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The attraction of religion

Possibly as a result of the evangelist bent of the current administration in the US, there has recently been a rash of atheist manifestos debunking the existence of God and the necessity for religion. There’s Christopher Hitchens’ vitriolic ‘God is not Great’, Richard Dawkins’ ‘The God Delusion’ and a host of other treatises from atheists like Sam Harris and Victor Mills, fed up with the crimes committed by man which appear to have some sort of religious sanction or religious provocation.

To a questioning mind, the existence of God has to be, at the very least, a matter of doubt. As a Hindu, I have been lucky to be part of a religion that is, to put it mildly, rather loosey-goosey. There is room for every intellect, from the slavish, ritualistic devotion to a particular deity to the spiritually evolved Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads. The framework of Hinduism has perfectly suited my intrinsically skeptical mindset, so I was thrown into confusion when confronted with the need for belief in my 11 year old son.

Like Nachiketa in the Upanishads, my son has lately been obsessed with the after-life – specifically, what happens to us after we die. Being no Yama (except when it comes to homework and bedtime curfews!) I scrambled around for answers that would satisfy without scaring.

In the Upanishads, as in the Gita, the classic answer has been as follows –

The supreme Self is beyond name and form,
Beyond the senses, inexhaustible,
Without beginning, without end, beyond
Time, space, and causality, eternal,
Immutable. Those who realize the Self
Are forever free from the jaws of death.

Eknath Easwaran’s translation

Unfortunately, this is a philosophy out of the grasp of most adults, so it was no surprise that it did my son no good. After a few unsatisfactory discussions we moved on to Christianity, where the concepts of heaven and hell have structure and clarity. This was much more to the 11 year-old’s liking and I began to get a glimpse into why religion plays such an important role in people’s lives.

Christianity and Islam both have the advantage over Hinduism of having a set of scriptures that lay down the law in pretty simple lists of do’s and don’ts. My theory of religious evolution goes somewhat like this –

Out of the need for order in societal chaos is born a new religion. To the society at large, it probably takes the shape of a ‘cult’ till it gains enough adherents to become respectable. The three guiding principles of any new religion are –

Contrast – How your religion differs from the existing belief system
Convince – Why it is better, and
Convert – What will happen to you if you don’t join.

Eventually, as the religion ages, it begins to lose some of its dogma and become more inclusive. It also begins to allow conflicting schools of thought to co-exist in relative harmony. But as it loses its fundamentalism, it also loses its appeal to people who want the comfort of being told what to do.

Hinduism is in this mature stage, which explains the rise of gurus and godmen. When I talk to followers of gurus about their motivation, not surprisingly, it is the craving for direction that is the biggest driver. The appeal of the guru is that of a parent for a child – someone who takes on the burden of responsibility of thinking for you.

Newer religions like Islam still have the structure and discipline in place, which is why they are such an attraction to confused, angry child-men seeking a higher purpose in life. A New York Times article about the failed terrorist plot in Germany recently reports –

…radical Muslims began to exert a glamorous gravitational pull on some German youths, German authorities say. In 2003 a local convert calling himself “Hamza” Fischer was killed fighting against Russian troops in Chechnya.

“They like the clear rules,” Mr. Köpfer says of the young converts. “Many of them are attracted to Islam not as a religion but as an ideology.”

I fear the attraction these ideologies have for my pre-teen. I don’t underestimate his need for clear answers. Since I can’t tell him comforting lies, the best I can do is to point out that the inflexibility and exclusivity of existing religions condemn non-believers (that would be us, his parents) to a very descriptive hell, set a good example for moral and ethical behavior, and hope for the best.

The end is near for the DVD -2

Yet another nail in the DVD coffin was hammered in today, though at first glance it seems to be a rather flimsy one. Santa Clara start-up Vudu is offering a set-top box for movies on demand with an initial movie library of 5000 titles. 

Customers have to have broadband access and more importantly, need to pay $399 upfront for the device, in addition to rental or purchase fees for the movies. Rental fees range from 99 cents to $3.99 and movies are available for purchase for prices ranging from $4.99 to $19.99.

This brings the tally of companies already offering online movie downloads to  4( Netflix, Jaman, Blockbuster-via Movie link, being the others) with big guns like Amazon, Microsoft, Sony and Apple nipping at their heels.

It's hard not to feel a sense of deja vu(du)( couldn't resist!). Not so long ago, Tivo offered a (then) revolutionary technology that allowed viewers to record programs from their TV on to a set-top box  without the need for a Phd. in VCR programming. Once the market had been primed and educated, the cable and satellite companies just took over with their DVRs and Tivo has been languishing ever since. 

