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Of Glass Houses and Stones

August 25, 2015 5 comments

Now that we are done with our horror over the killing of Cecil the lion by the American dentist Walter Palmer and have moved on to outraging on whatever is the current peeve on social media, it’s interesting to look at what exactly got our collective goats and led to so much uproar.

Image source: internet

Image source: internet

From all the posts and comments that flooded my timeline when the news broke out, the prevailing sentiment was that it was inhuman for Palmer to kill another creature (and a magnificent lion at that), just for the sake of indulging himself. Of course, he also made a legal transgression, in that the killing was done outside the game park, but that didn’t seem to cause too much angst. The global audience that collectively bemoaned poor Cecil’s fate was unanimous in dissing the dentist mainly for his total lack of empathy towards another living creature and utterly selfish hedonism.

The whole episode is a classic case of our eagerness to pass judgement and condemn others, while being smugly convinced of our own righteousness. It is reasonable to assume that a significant percentage of those who hauled Palmer over the coals, are meat eaters in our diet preference. In other words, as part of our daily lives, we make a conscious choice each day to be directly responsible for the killing of another living species just for our own sensory pleasure and indulgence. We are all aware of the videos on the internet that depict the horrific processes endemic in the poultry industry (if you are not familiar with these, a simple search for ‘poultry animal torture’, or some such phrase, will be enlightening).

And all the vegetarians who are smirking with a beatific glow on our heads while reading this…  remember how good that exquisite silk saree/kurta feels on our skin as we admire ourselves in the mirror?  Of course, images of live silkworms being dropped in boiling water don’t make headlines on TV, in contrast to that of a man with a bow standing over a dead lion. Leather shoes, belts, wallets….millions of animals slaughtered each year to feed our vanity. We can all just blissfully pretend that none of that happens.

I am not trying to defend Walter Palmer for what he did, but the point is that in terms of the principle involved, all of us are equally culpable.

As I grow older, the one thing that I’m more and more certain of is that most things in life are grey, and it almost always becomes a case of living in glass houses and throwing stones.

I find it useful to try and remember what my paati told me when I was a  boy – if you ever feel like pointing a finger at someone or something, pause and reflect… there are three that are pointing at you.

Disclosures:

  1. Am mainly vegetarian, also take pleasure in partaking my share of the meat on the table during social occasions.
  2. Not a fan of silk, but it’s more a reflection of my non-existent fashion quotient than any moral or ethical high-ground.
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The Stuff Dreams are made of

December 19, 2014 Leave a comment

 sol·i·tude

noun \ˈsä-lə-ˌtüd, -ˌtyüd\ : a state or situation in which you are alone usually because you want to be

 

Do you prefer doing things alone or in the company of others? Some of the things on which I spend a fair amount of time every week, for example, are primarily solitary activities – reading, running, biking, etc. But what about other things that one would normally enjoy as a communal activity.. how different would these experiences be if you were experiencing it alone?

A Swedish TV Series called Experiment Ensam (Experiment Alone) did an interesting project recently to glean insights on the role of community in human enjoyment. After five experiments where a single person experienced things alone that would usually be done with a crowd – e.g. watching a stand-up show, a karaoke performance – the last one resulted in Fredik Wikingsson , a middle-aged Stockholm TV personality, lucking out on a truly-never-in-a-lifetime experience.

Wikingsson, a father of two kids, also describes himself as the biggest Bob Dylan fan there is. As part of this project, he was chosen to experience a concert where Bob Dylan played for him, live and exclusive. And exclusive, in this setting, meant just that – Wikingsson comprised the entire audience of one person for that performance.

wikingsson

“I was smiling so much it was like I was on ecstasy,” he says, recounting his feelings in  this lovely  this Rolling Stone interview  “My jaw hurt for hours”

The channel put together a documentary-style video capturing his whole experience. It’s a great clip.. watch Wikkingsson’s bemusement on whats the best way to appreciate the incredible show that’s unfolding in front of him.. watch Bob Dylan’s response, classy as always.

If you are a Dylan fan, the video below is a must watch. Even if you are not, this is just an incredible story.

The part where he’s struggling to hold off his tears as Dylan plays the harmonica…. I would have just collapsed weeping. Man, this is what dreams are made of. Epic.

