Saturday, January 31, 2009

The latest dirt on Dirt.......

Way back in the 70's and 80's there was still a sense of wonder and achievement when a person got a chance to travel overseas. IT , then, was someone simply emphasizing "it", and it certainly wasn't a password for going to do a job or graduate studies abroad.

So Sudhir's family was delighted when he got a chance to tour abroad , for the very first time in his life, as part of a team that accompanied a world famous Indian musician on his performances in Europe and America. The team enjoyed great hospitality everywhere, Sudhir got a feel of how it is to be a kind of assistant-celebrity, and he occasionally was part of the accompaniment on stage.

We asked him how he enjoyed his trip and what he liked . He was all praise for the arrangements, the hospitality, the punctuality, the smooth roads, the fancy cars, the amazing automation in homes with regard to labour saving , and so on. Then he said a very strange thing .

"Everything clean-clean. Not a speck here and there. Folks constantly mopping, cleaning,wiping, spraying know, sometimes I got the feeling that things were just too clean !"

We cracked up. We thought he was being funny. But, it was his honest opinion......

His opinion was understandable, coming from someone who lived in a crowded suburb of Mumbai, in front of whose apartment complex, was a garbage place, where wandering cows zeroed in on things to drag and chew, as they rummaged around inside the dump. On his daily commute by train, he'd feel he was missing something if there were no pieces of old newspaper and snack papers under the seat.

But what he felt then has been echoed recently by someone at the University of Iowa.

Dr. Joel V. Weinstock, director of gastroenterology and hepatology at Tufts Medical Center in Boston, and Dr. David Elliott, a gastroenterologist and immunologist at the University of Iowa, have shown that when organisms from bacteria, viruses and worms enter the body from dirt, the immune system becomes stronger.....

Something called the "hygiene hypothesis" is there , which says that various worms, bacteria and viruses that enter the body inadvertently through normal dirt, actually build up your immune system in a very positive way. There is also something to the fact that autoimmune diseases, allergies, Asthma, Multiple Sclerosis, IBD/IBS, etc are very prevalent in the developed world, and almost not seen in countries hitherto described as "dirty"..... Examples are told about how babies like to pick up all kinds of junk from the floor and put it in their mouth, as a natural instinct. There is talk about studies
on farm children in the western world, showing a different and better level of immunity than children in cities of the developed world.. Recommendations are made saying "let the children play in the dirt".......

And so we now swing between two scenarios.

One, where we are constantly spraying stuff on anything we touch, suspect everything new, throw away entire things at the slightest doubt about a part of it being suspect, and wash things so excessively that we start imbibing the soap.

The other scenario is, where, say, we allow babies children to wander and play , say in a cowshed . ...

We live in a world where extremes excite . There is no limit to how wide we swing to both extremes. This is true of behaviour of societies as well as individual lifestyles. There is a commercial interest in phobias being built up, and pharma interest in maladies being highlighted as life threatening. Besides giving rise to inflammatory type diseases, this has also led to psychological problems and imbalances.

I have had a running war with door-to-door sellers of water purification systems, when all I believed in was boiling. I wash all my veggies with plain running water, thoroughly, before I cut them. Traditionally, we use cotton cloth dusters to clean and mop the kitchen , as well as a separate set of dusters for hands while cooking. These are washed clean with detergent and dried in the hot sun before reuse again. We wash our hands and feet, routinely, when we come in from outside. But I have known folks who washed cucumbers with soap, and scraped carrots and radishes to half their thickness, in an effort at purity......

Maybe now US supermarkets will be flooded with "dirt" packaged beautifully, buy one, get one free, which you spread, say in the playroom or patio, or even your backyard. They will advertise worms, sourced specially from some country, and Trader Joe's will go ballistic marketing leafy veggies that give the worms a safe haven. Tissues will see a downturn in sales, paper towel factories will go bankrupt, and people will go to Washington and crib about how the government does nothing for them but only for the Citibank, notwithstanding the fact that paper-towel-factory types don't buy private jets but travel to Washington by Southwest Airlines and rented cars........

Children will be encouraged to wipe their noses with the back of their hands, after a rough and tumble game. Restaurants will advertise certified "dirtified" foodstuff, and people will be encouraged to eat with unwashed hands.The Dirt Devil will no longer be a vacuum cleaner brand name, but will be the hero of a new special TV series for children, the successor to the Sesame St series.

But what no one will realize , is that the babies who crawl on the floor, the world over, and pick up interesting things to check out with their mouths, are simply doing what has endured through thousands of years. This habit has survived through ages. For that, there has to be some benefit to the children. And so maybe it is the sort of Immunity 101 course for babies, training their growing systems to handle perturbations to their body, learning to fight infections, building up immunity and resistance.

No one deliberately likes dirt. Circumstances beyond one's control causes it. How much "dirt" you live in has to do with the weather, the populations densities, the dietary habits, level of industrialization in society, type of society and so on. Each country or society achieves some kind of steady state given all these parameters.

Dirt is good and bad. Life threatening infections in infants in developing countries, have to do with the problems of less. Life threatening or life changing maladies in developed countries, have to do with problems of more. A balanced, reasoned look at this subject is needed. Playing in the dirt cannot be a lifestyle decree. What is needed is a new understanding of what is considered dirt, in which situation and where. And the settling down to a studied "mean" level of lifestyle, complementing the chosen environment.

I have blogged about this "middle" stuff once earlier.....but then no one was researching and publishing stuff (except me and my blog :-), and no one was talking about organic dirt.

This fast slide into a super consumerist society needs to be halted. People need to learn to think, and not just follow declarations from up there somewhere. Its not a question of white and black. Life is all about different shades of grey and brown, and ivory. Sometimes, even green.

Actually, I think what Sudhir said was right !

