Friday, April 28, 2006


I am happy to note that David Edmonds and John Eidinow seem to have decided to introduce a new and refreshing style and pattern of writing. A few years ago, they came out with the engaging Wittgenstein's Poker, that talked about a famous argument in 1946 between Ludwig Wittgenstein and Karl Popper. Now they have followed it up with Rousseau's Dog: Two Great Thinkers at War in the Age of Enlightenment, a book about a protracted exchange, intellectual and otherwise, between David Hume and Jean Jacques Rousseau.

But just like Wittgenstein's Poker was hardly about the poker, this new volume is hardly about the dog. In Wittgenstein's Poker, the debate between the two philosophers was merely a pretext (although certainly not a trivial one) for investigating and showcasing the rich milieu of politics, culture, society, and of course philosophy, that the two men and their contemporaries lived in and shaped. It served as but a backdrop for a thoroughly engaging account of the enchantment that was early twentieth century Austria, when Vienna was the seat of intellectual debate and creativity. Music, art, mathematics, philosophy, literature, logic, each of these lofty avenues found their utmost expression and most esteemed patrons in the palaces, cafes, universities, and apartments of the Austrian capital, as it did in many European nations in those days, before the cruel stamp of Nazi, Fascist and Communist boots forever stifled progress. I will never forget the experience of reading that splendid book every evening, with my thoughts warmed by both a hot cup of coffee and the philosophical puzzles explored in the book, along with a salutary exposition on the varied and eccentric personalities of Cambridge university who frolicked in its intellectual landscape in the waning days of the British empire.
A longer review of the book that I have written is here.

Edmonds and Eidinow seem to have begun a trend and a pattern in their writing- find a tryst between two great intellectuals, and let that serve as a backdrop for narrating an entire era of world intellectual history and culture. Sounds delightfully endearing!

Some titles I can envisage:

1. Einstein's Clock: An exploration of epistemological problems in physics and human existence through the words of two great physicists- an account of the classic Bohr-Einstein debate (although that title turned out to be too long I think...)

2. Pasteur's Broth- A tale of jealousy, discovery, and the death of vitalism- the Pasteur-many other scientists debate about vitalism.

3. Dreyfus's Chessboard- The unremitting battle to define intelligence- refering to the battle between the pro and anti AI lobbies. Dreyfus is Hubert Dreyfus of Berkeley.

In case one of these titles actually materialises, I quite humbly ask for a share of the royalties so that I can finally get out of the time consuming graduate school fiasco and start reviewing movies.

I look forward to another bout of history, philosophy, culture, and the exploits of enlightened, eccentric aristocrats in Rousseau's Dog. I expect the book to be in my mail shortly, as Wittgenstein was a couple of days ago. Such joy to see your name on the board and your package in the tray.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

KGB: The KinderGarten Brigade, circa 1986

The other day, someone uploaded a group photo from my kindergarten ('KG') years to our school group's website on yahoo. Capturing memories and faces from more than twenty years ago, the photo is endearing, bizarre looking, hilarious, and warm all at once. Apart from the palpable yet elusive nostalgia that such photos evoke, I was also struck by the myriad ways in which such photos can reveal as well as mislead.

Since almost everyone in the photo stayed put with me in the same class for the next twelve years or so, it was instructive to observe everyone's faces and apparent nature that is depicted in the photo, and compare this picture to the kind of people they actually turned out to be later. I am no big observer of human nature, but you cannot help but remember everyone in school quite well (some more than others) if you meet, joke about, fight with, and bother them almost everyday of the year for a decade. The most interesting feature of the photo is the bizarre effect that seems to have been created by the apparent juxtaposition of adult faces on children's forms. I could identify most of my classmates from the photo, but the way I remember them is naturally from recent times, which is still more than ten years ago. I can imagine the artificial process of cutting their faces from recent photos and pasting them on the frames of thirty random kids from KG, and recreating this photo. The effect becomes bizarre, because for one moment, it looks like all of us from the present have undergone a reduction in our sizes, have dressed up in kindergarten clothes, and are happily posing for our annual school photo with our shoes nicely brushed, nails clipped, clothes pressed and hair combed (mostly). It looks as if a cast from one of those unique theatre genres where adults metamorphose into and act like children on the stage, have gathered together for a dress rehearsal.

