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Saturday, February 23, 2008

Fashionophobia

Jessa Crispin on fashion guides:
Instead of alleviating our body fears, however, so many books advising what to wear do nothing but exaggerate them. The entire structure of Trinny Woodall and Susannah Constantine’s book 'What Not to Wear' is built to help you define your particular version of body dysmorphic disorder. Do you think you have short legs? A big butt? Big arms? There’s a chapter telling you how to dress around each perceived flaw. It’s hard to walk out the door feeling hot and feisty when your entire dressing process has been focused on your main source of anxiety. If I tried to dress to hide all the parts of my body I have ever been self-conscious about, the only thing left to wear would be a hazmat suit.
That's bang on target. Any trend that sets in, should at the least be comfortable. If a dress or a decoration comes into vogue inspite of its lack of comfort, the chances are good that it won't sustain. As pointed out by the writer, any guide that provides a fancy work around to hide what you think is your weakest or ugliest organ just feeds to your anxiety. There's nothing wrong in trying to present yourself beautifully; but it shouldn't come at the cost accepting your body as it is.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Tom Evslin writes on failure:
set only low goals; then you’ll fail even if you meet them.
Brevity is beauty.

Gender Equality

Amit Varma writes:
... more divorces = less women trapped in bad marriages. An increasing divorce rate indicates that women are being empowered with more choices...
But Amit is biased: the increasing divorce rate also frees men trapped in bad marriages who would otherwise have silently put up because of a pseudo moral obligation to hang on to a financially incapable woman. The society would mercilessly foul-mouth an earning man divorcing his home-maker wife even if she's the reason for ruining the marriage. But I believe such cases have always been in the minority and mostly its been men wearing the pants.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Poor Dear

Sharjah has enforced dress code for mannequins. Great. The next logical step would be to allow only men to touch men mannequins & women near women mannequins. And then the minimum distance between those two mannequins. And then the beautiful world of mannequins would be compliant.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Grand Engineering Challenges

Some of the top brains got together to list the top engineering challenges of the 21st century. Most of the challenges are abstract, a view from 50,000 feet without fleshing out any concrete action plans. Here is what they came up with:
  1. Make solar energy affordable.
  2. Provide energy from fusion.
  3. Develop carbon sequestration methods.
  4. Manage the nitrogen cycle.
  5. Provide access to clean water.
  6. Restore and improve urban infrastructure.
  7. Advance health informatics.
  8. Engineer better medicines.
  9. Reverse-engineer the brain.
  10. Prevent nuclear terror.
  11. Secure cyberspace.
  12. Enhance virtual reality.
  13. Advance personalized learning.
  14. Engineer the tools for scientific discovery.
Number 9 personally resonates because I recently read Phantoms in the Brain, a popular science book that explains how the brain works, and how we think the brain works. V.S.Ramachandran, the author explains that reverse engineering may not be the answer to understand how our body parts work. For example, if one were to understand how a human stomach works just by reverse engineering, one would have to analyze the food consumed and the drops that come out and with these two samples the scientist would construct a blackbox that will transform food into excretion. But the actual digestive process is thoroughly complex and in now way deducible by looking at a blackbox model. And brain, which is extremely superior and probably the most complex organ in this planet cannot be understood by reverse engineering, in my opinion.

Number 14 piques my curiosity. I have some ideas about what the panel may mean when they say 'engineer the tools for scientific discovery'. They aren't talking about scientific inventions, but scientific discoveries which could range from anything between understanding the genetic make up of human species to unearthing fossils or lost civilizations. Scientific discovery in the field of medicine can enable better living standards and in other fields like archeology or paleontology can offer valuable insights about how the earth came to be what it is today and where it may be headed. But this is something only the rich countries can afford to do while the rest are busy either catching up (like India & China) or go down (central African countries).