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Muscles in life

Niggling shoulder pains, have often elicited disparaging comments about what are euphemistically called advancing years. Many moons ago, this would have been treated with a great massage with a special ayurvedic oil, baths with some special leaves or oils added to your bath water, and wise suggestions from concerned family folks, on what actions needed to be discouraged , as well as encouraged, to accelerate the healing process. Someone, with great experience would have suggested imbibing foods prepared out of certain resins, to bring strength to the bones, and offered to make some delicious stuff for you to eat.....

Today with an amazing rate of turnover of "knowledge", nuclear families, and great mobility, not too speak of missing greenery,trees, and sometimes even sufficient clean water, we need to look elsewhere.

Sometimes , the question is, of accurately describing what's happening.

I spent almost a month trying out various things to reduce the pain, as well as find out whats going on.

I did R and D . R on the Internet. D was all about development, but of my pain.

It would come and go depending on certain actions. But whenever it came, it would take its own time petering off, showing the sort of unwillingness a child shows when asked to come away from someone distributing free chocolates....

It was almost as if the muscles had a memory, and were unwilling to forget the troubling action.

Which got me on to something called Muscle memory. There actually is such a thing.

And it has nothing to do with disgusting pictures of folks with such extra-bulging muscles, that they cant stand straight in (try doing that with super bulging leg and arm muscles and see), and need to take certain "poses" to prove their mitochondrial richness, curves and all.....

Turns out that we have several types of muscles. Some are totally under our control - like our skeletal muscles. We decide whether to run, walk, stop, bend, raise arms, slap someone and so on. Then there are some muscles , that are not so much under our control, like eye muscles, and the chest diaphragm. We unknowingly blink sometimes. But should someone tell us to close our eyes, we can do that at will. The diaphragm is involved with every breath we take, whether we are aware or not. But should we need to hold a breath, it is under our control too.... So these are muscles that have two masters. And then there are many muscles, located inside us, like the heart muscle, which , very clearly has a will of its own, and is never under our control. It has its own life, its own rhythm, throughout our life.

Turns out that muscles can be taught to remember.

Certain actions that we try again and again , say in an exercise class, make it easier for us to perform the particular action. Its not a huge surprise for our muscles the next time we try.... Muscles remember that action A is followed by action B, then action C, and prepare. We feel things are getting easier. Like when you learn to cycle and learn to hop on one pedal before getting on. Like when I learned math tables as a child, tables of 29 got easier as the repetitions continued. Because something somewhere developed a memory or habit.

And while we feel the muscle is getting smarter its actually the brain which is making things fall in line.

Apparently, the tongue is also a muscle. And various actions of our tongues, as we enunciate the various inflections in our languages, teach this muscle, how easy it gets with practice. So someone who speaks Marathi, my language, will have the tongue muscle habituated to the inflections of the language. Say, as compared with someone speaking French, German, or some new language. That's why learning a new language is difficult initially.

I wonder if within a language itself, the tongue has memory.

Abusive words exist.

Some people cannot speak a sentence without uttering an expletive. Whether the motivation is shock value, or a sense of revulsion towards the object of the words, is debatable. But it is clear that a tongue muscle habituated to performing swirly movements, to mouth words, hitherto considered objectionable, will remember the activity. Every time a situation demands action on the part of this speaker, typically, the first to emerge, by default, will be this expletive or expletives.

Sometimes you don't have to be so bad. I know several folks, who use the word"like" , like a comma; when you have a sudden pause, like, say, in , like, a sentence, you throw in, something, like, a like....People have been known to have consciously "de-liked " their vocabulary, by participating in games in a pair, where you thump/nudge each other every time you say "like" , in redundant situations, and people have been known to stop this ridiculous habit.....

There is also other facial memory. Your lip muscles and eye muscles, obviously learn, from previous sneering and raising of eyebrows. That is why, even the mention of a particular person, who may be physically miles away, makes you disapprovingly sneer, or raise your eyebrows questioningly. because the memories associated by your brain and learnt by these muscles, with the mention of this person, are such. Sometimes the tongue muscles too participate. An abusive person, is never abusive to everyone, His thrill in the abuse, pertains to maybe only certain people. And so we have people whose tongues fly into abuse configuration at the sight of specific folk.

Its possible, that parents who inadvertently hard wire their brains with these kind of muscle memories, will pass it on to their offspring in the form of an abusive DNA string. And so many times, you see alcoholic abusive folks carrying on the stuff in successive generations of the family, making life hell for everyone else...

So when our parents tried to instill in us, sometimes successfully, certain standards of behaviour,conversation, and interfacing with the general public and or family, it had a reason. It was so that the tongues would develop a constructive memory pattern, suited for a society where there are units of humans that live together. Abuse was punished. Expletives were penalized.

And the tongue muscle. hopefully , learned.

Lifestyle , too , was encouraged in a similar sense. Rules of diet, recreation, quiet contemplation, and interpersonal in
teraction were there, without being thought of as rules. You cleaned the house everyday, had a bath before you prayed and started the day. At least in my childhood, there weren't machines for housework. You bent, you stretched, you extended and you twisted. Your recreation as a child had to do with playing in the outdoors. And so each of your muscle groups got the sort of training that the muscles remembered, and you got into a habit of doing these things. Today's technology , labour saving though it may be, has encouraged no memories, except in a left brained way. And we try and substitute by overdoing the gym stuff, which is mostly brawn and hardly brain.

No one then knew anything about muscle memories, or how the brain makes the muscles do things. Unnecessary evil and abusive talk was remembered , not by the tongue muscle of the originators, , but possibly by their facial muscles which may have contracted after getting a stinging parental slap. And those memories must have lingered.

And so one doesn't go by the look of a muscle. It is much more than fibres. Striated , red or white. It is much more than mitochondria. There is a part of all muscles that build character of an individual.