And yet, this photo from our batch at Abhinav Vidyalaya is unique. The photo is revealing because even in that one moment, it seems to have captured for posterity, many innate dispositions. There are the quiet and aloof loners, the quiet and studious 'toppers', the flippant but nice, happy-go-lucky kids, the shrewd and crafty schemers, the genuinely warm and artless boys and girls, the mischievous and mysterious enigmas, and the unexceptional looking average joes and janes (?), all of whom represent the unique 'specimens' that all of us have turned out in life. The photo is also misleading because it also depicts some of these faces in emotions that belie their true personalities. Some of the seemingly smiling and mischievous children actually were quite serious and even short tempered. Some of the unexceptional looking children are those who I remember the most from later years. Some of the quietest looking gents were the most rambunctious ones. Some of the demure looking ladies were quiet tomboyish. The photo shows the masks that many of us put on when we are photographed, and the ones which many of us never need to. One thing is sure; the photo is a unique slice in time of an inifinitesimal but significant representation of an entire generation.

As for me, I still haven't been able to identify myself from the sea of faces...

Wednesday, April 19, 2006


I first met Sadashiv a.k.a ‘Sam’ Patil in the summer of 2000. The venue was Raman Hall, the auditorium of the Department of Physics at Pune University, and we were listening to a talk by Prof. Yashwant Waghmare, former director of IIT Kanpur, about the history of the Indian atomic energy program. Dr. Waghmare was describing how Homi Bhabha, the architect of modern nuclear India, pioneered nuclear reactor development in the rapidly developing nation in the 50s and 60s. The reactors were given the now well-known incandescent sounding names- Apsara, Cyrus, Pornima, Zerlina etc., each of which curiously is an acronym for a longer technical name. While Dr. Waghmare was describing this phase of the program, a bald man wearing a cap who was sitting in front of me suddenly got up and quipped, “Do some of these names reflect Bhabha’s Zoroastrian origins and inclinations?” Dr. Waghmare, having no idea, said so. Later, one of my friends introduced the man to me as ‘Sam Patil’. In his hand, he held a copy of Robert Jungk’s ‘Brighter than a thousand suns’. This early book is a somewhat idealistic (and even inaccurate in parts) history of the atomic pioneers. But it is a wonderful introduction to the topic for a beginner, and reads like a fast paced, nostalgic novel. The copy showed considerable wear and tear, an indication of having been read several times.

The man was much older than us, about my father’s age, but he insisted that we call him ‘Sam’, a play on his own nickname, 'Sham'. When I introduced myself, Sam asked me, “Are you Bhau Jogalekar’s son by any chance?” I was surprised that this man called my father by his old nickname, which only close relatives and friends use (Bhau literally means brother in Marathi). When I said that I was, he looked happy, and said that he and Bhau Jogalekar went back a long time, to college days. He said that he would meet me again, and asked me to say hello to my father on his behalf. After that, he launched into an enthusiastic espousal of Jungk’s book. Till that time, my knowledge of atomic energy was quite sketchy, and upon his recommendation, I borrowed the book from Prof. Rajeev Pathak (a well-known physicist, teacher and good friend) and was impressed by its heady description of the heydays of physics.

I went home and told my father about Sam. He immediately recognized him; “O Sam, that happy-go-lucky man”. Then he told me about how he came to know him, back in the late 1960s.
Sam came from a well off family that had educational leanings. He secured admission for studying engineering in COEP, but got bored and dropped out after a year. During that time, many bright students were studying the sciences, and Sam decided to study physics, one of his pet interests. Accordingly, he did his BSc. in physics, and enrolled for his MSc. at Pune University. It was there that he met my father who was then doing his M.A. Sam became an occasional part of my father’s group which involved mostly hostelites and out of towners. Some of the members and acquaintances of that group included Anil Gore (Head of the Statistics Department), Naresh Dadhich (director of IUCAA) and Anil Awchat (the writer and social activist). Even though Sam had decided to study advanced physics, he was too much of a dilettante and free bird to pay attention to formal studies. Like before, he dropped out, and took up a carpenter’s profession, a previous hobby in which he could let his creative abilities manifest themselves. In fact, when I asked my father about him, my father pointed out several objects in our home, including a coffee table and an entire large wardrobe lined with rosewood paneling, which Sam had made for us. Sam’s interest in science shone through the furniture; the coffee table is shaped like a Mobius strip, that wondrous mathematical object which quite astonishingly has only one surface.

