Friday, November 04, 2011

A 50-50 Sort Of Feeling

This passage somehow manages to mentally split me neatly into 50-50, the one half filled with Vizag, and the other with New England.
One of my most vivid memories is of coming back West from prep school and later from college at Christmas time. Those who went farther than Chicago would gather in the old dim Union Station at six o’clock of a December evening, with a few Chicago friends, already caught up into their own holiday gayeties, to bid them a hasty good-by. I remember the fur coats of the girls returning from Miss This-or-that’s and the chatter of frozen breath and the hands waving overhead as we caught sight of old acquaintances, and the matchings of invitations: “Are you going to the Ordways’? the Herseys’? the Schultzes’?” and the long green tickets clasped tight in our gloved hands. And last the murky yellow cars of the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul railroad looking cheerful as Christmas itself on the tracks beside the gate.

When we pulled out into the winter night and the real snow, our snow, began to stretch out beside us and twinkle against the windows, and the dim lights of small Wisconsin stations moved by, a sharp wild brace came suddenly into the air. We drew in deep breaths of it as we walked back from dinner through the cold vestibules, unutterably aware of our identity with this country for one strange hour, before we melted indistinguishably into it again.

That’s my Middle West — not the wheat or the prairies or the lost Swede towns, but the thrilling returning trains of my youth, and the street lamps and sleigh bells in the frosty dark and the shadows of holly wreaths thrown by lighted windows on the snow.
Maybe it's the mix of snow, trains, and going home.

From here.

I've been to Union Station in Chicago. And to the other great stations of the East - South Station, Penn Station, Grand Central, Madras Central. On snowy and rainy evenings. It is as he says.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

A Recipe

The last 5 weeks of enforced eating at home has resulted in the (re)discovery of possibly the tastiest dish in the world. Recipe follows.

Prepare, order or get invited to a proper South Indian meal. It doesn't matter which state it is from, I have verified that the AP, TN and Kerala versions all suffice, and unless our Kannadiga brethren and cistern are children of a different culinary god, their version should work too.

The meal should contain (roughly): some form of podi + ghee, an oily curry of some sort (brinjal etc.), a dry-ish coconut based thing, an isotope of pulusu/kozhambu/what have you, sambar, rasam, curd, pickles, pappadam/appadam and so on. The usual stuff. Just make sure there's enough variety. A degree of license is permitted, depending on your genetics and proclivities. The Mallu may not countenance the oily brinjal curry that warms the cockles of Reddygaru's heart, but she can easily prepare this dish with a kaaLan, olan, puLi inji type of mishmash.

Having consumed all this in the order and manner prescribed by the relevant shastras, at the last moment, one is to refuse the paayasam in the plate/leaf (only for a brief while).

If you tilt your head downwards and examine the receptacle for a moment, you will find a an oily, viscous sludge. It behaves somewhat like mercury, flows sluggishly, has enough surface tension to form globules, which merge easily enough to form larger globules under the sweeping action of a palm across the plate/leaf. Bits of rice and coconut will interrupt this otherwise homogeneous medium, but do not detract from the overall effect we are questing for.

If you have done everything right, the whole sludge thing will look as though it is meant to be fused with glass and poured into stainless steel containers, later to be disposed off at Yucca Mountain type places.

But appearances are deceptive. This goo, my friends, is the Holy Grail. Slurp some of it up before it trickles down your palm and see how your mind explodes with taste and texture and memories and many other things besides. It is home, it is the world, it is tactile, it is ineffable, it is nostalgia, it is promise, it is It.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Poems From 10 Years Back - II

Quiet Night Thoughts
        -Li Po

Before my bed
there is bright moonlight
So that it seems
like frost on the ground:

Lifting my head
I watch the bright moon,
Lowering my head
I dream that I'm home.

I have a thousand brilliant lies
For the question:

How are you?

I have a thousand brilliant lies
For the question:

What is God?

If you think that the Truth can be known
From words,
If you think that the Sun and the Ocean

Can pass through that tiny opening
Called a mouth,
O someone should start laughing!

Someone should start wildly Laughing --

        -Neruda, from the Book of Questions
Tell me, is the rose naked
or is that her only dress?

Why do trees conceal
the splendor of their roots?

Who hears the regrets
of the thieving automobile?

Is there anything in the world sadder
than a train standing in the rain?

