From Dostoevsky to Dr Seuss

uOne evening, I arrived a tad grumpier than I’d like on a spring evening. That day on the train, there was some commotion ahead of me, and I heard a person rudely shout and say, ‘What are you all doing here? Go back.’ His pugnacious intent scared people. He stared at me and shouted. I was unnerved, Then he looked at another one and shouted at her too. In the peak hour rush, he lay there sprawled across two seats and shouted down at everybody. Another one of those people who was spewing hatred post-election. It was a sad sight, and my senses were more alert than usual.

Hate is a virulent organism that thrives on people’s inclination to adopt it. In fact, if you do not put up an active resistance towards it, it will consume you.

A few weeks ago I read, Dr Seuss and Mr Geisel, the biography of the beloved author, Theodore Seuss Geisel or more famously Dr Seuss.

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In the early chapters, one realizes how bigotry and hatred are vicious poisons that can affect people more deeply than we realize. Ted was a school going child in Springtown, Massachusetts, when the first world war started. The Geisel’s were first generation German Americans and though they were citizens at the time of war, it turns out the world around them did not treat them kindly. It is disheartening to read that young Ted Geisel was persecuted for his lineage. He never really got over the nickname he was given as a child, The Hun.

Outings grew rare as Germany became the common enemy and nativist prejudices arose; German Americans sought whatever anonymity they could. Ted and his sister, Marnie, grew even closer, sharing advice on how to cope with taunts on playgrounds and sidewalks.

This boy went on to write books that are loved and adored by children of all races, religions, nationalities and backgrounds. His books only asked for an open mind whether it was imagining an elephant gingerly climbing up a tree to hatch an egg, or a rajah taking a walk down Mulberry Street.

To think that a century later, we are still labeling entire swaths of humanity with these broad labels is deeply concerning. To parrot a divisive slogan is easy, but true growth comes when we question what is being parroted to us.

Our narratives matter, for they become history, and history then forms the basis of our myths. In this beautiful essay by Fyodor Dostoevsky (Dostoyevsky on Good Fellows – Brain Pickings), he says :
It is our responsibility as human beings, to peer past the surface insecurities that drive people to lash out and look for the deeper longings, holding up a mirror to one another’s highest ideals rather than pointing the self-righteous finger at each other’s lowest faults.

Why was that poor man shouting at people on the train? And how can we resist succumbing to this fate?

Dostoevsky:

Judge [the people] not by those villainies which they frequently perpetrate, but by those great and holy things for which they long amidst the very villainy.

Coming up next: We cannot and must not hate in the plural. A lesson taught by one of my favorite authors, P.G.Wodehouse.

P.S: Also listen to this commentary on German-Americans on the centenary of American entering the First World War: http://www.npr.org/templates/transcript/transcript.php?storyId=523044253

Drones on Kaapi Conspiracy?

The news, is and has been somewhat of a Debbie-Downer and I have kept clear of it. We have instead been listening to heartening material such as Horton Hatches The Egg. This morning, I switched to NPR, and as usual, the news was ready with a bucket of cold water to pour on my head.

The correspondent droned on about how companies in the USA are rethinking employees’ travel plans given that people are made to give up their phones, laptops and even social media usernames and passwords. This was an idea that was floating around in late January:

http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/white-house-foreign-visitors-social-media-accounts-article-1.2958851

This idea of asking for social media profiles is abhorrent to me, given that we are further enabling algorithms to slice and dice the populace based on one’s likes and dislikes. But I burst out laughing while listening to it, and probably had folks wonder why.

Lexicon: Maama: Uncle; Maami: Aunty; Kaapi: Coffee

Let us assume Kittu Maama is planning to visit his daughter in the Golden Land of the USA to celebrate his 70th birthday with his grandchildren. Kittu Maama has been flagged as having strong opinions on Sasikala, Filter Coffee pronounced Kaapi and Dasavatharam (still baffled whether his views are on the movie or mythology).

In any case, they being the Esteemed and Respected Parents of Silicon Valley Engineers of Indian origin, the administration rubs their hands in glee to data science the heck out of this one.

That’s when the Mannar & Mannar Coffee Conspiracy comes to light.

Kittu Maama and Maami’s social media posts are intriguing.

Day 1: Shared: Good morning – filter coffee is good.

Day 2: Shared: Good morning – filter coffee is the best.

Day 3: Shared: Good morning – filter coffee.