In spite of his profession as a carpenter, Sam’s real passions were two; the history of physics, and invention. He is the only person I have met in my life who was an actual, full-time, inventor. The problem was that just like many dilettantes, Sam never had the patience or the perspicacity to convert either physics or invention or carpentry into a serious, well-paying profession. Since his father was well off, he did not care much about money; at first because he could get it, and later simply because he had no need for it. Sam gave up all efforts at being well off himself, so that he could indulge in his hobbies. He was interested in science as much as anyone I have ever heard of. To slake his thirst for knowledge, he traveled all over the country, going to conferences, science congresses, and exhibitions, probing, asking questions, meeting and getting to know leading scientists, visiting their institutes, and collecting interesting physics based gadgets that piqued his inventor’s mind. He lived in a small, extremely dilapidated room on BMCC Road, and in that small room, he had dozens of gadgets that he had invented. These gadgets frequently were constructed from the simplest of materials, and used to demonstrate key principles like those of magnetism, mechanics, waves, and optics. I was quite struck by his interests and his inventions the first time I visited his place.

Sam knew that these inventions would not bring him money. As far as I know, the occasional carpentering that he did was his only source of income; perhaps he earned some meagre amount from informal sales of some of his toys. I am quite sure that all the money from this side-venture went into traveling, book buying, and building these toys. For Sam, books and these toys were his life. He used to travel around the city on his ramshackle bicycle, attending every exhibition or competition related to science that was ever organized. I remember meeting him several times; at a neuroscience meeting, at many physics competitions, at the Indian science congress, and at college exhibitions. He was a great and incessant talker (one of his qualities that used to irk my father!), and used to be ready to spend hours talking about his favourite topics with me or anyone else who was interested, quite oblivious to the inconvenience and impatience of his listeners. Inside his small shack, he used to spend almost all his time building toys and reading.

My father always lamented that Sam was a very intelligent man, who wasted his abilities by indulging in these ‘hobbies’ of his. He said that even as a carpenter, Sam would have been a success, if he had stuck with it seriously and professionally. To be frank, he did not always encourage me to spend a lot of time with Sam, because he feared that I might end up like him; a dilettante who is not a success in life (and even now, quite independent of Sam, he still does!) Many times when I did not study, both he and my mother used to say half-jokingly, “Don’t procrastinate; you will end up like Sam”. There was some truth in what they said, based both on Sam’s inclinations, and my own. What’s the use of knowledge if it’s not put to good use? What is the use of having ability, if one does not have staying power? Sam used to fondly remember circumstances when he had asked a question in the middle of a lecture to a famous scientist, which the learned man could not answer. My father used to say, so what; after all, is Sam the famous scientist?

Although my parents’ criticism of Sam was quite valid, I appreciated the fact that Sam was a man who truly followed his own destiny. I suspect that he was aware of all the things which people like my parents said about him, but he had long decided that they would not matter to him. He was a non-conformist who let his heart lead him to his true callings. He eschewed money, fame, or even respect from the supposed higher middle class of society, much of which gauges a man by his success and his social status. I liked him, and while receptive to my father’s warnings, was always ready to listen to him talk.

Sometimes Sam used to come to my place and give me a book to read, or show me one of his inventions. He used to praise the Karanji or Patties that my mother used to offer him. My father used to meet him and, hiding his impatience, used to listen to our rants about Oppenheimer and Fermi. I think Sam was happy that he had renewed his old friend’s acquaintance through his friend’s son. I can say that he had also found a new friend in the son. He once gave me Silvan Schweber’s ‘In the shadow of the bomb’, an excellent contrasting study of Hans Bethe and Oppenheimer, based on their life, times, and personalities. Sam had a profound and diverse knowledge of the history of physics and also the events which accompanied its growth, an interest that he infectiously transmitted to me. He used to say that out of all the physics pioneers, his favourite was the Hungarian physicist Leo Szilard. The comparison and coincidence could not have been more apt. Szilard was a maverick scientist, a non-conformist, and a brilliant prophet. Just like Sam, Szilard was a peripatetic who lived out of a suitcase, never held a formal university post, and despised official academic scientific research. Yet, this genius in the shadows was more prescient and saw further into the future than anyone else, and today stands as one of the most important scientists of the century: the foremost herald of the atomic age (It was Szilard who, in 1933, long before fission in Uranium was discovered and long before anyone else thought about it, had the first inkling about possible and vast amounts of energy from a fission like process)

As my own knowledge about these matters grew, I used to take pleasure in telling Sam facts which he did not know, and seeing him chuckle at the mention of a particularly amusing one. He also read widely into every imaginable subject, and you could really discuss anything under the sun with him. He may not have been a scientist, but his enthusiasm for science outgrew that of most scientists that I have come across.