I expect a similar shake-up in the online movie downloads market. Everybody wants a piece of the $10 billion dollar market, but once again, cable companies like Comcast have a giant advantage in that their delivery systems are in place, they are tried and tested and they have an existing client base that can be sold too with minimum effort and no further investment in technology.  Comcast already offers about 300 titles, which may be a drop compared to the 5000 plus movies the other players have, but I suspect they are just waiting to see how the movie wars play out. (At least, one hopes there is a marketing strategy behind their decision to wait. Their Bollywood service, which requires you to pay a monthly fee for access to a small library of movies, is a pretty bad idea and I wouldn't be surprised if it dies a quiet unremarked death. It would have been much more sensible to include Bollywood movies in their pay-per-view menu.)

As I see it, there is nothing to distinguish all these players from each other, except the social networking component offered by Jaman, which is the only one truly capitalizing on the interactivity of the internet. Their technology is great but their library is woefully small, so it seems likely that once the dust has settled, they would be a good candidate for acquisition by the survivors.

Meanwhile, it is the customer who is going to be the real winner. No more trips to the video store, the capacity to watch new movies without waiting in a queue, cheaper movies – what's not to like? All the players offer HD quality too. I, for one, can't wait. 

The dreariness of 'literature'

My son recently asked me –“Mom, what is the difference between fiction and literature?” My instinctive reply was, “In literature everyone suffers!” Certainly it seems that in recent examples of literature, especially from Indian writers, the emphasis is on trying to make the characters in the book go through as much unadulterated misery as possible.

My latest exercise in masochism is Kiran Desai’s 'The Inheritance of Loss.' So far there have been passages that are almost transcendentally poetic. Here is a typical example-

Up through the chimney and out, the smoke mingled with the mist that was gathering speed, sweeping in thicker and thicker, obscuring things in parts- half a hill, then the other half. The trees turned into silhouettes, loomed forth, were submerged again. Gradually the vapor replaced everything with itself, solid objects with shadow, and nothing remained that was not molded from or inspired by it. Sai’s breath flew from her nostrils in drifts, and the diagram of the giant squid constructed from scraps of information, scientists’ dreams, sank entirely into the murk.

Of course at the end of it the protagonists Sai, the judge and the cook have had their home invaded and ransacked by a ragtag group of Indo-Nepali insurgents. The flashback of their lives is equally dismal with people getting run over by an overloaded bus in Russia, the judge’s misspent youth and the orphaned Sai’s unhappy childhood in the convent. Everyone is miserable and I, the reader, have been co-opted into their wretched existence.

This ode to misery was also reflected in Manil Suri’s ‘The Death of Vishnu’ in which the homeless beggar’s death is used as device to explore the isolation in contemporary urban India. I found it so depressing I could not finish it. I did manage to read all of Rohington Mistry’s ‘Such a Fine Balance’ but only because I was stuck in a vacation with no access to bookstores. Surprising how a very well written book can still leave you with a bad taste in your mouth at the end.

I guess the idea behind these books (and other literary works) is to demonstrate the authors’ mastery of the language and their unique look at certain aspects of human experience. Possibly the reason books by Indian writers are so unappealing to me is that they lack the value of the exotic that they present to western audiences. As my father says in his pithy way, “If I want to learn about people’s miserable lives, I only have to look out of the window.”

Does literature have to be depressing?  Also, word-play is impressive, but do literary tomes have to be read with a thesaurus for a companion? Alexander McCall Smith’s No.1 Ladies Detective Agency series demonstrates wonderfully how simplicity can be as effective in bringing out the universal dilemmas of the human soul.

As a counterpoint to all this dreariness, I am also reading Wilkie Collins’ “The Woman in White.” Describing a (so far) minor character, he writes –

Some of us rush through life; some of us saunter through life. Mrs. Vesey sat through life….Nature has much to do in this world and is engaged in generating such a vast variety of co-existent productions, that she must surely be now and then too flurried and confused to distinguish between the different processes that she is carrying on at the same time. Starting from this point of view, it will always remain my private persuasion that Nature was absorbed in making cabbages when Mrs. Vesey was born, and the good lady suffered the consequences of a vegetable preoccupation in the mind of the Mother of us all.

Now those Victorians had the right idea. The language is gorgeous as can be inferred from the above passage, but it is the plot that keeps you wanting more. I am only a tenth of the way through the book and already there is a hint of mistaken identity, madness and the mischievous machinations of a mysterious malefactor.

Books in the nineteenth century were as popular as movies are today. They were often serialized and crowds would gather outside the publishers’ offices when a new installment was due. The Victorians are supposed to have had a particular delight in sensational and lurid plots but, to my mind, readers through the ages have always enjoyed drama. And a moral or a point of view that is wrapped around a deliciously gothic narrative is infinitely easier to digest.