That last question, I just realized, is satisfactorily answered here.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Second Battle of El Alamein - 2011 Redux

In November 1942, General der Panzertruppe Wilhelm Josef Ritter von Thoma was ordered by his commander Generlfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel (who was relaying a Fuhrerbefehl) to fight to the last man and tank. The Deutsches Afrikakorps ground itself to pieces around him and virtually bereft of tanks, he mounted one the tanks attached to his HQ guard unit and drove to the apex of the battle.
With his tank hit several times and on fire, von Thoma dismounted and stood quietly amongst a sea of burning tanks. Rommel later opined that von Thoma was probably seeking his death in battle while other staff officers quietly speculated that he went to the front to deliberately surrender. That evening, von Thoma dined with General Montgomery at his headquarters to discuss the battle.
Nearly 70 years later, Rahul Dravid is attempting a Thoma.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Separated At Birth?

Inspired by a Facebook update from the Mami

"If Anna Hazare were blue, he'd look like a Smurf."

Friday, August 12, 2011

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

This one goes out to everyone I've ever run with.

It wasn't until early one chill New Hampshire morning when my nipples started gently bleeding into my nice new white "wick" enable running T-shirt on my third leg of the 200 mile Reach The Beach relay race that it began to dawn on me that things may have gotten out of hand. It seemed like a very hurried and surreal path from sitting on a couch and doing finger exercises with the remote control that spring, to sharing a smelly van with 6 other sweaty, unwashed runners over 2 days, with this crazy idea of running 200 miles so that we could eat everything we wanted at a free barbeque on the beach, and be massaged by rookie masseurs and masseuses (also free).

I'd secretly fancied myself to be a runner for a while. Mainly caused by repeated viewings of Chariots of Fire. That title sequence never failed to evoke ambitions of running endlessly on a beach (with a band playing Vangelis in the vicinity). Of course, I'd done fat (literally) lot about this all my life. Moving to Cambridge and having a real job (read: enough money to eat many many things) meant that there was no time and place (so I thought) to get any exercise. In passing, and since I didn't know too many people in Boston, I started desultorily going to the Asha-MIT/Boston chapter meetings.

Soon, this became a regular feature, and there came a time in 2003 when this guy named Parthiv Shah suddenly sprang out of the woodwork. He was a grad student at MIT, and showed up at one of the meetings and proposed that the chapter could raise several thousands of dollars, if only they found half a dozen dimwits who would sign up to run 26.2 miles and con their family and friends into parting with their pay cheques. He claimed that he could coordinate the whole thing, and even run with the sacrificial flock. All this, when he was limping with a bandage around his ankle that he claimed he twisted while playing football somewhere.

Now Parthiv is a born and bred American, but his ancestors are Gujarati. The last sportsperson from that part of the world to have achieved any sort of distinction was one fellow called Narendra Hirwani, mainly by appearing in a Doordarshan video on national integration [1:52 - 2:00] and singing a ditty. That too in Sindhi, not even Gujju. So I took this whole thing with a kilogram of salt.

Strangely enough, everyone in the chapter (who was not running) seemed to love the idea. As Melli put it, "They come, they run, they raise money. We don't have to do anything!". Too good to be true. Parthiv rustled up a coach from somewhere, and one morning Coach Jonathan Wyner and and oddball bunch of very unfit desis showed up on the Charles wearing just about ever inappropriate piece of gear possible. To paraphrase Churchill, "Never in the field of human fundraising has so much been expected, by so many, from such a small group of tending-to-spherical people."

Anyway, off we went. The first challenge was to come up to a point where we could manage 30 minutes at "conversation pace". We nailed that, even if the conversation was of the "Hmph." "Ugh." "Grrr." "Urk." monosyllabic Australopithecus variety. Then one week we found a spreadsheet in our inboxes. Coach had neatly planned all the weeks from April to October. Strange numbers floated in the last, long run column. 16 miles. 18 miles. Surely we were going to rent cars and drive?

As New England's sticky summer rolled along, somehow we kept at it. Parthiv would chalk out new routes to prevent us from dying from boredom. Mostly we ran along the Charles, or on the Minuteman trail. Nice, predictable paths with known milestones and pitfalls. Jonathan (who qualifies for and runs the Boston Marathon year after year) ran with us often, but you got the sense that he felt like a Federer forced to play 5 sets with a sloth. In the time that we ran 5 miles, he'd have gone up and down the ragged line 5 times without breaking a sweat.

He introduced us to a couple of his running buddies (these were the Yodas to his Obi-Wan). I vividly remember one of them, supposed to be extraordinarily good. Jonathan asked him what advice he had for our fledgling flock, and we expected something one the lines of brand of shoe, choice of diet, importance of cross training. Instead all he said was, "Take it easy." Very Yoda like. Also the very best piece of running advice I have ever received.