Probably the most memorable trip concerned the time when he took me out for a hearty breakfast at a small, typically Maharashtrian restaurant in front of Food World on Bhandarkar Road. After we finished eating, he brought out a wonderful and amusing toy that he had bought in Delhi. It consisted of two pink ‘magnetic hearts’ that swung on a small hinge on a long metal wire. One heart had the makeup and face of a girl, and the other of a boy. All you had to do was set the two hearts in circular motion. Like a couple who are angry at one another, the hearts would first swing away. Then, just like a couple who gradually make up with each other, the hearts would start coming closer, although in a haphazard manner. Finally, in a rib-tickling oscillatory motion, they finally settled down very close to each other in a diffident kiss. All these movements were governed by the intricate interplay and geometry of the magnets in the contraption. After witnessing the hearts’ endearing performance in the restaurant, I found myself hysterically laughing, and also being fascinated by the complex physics of magnetism that governed their motion. I could see that I shared my excitement with all the waiters in the restaurant. It is undoubtedly the simple, amusing things like these, that hide the most profound principles of science. That’s what makes it worth studying.

I met Sam many times, a few times in his dilapidated den of books and toys, many times in the most diverse events connected with science, and a couple of times when he visited my place. It was difficult to contact him because he neither owned a phone nor had an email address. Even when you visited him, more often than not he would be gone to some scientific event in or out of town.

When I visited India last December, I made up my mind to meet Sam. After coming to the US, I have updated myself considerably about science, history and technology, thanks to the magnificent library here. I was sure that Sam would love to hear tidbits from my bag of new facts. I would have contacted him much earlier if he had a phone. Because of his relative inaccessibility and other things that came up, meeting him kept on getting postponed, although I resolved to try to do it before I left.

On the morning of December 21, I woke up and was having coffee, when my mother gave me the news. Sam had died in an accident late the previous evening. He had been traveling on his cycle, when he collided with a speeding motorcycle. He passed away before he could make it to the hospital. I felt like our conversation, which had not even yet taken place, had broken off forever in midsentence. Sakal had his obituary as a small piece, in which they noted that he was an inventor. Sam would have liked that. I have kept the cutout.

I will always remember Sam as a man who went after his heart, and neglected the conventional dictates of society and worldly life. He may have been criticized and may not have been well off, but he was one of those who tossed tradition and convention aside, and did it cheerfully. He recognized why it is that mankind wonders at nature, at the cosmos, and human life. In him, I could get a glimpse of the raw, innocent curiosity that we should all have about the world around us. It is also a harsh and true fact that such sincere explorers are frequently not recognized by society as a valuable addition to its kind. But that is the price they pay for being mavericks.

Sam was in a significant way, responsible for introducing me to the heroes of physics and atomic energy, and inculcating a lifelong interest in the history and philosophy of science that will always give me solace; I believe this will be a connection that goes beyond my conscious awareness of it. The fact that I could not meet him before he passed away will always gnaw at my conscience to some extent, as would the cruel fact that he passed away in a tragic road accident. But after the incident, all my life, whenever I read or hear anything about Enrico Fermi or Leo Szilard, about the philosophy of science, or especially about a new, amusing invention, I will always ask myself,
“What would Sam think of this?”…

