Monday, December 26, 2005

Celebrating spring among the tulips

Aju Mukhopadhyay describes the splendours of one of the most colourful springs he spent in Lisse, Holland. Deccan Herald, Sunday, April 04, 2004
Greek Goddess Demeter lost her daughter Persephone. After a winter of grieving and searching, she got her back in spring. A joyous Demeter blessed the earth, which woke up to life with innumerable blossoms. This continues ad infinitum. Witnessing the world's largest spring garden, moving among the Tulips in particular, I spent one of the most colourful springs of my life in April last. Spring is the symbol of life. Everywhere people welcome the season of new leaves, colourful flowers and love. It begins with equinox, around 21 March.
Passing through a smooth road, riding a bus from Antwerp to Lisse, Holland, we almost glided to Kagr lake and cruised in a motor launch for some time. Windmills were seen in fields near the bank. Sometimes the lake passed through a town with houses on both sides. It reminded me of Vembanad lake in Kerala, passing through the villages, carrying passengers from place to place.After another short bus drive, we entered the 32 hectares Keukenhof Tulip garden. What astonished us most at first was the gathering of a large number of gay people, strolling, sitting on the banks of the lake or sitting inside and outside the restaurants, which were full and overflowing, with eaters seated very closely on the fawn. Varieties of foods, both vegetarian and non-vegetarian, and drinks were available there. Walking alongside the lake after some refreshments our views were suddenly stolen by tulips in various forms. Unfolding their beauty in different shapes and colour and undulating in the air they drew our attention, one after the other. Tulip or Tulipa, in Belgium it is Tulipen.
The Mother of Pondicherry revealed its spiritual significance, ‘Blossoming’ the ‘result of trust and success,’ she explained. Tulips grow well in cold and hilly climate and thrive best under big trees, in partial shade. Holland is one of world’s main producer of Tulips. In India it is grown in places such as Kashmir and Kulu valley.The egg shaped flowers of this low-growing plant usually blooms in a stalk in all natural colours, from white to black. Tulips may also be grown in pots. So we bought a few potted tulip plants, just a few few inches tall, outside Keukenhof park. We were expecting the plant to flower after it grew up to it’s size, which would be by next year. But lo! we were amazed ro see them bloom before our very eyes in just a matter of three days. Because it was spring! Our eyes never rested. We moved on and on to find new varieties of blossoms, which splashed colours in our hearts. Though tulips were the main objects of attraction, there were others in the constellation. It was the celebration of a flower festival. There were separate beds for different types of flowers, like hyacinth, daffodil or orchid. Each became a cynosure. Hyacinths were fragrant bell-shaped flowers, densely clustered with riot of colours. Orchids were exhibited in indoor glass house with some other flowers.
Orchids, Mother said, are known for their 'Attachment for the divine.' When beds of daffodils came to our view, with their predominantly yellow shades, displaying their 'Power of beauty,' as Mother said, we immediately remembered poet William Wordsworth's ruminating on them,'And then my heart with pleasure fills, And dances with the daffodils.' Besides flowers, take and eateries, there were other things to see, like white and blue peacocks and peahens, joyfully playing and dancing, spreading their plumage before the spectators, announcing the victory, a spiritual victory, as Sri Aurobindo said, they symbolise it. The environment, particularly the flowers, gladdened their heart and induced a smile in everyone. From morning to evening, the visitors spent a happy day. As it is their wont in Western countries, the youth became more sensual than usual. There is a post office in the campus, selling colourful postcards and stamps. One may send a joy-card to his near and dear ones.
We could think of many creative processes, tike making Neem Parks with shops selling neem products and literature on them with arrangement for demonstration. We could make Jasmine Parks' with varieties of creepers which bring forth highly fragrant tiny white flowers with such trees as Spanish Cherry, Champaka and such flowering trees and plants to make the summer not only tolerable but attractive, not only to the bees but to humans also. Many such things could be done to give a vent to our aesthetic sense, to boost our efforts for development of tourism.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Myth reveals the underlying and timeless significance of an event

A subversive story of self-sacrifice Karen Armstrong To celebrate the nativity story with a consumerist orgy is to misunderstand a muth that venerates the dispossessed. The Hindu Friday, Dec 23, 2005 - Guardian
The Christmas story was not intended to be factual. Only two of the evangelists give an account of Jesus' birth; in Mark, almost certainly the oldest of the four gospels, Jesus makes his entrance as a mature adult, with parents, brothers and sisters well known in Nazareth. No angels sing over his makeshift cradle and no miraculous star shines over the stable. The infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke are what Jews call midrash, which give two very different interpretations of Jesus' life and mission.
We could also say that the nativity is a myth. That does not mean that it is not true. A myth can be defined as something that, in some sense, happened once, but that also happens all the time. Myth reveals the underlying and timeless significance of an event. It is also a programme for action. The gospels are not accurate biographies of Jesus; like any religious text, they tell the reader how to behave. Unless a myth is put into practice, we do not grasp its full import.
Both Matthew and Luke are convinced that Jesus was the long-awaited messiah, who, it was widely believed, would be a descendant of King David, so Bethlehem (David's birthplace) is a more suitable site for his nativity than Nazareth. Throughout his gospel, Matthew argues that Jesus came not only for the Jewish people but also for the Gentiles. He therefore makes the three wise men from the east the first people to recognise and pay homage to him.
Luke, on the other hand, wants to show that Jesus' mission is to people who are marginalised and outcast, so he makes the shepherds, who were often regarded as unclean because they did not observe the purity laws, the first recipients of the good news. In both gospels, outsiders are given priority over those who are already in the fold. It is also worth reflecting that the wise men are traditionally believed to have been magi from Iran. The inclusive nature of the Christmas story should be stressed at a time when some of the faithful insist that they have the monopoly of truth and when religion is used to divide humanity into warring sects.
The honour given to outsiders in the Christmas story and throughout the New Testament is also instructive. The gospels consistently present Jesus as consorting with people reviled by the respectable establishment — with "sinners," publicans (who were regarded as traitors because they collected the Roman taxes) and prostitutes. Christians are instructed not to judge others. Self-righteous condemnation of, for example, gay marriages cannot therefore be regarded as truly Christian.
At this time of escalating warfare, it is worth noting that the angels who appear to the shepherds to announce the birth of Jesus are soldiers in God's "heavenly host," who have laid down their arms and announce an era of peace. In some parts of the New Testament, Jesus is certainly presented in a martial guise, but in Matthew he tells his followers to love their enemies, not to retaliate, and to turn the other cheek when attacked. It is important, when we see violence so often justified on religious grounds, to balance the aggressive texts found in so many scriptures with the insistence upon peace and forgiveness that is also characteristic of the major faiths.
It is deeply ironic that Christmas is now celebrated with an orgy of spending and overeating, because the nativity is a story of deprivation. There is no room for the holy family in the inn; in Matthew's gospel, Jesus becomes a refugee. The gospels would look askance at the modern festival of consumerism. Jesus constantly tells would-be disciples to give everything they have to the poor. In Matthew's Sermon on the Mount, he tells them to give up their jobs and live like the birds of the air and the lilies of the field; they must not amass perishable riches on earth, but lay up treasure for themselves in heaven.
There is a good deal of discussion these days about whether Islam is compatible with secular, representational government. But if Christianity, whose founder lived rough and abjured material possessions, helped to create and endorse capitalism — surely one of the strangest developments in religious history — for Islam to embrace democracy should be child's play.
Christianity has found questions of sexuality and gender particularly difficult. The New Testament is ambiguous about the position of women. Matthew is rather a male chauvinist. In his gospel, the angel announces the news of Jesus' conception only to Joseph; Mary does not seem to have been consulted at all. In Luke's gospel, however, women, like other peripheral groups, play an important role.
Gabriel is specifically sent to ask Mary's consent, and she becomes a prophetess, uttering a revolutionary hymn that predicts a new world order in which the mighty will be cast down from their thrones and the poor will be exalted. One suspects that Luke would have had no problems about the ordination of women.
Christmas is often called the festival of the family, but it is hard to find much celebration of family values in the New Testament. Jesus' miraculous conception makes the holy family somewhat atypical, and he seems to have had a problematic relationship with his relatives, who at one time try to lock him up because they think he is mad. Luke's gospel tells disciples to leave their wives and children; Jesus praises those who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the Kingdom, and St. Paul gives grudging support to matrimony, teaching that while the single life is preferable, it is better to marry than to burn.
Religious systems are complex, and their symbols become so familiar that we often do not see them clearly. But the crib reminds us that it is difficult to be religious and we should be on our guard against self-indulgent, simplistic interpretations. We have seen a lot of bad religion recently. The Christmas myth reminds us that faith does not always bring comfort and joy, but demands self-sacrifice, a commitment to justice and equity, and a determination to seek the sacred in the outcast and dispossessed. (Karen Armstrong is the author of A Short History of Myth)