Once in a while, coach (whose day job was to be the Grammy winning Chief Engineer at his own recording and re-mastering studio) would get these funny ideas where he'd send us off into random neighbouring towns such as Arlington and Medford, along state highways that had never seen brown people in shoes at 7:00 in the morning.

We got lost a few times, to which he'd have this gentle I-am-the-master-at-Shaolin-Temple-patience-grasshopper response, "Getting lost is one of the best ways of increasing your weekly mileage." Confucious say. Coach's house was on the trail, and we'd be guaranteed Gatorade and goodies on our way back from the long run.

We had all kinds of characters in the group. There was Mithu. Super enthu. She ran practice long runs the day before the actual long runs, just so she'd be prepared. Deepak never ran on weekdays, he more or less lived in airplanes, airport lounges and hotels. But on Sunday morning he'd be there, with a fuel belt around him, knees pounded to jelly, and a "So, how much are we doing again today?" look. Biju was my wingman, we both ran at the same pace, and exchanged various important thoughts on the state of the universe. He was old enough to be my father (not), but somehow I never managed to be much faster than him. Mo Sikka - showed up only at Poisson intervals and ran his guts out. There was Kripa. This guy was too much, he designed computer chips or something like that for a living. He didn't even run with us. In the manner of Ekalavya, he used to train all alone in some far flung suburb on the Canadian border. On one occasion when he actually made it to Boston, he offered this stellar piece of advice to conquer running boredom: "Take a large number. Compute its square root." Vivek was the good guy, most disciplined, diligently followed all advice that was handed out. Ran like a metronome, same pace, every day, week in and week out. He finished the marathon at the same pace, and was the fastest in our gang. Father of 2, Sloan MBA. Maybe that had something to do with it.

Through June and July we persevered, and Parthiv and Jonathan perserved even more. They conducted speed trials, intervals, and fartleks (hee hee), and shoe clinics, and stretching clinics, and fundraising strategy sessions and what not. At some point when there was a glimmer of hope that the thing could actually be done, and we started emailing our friends for the money. The ones that didn't immediately die of a heart attack (last words being, "You? You? You're doing what??" Thud.) were very generous, promising us multiple $ for every mile. Life started to be consumed by running. What you ate, when you went to bed, ablutions, movie nights, work, alcohol, everything had to fit into THE SCHEDULE. My roommates bought ear plugs because they couldn't stand us jabbering about running any more.

September, when we should've all been in peak shape was that special month called Injury Month. Body parts that had been stretched beyond redemption said WTF and began to fail. In one case, one of the guys (who will be known as Loquacious Knee, "Indian" fashion) literally came to us and said, "Dude, I was running along fine and at mile 18, my knee said 'Fuck you.'"!

My particular problem was that around mile 16 my foot and then gradually my leg would start to go numb till I couldn't pretty much feel my leg by the end. This started happening sooner and sooner. Too cheap (and too afraid) to have it looked at by a proper sports medicine person, I called up a friend's sister who was a physio. She said I probably had something called compartment syndrome and that I should probably not run at all. By this time I had successfully conned nearly $2,000 from various folk and forgotten who had given how much, and there was no way I could even return the money.

A small company called Google had come up with a new-ish search engine that we all liked, and the first few links on "compartment syndrome" contained the words "serious", "trauma" and "amputation" in close succession. I didn't touch a computer for a few days after that. My solution was to stop running Cold Turkey and hope that the exoskeleton would hold up on race day.

That finally rolled along in late October. On the flight to DC, all of us were of good spirit, even though we must've been inwardly terrified that we weren't good enough. I was, anyway. Roommates and family accompanied us. We checked into our hotel in Washington, drank a lot of fluids, ate a lot of pasta, and in general tried to pretend that were old hands. The evening before the race, I went for a short jog around the hotel. Not much of a point at that stage, beyond reassuring myself that my legs still knew how to put one foot in front of the other.

The morning of the Marine Corps Marathon, we took the subway to the starting point, and I got separated from the rest of them. We were penned into a hold on a section of freeway, and I saw a sight that cheered me up greatly and have never seen since. Hordes of Americans sidling off to the edge of the road to pee, because the port-a-potty lines were too long.

The starter gun went boom, and I started at a snail's pace. The legs held up fine. At mile 10 I still felt fresh, at mile 15 the monuments around the Capitol showed up and I thought Lincoln winked at me as I went past him. We'd written our names on our shirts, and thanks to the kindness of random strangers, we were cheered all the way to the end.