As early as 1907, a gentleman by the name of
Granville Stanley Hall, who was a psychologist and educationist had said, "
Muscles are in a most intimate and peculiar sense the organs of the will. They have built all the roads, cities and machines in the world, written all the books, spoken all the words, and, in fact done everything that man has accomplished with matter. Character might be a sense defined as a plexus of motor habits."

I cant agree more. Dont know about the motor habits , but the pain in my brachial plexus is killing me......

Monday, January 26, 2009

Blwyddyn Newydd Dda! ! Sure ! Sawadee Pee Mai!

I know its been almost a month since 2009 began.

Like many folks , who at year-end and year-beginning, take stock of their fortunes, economic and otherwise, some other folks like GWBush and Obama, who I am sure look back and look ahead respectively at this point, it occurred to me , that, trying to find the international/national mix in the various folks who alight on this blog once in a while, would be an interesting thing to do.

I thought it would be in the fitness of things that I wish them a Happy New Year in their mother tongue, (as I guess it to be).

While the most numerous of my blogger friends can be wished in English, I thought these following 92 ways of saying a Happy New Year to everyone , sometimes even in their script, was something I should be doing, as the Chinese people, today , January 26, 2009, begin the year of the OX !

There isnt any entry for English. For those folks , A very happy new Year to you....

For those whose blog followers speak Thai, Albanaian,Dhihevi,Greek,Hungarian,Eskimo ,Kabyle,Kisii,Lithuanian, Vietnamese, et al, this is how you say the stuff .....

And now for the exciting stuff: (Roses are Red, Bloggers in Blue.....:-).)
  1. Afghan - Saale Nao Mubbarak
  2. Afrikaans - Gelukkige nuwe jaar
  3. Albanian - Gezuar Vitin e Ri
  4. Armenian - Snorhavor Nor Tari
  5. Arabic - Kul ‘am wa antum bikhair Hi Edasseri !
  6. Assyrian - Sheta Brikhta
  7. Azeri - Yeni Iliniz Mubarek!
  8. Bengali - Shuvo Nabo Barsho Hi Sucharita ,Pradip Biswas , Ranu, Vikram Hazra !
  9. Breton [Celtic Brythonic language] - Bloavezh Mat
  10. Bulgarian - ×åñòèòà Íîâà Ãîäèíà (pronounced “Chestita Nova Godina”)
  11. Cambodian - Soursdey Chhnam Tmei
  12. Catalan - Feliç Any Nou
  13. Chinese - Xin Nian Kuai Le 新年快乐(modern) 新年好(traditional)
  14. Corsican Language - Pace e Salute
  15. Croatian - Sretna Nova godina!
  16. Czech - Šťastný Nový rok (or Stastny Novy rok)
  17. Danish - Godt Nytår
  18. Dhivehi - Ufaaveri Aa Aharakah Edhen
  19. Dutch - Gelukkig Nieuwjaar!
  20. Eskimo - Kiortame pivdluaritlo
  21. Esperanto - Felican Novan Jaron
  22. Estonians - Head uut aastat!
  23. Ethiopian - Melkam Addis Amet YihuneliwoI!
  24. Finnish - Onnellista Uutta Vuotta
  25. French - Bonne Annee Très bonne année Hi Helene H , Fida!
  26. Gaelic - Bliadhna mhath ur
  27. Galician [NorthWestern Spain] - Bo Nadal e Feliz Aninovo
  28. German - Prosit Neujahr Hi Fida !
  29. Georgian - Gilotsavt Akhal Tsels!
  30. Greek Kenourios Chronos
  31. Gujarati - Nutan Varshbhinandan Hi Hitch Writer , Chirag, Rajk !
  32. Hawaiian - Hauoli Makahiki Hou
  33. Hebrew - L’Shannah Tovah
  34. Hindi - Naye Varsha Ki Shubhkamanyen नए वर्ष की शुभ कामनाएँ Hi Everyone in India!(whose mother tongue I cannot figure out), Various Indian Folks in the US, UK, and Australia !,
  35. Hong Kong (Cantonese) - Sun Leen Fai Lok
  36. Hungarian - Boldog Ooy Ayvet
  37. Indonesian - Selamat Tahun Baru Hi Adi Nugroho !
  38. Iranian - Sal -e- no mobarak
  39. Iraqi - Sanah Jadidah
  40. Irish - Bliain nua fe mhaise dhuit
  41. Italian - Felice anno nuovo
  42. Japan - Akimashite Omedetto Gozaimasu 謹賀新年 Hi Manifestation
  43. Kabyle - Asegwas Amegaz
  44. Kannada - Hosa Varushadha Shubhashayagalu Hi Ganesh ! Hi Lakshmi, Usha
  45. Kisii - Somwaka Ompyia Omuya
  46. Khmer - Sua Sdei tfnam tmei
  47. Korea - Saehae Bock Mani ba deu sei yo!
  48. Kurdish - Newroz Pirozbe
  49. Latvian - Laimīgo Jauno Gadu!
  50. Lithuanian - Laimingu Naujuju Metu
  51. Laotian - Sabai dee pee mai
  52. Macedonian - Srekjna Nova Godina
  53. Madagascar - Tratry ny taona
  54. Malay - Selamat Tahun Baru Hi Sukku !
  55. Marathi - Naveen Varshachya Shubhechcha Hi Vivek, HareKrishnaji, Vinita, ChammakChallo,Radhika G., Pitamaha, Sonal M M,Abhilekh, Chandu,Magic Eye,Raman Ozha,Ganesh, Enchanted
  56. Malayalam - Puthuvatsara Aashamsakal Hi NSIyer
  57. Mizo - Kum Thar Chibai
  58. Maltese - Is-Sena t- Tajba
  59. Nepal - Nawa Barsha ko Shuvakamana
  60. Norwegian - Godt Nyttår
  61. Papua New Guinea - Nupela yia i go long yu
  62. Pampango (Philippines) - Masaganang Bayung Banua
  63. Pashto - Nawai Kall Mo Mubarak Shah
  64. Persian - Sal -e- no mobarak
  65. Philippines Manigong Bagong Taon!
  66. Polish - Szczesliwego Nowego Roku
  67. Portuguese - Feliz Ano Novo
  68. Punjabi - Nave sal di mubarak ਨਵੇਂ ਸਾਲ ਦੀਆਂ ਸ਼ੁਭ ਕਾਮਨਾਵਾਂ Hi Sayani !
  69. Romanian - An Nou Fericit
  70. Russian - S Novim Godom С Новым годом!
  71. Samoa - Manuia le Tausaga Fou
  72. Serbo-Croatian - Sretna nova godina
  73. Sindhi - Nayou Saal Mubbarak Hoje
  74. Singhalese - Subha Aluth Awrudhak Vewa
  75. Siraiki - Nawan Saal Shala Mubarak Theevay
  76. Slovak - Stastny Novy rok
  77. Slovenian - Sreèno novo leto
  78. Somali - Iyo Sanad Cusub Oo Fiican!
  79. Spanish - Feliz Ano ~Nuevo
  80. Swahili - Heri Za Mwaka Mpyaº
  81. Swedish - Gott nytt år!
  82. Sudanese - Warsa Enggal
  83. Tamil - Eniya Puthandu Nalvazhthukkal Hi Kavi, NSIyer, Ganesh, A. I..Radhika G, Rajk
  84. Tibetian - Losar Tashi Delek
  85. Telegu - Noothana samvatsara shubhakankshalu
  86. Thai - Sawadee Pee Mai
  87. Turkish - Yeni Yiliniz Kutlu Olsun
  88. Ukrainian - Shchastlyvoho Novoho Roku
  89. Urdu - Naya Saal Mubbarak Ho
  90. Uzbek - Yangi Yil Bilan
  91. Vietnamese - Chuc Mung Tan Nien
  92. Welsh - Blwyddyn Newydd Dda!
  93. Mexican - Feliz Año Nuevo
  94. Latin - Felix sit annus novus Hi Chammakchallo!
  95. Sanskrit - Bhavati api nutana samawatsaryasa subhashchaya Hi Chammakchallo !
Any folks out there blogging in Swahili and Welsh, and say Uzbek ?