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Intelligent Design Derailed

The New York Times : Editorial December 22, 2005
By now, the Christian conservatives who once dominated the school board in Dover, Pa., ought to rue their recklessness in forcing biology classes to hear about "intelligent design" as an alternative to the theory of evolution. Not only were they voted off the school board by an exasperated public last November, but this week a federal district judge declared their handiwork unconstitutional and told the school district to abandon a policy of such "breathtaking inanity." A new and wiser school board is planning to do just that by removing intelligent design from the science curriculum and perhaps placing it in an elective course on comparative religion. That would be a more appropriate venue to learn about what the judge deemed "a religious view, a mere relabeling of creationism and not a scientific theory."
The intelligent design movement holds that life forms are too complex to have been formed by natural processes and must have been fashioned by a higher intelligence, which is never officially identified but which most adherents believe to be God. By injecting intelligent design into the science curriculum, the judge ruled, the board was unconstitutionally endorsing a religious viewpoint that advances "a particular version of Christianity." The decision will have come at an opportune time if it is able to deflect other misguided efforts by religious conservatives to undermine the teaching of evolution, a central organizing principle of modern biology. In Georgia, a federal appeals court shows signs of wanting to reverse a lower court that said it was unconstitutional to require textbooks to carry a sticker disparaging evolution as "a theory, not a fact." That's the line of argument used by the anti-evolution crowd. We can only hope that the judges in Atlanta find the reasoning of the Pennsylvania judge, who dealt with comparable issues, persuasive.
Meanwhile in Kansas, the State Board of Education has urged schools to criticize evolution. It has also changed the definition of science so it is not limited to natural explanations, opening the way for including intelligent design or other forms of creationism that cannot meet traditional definitions of science. All Kansans interested in a sound science curriculum should heed what happened in Dover and vote out the inane board members. The judge in the Pennsylvania case, John Jones III, can hardly be accused of being a liberal activist out to overturn community values - even by those inclined to see conspiracies. He is a lifelong Republican, appointed to the bench by President Bush, and has been praised for his integrity and intellect. Indeed, as the judge pointed out, the real activists in this case were ill-informed school board members, aided by a public interest law firm that promotes Christian values, who combined to drive the board to adopt an imprudent and unconstitutional policy.
Judge Jones's decision was a striking repudiation of intelligent design, given that Dover's policy was minimally intrusive on classroom teaching. Administrators merely read a brief disclaimer at the beginning of a class asserting that evolution was a theory, not a fact; that there were gaps in the evidence for evolution; and that intelligent design provided an alternative explanation and could be further explored by consulting a book in the school library. Yet even that minimal statement amounted to an endorsement of religion, the judge concluded, because it caused students to doubt the theory of evolution without scientific justification and presented them with a religious alternative masquerading as a scientific theory. The case was most notable for its searching inquiry into whether intelligent design could be considered science. The answer, after a six-week trial that included hours of expert testimony, was a resounding no.
The judge found that intelligent design violated the centuries-old ground rules of science by invoking supernatural causation and by making assertions that cannot be tested or proved wrong. Moreover, intelligent design has not gained acceptance in the scientific community, has not been supported by peer-reviewed research, and has not generated a research and testing program of its own. The core argument for intelligent design - the supposedly irreducible complexity of key biological systems - has clear theological overtones. As long ago as the 13th century, St. Thomas Aquinas argued that because nature is complex, it must have a designer.
The religious thrust behind Dover's policy was unmistakable. The board members who pushed the policy through had repeatedly expressed religious reasons for opposing evolution, though they tried to dissemble during the trial. Judge Jones charged that the two ringleaders lied in depositions to hide the fact that they had raised money at a church to buy copies of an intelligent design textbook for the school library. He also found that board members were strikingly ignorant about intelligent design and that several individuals had lied time and again to hide their religious motivations for backing the concept. Their contention that they had a secular purpose - to improve science education and encourage critical thinking - was declared a sham.
No one believes that this thoroughgoing repudiation of intelligent design will end the incessant warfare over evolution. But any community that is worried about the ability of its students to compete in a global economy would be wise to keep supernatural explanations out of its science classes.

Everyone now stands or falls together

A risk of global collapse Dylan Evans The Hindu Thursday, Dec 22, 2005 - Guardian
Is it possible that global civilisation might collapse within our lifetime or that of our children? Until recently, such an idea was the preserve of lunatics and cults. In the past few years, however, an increasing number of intelligent and credible people have been warning that global collapse is a genuine possibility. And many of them are sober scientists, including Lord May, David King and Jared Diamond — people not usually given to exaggeration or drama. The new doomsayers all point to the same collection of threats — climate change, resource depletion and population imbalances being the most important. What makes them especially afraid is that many of these dangers are interrelated, with one tending to exacerbate the others. It is necessary to tackle them all at once if we are to have any chance of avoiding global collapse, they warn.
Many societies — from the Maya in Mexico to the Polynesians of Easter Island — have collapsed in the past, often because of the very same dangers that threaten us. As Diamond explains in his recent book, Collapse, the Maya depleted one of their principal resources — trees — and this triggered a series of problems such as soil erosion, decrease of useable farmland, and drought. The growing population that drove this overexploitation was thus faced with a diminishing amount of food, which led to increasing migration and bloody civil war. The collapse of the civilisation on Easter Island followed a similar pattern, with deforestation leading to other ecological problems and warfare.
Unlike these dead societies, our civilisation is global. On the positive side, globalisation means that when one part of the world gets into trouble, it can appeal to the rest of the world for help. Neither the Maya nor the inhabitants of Easter Island had this luxury, because they were in effect isolated civilisations. On the negative side, globalisation means that when one part of the world gets into trouble, the trouble can quickly be exported. If modern civilisation collapses, it will do so everywhere. Everyone now stands or falls together.
Global collapse would probably still follow the same basic pattern as a local collapse but on a greater scale. With the Maya, the trouble began in one region but engulfed the whole civilisation. Today, as climate change makes some areas less hospitable than others, increasing numbers of people will move to the more habitable areas. The increasing population will make them less habitable and lead to further migration in a domino effect. Huge movements of people and capital will put the international financial system under strain and may cause it to give way.
In his book The Future of Money, the Belgian economist Bernard Lietaer argues that the global monetary system is already very unstable. Financial crises have certainly grown in scale and frequency over the past decade. The Southeast Asian crisis of 1997 dwarfed the Mexican crisis of 1994 and was followed by the Russian crash of 1998 and the Brazilian crisis of 1999. This is another example of the way globalisation can exacerbate rather than minimise the risk of total collapse.
This would not be the end of the world. The collapse of modern civilisation would entail the deaths of billions of people but not the end of the human race. A few Mayans survived by abandoning their cities and retreating into the jungle, where they continue to live to this day. In the same way, some would survive the end of the industrial age by reverting to a pre-industrial lifestyle. The enormity of such a scenario makes it hard to imagine. It is human nature to assume that the world will carry on much as it has been. But it is worth remembering that in the years preceding the collapse of their civilisation, the Mayans too were convinced that their world would last forever. (Dylan Evans is a senior lecturer at the University of the West of England.)

The three great secular faiths

The story of man: Darwinism, in its modern form, goes from strength to strength. Excerpted from an editorial in ‘The Economist’, December 20 The Indian Express Thursday, December 22, 2005
In those parts of the planet that might once have been described as Christendom, this week marks the season of peace on Earth and goodwill towards men. A nice idea in a world more usually thought of as seasoned by the survival of the fittest. But goodwill and collaboration are as much part of the human condition as ill-will and competition. And that was a puzzle to 19th-century disciples of Charles Darwin, such as Herbert Spencer.
It was Spencer, an early contributor to The Economist, who invented that poisoned phrase, survival of the fittest. He originally applied it to the winnowing of firms in the harsh winds of high-Victorian capitalism, but when Darwin’s masterwork, On the Origin of Species, was published, he quickly saw the parallel with natural selection and transferred his bon mot to the process of evolution. As a result, he became one of the band of philosophers known as social Darwinists. Capitalists all, they took what they thought were the lessons of Darwin’s book and applied them to human society. Their hard-hearted conclusion, of which a 17th-century religious puritan might have been proud, was that people got what they deserved albeit that the criterion of desert was genetic, rather than moral. The fittest not only survived, but prospered. Moreover, the social Darwinists thought that measures to help the poor were wasted, since such people were obviously unfit and thus doomed to sink.
Sadly, the slur stuck. For 100 years Darwinism was associated with a particularly harsh and unpleasant view of the world and, worse, one that was clearly not true at least, not the whole truth. People certainly compete, but they collaborate, too. They also have compassion for the fallen and frequently try to help them, rather than treading on them... Modern Darwinism’s big breakthrough was the identification of the central role of trust in human evolution. People who are related collaborate on the basis of nepotism. It takes outrageous profit or provocation for someone to do down a relative with whom they share a lot of genes. Trust, though, allows the unrelated to collaborate, by keeping score of who does what when, and punishing cheats...
Of the three great secular faiths born in the 19th century — Darwinism, Marxism and Freudianism — the second died swiftly and painfully and the third is slipping peacefully away. But Darwinism goes from strength to strength. If its ideas are right, the handful of dust that evolution has shaped into humanity will rarely stray too far off course. And that is, perhaps, a hopeful thought to carry into the New Year.

