The great cultural sponge

This is a definite entry for the next Guinness book of world records. The biggest sponge in the world – India.

No, the reason is not the ubiquitous pot belly or layers of fat a typical Indian middle-aged man or woman proudly sports, the ‘softness’ that Indian government displays in dealing with it’s ‘friendly’ neighbors or the way most Indian sportsmen wilt away when faced with slightest amount of aggression shown by the opposing team. It  is the way we Indians have the ability to absorb any cultural influence thrown our way, and make it our own.

A perfect example of the above was a dinner that we attended yesterday. Here we were, 3 Indian couples sitting around a table in a pretty little town in Switzerland,  and some of us were talking in varying levels of American and British accented English, without a word of Hindi in sight for miles around. While the lack of Hindi is not a commendable characteristic, but it certainly epitomizes the urban India so precisely and spectacularly. But why the hell were we talking in accented English anyway. Since we are in Switzerland, shouldn’t all of us have developed the peculiar guttural throaty way of speaking most Swiss have. Well my kids are getting there, especially when conversing with their local friends, where their vocal chords suddenly turn into massive grinding gears and which utter all kinds of guttural sounds whenever encountered with a word containing ‘k’ , ‘ch’ or ‘kh’. Thankfully they have the ability to switch back to a more ear friendly normal Hindi or English while conversing with us.

So coming back to the American accent – the culprit (if one may make such a strong reference) was the couple we met for the first time, who have spent the best part of their life in good old united states of America. But what led them to develop this accent, they were not raised there, it was only the last 20-25 odd years they spent there. Was it a need to blend in, prove that they belong? No – It was just the natural thing to do, they inadvertently and unconsciously started to adapt their accent to the local scene. What was even more interesting was the other couple who we know very well, have no discernible trace of a foreign accent, would start to roll their R’s a hundred times over while talking to them, and would revert to their ‘normal’ accent when they would turn to us. Now they are very dear friends, but this small change was very interesting to observe. But hang on a minute, I know many Germans, Swiss, French who lived in America and England for many years (as kids as well as adults) and have come back without a trace of an accent.

The question that immediately popped into my mind then was – if they were now to move back to India and live there, will they lose all of that accent? Or will the great Indian cultural sponge play it’s tricks, and some of the people around them will start to adapt themselves and pick up the drawl? And why is it that it is only Indians, who seem to display this characteristic the most? Does it have something to do the ‘Linguistic neutrality’ of the Indian tongue, which lends itself to this behavior? Or are we just super eager to abandon our cultural influences and adopt anything around us that appears or sounds umore posh & upscale?

Singularity – Who wants it ?

So what are the odds? You start off the day by visiting the doctor to take an allergy shot for a very convenient modern medical malady – allergic reaction to pollen spread by the birch trees. Ironically, this most ancient form of spreading life devised by nature, threatens the life of the modern-day man. Okay that’s stretching it a bit, but it does cause mild discomfort to thousands to people round the world, who rush to the swanky clinics of their doctors to alleviate the medical industry from the deep wounds inflicted upon it by the financial crisis (another modern malady).

While you are it, you spend your time at the waiting room, discovering the solitary english magazine hidden among the plethora of german language gibberish about celebrities, fashion, cookery, travel and luxury lifestyle. This magazine happens to be the latest issue of ‘Time’ in which the main story is about the possibility of life on earth achieving ‘Singularity’. This according to Mr Kurzweil, the world’s foremost expert on this topic, is a point in time during the evolution of life on earth, when technological computing power will overtake the combined intelligence of all human beings on this earth. At this point in time, computers will have the ability to create technological advances without the need of messy and dumb intervention from carbon based life forms – us Humans. He also goes on the predict that this will happen around 2045. The fact that this calculation is done on a today’s computer, using yesterday’s data makes it immensely questionable to my mind. Plus, combine it with the fact that the Mayans predicted that the world will end anyway in 2012, makes all this postulating pointless anyway.

