue ink on the page, salesman is satisfied.  Grudgingly allows me to pick up another shirt.

As a salesman myself, I can understand the intent behind the whole drama.

When a sale is about to be made,  the indecisive or cat-on-the-wall customer needs assurance that, if he later realises that he’s made a mistake in selection, he will be able to exchange the item for another one, without too much of a hassle.  A good salesman provides him this comfort and closes the deal.


However, when you come back to exchange the item, the shop doesn’t like it at all. But it can’t turn you away.  Nor does it want you to go away with an impression that it’s a simple exercise. Yes, they are doing you a big favour and should collect some brownie points from you. So, they introduce an elaborate procedure. Ask you to fill up forms in triplicate, with carbon paper between the pages. With a stern-looking salesman watching you perform the solemn ritual. 

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The final solution to the problem of bawling kids on planes

Warning: This post may offend the sensibilities of mothers of children below 10 years of age. So, proceed cautiously.

I am writing this post during a sleepless night on a flight, the cause of said sleeplessness being a couple of bawling and badly-behaved kids.  Wide awake now, I feel that we must put our heads together to  come up with a final solution to deal with the menace.  

Some of the possibilities that run through my mind, especially when one of the kids is kicking the backside of my seat are: 

1) Airlines could run special planes for kids and their mothers and disallow them from travelling on regular flights. In case this is not found economically viable, special sound-proof enclosures may be provided on each flight and kids can be accommodated there along with their parents.

    2) Small sealed packs containing chloroform should be distributed to parents as they board the flight.  When the captain announces,   “All mobile phones must now be switched off as they interfere with functioning of navigation instruments.  All children must now be anesthetised and put to sleep as they interfere with the sleep of other passengers”, the parents must obey unquestioningly. They will cooperate once they realise they’ll also get a good night’s sleep.

   3) Can someone develop acoustic filters which will selectively suppress the noise of kids? They can continue to bawl and scream, but the sound will get muted. Of course, this solution will not be effective on kids who kick the backside of your seat- in which case, we need to fall back on the chloroform method described above. 

4) How about special containers- like they use for pets- to put the kids into and load them into the cargo section?

5) If none of above works, then the child – with or without the parent- must be parachuted out of the plane.  

    Dark thoughts, I agree. But I need my sleep.  
  
   Update 27/08/13 : Looks like an airline has been reading my blog. (source). Though I don't see why we should be asked to pay more to stay away from wailing babies. Parents of wailing babies must be asked to pay the extra fare. 


 "An airline is offering passengers the option to upgrade to seats in      a quiet zone - where children are banned. Scoot, the budget arm of Singapore Airlines, offers customers the option to fly 'in  peace and quiet', for the cost of £10 (S$18). 
  They promise that if they were to opt in for a ScootinSilence cabin, they would enjoy 'exclusivity and privacy... as under 12s will be someplace else'. 
The low-cost carrier, which flies to Sydney and the Gold Coast rom Singapore, has banned pre-teens from the first seven rows of its economy-class section, allowing passengers can upgrade to the 41-seat ScootinSilence area."







Thursday, August 15, 2013

The origin of female education in India

The Calcutta Review, in its edition of July, 1855, has this interesting story on the origin of ‘native female education in India”.  ( source. page 164)

"It was somewhere about 1818 or 1819, that a Society, called, we believe, the Union School Society, was formed in Calcutta, for educational purposes. Shortly after its formation, its members, encouraged by the success that had attended their operations amongst the boys, determined to make an attempt in the direction of female education. 
At the invitation of this Society Miss Cooke came to Calcutta, having been selected for this most difficult service, if we have been rightly informed, and our memory serve us aright, by the celebrated Richard Cecil, whose admirable sagacity was never more distinctly manifested than in this selection. Miss Cooke arrived in Calcutta in May. 1821.. We have stated that she came on the invitation of a certain educational society ; but on her arrival, it appeared that the native members of the Committee of that Society, although they had spoken well -while yet the matter was at a distance and in the region of theory, recoiled from the obloquy of so rude an assault on time-honored custom. 