The route loops its way around the Capitol and then past more majestic edifices (the Smithsonian?), but whoever designed it seemed to have suddenly found out at the last minute that if we took the straight and narrow route back to the finish, we'd never be able to make up the mileage. So they sent us off into this horrible limbo called the Tidal Basin, where it seemed like we were running in endless circles for a while, before spitting us out onto the last hurdle before the finish line, the 14th Street Bridge.

I was nearly wiped out now, the leg thing had kicked in, and I had to stop ever so often to give it a rest. But when I started walking I'd cramp up and had to start jogging again, until the leg... Catch-22 continued for a bit, and when I got on the bridge, it was hot, sweaty, shade-less and just misery. Luckily, some cheer was at hand.

All along the route, the soldiers from the US Marine Corps had cheered us along, handed out drinks and snacks, and generally made us feel special. This bridge though, had no one on it. No water point, no volunteers. There was just one towering hulk of a Marine. He had a boombox at his feet on the sticky-ish asphalt, which was belting out Queen's We Will Rock You. And he was bellowing, "THIS BRIDGE IS YOURS! YOU OWN THIS BRIDGE!! TAKE THIS BRIDGE!!!". I think he must've been on Omaha Beach in a previous life.

To regain some self respect, I ran the last couple of miles full tilt. I don't remember the finish very clearly, no exultation, at least not immediately. I was just thankful to get a banana and a drink. Also medal. We'd decided to meet under some balloon, and as everyone trickled we went crazy with joy. We'd done it. No one had died. Parthiv told us that coach had taken down our bib numbers and had been tracking us from Cambridge, with his heart in his mouth. That evening at the hotel, we sat in the revolving restaurant at the top of the world and savoured every moment. Even the bleeding nipples seemed worthwhile then.

We'd made grandiose plans on the plane back, about how we would all run together next weekend, how we'd run another marathon together next year, how we were a band of brothers (and sister). Within a week, it had all come to naught. Fall came, and winter. Everyone's lives sucked them back, and the months of weekend family deprivation and alcohol deprivation had taken its toll. I don't remember if we ever ran together as a group again. I sacked out through winter, using the weather and the leg as an excuse, and grew fat. When spring came around, a mountain of work, applying for a Ph. D., and thoughts of moving back to India all jostled for attention and running took a back seat.

That summer, I moved back to India, and have not stepped outside the territorial borders ever since. I took up running again, but don't really have the stomach for a full marathon now. I huff and puff a couple of half marathons every year, and call it a winter well spent. I made excellent, excellent new running buddies. In Hyderabad, and Bangalore, in Bombay and Madras. It's always great to run with them, even if it's not exactly the Minuteman Trail that we're on.

I ran a half marathon at home, on the beach, which was fantastic and something I'd always dreamed I'd do some day.

I moved to Madras and bless her soul, so did Kenny. She's old enough to be my mom (not) and runs the pants off me every time, but at least she has nice legs and keeps talking and will make coffee afterwards and give me a ride in her car even though she really wants to run or bike, and is very very generous with beer, and is OK with my general reluctance to wake up before 5:30 and many other things besides.

And there's Kid, who is my new new wing man. He keeps it simple, takes it easy, insists on filter coffee after 3 loops of Boat Club. Life is good.

But the mind wanders back to that summer of 2003. When we were young. I am told that many batches of Asha-MIT/Boston runners have since raised a mountain of money, and gone on to even more incredible feats of endurace such as triathlons and ultras. There's a small glow of satisfaction, because even though we were probably the slowest, smallest, and least-likely-to-finish group to finish a marathon, we did it first, and showed it could be done. That is enough.

I use Jonathan's spreadsheet to this day, it remains my running plan template. Most of the plan never gets executed, but there's rarely a better moment in the mornings than when I fill in x k.m. in the "Achieved" column when there is y k.m. in the "Planned" column, and x > y. Yes, switched to metric after moving to India, the distances look a lot better.

Having opened with "Chariots of Fire", I must close with it. To paraphrase the funeral oration for Harold Abraham [0:00-0:12], "Now there are just a few of us - who can close our eyes and remember those few friends with hope in our hearts and wings on our heels."

Saturday, July 02, 2011

Poems From 10 Years Back - I

In the process of backing up various online email accounts to disk, several old emails/forwards with poetry content have been discovered, and are now presented without comment.

Prandial Plaint
        - Vikram Seth

My love, I love your breasts. I love your nose.
I love your accent and I love your toes.
I am your slave. One word and I obey.
But please don't slurp your coffee in that way.