Bob Dylan Solo concert

 

 

 

 

Categories: Culture, Solitude Tags:

Rant: Runners and Others

December 3, 2014 Leave a comment

A few weeks ago, there was a thread on the Bangalore Runners Facebook page about an issue that’s on every runner’s mind when they lace their shoes and set out for a run in our part of the world – street DOGS. Someone posted on the forum asking for suggestions on how to deal with the situation when a dog doesn’t take too kindly to a runner passing by. All runners have faced this at some time or the other, anyone who runs in this city will definitely relate to this issue. Given traffic conditions and work schedules, runners prefer to do training runs in the wee hours of the morning. While we happily trade off waking up to unearthly morning alarms with the prospect of running on traffic-free roads, the flipside is that this is also the hour when our canine friends are surprised by any human activity. They tend to be wary of anyone who’s seen as even a mild threat to their territorial hegemony (exacerbated by the fact that most of these fast approaching trespassers are also clad in fluorescent neon clothing and footwear).

While many single dogs are (in my experience) usually dis-interested, packs can get very terrifying. I had first-hand experience on a winter morning last year on how bad this can be, on Martoli road near the old airport runway. A group of 4-5 dogs didn’t like me disturbing their small talk, and started to bark/growl, then resorted to chasing and then finally began snapping at my heels. All that I had read and heard about how to react in these situations – don’t panic, don’t stare directly into their eyes, slow down, walk calmly, etc. – immediately went out of the window. Terror-stricken, for what was by far the longest minute or so of my life, I literally started sprinting and frantically looking back at the same time, shouting, even growling back at them. Of course, this made an already bad situation even worse. Some of the more aggressive ones began to lunge at me. Luckily I was carrying a water bottle, and used it to fend them off, and was fortunate to have got away without getting bitten. The incident happened on the 27th km of a 30K long run that day. Though I was quite tired at that point, I probably ran the fastest couple of hundred metres I have ever run in my life. If they hadn’t lost interest in me, my lungs would have surely popped out. The Garmin Connect activity tracker reflected my state – my heart rate readings had surged way above max HR level for those few moments. It was an incredibly harrowing experience, one that I will never forget. I get the chills even now when I go past that spot.

Street dogs are a real and serious issue to contend with, if you are a runner. So the question which was posed on the forum was a very relevant one. Expectedly, advice soon started pouring in. Stop running when you spot a dog and walk till ‘the danger zone has passed’ said some, others claimed that these canines can sense your vibes, so just continue running normally. There were suggestions on taking precautions like a carrying a stick (or a water bottle) to shoo them off in case the situation becomes tense. So and so forth.

But what was striking about the whole discussion was that every response basically reflected one core, underlying principle: dogs have the same right to live in these spaces as we humans do, and their reaction is natural because we are the one who’s seen as the intruder and a threat. No one, not one runner, said anything negative about them.

I grew up mortally scared of even neighbourly pet dogs, but managed to overcome my fear and am reasonably comfortable around them now. But I know that there are many runners who carry a pathological fear, for whom it is genuinely very distressing when they see a dog in their path while they run. There have been runners who have had similar experiences as mine above, I have friends who have been bitten too. But it was amazing to note that no one in that discussion cursed the creatures, or proposed that BMC should take them away, they should be put down, etc. There were many pleas by responders imploring fellow runners to not throw stones at them. Someone asked about using high-frequency dog whistles, but got drowned by a chorus of responses on how this can damage their ears, etc.

This level of empathy towards a fellow species which competes for our urban spaces with runners, and poses a real threat to life and limb at times, was very revealing. To me, it’s illustrative of how the running community sees its place in the larger scheme of things, the world around us.

Now, for my rant.

Another topic has produced many agitated conversations in Bangalore of late, among a far larger section of the population than runners: the renovation of key roads in the city under the TENDER SURE project. To quote, the Tender Sure project is all about getting the urban road right; about addressing the issues that have made Indian roads so notorious for their chaotic traffic , potholes, broken footpaths, overflowing drainage, poorly placed power transformers and their hanging, spaghetti tangle of electrical wiring and telecom fixtures.

Sounds great, right? What’s the problem then?

This. (emphasis mine)

In the hierarchy of road users conceived under the project, pedestrians are followed by cyclists and public transport, which is acknowledged as the necessary mode of sustainable mobility, and lastly private vehicles.

Aha!

These last few weeks have witnessed long pieces in the press, frustrated water cooler conversations… all whining about how as part of the renovation, footpaths are being widened by a couple of feet, with cycling tracks built in. How idiotic, is the refrain…did you see what they have done to St. Marks! The city is already a traffic-mess….how can they screw it up even more, goes the cry in anguish.