"The babus had been brought up to the talking-point, but not to the acting-point. An arrangement was however entered into with the Church Mission Society, and Miss Cooke began her operations under their auspices. An account of the commencement of these operations is given by Mrs. Chapman, in her little work on Female Education ; and we are sure that we shall gratify our readers by extracting it at length: 
'Whilst engaged in studying the Bengali language, and scarcely daring to hope that an immediate opening for entering upon the work, to which she had devoted herself, would be found, Miss Cooke paid a visit to one of the native schools for boys, in order to observe their pronunciation ; and this circumstance, trifling as it may appear, led to the opening of her first school in Thunthuniya. 
Unaccustomed to see a European lady in that part of the native town a crowd collected round the door of the school. Amongst them was an interesting looking girl, whom the school pundit drove away. Miss Cooke desired the child to be called, and by an interpreter asked her if she wished to learn to read. She was told in reply, that this child had for three months past been daily begging to learn to read with the boys, and that if Miss Cooke ( who had made known her purpose of devoting herself to the instruction of native girls) would attend next day, twenty girls should be collected. 

Accompanied by a female friend, conversant with the language, she repeated her visit on the morrow and found fifteen girls, several of whom had their mothers with them. Their natural inquisitiveness prompted them to enquire what could be Miss Cooke's motive for coming amongst them. They were told that she had heard in England, that the women of their country were kept in total ignorance, that they were not taught to read or write, that the men only were allowed to attain any degree of knowledge, and it was also generally understood that the chief obstacle to their improvement was that no females would undertake to teach them ; she had therefore felt compassion for them, and had left her country, her parents and friends, to help them. 

The mothers with one voice cried out, smiting themselves with their right hands, "Oh what a pearl of a woman is this!" It was added, she has given up every earthly expectation, to come here, and seeks not the riches of the world, but desires only to promote your best interests.''Our children are yours, we give them to you.' 'What will be the use of learning to our girls, and what good will it do to them?'  She was told 'It will make them more useful in their families, and increase their knowledge, and it was hoped that it would also tend to give them respect, and produce harmony in their families''True (said one of them) our husbands now look upon us as little better than brutes.' Another asked, 'What benefit will you derive from this work !' She was told that the only return wished for, was to promote their best interest and happiness. Then said the woman, 'I suppose this is a holy work, and well-pleasing to God.'
As they were not able to understand much, it was only said in return that God was always well-pleased that his servants should do good to their fellow-creatures. The women then spoke to each other, in terms of the highest approbation, of what had passed." 
"In the course of the first year eight schools were established, attended, more or less regularly, by 214 girls. 
"Two or three years after Miss Cooke's arrival in India, she became the wife of the Rev. Isaac Wilson, a Missionary of the Church Mission Society ; but she did not relax in her afforts in behalf of the good cause . Mrs. Wilson's efforts were, now directed to the obtaining of the means of erecting a suitable building for a Central School. In order to do this, it was found necessary to establish a special Society for Native Female Education.
This Society was established in the beginning of 1824. Funds were raised, and on the 18th of May, 1826, the foundation stone of the Central School, in Cornwallis Square, was laid. 
In connection with this building, we must not omit to notice the extraordinary munificence of a native gentleman, the Rajah Buddinath Roy, who subscribed the very large sum of 20,000 Sicca Rupees, or upwards of £2,000 sterling, towards the erection. We believe this donation for a great patriotic object, is to this day unrivalled in the annals of native liberality ; and it is properly commemorated by the following inscription on a marble tablet, inserted into the wall of the principal hall in the institution: 

“This Central School, Founded by a Society of Ladies, For the Education of Native Female Children,was greatly assisted by A liberal donation of Rs. 20,000, from RAJAH BUDDINATH ROY BAHADUR ;and its objects further promoted and funds saved by Charles Knowles Robinson, Esq.,Who planned and executed this building, 1828.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Rediscovering the 19th century

I’ve done more than 90 posts with the tag “BritIndia”, with links to passages from books that were published in the 19th century. The material came from free e-books accessed through Google Books. The books helped me gain a new perspective on British rule in India. I realised that our history books have given us such a one-sided narrative of events that unfolded in that period. It was true that the British ruthlessly crushed any rebellion and did not hesitate to exercise their authority in every manner. But, equally, there were British officers, engineers, generals, administrators who made genuine attempts to improve the quality of life here.

It is often said of the British that they introduced Railways not with the comfort of the natives in mind but to move goods from hinterland to the coast and then on to England by ship. I did not find any evidence of this intention to use Railways to plunder the country. Every piece of communication conveys a desire to build a transportation system that was reliable, safe and profitable.

Similarly, we’ve been told that the British brought in their system of education into the country with the sole purpose of indoctrinating the natives and bringing them in line with their methods. This is an unfair accusation. There’s enough material in Google Books to show that their intentions were honourable and stemmed from a genuine belief that ignorance and superstition had to be stamped out so as to liberate the natives from the poverty and squalor that marked their lives.