reclaim Scripture as the shared document of all

Teach, Don't Preach, the Bible By BRUCE FEILER The New York Times December 21, 2005
Yesterday's ruling by a federal judge that "intelligent design" cannot be taught in biology classes in a Pennsylvania public school district has the potential to put the teaching of the Bible back where it belongs in our schools: not in the science laboratory, but in its proper historical and literary context. An elective, nonsectarian high school Bible class would allow students to explore one of the most influential books of all time and would do so in a manner that clearly falls within Supreme Court rulings.
In the landmark 1963 Abington case (which also involved Pennsylvania public schools), the Supreme Court outlawed reading the Bible as part of morning prayers but left the door open for studying the Bible. Writing for the 8-1 majority, Justice Thomas Clark stated that the Bible is "worthy of study for its literary and historic qualities," and added, "Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistent with the First Amendment."
Though the far right may complain that this academic approach to teaching the Bible locks God out of the classroom, and the far left may complain that it sneaks God in, the vast majority of Americans would embrace it. But the devil, as some might say, is in the details. School board officials in Odessa, Tex., for example, have been embroiled in a running controversy over their choice of a curriculum for an elective high school Bible class. While the board's choice is now between two competing curriculums, pressure from civil liberties groups has prompted changes in even the more conservative alternative.
By helping to design an academic course in the Bible, moderates can show that the Bible is not composed entirely of talking points for the religious right. In fact, on a wide range of topics, including respecting the value of other faiths, shielding religion from politics, serving the poor and protecting the environment, the Bible offers powerful arguments in support of moderate and liberal causes. In the story of David, the ruthless Israelite king who unites the tribes of Israel around 1000 B.C.E. but is rebuked by God when he wants to build a temple, the Bible makes a stirring argument in favor of separating religion and politics, or church and state to use contemporary terms.
In the Book of Isaiah, God embraces the Persian king Cyrus and his respect for different religions, even though Cyrus does not know God's name and does not practice Judaism. By calling Cyrus "the anointed one," or messiah, God signals his tolerance for people who share his moral vision, no matter their nationality or faith. In the Book of Jonah, God offers a message of forgiveness and tolerance when he denounces his own prophet and spares his former enemies, the Ninevehites, when they repent and turn toward him.
In recent decades, the debate over religion has been characterized as a struggle between two groups that Noah Feldman calls "values evangelicals," like Roy Moore, who placed the Ten Commandments in the Alabama Supreme Court, and "legal secularists," like Michael Newdow, who attacked the use of "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance. This debate does not represent reality. The Fourth National Survey of Religion and Politics, completed in 2004 by the University of Akron, shows that only 12.6 percent of Americans consider themselves "traditionalist evangelical Protestants," which the survey equates with the term "religious right." A mere 10.7 percent of Americans define themselves as "secular" or "atheist, agnostic." The vast majority of Americans are what survey-takers term centrist or modernist in their religious views.
These mainstream believers represent to their religiously liberal and conservative neighbors what independents do to Republicans and Democrats in the political arena. They are the under-discussed "swing voters" in the values debate who, the survey shows, are slightly pro-choice, believe in the death penalty, support stem-cell research and favor gay rights but oppose gay marriage. Above all, they welcome religion in public life but are turned off by efforts to claim exclusive access to God. At a time when religion dominates the headlines - from Iraq to terrorism to stem cells - finding a way to educate young people about faith should become a national imperative. Achieving this goal in a legal, nonsectarian manner requires Americans to get over the kitchen-table bromide, "Don't talk about politics and religion in public."
The extremists talk about religion - and spew messages of hate. Religious moderates must denounce this bigotry and reclaim Scripture as the shared document of all. When flamethrowers hold up Scripture and say, "It says this," moderates must hold up the same text say, "Yes, but it also says this." The Bible is simply too important to the history of Western civilization - and to vital to its future - to be ceded to one side in the debate over values. Bruce Feiler is the author, most recently, of "Where God Was Born: A Journey by Land to the Roots of Religion."

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Intelligent Design and Darwin go together

Bharat Jhunjhunwala The Times of India Wednesday, Dec 21, 2005

Brahmn divides us into many separate beings at the conscious level and lets us compete with one another.

Darwin famously didn't tell us how life began

But modern computers can help to provide clues. Paul Davies The Hindu Wednesday, Dec 21, 2005
When Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859, he gave a convincing account of how life has evolved over billions of years from simple microbes to the complexity of the earth's biosphere today. But he pointedly left out how life got started. One might as well speculate about the origin of matter, he quipped. Today scientists have a good idea of how matter originated in the big bang, but the origin of life remains shrouded in mystery.
Although Darwin refused to be drawn on how life began, he conjectured in a letter to a friend about "a warm little pond" in which various substances would accumulate. Driven by the energy of sunlight, these chemicals might become increasingly complex, until a living cell formed spontaneously. Darwin's idle speculation became the basis of the "primordial soup" theory of biogenesis, and was adopted by researchers eager to recreate the crucial steps in the laboratory. But this approach hasn't got very far. The problem is that even the simplest known organism is incredibly complex. Textbooks vaguely describe the pathway from non-living chemicals to primitive life in terms of some unspecified "molecular self-assembly."
The problem lies with 19th-century thinking, when life was regarded as some sort of magic matter, fostering the belief that it could be cooked up in a test tube if only one knew the recipe. Today many scientists view the living cell as a type of supercomputer — an information-processing and replicating system of extraordinary fidelity. DNA is a database, and a complex encrypted algorithm converts its instructions into molecular products.
Viewed this way, the problem of life's origin is switched from hardware to software. The game of life is about replicating information. Throw in variation and selection, and the great Darwinian experiment can begin. The bits of information have to be physically embodied in matter somehow, but the actual stuff of life is of secondary importance. There is no reason to suppose the original information was attached to anything like the highly customised and evolved molecules found in today's living cells.
The rapid convergence of nanotechnology, biotechnology, and computer technology has opened up new possibilities for processing information on ever-smaller scales. The goal of this race to the bottom is quantum computation, in which information is attached to atomic/ subatomic states and manipulated using the rules of quantum physics. If life is formed by trial and error, speed is the key. This suggests life may have emerged from the quantum realm directly, without the need for chemical complexity.
All it takes to get life started is a quantum replicator — a process that clones bits of information attached to quantum systems by allowing them to interact with other quantum systems in a specific way. The actual system could be anything at all — the spin of an electron, a meta-stable atomic state, or a molecule that can flip between two conformations. The uncertainty inherent in quantum mechanics provides an in-built mechanism for generating variations.
How, then, did life arise? We can gain a clue from modern computers. Quantum systems may be fast, but they are very fragile. Computers routinely transfer important data for safekeeping from speedy yet vulnerable microchips to slow and bulky hard disks or CDs. Perhaps quantum life began using large organic molecules for more stable data storage. At some stage these complex molecules took on a life of their own, trading speed for robustness and versatility. The way then lay open for hardy chemical life to go forth and inherit the earth. - Guardian Newspapers Limited 2005 (Paul Davies is a physicist at the Australian Centre for Astrobiology and the author of The Origin of Life [Simon & Schuster].)

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Baseball and Philosophy: Thinking Outside the Batter's Box

Compiled and edited by Eric Bronson, and enhanced with an informative Foreword by Bill Littlefield, Baseball And Philosophy: Thinking Outside The Batter's Box is an impressive, 352-page anthology of essays contributed by 31 contributors exploring some of the deeper questions and lessons baseball has to offer with respect to the American identity and universal human fulfillment. Addressing such unique considerations as
  • whether or not the Intentional Walk is unethical;
  • can superstition make a player better;
  • do Cubs fans teach us about religious faith;
  • does chance decide who wins the World Series;
  • why baseball is the only American industry exempt from federal anti-trust laws;
  • what the U.S. Supreme Court could learn from umpiring ball games; and a great deal more.

Baseball And Philosophy is uniquely and enthusiastically recommended to the attention of two seemingly diverse readerships: baseball enthusiasts and philosophy students.

Be ready to change quickly and enjoy it again

Who moved my lasting perception? MUKUL SHARMA The Economic Times TUESDAY, DECEMBER 13, 2005
In Who Stole My Cheese? author Dr Spencer Johnson tells us to keep the following things in mind:
  • change happens (they keep moving the cheese);
  • anticipate change (get ready for the cheese to move);
  • monitor change (smell the cheese often so you know when it is getting old);
  • adapt to change quickly (the quicker you let go of old cheese, the sooner you can enjoy new cheese);
  • change (move with the cheese);
  • enjoy change! (savour the adventure and enjoy the taste of new cheese);
  • be ready to change quickly and enjoy it again (they keep moving the cheese).

People familiar with the teaching of the Buddha will know that Johnson is, in fact, only reiterating the Four Noble Truths:

  1. Life is suffering. That is, all things are impermanent, including living things like ourselves.
  2. Suffering is due to attachment. Because we and the world are imperfect, impermanent, and not separate, we forever cling to things, each other and ourselves in a mistaken effort at permanence by not fully understanding the impermanence of things.
  3. Attachment can be overcome. Meaning letting go of clinging, hatred and ignorance and the full acceptance of imperfection, impermanence and interconnectedness.
  4. There is a path for accomplishing this. The middle way between materialism and idealism.

What we fail to realise is that we don’t really require bestsellers or Buddhism to accomplish this because at one level we all routinely and automatically do it without even thinking. Consider bread. It’s always there in the house and we almost regard it a permanent fixture, yet if its consumption is not monitored it’s going to finish and there won’t be fresh bread to eat. We’ve adapted to this change so thoroughly and perfectly that neither is there any sense of clinging or suffering involved nor some fancy esoteric path to be taken to overcome attachment to it.