(from 'All You Who Sleep Tonight')

Seth has featured in these pages before, and the excellent but sadly inactive Wondering Minstrels have a whole bunch of his stuff.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Revolutionary Breakthrough In 2D Planar Geometry

Wonder if any of you caught the announcement of the most breathtaking, path-breaking advance in 2D geometry since the day the Elements were a gleam in Euclid's eye? This headline in today's Hindu spills the beans:
Five-nation triangular axis mooted
Auslin, having done to geometry roughly what Jael (Heber's wife) did to Sisera, is surely a shoo-in for the next Fields Medal.

Monday, May 09, 2011

Hon'ble Supreme Court of India

This may just be me, but the way I pronounce "Hon'ble Supreme Court of India" (as it is often written) in my head, the image that comes to mind is this:

Very weird, no?

In other news the Hon'ble Supreme Court of India may have at least temporarily undone one stinking pile of poo. Bravo.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Dell-uding People?

I have bought 2 Dell laptops. One was in 2004, for a princely $2k types, in the US. Inspiron 8600. Lovely screen for writing code. Another was for the sibling, a couple of years later, also from the US.

Both turned out to be pretty delicate physically. Keys pop off, battery dies, power adapter stops working, something or the other gets fried. Dell is reputed for super-efficient customer service in India, I think the chief reason is that they need it. Of course, warranties are carefully written to precisely not cover the exact WTF that just happened to you.

In any case, we are in need of some machines at work and one of the things we were looking at is the Dell Vostro V130, supposed to be a lightweight travel friendly beast etc. Of course, glossy photographs and soothing marketing is listed on the website.

Who cares? The first-ish questions that come to anyone buying a computer are "How much RAM?" and "How much disk space?" Now the site says that this model is "From Rs. 37,290", but nary a mention of how much of the aforementioned juice one gets.

The kicker is that there's a "Tech Specs" tab, and perhaps it is reasonable to expect RAM and disk size to be available there. Nothing. Zilch.

So unless I've been doing something drastically wrong, epic fail by Dell. May this post be easily found on the internets before someone tries to buy one...

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

On Pleasing Women - A Quantitative Treatment

Exhibit A


Payyan: gundu malli rendu rubai, un koonthal eri uthirum poo kodi rubai
Pen: panchu mittai anju rubai, nee paathi thindru thantetal latche rubai

Translation (mine, bear with me)

Guy: Jasmine flowers, market price Rs. 2; if they are from your locks, Rs. 10,000,000.
Girl: Some kind of candy, Rs. 5; you eat half and give me, Rs. 100,000

A brief calculation shows that the boy derives joy magnified 5,000,000 times when the item in question has passed via the girl, whereas the girl's joy is only multiplied 40,000 times in the reverse scenario.

All further derivations and conclusions are left as exercises for the interested reader.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Readings du Jour

  • Sean Carroll skims over many, many thought provoking questions in Avignon Day 3: Reductionism
    Of course it’s difficult to describe people using Schrodinger’s equation, but that’s not evidence that our behavior is actually incompatible with a reductionist description. To believe otherwise you have to believe that somewhere along the progression from particles to atoms to molecules to proteins to cells to organisms, physical systems begin to violate the microscopic laws of physics. At what point is that supposed to happen? And what evidence is there supposed to be?

  • A delightful little piece on Israel-North Korea relations! In the early 90s, apparently the Israeli Foreign Ministry tried to persuade the North Koreans to not sell missile technologies to Israel's enemies.
    Enter Mossad. Israel's spy agency got wind of this plan, and rushed to Pyongyang to stop it. In a moment of high black farce, the two Israeli delegations each only learned that the other had been in town as well when they bumped into each other on the plane back to Beijing afterwards. (The foreign ministry officials were seated in first class, while Mossad had to slum it in tourist class.)
    Bush the younger - Kim Jong-bush, shall we call him? - made many a fateful policy choice. This is one of his less famous ones, but it may yet turn out to be up there with invading Iraq.

  • Terry Eagleton, whom I first came across in this critical review of "The God Delusion" by Richard Dawkins, where he distinguished himself with such drivel as
    Nor is he a principle, an entity, or ‘existent’: in one sense of that word it would be perfectly coherent for religious types to claim that God does not in fact exist. He is, rather, the condition of possibility of any entity whatsoever, including ourselves. He is the answer to why there is something rather than nothing. God and the universe do not add up to two, any more than my envy and my left foot constitute a pair of objects.

    This, not some super-manufacturing, is what is traditionally meant by the claim that God is Creator. He is what sustains all things in being by his love; and this would still be the case even if the universe had no beginning. To say that he brought it into being ex nihilo is not a measure of how very clever he is, but to suggest that he did it out of love rather than need.