Day 4: Shared: Good morning – filter coffee is very good.

Filter_coffee_South_Indian_style

Riveting as these posts were, investigators are unable to fathom the train of thought here.

(a) The posts are being shared from someone’s feed, and this person does not seem to rank high on Kittu Maama’s or his wife’s list of adored folks. Baffling. Why would they go and share it everyday?

(b) The original photograph on closer examination (after using sufficient zooming techniques), had inscriptions on the coffee cup that translated to, ‘This cup was stolen from Muruga Vilas.

Could Kittu Maama be tipping off gangs on stolen silverware?

A few days later, Kittu Maama’s daughter calls from the USA, and asks how they are doing. “What is with your coffee posts everyday?, “ she asks.

The investigators on the nose of this Mannar & Mannar Coffee conspiracy case pick up the dials on the board: Phone calls being made and substance being discussed. Tap and apply algorithm. Quick.

“You only said that we should share if we like something? I don’t know why he puts coffee out everyday, I know Ambujam Maami does not make filter kaapi like that.”, said Mrs Kittu Maama alias Kittu Maami.

To which Kittu Maama chimed in, “Yes, in fact when I go there, I hastily say no to coffee. I stop at Saravana Bhavan on the way back and have good filter coffee there before heading back. “

The FBI is stumped. There must be something here. Could there really be no conspiracy here? Just daughter-discussing-ditchwater-kaapi? But everyday on Facebook, and on International Phone Calls?

A dial spins in the other room. WhatsApp shared: Helpfully labelled ‘Coffee joke’

Is it worth putting a drone on them?

Not just yet.

Note: While the scenario above was light-hearted and frivolous, it is useful for us to know exactly how our social media profiles have been used, and can be used in the future.

Excerpt from Nextdraft (http://nextdraft.com/archives/n20161123/turkey-shoot/)

Cambridge Analytica worked on the Trump campaign. They also worked for those in favor or Brexit. Now they’re in talks to score a couple new big contracts.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cambridge_Analytica

If Mimosa Pudica Met Humpty Dumpty

The children ask me interesting stories about my childhood every now and then. They seem to think I lived in a fairy tale and maybe I did. I find my reminiscences are often seen through the endearing lens of time ignoring the trials and strife of living in a wet, rainy, cold place. My stories often feature panthers, wild boars, and tigers. Occasionally, just to spice things up, I tell them about the different berries, clovers and exotic plants that were native to the Nilgiri Hills and they marvel at the wonders in this world and how on earth I am alive and kicking today when I seem to have used such loose food control mechanisms as picking berries to plop into my mouth. Today, when I attempt to pluck a wild berry and put it in my mouth, I am met with aghast looks and stopped with pleas appealing to my remaining sanity.

I remember being enamored over touch-me-nots too. Have you played with touch-me-not plants? If not, I suggest taking the term and tucking it firmly in the back of your brain and keep looking out for the curious species. The scientific name is Mimosa Pudica.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mimosa_pudica

The fascinating little plants react to external threats by closing up their leaves as if in tune to a rhythmic heartbeat. There is something deeply soothing about watching them close their leaves to one’s touch and then open them again. To the immense delight of the children, we found clusters of touch-me-nots on our last trip to the Nilgiris and they spent an entire morning playing with them.

In the Hidden Life of Trees, Peter Wohlleben cites a piece of research showing that plants learn and indeed have memories. What the researchers did was take the shy mimosa plant into the laboratory. The mimosa plant closes itself up on external stimuli. So, to see whether the plant can learn, researchers set up the plant under a steady trickle of water.

Quote:

Dr Monica Gagliano designed an experiment where individual drops of water fell on the plants’ foliage at regular intervals. At first, the anxious leaves closed immediately but after a while, the little plants learned there was no danger of damage from the water droplets. After that, the leaves remained open despite the drops. Even more surprising was the fact that the mimosas could remember and apply their lesson weeks later.

Screen Shot 2017-03-14 at 8.59.19 AM

It is a good lesson for us to learn in these times of constant interruptions, distractions, news and fake news. These are steady drips and we the mimosas can learn and adapt.