If such an important lesson of existence can effortlessly be learnt from so humble and integral part of our lives as wheat, what stops us from incorporating the same sense of enjoyment in other forms of renewal and change? It’s simply this: houses, jobs, relationships and spouses are perceived as being incrementally harder to replace than bread. So it turns out that perception is the greatest enemy of freedom after all, and as soon as we learn that it too is not permanent either, the Middle Way comes naturally.

In defence of shyness

Harold Nicolson DAILY TIMES Wednesday December 7, 2005
It is surely discreditable, under the age of thirty, not to be shy. Self-assurance in the young betokens a lack of sensibility: the boy or girl who is not shy at twenty-two will at forty-two become a bore. ‘I may be wrong,’ of course’ — thus will he or she gabble at forty-two, ‘but what I always say is...’
No, let us educate the younger generation to be shy in and out of season: to edge behind the furniture: to say spasmodic and ill-digested things: to twist their feet round the protective feet of sofas and armchairs; to feel that their hands belong to someone else — that they are objects, which they long to put down on some table away from themselves.
For shyness is the protective fluid within which our personalities are able to develop into natural shapes. Without this fluid the character becomes merely standardized or imitative: it is within the tender velvet sheath of shyness that the full flower of idiosyncrasy is nurtured: it is from this sheath alone that it can eventually unfold itself, coloured and undamaged. Let the shy understand, therefore, that their disability is not merely an inconvenience, but also a privilege. Let them regard their shyness as a gift rather than as an affliction. Let them consider how intolerable are those of their contemporaries who are not also shy...
.... I used to tell myself... at those moments outside the doorways of the great when shyness becomes a laughing monster with its fangs already at one’s heart — I used to tell myself that I was as good, as powerful, as rich, as beautiful, and as magnificent as any of those I was about to meet. This was not a good system. It made me pert. I would bounce into the room gaily... be somewhat impudent to my hostess, cut my host dead, show undue familiarity towards the distinguished author who had once lectured to us at Balliol, and fling myself noisily, completely at my ease, into an armchair. The chair would recede at this impact and upset a little table on which were displayed a bottle of smelling-salts, a little silver cart from Rome, a Persian pen-box... These objects would rattle loudly to the floor, and with them would tumble my assertiveness. Such deductive systems invariably fail. Fatal also is the reverse process of behaving like the worm one feels. ‘Remember,’ I have said to myself on giving my hat and coat to the footman, ‘remember that you are a worm upon this earth. These people have only asked you because they met your aunt at St Jean de Luz. They do not wish to see you, still less do they wish to hear you speak. You may say good evening to your hostess, and then you must retreat behind a sofa and remain unobserved. There is no need for you, when in your retreat, to behave self-consciously — to examine the French engravings on the wall, or the lacquer of the incised screen. You can put both your hands upon the back of the chair and then just look (without blinking) in front of you. If addressed, you will reply with modesty and politeness. If not addressed, you will not speak at all.’ Things do not work out that way. The place behind the sofa is, when you get there, fully occupied by an easel containing a picture by Carolus Duran; and then one falls over the dog...
The only justification for being shy is to be shy to all the people all the time. You must avoid being pert to governesses and polite to bishops. But if you are always shy, people will end by imagining that you have a modest nature; and that, since it will flatter their own self-esteem, will make you extremely popular. Only when you have become popular can you afford to be interesting, intelligent or impressive. It is a great mistake to endeavour to awake admiration before you have stilled envy; it is only when people have started by ignoring the young that they end up liking the young. It may be a comfort to you therefore to consider that it is an excellent thing, at first, to be regarded as being of no importance. You can hide behind the chair.

Friday, December 16, 2005

My life in myth

Ileana Citaristi Hindustan Times Friday, December 16, 2005
I have now been in India for twenty six years. I have a house in Bhubaneswar, overlooking the sacred lake, Bindu Sagar. Since 1979, my life is that of an Odissi dancer. I was born in Bergamo in North Italy and was raised as a good Catholic girl. I rebelled at sixteen and began to gather all kinds of new experiences in life. I first saw Indian dance in a Kathakali demonstration in my hometown by Guru Krishna Namboodiri in January 1978. Within six months, I was in Kerala and after a three-month workshop gave a full-dress Kathakali performance. I was so charged by this, that I could not go back quietly home as if nothing had happened.
My guru directed me to Orissa and reigning dancer Sanjukta Panigrahi. I saw Odissi for the first time but I was still under the spell of Kerala. I went home to Bergamo, with new movements to use in my original metier as a theatre person. In 1979, when I came back and planned to divide the year between Kerala and Orissa, to research movement for my own production of the Greek myth of Narcissus. I went to Cuttack and met Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra - and stayed put for six years. I am often asked what attracts me to the content of Odissi, which is a rich world of mythology. The Gita Govinda of Jayadeva enchanted me from day one, with its poetic beauty. I am an incurable romantic and the love of Radha-Krishna touched my soul.
Since I came from a doctorate in philosophy (with my thesis on `Psychoanalysis and Eastern Mythology'), Odissi became a seamless continuation of my intellectual and spiritual search. Odissi is my language and Hindu myth and its content which is rich in symbols and emotions. Its universal appeal seems to work for every kind of audience. And no matter how many new items I prepare, my mother always wants to see Sita Haran with Jatayu Moksham. The drama element is personally important to me and my repertoire has strong characters with strong emotions: Draupadi, Ekalavya, Chitrangada and Sita. Among the aspects of God, I can never tire of addressing Shiva and dance many items about him in both Odissi and Chhau.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

the New Man is visible at ashram communities in India

Shall the twain meet? Can we conceive of a modernity which is not Western but evolves from the matrix of Indian culture, asks MARTIN KĂ„MPCHEN The Statesman Jan 23, 2003 (The author is a German Tagore scholar and freelance writer based in Santiniketan.)
One of the most fascinating and troubling aspects of Indian life is the co-existence of pre-modern and modern mindsets and lifestyles. One does not seem to influence the other. Pre-modernity does not merge into modernity. The invisible wall dividing the two seems impenetrable. What makes this wall so strong? Scholars may give many reasons, relating this intransigence to the power of tradition, to the strongly felt need for identity of each group in a highly diversified society, or to colonialism which has created an aversion to modernity. Having lived in this country for nearly 30 years and mingled both with the upper and lower strata, I’ve reached a conclusion: Modernity and pre-modernity coexist because of India’s strong family bonds.
Critics bemoan the weakening of the Indian family system; its breaking up into nuclear units; weakening of morals, especially of the erosion of selflessness which allows to put family interests before the individual’s. And it’s always “the West” with its selfish individualism which is seen as the corruptor. Even the vulgar Bollywood film extols in its incongruent ways the family values of Hindu society.
  • The family is held together by hierarchy.
  • There’s no room for equality in a traditional family set-up.
  • The “higher” and “lower” is determined by seniority, or by the proximity of relationship.
  • The entire cosmos is kept functional by the way each member knows his/her position in relation to the others.
  • There can be no serious challenge to authority because traditionally authority is determined by extraneous factors, such as age, gender, and kinship, or sometimes by ritual authority, but not by such vague concepts as knowledge, experience, or wisdom.
  • The assumption is that with age, knowledge, skill and wisdom increase as well.
  • The hierarchy and non-equality of the Indian family is, I wish to emphasise, mostly a comfortable one.
Those who read Rabindranath Tagore, know of the stress and friction within a large family and of the amount of sacrifice needed by the individual to persevere in his/her subordination to the totality of the family. Yet, one generally grows into these sacrifices from infancy. For, one doesn’t really see them as sacrifices, but as the price to be paid for the comforts of family-life. There is little competition for love, for attention, for material needs, and for opportunities. In a way, this is the nuclear model of an ideal society. But this family structure is non-equal, hence non-democratic, and it typically provides only limited space for individual dynamism and social mobility. Thus the family structure is pre-modern. This is not a value judgment but indicative of a stage of societal evolvement.
Family values are extolled not only in Bollywood films, but more seriously by an Indian urban middle-class which tries to come to terms with the demands of modern life. They’re praised and emulated more passionately by the expatriate Indian community in Europe and North America where it struggles to balance between integrating itself into an alien society and culture, and preserving its Indian identity. In India, any family member is capable of making heroic sacrifices for the welfare of the others. I’ve often heard of brothers who have sacrificed their right to marital bliss because of a sister who could otherwise not get married. Or there is a son who surrenders well-paid employment somewhere far away to follow his ageing mother’s call to return home. Would such sacrifices be even thinkable in Europe or North America?
The very same family members, however, walk past a poverty-ridden family squatting on the pavement in front of their house day after day, for years, without ever being moved by their misery. Would this be possible in Europe or North America? In both cases the answer is in the negative. Indians always perceive modernity as a Western concept. There’s no attempt to imagine a modernity which evolves out of the matrix of Indian tradition. And this Western modernity is always seen as a threat to Indian family values. Western-style modernity is seen as a hothouse of individuality, competition, sexual permissiveness and selfishness. Certainly, the average family in the West is no longer a shelter radiating emotional warmth and human togetherness. Neither the parent generation whose duty it might be to generate such warmth and togetherness, nor in fact the younger generation see the need for such nesting beyond infancy.
The family is a launching pad for life in the wider world. The elder generation envisages a life beyond child rearing, and the younger generation beyond family bonds. With this mindset, Western youths become independent, mature for practical life and resistant to the perils of a competitive wider social life much earlier than their Indian counterparts. Modernity even from Indian family values’ point of view is not necessarily a concept dominated by negatives. The breaking up of pre-modern Indian family life under the pressure of modernity need not result in a lack of orientation and in emotional confusion. When politicians and professional saviours of Hindu tradition say they don’t want “to ape the West”, they passionately narrow their gaze to the competitive, permissive, selfish dynamics of Western public and professional life. These dynamics should not, however, blot out our awareness of the Western ethos which focuses on deeper human needs. A civic sense seeking to maintain the obligations and rights not only of oneself but of the entire community, is deeply ingrained in even the young generation of Europe.
  • Couldn’t there be a dialogue between pre-modernity and modernity in India?
  • Is a dialogue conceivable which aims at a merging of these two divergent concepts of life? That is, a merging of the positive, constructive, dignified, deeply humanistic elements of these two stages in the evolvement of our human potential?
  • Is this an entirely utopian construct?

