My first novel, My Friend Sancho, is now on the stands across India. It is a contemporary love story set in Mumbai, and was longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize 2008. To learn more about the book, click here.
Here’s a brain teaser: Your task is to move a single line so that the false arithmetic statement below becomes true.
IV = III + III
Did you get it? In this case, the solution is rather obvious – you should move the first “I” to the right side of the “V,” so that the statement now reads: VI = III + III. Not surprisingly, the vast majority of people (92 percent) quickly solve this problem, as it requires a standard problem-solving approach in which only the answer is altered. What’s perhaps a bit more surprising is that nearly 90 percent of patients with brain damage to the prefrontal lobes — this leaves them with severe attentional deficits, unable to control their mental spotlight — are also able to find the answer.
Here’s a much more challenging equation to fix:
III = III + III
In this case, only 43 percent of normal subjects were able to solve the problem. Most stared at the Roman numerals for a few minutes and then surrendered. The patients who couldn’t pay attention, however, had an 82 percent success rate. What accounts for this bizarre result?
The piece is titled ‘Why Being Sleepy and Drunk Are Great for Creativity’, and is about “the unexpected benefits of not being able to focus.” (The next time your loved one asks you to pay attention, just snap back at her that you’re busy being creative.) That might just explain absent-minded geniuses—their absent-mindedness is part of the reason they’re geniuses, and not some regrettable offshoot of their abilities.
A video of a dog apparently mourning the death of his owner at a funeral has gone viral, prompting an outpouring from viewers around the world.
The footage was captured by a woman whose cousin Jon Tumilson, a member of a Navy Seal team, was killed in Afghanistan when his Chinook helicopter was hit by enemy fire on Aug. 6. A funeral service was held for Mr. Tumilson in Rockford, Iowa, last week and attended by 1,500 people.
But also in attendance was Mr. Tumilson’s loyal Labrador retriever, Hawkeye. The dog wandered over to his owner’s flag-draped casket and lay beside it throughout the service. [Link in original.]
Humans have ways of coming to terms with death. We rationalise, divert our minds to other things, and find different ways to move on. But a dog can’t do many of these things. So how does it cope?
From later in the piece:
“There are famous stories of dogs returning to a grave site every day for five years, and you can’t account for that by saying he can smell the body there,” she said. “In fact, dogs return to the grave sites of their companion dogs and animals that they grow up with.”
Rye Barcott was a student at the University of North Carolina who spent a summer sharing a 10-by-10 shack in Kibera, the largest slum in Nairobi, Kenya. One night he awoke with diarrhea and stumbled to the public outhouse. He slid onto the cement floor and vomited as his bare body hit puddles of human waste.
He left his soiled pants outside the hut, but when he went to find them later they were gone. He was directed to another hut where a stick-thin girl, with missing clumps of hair, had the pants, scrubbed and folded, in her lap. Barcott said softly, “I’m grateful,” and asked her why she had cleaned them. “Because I can,” she replied. A week later, she died of AIDS and her body was taken in a wheelbarrow to a communal grave.
We don’t really have a problem that there aren’t enough television sets in our society. We really don’t. I mean we did once. I mean it used to be that some people had television sets and some people don’t. We don’t have that problem anymore in America.
When somebody writes the human history of Americans, the fact that 25 years from now we will have done most of the following: cure Alzheimer’s, apply stem cells to prevent diabetes, develop approaches that enable most of us to be the weight we want to be, rather than the weight we are, and find a solution for dementia, the fact that 25 years from now we will have done not all of those things, but we will have done most of those things, I think that looms enormously large.
If you look at the price earnings ratio for technology companies relative to the price earnings ratios for all industrial companies, you take that ratio, PE technology divided by PE industrial, you can plot that ratio over the last 40 years, and it is at the lowest point that it’s ever been.
So if you look at the large tech sector, it’s very, very hard to see a bubble. [...] What is true is that the Internet, the last time there was an Internet bubble, was 120 million people dialing up.
The Internet today is two billion people and two billion mobile devices, with wireless connectivity at a far more rapid pace. Today, the businesses have cash flow, which they didn’t ten years ago. So I think it’s a little facile to assume that just because the numbers are big, that it’s obviously a bubble.
There’s a section in which Summers talks about the different styles of the two presidents he’s worked for, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Most interesting.
* * *
And yeah, I’m encouraged by his prediction that 25 years from now, I’ll be the weight I want to be. An exercise regime, in these circumstances, seems short-sighted.
Via Digital Inspiration, I discover that some designers have created a font called the Gandhiji font, inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s round glasses. Here’s what it looks like:
Ironically for something inspired by a man known for his non-violence, I find this to be a violent font. It’s intrusive and actively disturbs me as a reader. Can you imagine reading a paragraph in this font, leave alone a book?
I’d rather see a font inspired by Dolly Parton, actually. That would also be hard to read, but at least it might be somewhat more soothing.
[T]he fact of the matter is that cell phones do cause brain damage. Cell phones cause brain (and body) damage when people use them while driving. Cell phones distract, whether we measure in the lab or on the road, and they distract enough to make cell phone use not all that different from driving under the influence of alcohol (at the illegal level). In marked contrast to the studies on cell phones and brain cancer the studies on cell phones and driving are broadly consistent and suggestive of a small but significant increase in death (your own and that of others). [Links in the original.]
Men are worse at multi-tasking than women, for evolutionary reasons, but it’s certainly true that anyone who speaks on the phone while driving is doing something profoundly stupid. But leave that aside, here’s a thought I have: if speaking on the phone impairs a driver’s facilities in the same way that alcohol does, then would it also be the case that it has the same effect on other activities? Is multi-tasking, thus, as potentially hazardous in the short term as alcohol?
To take just one random activity as an example, would a man having sex while talking on the phone perform as poorly as a very drunk man? This is certainly an experiment worth carrying out, and I encourage you to go for it. In the interests of science.
As families across China begin today’s annual “Qing Ming”, or Tomb-sweeping, festival, there has been a growing chorus of complaint about the price of cemetery plots, some of which now exceed cost of luxury apartments in square foot terms.
“I cannot afford to buy a house while I’m alive and now cannot afford to buy a grave for when I’m dead,” commented one user on the portal dayoo.com hosting a discussion of the subject, while another added bitterly, “So now we cannot sleep peacefully even after we die?”