Well … when and if  this happens nothing will be impossible – instant gratification will be the norm. If the computers allow it (who knows what they will be up to then) it will be possible to create medicines that reverse the ageing process. Even a 2 millisecond old baby computer at that time will know that it is just a simple act of replenishing the Telomeres at the end of every DNA strand, which are lost or depleted as a result of cell reproduction. Child’s play isn’t it? And it took the stupid humans their whole evolution history of some million years to figure it out!

Minor discomforts like allergic reaction to pollen will be so passé. You could be banished to milleniums of aimless loitering in the bitfields (data warehouses on Mars) for even mentioning such a stupid medical disorder (the word ‘disease‘ would have been deleted from the official Oxford dictionary).  The technological breakthroughs of today like the funky Apple iPad, will be displayed in the Museum of Ancient art in the section ‘Doofus inventions of stone age years’ next to the Casio digital watches, battery operated can openers and Flat screen 3-D TVs. The singularity thought movement even predicts that humans could merge with machines to become super intelligent Cyborgs who could live forever. It may look like a cross between Arnold Schwarzenegger (Terminator), Marvin the paranoid Android (Hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy) and Keanu reeves (Matrix). My only hope is that they don’t get the characteristics mixed up and we don’t end up with the depression and boredom of Marvin, the intelligence of Arnold and deadpan expression of  Keanu. It certainly won’t make for an interesting stablemate.

Another possibility might be that you could have machines that conjure up anything that you think about or imagine. Hey, but i don’t need to wait for 2045 for that, i have it today! Here are a couple of proofs of that.

  1. While coming out of the clinic, i picked up a brochure from an electronic store housed in the same building, which on its front page was screaming about some fantastic price for a LED television. As i entered the elevator and looked up, there were two guys in front of me, breathlessly lugging the exact same model
  2. I walked out towards the tram stop and on seeing an ad about Dubai, my mind wandered towards a couple who had just moved here from Dubai. Lo and behold, 10 seconds later, the lady in question was walking towards me. I stopped and shook her hand and did some small talk. She was right there in flesh and blood – i wasn’t imagining her
  3. My taste buds signaled to my brain, a desire for a chewing gum. I slipped my hand into my jacket pocket, there lurking there was a single stick of gum, brought and forgotten a millennium ago

Mr Kurzweil, thanks for your predictions. I am a big fan of the future and minor futurologist myself, but what you are asking me to wait for another 34 years, i have it right here right now, my all important piece of grey matter sitting squarely in my skull.

So all of you Singularity seekers, don’t fret and spend millions of dollars on research, drop me a line and i shall show you the path. But for all the instant gratification you seek, be a little patient. You see, the cricket world cup is currently on, and the immense powers of my brain are focussed on helping India win the world cup … Amen!

Statue of Confucius on Chongming Island in Sha...

Confucius - praying for Singularity and India's victory in the world cup. Image via Wikipedia

What a busy sunday morning !

When god created Sunday mornings, he was probably thinking of the following :

  1. freshly baked croissants
  2. waking up late (if your kids allow you this luxury)
  3. nice music like Bap Kennedy, Joan Baez or Gordon Lightfoot (my wife does not agree to the last musical choice though)
  4. spend as much time in pyjamas
  5. read ‘The Economist’ from cover to cover
  6. possibly write a new blog post


Surely not this :

That is a busy flight schedule !

For a small quaint swiss town to be subjected to this kind of torture is surely uncalled for. 6 or 7 airplanes simultaneously crossing over our otherwise restricted airspace, further adding to the global warming to which I had such a remarkable solution yesterday. What has the world come to? and where are all these people off to anyway? If anyone of  you were in these planes and saw a guy with a long zoom lens in pjs clicking away to glory, drop me a line. We have something to talk about.

Now let me go back to the sunday grind.

Global warming, here i come

I am about to rake in millions now…. for I have discovered the answer to the issue that the world is struggling with today. Imagine the odds? Yours truly sitting here, tapping into a GRS, listening to muddy waters tormenting his Fender Telecaster through the Cadence Amayas – has done what hundreds of world leaders could not achieve at the Copenhagen climate council in 2009. I must patent it quickly before anyone discovers the secret, but not before i share it with you.

The brilliant discovery that i have just made is how to solve global warming. Probably your hearts are racing, for this is a momentous discovery, and i certainly don’t want to keep you waiting with bated breath. Because by doing that, you are adding to global warming, the very problem i and all my fellow scientists, leaders & thinkers are trying to solve.