Err, excuse me… it is people like us who have caused this mess in the first place. As this bunch of people pointed out so simply and effectively, our urban traffic chaos is largely a result of “the absurdity of using a large car to move a single person”. Getting a couple of extra feet-width on the road for motorists is not a solution at all, all it does is make a larger part of the road clogged with traffic.

cyclevscarspace

“A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars; it is a place where the rich use public transportation”- Gustavo Petro, Mayor of Bogota.”

Sadly, it loks like we will remain buried under our own ignorance and apathy towards making this city a better place. Politicians have now  got involved, and we all know how that usually turns out.

So dear whiners, may you  continue to be stuck for longer and longer hours in worser and worser traffic jams. That’s entirely your choice, and you’re entitled to it.

But atleast stop whining, yaar.

Obviously, there is no data on how many of those who are griping over this are also runners or cyclists. I would want to think that it’s an extremely low number, if at all. Of course, I realise that this is a gross generalisation to make. (This is a rant, after all. 🙂 ). There are many friends I know who are not runners or cyclists, and believe in sustainable urban transport mechanisms. But overall, the narrow-mindedness of motorists in our city on this issue is appalling, to say the least.

Take a cue from the runners, folks. Sometimes, just sometimes, its good to look beyond our own noses, yes?.

End of rant.

 

 

 

The Times They Are a-Changin’

December 4, 2013 Leave a comment

thetimestheyreachangin

So it’s been bad news of late for men in positions of power. For those who believe their position confers them with carte blanche privileges for despicable actions.

An editor who thought he was god and also god’s gift to women, then tried to be jury and judge for his own crime, has ended up in the unfamiliar environs of a prison cell – where he will hopefully remain for a long, long time.

A senior Supreme Court judge apparently tried to woo an intern his granddaughter’s age with wine – nothing wrong with that, except that she thought he called her to his hotel room to discuss legal briefs, but got indecently propositioned instead. Things are beginning to get uncomfortable for him, and the long arm of his profession has started catching up with his mis-deeds.

A prime ministerial candidate given to hubris, displayed touching concern by deploying the might of the state’s ATS mechanism to tail a woman without her consent or knowledge. His party, and more sadly, prominent women supporters, defended this as a father’s inalienable right to snoop on his adult child. What next…. bring in the army to enforce the khaps’ death sentences on young couples in love?

For women in this part of the world, its bad news to just go about their day to day lives.

But the old order changeth. And the young are showing us the way.

The Tehelka reporter wrote : “Had I chosen silence in this instance, I would not have been able to face either myself or the feminist movement that is forged and renewed afresh by generations of strong women.

To her, the law intern, and all other courageous women out there who are breaking down patriarchal hierarchies – RESPECT.

womenvotingindelhielectionsAs I write this, there are reports of record voter turnouts in the Delhi elections, following similar patterns in other recent state elections. And here’s what makes this trend even moreVoterSexRatio cheer-worthy – a significant increase in the sex ratio of voters over the years.

 

Women in India are making their voice heard.

Taking control of their lives, defining the world they want to live in.

The times, they are a-changin’.

Come gather ’round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone.
If your time to you
Is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’
Or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times
they are a-changin’.

Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won’t come again
And don’t speak too soon
For the wheel’s still in spin
And there’s no tellin’ who
That it’s namin’.
For the loser now
Will be later to win
For the times they are a-changin’.

Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway
Don’t block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
There’s a battle outside ragin’.
It’ll soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin’.

Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don’t criticize
What you can’t understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is
Rapidly agin’.
Please get out of the new one
If you can’t lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin’.

The line it is drawn
The curse it is cast
The slow one now
Will later be fast
As the present now
Will later be past
The order is
Rapidly fadin’.
And the first one now
Will later be last
For the times they are a-changin’.

   – Bob Dylan, 1964

Really, Mr. Murthy?

October 4, 2012 14 comments

A quick pop-quiz:  what is inappropriate in this picture?

For the folks who make the rules at one of our country’s most recognized global corporate entities, this attire is considered inappropriate, and is deemed a No-No inside their premises. Today morning, the wife was stopped at the Infosys main gate on her way to work, because she was wearing the outfit in the picture above – and it violates the dress code laid down by the organization. Infosys believes that a sleeveless kameez/kurta is inappropriate corporate attire, and fines its employees for non-compliance.