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Abilities of another kind....

Getting desperate for education is one thing. Getting desperate over the mechanics of it is another thing.

In a world, where school really appears to be about making smart people smarter, one was faced with a situation of learning disability within the family, once high school happened. In a world, where relative inability in maths, and pathological aversion to physics and chemistry, was, actually treated in families like a disease, it took a lot of learning and observation on my part, to realize that children's successes could be of many types, all not necessarily academic.

Open Schooling was an option, and was grabbed with both hands, at what I today consider , one of the best centres for it in Mumbai. It is a telling comment on professional attitudes, that I was warned NOT to send my child there, as "there were a lot of disabled children there !"

At such times, one is grateful for the one big dose of good sense and realism that god and our parents may have bequeathed us. I wanted my child to learn to respect differently abled children, and empathize with them. I had s een enough parents so obsessed with the success of their own children that they bred a lack of sensitivity in their own children, who often stared and didnt know how to react when confronted with a differently abled child. (What one thinks of such parents is the subject of a separate blog post one day)

As it turned out, it was a normal school which opened its arms to a few differently abled children, and took special care of them, integrating them with the mainstream, to the benefit of the entire student body .

While the lack of constant rankings in class, missing superior attitudes of teachers, and excellent textbooks prepared by the National Boards enthused my child, the main thing was that it gave her an immense amount of self esteem which got her interested in studying subjects, which she could select as per the rules of this Board. Liberal Arts with a dash of Business courses did the trick , and my child comfortably did her 10th and 12th grades from there.

For various logistics reasons , I took my daughter to school every day, waited and brought her back. The Principal, a Jesuit priest, noticed some of us parents in the same boat, and requested us to be parent volunteers while we were there, and we could assist the teachers etc. We gladly agreed.

Children from many other centres were appearing for their Boards at this particular school, and I was asked to invigilate a class where several children who were classified, spastic, and with other medical problems were writing their exams, with "writers" . (Writers are people who are interviewed , and accepted as someone who would transcribe what the child dictates during the exam. These are selected based on the specific child , his abilities, disadvantages, and sense of security , all within the framed rules of the Board, followed strictly by the school.).

Sandeep was appearing for the Junior Boards or the 10th class boards. A student of the Spastics Society School in a suburb of Mumbai, he was a mentally very active child. His parents both worked, and his grandparents lived with them. His mother rued the lack of time for him (thanks to the time she spent commuting to work everyday), despite his grandmother assuring her , and happily participating in looking after the chap and his various needs at home.

Sandeep was allowed to bring his grandmother as a writer, and he was one of the 10-12 such student-writer combinations that I was to invigilate. All the students, without exception, looked tension free and had smiles. They came in looking around the desks, choosing their places, willingly giving in if another wanted it. Some wanted to be near a window, some insisted on sitting right in front of the class, and some simply quietly sat down with their writer wherever they could. The question papers were distributed.

The students were supposed to quietly dictate answers to their writers. Despite what may be brought up by skeptics as a perhaps valid doubt, the writers don't write the papers on their own. (It is not unknown for perfectly able students to do this claiming a fake disability, with the connivance of their parents, and I had seen one such case, which happily, had an unhappy ending).

After a while I started hearing some really loud whispers, and a bunch of suppressed giggles. Sandeep was giving a loudly whispered dictation to his grandmother, who was trying to quieten him, and the rest of the students thought this was funny. It never occurred to any to "listen" to the answers. They just thought it totally amusing that one of them was getting away with this, to the complete consternation of the grandmother.

She called me over.

