Thursday, January 29, 2009

Gandhi and Palestine

On entering the Physics Department at UBC Vancouver the day before yesterday, the very first thing that met my eye was a picture of Mahatma Gandhi. It was on a poster for a talk by Norman Finkelstein titled: "Resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict: What we can learn from Gandhi". I resolved to attend the talk, until I realised it had already taken place a few days ago. But never mind, the internet has everything one needs (except fresh food) and I tracked Mr Finkelstein's talk down to this link. Not having about 6 hours to spare, I haven't actually gone through it yet - but you should feel free to do so.

And while you're about it, do take a look at what Gandhiji wrote about the Israel-Palestine conflict - in 1938! A good place is this blog posting by the intriguingly nicknamed Zakintosh from Pakistan. The rest of his blog seems most interesting too.

The Israel-Palestine issue has been on my mind of late (as on everyone else's mind, I assume) but I have nothing wise to say about it myself and I think what I've posted above will be more useful to readers. So, having assigned you enough homework for a week, I'm getting back to work.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

What have they done to the earth?

I should be preparing for the seminar I'm due to deliver an hour from now, but instead feel obliged to report on a packet that I was just handed in the UBC Student Centre as a free give-away. It's a berry-flavoured, sugar-free chewing gum, and its complete list of ingredients is: Sorbitol, Gum base, Erythritol, Glycerin, Natural and artificial flavours, Mannitol, Hydrogenated Starch Hydrolysate, Citric Acid, Soy Lecithin, Malic Acid, Aspartame-Acesulfame, Fumaric acid, Disodium Inosinate, Acesulfame-Potassium, Disodium Guanylate, Colours (including Cochineal).

I would no more put this rubbish in my mouth than I'd walk into a Chemistry lab and consume a bunch of bubbling beakers labelled "poison". And it saddens me to think that this kind of stuff is legal and increasingly widespread on our planet. I don't suppose it's a Canadian phenomenon, the same rubbish is probably available in India without even a compulsory list of ingredients on the label reminding you that you're about to consume the result of a chemist's hallucination.

I try not to be sentimental but at such moments I'm reminded of Jim Morrison's epic lines:

"What have they done to the earth?
What have they done to our fair sister?
Ravaged and plundered and ripped her and bit her
Stuck her with knives in the side of the dawn
And tied her with fences and dragged her down."

Not to mention, replaced the bounty of her fruits and vegetables by artificial, sugar-free chewing gum.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Slumdogs and underdogs

Saw "Slumdog Millionaire" over the weekend in the slightly alienating environment of Langley, a suburb of Vancouver (yes I've been travelling a lot of late). About 10 seconds into the movie you realise you are in the hands of a superbly gifted director. The movie impressed me enormously. Whether it was brilliant or condescending, whether it breaks new ground or hypes cliches about Bombay and insults slumdwellers by calling them dogs... I refer you to the Wikipedia entry for details on the various self-important views from both sides.

I can't resist making a few (rambling) points myself. The Wikipedia entry mentions that Tapeshwar Vishwakarma, a representative of a slum-dwellers' welfare group, has filed a defamation lawsuit and "alleged that the name of the movie is derogatory and he was particularly displeased that Indians associated with the film did not object to the use of word `slumdog.' " I find this comment extremely telling for its gratuitous nationalistic premise that Indians would naturally defend the honour and virtue of their slum-dwellers while foreigners know only how to run them down. The facts are mostly otherwise: middle-class Indians typically despise slumdwellers, label them `criminals' and are complacent about their brutalisation at the hands of police and other authorities, while every foreigner I've ever talked to without exception recognises the obvious fact that slum-dwellers are just people like everyone else.

In fact, the word "Slumdog" in the movie is clearly an ironic reference to the way the police and the host of the KBC show (both Indians) think of the character. Had the director wanted to avoid controversy all he needed was to show Anil Kapoor or the police inspector abusing the Jamal Malik character with this word. Maybe he thought the audience was bright enough to understand this point without spelling it out?

As an aside, I'm reminded of a teacher in my college who, on learning that we (a bunch of college students) were teaching slum children in Bombay in our spare time, warned us that we shouldn't teach them too much, else they would "rise up against society"! On another occasion the head of my department at TIFR scolded me thus for being involved in a protest on behalf of slum-dwellers: "you always take the side of the underdog!". I said that was a compliment, but he somehow failed to understand.

By free association, I'm reminded now of the brilliant jazz musician Charles Mingus, who titled his autobiography "Beneath the underdog". Mingus was a cantankerous - and occasionally violent - genius from a poor background who is one of just three or four musicians who I feel have changed the world - or at least my world. I shall blog about him some day.

And some other day, I will blog about all the people who tried to "teach" me, a quarter-century ago, what scoundrels and criminals infest our Bombay slums (as well as my inspired retort that having grown up in Malabar Hill, I was confident that this was the true home of criminals and scoundrels!).

