Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Letter to Hindu

I wrote this letter to 'The Hindu' in response to the appalling article by Amit Chaudhuri - The Bose in the Particle. I would have been surprised if they had printed it. It criticises not only the author but the publishers as well. In any case, here it is.

The recent piece by Prof. Amit Chaudhuri - The Bose in the Particle - is worrying on several counts.

There is no denying the fact that S. N. Bose was a genius and this could have been a great opportunity to reacquaint ourselves with his struggles. But to entangle the pre-independence bias that Bose had to face with the Higgs Discovery simply because of the word 'boson' is completely meaningless. Once the results were published with the help of Einstein, contribution of Bose was duly acknowledged by naming the particles after him. What more recognition could one ask for? Boson is not one particle but a class of particles to which the Higgs boson belongs. So much has happened between the discovery of Higgs Boson and the initial contribution of Bose, that it makes no sense whatsoever to connect the two. Had "Lagaan" won the Oscar, who would have got the credit? Aamir Khan or Dadasaheb Phalake?

Discovery of Higgs Boson is a historical moment, a result of relentless efforts of theorists, experimentalists, technicians from all over the world. That the facility has worked so well is a great example of supreme efforts of collaboration that overcomes artificial boundaries of nationalities. It's for this very reason that scientists presenting the result declared it to be a triumph of humanity. To say that they neglected Bose not only misleads the non-specialist readers, but it also marrs a poignant moment with a petty, personal and misplaced claim. And by raising the false claim, we are neglecting all the scientists who have worked non-stop in this search for the last thirty years.

No Indian scientist has received Nobel since Raman, says Prof. Chaudhuri. Wouldn't it be more appropriate to ask, "Since Independence how many Indian scientists have made a contribution that warranted a Nobel?" The disappointing answer to that question is more of an indicator of the sorry state of Indian Science than the supposed bias of the Nobel committee.

Richard Dawkins in his famous book "The Selfish Gene", strongly objects to the misrepresentation of Darwinism proposed by Fred Hoyle and C. Wikramsinghe in some of their books. He also has a caution for publishers that would fit the present situation very well. "Publishers should correct the misapprehension that a scholar's distinction in one field implies authority in another. And as long as that misapprehension exists, distinguished scholars should resist the temptation to abuse it."

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Seven Samurai? No.. just a tag game

Nivedita tagged me in this meme called 7×7 Link Award. The rules are simple.

1: Tell everyone something about yourself that nobody knows.

2: Link to a post that fits the following categories: The Most Beautiful Piece, Most Helpful Piece, Most Popular Piece, Most Controversial Piece, Most Surprisingly Successful Piece, Most Underrated Piece, Most Pride-worthy Piece.

3: Pass this on to 7 fellow bloggers.

Easy peasy, japanesey. Here goes.

Tell everyone something about yourself that nobody knows.

I guess not many people know this. I am a physicist by training. After doing few years of research, I decided to change my track and do some other things instead. How did that go? You will have to wait for my autobiography to read about it. :)

My Most Beautiful Piece  

I guess this would be my review of 'Broke Heart Blues' by Joyce Carol Oates. The credit, if any, should mainly go to the book itself. We all feel nostalgic about our past, but can one feel nostalgic about someone else's past? That was the question that bugged me after reading BHB. Oates describes a culture that I have never been a part of, from a time long before I was born, and yet I identified so closely with the characters as if the nostalgic feeling was of my own past. I did not know what to make of this whole thing, I still don't. Reminds me of what another one of my favorite authors, Haruki Murakami, says in The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, 'In a place far away from anyone or anywhere, I drifted off for a moment.'

My Most Helpful, Popular, Surprisingly Successful Piece

I have one blog article that has been very surprisingly popular ever since I wrote it. It's called 'The Thank You Puzzle.' I simply wrote a piece about how we say 'thank you' in different languages and also some of the customs of expressing gratitude in different cultures. I also mentioned how to say 'thank you' in Hindi and I suspect that it was this part that made the post so popular. I had google searches from all over the world searching for a word to say 'thank you' in Hindi. (Incidentally, you can also say it in English and most people will understand!) I guess it was all those tourists with backpacks who made the post popular.