I will probably end up finishing ‘The Inheritance of Loss’ if only for the elegance of the prose. But I will enjoy ‘The Woman in White’ much, much more.

The Internet and intolerance

I've had the belief for a long time that the blogosphere was a breeding ground for intolerance. Now read this –

Jon Fleischman ( a 39-year old conservative blogger)has never aspired to be a reporter; "fair and balanced" is decidedly not his thing. "I don't pretend to be objective," the longtime GOP activist said last week in his modest tract home in Orange County, his blog headquarters. "I operate under the premise that conservatives are right and liberals are wrong."

 That attitude has made his nearly 2-year-old Web site, Flash Report, a powerful bully pulpit…

Courtesy San Jose Mercury News 

There is no doubt that the Internet has been great for community building. I myself am a member of more than one forum and support group. Through the blog I have been lucky to meet people who have become my virtual friends.

But the flip side of this is that there is really no need for an exchange of ideas any more. Whatever your extreme opinions may be , you are sure to find validation for them out there in the ether. And should you encounter a contrary point of view, God forbid, why, that is what the 'delete comment' feature is there for.

In a real life gathering, we are forced to examine our assumptions and defend our hypotheses because the alternative is to face public censure. The anonymity of the Internet allows us to give free rein to our most base instincts. Let's face it, the veneer of civility that is imposed by our upbringing and our education is painfully thin. The increasing vitriol of the blogosphere is a testament to how fragile our civilization is.

My theory is that the increasing partisanship of politics is, to a large part, due to blogs. Once John Q. Public has taken a stand on an issue, however ill-informed, he can find enough bricks to cement his position without having to worry about pesky things like facts. Think Hillary is gay? Just type it into any search engine and you will find enough fodder. Think Barack is Chinese? I bet there are some kooks out there just like you who believe that too. 

The one-sided nature of blogs is rather frightening. George Bernard Shaw once said "The moment we want to believe something, we suddenly see all the arguments for it, and become blind to the arguments against it."  That is human nature and blogs magnify our intrinsic prejudices. I see this unstoppable train roll inexorably over objectivity and detachment and create a world which has no brick walls but many virtual ones.

Your good name? -3

Uh oh! The race to snap up the last few alphabetical domain names has begun, literally, in utero. I talked about how sensible domain names are getting snapped by the second. Now hear this –

Newborn Bennett Pankow joined his four older siblings in getting his own Internet moniker. In fact, before naming his child, Mark Pankow checked to make sure "BennettPankow.com" hadn't already been claimed. "One of the criteria was, if we liked the name, the domain name had to be available," Pankow said. It was, and Pankow quickly grabbed Bennett's online identity.

Courtesy San Jose Mercury News

I've heard about saving your child's umbilical cord blood( creepy but increasingly making sense) and starting a college fund for the newborn, but this takes the cake.

All you parents-to-be out there, beware. If you don't hurry, you might have to end up naming your kid R2D2 or C3PO.(Oops, those are already taken). 

Hair today, here tomorrow

You may go hoarse saying it but 'Bald is beautiful' is one of those platitudes coined by losers, like, 'It's not about winning, it's about how you play the game' or 'It's the experience that counts'.

 Here's a bald cynic's viewpoint

Let's look at the forty-plus individuals we've elected president of the United States. All but five of them have been men of hair. Who were the five brave baldies who managed to slip past the guards? John Adams and his son, John Quincy Adams — both one-termers. Martin Van Buren, who embellished his naked pate by puffing out his remaining locks in the manner later adopted by Larry of The Three Stooges — also booted out after a single term. Next baldy on the roster: James A. Garfield. They shot him. After Garfield's demise, a full seventy-two years would pass before another hair-impaired president took the oath of office: the wildly popular World War II hero, Dwight D. Eisenhower. Did America's voters like Ike because he had rescued Europe from the Nazis and led the Allies to a resounding victory? It would be pleasant to think so, but I fear the real reason is that his opponent, Adlai Stevenson, had even less hair than Ike. The only other balding chief exec, Gerald Ford, simply stepped in for the deposed Nixon and failed to be elected in his own right. The man who vanquished him was an eminently thatched Georgian named Jimmy Carter. So there you have it: over two hundred years of American presidents, and only twenty-three years of baldness in the White House to date.

While the same has not been true of Indian Prime Ministers, that is probably because the PM isn't directly elected by the people, unlike the American celebrity circus. Where it really counts, namely Bollywood, there's plenty of evidence that the hirsutely challenged have had to wear a hair shirt in their pursuit of success. Just let one shiny patch appear on the top and we see hide nor hair of them as they transplant themselves westward. If you don't see the correlation, all you have to do place in your cross hairs the superstars of Indian cinema, both past and present and what do you know, every one of them has been follicularly blessed. Their hair has been their crowning glory, you might say. Even the villains resort to toupees, with the poor baldies being relegated to the sobbing father or the sidekick's role. 