Friday, April 14, 2006

Utterly appalling

In what remote, imaginable, fantastic way is setting fire to a bus, beating a policeman to death, and engaging in jingoist mob violence supposed to be an indication of affection for your favourite movie star? Not only is the absolutely ludicrous and shameful reaction of people upon the death of Rajkumar a sign that law and order in our country has broken down, but I think it is a sign of an even more fundamental march towards a complete loss of the most basic of human sensibilities and rationality, towards a resurgence of violent tribal and uncivilised instincts, and towards the cessation of every form of common sense and dignity in human behaviour. And not for a few hours or a day, but for three whole days in processions that lead to a virtual shutdown of the normal workings of a city? We have always been a country of idol worshippers, and this is a quality that has been found in the psyche of people participating in the most vicious and depraved acts of history (Nazism, Fascism etc.) Fortunately for us, this hero-worship has not led us to catapult a bigot into power (or has it?...) but in terms of maintaining decency of civilization, how is this any better? Fundamentally, how is this much different from the widely criticized acts of Islamic fundamentalists who took to senseless violence for days to protest against their prophet's cartoons?
India is a unique country, where human life is so cheap that the most far-flung and unrelated of reasons can be reason enough to take one.
Shameful beyond words, this.

NUCLEAR INDIA: Dream or Reality?

Here's the problem: the US has left a trail of energy eating initiatives that have made it massively dependent on oil. Throughout the decades, it has made itself into an oil-consuming giant, all in the name of making leaps and bounds in the standard of living, which it has achieved to an almost absurd extent compared to the rest of the world. Ironically, it is technology that runs on this very resource that has played a crucial role in researching alternative fuel technologies.
So now, the US faces the problem of having to cut down on its traditional oil dependence. On the other hand, it can take advantage of prototype fledgling technologies that can possibly help it to do this. The US was lucky. It got to use all the oil it could to propel it ahead in terms of technology and living standards, at a time when grievances about global warming and greenhouse emissions were a whimper, mostly because conclusive data was not available and advanced computer models had not yet been developed.
Today, the most important change that would need to take place for the US to switch to alternative energy sources, would be one in public psychology. The transition from oil to alternative energy would not take place overnight, but as the system is perfected and tested, it may lead to local changes in living standards which would be perceived as detrimental (given US standards of living, any change in living standards would be perceived as a deterioration). The US can ease the transition by making investments in public transportation and cheap availability of alternative energy technologies like hybrid cars. But that will also need a change in the psychology of government officials who themselves are wedded to the oil economy.

As concerns about global warming and emissions have become realistic, pressure has been put on countries like India and China to cut down their greenhouse gas emissions. If such a word could be used in this context, it is unfortunate that the hue and cry has come at such a time when we are in the same stage as the developed nations were when they were undergoing industrialization on a massive scale. At the time, they used all the oil and coal they wanted to and erected behemoth industrial enterprises. Now, we in India and China criticize them for objecting to our fossil emissions increases. We say that they did it, indeed, overdid it, when they could, and now they are stopping us from doing it. While the argument is justified to some extent, and falls into the same category as other arguments about diverse matters that seek to expose the double standards and hypocrisy of the US (foreign policy, moral instruction etc.), unfortunately, there is objective truth in what is being said. Whether the US says it or not, it is after all true that India and China, due to their sheer population, may contribute immensely to fossil fuel emissions if they follow the path of the developed nations.