Like the mimosa plant, it may be a worthwhile skill to find methods to rise and react when required rather than when Mr Donald Trump wants to divert attention onto something other than what he wants us looking at.

http://nextdraft.com/archives/n20170320/tweet-grinder/

The last time President Trump faced an uncomfortable moment, he tweeted the Obama-phone-hack claim, and all the kings horses and all kings men went chasing after the latest tweet leaving the egg he wanted to crash to do so unattended.

mimosa_humpty

If Mimosa plants met Humpty Dumpty regularly, what would they do? It is a great philosophical question to ask oneself.

Oh Snap!

I attended a conference last week, a vast sprawling area brimming with people having an analytical bent of mind, or at least that is what they do for a living.

It was wonderful, for many reasons: It not only provided a good change of pace for me, but it also helped me cope with the post election disbelief by observing vast numbers of people from different parts of the country.

Before one of our trainings, our instructor put up a hashtag on the screen and requested everybody to tweet with that hash tag, so we could analyze the data coming in for that hashtag for the exercise.

For our convenience, he was also streaming the tweets as his code picked them up. For a hall containing at least 200 people, the tweets were trickling in. 5 and then 10 and then a plateau. After some time, another few.

The instructor then showed us how he was going to analyze this data and when he tried to pull up the dashboard he had created for the purpose of the training, the server went down. As it turns out, the instructor was embarrassed, obviously, that his carefully prepared presentation ran into a glitch in this uncharacteristic manner, but he had a Plan B, and going by the way he conducted his training, probably had Plan C, and D. Competence and Determination. He took a derogatory stab at himself, got a laugh, and moved on. He chose instead to recreate the dashboard from scratch, so we all get to see how it is done, instead of showing us the finished product.

The person right next to me, pulled out his phone though, and tweeted the hashtag almost instantly saying “#Hashtag Demo not working. Not Cool.” I was sitting right next to him , so I could see his tweet. I also remembered that he had not tweeted when the instructor asked us all to tweet so that he could get a dataset, but when it came to calling someone’s failures out, he was more than willing to do so.

That is human nature. We all suffer from it. So, I am not blaming this person by any chance, but rather hoping to use this as a call to introspection. Are we so quick to judge that we are losing our ability to empathize just because we now have the power to quickly voice our opinions? That could have been us fumbling when the server went down unexpectedly, couldn’t it?

I was reading an article in which President Obama warned us in a similar manner about snap judgments that social media enables us to make:

Obama, without directly naming Trump, appeared critical of the political discourse in the United States, saying social media has made it easier “to make negative attacks and simplistic slogans than it is to communicate complex policies.”

Obama-Merkel issue joint rebuttal to the coming era of Donald Trump

Every tool has its place, but if we attempt to mow the lawn with a kitchen knife, it will not work. I cannot help thinking of our gardeners, who in my mind have magical abilities, get things done quickly and efficiently, while I blubber and fly rudderless because I do not use the right tools for the job. (Divine Intervention of the Gardening Gods)

mow_the_lawn

Now is the time for all of us to tap the critical thinkers in us, to read extensively, to seek the truth and take up the job of providing a voice of reason. All of us know how distorted our consumption of information can be. Sites like Snopes.com have their work cut out for them in the age of social media.

Snopes.com Check Facts!

P.S: I loved Angela Merkel’s measured response to Trump’s victory:

Angela Merkel in her note to Trump offered cooperation reiterating that cooperation should be based on “a common platform of democracy, freedom, advocacy for human rights all over the world and championing the open and liberal world order.”

After all, we all may have to pack up and go to different planet soon (in which case we are all in the same boat regardless of race, creed or gender.)
Stephen Hawking’s prediction that humans have at best 1000 years in which to find another planet to inhibit

The Sun Shall Rise Again

I wish I could have captured the toddler son’s reaction to the election results. He burst out crying and sobbed that he did not want President Obama to go. “He has been the President my whole life!” he sobbed. That is true. The little fellow has since picked up a book on Barack Obama from the library and has had it read to him every night.

“Amma – stop over-reacting. Why are you so sad? It is fine.”, said the daughter, seeing me mope around with drooping shoulders. I was reading a Children’s book called ‘Night World’ by Mordicai Geistein, and my mood matched the illustrations in the book.

I am not able to shrug it off in my usual manner, because this time it feels personal.

What I am about to tell you happened all of 20 years ago. I was selected to become the first female General Secretary of the Department in my college in my final year. It was not exactly an earth shattering position, but enough to cause a stir in the conservative community.