Yes, I know, we do it best here in India: it’s better to burn out than to fade away.
At 2:28 pm on August 28, 2003, a middle-aged pizza deliveryman named Brian Wells walked into a PNC Bank in Erie, Pennsylvania. He had a short cane in his right hand and a strange bulge under the collar of his T-shirt. Wells, 46 and balding, passed the teller a note. “Gather employees with access codes to vault and work fast to fill bag with $250,000,” it said. “You have only 15 minutes.” Then he lifted his shirt to reveal a heavy, boxlike device dangling from his neck. According to the note, it was a bomb. The teller, who told Wells there was no way to get into the vault at that time, filled a bag with cash—$8,702—and handed it over. Wells walked out, sucking on a Dum Dum lollipop he grabbed from the counter, hopped into his car, and drove off. He didn’t get far. Some 15 minutes later, state troopers spotted Wells standing outside his Geo Metro in a nearby parking lot, surrounded him, and tossed him to the pavement, cuffing his hands behind his back.
Wells told the troopers that while out on a delivery he had been accosted by a group of black men who chained the bomb around his neck at gunpoint and forced him to rob the bank. “It’s gonna go off!” he told them in desperation. “I’m not lying.” The officers called the bomb squad and took positions behind their cars, guns drawn. TV camera crews arrived and began filming. For 25 minutes Wells remained seated on the pavement, his legs curled beneath him.
“Did you call my boss?” Wells asked a trooper at one point, apparently concerned that his employer would think he was shirking his duties. Suddenly, the device started to emit an accelerating beeping noise. Wells fidgeted. It looked like he was trying to scoot backward, to somehow escape the bomb strapped to his neck. Beep… Beep… Beep. Boom! The device detonated, blasting him violently onto his back and ripping a 5-inch gash in his chest. The pizza deliveryman took a few last gasps and died on the pavement.
This is just the beginning of a complex case where all the details haven’t yet been resolved. But what a story it is. Just the start, these first three paras, can be the basis for a gripping film or novel: a metaphysical thriller where the collar bomb could stand for much more than just a collar bomb. I wonder what some of Bollywood’s new directors would make of it.
Of course, in the film our pizza deliveryman wouldn’t die so soon, but would struggle against time and circumstance, as we all do. And that’s the story.
… have been announced. It’s a solid line-up, and I’ll be looking forward to the talks by Antonio Damasio, David Brooks, Anthony Atala, Ed Boyden and especially Roger Ebert, who has reinvented himself so magnificently on Twitter. And ah, there’s also Salman Khan—not the Bollywood actor, but the entrepreneur who created the wonderful Khan Academy. It should be quite something.
* * *
Aside: If the Bollywood Salman Khan was ever invited to TED to give a shirtless speech, what do you think he’d talk about?
A few years ago, I made to decision to never work in a company again. I struck out on my own, did much blogging and column-writing, wrote my first novel, and started playing poker seriously. And while I occasionally felt the inevitable loneliness that comes from working alone, from the writing life, I never regretted the decision or considered going back to a regular job. Being my own master was an awesome luxury, and the tradeoffs were worth it.
One of the factors in my decision was the nature of companies. The skills you need to succeed within a corporation are actually quite different from the ones that you need to excel at whatever you’ve been hired to do. William Deresiewicz expresses it perfectly in this wonderful essay on solitude and leadership:
That’s really the great mystery about bureaucracies. Why is it so often that the best people are stuck in the middle and the people who are running things—the leaders—are the mediocrities? Because excellence isn’t usually what gets you up the greasy pole. What gets you up is a talent for maneuvering. Kissing up to the people above you, kicking down to the people below you. Pleasing your teachers, pleasing your superiors, picking a powerful mentor and riding his coattails until it’s time to stab him in the back. Jumping through hoops. Getting along by going along.
You, reading this: I presume you have a job and work in a company somewhere. Do you agree with this?
* * *
Besides this, I found that I was much more productive while working on my own than in a company environment. Maybe it’s just me, but I found that in a normal office day, I might be at work for 10 hours, but within that period I’d only actually work for a total of maybe one. The rest of the time would go surfing, faffing, idling, day-dreaming, gossiping and other such ings. When I am by myself, on the other hand, I may idle all day, but when I work, I work. It may only be for an hour, but at least I don’t waste nine more in a pretense of work, in an elaborate charade that benefits no one.
Still, that’s just me, and I speak of my experience in television (in the last millennium) and journalism (in this one), and I’m sure there are other corporate environments which are more productive. But Deresiewicz’s observation about the greasy pole, I suspect, holds true for them all. That’s the nature of the beast.
* * *
I discovered Deresiewicz’s essay via David Brooks’s Sydney Awards. There are many more gems there, check them out: 1, 2.
The reason for this is that in much of the northern hemisphere, the prevailing winds are westerlies – blowing from west to east. The massive, unchecked pollution from these early industries would therefore drift eastward, making the air quality much lower in the east end of cities, lowering the desirability (and price) of the housing. Middle classes preferred the cleaner west ends.
This is certainly one possible factor for why rents in the Western suburbs of Bombay are so much higher than those in the East. (Compare Andheri West and Andheri East, or Bandra West and Bandra East.) But I’m sure there are other, specific local factors as well. What do you think those are?
From Shane Warne to PSR Anjaneyulu (allegedly), the sending of lewd SMSs is a common complaint against many high-profile men, especially those intoxicated by power. Now, here are two contradictory notions I am wrestling with:
1. Most women are turned off by lewd SMSs.
2. No rational man would indulge in an act again and again unless it paid off at least some of the time, thus compensating for the many times it didn’t.
I have never sent a lewd SMS in my life, and thus have a sample size of zero to attempt to resolve this from personal experience. So I wonder: Are lewd SMSes positive EV? Or, in non poker terms, do lewd SMSs work often enough to justify their downside?
My theory is that sending a lewd SMS in either like surfing porn—gratification from a distance, without the slightest chance of actual contact—or a form of release, and that a man doesn’t need to find takers for his lewd SMSes to keep sending them. It is also possible that a lewd SMS would work with women already interested in you. But then, any SMS would work with those women. If you send a lewd one, though, and the woman responds, you could mistake correlation for causation. Maybe that’s why…
The whole point of acronyms is that they make stuff easier to say or write. I was reminded of this the other day during an online conversation when a friend typed: ‘ROTFLAOM.’ ‘I mean, ROTFLMOA.’ ‘Wait, ROTFLMAO.’