Thus, I’ve spent many hours with Google Books and learnt quite a bit in the process. I’ve enjoyed my role as an armchair historian.

A writer, Paula Findlen, seems to have had the same experience. In a recent article, she notes:

Thanks to Google, 21st-century scholars are becoming far more accustomed to reading 19th-century books, simply because, being out of copyright, they are online. The digitization of the long 19th century (materials published between the late 18th and early 20th centuries) has made accessible and searchable scholarly work that has been neglected because it was considered too dated and too unreliable.  It was the last thing many of us looked for in the library.

This rediscovery of the 19th century as an open-source reading experience is accompanied by a subtle appreciation of the era’s intellectual merits. Consider the quantity of material—obscure novels, local histories, antique catalogs, minor journals, a sea of biographies, and those vast and terrifyingly erudite bibliographies that were a specialty of that age of scholarship. Work that fails to enter a canon—literary, historical, or otherwise—tends to languish on the dustier shelves of college libraries. Digitization allows a new generation of scholars to look at them with fresh regard. This represents a significant change in the way we think about scholarship. 

Google Books is a kind of Victorian portal that takes me into a mare magnum of out-of-print authors, many of whom helped launch disciplines. Or who wrote essays, novels, and histories that did not transcend their time. Or who anonymously produced the paperwork of emerging bureaucracies, organizations, and businesses that, because printed, has been scanned and, because scanned, is now available.

I am not a scholar of the 19th century but have found its digitization to be one of the most fascinating new resource for understanding the centuries that precede it.


No wang-wang

While at Manila airport yesterday, I noticed a sign near the Immigration Counter that said, “Airport is a no wang-wang zone. Please fall in line to avoid embarrassment. CCTV-monitored area”.

I wondered what wang-wang meant.  Was it a Filipino slang for littering?  Or smoking? Or a codeword for ‘kissing’?  I was curious enough to check this out on the net later. This is what I found in a newspaper report of July 2012.:
Wang-wang mentality” and “wang-wang culture” were catch phrases often used by President Aquino in his speeches that reaffirm his commitment to root out abuse of power. Initially, he used the term to attack the powerful who made their way through the streets of the metropolis with sirens blaring. In another speech, he deplored the use of the wang-wang as a symbol of a mind-set of privilege. 
“The posters intend to convey a simple message. And that is to fall in line and follow routine and standard security practices at the airport,” MIAA General Manager Jose Angel Honrado said. 
“This should serve as a warning to passengers not to cut [the] lines and follow airport procedures,” he added. 
Honrado said the message capitalized on the popular street lingo for blaring sirens
So, the phrase “fall in line” in the sign is not a metaphor; it is literal. Thanks to these signs and strict monitoring, nobody is exempt from standing in the line –except for five top officials of the Govt and foreign ambassadors.. ‘The stricter airport measures were also meant to get rid of these enterprising airport personnel, including some police officers, security guards and even porters who offer illegal VIP escort services for a fee’.

I don’t know when or if India will have a “no wang-wang policy’ in our airports or elsewhere. Every politician is a VIP and insists on being treated so. In the rare instance of a celebrity choosing to fall in line like a normal citizen, we – the non-VIPs- don’t let him/her forget that he/she is a VIP. We fawn over them and act in an obsequious manner.

So, wang-wang it will continue to be for us. 



Saturday, July 20, 2013

The noise of the fan


I have a serious issue with table fans. If one of them is switched on within my earshot, I soon fall asleep. Some kind of hypnotic effect it has on me. So, it's best avoided when I need to stay awake and do some work. Of course, when I do need some sleep, it can provide the soporific support.