My Most Controversial Piece

Sorry, I got nothing. I have not written anything that would spark even the slightest bit of controversy. Maybe I should blog about climate change, for a change?

My Most Underrated Piece

Okay, this assumes that if a post gets many responses, it has been appreciated that much more. Since I do not agree with this basic premise, I don't think any of my posts have not been appreciated.

My Most Pride-worthy Piece

Pride may not be the right word but I felt good about my last post, regarding The Great Gatsby.

Now the seven bloggers.

1. Lisa Brackmann of The Paper Tiger : Lisa recently published her second novel Getaway, the earlier one called 'Rock Paper Tiger' - an intriguing mystery set in post war Iraq and China - was amongst the top ten thrillers at Amazon. I interviewed Lisa last year for this blog.

2. Silvia Merialdo of Indian Words : Silvia has a soft corner for India. She has read many Indian authors and has worked in India on behalf of NGO's. She blogs in Italian and English, writing reviews about all the books she has read.

3. Saee of Purple Moon : Saee is a Chemist, but she blogs about anything that catches her fancy, from philosophy to how to pick an orange. As she is doing a post-doc, there are some existential posts as well.

4. Prixie of Choco Mumbo Jumbo : Prixie is in SA, and she loves chocolates as the name of the blog suggests. She blogs about many other topics as well, with interesting snaps and sometimes recipes.

5. Stefania of Books of Gold : Stefania is from Venice and she is pursuing her doctorate in Postcolonial Literature. She is a voracious reader and posts insightful reviews of books. Her blog is bilingual - in English and Italian.

6. Gautam of G Reviews : Gautam has wide reading interests and his book reviews are informative and intriguing.  His blog is also bilingual - in English and Marathi - our common mother tongue.

7. When a shrink gets on the couch : Interesting thing about this blog is that the author is a psychiatrist. A unique situation where the shrink is doing the talking! It certainly adds another dimension to her posts that cover any topic from social concerns to blogging etiquettes.

By the way, I tried to search if there is any award behind this meme. So far I have not found anything.  

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Do you think The Great Gatsby sucked?

Yes? Then you are not alone. According to this TIME article, 29,000 people agree. I breathed a sigh of relief when I read it because I thought so, too. The problem was, according to Haruki Murakami, it is one of the most important novels of his life and I take Murakami very, very seriously. So you can appreciate my dilemma here.

The problem of subjective nature of art in general and literary criticism in particular is very well demonstrated by this XKCD comic. (I can reproduce it here because XKCD is not paranoid about copyrights, unlike the big Hollywood companies, but that's a topic for another day.)

It hits the nail on the head. There are no definite criteria for literary criticism. If you don't 'get' a book, then the implied assumption is that something is wrong with you. Maybe you are not 'cultured enough' to understand it. Again, this is a gray area. Sometimes, to understand and appreciate a particular art form, you need to delve deeper into the history of that particular movement. In order to appreciate it, one has to go deeper into the reasons as to it's history, the inherent rebellion nature etc.

During the last century the definition of what constituted as an art itself underwent major transformations. Movements like modernism, avant-garde sought to redefine the reference frames that were held onto quite rigidly for so long. An excellent early example is Manet's famous painting Le dejeuner sur l'herbe - The Luncheon on the Grass - where Manet broke all conventions by placing a nude in a conventional setting as mundane as a family picnic. Later experiments by numerous artists were more complex and often difficult to interpret.

Much has been said about various art movements in the twentieth century. One of the main themes emerging from many of these movements was that the aesthetic experience - some may call it spiritual, like what you feel after watching a beautiful sunset - that one is supposed to get from the art was itself called into question. This was in complete contrast with the earlier art. You did not need a six month art appreciation course in order to be awed by Sistine Chapel. In the last century, it looked as if the more important thing was how clever and unique one can be in breaking out of conventions. As a result, it becomes increasingly difficult from a viewer's point of view to decide if the artist is really a genius or a fake.