I tried telling Sandeep, that he should quietly dictate or everyone would hear his answers. He pointed to the fan saying it was making too much noise above him. We shut that off. He looked at the other students, and all of them smiled at each other, in unity with Sandeep. The whispered dictation continued. He would suddenly remember something from a previous question and make his grandma go back, trying to accelerate her gnarled fingers with his own as she turned the pages. Then he would switch back again.

After a while, water was in fashion. Everyone, starting with Sandeep suddenly became thirsty. It was like a little break while everyone parched their whispering throats. That's when Sandeep suddenly noticed the speaker like contraption on the wall of the classroom, and demanded to know what it was.

For me it was a lesson in patience.
This was not how exams were. But then this was not how children were supposed to be.

I told him that the Father Principal, could hear everything going on in the class via this thing. And chances were that he, the principal, was actually aware of the excitement Sandeep was generating with his talk and activities, all while dictating answers. Maybe he would come down from his office. Maybe he would get upset with Sandeep. (Actually, these were speakers used for public announcements at school).

Sandeep quietened down a bit, and finished the paper along with the other students. Sandeep was ecstatic as he was done with his papers for that year, and he could now get back to what was his version of cricket . I asked him about his school, and he told me about the visit of the cricket greats like Gavaskar to his school , where they played with them, misbowled balls, shaky bats and all. But his eyes told a different story. They shone with confidence.

He asked me if I would report him to the Father Principal. I told him to go wait for his Grandma outside.

The old lady was in tears as she collected her purse, and a little pack of refreshments she had brought from home for Sandeep. She extricated herself from the school desks, something she was doing, possibly after several decades. She removed her thick rimmed glasses, wiping her eyes with the edge of her traditional silk saree, and started apologizing for her grandson, saying she was sorry for the trouble he was causing everywhere he went, like the classroom today.

I was completely aghast. I told her there was no problem at all. Sandeep was doing fine. He was NOT a problem. I liked invigilating this class, and would do it again. And if Sandeep were to be appearing for another paper, it would be my pleasure to invigilate .

She wordlessly held both my hands, touched my cheek, and then left, suddenly remembering that Sandeep would be waiting for her in the foyer.

I took all the collected answer sheets to the supervisor lady. Amongst all the invigilators who came in with tired troubled faces, shaking their heads at the tricky things the so-called normal students could do , I was the only one who seemed to have enjoyed the activity.

The supervisor , who had been doing this for years knowingly smiled when I told her I had a great time and would offer my help again.

Education was not about getting a B++ student to get an A+, or appearing in an merit list. It wasnt about framing tough discipline rules that considered all students tricky till proven otherwise.

It was about bringing assurance to a life, beset with disadvantages, and making the child feel, he was doing so well, he could face anything in life now, including a googly from Gavaskar.......

Sandeep eventually passed his 10th grade with distinction, taking one subject every year. I stopped going to the school after a year as my daughter went to college, but I met his grandmother accidently once , and this time the tears were of a different type.

Degrees are fine. Scholars are applauded.

But what will always stay in my mind's eye, is the smile on the face of a child, who everyone thought was a recipe for failure, his innate honesty, his conviction that grandmothers are made to be troubled by grandchildren, his fellowship with his classmates, his laborious yearly attempts at examinations, and the twinkle in his eye at the prospect of getting back to his school game of "cricket", as his grandmother looked on through indulgently flooded eyes.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Robots are coming.....

Returning from the hospital visit today , one came across a huge poster, splashed across the fence railing outside, advertising a robot salamander. The students are having an annual tech festival, and anything with machine control is to be applauded, and studied, even if they are salamanders.

There are several reasons why this kind of thing may appear to be in bad taste.

Here we are, in one of Mumbai's nicely wooded areas, where there is a free run for all kinds of quadrupeds and bipeds of the living type. (There appears to be a free run, also to the type that has 2, 3 and 4 wheels, but that's another blog post). We have at least one alligator and/or crocodile in our lake. Plenty of dogs, monkeys, cows, bulls, wild wolves, and last but not least, an occasional leopard, that decides to visit. Snakes, cobras, several types of lizards, mongooses, rats, are in uncontrolled Brownian motion after dark. Mosquitoes, emboldened by the expanse of the lake, seem to be permanent residents, supposedly in cahoots with mosquito coil makers and mosquito screen and net manufacturers.

While salamanders may already be here (with thousands of their brethren), the last thing we were looking for, is a robot salamander.

This obsession with making machines behave more and more like humans, was what made Alan Turing such a great mathematician and scientist, and ever since then , folks are trying to make robots, that pass , what is called, since 1950, the Turing test. The whole idea is to make such a smart machine, that a judge, speaking simultaneously to a human and a machine must be baffled as to with who he is speaking after a while.

While most folks concentrate of making the machine "think like a human", the 2008 winner of annual Turing test contest won by convincing three of 12 humans it was just like them, by
acting like a human pretending to be a robot. He won the Loebner Prize.

I wish somebody would try to figure out why humans are behaving more and more like robots and machines.

In a recently released film called Ghajini,
a guy who has short term memory loss, tries to remember things by tattooing all kinds of details and facts about the case across his torso, and reacts to his own glaring angry self in the mirror by giving a very non-human scream. His pictures showing "so-and-so is a murderer", "so and so was killed by so and so" etc , tattooed across his abs , are flashed at most places and traffic junctions in Mumbai.

I wonder . Did the guy not have a family or friends ? If he did, why weren't they helping him? If they knew who killed, then what were the law enforcement types doing ? Was someone there related to a minister of the cabinet , who could hush up things? Why this abuse of a living, thinking society, while the effort to behave like a machine endures ?