Many people seem to have the same experience, and this interesting article explains why the fan has such an effect. 
If you think back to elementary-school science classes, you probably learned that white light is a combination of all the other colors of light; using a prism, we can separate it into its component colors. By analogy, "white" noise is composed of sounds of every frequency within the range of human hearing—roughly 20 to 20,000Hz (cycles per second)—with each part of the frequency spectrum equal in amplitude (volume). It's called "noise" instead of "sound" because it is random in nature. Rather than simply generating a fixed tone at 20Hz, 21Hz, 22Hz, and so on all the way up to 20,000Hz, a white noise generator creates a constantly changing mixture of tones such that all frequencies have an equal probability of being audible at any given moment. 
To human ears, white noise sounds like a hiss—sounds such as a waterfall, an aerosol can, and static are all very similar to white noise. Although all frequencies are represented, we perceive white noise as being relatively high-pitched—partly because higher octaves consist of a greater range of frequencies than lower ones (giving the higher-frequency sounds proportionally more energy), and partly because our ears are more sensitive to higher-pitched sounds.  
White noise is good at masking most other kinds of sound because it effectively overloads or "numbs" our auditory systems. Just as it's difficult to hold a conversation at a crowded restaurant, it's difficult for your brain to identify any one sound or voice when you're already hearing sound at every frequency. So it's not the white noise itself that promotes sleep as much as the fact that it reduces audio clutter, drowning out other sounds that may distract you and therefore keep you awake. 
Against this formidable effect produced by Physics and acoustics, I simply don't have a chance. I can't avoid falling asleep when the fan is switched on.

Chinese products


A Chinese museum had to be closed down recently, as many of the 40000 exhibits were found to be fake. (source).

According to the news story:
The museum's public humiliation began earlier this month when Ma Boyong, a Chinese writer, noticed a series of inexplicable discrepancies during a visit and posted his findings online.   
Among the most striking errors were artifacts engraved with writing purportedly showing that they dated back more than 4,000 years to the times of China's Yellow Emperor. However, according to a report in the Shanghai Daily the writing appeared in simplified Chinese characters, which only came into widespread use in the 20th century.

The collection also contained a "Tang Dynasty" five-colour porcelain vase despite the fact that this technique was only invented hundreds of years later, during the Ming Dynasty.

Apparently, China is in the midst of a museum boom and there is a demand for artifacts. This naturally created incentives for fake objects with no or dubious antique value to be brought in for display.

Perhaps the Chinese have been churning out such fake stuff or imitations for centuries. So, if a fake object that was produced in 1200 AD were to be found today, won't it qualify as a genuine fake, with its own antique value?

It’s only bad news.


Why do newspapers and TV channels focus so much on bad news? And why do we put up with it?

Doesn't it get tiring to have to listen to stories of rape, murders, terror, food poisoning, accidents, illnesses, and other bad news all the time? Why don't we resist this relentless bombardment of bad news?

Apparently, we can't. The 'negativity bias' is hardwired in our brain.

As we were evolving as human beings, our sensory systems were tuned to pick up only the 'danger signals' from all the audio-visual data around us and to forward the filtered information to the amyglada in the temporal lobe of our brains. This was a vital part of our survival instinct. As this article explains:
The amygdala is our danger detector.  It's our early warning system.  It literally combs through all of the sensory input looking for any kind of a danger on putting in on high alert and it evolved during an era of human evolution that was of the immediate type, the tiger in the bush.  You would hear a rustle in the leaves and you would think tiger, not wind and the point—one percent of the time that it was a tiger it saved your life, but today the amygdala literally calls our attention to all the negative stories and if you see a thousand stories you're going to focus on the negative ones and the media takes advantage of this and you know the old saw if it bleeds it leads.  
Well that's why 90% of the news in the newspaper and on television is negative because that's what we pay attention to.
So, even if there's some good news, for example, that the country's economy is picking up well this year, there will be a cautionary caveat that will accompany that statement to convey a serious flip side – that this is unlikely to be sustained due to poor rainfall in some parts of the country. Your brain is alert to negative signals and it is the bounden duty of the media to oblige you and, in the process, earn some money for themselves.

It's hopeless. Don't expect any good news. ( There, I've fed something for your amygdala to chew on)



Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Japan this week.

I came across four different news stories related to Japan.

The first reported that sales of adult diapers in Japan would soon exceed that of baby diapers. The changing demographics and increase in percentage of geriatric citizens ( quite a few of them suffering from incontinence) leads to more business for adult diapers.

The second said that the number of elderly people (over 65 years) arrested for shoplifting in Tokyo exceeds the number of teenaged shoplifters. This could be a reflection again of the changing demographic profile or could be because the moral standards of the younger generation are better than that of the older generation.

The third story is on the increasing popularity of palm surgery, to get palm lines redrawn as prescribed by the ‘science’ of palmistry, and thereby get one’s destiny or fate reshaped the way one wants it. I found this brilliant. Even Indians have not thought of this.

Finally, there’s this article on a unique beauty treatment offered by salons in Japan.  Live snails are made to crawl on one’s face. It is claimed that the slime removes old cells and rejuvenates the skin.


Why did I read all these stories in a span of two days? Is there an overarching theme  that I am missing out? 