In the upcoming Presidential elections therefore, it not surprising that John Edwards is investing in 400 dollar haircuts. After all, he did lose the last elections by a hair's breadth. Or that the media is constantly splitting hairs about it. Of all the presidential candidates in both parties, only Rudy Giuliani is bald and we all know about his hair trigger temper. The only consolation is that he will never have a bad hair day. 

The moral of the story is  -if you crave the spotlight make sure it can't reflect off your pate. If you don't, just let your hair down. There's no point in pulling your hair out because, remember, a hair on the head is worth two on the brush.

Made in China

The first thing I do when I wake up is put toothpaste on my brush and clean my teeth. After my morning routine, I walk downstairs and put my ceramic mug in the microwave and make some tea. I sit down to read the comics in color for a few minutes.

Then it's time to change into my jeans and t-shirt and wake the kids. They get dressed, eat a healthy breakfast of sausages and vitamin-enriched cereal and get their backpacks ready for school. Today is their first day and they have to take their school supplies – pens, crayons, glue, tissue and paper.

After they leave, it's time to clean up the house a little. I trip over my son's toy car and pick up pieces of my daughter's  Polly Pocket ensemble.  Then it's time to get down to work . I sit on  my comfortable  office chair at my  cheap desk  and turn on my computer

At lunch I sit on my newly painted patio and to eat eggs( from chicken grown on whole grain feed) and enriched bread. I make a list of minor household chores. Hmm.. need to change the leaky washer in the downstairs sink, need new frames for the portraits of the kids, got to get a pair of running shoes.

At the end of the day, I'm exhausted..better take some medicine. Oh wait! 

Lessons from a jigsaw puzzle

You can tell a lot about a person by the way he or she approaches a jigsaw puzzle. I, for instance, will always complete the sky portion first. My logic is that if I will be too tired for the grunt work towards the end and will probably give up.

Not that any one has the time for puzzles these days. I owe my experience to my 5 year old, who insisted I start the puzzle(presumably for the sheer pleasure of getting to open the box). She disappeared shortly thereafter, leaving me with a sawdust-filled set of 500 odd pieces. As any puzzle aficionado knows, not knowing if the set is complete can be downright demotivating. Still, having a relatively free week, I decided to take up the challenge and learned some life lessons in the bargain.

          Pick a puzzle that is slightly out of your comfort zone but not too difficult.

         You have to assume the pieces are all there and you will complete the puzzle- or your attitude could kill the game before it starts

         Sometimes it’s all about trying it one at a time. In the early stages of building the sky, there is no substitute for hard work. There are no clues, no shortcuts.

         The piece you need maybe right in your hand, but you’re not looking at it the right way.

         A tiny squiggle could be a letter, a piece of a tree or a lady’s hat – anything is possible.

         Pause when it stops making sense. You’re probably too tired. Try it again later.

         Give yourself plenty of time to complete it- but set a deadline. In my case it is the date when my house will be cleaned next. Without the deadline, the puzzle is going to languish and the next toddler visitor will eat some pieces.

         Look like you’re having fun and you will get help. My commitment to the puzzle drew the wildly erratic attention of my older child who spent a quiet 45 minutes putting in some of the pieces – 45 minutes that are so precious to me.

         When the spaces remaining are few enough to be counted against the pieces left –resist. Even if it looks like you have too many spaces to fill compared to the pieces on hand, keep going. You may be surprised at the end.

         Celebrate when you are done.

         Thank the people who made it possible for you to spend such singularly unproductive time on something you enjoy. Thanks, hubby dearest, thanks kids.

         A jigsaw puzzle may be one of the few things in your life over which you have complete control. Go get one today.

 

Who's responsible?

The latest salvo in the battle over personal responsibility was fired yesterday when the Judge Roland Whyte blocked a California state law prohibiting the sale of violent video games to minors, calling it unconstitutional. Governor Schwarzenegger had signed off on the law a couple of years ago but “the evidence,” the judge wrote in his brief, “does not show that playing violent video games immediately or necessarily results in real world violence.”

Apparently, the reason you can’t find enough studies to show a correlation between playing violent video games and behavior is that you cannot force children to do such studies in the first place.

Enough Catch-22 for you? Continue reading

For your next annual physical – the iDoc

As I get ready for my annual physical, I don’t know what is burning more, my gut or my wallet. It’s not all the poking and prodding that has me worried. Pardon the vulgarity but when you’re a 40 year old female with 2 children, you’ve had more than the average person’s share of being poked, prodded and examined. By now, I have had more than enough time to cope with the loss of dignity that walking into a doctor’s office entails. No – it is the colossal waste of money that has me so riled up. Continue reading