I believe that this is a chance for India to latch on to the policy that even the US has missed; that of investing in nuclear power. I think that nuclear power will provide us with the cheapest, quickest, and most efficient way out of the catch 22 situation of progressing and preserving the enviroment (and international relations) at the same time. Because of this, I see the US-India nuclear deal as a truly welcome chance for us, the negative repurcussions notwithstanding. The US did not capitalize on electricity from nuclear power when they could, and the progenitors of atomic energy also turned out to be the most paranoid about its implementation. Overinvestment, faulty designs, and public paranoia over essentially non-existent nuclear risks contributed to the US nuclear industry stalling. The cold war provided the avenue through which nuclear energy came to be equated with nuclear weapons. Today, while the US gets about 20% of its electricity from nuclear energy, countries like Japan and France, which ironically have largely built up their facilities on US nuclear technology, get 50% and 70% respectively, an impressive achievement. These nations have largely circumvented the public fear of anything nuclear, and through efficient fuel reprocessing, made the nuclear fuel cycle efficient and attractive for investors. As for the fear that nuclear proliferation may increase with the rate of nuclear driven power generation, how many terrorists are thought to potentially or realistically have possessed nuclear material stolen from French or Japanese nuclear reactors? Obviously, nuclear power is safe; we just have to put in enough efforts to safeguard it, and definitely efforts that are not more than those used to safeguard chemical facilities.
For India, public psychology with regards to nuclear power is largely a clean slate, and except for scattered groups, I don't expect that large scale demonstrations against nuclear power like those in the US will take place here. What I am worried about is the general lack of good standards that pervade all of our state based industries (like the ignominious MSEB). The reason why the US public fears nuclear power is because of its use in nuclear weapons (a deliberately uncontrolled release of energy anyway), Three Mile Island (a single nuclear accident in which there was not a single fatality), Chernobyl (an accident that assuredly was the result of fundamentally faulty design and blatant human error) and the problem of burial of wastes (which is emphatically not an unyielding techonolgical problem, but primarily a political one). All these scars, unnecessary as they are, are not yet a part of our technological memory, but however safe nuclear power is, it is also a truism that if released in an unwanted manner, it poses a definite threat. In terms of immediate effects this threat is not much different in its nature from chemical threats, and in fact could be much less severe than, say, the release of methyl isocyanate in the Bhopal tragedy. But the distinguishing character of radioactive products, their persistent existence, make a nuclear acccident unique. I fear that if the same attention to detail and safety is paid to nuclear reactors in India as it is paid to the electrical installations and grids in our states, our nuclear future may well be doomed to die before it is born. It is extremely important that the same standards be applied to our nuclear reactors, that are currently applied to the most successful such installations throughout the world. Also paramount to the success of any such endeavor is the education of workers and operators regarding key facts about radioactivity and basic reactor safety. At the same time, any reasonably good reactor usually has multiple safeguards, thus forestalling a disaster that could happen because of one single mistake. Many modern reactors also have inherent safety devices, including nuclear processes themselves that will encourage reactor shutdown and prevent a runaway nuclear event. But who said that we are incapable of making multiple mistakes and thwarting even the most foolproof systems?

Given government track records in managing industrial enterprises, I think that private management of nuclear facilities is an absolute must, if we want to rest comfortably and believe in an assured nuclear future. Unless there is a large scale shift in perspective, I don't see high quality, efficient government control of widespread nuclear power installations at least in the near future; how do we know that the same corruption and low standards that have plagued other big government deployments would not riddle operation of a potential money making enterprise? And while inefficient MSEB practices may mean blowing up power transformers (a situation which arose dozens of times in our housing colony), inefficient nuclear authorities may mean radioactive clouds over my house and toxic wastes in my backyard (this is an extreme scenario, but sometimes it's really hard to trust our honourable government officials too much), which I certainly am not game for. I would love to be proven wrong about this perception, but it would be a good idea to hand over reactor construction and management to private companies that have proven track records. There should not be too much debate about nuclear proliferation there, because of course the government will have control over the nuclear material, but the safety standards and other material managament could be turned over to private investors, from home as well as abroad (preferably from abroad!). The only thing that can stall our procurement of electricity from nuclear power is the same thing that has stalled every other development; corruption, red-tape, and laxity in management. Nuclear power is too important an alternative to be hampered by these human follies. I think that just like in other avenues of development, we are on the brink of a golden energy future that will make us self-sufficient and yet allow us to conform to world opinion about environmental preservation and safety. There is of course, the proverbial slip between the cup and the lip, and knowing our mentality, it is well forseeable that a single nuclear accident of any kind will stamp out future possibilities forever.

Nuclear power is very safe, much safer in terms of human cost than the traditional industries of coal and oil, and definitely much safer than the automobile industry and its manifestations. Many more people have died in road accidents and by chemical and industrial pollution than in any kind of nuclear accident. In fact, it has been documented that more people have died from vending machines falling on them in the US, than in reactor accidents (Haeberlin)! India is an energy hungry economy that still has to come to terms with preserving its environment, and thereby its future. Nuclear power is the most lucrative alternative for making that future a stable one. Like many other enterprises, government neglect and corruption could fell that promise in one blow. There are many ways to make a mess out of it, but one chance to turn it into a success story. I do hope that our government pays attention to every single aspect of safety, management, and cost connected with nuclear power, even if it emphatically means not poking its nose too much into the enterprise.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

It was a little suprising for me to see ACS president Ann Nalley not just praise, but wholeheartedly believe in Bush's 'American Competitiveness Initiative', and his endorsements of the importance of science and technological research to the progress of the country which he listed in his state of the union address.

