Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category

Where Every Student is the Best Ever

Monday, January 31st, 2011

Lake Wobegon is a fictional town in Minnesotta where “every child is above average”. I can do Garrison Keillor one better: I live in a land where every student is “among the very best ever”.

It is that time of the year when we read through applications to graduate school.


Sunday, August 23rd, 2009

The Harish-Chandra Research Institute is located on the banks of the Ganga, within sight of where the Yamuna flows into it. From its magnificent gardens you can see the sand bank that marks the confluence of the two most sacred rivers of Hinduism. Everyone-mythical figures such as Rama and Krishna, poets such as Kalidasa and Gurus like Vivekananda- has been at the Sangam. Today I got to see it up close. After a trip to the city of Prayag that has existed at this point a few thousand years.

Allahabad, as it is now known, is a small city but with an exceptional influence on India’s history. Half of its Prime Ministers are from here. Of course, three of them are lineal descendants of Nehru, whose house here we visited today.

This is in the heartland of India. And people here are large hearted. If you can avoid the moneygrabbing priests at the makeshift temples, everyone is laid back and seem generally happy. A few dollars go a long way. We saw no tourists, unlike at Varanasi. This ancient land exerts a pull, a yearning to reconnect with the past that is not rational and all the stronger for it.

My Name Is Khan

Sunday, August 16th, 2009

Shah Rukh Khan, the hero of many Bollywood movies, was detained by US immigration for two hours because his surname popped up on a watch list. Khan is the most common last name among South Asian Muslims; there are more Khans in the world than Smiths. Even in the US, it is the 665th most popular name.

Khan was an honorific title of Mongol tribes, and eventually was adopted as a surname by many people who are descended from a Khan or wanted to be associated to the name. Indeed, 0.5% of all men in the world carry a genetic marker believed to be passed on by Genghis Khan. There were strong selective pressures to help propagate the Khan name when the Mongols dominated the whole of Asia.


One among the hundreds of millions of people with the surname Khan is a very bad guy: AQ Khan, the man who built the Pakistani atom bomb and sold nuclear secrets to Libya and North Korea. But the surname alone has very little value in identifying a person in this case: US immigration should have known how common it is.

On the other hand, Indians tend to be overly sensitive in such matters. Only a month ago there was a furor because Indian employees of Continental Airlines frisked former President Kalam. This was considered an indignity: all Indian airports post a list of VVIPs (Very Very Important Persons) who are exempt from security procedures, a list that starts with the President and former Presidents. Indian culture accepts such special treatment for celebrities and retired politicians. (more…)

The Entrance Exam Frenzy

Wednesday, August 12th, 2009

Here in Kerala, the teenagers are the busiest people. They start their day at 7:00 in the morning with classes to prepare them for the brutal competition in the entrance examinations to publicly run colleges. 9:30 to 3:30 is school. Then its off to classes again. Often till 9 pm. Weekends are even busier. Classes the whole day. Then homework.


Highly Trained Individuals

Saturday, May 16th, 2009

When I came to the US thirty years ago, coffee was this brown muck that cost about a dollar per gallon. In the generation that has passed since then, coffee has become a spiritual experience, a political statement and a way to save the planet. Sleek new devices that hiss and purr when stroked have replaced the old coffee machines. The people who make the coffee have never looked better. Many of them have college degrees, even if they are unaware that Venti is simply the Italian word for twenty .

Starbucks just took out a full page ad in the NYTimes touting its exceptionalism.

They Want You To Think Coffee is Coffee. Well, It’s Not Just Coffee. It’s Starbucks.

It’s lotsa bucks actually. Until a year ago, $4.50 was considered a reasonable price for a cup of coffee. Starbucks is, like the Hummer, Enron and the AIG, an emblem of turn of the century excess. Now McDonalds is eating their lunch. The baristas at Starbucks still look upon with you with condescension if you ask for a “small cup of coffee” instead of a “Tall Americano”. But you can see the fear in their eyes. The Ad says that these are highly trained individuals, who can make 87000 different kinds of coffee. If so, aren’t they a bit over-trained? Punching a few buttons on a coffee machine is not exactly rocket science.

The Indian Railway II

Monday, April 20th, 2009

What Went Right?