For an extreme example of this dilemma, look at what Ayn Rand says about James Joyce1
A writer who is not laughed at, but taught in universities as something very serious, is James Joyce. He is worse than Gertrude Stein; going all the way to the ultimate in nonobjective writing, he uses words from different languages, makes up some words of his own, and calls that literature.
It is clear that Rand is evaluating Joyce solely in terms of rigid frame of Romanticism on which her own novels were based, but the question at the root is quite clear. You ask yourself, "Is it just about being clever or is there something deeper in it?" Of course, people have written volumes on how to decode Joyce, but that means you have to read 10 additional books in order to understand what Joyce is saying. In the end, you ask yourself, "Is it worth going to all this trouble?"

Woody Allen, on the other hand, is much more flexible. He appreciates the originality but makes a conscious choice to stick with the conventional. His comment on Samuel Beckett is telling
I’ve seen Beckett, along with many lesser avant-gardists, and many contemporary plays, and I can say yes, that’s clever and deep but I don’t really care. But when I watch Chekhov or O’Neill—where it’s men and women in human, classic crises—that I like. I know that it’s very unfashionable to say at this time, but things based, for example, on “language”—the clever rhythms of speech—I really don’t care for.
The last part is the most important. What do you care for?


1. The Art of Fiction - Ayn Rand.

Friday, 20 January 2012

The Geography of Bliss

Eric Weiner is on a quest. That in itself is not surprising, given the fact that he has spent a decade as a foreign correspondent for National Public Radio (NPR). What is unusual is the object of his quest. He is searching for the quality that has been the Holy Grail of philosophers and religions alike - happiness. The main culprits, says Eric with a tongue firmly in cheek, are the philosophers - brooding white guys from Europe, they hung out, alone, in cafés, pondered the universe, and—surprise!—concluded it is an unhappy place. But is it really so? Which country is the happiest on Earth? Which one is the least happy? And why? Can we manufacture the conditions for happiness? In search of answers to questions like these he went around the globe. The book he wrote - The Geography of Bliss - maps his journey.

The first stop Eric makes is at the World Database of Happiness (WDH) based in Netherlands. Researcher Ruut Veenhoven and his colleagues have been working on happiness and although they themselves do not look ecstatic,  observes Eric, they do have the most solid data on who the happiest and who is not. He spent a couple of weeks mining the data and deciding his next destinations. He found conflicting reports - often counter-intuitive. Like people who attend religious services are happier than those who do not but the countries that are on the top of happiness list are secular. Wealthy people are happier than poor ones, but only slightly so. Money can make you happy up to a certain point and no further.

One of the surprising entries in the elite club of happy countries is Iceland. It shatters many of the myths about what is required for happiness, especially if you look at it from the point of view of tourism industry. No sunlight or more precisely no Sun at all for most of time, no warm beaches and the whole island is unstable with sky varying from chocolate dark to pitch black. The place resembles the Land of Mordor. Why should anyone be happy in such a place? (Incidentally, Eric was staying in Hawaii at the time, a place that has all those purported elements of happiness in abundance.)

A closer look reveals that Iceland has a tradition of unusual attitudes that contribute towards it's happiness reserve. For example, failure is very much an option in Iceland. Teenagers starting a band in garage are actively encouraged by their parents. It's quite normal for a person to have several different careers. Larus Johannesson for instance, has earned a living not only as a chess player but also as a journalist, a construction-company executive, a theologian, and, now, a music producer. No one expects you to stay married to a career that you chose decades ago. Failure does not have a stigma attached to it. This is exactly opposite to the specialization mania that is followed religiously in the rest of the world. Da Vinci would have heartily approved. Everyone in Iceland is a poet because there is no one to say that you cannot be one. The popular joke is that if they find an Icelander who is not a poet, they will put his statue in the main square in Reykjavík. Alas, they have not found the person yet. The myth of unhappy artist - propagated by giants ranging from Dostoyevsky to Jimi Hendrix - does not hold in Iceland. All the Icelandic artists are happy. Even when they are sad, they do not brood over it, they don't need to be that way in order to be creative.   