Living with one foot each in Indian and European cultures, I feel pained when I see my mother turn 89 in the hands of an Old Age Home nurses when she should be taken care of by loving family members. I feel equally pained when I see the campus of Santiniketan, where I live, littered with plastic bags and garbage without any of its highly educated members protesting and starting a cleaning drive. Both are shameful imbalances. If Indian family values prevailed, my mother would live in her own home in more comfort, and be in the care of an extended family. But that would have clipped my wings: I would have had to return to Germany. and would not have been able to do serve totally “alien” people of Indian society.

If modern values prevailed, the eyesore of Tagore’s sanctuary would have prompted the Santiniketan community to put up litter boxes, organise a cleaning service and pay for it. Pre-modern social values are by definition hermetically conservative; the reason why they survive deep into the era of modernity. An Indian physics professor feels comfortable to visit an astrologer for advice. An industrial manager obeys his mother who forbids him to travel on a Thursday, even though it may harm his business. There is a danger that people who are unable to integrate pre-modernity and modernity tend to become insecure and discontent individuals. On the other hand, they can turn to creative, hyper-dynamic, ambitious activities. Instability is the price they pay for living forever on the threshold. In conclusion, two questions remain:
  • First, can we imagine a modernity which is not Western-oriented but evolves from the matrix of Indian culture itself?
  • Second, can we imagine a merging of pre-modern and modern values into a new entity? Do we see perhaps such an entity already practiced somewhere?

Traditional Indian ethos has a deeply idealistic strain. It begins with the Upanishads, continues with Buddhism and Jainism, flows into the Vaishnava mysticism of the Middle Ages and floods the writings of Mahatma Gandhi, Swami Vivekananda, Sri Aurobindo and Tagore. The herculean attempt to overcome a colonial ruler by non-violent means is inconceivable without such idealistic promptings. Much in the epics is imbued with such idealism, although Hindu mythology has very diverse strands, many of which are of an un-idealistic nature. Such idealism constitutes a spiritual and emotional energy which is manifest in the luminous face of the Buddha, in the eroticism of the Radha-Krishna narrative, in the countenance of Sri Ramakrishna. This same idealistic energy courses in the blood of young Indians too, although – alas! – it is rarely tapped for their own good and the good of society. But I’m optimistic that their idealism can give affirmative replies to my two questions.

This idealism is, in its very character, not adverse to modernism. Indeed, it operates above the pre-modern/modern duality by embracing everything that is noble and good. This idealism transcends family, rejects caste and other artificial dissections, and yearns for an ever-widening and more-embracing intellectual understanding and social convergence. It must be at the base of a congenially Indian modernity. Some modern age gurus have been preaching it in the West, thus translating this idealism into a Western social idiom. Unfortunately, such attempts have mostly failed. Either they preached a much-watered down version of Indian idealism to please their clientele, or they were unable to really strike roots in the souls of Western people.

Yet marginally, the New Man is visible at ashram communities in India – the laboratories of the fusion of old and new. This way of living together is ancient, yet flexible enough to adjust to new definitions of community life. The ashram describes the family ethos anew by broadening the definition of family and kinship. This fusion happens for example in the Pondicherry ashram and in Auroville as well as in Gandhian and Christian ashrams in India. The Santiniketan ashram, too, was meant to be an experiment of bringing pre-modern and modern India together under the guidance of an inspired poet. This answers my second question too. Obviously, such deeply Indian modernity would be the most appropriate merger of pre-modern and modern approaches to life. It will certainly preserve what is valuable and forward-looking in the Indian ethos, and at the same time absorb Western cultural characteristics wherever they complement the Indian ethos and can amalgamate with it.

Let a thousand gods bloom

Arvind Kala The Times of India Thursday, December 15, 2005
An interesting social phenomenon is consolidating itself in India. There's an explosion of both television godmen and Page 3 celebrities. Driving their growth are India's religious, news, and entertainment channels whose hunger for novelty and fresh faces has given national fame to some charismatic TV preachers, and created celebrities out of an assortment of stand-up comics, fashion designers, and rich partying Indians. In that sense, India is seeing a democratisation of religion and celebrityhood. The effect on religion has been electric. Spiritual leadership in the pre-TV age was the preserve of a few godmen like Sai Baba or Rajneesh, and they took years to establish themselves.
Today, religious leadership is open to any articulate godman who can connect with TV audiences and hold their attention. Swami Ramdev, the son of a poor Haryana farmer, has gained a national following overnight due to his daily TV appearances in millions of Indian homes. Just as godmen have proliferated, so have Page 3 celebrities. Before TV, India's celebrities were largely film stars and cricketers. Today, they include TV stars themselves, plus singers, fashion models, mimics, look-alikes and even Tarot card readers. Best of all, TV glamour coverage feeds on itself. TV makes people famous, and the more famous they become, the more TV needs to cover them. So TV sustains celebrities and is partly sustained by them.
But it is the TV godmen who have overturned the world of Indian religion and spirituality. Exactly the same thing happened in the US 30 years ago. Like India, the US religious scene was staid, with religious worship limited to the church-going. Then evangelical Billy Graham appeared on TV and his passionate speeches so riveted America that churches found themselves sidelined. Anecdotal evidence suggests we are seeing a replay. India has no data on the numbers that visit temples, but the attendance must be falling. When people get spiritual lessons on TV from the living-room sofa, they need a local temple less. Not surprising, because a temple or family priest is always less inspiring than a TV preacher. The local priest is usually an inheritor of his father's job while a TV preacher is articulate and highly motivated.
In the US, TV evangelicals there have acquired a larger-than-life image. TV preachers in India seem to be on the same road to fame. Swami Ramdev, for instance, is courted by the BJP, just as Billy Graham was wooed by US presidents. Celebrity-wise too, TV has made it easier for people to become famous. Before TV, actors, dancers, stand-up comics, or mimics had no market for their talent. They would display their talent at family get-togethers or small functions. But now, their talent is seen and judged by millions of TV-viewers, not by a few art or drama critics. What could be more democratic than that?
One successful TV personality is stand-up comic Shekhar Suman who earns so well he paid income-tax of Rs 35.93 lakh in 2000-2001. Other TV stars are also in such demand that they charge a couple of lakh rupees to attend the launch of a product or service. As the number of celebrities expands, marketing them will become a business. In UK, companies not only market celebrities, they even hawk celebrity look-alikes. They provide look-alikes of David Beckham, Marilyn Monroe, or Sean Connery to liven up corporate parties. In India too, look-alikes and sound-alikes of Shah Rukh Khan or Shatrughan Sinha hold audiences in splits and they've become mini-celebrities themselves, and this is due to their popularity with TV audiences.
The same electronic democracy decides a TV preacher's success or failure. To succeed, he needs the adoration of viewers. But even if he gets it, he can never be sure it will last. His followers can always be taken away by a more mesmerising preacher. The competition is intense. In that sense, television has triggered a dispersal in religious leadership with consequences which will be profound. It's a free-for-all. Earlier, godmen were dependent on state patronage and donations from a few wealthy disciples. Today, a successful TV preacher can get pots of money from thousands of new disciples. As the saying goes, the old yields place to the new.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Questioning Evolution

To the Editor:The New York Times: December 10, 2005
Contrary to "Intelligent Design Might Be Meeting Its Maker" (Week in Review, Dec. 4), more scientists than ever support intelligent design and criticize Darwinism. A recent European conference on intelligent design - held in Prague and ignored by The Times - attracted 700 attendees, and featured leading scientists from Britain, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, as well as the United States.
At home, recent articles in The Wall Street Journal and Knight Ridder papers have described intelligent-design scientists at major universities (including Iowa State, the University of Minnesota and the University of Georgia). One National Public Radio story alone featured 18 intelligent-design scientists, though most "would not speak on the record for fear of losing their jobs." There is far more support, indeed, than appears on the surface. Meanwhile, the number of scientists who have signed Discovery Institute's "Dissent From Darwin" list has now passed 470.
Yes, there is strong, organized opposition to intelligent design, but that is nothing new. To my knowledge, none of the critics quoted in your article supported the theory in the past. So their opposition now is hardly a surprise.
Bruce Chapman
President, Discovery InstituteSeattle, Dec. 5, 2005
More Articles in Opinion > Related Articles Montana Creationism Bid Evolves Into Unusual Fight (February 29, 2004) Related Searches Evolution Discovery Institute