    Whaddeva. But this piece on Marx is actually readable and interesting.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Most Random Wordplay Ever

This occurred to me once on a train.

If you take DE JUNC out of ERODE JUNCTION, you're left with EROTION.

Go on, say it out loud, like this, "If you take the junk out of Erode Junction, you're left with erosion."


Monday, April 18, 2011

Fasting - A Data Driven Approach

Via Facebook via Salil Tripathi via Patrick French, comes this spreadsheet. The important extract is the following:

In a convenient graphical form, it is like so:

Special mention goes out to Krishnamurthi R Rao, Garbini and Dantavakra for asking an Irom Sharmila question at a quiz, and special mention goes out to Spacebar for being one of the literal handful in the audience who knew the answer.

Saturday, April 09, 2011

A Quiz is Just a Quiz

An abridged version appears here.


The first time I realized that QED was not just an ordinary quiz team any more was at the national finals of the massively popular Landmark Quiz in 2009. The quizmaster, Chennai’s very own Navin Jayakumar, was calling the finalists on stage and the audience didn’t seem to care beyond some desultory clapping. That is, until QED were announced. Upon which a startlingly loud cheer rang through the Music Academy. Since when do the socially inept, stereotypically awkward, geeky, bookworm types have whistling, clapping fans in the galleries? This was new.

Everyone in the “quizzing circuit” knows about the rise and rise of QED. They started when they were students at PS Senior, cleverly (so they thought) borrowing their name from a familiar schoolroom trope. Version 1.0 first tasted success on the big stage when they won the Landmark Quiz. The vagaries of academics caused the team to split, and after trying out a few combinations, they settled into the current configuration in 2005 and appear to cruising ever since.

The team members know why their combination works so well. G. Swaminathan says, “Like any good team, it’s probably because we have such a varied and non-overlapping set of interests. And thankfully each of us seems to have more than one area that we care deeply about, which means we cover a broad range of subjects, to a fair degree of depth.”

V.V.Ramanan, Assistant Editor (Sports) at The Hindu and doyen of the Madras/Chennai quizzing circle, is the senior statesman and self-described dinosaur on the team. “I went to PS Senior myself, and when I was asked to join QED, it was great partly because it meant that we were still the ‘PS Possé’.” Ramanan is the quizmaster of the wildly popular Young World Quiz for schools. “Preparing for Young World helps me in QED, because I come across many things which are at a school level that are asked in open quizzes that end up stumping seasoned quizzers.”

There is no secret sauce behind their success. Writer and journalist Samanth Subramanian says, “We do read a lot as a matter of course. For example, in college I took courses in art history simply because I was so thrilled that I could. Because I had so much fun learning, it all stuck so much better. When we find something really ‘quiz type’ maybe we’ll spend an extra 5 minutes and navigate an extra couple of links, but not much beyond that. When we were going through a rough patch once we did try to ‘mug’ more systematically, but it was a drudge and we gave it up.”

Oddly enough, it appears as though the idiosyncrasies they bring to the stage may have a greater impact on their performance than any preparation! They have a vaastu configuration for how they arrange themselves; Samanth will wear an ancient baseball cap of dubious provenance rotated to a “just so” orientation; Ramanan used to sport “lucky” dark glasses. They listen very carefully to every question, but they also observe the reactions of their opponents, whose strengths and proclivities they know, to figure out bits and pieces of the answer when they are stumped.

Navin has seen the players and the team evolve over the decades, and sums it up with an apt metaphor. “The Venn diagram of their skills is just perfect. They individually ‘cover’ large independent areas of knowledge; at the same time they intersect to exactly the right extent which helps them work out answers and corroborate each other’s hunches. Secondly, their attitude helps. While other teams’ shoulders sag when they’re not doing well, QED somehow have the stamina to keep the intensity fully turned on throughout, and they don’t ever give up even if they are behind on score. It’s the sort of attitude that the Indian middle order displayed in the World Cup at 31 for 2! Finally, they seem to enjoy the quizzing, no matter what. This makes my life easier as a quizmaster, because quizzes are more fun for the participants and the audience when there is a little bit of banter between the people on stage, rather than a mechanical Q&A session. And I think their joie de vivre and sportsmanship are palpable and go down well with the audience who always love a sporting winner, which may explain the cheering.”

It’s an odd feeling, having to write about friends and on-and-off rivals. On the one hand there is the delicious thought that the day will come soon when QED’s memory banks will fire blanks, and maybe my team will have one menace less to worry about. On the other hand, inasmuch as quizzing can be a “performance art”, they do dish out regular virtuoso performances. And even if Samanth’s (“I’m the only single guy on the team.”) fond dreams that some day hordes of nubile quiz groupies will beat down the doors of his dressing room and drape themselves around him will hopefully never come to fruition, one hopes that this quiz team with a vocal “mass support base” will continue to entertain and challenge us in many more quizzes.