Update 17/07/13 : I missed a fifth one. This story is about the craze 
for "eyeball licking" among Japanese schoolchildren that is reportedly causing a surge in eye-related infections



Thursday, July 11, 2013

"How the telegraph system was introduced in India"

The humble telegram will be laid to rest on July 15th this year, ending a saga that began in 1839. 

“The story of the telegraph in India” by Charles C. Adley, published in the year 1866, provides in the first chapter a narration of the sequence of events that led to the commissioning of the telegraph system in India. It highlights the splendid efforts and marshalling of resources by the British officers in India to achieve the planned link-up in very short time. 

The history of the Telegraph in India is briefly recorded.  
In May, 1839, Dr. William Brooke O'Shaughnessy erected an experimental line of wire, twenty-one miles in length, in the vicinity of Calcutta. The wire was suspended upon bamboo poles, and on the completion of the experiments, which were eminently successful, it was taken down and the results published. At the same time, the importance of the introduction of the telegraph into India was strongly urged.  
On the 26th of September, 1849, the Court of Directors of the late Honourable the East India Company referred to the foregoing experiments, and directed the attention of the Government of India to the advisability and importance of establishing a system of telegraphs throughout that empire. 
About the same time, others were occupying their minds with the subject, and, preparatory to propounding a definite scheme, two long pieces of gutta-percha covered copper wire were despatched experimentally to India. One of these was vulcanised, the other not. The object was to ascertain if wire, so protected, would withstand the ravages of the white ants, the great enemies to underground operations in that country, for at that period, the merit of the overground or underground system was a debated and unsettled question in Europe. 
The experiment was perfectly successful, and in September, 1850, an elaborate communication was addressed to the Chairman of the Court of Directors of the late Honourable the East India Company, wherein proposals were submitted for the establishment of a comprehensive system of political and mercantile lines throughout India, and some pains were taken to show the advantages that would accrue to the Government and the public therefrom. The report also comprised the details of a scheme for establishing telegraphic intercourse between England and India vid the Persian Gulf. In reply, it was stated that the subject was then under the consideration of the Government. 
The accompanying map, which is an exact copy of the general plan drawn out more than fifteen years ago, will exhibit a sketch view of these projects, and it is remarkable how closely the plans then devised assimilate with what have been subsequently carried out at the present time. 
Two months later, reports were submitted to the Government in India by the late Colonel Forbes and Dr- O'Shaughnessy upon the subject, and, after some discussion upon the overground and underground systems, it was decided that an experimental line should be constructed of thirty miles in length, partly overground and partly subterranean. 
This line was commenced in October, 1851, and opened in December following. It was then extended underground to Kedjeree eighty-two miles; and in March, 1852, the line from Calcutta to the sea was opened for official and public correspondence. Of this line, sixty-nine miles were overground and eleven subterranean, and the mean average cost was 59l 8s. 1d. per mile. The wire used consisted of pieces of iron rod 3/8 in. diameter, 13 ft. 6 in. long, welded together, and weighing 17-1/2 cwt. to the mile. 
In the overground portion the rod was placed in a notch cut in the top of bamboo poles 15 ft. high, and placed 200 ft. apart, being strengthened at every furlong by stout sal or iron wood posts, to which the rod was clamped. The underground portion was coated with layers of Madras cloth saturated with melted pitch mixed with tar and then placed in a trench 2 ft. deep, "laid in a row of roofing tiles half filled with a melted mixture of three parts dry sand and one part resin by weight, and when laid the whole was then filled up with the same melted mixture." The trench was then filled in and rammed down in the usual way. 
At the river crossings, which were about a mile wide, various plans were tried, viz., 1. A copper wire insulated with wax and tape. 2. An iron wire rope. 3. A gutta-percha covered copper wire undefended. 4. Gutta-percha covered wire similar to that first laid between Dover and Cape Grisnez; and 5. A guttapercha covered copper wire secured in the angles of a chain cable. The first four plans were soon destroyed by the grapnels of native vessels, while the last proved successful. 
The working of this experimental line was highly satisfactory, and the returns during the first three months of opening were equivalent to a dividend of five per cent, on the outlay, after deducting the working expenses.  
These results having been duly reported on the 14th of April, 1852, Lord Dalhousie, then Governor-General of India, adopted measures for constructing an extensive series of lines between Calcutta, Bombay, Madras, and Peshawar, and on the 3rd of May, Dr. O'Shaughnessy was despatched to England on the subject. Before his arrival in London, on the 20th of June, the proposition of the Governor-General had been acceded to by the Court of Directors and Board of Control, and on the 1st of August, the contracts were entered into for the supply of 5600 miles of wire (No. 1, B. W. G.) and other materials in proportion. 
These materials were manufactured and despatched to India with the utmost alacrity, and on the 24th of March, 1854, a temporary flying line of telegraph was opened between Calcutta and Agra, 796 miles, and the connexion between Calcutta, Madras, and Bombay was completed by a similar temporary line by the 1st of January, 1855. On the 1st of February following, or within two years and a half of the commencement of the undertaking, these lines, amounting to 3544 miles, were opened to the public. 
The construction of these lines was effected in two stages. 1. The erection of a temporary flying line. 2. The strengthening and insulating the flying line. The first of these operations was to be carried out with the utmost speed, the second at leisure. There was also a third stage proposed in the manual of instructions, which was to have consisted of a permanent double line, but it was never carried out, owing, it was stated, to "insuperable practical objections." 
The main object to be accomplished in constructing the temporary flying line was to get up a line in any manner whatsoever with the greatest possible rapidity. This was effected by using bamboos, or any form of cheap temporary wooden support available in the district. These poles with a groove cut in the top for the wire to rest in, were erected along the Grand Trunk Road, 50 ft. apart and 3 ft. in the ground. They were put up with remarkable celerity, an order having been previously issued, while the material was being prepared in England, to every magistrate to have the poles set up in the manner described by a fixed date, along such part of the Trunk Road as passed through his jurisdiction. By this means, an enormous existing establishment of Road inspectors, sub-conductors, police, and coolies were brought into immediate action, and on commencing to run out the wire in November, 1853, the poles were erected throughout the country. 
To further expedite matters, all the powerful resources of the Government were brought into play. The bullock train establishments, inland river steamers, commissariat, and public works departments throughout the country, were more or less placed at the disposal of the telegraph, and the result was as already narrated. 
The lines were completed with such wonderful celerity that even Europe re-echoed with astonishment. The most noble the Governor-General of India was elated; ambition was appeased; another of the many brilliant visions of a glorious rule was realised; another achievement was added to the long roll of beneficent conquests which history would twine with lustre round his name; honours and rewards were liberally showered around, and the Telegraph was inaugurated amid the joyous congratulations of rulers and the triumphant paeans of an empire. 