Monday, December 12, 2005

Perfect caricature of the Indian liberal

On board a plane, I always remember God. Even otherwise, I have an almost Catholic sense of guilt and retribution. On more than one occasion, the all-embracing magnificence of a church has reduced me to quiet tears. And walking barefoot on the cool marble stone of a gurdwara still evokes the possibility of being a better person. But ask me what my religion is, and I will splutter dismissively. I will tell you I don’t believe in institutionalised faith.
Healing with faith Barkha Dutt HindustanTimes Monday, December 12, 2005
In my growing years, like many of my friends, I wore my scepticism like a badge of honour. On the sun-bathed lawns of St. Stephen’s College, we embraced rebellion, and as we got ready for our march to modernity, our freshly acquired liberalism had no space for petty denominations of identity — caste, region, religion. We belonged to a larger truth, a bigger India. The irony never struck us at the time — in a college Christian by birth, we believed that we needed to be pagan to be progressive.
It was only many years later, when journalism turned my simple ideas on their head, that I realised that agnostics like myself could only end up on the losing side of the battle for secularism. We had ended up misreading the signposts — in our firm walk away from religion, we had somehow lost our way, and ended up pretty far from culture as well, in a country where the two are inextricably woven together.
Fellow Stephanian Mani Shankar Aiyar’s book, Confessions of a Secular Fundamentalist, opens with Nehru writing this to Gandhi, “It’s all very well for people like Sapru and me to talk pompously and in a superior way of tolerance in religious matters, but neither of us have any religion to speak of.” Three generations after Nehru, we would discover outside the liberal confines of college life that not just did we have no religion, we were culturally rootless and alienated, and would need to learn the grammar of a brand new language to be understood.
The turning point was Gujarat 2002. (It was one of Indian media’s finest hours, notwithstanding naysayers like Tarun Vijay who called us the Marxist-Mullah Mafia). I am still haunted by images of the carnage. Suddenly, festivals, rites and rituals that had never been part of my life became an essential weapon of communication. I needed them to underline the pathos, to reach out to people who seemed to have stopped listening.
A few months later, I met the Muslim flower-sellers outside the temples that had at one point become the battle zone for India’s heart. I haven’t been to a temple in more than 20 years, but I knew that their story might just help build a bridge over troubled waters; I was beginning to understand that the answer for the future might just lie within, not outside faith; that the best way to ensure that the lunatic fringe remained just that, was to appeal to the compassion and common sense of the believers, by speaking to them in their own language.
How utterly tragic, that we had surrendered our symbols to ideological terrorists. Perhaps it was time to reclaim them without being defensive. Farooq Sheikh silenced both sides by quietly declaring that yes, he was a namazi, he did pray five times a day, but his prayers were personal and his own, and the Imam was not needed as interpreter. Another time, journalist Prabash Joshi punctured a panelist who was getting hysterical about Hindutva, by challenging his understanding of Lord Ram. What could I, the agnostic, have said? That I didn’t even know if Ram was real? That for me, he was essentially a character of imagination; a mythological tale best read in Amar Chitra Katha. Sure, I’m entitled to my view, but I’m pretty sure my argument would have been impotent, and I would have been the perfect caricature of the Indian liberal.
Indians are essentially reasonable folk. We are also malleable and schizophrenic, and how we react depends on which buttons you push. It’s all about which side you decide to tap. It’s about recovering the middle ground before the secularism debate swerves too far right or left, and becomes a lost cause. For years, I was convinced that religion was the great divide; now I have come to understand that faith can be the healer. The writer is Managing Editor, NDTV 24X7

Sunday, December 11, 2005

The supportive, coach-mentor style

Better managers? S. RAMACHANDER The Hindu Magazine Sunday, Dec 11, 2005
Having mulled over the matter for decades, it seems clear that women do manage in a way entirely different from the way men do. People-management and task-orientation are said to be the two axes along which the pundits judge managerial effectiveness. The woman's approach is different in both. As a result, in a world consisting largely of men as employees at all levels, they are beginning to make their mark felt. Whether women get the right opportunities or not is much less of an issue than 15-20 years ago. Articles about women's experience of working life, and more specifically of being managers, were a favourite with editors then. Was there in fact a glass ceiling stopping their promotions in jobs? Were all professions really open and accessible to them, except the physically onerous ones such as fire fighting — the real kind, not the metaphorical one, at which of course women are brilliant!

Take tasks first. To my mind, there is little doubt that women are potentially better than men at almost any job that demands accepting responsibility for delivering concrete results. If you think about it deeply, and observe the reality even in a relatively less affluent society like ours, this generalisation is true of the majority of women. In the poorer classes they manage even better because the woman has to make do with very little, and stretch her resources. After all, the economists tell us managing is all about scarce resources. Often she doubles up as a part-time wage earner too.
In the more educated class, working generally in the organised sector, one finds they plan better; they chase, badger and tame colleagues into submitting to their ways. And as for relentless follow-up, which men joke about endlessly, women are superlative at it. Surely it must come from the DNA, since all societies have had a division of labour that meant the woman stayed back to keep the household ticking over like clock work.
Consider what it must have meant in the hunter-gatherer civilisations. The baby needed attention or milk, the older children needed to be occasionally sorted out, small emergencies handled, from a cut finger to a major problem — and all the while the cooking-cleaning-mending routine went on, with no gadgetry to take the place of manual work. What better situation can you think of, to teach one to manage time, to prioritise, plan and just get on with the work? Surely, the ability to take on difficult, repetitive, even thankless tasks and do them superbly well, day after day (which is in a nutshell what all the books and courses want us to learn) must have been etched thus in the female psyche aeons ago?

Today's business scene or even non-commercial organisations need superior administrative skills, particularly of managing people and systems — which require a combination of this consistent performance along with the nimbleness of mind and body to respond to minor crises. No wonder women are better equipped here as well. The strange thing is that this has not been recognised and given due credit. Take for example the much talked about total quality management approach or TQM. One of its pillars is daily routine management, according to set processes, to learn which all we need is to look around us at home.
Households run only because the daily routine — such as boiling milk, packing the lunch box or setting curd with yesterday's buttermilk — all goes on with faultless precision, and on time, with fall-back choices even in times of great stress such as illness or bereavement. Of course, no one has taken the trouble to describe this with fancy jargon such as "seamlessly managing the end-to-end value-chain 24 by 7". That is all the difference! Doubtless one day some business school professor in the U.S. will discover this with amazement and publish an article in Fortune magazine, exactly as happened with the dabbawallahs of Mumbai and their six-sigma level accuracy in logistics. Don't forget that an economist has already won the Nobel for saying that the informal household sector represents an un-measured part of the GDP. A UN report some years ago estimated it at over eleven trillion dollars a year!
The starting point in the factory floor quality management for example is the process known as 5-S, which tells us to clean the workplace first, put everything in its proper place, mark and designate places and bins correctly, get the right tools for the job, and clean up afterwards and so on. The breakthrough here is that, unlike in the past, the person doing a task is charged with keeping the machine clean and looking after quality. "Put everything back in its place" reminds me of my grandmother for whom it was a lifelong refrain. "Let your hand do what the eye tells you must do" she used to say, meaning that you should keep an eye out for "deviation from standard", and most important of all, not wait to be told! No doubt, as she was married at 13 and had not gone beyond the fifth grade in school, this sound philosophy of managing came down to her not from books but through other women managers before her, an endless line of mothers and aunts stretching back into history.
The second aspect of human relations is a women's speciality. Here women manage the age-old paradox of management much better, juggling praise and criticism expertly; and never leaving anything to chance or taking it for granted, erring on the side of making sure at any cost rather than assume others will find a way. "We trust, of course," Mikhail Gorbachov is supposed to have said of the Soviet attitude to anything, "but we verify".
This would be cynicism for many men, but a woman finds nothing wrong in it. She knows from experience that with the best of intentions, the men in her life repeatedly say, "Oh leave it to me" and then come up with creative excuses for not remembering to order the gift, buy an essential medicine or ring their mothers on their birthdays. Intention and competence do not equal achievement — and she knows this to be an axiom. So if asked to choose between the directive and supervisory style on the one hand and the supportive, coach-mentor style, the woman loses no sleep over the choice. The latter is for the birds; get the job done first, the punditry can come later (at seminars!) is her general attitude.
Readers will have realised that there are many men too who lead by the so-called women's style of managing described above. That is exactly my point: there is a yin and yang in management and some men adopt the one that falls far more naturally in the realm of their "better half" and they manage the better for it. It is quite possible that the strong-willed go-getting CEO's have been brought up by a very capable and active mother and learnt from them unconsciously. To me this alone can help explain the popularity of the genre of leadership that was made so popular by Jack Welch of General Electric, the U.S. Who knows, since tough times are more common that good times, perhaps what the world needs is more `feminine' managers among men too.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Depression, anxiety, and uneasiness