I took my responsibilities seriously and went out of my way to find someone note worthy in the industry to come and give us a talk for kicking off the year. I myself prepared a speech simply dripping with quotations and positivity, exhorting us all to Dream Big, Achieve High, Reach For Stars and so on. Einstein jostled with Jawaharlal Nehru, Ramanujan and C V Raman.

Some stalwart friends (both boys and girls) helped me with the various tasks associated with this event. A large auditorium was booked, flowers procured for chief guests and professors, some of the folks with the best singing voices were to ring in the August Assembly and wrap up with a hearty chorus of the National Anthem. It seemed to me that it was going to be a function fit enough to ring in a new year of hard work, and success.

What I neglected to do was order sufficient food for the gathering, and here I accept full responsibility. The truth is that I had simply under-estimated teenage appetites. I assumed everyone will be content with half a biscuit and a whiff of tea. But that apart, time and venue were printed out and sufficiently publicized in the college, professors reminded their students in the classes and smiled at me when they told me that they had told their respective classes to attend, and how they themselves will be there with their bells and whistles on. The Principal himself came out for the event. All very noteworthy.

I must say everything went well except for one glitch: Not a single boy turned up for the event. Minutes before the Chief Guest was to arrive, a boy in the first year came and told me that he had been told to inform me that all boys were boycotting the event because they were biffed that the ‘prestigious’ position of General Secretary of the Association had gone to me, a girl.

My crest fallen face evoked sympathy from the poor fellow and he left looking miserable and determined. That boy went on to become a friend in time, but then I could not bear his looks of sympathy. Tears stung my eyes. I turned away from him. I told myself that I must brace myself and got on stage. Great leaders instead of romping on stage with their inspirational quotes simply waddled up there like dispirited ducks on sewage water.

When the Chief Guest was speech-ing away about Networks and Protocols, a few of the more decent fellows made an appearance and lurked at the back entrance so it would look like they came but also would not look like they had overtly supported me. Obviously, that boy must have told the other boys how crushed I looked.

Twenty years on, the humiliation still rankles. What I wanted to do most was to take off the next day, week or month, and possibly burrow myself in a hole. But of course, I knew I had to face this problem head on. So, I made my way to college the next day determined to find out what the problem was. Had I done something to upset all the boys? Were all the boys upset with all the girls? Or just me?

The previous year, I had been the first Associate Secretary, and that time there did not seem to be dissent of any kind. So, this was truly baffling. Had I done something wrong? When I holed some fellows in my class, who were decent enough to look abashed the next day for staying away, and then making a half hearted appearance, they told me, that the Boys did not really mind me being the Associate Secretary because that involves a lot of work, and not much recognition. But the General Secretary was quite something else, I was told. There was recognition here, and that was what they could not bear. They felt recognition should not go to a girl.

Who could not bear? I asked. But all I got out of them was that ‘They’ felt that way.

I pushed on. Can you not bear?

‘No no’, – they quickly assured me. ‘We like you, but we were told by Them not to go. You understand? ‘

I told them I didn’t.

Twenty years later, America has done the same thing to Hillary Clinton, and I still do not understand it. The pain is raw. The wound still stings. I am sure there are plenty of women out there who have things in their past that hurts the same way, and for those people I offer solidarity.

I sighed a bit and continued reading. I turned the book over to the last page, and like President Obama said, The Sun Did Rise Again. In the book at least.

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If

We had been to the East coast to gulp in the beauty of the fall colors before the trees were stripped bare for the Winter. I marveled at the beautiful tapestry that nature had laid out for us. The greens, golds, yellows, rusts, oranges, reds and browns blended together beautifully to please the eye. The same patch of forest looked beautiful in the different lights of day. The color of the skies above, the intensity of the sunlight, the shadows of the scudding clouds above, all painted marvelous pictures and nature soothed in a way that it has always done.

A forest is beautiful to look at. A forest in fall colors is brilliant to look at. The diversity in colors is mind boggling, and it all pieces together beautifully in a marvelous tapestry. It is the differences in color that make it glorious.

An artist’s palette is made more vibrant with different shades.

As much as we all like everyone to be like us, it is the fact that we are different that makes the world a beautiful place. It is the disappointments that should propel us forward.

I am distraught at the person America has chosen as its President elect. I am trying to find solace in the words of Carl Sagan on Earth:

Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there-on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

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Now, more than ever before, is the time for all of us to come together and become heroes in our own ways. I felt this was the right time to read Rudyard Kipling’s poem ‘If’ to the children.