Saturday, July 06, 2013

Rubber chappals

My primary school (yes, the one I went to decades back) required me to wear shoes, but the higher secondary school that I joined later had no such requirement. The school uniform consisted of white pyjamas and kurtha and I could complement these with a pair of rubber chappals.

A pair of these chappals bought at Bata would cost Rs 8 , and if this ate too deep into the family budget, a pair could be bought from a platform vendor for less than Rs 5 a pair. The low price wasn’t the only reason. We simply did not feel the need for any other type of footwear. True, they could be a nuisance in rainy weather and splash muddy water on to one’s own clothes or on those of the person walking behind you, but these were minor inconveniences accepted without too much thought.

Entire batches of students have graduated from such venerable institutions such as IIT with a record of using no other type of footwear. In fact, rubber chappals came to be associated with intellectuals.

While I used to know them only as rubber chappals, it looks like they are referred to as flip flops (probably American).

Recently, I came across this piece in Slate magazine, which criticises the flip-flop and finds several faults with it.

The crux of the flip-flop problem, for me, lies in the decoupling of footwear from foot with each step—and the attendant decoupling of the wearer’s behavior from the social contract. Extended flip-flop use seems to transport people across some sort of etiquette Rubicon where the distinction between public and private, inside and outside, shod and barefoot, breaks down entirely. I’ve witnessed flip-flop wearers on the New York City subway slip their “shoes” off altogether and cross their feet on the train-car floor with a contented sigh, as though they were already home and kicking back in front of a DVR’d Cheers marathon. We would all look askance at a person who removed his socks and sneakers on the train before ostentatiously propping his naked dogs in plain sight. Why do people get a break just because they happen to be wearing footgear that takes them 90 percent of the way there?

My final line of argument against flip-flops is a more nebulous one, having to do with their laziness and lack of character as footwear. Because of the ease with which they’re put on and removed—along, perhaps, with their generic ubiquity—flip-flops connote a sort of half-dressed slatternliness, a sense that the wearer has forgotten to do anything at all with his or her body from the ankles down.

Fellow must be one of those snooty types who needs to make a fashion statement with his footwear. Ignore him.