Then you have the lone terrorist caught in the recent Mumbai carnage. This was probably beyond Turing's expectations, but here were guys (9 killed, one caught alive), who were programmed like machines to swallow one fact. The final objective was to do some supposedly supreme violently terrorist act that would get them priority entry into paradise, with a services upgrade regarding the various things available there. The programming succeeded, because certain folks, who have converted a great religion, that actually preached wonderful things, into an algorithm, that selectively picks up and twists facts, and spreads hatred through misguided violently programmed youngsters. Phone intercepts during the approaching end of the carnage show the bosses in a neighbor country telling them that they should fight on, not stay alive and prepare to reach their final destination, paradise. The lone captured terrorist chap, still says, that what he did was absolutely right, nothing wrong there, and his mind, amazingly is also programmed to ignore the fact that his country, refuses to acknowledge him as a citizen , despite the world press and DNA samples, proving it.

If there was an Inverse Turing prize, this guy's programmers would have got it. Man to Machine .

Then you take the student population. I mean students and exams are not new. Generations after generations of folks have been taking school and college and other entrance exams, as far back as I can remember, which is , say 55 years. excluding kindergaarten days. Passing and failing was all part of life. People were generally then a bit apprehensive about parents' wrath. You passed some, you failed some. Sometimes a new path lit up for you. Sometimes you learnt a lesson and tried to improve results. And succeeded well.

Today, one is astounded by news items occurring with increasing frequency,which talk about people committing suicides , as a reaction for failure. In a life, with such a possible colorful and wide spectrum, why this obsession with being either a 1 or a 0 ? What is turning these youth into binary thinkers, machines that think of only 2 types of status, ON and OFF ? Does success give so much unlimited value to life, that failure makes you a big Zero ?
The parents who should be the ones actually reassuring the children seem to be struck with the same malady. Life has become cheap. To be snuffed out. Instead of putting in constructive effort.

Robots cannot actually think on their own. They have to be directed to do so, either by real time instructions or hardwired/software programmed instructions , but instructions nevertheless.

Today , so many of our regional parties exist solely because of a dedicated cadre of mindless followers, who are willing to do various acts of destruction, intimidation etc on the instructions of their top people. Their is no individual reasoning, thinking of pros and cons. One more example of conversion of a vibrant society into a jungle of robots.

Someone needs to introduce a prize for this. Something like a Anti-Turing prize. Have all these robotic people in competition. Then the winner can have all kinds of things tattooed on his or her torso like the Ghajini There will be posters all over the city, breaking news on news portals. He will give a robotic smile. Suddenly switch back to a frown.

Left-brained to the limit with a pea sized right brain. Thanks to the programmers.

Its all this 1-0 thinking.

I wonder if the robotic salamander , that is to appear on our campus, thinks like that. I wonder what commands it will follow. I wonder what it will do if a real lizard darts towards it in the grass, a wild dog barks at it, or one of our wonderful campus cows steps on it. Will it hiss, moo, or cry out ? Or simply wait, for its controller. to press some buttons to tell it what to do and say ? Much like our society , obsessed with the either/or philosophy....

The great man Alan Turing was supposed to have said " “I believe that at the end of the century the use of words and general educated opinion will have altered so much, that one will be able to speak of machines thinking without expecting to be contradicted.”

He was thinking of different ones.

I hope that these current society machines will be spoken about, I hope they are questioned and contradicted.

Machines and Robots converted back to honest thinking people.

And once more , we will be back to real salamanders, real woods, and real people , striving to work and think on their own, for the betterment of all.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Apres moi, ....the blog ! or back-to-the-future.....

I recently came across a blog post on the post-death blogging scenario; ie. what happens to your blog once you are dead. I assume that I have a decent amount of time before my wishes "kick in" so to speak, but this really got me thinking...

Its possible that at some point, just like Yahoo-photos did, Blogger may decide that life is more tolerable elsewhere, , say , together with Wordpress or something, both having being bought by someone else all together. So maybe this blog will have involuntarily have moved, (like its owner), except the screen will say where the blog has moved, but no one will really know where the owner , i.e. me, has gone. All depends on my Karma. While heaven is a distinct possibility, the sheer majority of those folks who told me to "Go to hell" cannot be denied....

Maybe , 80 years from now, say in 2089, researchers in sociology, psychology , linguistics, anthropology, women's studies, etc will be amazed at how friendly everyone was in the "old days". They will marvel at the way folks then actually spoke to each other, directly, as opposed to some complicated method followed by them since 2030, where everything they utter gets archived instantly, and trained Apes sitting at the University of The Antarctic read and draw inferences about you, thousands of miles away, sitting in heated rooms, with computer systems that they hide in their pockets, and special wires running to their left brains.

They will marvel at the stupidity of bloggers in a city actually getting together for a lunch and braving traffic snarls, crowds, road dividers, and rickshaws in the bargain, when you could have really have a f-mail ("food-email" to those ignorant of recent advances in email)-lunch, where the restaurant emailed you actual food, and you could have world wide menus, and email each other bit food portions called piece-mails ..... , and there would be no concept of going home, because you never went away in the first place.

All those posts that folks wrote about life in the late 20th century and very early parts of the 21st, will be declared "heritage" posts.

Google of course will still be there, but it will now have a separate search engine for Mars called Google Mars. Mars will have been colonized around 2050, and there will be a huge amount of work outsourced to Mars, where BPO companies will enjoy 20 year tax breaks, green colored screens; and green colored folks with horns, working the terminals will have to answer questions from folks, asking if you were talking from Mars or India , and tolerate remarks like "I wish GE would keep offices in Nebraska", " Cant understand this b****Martian accent, ", etc etc;

Blogs will be studied to understand how surgeries and medical care etc were handled and conducted in the "old days". Darlene's blog will be highlighted for special mention due to her comments on the ancient medical care system in the US, which would now be 79 states, some of them linked virtually to the first fifty, since they were so far away in the Middle east. Sylvia and Rain's blogs would be a shining example of how the ice age played havoc with the US northwest before a global warming attack converted the northwest to a tropical climate area. Of course , folks in UK, will be rejoicing at the coronation of Queen Kate Elizabeth Barbara Jane Haseena Benazir, originally hailing from Scotland, and there will once again be an interplanetary debate on whether there should be a Monarchy or no. Interestingly, Mars would vote a resounding Yes!