Friday, April 01, 2011

a.m. Thoughts on Thermopylae

For some reason, this occurred to me when in the shower today.

The achievement at Thermopylae was not that a 300 highly trained fanatic clones were able to defend a narrow pass for 3 days; it was that some genius of a quartermaster/s managed to supply and support an invading army of hundreds of thousands, comprised of soldiers from vastly different cultures, and some genius of a commander/s managed to keep them motivated and fighting, thousands of kilometres from their homes.

When Hannibal and Alexander do it, it's a great feat of arms and leadership, but when when Xerxes I does it a full 150 years before Alexander, it's all about those 300?! Bah!

Friday, March 25, 2011

Friday Verse Thingy

After a long, long time. Via 3 Quarks Daily, we arrive at Kenneth Patchen's As We Are So Wonderfully Done with Each Other.

As We Are So Wonderfully Done with Each Other


As we are so wonderfully done with each other
We can walk into our separate sleep
On floors of music where the milkwhite cloak of childhood lies

O my lady, my fairest dear, my sweetest, loveliest one
Your lips have splashed my dull house with the speech of flowers
My hands are hallowed where they touched over your
                soft curving.

It is good to be weary from that brilliant work
It is being God to feel your breathing under me

A waterglass on the bureau fills with morning . . .
Don’t let anyone in to wake us.

Similar-ish past posts - To Manijeh - Vikram Seth, To His Lost Lover - Simon Armitage, Sex Without Love - Sharon Olds

Have you seen Bob - The Angry Flower? He is most hilarious. Self described as "An irritable flower takes on aliens and wheelchair basketball." The first one I saw was this sequel to "Atlas Shrugged".

Today's Pangolins I Have Known is ridiculously funny. Can't help staring at it for a few seconds and bursting into giggles, in a loop.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Meru Cabs Loves Me...

...and says, "Dear customer, we noticed you did not used our service in the recent past. We missed you. Do call us..."

"Dear Meru cabs, I noticed your driver did not used to use his head and woked me up at 3:00 a.m. to ask for directions for a 4:30 a.m. pickup. Therefore I cannot abled to used to use your service."

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Oh Our Ancestors Knew Everything

This stuff is just all over the place nowadays. From last Sunday's Hindu magazine
“Our ancestors saw organic life as wholesome life,” said K. Vijayalakshmi and A.V. Balasubramaniam at the Centre for Indian Knowledge Systems, which advises farmers on organic practices and connects their products to consumers. “It's living in peace with nature and other humans, giving back what you take from surroundings, not eating away the capital. This perception changed in the post-industrial society. We are all children of this phenomenon.”
What is perplexing is that if these ancestors were such visionaries who knew what was best, why did they ever change when industrialism and post-industrialism came around? After all, they knew that the organic, bucolic, pastoral living was the right way, non?

I am sure said ancestors sat around saying, "Our ancestors saw non-agricultural life as wholesome life. It's living in peace without disturbing the land and other humans, eating only what you could hunt and gather, not taking much at all from the surroundings, not eating away the capital. This perception changed in the post-agricultural, post-draft animal society. We are all children of this phenomenon."

The possibly unpalatable truth is that our ancestors were just like us. When they saw something that made life easier, they latched onto it, without worrying too much about the consequences for future generations. Which is why we ended up where we did, otherwise we would've forever been in some Gandhian "paradise".

In fact, we're better off because at least we have a more systematic (although admittedly incomplete) understanding of the good and bad consequences of industrialization or what have you, and we're in a position , at least to some extent, to make deliberate choices to not make the same mistakes that our ancestors did. For the first time in 10,000 years or whatever, a significant minority of us (if not the majority) have the notion of an ethic that values all humans equally (you must ask the ancestors what they thought about their serfs), and since the late 20th century, the notion (admittedly not widespread enough) of seriously caring at a societal level about future generations.

I wish our ancestors had actually figured all this out, so that we didn't have go through the painful process of figuring out some of these things via trial and error, but they were largely superstitious bigots who did the best they could. There's not telling (yet) if we're any better, but our attempts are definitely more solidly grounded.

During the Indian Constituent Assembly debates, in response to attempts to sanctify the village as the ideal unit for Indian democracy, Ambedkar nailed it like so:
The love of the intellectual Indian for the village community is of course infinite, if not pathetic …What is a village but a sink of localism, a den of ignorance, narrow mindedness and communalism?
A somewhat tangential disabusing of the ancestors-knew-all tack is found in Meera Nanda's article in Open Magazine on yoga title Not as Old as You Think...or very Hindu either.