Isn't Nalley (or others who hold similar views) counting her chickens before they are hatched? We must remember that the lofty sounding programme was only one of scores of such initiatives enumerated by Bush in the address. Well, there are State of the Union addresses and there are State of the Union addresses...out of all the topics that the president mandatorily has to cover in about an hour and a half, including health care, national security, and social security, I would think that it would not be surprising if science ranks low again in terms of actual efforts and concrete steps. I would think that we should wait; first of all for a practical and significant demonstration of this commitment to science and technology basic research, and secondly, to see that such proposals make it through without actually having been twisted, modified, and conveniently interpreted so much, that they have lost all semblance to the original. It is all too easy, and well-known, for politicians to have their sincere faith in the adage; 'It's only the thought that counts' (India Uncut)

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Warm Springs

Warm Springs is an inspiring look at Franklin Roosevelt's little publicised triumph over polio and at his mortal weaknesses, to which he was subject like all of us. Warm Springs is (or rather, it looks like a place frozen in time) a place in Georgia, not more than an hour's drive from Atlanta, where natural, hot, mineral spring waters were purported to provide rehabilitation for polio patients. The film is an enduring one, because it shows both the greatness as well as great shortcomings of the man. It portrays FDR's life before he was stricken (including his relationship with his secretary) and his frustrations and despair after he became crippled with the disease. A trip to Warm Springs convinced him that the healing powers of the hot springs there might possibly cure the affliction. After tense confrontations with his mother and wife, he finally bought the place, and later used it to relax during presidential summers.

Kenneth Branagh is a great actor, and brings style and substance to FDR's character. The main reason why the film shines is because it rightly portrays a great man as being subject to the same human nature as all of us. It is revealing to see FDR's obduracy, his childlishness, and his arrogance, all affect his relationship with his family and his outlook and reasoning. For much of the first part of the movie, we see not the great president who he became, but a man broken in body and spirit, who perhaps did not display the will-power that even common men possess. We also see his arrogance; in one notable scene, he sees other crippled patients gathered at the poolside, and turns away and threatens to leave, claiming that his aristocratic self should not have to mix with these common men. The brutally candid propreitor of the place sees through FDR's high-handedness and tells him to face up to the fact, that the real reason for not wanting to mix with those people is because it makes him aware of the pity and loathing with which other people look down upon him. Just like all of us, FDR puts on masks to hide his feelings. Of course, like all great men, he rises above all these tormenting predicaments. As he comes to Warm Springs every year and travels the countryside, he becomes aware of the despair facing farmers and the common folk around the place, and witnesses the poverty stricken landscape that the Depression has wrought. By looking around him, the future charismatic president learnt about his people's plight first hand. With his signature charm and understanding, he provides hope and inspiration to both the polio-riddled patients at Warm Springs, and the impecunious people living around it. The message the story really delivers is that unbeknownst to many, FDR's life's work and journey started here, in this rural place in Georgia, where the ills, ailments, and triumphs of the simplest and most common men gave him the resilience and foresight to fight great battles later on. Supporting him at each step of course, was the sparkling Eleanor (played by a glowing Cynthia Nixon- it's hard to imagine that this same woman is a central character in the repulsive Sex and the City), who played a major part in his physical as well as mental rehabilitation. After polio was detected, FDR's mother had thought that his political career was over. But she underestimated the power of the common man that could inject hope and strength in her depressed son's soul, as well as his own great innate capacity to excel.

I have already written about my trip to Warm Springs, and it is a place that evokes forgotten memories, even if one never actually experienced them. In his famous later career, FDR steered the nation through the Depression and World War 2. But it was much earlier that his fight began, in the midst of souls that were stricken but not shattered. Warm Springs built FDR's character like no other thing in his life. It is a relatively obscure period of his life, from the late 1920s. But in many ways, it was the one which made him the great leader he was. At Warm Springs, FDR engaged in a true democracy, with everyone, from the black helper to the little polio stricken girl having a say. Providing humour and warmth was a motherly, plucky lady who joined the center as a physical therapist. These common men and women taught FDR much, and he turn inspired them to fight against circumstances, an ability that was to be crucial for everyone in every way in the dark years that followed.