End of ramble.

Thursday, January 22, 2009


A colleague of mine once remarked that in academia, there's a certain type of person who would like to be Director of an institution. Any institution. Such people hanker after the post of Directorship for its own sake. Therefore, he suggested, we should start an "Institute of Directors". Everyone there will be a Director, and they will all be satisfied!

This idea has germinated in my mind, and today I have found the solution to the world's problems. Before you cart me off to the loony bin, let me describe it to you.

The problem is that the world just has too many belligerent people in it. From George Bush to Narendra Modi via Ehud Olmert, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad and let's not forget Simi Garewal, just too many people would like to attack, bomb, kill. They do this because they are fundamentalist about something (usually religion), so a society that is nuanced and diverse, that is kind and gentle, that uplifts the weak rather than worshipping the strong, has little appeal for them.

Crucially these people claim that their aggressive approach works, or will work, but then have little to say in the face of massive evidence that it doesn't. It's not even clear what "work" means for them, since a society that is peaceful and just and kind is not even a part of their thought process. And of course although I've only named four world leaders (five if you count Ms Garewal, and back to four, when you realise Bush is finally gone), what's true of them is equally true for their zillions and zillions of supporters. Let's not think the world got this way because of four (or five) people.

Now here's my solution. Let's form a new country, possibly called Fundoostan, where all the fundoos can go! Each state of this country would have its own fundoo belief and all its citizens would be obliged to follow a state religion or possibly some other cult or crackpot idea. Those who do not follow the state religion would perhaps be allowed to live there but only as second-class citizens.

When you think about it, the idea is truly appealing for a variety of reasons:

(i) no inter-state migration. Each state would be completely closed off to citizens of other states in Fundoostan. Think how much money they would save by having no interstate highways and railways!

(ii) inter alia, no need to beat up poor migrants at railway stations. There would be no such migrants. Or even railway stations. Each state would already be a complete and total paradise for its own fundoo residents.

(iii) people from the US, Israel, Iran, Pakistan, India and several other countries, could actually cooperate on something for once. There would be no ideological differences as they would all subscribe to "fundooism".

(iv) the constitution of Fundoostan would be easy to draft. "The citizens shall strictly abide by the rules and practices of the Adventist/Anabaptist/Lutheran/Methodist/Presbyterian/Pentecostal/Ahmediya/Yazidi/Druze/Sephardic/Hasidic/Kabbalah/Lingayat/Chaitanya/Arya Samaj/Digambar Jain etc etc denomination (check one)". Of course, no one in Fundoostan would actually check one of these choices. They would take black pencil or paint and aggressively cross out all the others! Pausing only to beat up someone of another denomination who happened to be around. But of course, no such person would be around.

(v) resources would be easy to distribute in Fundoostan. Some of its states, like Iran and Gujarat, would obviously have a ban on alcohol. So where would all the nice alcohol go? Well, to needy states like Kansas! If a Hindutva state discovered it had beef lying around, they could sell it to Iran, who would send back dates, flowers and pistachios. The country would find it easy to live as an economic union.

(vi) now we come to a possible flaw in my new proposal. What if two neighbouring states in Fundoostan decided to fire rockets at each other, or send undercover agents to shoot and bomb each other, or invade each other to grab land and rape women? Well the most obvious answer is that it's all happening now! So how is it a criticism of my proposal?? In spite of which, I do have an answer. The only people to live in Fundoostan would be those who had consciously decided they like this sort of thing. A few lives would be lost, but being fundoos, people there would understand and even approve. "Sure they killed 15 children in a residential colony of our state! So let's kill 300 - no wait, make that 3000 - infants on the other side! Or preferably just maim them so they grow up as cripples!". And every cabinet meeting in each state would end with singing and dancing in celebration of the lovely massacre they had planned.

OK, I'm done with my proposal. Take it or leave it. I know I promised to be positive this year.. and here I am, penning a bitter, sarcastic piece. But I'm really not! Because the best thing about Fundoostan would be that the rest of us could send people there. A popular vote (say 25 of your neighbours or colleagues) would be enough to pack you off to Fundoostan and you would only get to choose which state to live in. Well the state would have to accept you, but they would if you were one of them, wouldn't they? Moreover you would want to go, wouldn't you, since everyone there would be just like you! No need to tell the press things like "people who don't want to live as [....] should be treated as second-class citizens". It's already done!

So now, let's cheer ourselves up with the thought of who we'll be sending to this benighted land. Personally I'd like to nominate all the people (some of them semi-respectable journalists) who've recently written or spoken the phrase "I used to be a liberal but now, after 26/11...". That crowd would fill up the first Air Fundoostan flight out of here, but my gentle readers are welcome to suggest who they would like to put on the next flight.