Ostensibly, the genesis for formulating this medieval dress code is that  women were seen walking around the campus wearing spaghetti-strap tops, which didn’t go down well with the image that  the company wants to project. Even if one were to set aside, for a moment, that this is a bizarre interpretation of, and response to, what crosses the line on office dress codes, isn’t it obvious to the powers that be that this also completely negates every effort on gender diversity that the company makes to attract and retain talent? The wife has been seething with anger ever since this rule came into force a while ago, surely thousands of women working at Infosys campuses all over must be feeling the same.

Btw, if it’s any consolation, men aren’t allowed wear shorts or sleeveless t-shirts too – score one for gender equality, Infy!

My first thought when I got to know this rule was that some idiot in HR must have got the brief and took the throw-the-baby-out-of the bathwater approach in coming up with moronic rules like these. But then I was reminded of what blogger Amit Varma wrote in his brilliant post about the TED conference held at the Infosys Mysore campus a couple of years ago. I strongly suggest you read the entire post, and as much of his blog as you can (sadly, he doesn’t blog anymore), but here’s the relevant bit:

“Being at TEDIndia gave some of us valuable insights into society and the human condition (as well as the road to world peace, but I won’t reveal it here, I’d rather find ways to monetize it first). Here’s an interesting observation for you, which my good buddy Gautam John brought to my notice: the pharmacy at the Infosys campus in Mysore does not sell condoms.

I want you to think about that for a moment. This is a campus where thousands of young men and women stay and work together. The official Infosys position on this matter, thus, seems to be that either a) Infosys employees do not have sex or b) Infosys employees have sex, but it should not be safe sex. Isn’t this interesting? “

For those who haven’t been to the Infosys Mysore campus, a mental picture of that place needs a bit of reiteration. This is where tens of thousands of fresh college graduates (of which a healthy percentage are women), land up every year straight after college, and live for as long as 6 months being trained in ( I guess) the Infosys way. Imagine the scenario.. men and women  in their early twenties.. hormones raging.. closeted in a place which has nice weather most of the year.. with fantastic accommodation and recreational amenities… starting an independent life, earning money for the first time.. making friendships..  and doing whatever else that usually occupies the minds of twenty year olds.

But condoms.. no sir, we don’t/won’t have any of that stuff going around here. Score two for Victorian morals, Infy!

There’s been reams of pages written over the years about the solid, roots-to-the ground orientation of the company’s founders. I suspect that there’s also some amount of misplaced moralism (or numbskulling 21st century naiveté , take your pick) angle to this carefully cultivated image, which is not so widely documented.

As you enter the imposing campus at Mysore, the first thing you see is the face of the most famous Infosys employee etched in a stone slab near the entrance. When I visit next time, am tempted to put a banner on top of his visage, which reads, “Really, Mr. Murthy?”

Categories: Culture, Infosys

More Power to the Internet

August 26, 2012 2 comments

It’s been interesting to see the frenzy around banning social media sites, blocking individual twitter accounts, etc. in the wake of the large exodus of people of North Eastern origin from Bangalore and other cities, after spurious texts and other messages started floating around. Of course, I really feel for those who felt that they had to flee– that community’s acute sense of marginalisation from the mainstream is something we are all responsible for. It’s also a stark reminder of how much faith they have in the law and order machinery’s intent and ability to provide for their basic rights of safety as citizens.

But this post is not about marginalised communities. Its more related to the clumsy efforts from the powers that be to censor the internet, as a response mechanism.  I find it amusing that governments harbour hopes of exercising control over a medium as powerful as the internet. Those of us who have the privilege of internet access everyday of our lives take it so much for granted now, it is worthwhile to pause and think of the incredible ways it is changing our world. I was reminded of its transformative ability , as I listened to an engaging talk on Crowdsourcing by Luis Von Ahn of Carnegie Mellon University, at our recent annual academic summit.

One of the great things about working where I do, is that I get to see/hear/meet some really clever people and attend fascinating talks. Von Ahn is acknowledged as one of the best brains on crowdsourcing and is the founder of reCAPTCHA – the service where you see those distorted pair of words on websites, which you have to type again correctly to authenticate that you are a real human being and not some computer generated bot.  Like me, if you think that it’s a pain to type these words time and again on the internet, you’ll be glad to know that you have been enlisted in the largest crowdsourcing project ever undertaken on the planet, which has helped digitise millions of books. Those distorted words you see on the screen are actual words taken from real books, and by entering them correctly, you have been doing your bit for the cause of digital information access across the world. An astounding 950 Million internet users, almost all of them unknowingly, have contributed to the book digitisation project, and you’re one of them.  Feel good now, don’t you?

Von Ahn’s current passion is to use crowdsourcing to make the quality of language translation on the web so good that you should be able to read any website in any language, for free.  Visit Duolingo.com, for more details.