World War 2 was the greatest war known to mankind. But for FDR, the biggest personal battle which he fought- and won -was at Warm Springs, a battle which we should know about. I have watched the film several times, and have now bought a DVD of it. Watch Warm Springs: it will warm your heart.

The truth about global warming policy making (or the lack thereof)

Copyright: Tom Toles

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Stick to your principles please:

It is interesting how the 'evangelical' people who oppose abortion (and stem cell research) on the grounds that the development and right to life, liberty and freedom of a living organism is being thwarted, are also the same ones who impinge upon and suppress all the rights and liberties of that life if it turns out to have homosexual inclinations later in life. If you are being ultraconservative and pseudo-puritanical, at least don't be a hypocrite. That is the most pitiful situation you can be in. As they say, if you are being a thief, at least be an honest thief. At least be a consistent bigot like Hitler, so that history will remember you as one of its prime evil participants. At least give a fair chance to Satan to count you as one of his legitimate children. But these hypocritical ideologues are not even going to end up as a footnote to a footnote in history. Tch. What a pity that we still have to waste our time in fighting their ideology. Where is that glorious lost age of worthy opponents?!

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Rediscovered a childhood favourite- the addictive Tank Wars. God help me now.

Monday, April 03, 2006


A few weeks ago, the Indian Classical Music society of Atlanta hosted a performance by Zakir Hussain and Shiv Kumar Sharma at Emory University. The perpetual Indian style of management appeared seeped in every facet of the program. I don't like to generalise and make sweeping statements about groups of people. But I have attended dozens of programs hosted by many different kinds of people here. How come bad management seems to suddenly materialise during events hosted by us?

First of all, following the time honoured Indian tradition, the program began late, in fact a full hour late. The auditorium was packed (actually it was a church) and about fifteen hundred people crowded in. My American friends graciously waited in line with me for almost one hour. After a late start, during the intermission, apparently we were supposed to be free to buy food from outside, from the food service that was arranged by the organizers. Do the math: fifteen hundred people, one long line for the food, 30 minutes intermission. Not logistically possible. Many people (including us) chose to wait instead till the end. By the time the awe-inspiring rhythms of Zakir and the transcendent melodies of Shiv Kumar said farewell, it was 10.30 p.m. on a Sunday night. Needless to say, my elderly American friends were exasperated and tired with the proceedings. It's going to be tough to convince them to come again with me for an Indian concert.

But bad management does not seem limited to us, although we may be leaders in the arena. Today, we had a symposium honouring Martin Karplus of Harvard, the last student of two times Nobel laureate Linus Pauling. Among other things, Prof. Karplus has done pioneering work on computational simulations of molecules and proteins. He has developed an important equation bearing his name, that chemists learn during their undergraduate years. Many think he undoubtedly deserves a Nobel prize for a long time now.
In any case, the lecture was held in a relatively measly auditorium away from the chemistry department. Usually we have such gatherings in our own fine spacious hall. Exam schedules inevitably clashed with the symposium timing. Couldn't they relocate undergraduate exams and make place for this big symposium, instead of the other way round? Or is this a funny perspective of implementing the American ideal of equality?
The program started with nobody knowing how to dim lights in the auditorium. There seemed to be an all-or-none principle operating; either you could have full lights blasting in your face, or total darkness that made it impossible to take notes. Finally, Karplus, I repeat, Karplus himself was successful in locating the correct switch to dim the lights.
After he started speaking, a strange static noise began to occasionally pop out from the speaker system. There was something wrong with the microphone. Nobody knew how to fix it, nor how to locate someone who knew how to fix it. So the entire lecture continued with this uncomfortable interference suddenly buzzing and materialising at unexpected times.
Last but not the least, the acoustics and construction was terrible. The auditorium seemed to have been built to specifically amplify every small and sundry sound that was around, except the voice of the speaker. People were climbing stairs and coming in late, they were standing outside and talking, and the floors were loudly creaking. Each one of these sounds was more than audible throughout the talk. It was only the talk and its content, and the stature of the man, that kept me from getting distracted by them. In any case, the talk was great. But bad management seems to be a univeral ill. Of course they can say that it's all too easy for me to sit here and complain. I would know how hard it is to take care of all these things if I were the organizer. I agree. But is it that hard to check for microphone malfunction, which is hardly a small thing? I guess the bigger the point, the more we seem to miss it, maybe because it's 'obvious'!