P.S. Before anyone points it out, let me confess that I may have picked up a word or two (notably "fundoo") from Pakistani journalist and writer Moni Mohsin, author of the column and book "The Diary of a Social Butterfly", of which I've only read one excerpt. It was funny. As well as bitter.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Dumb aloo from Chandni Chowk

I always thought Khalid Mohammed, noted Indian film critic, was rather over the top with his reviews. He has a particular style that no one can forget - flippant, slang-ridden and full of infuriating rhymes. So when he really slams a movie, I've often been inclined to think he's just doing it for effect, carried away with his own rhetoric. Surely no movie can be as bad as he says.

I don't see that many movies, so I only ended up testing this hypothesis a couple of days ago when I saw "From Chandni Chowk to China". Having just spent the previous weekend climbing the Great Wall of China, I found it tempting to watch a Hindi movie filmed in the same locale. But what a deranged movie. (Warning: following contains spoilers!). Akshay Kumar is a paratha-making country bumpkin from Chandni Chowk who is somehow "recognised" by two Chinese visitors as the re-incarnation of a dead Chinese warrior, Liu Sheng. A village in China that's being persecuted by evil capitalist tyrant Hojo (the Chinese government forgot to exist during this movie) needs Akshay-ji to save them, a la Seven Samurai. In the meanwhile, a Chinese-Indian couple have twin girls who get separated at birth by Hojo's sword-wielding bandits. Both turn into Deepika Padukone, one of them grows up in India and turns out sweet if a wee bit batty, while the other grows up in China and is sort of evil, at least for a while. The father of these girls teaches Akshay how to fight the evil Hojo (why doesn't he just do it himself?). The good Deepika stands on the sidelines dripping enough tears from her shapely cheeks to make up an entire town's daily water supply.

Among countless other faults, the film is deeply insulting to the Chinese. Are we really the most racist nation on earth and if so, will people please shut up about Princes Harry and Charles?

What puzzles me is how a movie this bad ever got to be made with the kind of sponsorship (Warner Bros onwards) it had. Did no one see any part of it on the way? Did the director's family not have the courage to stop him mid-dinner and say "dad (or hubby), if you ever put this film out, people will know you're an imbecile"?

No one should think, though, that the failure lies in the wacky, implausible premise of the movie. Each of the two Munnabhai movies is pretty implausible and very wacky but somehow, between gifted acting, clear direction and (most important) a sparkling script, they worked. I'm tempted to go back and watch them again to clear the demented banality of CC2C from my brain.

Not even the potato (to which Akshay Kumar prays incessantly) could save this movie from being a dumb aloo - as Khalid called it.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Silence of the lambs

I would like to direct readers to an online petition for "Cellular silence day". It's a novel protest against Messrs Ratan Tata, Sunil Mittal and Anil Ambani for their statements in support of Herr Adolf Modi as the next Prime Minister of India.

A related blog posting can be found here.

I believe Modi may indeed be an excellent CEO, he is believed to be a very competent administrator and not personally corrupt. I also believe he is the ultimate divisive figure in in the Indian polity and I hold him responsible for a state-sponsored massacre of innocent people solely based on their religion, in 2002.

So which one is the real Modi? Both are the real Modi. Which one will come to the fore if he is PM? Probably the good administrator. Can we forget the other side of him? Only at grave risk to everything India stands for.

Friday, January 16, 2009

From Hutatma Chowk to China

One reason for my long silence on this blog is that I went to China, and was suitably overwhelmed.

Beijing airport's Terminal 3 is gigantic, dwarfing every airport terminal I've ever seen. It is fronted by gracefully slanted red pillars and makes a fine blend of modern glass-and-steel architecture with traditional Chinese royal motifs such as one sees in the Forbidden City. To get from the arrival area to the baggage claim and exit one takes an intra-terminal train, as in many other airports today (Kansai, Newark and Hongkong come to mind, but Beijing has the fastest train of its kind).

Once out of the airport, via the underground parking (a student had come to receive me in a rental car with a driver, as might happen in India) we were on a broad highway and drove smoothly along it all the way to Zhongguancun where the Beijing Academy of Sciences is located. This seems somewhat of an umbrella institution with several sub-institutions situated within its campus, such as the Institute for Theoretical Physics (ITP) and the new Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics, China (KITPC). We covered about 40 km in a mere half-hour, and I was ejected into the bitter cold (-10 to -2 degrees C on that day). The blue skies and brilliant sunshine on the way had been quite deceptive.

On the way we passed the famous "bird's nest" Olympic stadium as well as a squiggly looking glass and steel building described as a "7-star hotel".

The hugeness of everything in Beijing continued to overwhelm me for the rest of my short (5-day) stay. The 4th Ring Road has a service lane, three regular lanes and four "express" lanes that dip under and fly over intersections, making eight lanes going in one direction. Then there are eight in the other direction, making a total of 16 altogether! Crossing such a road is daunting for many reasons - one being the bitter cold and the thought of the sheer distance to be traversed, given how small and faraway the pedestrian traffic light looks.