Next stop - Bhutan. Why? Because it's the only country in the world that has a policy of Gross National Happiness (GNH). It seeks to measure the progress of the nation by looking at how happy or unhappy people are. The Bhutan King made headlines in 1986 when he said that GHP is more important than GNP. GNH, it seems, means knowing your limits. Free-market economics has brought much good to the world, but it goes mute when the concept of “enough” is raised. As the renegade economist E. F. Schumacher put it: “There are poor societies which have too little. But where is the rich society that says ‘Halt! We have enough!’ There is none.” Every decision that the government takes is examined through this prism.

Then there is Qatar, where money flows like water but people do not seem any happier. And there is Moldova that does not have any money and people are gloomy. Moldova is the saddest country according to data. Thailand is happy and one of the reasons for it could be 'mai pen lai' - never mind - the Thais do not take life seriously.

Eric also meets people he calls 'hedonist refugees'. People who have come from far and settled for no other reason than 'it just felt right'. Linda came from US to settle in Bhutan while Jared, another American, stopped in Reykjavík while on his way to Europe, fell in love with the dark skies and came to live there. He has 'gone native', Eric notes, as he uses "we" and not "they" when refereeing to Icelanders.

Eric has a unique style of writing, looking at everything through a lens that is distinctly satirical, although sometimes he crosses the line and it comes across more like sarcasm. It takes some time getting used to his humor, just like you eventually get used to Seinfeld. You also discover along the way that he is brutally honest with himself as well. Lest all this humor give you an impression that the quest is not a serious one, he proceeds to prove the opposite by going to extreme lengths like eating the popular dish of Iceland - harkarl - that is made of rotten shark, quitting coffee for a while in an ashram in India or buying a ridiculously expensive pen (he does not disclose how much!) to see how it feels like to be a nouveau riche from Qatar. He takes every experience without prejudice, and later tries to simplify it to a formula, trying to figure it out in his own, American way.

One wonders if the humorous front is kind a defense mechanism because at times the armor cracks a bit and you see a different person. Like the time when he slips a hundred dollar bill in his Moldavian landlady's dictionary, next to the word schaste, the Russian word for happiness. He says,
All of the research, not to mention my time in Qatar, concludes that one hundred dollars will not make Luba happier in the long run. But it just might in the short run, and sometimes the short run is good enough.
He appears distinctly uneasy reporting this, as if embarrassed to have been caught making a rather melodramatic, Dickensian gesture in these supposedly post-modern times.
Image credit : Amazon.

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Why this kolaveri kolaveri kolaveri di?

Why do some things go viral and other don't? For companies, writers, singers that is literally, a million dollar question. Some people have made an attempt to answer it. Malcom Gladwell does it quite convincingly in The Tipping Point where he tries to find an answer to why some word-of-mouth phenomena take off while others die without a struggle (Anyone remember Google Wave?). Gladwell lists several characteristics that a meme should possess in order to go viral. One of them is stickiness factor. How memorable is your message? Do people forget it immediately or does it stick? Another one is who is doing the word of mouth publicity? If it's done by people who are connected to only a handful, chances are it will not go too far. To test this, Gladwell recommended to his friends a new restaurant to see if it makes an impact. It did not. On the other hand there are people who are connectors, whose main job is to connect with other people and as a result, they are connected to a large number of people. If a meme is spread by a connector, it is sure to make a much better impact.

This is not a review of The Tipping Point. It has been reviewed countless times. The reason for this discussion is a song that is going viral at the moment in India. It's a song from Tamil movie, '3', and it's called 'Why this kolaveri kolaveri kolaveri di?' (meaning Why this murderous rage, girl?) The lyrics are in Tanglish which is a mixture of Tamil and English. The writer and singer of the song, Dhanush, says that it's a nonsense song about heartbreak. And when you listen to it, you cannot but agree. The surprising thing about it is the simplicity. There is a chance that you may find it irritating when you first hear it but you cannot get it out of your mind. The stickiness factor is huge. It has already got 8 million views on youtube and is currently the favorite of Bollywood superstars, including the B's, who cannot stop tweeting about it. (Gladwell does not take Twitter into account when he discusses the connectors. I think it would play a major role.)