Preliminary number and prospectus From The Economist Aug 5th 1843
It is one of the most melancholy reflections of the present day, that while wealth and capital have been rapidly increasing, while science and art have been working the most surprising miracles in aid of the human family, and while morality, intelligence, and civilization have been rapidly extending on all hands;—that at this time, the great material interests of the higher and middle classes, and the physical condition of the labouring and industrial classes, are more and more marked by characters of uncertainty and insecurity.
In vain has the hand of ART (led on and guided by a complete glare of SCIENCE, aided by INDUSTRY of unsurpassed intelligence and perseverance, nurtured and fertilized by CAPITAL almost without limit) developed the resources of the human mind and the material creation in a manner which has at once astonished and exalted the world;—in vain have all parts of the earth been brought nearer and nearer to us;—our Indian territory within forty days’ journey, the great American continent within ten days’ sail, our continental neighbours and every part of our own country separated only by a brief space of a few hours;—in vain the producers and consumers of the whole world, the administrators of mutual wants, the encouragers of mutual industries, have been brought in easy and close collision and contact, and thus facilitated the supply of every want, and the demand for every exertion of human skill and industry;—in vain do we acknowledge all these unequalled and undoubted elements of national prosperity: for at this moment the whole country—every interest without exception,—the owner and occupier of the soil, the explorer of our great mineral world, the manufacturer who gives form, shape, and utility to the produce of nature, the artisan, the labourer of every description, the merchant and shipowner (the great links of exchange), and the capitalist who facilitates the operations of all,—every one of these interests stand at this moment CONFESSEDLY in a condition of the most unprecedented depression, anxiety, and uneasiness. And what rather adds to this anomaly than in any way accounts for it, is, that our population has been rapidly increasing, not only in numbers, but also in great skill and productive ability.

But while Art, Science, Intelligence and Enterprise have been thus engaged the last half century in behalf of our country and the human race, in what manner has legislation been occupied? Let cool and calm deliberation determine this question. In the early part of that period the little time which could be spared by the legislature from the excitement of political strife, the struggle for political power and place, was occupied with the stirring events attendant on the long and continued wars in which we were engaged, and the principles of commercial and industrial legislation attracted little of its attention. Under such circumstances it was not difficult for those interests who possessed great political influence to obtain enactments which they supposed would be beneficial to themselves. Unfortunately, however, both governments, and classes, and individuals have been too apt to conclude that their benefit could be secured by a policy injurious to others; and too often the benefit proposed has even been measured by the injury to be inflicted: hence all the laws which were framed under this influence had a tendency to raise up barriers to intercourse, jealousies, animosities, and heartburnings between individuals and classes in this country, and again between this country and all others; and thus, under the plea of protecting individuals or classes against each other, and the whole against other countries, was the system of COMMERCIAL RESTRICTION completed by the enactment of the corn and provision laws, passed in 1815; amid the utter forgetfulness on the part of the legislature, that it had no power or privilege which could enable it to confer a favour or wealth on any part of the community, without abstracting as much from others; in fact, that it possessed no inherent source of productiveness which could enable it to be generous.
The policy of England, always, but especially at this particular time, looked up to by all the world as the highway to greatness, was eagerly followed in her commercial regulations by other countries; navigation laws, hostile tariffs, prohibition of English manufactures, were resorted to by other governments, each in a way according to the notions they had of their own interests, in imitation of, or opposition to, the policy of England, each country inflicting on itself as much mischief and injury as England had done by similar policy.
It was thus while Art, Science, Capital, Commercial Enterprise, and Labour were eagerly demanding a greater arena to multiply and extend their benefits to ALL, that legislation, ignorance, and prejudice associated with short-sighted selfishness, were actively engaged in frustrating all these nobler efforts and designs. And so far had they succeeded in creating a war among the material interests of the world, that in 1819 the collision occasioned thereby threatened the most serious consequences to our Social and Commercial existence. This crisis caused reflecting men to turn their attention to the hitherto neglected science of Political and Commercial Economy.
The philosophy of Adam Smith found a clear and able enunciator in Ricardo. The political and legislative application of these great principles, so eloquently put forth to a wondering but ignorant audience by Burke, found an ardent, warm and able echo in Huskisson. The philosopher wrote, and was not refuted. The legislator debated, and by his earnestness, industry, and eloquence, aided no doubt by the pressing exigencies of the time, gained a partial triumph over the ignorance and prejudice which ruled; and shadowed out for the first time the principles of Political Economy into the embodyment of FREE TRADE as their practical result. He saw that our interests and commerce had far out-grown the narrow limits which ignorant legislation had assigned them: that all the up-heavings and convulsions in the country were but the external symptoms of the fierce struggle which was going forward between our rapidly-advancing productive power, earnestly demanding a larger field of exchange, and the principles of restriction and monopoly, blindly and vainly attempting to confine them to their ancient and narrow limit: that it was a severe contest between intelligence, which pressed forward, and an unworthy, timid ignorance obstructing our progress.

Hubris of the humanities

When only 40 per cent of Americans believe in evolution, how will their country negotiate the biotech century? Nicholas D. Kristof The Indian Express: Friday, December 09, 2005
The best argument against “intelligent design” has always been humanity itself. At a time when only 40 per cent of Americans believe in evolution, and only 13 per cent know what a molecule is, we’re an argument at best for “mediocre design”. But put aside the evolution debate for a moment. It’s only a symptom of something much deeper and more serious: a profound illiteracy about science and math as a whole. One-fifth of Americans still believe that the Sun goes around the Earth, instead of the other way around. And only about half know that humans did not live at the same time as dinosaurs. The problem isn’t just inadequate science (and math) teaching in the schools, however. A larger problem is the arrogance of the liberal arts, the cultural snootiness of, of well, of people like me — and probably you.
What do I mean by that? In the US and most of the Western world, it’s considered barbaric in educated circles to be unfamiliar with Plato or Monet or Dickens, but quite natural to be oblivious of quarks and chi-squares. A century ago, Einstein published his first paper on relativity — making 1905 as important a milestone for world history as 1066 or 1789 — but relativity has yet to filter into the consciousness of otherwise educated people. “The great edifice of modern physics goes up, and the majority of the cleverest people in the Western world have about as much insight into it as their neolithic ancestors would have had,” C.P. Snow wrote in his classic essay, “The Two Cultures”.
The counterargument is that we can always hire technicians in Bangalore, while it’s Shakespeare and Goethe who teach us the values we need to harness science for humanity. There’s something to that. If President Bush were about to attack Iraq all over again, he would be better off reading Sophocles — to appreciate the dangers of hubris — than studying the science of explosives. But don’t pin too much faith on the civilising influence of a liberal education: the officers of the Third Reich were steeped in Kant and Goethe. And similar arguments were used in past centuries to assert that all a student needed was Greek, Latin, and familiarity with the Bible — or, in China, to argue that all the elites needed were the Confucian classics.
Without some fluency in science and math, we’ll simply be left behind in the same way that Ming Dynasty Chinese scholars were. Increasingly, we face public policy issues — avian flu, stem cells — that require some knowledge of scientific methods, yet the present (United States) Congress contains 218 lawyers, 12 doctors, and 3 biologists. In terms of the skills we need for the 21st century, we’re Shakespeare-quoting Philis-tines. A year ago, I wanted to ornament a column with a complex equation, so, as a math ninny myself, I looked around the Times newsroom for anyone who could verify that it was correct. Now you can’t turn around in the Times newsroom without bumping into polyglots who come and go talking of Michelangelo. But it took forever to turn up someone confident in his calculus — in the science section.
So Pogo was right. This disregard for science already hurts the US. It has bungled research on stem cells perhaps partly because Bush didn’t realise how restrictive his curb on research funds would be. And we’re risking our planet’s future because our leaders are frozen in the headlights of climate change. In this century, one of the most complex choices we will make will be what tinkering to allow with human genes, to “improve” the human species. How can our leaders decide that issue if they barely know what DNA is? Intellectuals have focused on the challenge from the right, which has led to a drop in the public acceptance of evolution in the US over the last 20 yeas, to 40 per cent from 45 per cent. Jon Miller, a professorat the Northwestern University medical school who has tracked attitudes toward evolution in 34 countries, says Turkey is the only one with less support for evolution than the US.
It’s true that antagonism to science seems peculiarly American. The European right, for example, frets about taxes and immigration, but not about evolution. But there’s an even larger challenge than anti-intellectualism. And that’s the skewed intellectualism of those who believe that a person can become sophisticated on a diet of poetry, philosophy, and history, unleavened by statistics or chromosomes. That’s the hubris of the humanities. The New York Times