Folks would visit South Asia after a study of blogs that would indicate prehistoric levels of transport and commerce. Vegetables and other stuff marketed by the roadside, tailors who actually stitched individual clothes as opposed to submiting 35,212 sleeves to a clothes factory ready for attaching. How implements were repaired by mostly self taught folks, which avoided the sort of junk pile up that happened in Sunnyvale in the year 2050, causing lack of sunlight into houses, which in turn led to a rickets epidemic. Folks will express wide spread amazement over history indicating barbers coming home to happily cut the families hair. Scholars in agriculture will rue the day sugarcane disappeared from fields, making available only sugar or cane , but not together, causing untold hardship, known as the Powai Pongal wars......

Doctors and psychologists at the International Institutes of Health with branches and offices in 3,400 countries, including Mars, will undertake research to ascertain the effect of casual conversation and neighborly behavior on angry supermechanized populations across the world. Landmark findings will indicate that peoples right brains have shrunk considerably where as the left were bursting at the seams, barely kept in check by weird hairstyles.

It will be recommended that folks have 120 minutes of some interesting conversation with a neighbor or other person everyday. If disagreements were to lead to fights, those too would be encouraged as some interaction was better than none. For those whose work style demanded sitting in front of alphabets, they would recommend sound blogs, and in the absence of requisite technology, word blogs.

Interaction amongst folks was to be encouraged, Endorphin creation was to be attempted.

The only difference was, you didn't have to type in a blog. You could shout at the screen, sing at the screen, and whisper to the screen, and it would automatically transcribe........

Which is why, I have come to the conclusion that in the event I disappear from the face of the earth, and assuming there is no blogger interface available in heaven or hell or anywhere in between, my blog will remain, doing its rounds, whirling in the ether, as I look on (cant say from where),
at all the fun going on in the blogosphere.... user name and password safe in my hands,

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Styling the Crowning Glory.....

When I was of an age when my mother had to comb and plait my hair, the bone of contention was often the hair parting. My mother would basically center it, but move it around ,everyday, in a minor way around that centre. The theory was, that parting the hair in the same place every single day, affected the hair growth there, much the same as a well trodden path in a forest gets slowly standardized, and dissuades growth on the actual path.

So I was completely dumbfounded to note that folks were going completely haywire over what was called the Ghajini haircut, where you basically had a close crew cut, and "cut" a permanent parting in that. Ghajini was a film having an opening, the hero had this cut, and all the ushers at the theatre were given a complimentary Ghajini cut on the day of the premiere, though I personally think they were paid to tolerate the monstrosity. However, looking at what people do to their hair the world over, there appears to be lots more lined up, and those of us of the tie-your hair-back-with-a-clip variety, have reason to be alarmed.

When I studied maths at some point in my life, they talked about the "inverse " of something, and I always thought they were trying to make my life difficult, by discussing useless things. But apparently someone was listening, and Voila ! The Anti-Ghajini cut ! And I completely understand why the lady doesn't want to look at herself in the mirror.

I think this guy is probably a physics professor, waxing eloquent about symmetry. Though I am sure there are easier ways of discussing it. But as Aristotle said "The mathematical sciences particularly exhibit order, symmetry, and limitation; and these are the greatest forms of the beautiful"......Hmmm.

I know most daughters wind their fathers around their little fingers. But getting inspired by your daughters hairstyle in class 2 and emulating that, looks like taking things too far. Though I would have thought that the guy with glasses could have grown a decent size beard to keep up the symmetry. He obviously never met the prof above...The second guy , looks like someone from a family with all sons; the mother pining for a daughter, probably makes him do this....

I don't know where this guy thinks he is going, but appears to be inspired by the Statue of Liberty, which says "Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses ....". Even if I was tired and poor, I wouldn't want to go to this guy. Let him learn to hold a torch, instead of looking ready to hit someone.

I have heard of guys with foot-long-and-more moustaches that lie across their shoulders, typically, say, in Rajasthan, where I honestly think moustaches grow faster.. But I wish this guy would turn around and show whether it's all his moustache or saved-from-shaving cranial hair wound in an innovative style.

Probably something highly recommended for tropical countries, where Global Warming has caused , a huge amount of, what else, but warming. Not recommended for the monsoon, particularly if you are traveling by public transport, listening to your Ipod, and shaking your head to the rhythm.
Achtung ! Co passengers may turn violent....

Look closely at this guy. he has a pierced lower lip or chin, depending on what shocks you less. If his hair grows any longer, I would hate to be around him in a blizzard or a storm. Being blinded by frizzy hair, entangled in a chin jewel may be cool, but helping disentangle it is not my cup of tea....

The final prizes of the day must go to these two enterprising students, who continue to snooze through a boring lecture , with amazing real life art work on , what, must once have been a boring receding hairline, now beaming with creativity. Notice how you can make yourself look as old as you want , spectacles, beards, expressions et al. I wouldn't want to be invigilating an exam, with these folks , with their real faces down, pouring out their wisdom on to sheets of paper, while the other face continues to stare at me, thumbing its nose, saying "Did you say seeing is believing?...."

I have always wondered if the force of gravity is unable to act on a bald plate, the way it does, say around the moustaches, beards, and other neck type places bursting with hirsute richness.

I know this guy isn't wearing a hat, but if I were, then it's simply hats off to his creativity.

I wouldn't want to run into this person in a dark alley.................

And if you thought these things were done by folks with no work, no money, with lots of time on their hands, and an excess of creativity, its important to note that Hilary Clinton said " If I want to knock a story off the front page, I just change my hairstyle !"