At that point it struck me that many internet acronyms are popular not because of functionality and ease of use, but because of the coolness factor. You feel cool using them. That said, imagine using them in the real world. Like, you’re hanging out with friends at a cafe and you ask, ‘Hey, where’s Rajeev, wasn’t Rajeev supposed to be here?’ and Ramona pipes up, ‘Rajeev’s stuck in traffic in Mahim. I told him to come via the Worli Sea link, but he said that’s a symbol of unbridled capitalism, so he took the Mahim route instead, and he’s still stuck there.’ At which you point you laugh and say, ‘Dude, R.O.T.F.L.M.A.O!’
Now, that would be ROFL, at the very least, if not MAO too. No?
I misread this headline, and thought that the IPL authorities are talking with Iran about a feeder system for young Iranian cricketers. Wouldn’t that have totally outdone anything Lalit Modi has done in the past?
I’m attending TEDx Mumbai today, and will try liveblogging from the audience. All my updates will appear as entries in this post itself, so to see my latest update, just refresh.
6.09: It’s been a great day at TEDx Mumbai, and Parmesh Shahani, Ajay Hattangadi, Netra Parikh and the other organisers have done a wonderful job of putting it together. The production was slick, there were no screw-ups, and the speakers were worth it. Sure, not all talks were good, and some were crap. But, as I said in my first post this morning, that is inevitable. If some of the talks kick ass, that’s reward enough.
And some of them did more than kick ass. Dhanashree Pandit Rai, Ganesh Devy and Steven Baker gave talks that are worthy of being on TED.com—and the ratio of good talks to bad talks was probably better than TED India Mysore.
Also, I didn’t nap at all today. That says it all!
6.02pm Cara Eastcott is last, and launches into a performance poem that I don’t connect with all—and the audience also looks a bit bewildered. She rhymes ‘lie’ with ‘try’ with ‘fly’ and I’m thinking, ‘Why?’ Time to work on the wrap.
5.58pm: Matias Echanove and Rahul Srivastava are next. An urban planner and urban anthropologist respectively, their talk is about Dharavi—and slums in general. They talk about how it is a misconception that the “Planet of Slums” can be converted into “Highrise Planet”. Rahul says, “We talk about growing vertical because we absorb more people.” But there are other ways of absorbing people—and their talk is about some of the alternate solutions they have.
Koliwada: Matias talks about how when friends from Europe visit this so-called slum, they love it, and feel that it is an urban village—“like Florence!” Koliwada, Rahul explains, “is anachronistic to the idea of Mumbai as an urban space. [...] The word slum is too generic.”
Then they move on to Dharavi. “Land in Dharavi is used in a very special way,” says Rahul. “Many people who don’t have resources, when they find a spot of land, they use it in complex ways.” He shows a slide with a typical toolhouse, with separate images depicting its component functions: “for sleeping, living, working, storing,” This messy structure of Dharavi, he says,"has an internal logic to it. Rural areas prior to the industrial revolution were sites of production.” Such multi-purposed toolhouses were common—and social and cultural life formed itself around it.
Matias talks about toolhouses some more—but in Post-War Tokyo now. And it’s the same. What is Tokyo like today then? It’s a modern city, with high standards of living. It has a vibrant local life, and has developed “incrementally” from the same kind of structures that Dharavi contains today. Indeed, all this developed without the kind of conventional urban planning—zoning etc—that our planners believe in today.
They end with a photograph of a narrow road that they ask us to identify. Some people makes guesses—Mumbai, Bangkok, Tokyo. Well, it’s been photoshopped: the left side is Dharavi—and the right is Tokyo. And instantly you see the similarities.
It’s a worthy talk, though the Powerpoint slides are too cluttered, and I don’t think Matias and Rahul were quite lucid about the overall point they were making. (In general, I guess their point was that organic growth is good and does not stand in the way of development.) Anyway, here’s their website, check out their work for yourself.
5.33pm: The transgendered Lakshmi Tripathi comes on next, resplendent in a graceful silk saree, and tells us about how her journey towards social acceptance made her stronger. “I’ve become like a duck,” she says, “You pour the water on me, it just goes away.”
She begins with her confused childhood. “People used to call me homo—and I didn’t know what homo meant! The only homosexual available in this country was Ashok Row Kavi. So I told my friend to take me to Maheshwari Garden, the Mecca and Medina of homosexual people.” She met Kavi, and told him that she felt abnormal because she was attracted to men’s crotches. Kavi gave her a great answer: “Baby, you’re normal, the world around you is abnormal.”
Lakhsmi embraced her sexuality, and among other things, started learning dance. Her family, “orthodox, Eastern UP Tripathis”, did not get it. Boys don’t dance—and they thought that it was her dancing that was responsible for her sexuality.
She hated hijras—and used to berate them for what they were. They would abuse her as well, unable to figure out what exactly she was. But later, a friend of hers explained to her that male and female were artificial distinctions, and hijras were neither. ("Even the men sitting in this room, is how much men, is a question mark” she says, and everyone laughs.) She identified with that and decided that she wanted to be a hijra—and became “The first hijra in Mumbai’s hijrotic culture.”
“I always wanted to be a courtesan,” she says. “Agar main aurat rehti, tho main India ki sabse badi tawaaif rehti.” So she went and danced in dance bars. As time passed, she ended up forming South Asia’s first transgender association, performing roles as diverse as president and peon. She also hired other hijras to work with her, “disproving the myth that hijras cannot work in an office culture.”
Then the UN got in touch with her and asked her to be part of a taskforce. They gave her a G4 visa—she thought it was “a gay visa.” When she went to the US, she was breezed in through customs and immigration while others waited. ‘Wow,” she thought, “gays have such special rights in the US.”
The next day, she went and saw her flag in the UN building, fluttering among all the others, and thought of how far she had come despite her sexuality.
She ends by pointing out that none of us will ever consider hiring a hijra as a cook or maid in our house. The thought then strikes me: All of us applauding her today, and applauding ourselves for being so liberal—how progressive are we really?
5.07pm: The final session at TEDx Mumbai begins with Zubin Pastakia, a Mumbai-based photographer and urban researcher. He speaks about The Cinemas Project, which “visually traces the lives of Bombay’s disappearing single-screen cinema halls.” The aspect that the project focusses on is not the grand, architectural aspects, but the everyday and commonplace.