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Indianness is intact

With diyas and fresh flowers; A wedding in between the grass and the trees. As Bapu twinkled in the sky The Indian Express Tuesday, July 27, 2004
Perhaps in keeping with Mahatma Gandhi’s stress on simplicity, his great grand-daughter Supriya Gandhi’s marriage recently in New Delhi was one of the most austere marriage ceremonies I have attended. The austerity radiated so much warmth. It started with the very simply designed invite and built up to the wedding ceremony — conducted on the un-used lawns of a friend’s home where creepers and fruit and herbal trees grew in abundance. There was no band, dholak, shehnai or music of any strain, no horses or elephants, nor dolis or carts, none of the tamashas. Modest diyas lit up the lawns and fresh flowers adorned the makeshift mandap somewhere between the grass and the trees.
Assembled were about thirty well-wisher friends (I purposely prefix ‘‘well wisher’’ for friends come in all hues) and close relatives who were treated to vegetarian snacks and fruit juice. The same was offered to the baraatis who had come all the way from the US together with groom Travis Zadeh who is of mixed American-Iranian parentage. As the evening settled, they made themselves comfortable on cane chairs that ringed the mandap. Sitting by it was a traditional priest and well known scholar Kapila Vatsyayan, who doubled as the priestess; for she went about explaining the meaning behind each of the vows to those assembled around the bride and groom — the commitment that’s marriage and the roles to be played by the two partners and the two families.
It was one of the most memorable marriage ceremonies I have ever attended. One felt one was witnessing a solemn affair — the coming together of two individuals, with all the seriousness that’s required in the making and sustaining of a relationship. Also, seeing those present, it was more than obvious that they were there not to fulfill some social compulsions but because they genuinely wanted to be there to bless the couple. The simplicity touched the very clothes the bridal couple and their parents and the relatives wore — none of the designer stuff, but simply designed Indian ware. The lack of jewellery was made up by a readily and freely available commodity. Flowers of all hues sent out their fragrance.
The bride’s parents, Rajmohan and Usha, proved that evening that a good marriage ceremony ought to be conducted in an intensely simple way. Perhaps, with that alone does its sheer intensity and seriousness come through. And yes, in keeping with the Gandhian practice, Rajmohan and his close relatives and sister Tara and brothers Ramu and Gopal were dressed in khadi — plain and simple khadi. Seeing them and seeing the simple ceremony, I looked up at the sky and quietly said to myself — Indianness is intact and there’s hope that more will follow this simply Indian way of forging long lasting bonds. God bless the young couple. May they live happily together, always.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Interface between the two ‘cultures’ is the human brain

Dr. V.S. Ramachandran, Professor at the University of California talks to The Indian Express Editor-in-Chief Shekhar Gupta on NDTV 24x7’s Walk the Talk programme about his path-breaking research into the human brain and the human mind. The Indian Express September 20, 2005

If you go back to ancient Indian philosophy, people talk about aham Brahma asmi and all of that. But now we can actually get to the physical basis of consciousness, self-awareness, what it means to be human. Ultimately all your joys, your sorrows, your hopes, your fears, your ambition, even what you think of as your own private self, is basically just the neurochemical activity of those one hundred billion little wisps of jelly in your head which we call neurons. That’s what it all is, that’s what reality is — the activity of neurons. It’s amazing that we know so little about the brain. If there’s something wrong with your thinking, even a trained neurologist will say you’ve got dementia. All the activities of thought are encompassed in one word: ‘dementia’. This can’t be right. Surely there are dozens and dozens of types, styles, of thinking, and many areas of the brain involved. What’s exciting for us is that we can begin now to approach these questions empirically: What do you mean by willing an action? What do you mean by ‘self’? What do you mean by seeing red? You can begin to answer all of these questions by looking at the physical structure of the brain.
If you close your eyes, you have a very vivid image of your body parts—it’s called your body image. When you amputate somebody’s arm, the astonishing thing is that even after the operation the patient continues to vividly feel the presence of that arm. He himself is very surprised by this—he’s not stupid, he knows that his arm has been amputated. But he says, You’ve removed the arm, I don’t see an arm, but I vividly feel my fingers, my wrist, my elbow. This is called a phantom arm. It’s important clinically because many people feel excruciating pain in this phantom arm. Chronic pain in a real arm is hard enough to treat; how do you treat a patient who has pain in a non-existent arm? It turns out that there’s a complete map of the body surface on the surface of the brain. When you amputate a person’s arm, a gap remains, corresponding to the hand, but which doesn’t receive any signals. Instead, the signals from the face invade that territory. It shows that there’s a great deal of malleability of connections in the brain—what we call plasticity. People didn’t realise it before we’d done that. That was the breakthrough.
When you amputate the arm and you touch the patient’s face, the patient says, Oh, you’re touching my fingers. It’s a very simple clinical observation, but we said that the reason this happens is because the signal is now going to the wrong part of the brain. There’s been a cross-wiring, and it’s now invaded the vacated territory corresponding to the missing arm. This happens astonishingly fast, in clinical terms. In a couple of weeks, the face skin starts sending its sensory input to a new brain area. It’s radical because it shows that brain maps can change over distances of seven centimetres, even in the adult brain, challenging the clinical dogma that new connections cannot form in the adult brain. It suggests that the brain has a tremendous amount of malleability or plasticity. What we’ve shown is that if you put a mirror in front of a patient, and he looks at the reflection of his normal hand, you resurrect his phantom, it’s as though his arm has come back. The amazing thing is that if he now moves his real hand, he sees the mirror reflection moving and he feels like the phantom is moving. This in many cases seems to relieve the painful cramping sensation in the phantom arm.
But, you know, people think Nazism was some isolated, perverse phenomenon. But it’s not an isolated phenomenon. You see it time and again in human history. Few people know that Nazism originated in the US. It was begun in Cold Spring Harbour by two men named Davenport and Gooder. They said that immigrants from Europe were mentally subnormal; that Jews should be sterilised; imbeciles, epileptics, homosexuals should be sterilised; alcoholics should be sterilised because alcoholism runs in families. This was all said in America, just two decades before Nazism. Hitler took these ideas to absurd limits. But even within America, eugenics became a very popular idea. Thank God, it wasn’t successful—think of all those Jewish immigrants who came to the US and made such astonishing discoveries in science. In fact the ratio of Jewish to non-Jewish Nobel Prize winners is something like twenty to one, while Jews are something like five per cent of the population. So there’s two hundred times more of a chance of getting a Nobel if you’re Jewish—not that I believe in genetic differences. Absolutely. Our own caste system is not different from what Davenport was doing in the US and it’s not different from any other type of racial discrimination.
Well, actually, we can go further. If you look at the evolution of ideas, the evolution of culture, among humans, you will find a tremendous upheaval of intellectual activity always occurring when things come together. We have to celebrate our diversity of cultures, not homogenise them, or marginalise a certain group. This is one thing that I’m afraid of with regard to the corporate homogenisation of the entire world, the Disneyfication of the world. I dread seeing a time when the world consists entirely of homogenised Nike shoes and McDonald’s fast food. What we call India or Indonesia, or culture or civilisation, will just be relegated to the status of little museums. Most of my work is characterised by building bridges—dissolving the barrier between what C. P. Snow called the two cultures: arts and humanities on the one hand and the sciences on the other and, he says, never the twain shall meet. I’m disputing that. I’m saying no. I’m saying the interface between the two ‘cultures’ is the human brain.
One of the things we have found is that there is a curious condition called synaesthesia. Normally, our senses are separate—touch, hearing, taste, smell and all that. Synaesthetes are people who are otherwise completely normal, but they get their senses muddled up. So they’ll say, Five is red; every time I see a five, I see red. Every time I hear sa, it’s blue, re is green, ga is purple—every tone has a colour. People used to think they were crazy and just dismiss them. We went in there and figured out what’s going on the brain. First of all, we’re sure they are not crazy. These people really see the colour when they see the number.
That’s correct—in some senses they are more gifted than us, you could put it that way. We found that there are specific areas in the normal brain which handle colour and number. In the normal brain, they are quite distinct. In these people, they get mixed up, there’s a cross-wiring caused by a genetic flaw—or, no, I wouldn’t call it a flaw—a genetic change, a gene mutation that causes excessive cross-wiring in the brain. Now, if this cross-wiring occurs everywhere in the brain, you get a greater propensity to link things. That is the basis of creativity and metaphor. So here you’ve started with this quirk, synaesthesia; from there you can go to the genes, you can go the brain areas, and maybe these can help us understand what made Shakespeare or Tagore creative.
I have nothing against it. A lot of Western neurologists, neuroscientists, debunk it, say this is all just Eastern fringe science. But Eastern science has always approached the world, including your own internal world, the mental world, from the inside, through introspective experiment. Western science is purely empirical, looking at it from the point of view of a detached external observer. All of Western science, indeed all of science, is based on the rejection of the subjective—saying there is no red, there is no green, there are only long and medium wavelengths. For all of Eastern philosophy, the starting point is you—although in the end they say this ‘you’ also doesn’t exist; it’s part of the supreme reality. There’s no tradition of experiment in the East. Even in the West, there isn’t a tradition of it—Aristotle did not understand experiment, the Greeks didn’t understand it. It’s only when Galileo came along in Italy that you define the birth of experiment.
He said, What else is there—it recalls the sentiment of Jung who said the same thing. What I would say is that words like ‘God’ or ‘spirituality’ are used very loosely—they mean different things to different people. If you talk about God in a very personal sense—there’s an old man there, watching you and punishing you for bad deeds—that’s probably just mumbo jumbo. On the other hand, if you’re talking about God in some very lofty, spiritual sense, as being the deeper truth underlying all appearances, no scientist can dispute that. You can say, I don’t know; so, you’re agnostic. I would classify myself as an agnostic, like most of my fellow scientists. There’s no evidence to say there is no god—I think that’s a silly position. Equally, there is no evidence to say there’s an old man sitting up there and watching you.
No. Not the existence or lack of existence of God. But we can probe more deeply into what makes people religious. We find, for example, that people who have epileptic seizures originating in the temporal lobes, have very strong religious sentiments. They say, I experience God. So we know that neural pathways in the temporal lobes are somehow involved in religious belief in God—but that doesn’t negate the experience. We’re not saying that because religious belief originates in the brain, there is no God—obviously not.