The song was first leaked on the internet and noting it's popularity, the music company decided to release it officially. Be warned that it will stick in your mind even if you do not like it. :)

ps : Soup is a colloquial Tamil word used for guys who go through failure in love.

Monday, 14 November 2011

White to play and win

It is usually said that what is being said is more important than who says it. Ummmm... Not entirely true. Most of you would close your browser tab in disgust if I say that I am going to review the autobiography of George Bush. In order to prevent you from doing so, I am going to talk about a book written by a man with IQ of 190, a former world chess champion who ranks amongst the eight smartest people on the planet. Yes, when Gary Kasparov has something to say, people sit up and take notice.
Credit : Amazon
As the title suggests, 'How Life Imitates Chess' is meant for a restricted audience. If you know how to play chess, you will not have any difficulty in understanding the arguments.  But if you do not know much about chess, then this is not the book for you. It's like when American authors 'cover all their bases' or the British ones 'get into a bit of a sticky wicket'. Of course Gary goes well beyond simple metaphors. In a brilliant exposition, he covers the philosophy, strategy and technique of professional chess and draws parallels between the mock war in two dimensions and the real life experiences in three dimensions.

The book is meant for chess players as well as general public with at least preliminary understanding of chess. When you read a book by an athlete, you expect tips on health, diet, training etc. In case of a chess player like Gary whose strength is his brain, the discussion is highly stimulating, touching on exotic subjects like thermodynamics or artificial intelligence. At the end of each chapter, a brief biography of some of the greatest chess players in history adds an interesting flavor. In expanding the principles, Gary also presents us with anecdotes from his vast repertoire. An entire chapter is devoted to the progress of Chess computing, although he is a bit reticent on the famous encounters with Deep Blue and the surprising decision of IBM pulling the plug on rematch and dismantling the machine.

The picture of Gary Kasparov that emerges from this book is that of a man who is exceptionally intelligent, fiercely competitive and brutally honest. He does not gloat over his phenomenal achievements and freely admits his mistakes, such as the one of breaking up from FIDE that ultimately cost him his world title.

While he was still the top rated player in 2005, Gary decided to retire from professional chess. A number of factors went into this decision. He was playing with players who were not born when he first became the world champion. More importantly, he felt that he was needed elsewhere. Since the disintegration of Russia in 1991, there was increasing dissatisfaction with the succession of leaders that followed. He supported Boris Yeltsin initially, only to realize the mistake later on. The breaking point came when Vladimir Putin came into power. Under the façade of a democratic power, the old regime of KGB started gaining strength. As Gary observes,
In Russia the citizens are now in great danger from state abuse of power because officials are beyond public reach. Any criticism of state officials can be termed 'extremism', a term separated from terrorism by only a comma in Putin's law book. Not martial law exactly, call it 'martial law lite'.

Not many people realize the important role played by chess in the cold war era. It was an instrument that signified the power of the state over individual on the national front and a symbol of conflict between communism and capitalism on the international front. Gary always had a defiant streak in him, first opposing the USSR Chess Federation and sports committee when they wanted Anatoly Karpov to win the World Championship. The last straw came in 1990, when he had to rush to his home town Baku to save his family from getting killed in the riots. He airlifted his family and friends to safety, went back to Moscow and met President Gorbachev with no success.  He was one of the wealthiest individuals and most privileged private citizens in the country and he had lost his home. It was then that he decided to break with communism once and for all.1

Chess is often compared with politics, now Gary has decided to carry the analogy towards it's logical conclusion. With the organization called United Civil Front, Gary is playing an active role in bringing together the scattered opposition forces who share a common goal of democratic governance in Russia. Under the UCF banner, he traveled the length and breadth of Russia - from Vladivistok to Kaliningrad - to talk about why the countryside was poor and why the elites were so rich. He is using the same strategies that helped him become the world champion. The difference is - this time the opposition is stronger, they play by their own rules and what is at stake is life itself.

1. White King and Red Queen, Daniel Johnson

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

John Reddy, John Reddy Heart.