The Railway was a failure when it was a monopoly. Now it has competition from trucks plying the recently built highways. So they had to shape up to survive. The Government owned airlines are struggling due to competition from the newly licensed private carriers. The Indian Airlines (the domestic airline) has already been folded into Air India. So why did the Railway thrive under competition and not IA?

A Certain Swagger

Monday, April 20th, 2009

I mentioned to a colleague that Varadhan, a mathematician of Indian origin at NYU, won the Abel Prize. One of the top honors in the field. My colleague turned to the person sitting next to him, a visiting academic, and said:

In the middle of all that corruption, they are good in statistics. It must be because the British were good at it.

He was expressing a common view of India as a corrupt place where nothing works, perhaps with an occasional genius. Even Americans whose knowledge of India does not extend beyond watching “Slumdog Millionaire” feel free to pass such judgment. (more…)

An Order Or A Request?

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

There is an apocryphal story about Gandhi, said to have taken place when he was working as a lawyer in London. It was unusual for an Indian to have an Englishman working under him, but Gandhi had an English assistant. One day Gandhi asked him to do something and the Asssistant asked,

Mr. Gandhi, is that an order or a request?

Gandhi replied:

If you do it, it would be a request.

Gandhi did not have to ask a second time.

Hard to know for sure if it really happened.

GMAC Chairman Was Also Madoff Agent

Monday, April 6th, 2009

Frank Rich, NYTimes

As if to confirm that much of our so-called legitimate financial world has been six degrees of separation from Bernie Madoff, GMAC’s chairman was none other than J. Ezra Merkin. In addition to presiding over losses of nearly $8 billion at GMAC, Merkin had a separate investment management business that threw away another $2 billion by feeding other people’s money (including the endowments at N.Y.U. and Yeshiva University) into Madoff’s Ponzi scheme.

It is a small world at the top of the pyramid schemes of the Bush years. The impending bankruptcy of GM, with the hundreds of thousands of jobs at stake, is directly connected to its financial shenanigans. The “Real World” of blue collar jobs cannot escape the contagion of greed that brought down Wall St.

So who is J. Ezra Merkin? (more…)

Christopher Monckton, 3rd Viscount of Brenchley

Wednesday, March 4th, 2009

I had to write a report this week and was looking through my calendar from last year. Noticed a curious entry, a talk I missed because I was out with a cold. Who exactly is Christopher Monckton, 3rd Viscount of Brenchley, this denier of Global Warming? The magic of Google and Wikipedia allows us to find out easily. The drawback to such convenience is that such information is often superficial.



North Vs South

Saturday, February 16th, 2008

Raj Thackeray
North Indian migrant workers in Mumbai are being attacked by a militant organization (known by the acronym MNS) which exploits the resentment of the local population. The most odious of the political leaders egging the violent mob on is Raj Thackeray. A generation ago the same folks (Raj’s uncle Bal was the leader back then) were targeting South Indians. What changed? (more…)

The Trolley Problem

Wednesday, February 13th, 2008


Whenever a nation has done something deeply embarrassing, which shames its decent citizens, moral philosophy thrives. As though the obvious atrocity can somehow be hidden behind sophisticated reasonings about abstract thought experiments. Psychologists must have some fancy name for this phenomenon.

We live in such a time now. You cannot open the New Yorker or the New York Times Magazine without running into a conundrum designed by the best and the brightest to teach us lessons on moral values. The difference between us and the ancients is that we look to science, not religion, as the source of our values. Thus, neuro-scientists emerge as the Deep Thinkers of our time. Supposedly their knowledge of how our brain is wired allows them to deduce ab initio what is right and wrong.

One the most fundamental of these puzzles is the Trolley problem. It goes something like this.

On your morning walk, you see a trolley car carrying five passengers. It is hurtling down the track, the conductor slumped over the controls. The passengers are oblivious to the danger. You are standing at a fork in the track and can pull a lever that will divert the trolley onto a spur, saving the five people. Unfortunately, the trolley would then run over a single worker who is laboring on the spur. Is it permissible to throw the switch, killing one man to save five? Almost everyone says “yes.”

But wait a minute. Here is the twist. The single worker is Mr. Average Joe, who is working an extra shift so he can pay off his mother’s hospital bill. You just received a text message identifying the five conscious occupants of the Trolley car as Steven Pinker, Niall Ferguson, Philippa Foot, Judith Jarvis Thomson and Joshua Greene. (You are carrying an iPhone. Duh.) And you have just enough time to Google these names before making the decision.