His project isn’t nostalgic, though. “The problem of nostalgia,” he explains, “is that it debilitates you, and limits your way of thinking.” He explored these halls as “cultural experiences of space,” distinct from modern multiplexes, neatly demarcated, with clinical efficiency, into rationally ordered, functional zones.
The photographs rolling on the slideshow do a good job of capturing some of the multiple aspects of these theatres. “Something as simple as a projection room,” he explains, “becomes a place of dwelling, a workplace, a sort of shrine.”
Zubin is a nervous speaker, and after an intro to his work, he actually stops and says he’ll let his pictures, still rolling on the screen, do the talking. And they do. (You can see some of them here.) This isn’t one of those presentations that blows you away—but in a quiet way, it leaves its mark.
3.55pm: What a beautiful talk by Dhanashree Pandit Rai. She is a Hindustani Classical musician, and her talk aims to make the form explicable to us. She begins by singing a Nescafe jingle straight up—and then gives us a Hindustani interpretation of it. Spontaneous applause. She then sings a bit of a bhajan as Kishori Amonkar would sing it—and then an interpretation of it by French Baroque musicians, as they’d actually done in the 1980s. She sings a bit of Tchaikovsky—and then does it in Hindustani style, turning it into the Raga Madhuvanti. Masterful.
“If the seven notes are common all over the world,” she says, “then why is that something sounds Japanese, Indian, Western?” The difference, of course, is in what we do with those seven notes, and she shows us some of the conventions of Hindustani classical music: Khatka, Murki, Zamzama (clusters of Murkis) Andolan, Aalap, Taan. She then sings “Summertime” in Hindustani style, using some of these conventions—and it isn’t gimmicky at all. The audience is spellbound.
Rai then sets out to demystify the Raga, which she defines as “a recognisable tune with a fixed set of notes.” She teaches us how to impress laymen by recognising a Raga as we hear it—the typical marriage shehnai tune, which she sings for us, is Raga Malkauns. “Vande Mataram” is Raga Des. “Dhoom Macha Le” is Raga Bhairavi. The Kingfisher jingle, “Norwegian Wood”, “Jhalak Dikhla Ja”: she identifies them all.
She ends with a song for the monsoon, Hindustani style. Another standing ovation, well deserved.
3.27pm: Ganesh Devy delivers a kickass talk on how language evolves. Unlike previous speakers today, he uses Powerpoint really well—many slides, like the one in the picture below, have just one word on it. They stay minimal, to the point, and that much more powerful because of it. His talk isn’t dramatic, but he holds everyone’s attention, and at one point everyone bursts into laughter when he speaks of the Mahabharata coming down to us by an oral tradition: “Everybody in India knows the Mahabharata because no one reads.”
Later he says, “96% of Indians speak 4% of languages, and 4% of Indians speak 96% of languages.” At the time of independence, he says, the figure was 46%, not 4%. This loss of languages is a loss of historical knowledge. “If a democracy means respect for diversity,” he says, “then will a democracy be able to exist by killing diversity? [...] We are creating a graveyard of mother tongues.”
Devy’s last slide reads, “Every language is a unique world view.” Some of us give him a standing ovation. This was the best talk of the day, and TEDx Mumbai has been worth it just for this.
3.04pm: Am I at TEDx or a ninth standard geography class? Nisha Yadav gives a talk on writing systems of the Indus Valley Civilisation that is accompanied by a boring Powerpoint presentation with masses of text, tables, graphs and pictures of seals etc. Yadav is part of a team that’s been working on deciphering the Indus Valley script, and the subject matter is massively fascinating. There’s a compelling story to tell here—but Yadav does not have the skills for it.
The organisers of TEDx Mumbai this have done an awesome job—the event has run like clockwork, with no glitches at all. But I wish they’d briefed the speakers better on what TED (and TEDx) talks are like—and maybe gone through their material with them, helping them structure it into a good presentation. Yadav has probably never given a talk at an event like this, and it’s a bit unfair to expect better of her.
That said, nothing excuses sentences like this one: “We compare the conditional entropy of Indus sign system with other linguistic and non-linguistic systems.” Yes, exactly.
I just cast my eyes through the audience, and six people are sleeping, including a Facebook friend I won’t name here. It’s not just the lunch.
2.43pm: Laxmi Pratury, the host and curator of TED India in Mysore last year, gives a speech where she speaks about TED’s plans for hosting and supporting further events like this in India. We want to help create “billionaires of moments”, she says—which is a good way to put it. Every TED conference gives us a few moments we’ll always remember, that enrich us in some way. The more such events we participate in, the closer we get to being billionaires.
Going by some of the feedback I’m getting from around me, though, TEDx Mumbai is small change. Ah well…
2.27pm: QOTD from Supriya Nair: “I have heard that the tart is a significant improvement on the mousse.”
There you go then.
2.18pm: Lunch was good. Now comes the hard part of these conventions: staying awake. This is the most challenging session for both the speakers and the audience, who have the same aim: of keeping the latter from nodding off. My talk at TEDx Roorkee was in the afternoon, and I was massively sleepy when my turn came, and had a headache as well. But I got through it okay: no one fell asleep in the audience, and a couple of sincere students actually took notes.
Or maybe they were liveblogging?
1.04pm: Steven Baker is next, and the theme of his talk is: “My Journey as a Bollywood Extra.” He’s acted in films like Dostana, Jaanemann, Gangster, Salaam-e-Ishq—“very big films with very small parts”. He also tells us about B-grade films he’s acted in like Iqrar: By Chance: “I knew it wasn’t going to be a box-office hit; I was doing three roles in it.”
Steven tells us about the “underworld in Colaba”, which specialises in “trade in bollywood extras.” He elaborates: “As a white foreigner, all you have to do is step out of your hotel, and an agent will come up to you and say, Hey, you want to be in the movies?”
The rest of his talk is about the journey that then begins. He speaks about the “Bollywood caste system”—in which gora extras are at the bottom—and shares hazaar anecdotes with us—such as when a fellow gora extra went up to a spot boy and asked for “one garam chai.” It turned out to be Johny Lever.
Baker is crisp, self-deprecating and hysterically funny. I hope this video makes it to TED.com. (Only the rare TEDx video does, as far as I know.) It’s great fun, and redeems this session entirely.