John Reddy, you had our hearts.
John Reddy, we would've died for you.
John Reddy, John Reddy Heart.

With these lines opens the 500 page saga, 'Broke Heart Blues' by Joyce Carol Oates. The novel revolves around the central figure of John Reddy Heart, a teenager at the Willowsville Senior High School, Willowsville, New York. Amongst a class of mostly rich kids who live in affluent mansions, John Reddy Heart is unique. Lugging all the family belongings in a U-Haul trailer; grandpa, kid brother, sister in the back seat, Dahlia Heart - his mother - at his side, John Reddy heart arrived in Willowsville four years ago, in a bright-salmon-colored Caddie that was pulling the trailer, driving it all the way from Vegas, sitting on three telephone directories because he was not tall enough to see the street at the tender age of eleven. By the time he is sixteen, working part time in a carpentry shop, he has matured beyond his age. Reticent, hardly acknowledging the greetings of his classmates, John Reddy Heart is already an enigmatic attraction for all the girls between ages of twelve and twenty (often their mothers included). The guys, sometimes wary of this inexplicable popularity, are not jealous. They want to invite him to their parties, bond with him. John Reddy Heart always politely declines such invitations. Sometimes, you see red marks on his face, he has been in a fight.    

In the first part of the novel, we observe John Reddy Heart though the eyes of his classmates. Who, in particular, is the observer is never made clear. A general "we" suffices as if it's a collective consciousness of the class. They follow him everywhere, going out of classrooms, in the gym, during the basketball games, even drive by his apartment at night to see if he is in. This obsession takes on a fever pitch when John Reddy Heart is arrested for killing Melvin Riggs, a controversial personality involved in local politics, member of the local county board and lover of Dahlia Heart. A long period of suspense punctuated by frantic media attention, rumors and a mistrial, results in acquittal of John Reddy Heart, though he spends the next two years in prison pleading guilty to other charges.

Throughout this first part, we are not allowed even a glimpse of what is going through John Reddy Heart's mind. That is reserved for the second part. By bits and pieces, we get to know this enigmatic figure, flashes of memory fit like parts of puzzle, piecing together the sordid, painful past. His classmates, whose sole obsession was and still is John Reddy Heart, almost never appear in his thoughts, confirming what one of them, Dwayne Hewson, summed up thus, "..in some essential way, in his innermost world, the rest of us didn't exist."

Third part is a wild trip down the nostalgic lane, the thirtieth reunion of the class.

"A time of joy, if a time of sorrow; a time of bittersweet laughter, and a time of tears. Our thirtieth reunion."

Some of them will never make it, having found their permanent places in graveyards and obituaries. Once young, fresh faces have long lost their youthful luster, muscles have given way to overweight bellies and oversized hips, wallets are stronger, body is weaker - sometimes battling with viruses and diseases. Even Willowsville has changed, all the old landmarks now exist only in the memories. The once young, now middle aged friends come together to laugh, cry, reminisce, wondering how and where the time went. As Ritchie Eickhorn, now a well known poet but still the same old Ritchie to his friends, chanted    

O youth O America like gold coins falling from our pockets!
So many coins! such riches! no need to stoop to pick up what you have dropped.

I must confess that, having no first hand experience of American culture, reading this novel was what a westerner may feel during a visit to Taj Mahal. The peculiar thing is that the universal character of basic human emotions transcends the cultural gap, you connect to the characters on a level that is beyond these barriers. Guess that's what great writers are all about. They make the world so real, so vivid, you get sucked into it like matter on the precipice of a black hole.

Writers have different styles, like different brush strokes, but the picture they paint touches you in ways that are hard to describe. Broke Heart Blues leaves you with a bitter sweet emotion, something that Murakami describes as, "a childhood longing, that had always remained - and would ever remain - unfulfilled."    

Some writers are prolific, some write infrequently but produce high quality stuff. Joyce Carol Oates is known for consistently producing masterpieces at a breathtaking pace. While interviewing Joyce Carol Oates, an interviewer once remarked, "You're frequently charged with producing too much."

To which I may add, "And we are so grateful."
Picture credit : Amazon