The traffic is an enigma. There seem to be only big (Honda-City size and above) cars in Beijing, I hardly saw any small ones. Now between intersections the traffic is smooth and gracefully flowing. But at each intersection, we go back (metaphorically) from China to Hutatma Chowk. It's a free-for-all, with cars honking at pedestrians, making illegal U-turns, running red lights, blocking each other and all that. Eventually the mess resolves itself and all the cars go sailing off smoothly until the next intersection.

Nothing had prepared me for Tiān'ānmén square on what turned out to be the coldest day of my stay. At around 11 AM in bright sunshine, far-subzero temperatures and biting winds, I had to cross this from the southern end (Qianmen station) to the northern end from where one enters the Forbidden City. It was among the coldest moments of my life, which I survived only by cupping my freezing jaw in two gloved hands. The rest of the trip through the Forbidden City was almost as bad though the wind did let up briefly in between. By the end I wondered why the Ming and Qing emperors didn't get fed up with their Forbidden City and move to a more salubrious climate. I would have simply taken over Thailand and spent my winters in Phuket!

Fortunately the hotel where I was staying had excellent heating and I was able to prepare and deliver six lectures in four days with no problem at all. The closest thing to a problem was when our hosts took us out for a stunning Hunan-style dinner and insisted we drink plenty of what they called "Chinese liquor". This is very strong stuff and we were obliged to toast each other several dozen times so a rollicking time was had by all. By the time I got back to the hotel to prepare my last talk, my pdf presentation looked rather blurred! So as a joke I used Gimp to create a page that would illustrate my blurred vision to the students next day. Here it is:

Being Chinese rather than Indian, the students did not faint at the thought that their teachers had been drinking the previous night. Nor did they think I was an alcoholic, which I suspect some of my colleagues in India do to this day...

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Positivity and Dropbox for the New Year

My New Year's resolution is to try and describe positive experiences and happy events on my blog. Negativity is easy to get drawn into and occasionally it may be appropriate, but on the whole the positive and constructive thoughts are more important in life. I think they also endure longer.

Of course if you are one of those who thinks New Year's resolutions are a silly waste of time then I think you are STUPID and I WILL PERSONALLY BEAT YOU UP! Ha ha, only joking!! Please relax while I go on.

Today I'll make a small start by recommending to you the software "Dropbox". This is a file synchronisation software with a difference. For starters, it is open source, free software. (I would rarely recommend paid software, particularly the JUNK that M****soft has the cheek to CHARGE PEOPLE for, I really would like to BEAT THEM UP FOR IT... Ha ha, joking again, but you see how negativity just creeps up so spontaneously!. DON'T LAUGH AT ME, STUPID PEOPLE!!!. OK OK, I'll go on and you can relax again).

Now then. Dropbox was recommended to me by my colleague and collaborator Costis Papageorgakis at TIFR. It works by running a daemon on your machine and creating a directory called Dropbox in a location of your choice. Any files inside the Dropbox directory (you can have as many sub-directories as you like) will automatically be synchronised with your (free) account on the Dropbox server. Thus if you work on multiple computers (e.g. a desktop at work and another desktop at home) then you can work in office all day editing files - writing a paper, say - and come home to find the exact same configuration of files on your home computer so you can continue working there. If any of the computers is temporarily offline then it will synchronise itself as soon as it comes online.

The sync'ing is incremental in the sense that only files you changed will be sync'ed, and they use "block-level" or "delta" sync which means that if you edit a large file then only the changed part will be transferred. So it's not too heavy on internet usage.

I find this wonderfully convenient and have stopped carrying my laptop to office every day.

Another advantage is that if you travel, you can install Dropbox on any local computer anywhere and link it to your Dropbox account, then within minutes (or hours depending on how many files you have) the Dropbox folder there will acquire all your files. Or if you are on a system where they won't allow you to install software, you can login to the Dropbox website and download any or all files manually from there. This is great if, for example, you lose the presentation you painfully prepared the previous day because your pen drive got corrupted or your laptop crashed.

There is a perfectly reasonable limit of 2 GB storage for the free version of Dropbox. Oh and, did I mention, it's available for Linux, Windows and Mac, and file synchronisation will work across platforms e.g. if you run one operating system at work and a different one at home.

Dropbox also carries a side-benefit. The little Dropbox icon on your workspace carries a tick mark in one corner if your files are already synchronised with the server, and a rotating arrow if they are currently being sync'ed. But if your internet connection goes off for some reason then the icon shows neither of those symbols. So peeking at the icon will tell you if your link is active or not. I'm sure there are other softwares that are dedicated to do this, but here it's a collateral benefit.

Comments welcome.