Update (1.06pm): My neighbour in the Blue Frog booth, Peter Griffin, disagrees with my views on Steven’s talk. “Where was the idea?” he says. “It was entertaining, but it wasn’t TED.” That’s a point, I guess.
12.42pm: The next speaker is a gentleman named Kishor Rithe, and his subject is “Saving Tigers=Saving People.” Hmm. The best article I’ve read on this subject is ‘Sell the Tiger to Save it’ by Barun Mitra. Somehow, I think Rithe will have a different perspective on this.
Straight up, he launches into Powerpoint slides with masses of text on each, hazaar points and all that. It feels like I’m in a college lecture again. This is the first such talk today, and I’m surprised it took so long. In such events, a big percentage of the talks (mis)use Powerpoint to put everyone to sleep. Powerpoint is an astonishingly strong storytelling device, but you need to know how to use it. (Cue: Steve Jobs and Duarte.) The way Rithe is using it, it is a distraction—is the audience going to read all that text or listen to him? Also, it’s numbing.
Half the presentation gives us facts about tigers in India; the other half is self-promotional: about how much Rithe does to protect tigers in India, in generic terms ("I started replicating successful conservation models") rather than specific, which would have been much more interesting. All in all, bo-ring.
12.21pm: The first speaker of the second session is V Raghunathan, who is speaking about “why we behave the way we do.” He wrote the book Games Indians Play, in which he used a game-theoretic framework to explain the behaviour of Indians. I enjoyed reading it, even if it didn’t contain anything new for me.
He starts his speech here explaining the Prisoner’s Dilemma at length. Isn’t that a bit too basic for a TEDx audience? After five minutes of this, he moves on to examples from everyday life to describe how Indians are “privately smart, publicly dumb.” “Low trustworthiness is one aspect of us as a people,” he says. His slides contain cartoons, two which have in small print below: “source: internet” and “source: internet images.” Ah well.
I’m glad his slides have cartoons and not masses of text, though. It’s easy on the eye, and he speaks well, moving into Hindi once in a while as he tells his stories. He’s taught MBA students for 20 years now, and public speaking clearly comes easy to him. Everyone can relate to the stuff he talks about (how we redistribute garbage instead of clearing it, for example, which might explain why my room is always messy), and the audience laughs at all his jokes. Overall, it’s a worthy talk. I’m not sleepy yet.
11.59am: Session 2 begins with a presentation by the designer of cleartrip.com on a new product/feature they’re building. WTF? This is a talk you give to VCs or to your boss. What on earth is it doing at TEDx? I understand that Cleartrip has sponsored this event, but this really should not be part of the main event itself.
For what it’s worth, I use Make My Trip for my airline bookings. I will continue doing so. This is most tasteless—and rude to all the people here, whose time is surely worth more than this.
On a positive note, I’ve bumped into old buddies Dina Mehta and Peter Griffin here, and am now with them in a small, cosy booth at the back. Dina tweeted a picture from the first session; follow the red arrow to see me.
11.18am: Anupam Kher is next. I have mixed feelings about him. On one hand, he is unquestionably a great actor. On the other, he has been head of the censor board in India, and has spoken in favour of censorship, and thus, by default, against freedom of expression. But you shouldn’t judge an artist’s work by his political views, and I push them to the side as I watch the talk.
His introduction seems a bit long—and soon I realise with horror that his introduction is the speech. He starts by telling stories from his childhood—and goes on telling one disconnected story after another. After about ten minutes of this, he gets to the central theme of his talk: Dreaming. But he goes on telling stories about his younger days until Ajay tells him that he has three minutes left. “But I’ve just started,” he complains. He then quickly sums it up by saying that failure is important for success. Stunningly original insight, eh?
The crowd loves it, because he’s been funny and disarming throughout, but a week later no one here will remember what this speech was about. That’s a pity. If he’d scripted and timed his talk, it could have been a cracker.
10.56am: The next speakers are the double act of Danny Carroll and Anju Venkat. They walk on stage together and Danny says that the subject of their talk is: ‘How you can reverse terminal cancer using just diet.’ I’ve lost relatives and friends to cancer, and this seems immensely dubious to me. If only Ben Goldacre was here.
Carroll shows us a brief sales film that feels like one of those teleshopping clips you see on some channels at 1am, selling you the belt that makes you lose 10kgs in a week and suchlike.
After that, Venkat gives a speech that feels like it’s in Deepak Chopra territory. The living force in a blade of grass and all that. This is pseudo-scientific bullshit. I’m amazed that TEDx called these people here. Much WTFness.
If I remember correctly, Goldacre, in his superb book Bad Science, described such crap as “cargo-cult science”, which he has described in another context thus: “The form is superficially right, the superscript numbers are there, the technical words are scattered about, she talks about research and trials and findings, but the substance is lacking.” Quite.
10.21am: The first session begins. It’s called ‘Hopes and Dreams’, and Viren Rasquinha delivers the first talk. He’s a bit nervous, but he makes a couple of wisecracks and gets into his flow easily enough. He speaks of how he was inspired by Leander Paes’s Olympic bronze medal in 1996 (which he wrongly describes as India’s first solo Olympic medal, but never mind that.)
Every TED Speaker should speak about something they’re passionate about—not just something they have knowledge of—and Viren qualifies here. He forgets his self-concsiousness as he starts talking about his pain that India wins so few gold medals. In 2008, he points out, India won one medal while puny Belarus won four. Then he takes us through some inspiring stories of current sportspeople who are fighting the odds.
After that, the talk lapses into corporate presentation as he speaks about his company, Olympic Gold Quest. The text-laden powerpoint slides come on as he breaks up the costs of creating an Olympic medalist. He says that if a million Indians pay Rs 10 a month, that would fund 600 athletes towards Olympic achievement. Ah well. Transaction costs. But where are the Narayan Murthys and Vijay Mallyas, I wonder.
The applause is clearly genuine as Viren ends. The audience likes him and is rooting for him—and by doing so, needless to say, it’s rooting for itself.
9.58am: Ajay Hattangadi, one of the organisers, gives a brief, eloquent introduction to the event in which he refers to the Bombay Gym incident and says that he sees TEDx as being “a nursery for new ideas.” In particular, “ideas that need to be defended.” Well said.