Addenda (5-March-2011)
Time for a pre-emptive cover-my-behind! :P Thanks to an AWACS style email from the supremely well connected Mami about possible ramifications etc., this clarification, in case it was not clear from preceding rant.

I am not seriously questioning the value of living in peace with nature and other humans in the here and now! That's an eminently desirable, almost tautologically desirable, and anything we can do to take better care of the environment, including organic practices, re-cycling etc. etc. is welcome. My point is that we don't need to bolster our justification for doing this with what we imagine/wish our ancestors' thought processes were like.

Sensitivity towards environment etc. isn't something we learned from our ancestors, nor is it something they were very consciously aware of. How could they, when they did not know what the industrial alternative was like? It's just the way life was for them. If any ancestors made those kind of choices, it's the sanyasi types, not the average citizen types.

Today's sensitivity to environmental issues appears to be a mostly modern sensibility and way of thinking, which actually forces us to make certain choices about our way of life, in direct contrast to what the ancestor types would possibly have done!

Saturday, February 12, 2011


A goodish chunk of one of those soullessly cold New England winters was spent watching, listening, and in general being absorbed by this song.

It was a super-duper international hit, of course. At the end of the Inca Trail, the night before the climb to Machu Pichu, there is a camp at Winay Wayna. Where a mixed bunch of very ragged looking tourists spend a night feeling very thrilled that they managed to "trek" 3 days to get there (in reality, a number of extremely frugally equipped Quechua porters carry all your stuff, cook, and in general fuss over you). So there we were, mightily pleased with ourselves, knocking down the pisco sours or whatever, and suddenly someone plays this song and like a bunch of pre-programmed idiots we all stood up and danced the Ketchup dance...

But even so we were obsessed, the roomie went and bought a CD simply because it had 3 video versions of this. Not sure what it was about this one, maybe the promise of exotic tongues, sunny climes, warm bodies... A goodish chunk of the aforementioned goodish chunk was spent, of course, in trying to decide which sister was the "best".

Oh, those days :P

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

In-flight WTF

I was on a plane a couple of weeks back, from lovely, pleasant Madras to freezing, gray as the Tirpitz Amritsar. The in-flight magazine had one of those travelogue things, this one about a home stay type place somewhere in the Western Ghats in Kerala, on a cardamom/clove/other spice estate.

The family that owns and runs the place apparently used to live in Bombay and this was an ancestral estate of sorts that they were planning to get rid of. When they visited the homestead, they were enthralled by how beautiful and quiet and un-city like the whole setup was; so instead of selling the plantation, they sold their stuff in Bombay and moved lock, stock and barrel back to Kerala and went about the business of reviving the thing.

All well and good. The article had liberal doses of numbers in it. Some paper napkin arithmetic follows, bear with me.

Total acreage: 20 acres
Plant density: 400 / acre
Yield per plant per annum: 5 kg
Market price of said spice: Rs. 275 - Rs. 1700 per kg, depending on market conditions etc.
Revenue p.a. = Rs. 4 crore (at a sale price of Rs. 1000 per kg)

Then the gentleman goes on to reveal some of his costs. Apparently they have 6-7 full time workers, and hire another 10-15 during picking season. These people are paid Rs. 150 per day, apparently.

Total outlay on labour, generously speaking = 365 days * 20 workers * Rs. 150 ~= Rs. 11 lakh p.a.

Finally, in a somewhat rueful manner, this stunning comment:

"Everywhere from villas and townships, to the new airport that's coming up, construction pays way better for a far worse standard of living. None of my workers' children want to get into farming."


You're making 4 crores a year, you spend 11 lakhs on labour, and this is your biggest crib?

I hope they replace the entire estate with a strip mall and (i) the workers get paid something approaching a fair wage and (ii) we get to work on the project.

Readers are invited to acquaint/re-acquaint themselves with this tale.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Glory of Rails

Tony Judt (who we have had occasion to admire before) has also written 2 superb pieces on the railways. The Glory of Rails starts with this absolutely lovely Monet.

The man's prose is just lap-uppable. Bring Back the Rails is a plea to...well, bring back the rails. En passant I learned about Brief Encounter, which seems superb, and also resulted in a half hour spent in desultory viewing of clips from Ijaazat, including this one.

Finally, we leave our devoted readers with 2 videos and suggest that some inspiration may be involved.

Finally, finally, this is always fun. Especially live.