If you can keep your head when all about you   
    Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,   
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
    But make allowance for their doubting too;   
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
    Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
    And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:
If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;   
    If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;   
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
    And treat those two impostors just the same;   
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
    Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
    And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
    And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
    And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
    To serve your turn long after they are gone,   
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
    Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,   
    Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
    If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
    With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,   
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,   
    And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

 

When the materialistic society around us automatically glorifies money, we can use the moment to say that money does not equal dignity, money does not beget culture, money may earn you servitude, but not loyalty.

And point to the example in The White House.

More (मोर) on Sherbat Gula

Let’s take it easy and go eat at some place nice for a change, I said one lazy Saturday morning. You know, just spend a relaxed, agenda-less morning. Some place I can wear this to. I was fondly looking at my new dupatta, carefully embroidered with dancing peacocks.

The kerfuffle just to spending a relaxed morning doing nothing I tell you! There was hectic activity everywhere: feverishly looking for things, toddler shoes worn on wrong feet, missing cell phones, cell phones without charge all needing urgent handling in a 10 minute interval.

I ignored the daughter as she took charge while throwing me a disdainful look . The little fellow was bossed around, the big fellow was bossed around, the bosser and bossees felt the charges of love and tension squirt back and forth.

Appa! What are you doing? That’s it!

Time for me to take charge around here, she said. Amma, stop dancing! Why are you wearing this fancy dupatta-thing-y now anyway?

Because I can! Dance! Dance! More! I said in a smart repartee and chuckled. Completely lost on them of course. (For the Hindi challenged ones: ‘More’ (मोर )means Peacock in Hindi)

peacock_dupatta

The husband meekly looked up from his game of chess and sighed yet again.  I heard him murmur something about Men’s Freedom as we headed out.

Pretty soon, we found ourselves in an Afghani restaurant sitting quietly. I turned the menu card over and the back of the menu had a picture of the girl taken by National Geographic magazine and became famously one of the pictures that defined the turmoil of war world over. It was the cover picture of National Geographic magazine in 1985

http://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2002/04/afghan-girl-revealed/

the-afghan-girl-730x410

Sharbat Gula (meaning sweetwater flower girl in Pashtun)

That was enough. The husband and I got a professorial gleam in our eyes and we tripped over ourselves trying to open the daughter’s eyes to the plight of women the world over.

Not everywhere can women boss men around like it happens in our home, said the husband. The daughter and I chuckled.

We had not even started on the political turmoil with the Russian occupation of Afghanistan when the pesky waiter came and took the menu cards away. I tchaa-ed with feeling at this tendency of waiters to hoard the menus. The restaurant is empty – what do they want to do with the menus? I am sure they don’t have to read it!

’You finished ordering and what are you doing reading the mutton and chicken section anyway? You are a vegetarian!’, the daughter said in what she thought was a scorching debate point. She thought I would fumble and drop my eyes in repentance, like a puppy told to snuff it while trying to oil the moth eaten rag doll through the door. But she under-estimated my power of repartee: She was talking to the author of the (why-are-you-dancing-now? Because I can! ) response (scroll up).

I caught her eye and took her on a wild ride through the streets of Kabul selling spices and the perils of grocery shopping in times of turmoil, past the beautiful poppy fields and the orchards of apricot, gasping through the crevices of  the Tora Bora mountains and finished with a comparison of Indian, Pakistani and Afghani cuisines.

I got to admit, I like to traipse through the menu even after I’ve ordered. Especially after I’ve ordered. I enjoy reading all the entrees and getting a feel of the cuisine, the culture, the spices and a dip into life in the normal households in the area. I like to imagine their grocery lists, their dinner tables, their lunch boxes and so much more.

The daughter rolled her eyes. I rolled mine.

By the time the food had arrived, we had sent a prayer for World Peace and a goodwill message to Sherbat Gula and hoped her daughters would have a chance at peace and happiness in a strife ridden world.

I read yesterday that Sherbat Gula is now married with three living daughters and is facing deportation from Pakistan back to Afghanistan:

https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/10/26/national-geographics-afghan-girl-faces-deportation-pakistan

That evening, I casually left a copy of the book : Because I Am a Girl: I can change the world, in her room. A book that tells the story of girls from different parts of the world, and how we as women can and should play a part in changing lives for the better.

screen-shot-2016-10-27-at-10-32-30-am

Subtle as a peacock.