Folks, you are in great company.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

That "Maika" Feeling........... माहेरची माणसं

One of the things peculiar to the institution of marriage in India, is the concept of "Maika/Maher" or "parental abode" and "Sasural/Saasar" or the "in-laws' abode". This concept is very women centric; these entities are treated very theoretically in the case of the groom. These two concepts of Maika and Sasural, stand strong and permanent , in, what I call, minds of middle class type folks, regardless of whether the married couple stays on their own or with the extended family. Somewhere in a far corner of a female mind that swears by nuclear families, is a small neuron that has definitive opinions on the topic.....

By definition, going from the Maika to the Sasural, is like going from green sylvan surroundings, to a scheming jungle. The Maika has all the good people, and the Sasural has folks just waiting for you to arrive , so they can practice all their bossy , and sometimes evil, greedy tendencies. While all these concepts , today have faded into a place closer to oblivion , popular cinema and theatre, continue to show this, sometimes even as a parody.

There is , a well defined part of the wedding events, that is called "Bidaai" or bidding farewell to the bride. Actually, throughout the religious ceremonies associated on the wedding day, there is an undercurrent of the fact that a daughter is being "given" to another family, that she is now the responsibility of the elder seniors of the new family and so on.This particular "giving the daughter away" ceremony is actually a precursor to all the tearful events that happen during the day.

During the "Bidaai", the girl bids farewell to her parents and other extended and close members on that side. There are ,on part of the bride's family, publicly, lots of tears, crying, uncontrollable sobbing, and touching of old feet respectfully, as the husband, after a decent interval, hints that they need to go, and the bride, with glistening clothes, eyes and jewels, makes her way to a fancy car.....[It has been recently been parodied to ridiculous extremes, in a commercial for Pampers, where the happy gurgling of baby, ( consequent to not feeling wet due to wearing Pampers diapers),
carried by a relative, makes everyone laugh at the Bidaai ceremony , instead of cry ...]

In my community, a daughter's second name is her father's name. When she gets married, the second name changes to her husband's, along with her last name, also her husband's. As if this changing of two names wasn't enough, there is, sometimes, a peculiar custom of wilfully changing the bride's first name too, after marriage, and everyone is kept guessing till the husband writes it with his finger in a big plate full of rice, at some point in the wedding festivities. Sometimes, it is a surprise even for a bride. Sometimes names are changed to complement the husbands first name. I know a case of someone, whose name meant "an ocean", and the in laws changed his wife's name, in the wedding, to something that meant , "river"....

And so it gives rise to running into, who you think are unknown people, but end up being your classmates from 30 years ago....all with a completely changed name. In today's day and age, when the boy and girl get many opportunities to meet and get to know each other before marriage, it so happens, that the husband continues to address his wife by her old name, while stubborn senior in laws practice the new name......

There are varying degrees of comfort and /or noncomfort that one associates traditionally with Maika and Sasural.

Even today, the wife returns to her parents' home for her first delivery. Its a joyous homecoming from a world of minding p's and q's, performing gestures of respect to prescribed folks, to a place where you can sleep late, be fussed over your eating urges while pregnant, meet all your old childhood friends, and chat away into the night.....
Long after the children have arrived and are school going, it's not unknown for women living in a town, different from their parents, to come for a longish visit to their folks, when the children have vacations. It gives the grandchildren, an opportunity, to get to know their maternal relatives, and gives the woman a respite from the busy life she leads otherwise, catering to so many lives and routines. Grandchildren are known then to eat stuff they refuse to eat in their own homes, and my daughter has been known to loudly declare to all and sundry, that I was incapable of making french beans a particular way, like my mother....

And so there is a concept that defines friends, on how much of a "Maika' feeling you get with them.

There are friends, where you strive to be proper, a notch higher than you normally sit, you praise their cooking, admire their house and garden, offer to help with things post-lunch where things have been just-so; you turn a blind eye, to something not-so-nice, that their children are up to. You don't feel comfortable wandering into their kitchen, and always get the feeling that there is a secret meaning (which you don't get) to whatever they are saying. And their house is NEVER in a mess. These are friends, who always say nice things to you. They shy away from making critical comments.These are the Sasural types.

And then there are those, who you go see unexpectedly, and they will tell you to grab a plate and sit down for dinner because someone is making hot chapatis, and they know you have a thing about them. They know you gorge on pickles, so they will bring out their latest homemade special mango pickle, and not raise any eyebrow, as you put in a finger to grab a piece. If they know you are coming, they will ask what to make for dinner, and your answer is always about comfort food and never about the gourmet variety. These are friends, where you sit cross legged on a chair and polish off your plate, wiping the wonderful flavours till the plate gleams, and no one thinks you are becoming uncouth. They will tell you if they are worried about something, a child or an event, and you are always part of seeing a solution. These are folks who don't get into a dither when you casually open their fridge to see what good stuff resides inside.
And they don't think twice about telling you off if the occasion so demands...

Having said that, it would be wrong to say these Maika and Sasural classifications are rigid. Times have changed. There is more education. More awareness and respect.

There are families where a girl is considered lost and gone from her own family once she is married. She is called "Paraya Dhan" or "Someone Else's bounty" , and her parental family will have nothing more to do with her....

There are situations where a girl , widowed, is treated like their own daughter by her earlier in laws , and given away in marriage later (like they would, their own daughter) , in an effort to settle her down again. I have known people who did this and the quietly faded out of the picture to allow their earlier daughter-in-law to make a new life, unencumbered by things that would remind her of an earlier life.

Many like to describe friends as good friends, best friends, "fast" friends, the last a typical Indian phrase.

I like to classify friends as sasural or maika types. Some very good and proper , and some that give you a comfortable feeling of having come home. Respectively.

It is interesting making friends in the blogosphere. There is something that draws us to certain blogs, and allows us to skip over some blogs.

What is even more interesting, is that I get a gut feel, of which of them are maika types and which of them are sasural types.

I wonder if this happens to anyone else .....