9.54am: Supriya Nair, my neighbour at the Blue Frog booth where I’ve parked myself, tells me a disturbing story. Last night the TEDx speakers went for dinner to Bombay Gym. At about 11pm, a member of the staff came and told them that one of the speakers, the transgendered Lakshmi Tripathi, had to leave. Apparently she was making some of the Bombay Gym members uncomfortable.
Just for this, I hope the Shiv Sena asks them to rename their establishment to Mumbai Vyayaamshaala.
9.31am: We really must stop meeting like this. This is my second TEDx event in two weeks—I was at TEDx Roorkee on March 27, where I was one of the speakers. That event was organised by a bunch of students at IIT Roorkee, the audience consisted of a handful of their fellow students, and there were (understandable) glitches through the day. This one seems somewhat more professional. To begin with, everyone wears badges, the screen is bigger, and there’s internet.
The purpose of an event like this is twofold: you get to listen to some interesting talks; and you meet interesting people. I was at TED India in Mysore earlier this year as a TED Fellow, and much of both happened. (My report of that event is here.)But it’s unfair to hold that up as a standard for a TEDx event, which is organised at a local scale with far fewer resources.
The schedule for today’s event looks interesting. The thing about curating an event like this is that you never really know what will work. You could invite someone otherwise kickass, and he could deliver a really boring talk. Or you could call someone no one’s heard of who ends up rocking the house—as Sunitha Krishnan did at TED India. The most one can expect is that some of the talks turn out to be interesting. All of them certainly won’t.
Okay, time for me to go get some coffee. Staying awake at these events is sometimes a challenge…
Harsha Bhogle tweeted that this story would leave us with a lump in our throats, and it certainly did that for me. It’s about Bob Blair, a 21-year-old New Zealander in 1953, who was on tour with his national side in South Africa when he got news that his fiancee, Nerissa, had died in an accident. He couldn’t go back, because “overseas air travel was a thing of the future, and the boat trip took 28 days.” He’d never have made it in time for her funeral.
The story is about a heroic innings Blair played in the midst of his grief, but that’s not the part that got me. Instead, I was struck by this:
To make matters worse during the tour of 1953-54, letters that Nerissa had written to Blair before her death would continue to arrive at the team hotel for weeks afterwards.
Imagine that. If you were in his place, could you have read those letters?
Resentment is allowing someone to live rent-free in a room in your head.
You might say that the whole world lives rent-free in our heads—but in the daily-activity room, where we sit everyday, we choose who gets to sit with us. We choose whether it’s sunny or cloudy, whether we’re happy or pissed off. So the next time you’re in a bad mood, look around that room: there’s a guest there you need to eject.
Ebert’s post, by the way, was a reaction to the moving feature on him by Chris Jones in Esquire. (Both links via email from Peter.)
And yes, if I get bored of being a novelist, I can always turn to writing self-help books. With the help of an elegant polyster robe, a PR firm, and a few days of not shaving, I could even become a Godman. I can see myself gathering my disciples one day and saying, ‘The day has come, shishyo. The day has come for me to take you, once and for all, to Nirvana!’
‘Yes, guruji, yes,’ they shout, excited. A few of the women start moaning, rapturously remembering the private lessons I have previously imparted. I walk over to the side table. ‘Are you ready?’ I ask. ‘Are you ready for Nirvana?’
‘Yes, Guruji,’ they say. ‘Nirvana! Nirvana!’
I press the ‘play’ button on my iPod. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” starts to play. Happiness flows into the inner room.
Update: Arun Simha writes in to point out that Ebert’s quote is a variant of the line in this piece:
Ali has been living rent free in Frazier’s head for more than 25 years…
That’s not Ebert or even the author of the Ali-Frazier piece; it’s an old classic from the Alcoholics Anonymous lexicon. (Ebert’s written about his drinking and recovery years on his blog.)
Stephen King referenced it in one of his interviews about his sobriety journey, Clapton used the line in some of his post-sobriety interviews and it’s been kicking around The Rooms since the time of Bill W and Dr Bob.
I guess Ebert kept the quote rent-free in his head, then. And why not? It’s a good one to hang on the wall.
Semen is not only nutritious, but it also has a wonderful texture and amazing cooking properties. Like fine wine and cheeses, the taste of semen is complex and dynamic. Semen is inexpensive to produce and is commonly available in many, if not most, homes and restaurants. Despite all of these positive qualities, semen remains neglected as a food.
Deepthi thought I might find this WTF, but having never tasted semen, that is clearly a matter I can’t comment on. It might be an acquired taste for many straight women and gay men, and I certainly wouldn’t want to pass judgement on that. Also, if this turns out to be a semenal moment in culinary history and semen becomes a popular ingredient, it might prove to be a valuable diversion for young men’s energies, and crime rates might dip. The positive externalities of wanking, and all that. The possibilities are endless.
Before you sully your mind by thinking of jokes related to semen cuisine, let me get this out of the way. Man sits at home by his phone, tapping his fingers, getting really angry. Finally he picks up the phone and pressed ‘redial’. The phone rings, and someone picks it up.
‘Hello, this is Urban Tadka, how may I help you?’
‘Dude, I ordered a semen biriyani from your restaurant one hour ago. It’s still not here. How long will it take?’
‘Not very long, sir,’ the guy at the other end says. ‘I’m just coming.’
The world seems to be split into roughly three different types of people: Those who have a passion for nothing, those who have a passion for one thing and those who have a passion for everything. This way of categorizing is not to cast a value judgement onto any particular group. My informal observation is that aspects such as intelligence, courage, moral fibre and wisdom seem roughly evenly distributed across all three of these groups although it may initially not seem that way. It’s always difficult trying to describe a group with an insider’s perspective if you’re not an insider but I’m going to give it a try… [link]
I think I fall in the second category: I have a passion for “multiple ‘one things’”. Two of them are story-telling and poker, and my passion for both could be considered, quite simply, a passion for understanding human nature. And that is so all-encompassing that maybe I fall in the third category. Whatever.
The line of the day, which I want to see on a t-shirt before I die, comes from the great Mahinder Watsa:
Why have a walking stick if your own penis can oblige!
I especially love the touch of having the exclamation mark at the end of the rhetorical question. Immense panache. The quote is from here, and is part of a recent development in Watsa’s writing—he’s actually beginning to indulge in wisecracks. Consider his crack here about how he thought only frogs were green—or his advice here to “eat any vegetable you like best and with every bite think a sexual thought.”