Now, which way would you throw the switch?

Who is more valuable? Five moral philosophers or an honest working man?

Those with the correct answer will be entered into a raffle for the complete works of Ayn Rand.

How to Deal with Office Spam

Sunday, February 10th, 2008

Everyone gets office spam in their email. I don’t mean the ads for Viagra or requests to help a worthy gentleman smuggle millions of dollars out of Nigeria. I mean the email where some colleague (say Tom) is replying to a note about some one else (Dick) by a third person (Harry) and you have been unnecessarily added to an ever growing list in the cc.

I say fight spam with spam. Adapt a technique used by some robots on blogs, called `comment spam’. The kind that Akismet deals with so well.

First, create an innocuous little article, or parable (such as the post below). The content is not important, but it must hint at hidden Deep Meaning. The sort of thing you would read with a knowing smile. A reference to Kierkegaard or other Deep Thinker would be great, but only if you can pull it off. Confucius or the Buddha are almost as good if you are not up to the German level of sophistry. Even Steven Pinker will do. Make sure to capitalize some randomly chosen words.

Then you reply to the latest message (not to the whole list, they are innocent bystanders just like you)

Tom, this reminds me of a little parable…

Cut and paste afore mentioned Deep Story here

Tom,most likely, has a sense of humor and will remove you from the thread after a chuckle. Or, after concluding that you are a clueless idiot. If neither, at least you will make him wonder what the deeper implications of the story are, slowing down the spam chain.

Try it. And don’t comment on the results here.

Drona’s Revenge

Wednesday, January 9th, 2008

Drona was the greatest teacher of his time. He had no peer in his command of the martial arts and sciences. But, at the end of many years of studying and perfecting his skills, he found himself destitute, and with a wife and son to support. He decided to pay a visit to his best buddy from elementary school, who was now King of the minor country of Panchala. Perhaps his friend would arrange for a job. (more…)

Environmentalism is a Conservative Cause

Wednesday, January 2nd, 2008

Something odd is happening with environmentalism. It is being opposed vehemently by American Conservatives. What is strange about this is that usually the drive to preserve nature comes from conservatives. It is not a coincidence that the words `conservative’ and `conservation’ have the same root. (more…)

The Almanack

Saturday, July 28th, 2007

What is the date today? A simple question, but with a complex answer.
Poor Richards Almanack
The story of calendars is the story of human civilization itself. The millenial 1 article by Amartya Sen tries to disentangle fact from fantasy in the history of calendars. Never an easy task in history, especially hard in the keeping of time itself. (more…)

Kalla Yoga 2

Sunday, June 3rd, 2007

Continued from Part

I need to hurry up and launch my own brand of yoga before the inevitable yoga backlash sets in. It must be distinctive, eye-catching and easily patented. More than a set of exercises. A whole way of life, which will require many accessories. (more…)

Kalla Yoga 1

Sunday, June 3rd, 2007

Yoga means `union’ in Sanskrit. It could be your union with the universe. Or it can simply mean a meeting, as in a political or cultural gathering. In mathematical texts, yoga means sum. It is a rather common word in all Indian languages descended from Sanskrit.

But in America, Yoga has come to mean a system of physical exercise. It is a mystical and esoteric word. It is also a multi-billion dollar industry, a lifestyle, even a religion in all but name. Twenty million people practice it in the US alone. Like wine for France and pasta for Italy, yoga has become India’s defining export, its brand identity. (more…)

Another Namesake

Sunday, April 15th, 2007

Mira Nair’s movie `Namesake’ is about a man with an odd name
(Gogol) for an Indian. I have my own situation to deal with.
My name is usually written as Sarada G. Rajeev.

Practical Vedanta

Saturday, April 14th, 2007

Vedaanta is the end of all knowledge. End as in goal, or as in the ultimate kind of knowledge. It is a theory of what knowledge itself is. What practical use could it be? Volumes have been written on how to translate the abstract concepts of Vedanta to every day life. The ultimate authority in `modern times’ (only about a few hundred years ago) is Sankara Acharya. His Vivekachoodaamani and Bhajagovindam are attempts to explain this most abstruse of all branches of classical Indian philosophy to the masses; or at least to laymen.