Mean surface temperature change for the period...

global warming temperature change, Image via Wikipedia

The answer lies in the second law of thermodynamics …………………….. Confused? ‘Elementary, my dear Watson‘, as the great Sherlock Holmes would say (well not the scruffy version depicted by Robert Downey Jr recently).

Now most of you learnt this during the incredibly boring physics lessons at school (and promptly forgot when the question did not appear in the final exams paper). The second law of thermodynamics simply states that any physical system cannot convert all energy from one form to another efficiently. It must produce heat as a byproduct. What is the most abundant form of physical system on this planet? – us humans. There are six billion of us. Another thousand were probably added by the time you finished reading this sentence.  That is the root of all problem, not the cars, factories, machines, aerosol cans that they want you to believe. Stay with me now, don’t click the little red cross on the corner of the browser window, not yet.

So, what do all of us do all day long – produce heat, and humongous amounts it. All the paranthas, sausages, pasta, pizzas, beer etc sitting in our stomachs are being converted to energy that we need to be able to run about or read this blog, but as the second law states most of it is being converted into heat that is dissipated out. An average human body generates heat equal to a 60 watt incandescent bulb. Don’t believe me, ask Einstein. Now imagine, 6 billion 60 watt light bulbs – that’s a helluva lot of heat.

So my solution to global warming – DO NOTHING….yes, nothing! Quite simple and brilliant, isn’t it? You eat and make merry as usual, but after that –  don’t do anything. Go find the most comfortable coach, bed, seat etc and then stay there till the next meal time. No need for movement = no energy conversion = no heat production = no global warming.

I certainly ‘Walk the talk’ and try to do exactly this on most weekends (to the utmost annoyance of my lovely wife though). So the next time your boss, spouse or anyone for that matter gives you a shakedown for just sitting there and doing nothing, relax take another deep breath, send them the link to this article. Remind them that you are serving a higher purpose.  Then go back to helping mother nature fight global warming. Isn’t a cooler and quieter world, a better place?

… then why are they telling us?


“But dad … then why are they telling us?” said the 4 yr. old boy. An innocent remark, but a profoundly important one.

So let’s put this into context and start again. This remark was in a small story narrated by our very good Swiss/Greek couple friend over a cup of cappuccino, home-made plum schnapps and Greek candied fruit mixed with yoghurt.

Here is the setting: Last night, my friend and his 4 yr. old son are watching TV in their fantastic little house overlooking the best part of the Swiss Alps, and a news report about some extremely heavy snow in China comes on the TV.

Son – “Dad, Where is China?”

Dad – “Son, It is very, very far away from Switzerland – halfway around the world”

Son – “If it so far away, then why are they telling us about snowfall there?”

Dad – “mmmm…….” (No answer that will make sense to a 4 yr. old)

Now… think about this for a moment, for a 4 yr. old, it makes no difference whatsoever what happens in a place called China (at least not yet), why does he have to be told about snowfall there – there is more than enough of it in Switzerland!

And I cannot agree with him more, this is information overload of the highest order. Information is all around us today – beaming over fiber-optic cables, over satellites, TV, radio, internet, smartphones, signboards, newspapers, blogs (like this one J). Can we make sense of all this information? Does it make us any wiser? Are we just addicted to information, like an addiction to drugs? Do we have to check the online status of our friends every minute? The exact standing of our portfolio (which we convinced over selves is invested for the long run) over our iPhone while waiting at a traffic light? Do I have to watch a continuous coverage over Sky news of a ‘breaking story’ about a cat stuck in a tree in small town outside Ipswich? Nassim Nicholas Taleb said in his fantastic book Fooled by Randomness “I don’t read newspapers for the news (just for the gossip). The best filter to know if the news matters is if you hear it in cafes, restaurants… or parties. If a piece of information is important, it will find you – you don’t have to go looking for it!”

So next time you are told a galactically important piece of information that you could have lived without – put on the thinking hat of a 4 yr. old and ask the question – “Why are you telling me that?” … Say it clearly, but remember to say it nicely.