The questions, of course, are as clueless as ever. Still, we’re over a billion people strong, and the stork sure didn’t bring them.
Ouch. Did I just write, “Consider his crack here...?” Somebody hit me.
And imagine being the only human in a country full of hippos. I can see you in a cage in a zoo, mournfully contemplating what might have been if humans were the dominant species, when the zookeeper hippo and his hippo girlfriend put on some music and start dancing outside your cage.
Understanding measures of arousal is paramount to further theoretical and practical advances in the study of human sexuality. Our results have implications for the assessment of sexual arousal, the nature of gender differences in sexual arousal, and models of sexual response.
I guess boring wins. I wonder what academics do on vacation.
Michael Crichton has an engrossing piece up in Playboy on how to win domestic fights. He writes:
Here’s what I don’t understand. If you were going to spend your life in physical battles — bar fights, or boxing matches, or whatever — you would almost certainly get some instruction. You might hire a coach, do a little training. At the very least you would learn the fundamentals: how to punch, and so on. Such instruction would make sense to you.
But the same people who feel the need for instruction in boxing will instantly join in a verbal domestic argument without a moment’s thought about what they are doing, let alone any real training.
Yet verbal fighting, like physical fighting, is a skill. Domestic fighting can be learned. One can become very good at it — although almost nobody is, because almost nobody thinks it’s necessary to learn this skill. Many men don’t bother because they erroneously believe that women are more verbally skilled and emotionally nimble than they are. But whatever the reason, most men just jump into a domestic fight, adopting the fighting style of their fathers, or various people they’ve seen on television.
If this method has been working for you, then you don’t need this article. But if you find you are coming off badly in your fights — if you are uncomfortable fighting — if you avoid fights, or dread them — if you are afraid of seriously hurting your opponent — then you better read on. Because you need to get a little balance. Do a little roadwork. Build up your wind. Work on your mental attitude.
And above all, learn to win.
If you’re a man, I recommend you read the full piece. If you’re a woman, um, please don’t. You guys already whip us at this every time, and don’t need any instruction. Go shopping or something.
A rather bizarre study carried out by German researchers suggests that staring at women’s breasts is good for men’s health and increases their life expectancy.
According to Dr. Karen Weatherby, a gerontologist and author of the study, gawking at women’s breasts is a healthy practice, almost at par with an intense exercise regime, that prolongs the lifespan of a man by five years.
She added, “Just 10 minutes of staring at the charms of a well-endowed female, is roughly equivalent to a 30-minute aerobics work-out.”
Yes, that comma has no place in that last sentence—but hell, which man wouldn’t pause after a thought like that. Indeed, I am so inspired by the mere thought of staring at boobs for good health that I now offer you, with apologies to William Blake, a little ditty:
Boobs, Boobs by Amit Varma
Boobs, boobs, so upright
In the forests of the night,
What masculine hand or eye
Could resist thy fearful symmetry?
Forget the distant deeps and thighs
Forget the lustre of the eyes
Your thought alone makes men perspire
What the hand dare seize the fire?
And what shoulder and what art
Under the choli is thy heart
And when thy heart begins to beat,
Your bosom heaves, I feel complete.
Boobs, boobs, so upright
In the forests of the night,
I come to thee, I come to thee
I’ll tear thy bra and set thee free.
If you go to Vile Parle station, you will come across the following sign stuck between two ticket windows:
There is much to admire here, but I am particularly intrigued by “mobile bill queries.” Imagine the following scenario: A wife notices a suspicious number on her husband’s mobile bill. She hands it over to Prakash and Sunil to investigate who the number belongs to. Prakash delegates the job to Sunil, who calls up the number and says, ‘Madam, you have won a free Videocon Washing Machine! Please give me your name and address and I shall send it to you.’ The name and address is duly handed over to the client, who discovers that hubby dearest has been surreptitiously calling his mother.
One week later, the mother calls up Sunil and says, ‘Ok, where the fug is my washing machine? I fired the maid because you told me I’d get a free washing machine.’
The maid, meanwhile, is sitting with Prakash in a seedy cafe. She asks him, ‘Do you mean everything you say, my love? Can I really trust you?’ Prakash smiles. ‘Of course I do, dear. Why don’t you hire a private detective to find out all about me. He he he.’
(Picture via Mudra Mehta, who graciously blanked out Prakash and Sunil’s numbers so that they aren’t swamped with queries. You lot are a sordid bunch, I know.)
The second argument is more interesting. It suggests that we are hard-wired to seek out Big Men (or Women) and copy them. Think about the hunter-gatherer tribes that we lived in a few minutes ago (in evolutionary terms). Those ancestors of ours who identified the most powerful or abundant people in their group, worked their way into their entourage, and imitated their ways were obviously more likely to survive. Seeking out celebs had an evolutionary advantage – so they passed this instinct on to us. The people who thought it was dumb to act this way dropped off the human family tree.
This is ultimate causation, of course, not proximate causation. No one actually thinks that copying Kamal R Khan or Rakhi Sawant will help them in any way. But the instinct that draws us towards such celebs was shaped, in prehistoric times, by the evolutionary advantage it bestowed. This would also explain the existence of groupies: if you’re drawn to the fittest man in the tribe, you’re likelier to end up with kids that have the same genes that took him to the top—as well as those that drew you to him in the first place.
This also explains why a show like Bigg Boss is so damn popular. Sure, as a character argued in My Friend Sancho, it lays bare the human condition and all that—but also, by showing celebrities in their unguarded moments, it takes us closer to them than we would ever get in real life.
Celebrity, thus, is a virtue by itself. And it’s self-propagating—if you get minutes of fame for something or the other, you’re quite likely to get two more minutes because of the first five, and so on. You could end up, as the saying goes, famous for being famous. Such it goes.
The London Telegraph has a list of “10 of the most important” immutable laws of the internet. Some, like Godwin’s Law, we all know about. Check out the rest—if you’ve ever engaged in online discussions, you’d surely have come across them all.
I particularly liked Poe’s Law:
Without a winking smiley or other blatant display of humour, it is impossible to create a parody of fundamentalism that someone won’t mistake for the real thing.
I’ve long believed that Indians are irony deficient, but perhaps I was being unfair—maybe it holds for everyone. The earliest example of satire being mistaken for the real thing that I can think of came from Ireland, after all: Jonathan Swift‘s awesome essay, “A Modest Proposal.”