Von Ahn also made another insightful observation in his talk  – he says that in the history of humanity, before the internet, it was impossible to logistically co-ordinate efforts involving a very large number of people – the Pyramids, the Moon landing (RIP, Neil Armstrong), and the Panama Canal, are offered as examples. It seems that the total number people involved in each of these endeavours were about 100,000 – which, in his view, was possibly the largest number of people that could be co-ordinated for a large project (Yes, I did do a quick search on the Taj  Mahal –  20,000 people were involved, apparently). And then of course, the internet came and changed everything. Duolingo, for example, hopes to have 100 Million people crowdsourced for the translation effort. Incredible, isn’t it?

I have often played with the thought of being born in an earlier era, say 150 years ago… and have always come away with the feeling I would much rather have preferred to live in those times, rather than now. Many reasons for this, topic for another post.

However, there is one thing from the present that I would really have given an arm and leg for,  in those times – the internet. I wouldn’t have missed anything else, really.

What about you? If you were living in the 19th century, what’s the one thing from your current life that you really couldn’t do without?

P.S: Here is the link to Luis Von Ahn’s talk – 10 minutes of brilliance. Watch.

Categories: Culture, Internet

Death wish

May 31, 2012 5 comments

It’s a ritual that I have, every day at work. As I wait for the laptop to boot up in the morning, my fingers instinctively dial a number out of habit.. and then I have a chat with the wife. I guess this sounds like a sweet little thing (especially after being married 13 years), but the call actually serves a more basic purpose – it’s a re-affirmation for her that I am alive and well – literally.

During conversations about commuting, when I tell people that I bike to work (I use the terms cycling and biking interchangeably), the instinctive reaction is always “oh that’s nice, but is it safe?” Every single time, I get the same reaction. Without exception. And it’s that very same sentiment that makes V wait for that call from me, twice a day.

As a contrast, look at this excerpt from what the Canadian paragliding world record-holder and ice-climber William Gadd wrote, a few months ago (Hat-tip: @iyerdeepak’s blog)

I often hear friends make statistically insane comments such as, ‘You can die on the way to the mountains just as easily as you can die in the mountains.’ That statement, for the record, is a stinking pile of self-delusional excrement that does not smell any less foul with repeated exposure. The ignorance behind those words makes me seethe internally—because I once believed exactly the same thing.

 I do a lot of presentations about mountain sports, and sometimes share a list of dead friends to remind myself and the audience that the hidden price for the stunning photographs is all-too-regularly life itself. There are 27 names on my list. Not one of those friends died while driving to the mountains. Not one died on a commercial airline flight. To equate the risks of mountain sports to everyday activities like driving or even the chance of death from cancer is completely idiotic.

If he ever comes to Bangalore, I bet William would be pretty surprised to know that cycling around the city is more dangerous than, or at least as dangerous as more adrenalin-fuelled pursuits, in our part of the world.

The wife has lost the battle of convincing me to choose (in her view) saner options to commute. But she does have a point.. I’ve had a couple of very close shaves while riding – entirely caused by lunatics who seem to have a reality-distortion-field when it comes to acknowledging cyclists as legitimate users of our roads. I know other bikers who have had serious accidents. Though it may seem like someone on a cycle cannot be travelling all that fast to suffer grievous injury, it’s a fact that just a light touch from a suddenly swerving bus or car, even when you are riding at 20 km/hr, can easily be a kiss of death.

I don’t really see it this way, but it almost seems like I am signing a death wish every time I make a choice to bike. V certainly does. At some level, isn’t this a really weird indictment of our urban existence?

So here’s a plea to all my fellow motorists in Bangalore – the next time you are behind this nerdy looking guy pedaling away on his cycle, or others of his ilk… remember to resist. Resist the urge to honk like the world is coming to an end, resist the primal need to cut aggressively to the left and drive him off the road… I know it’s tough. I know that those 15-20 seconds that you lose are going to make an enormous difference to your life, I understand that you pay your taxes and deserve every inch of the space that you occupy on our roads, but please, please…. resist.

Think of it as an a sign.. to slow down in life – take a deep breath, count slowly from 1 to 10.. its good to relax ahead of a stressful day, si? Or look around you, you might identify one of these flowering trees blooming on the roadside, may cheer you up .

Or if nothing else works, think of the woman who’s dealing with an extremely hectic day at work too, and is waiting for a phone call from a familiar number.

Kthnxbai.

Categories: Biking, Culture
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