I’ve often made the point that parenthood is a massive responsibility, and way too many people become parents before they’re ready for it. Well, here are a few things that validate that belief:
Exhibit one: A Shiv Sainik named Kailash Patil had named his kids Uddhav and Raj after the now-warring Thackerays. Well, Patil is now pissed at the party because they denied a ticket to the candidate he supported. So is is renaming his son Uddhav to Anand. Who knows, if he later ends up in the Congress, he might change Anand’s name to Rahul. Imagine what all this does to the poor kid.
Exhibit two: An Australian baby of Indian origin gets eczema. Her dad, Thomas Sam, happens to be “a college lecturer in homoeopathy.” No doubt driven by hubris and dogma, he insists on treating her with homeopathy alone. Her condition becomes worse, and turns into a “severe skin disorder.” Her father refuses to change course. The girl dies. The parents are arrested—and I recommend that instead of getting a lawyer for themselves, they take Phos1M or Arsenic Iod. Anyway, what’s the point of my sarcasm now? The kid is dead.
Exhibit three: I’ve blogged about this before, but today was the first episode of Pati, Patni aur Woh, so I was reminded of it. What kind of parents would rent their babies out to a television channel? How can they live with themselves after doing that? What will their kids feel about it when they grow older? I’m baffled. Normally I’m a sucker for reality shows—but this one’s just a bit too bizarre.
On the subject of mass protests, the world’s most famous community organizer has this to say:
I was always a big believer in - when I was doing organizing before I went to law school - that focusing on concrete, local, immediate issues that have an impact on people’s lives is what really makes a difference and that having protests about abstractions [such] as global capitalism or something, generally, is not really going to make much of a difference.
I’d say that applies to candlelight vigils and online petitions as well, two forms of protest that more and more urban, middle-class Indians seem to be taking to. In general, they’re useful only as far as they make the participants feel good about themselves—and give randy young men a chance to hook up with pretty Leftist chicas. Apart from that, if you really want to be useful, get the municipal corporation to clear up the garbage outside your housing society. I doubt lighting candles will achieve that.
An example of an online petition that does address a specific local issue is Vishal Dadlani’s petition against the new Shivaji statue. The petition states that the statue, “estimated to cost Rs.350 crores, is an unnecessary expense for the exchequer of the Government of Maharashtra.” This is a very good reason, but I’m sure that Ashok Chavan, our chief minister, travels economy class, just as his boss Sonia Gandhi does. Honestly, that’s all the austerity you can expect from them.
The age-old battle now finds a fertile battlefield, where both man and cockroach can be captive for up to 10 minutes at a time—Mumbai’s local trains. Mumbai Mirror has a story on how commuters have started carrying insecticide with them to battle them pests. I particularly enjoyed this quote in the piece, from a chap named Amit Khosla:
While travelling on a Kalyan-CST local, I saw that somebody had stuck a piece of bread inside the light fittings. Several cockroaches were trying to get to it and, in the bargain, some fell in the lap of a senior citizen who was napping near the window seat. He woke up with a start.
The sudden movement startled the cockroaches, which ran helter-skelter. All the commuters nearby started jumping here and there to evade the roaches. There was complete chaos. It was several minutes before order was restored.
Much fun. In a rush-hour Virar fast, though, there would be no space to move, let alone jump here and there. Indeed, if two cockroaches landed on your head and then started copulating under your left nostril, you wouldn’t be able to move your hand enough to brush them away. At most, you could request the cockroaches telepathically to move, at which they’d probably reply, ‘Hey, dude, kindly adjust.’ Such it goes.
Australian authorities said two girls lost in a drainage well system used their phones to update their Facebook statuses instead of calling police.
Friends who saw their status updates then called the cops, who rescued the girls. An emergency services spokesman quoted in the piece is pissed because he thinks the girls should have called the cops first, and then done whatever else they wanted. He should realise that the girls were probably busy. Having posted their status updates, they were surely busy taking pictures for their wall. Priorities, you know?
A research has found that sharing a bed often led to poor quality sleep as people were regularly disturbed by their loved ones during the night.
Speaking at a special seminar on sleep at the British Science Festival, Dr Neil Stanley, a sleep expert at the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital, said: “A normal double bed is 4ft 6inches wide. That means you have up to nine inches less per person in a double bed than a child has in a single bed.
“Add to this another person who kicks, punches, snores and gets up to go to the loo and is it any wonder that we are not getting a good night’s sleep?”
So if you and your partner spend 8 hours sleeping, it could be argued that you spend one-third of your life kicking and punching the other person, and snoring to keep them awake. And obviously they’re then irritable through the day, especially in office, where they punch and kick their colleagues, and snore when their boss is giving them a lecture. So they lose their jobs, become alcoholics, and one day, in a drunken brawl at the bar, break a bottle over a rowdy’s head, who promptly dies of choking on the biscuit they were chewing just at that time. Your partner goes to jail, and finally, finally, you’re sleeping well again. But maybe you shouldn’t have fallen in love in the first place?
I like the bit in the piece where the researcher says, “No one can share your sleep.” So true. You can share everything else with the one you love, but for better or worse, your dreams are your own. You sleep alone; and you die alone. All that companionship is like light in the darkness—and always the light must go off.
All hail the differences between men and women, revealed masterfully by what they search for on Google.
After reading the left column there, I feel bad for women. The searches reveal the naked truth: men are all horny animals. It’s a shame, and I’m sorry. I’m feeling really, really awful. In fact, it could be argued that I need a cuddle.
This is the best first line of any news story this week:
The attempted armed robbery of a Russian hairdresser became a three-day sex ordeal for the would-be thief, leaving him with torn genitals and a Viagra hangover.
Apparently the dude tried to rob a hairdresser “in the town of Meshchovsk,” but as she was pretending to hand over her money, she “used her karate skills to knock him to the ground and tie him up with a hairdryer cord.” Then she “locked him in the storeroom… stripped him and cuffed him to a heater with a pair of fluffy pink handcuffs. She then fed him Viagra and raped him several times over the next four days.”
I’m not sure whether I should feel sorry for the guy—especially after reading the last line of the story. I mean, who needs a frenulum?
Does anybody else think that this might just be a metaphor for marriage? Ok, no, just a thought…