Number 11 is a no brainer. By the end of the century computers/internet would have radically transformed the way people live. They would have taken new shapes, forms, acquired immense power, would have great reach and will play a vital role in how the economic engine of countries works. Within my lifetime, I'll probably have my preferences set in a repository which will contain data about how hot my bathing water should be, my video rentals, my cuisine choices, etc. When I check into a hotel, they'll have access to these information and will be able to provide personalized services. Now, with this kind of personal data on the internet, security is something that will strongly touch a common man.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

On Rape

In a bestial act, seven men raped a 12-year-old girl child in Kanpur, India. This happened in front of her younger siblings; after the act she was battered to death. A crime well accomplished, but a question lingers. Why? It's a open-ended question, with so many possibilities after that 'why' and before that '?' but that was all I managed to come up with. Again: why? It's a helpless cry; you cry because the event warrants an outburst and the cry is helpless because policemen, who were supposed to maintain the law & order were involved in the gang-rape.

Rapes happen all over the world. But such events can almost certainly never happen in the first world countries. It's the animal inside a man that pits him against a hapless tender female body. In a country like U.S.A, I'm sure that for seven men to have cornered a young girl, all of them need to be certified pedophiles working out a well coordinated plan to commit such a crime. Whereas in countries like India and other poor ones, these are normal guys walking the streets. They might have a history of harassment (lightly dismissed as eve teasing) but the police wouldn't bother to pursue, punish or prune such rogues, because they know the taste of female flesh themselves. I know I run the risk of generalization by blaming the entire police force. Mind you, Indian police is one of the 10 most corrupt police forces in the world. Had there been a survey on how they treat women, they would have been in the top 5. Which is why, on popular public demand, India has women-only police stations - such a shame.

Bloodthirsty hounds in human form, the rapists wouldn't even have a fetish for young girls. They rape because they can. That's how dark it can get in such societies. When they see a door open with a young girl in the absence of strong muscles, they jump on her. We have long tolerated a culture of physically over-powering men reminiscent of hunter-gatherers fighting over a piece of skin. And this toleration arises from a multitude of factors with the top 3 being: the offenders have political clout; they belong to the mafia; even worse, they are the police. For an average Indian middle/lower class to fight any of the three mentioned goons is a high stake game. You should be ready to forgo your life to bring them to the book. Since most of victims are aware of the emotional expenses involved in pursuing the criminals, they just put up with the event and get on with their lives.

How are we to prevent such incidents? Women empowerment? Minimize the segregation between men & women in closed cultures? A clean police force? More stringent punishments?.... There are many more bridges that will close the gap. But the primary driving force will be education. I know that I sound very text-bookish when I say education. I refer to education that produces an expanding mind that understands women's role in the progress of a society, a culturally open mind that doesn't fit womenfolk into roles which their grandmothers performed, a loving mind that addresses the need for women's freedom to express. Such a mind cannot be shaped by school education (though it will help to some extent). For a faster & efficient growth, men need to understand that societies need to be built with both hands.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Insomnia

By the time I hit the bed, she was in the middle of her journey. I slowly moved the hair strands at the back of her neck. Her weight has been oscillating for a while now, a constant flux around her tummy and cheeks. But her neck, which I remember how it was exactly since I met her, has remained the same size.

There are some events, which are of absolutely no significance that have stayed in my mind. I recall an evening when she was talking to our neighbour. Nothing special about the day: neither breezy nor sultry; nothing special about her appearance: neither flashy nor simple; nothing special about her mannerisms: neither forced nor natural. But then, I remember almost every movement she made then, from her shift in balance to hair adjustments, from her lazily elegant leaning on a wall to a semi-brisk walk, from her lullaby of a silence to her cascade-flow words. A happy life, I think is constituted by a collection of such undecorated but memorable, insignificant but worthwhile events.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

A Freudian Slip

My wife recently gave a presentation on the book 'Rise & Fall of the Third Chimpanzee' by Jared Diamond. Diamond would argue that if aliens were to figure out earthly animals' sexual fidelities, they would conclude that humans are mildly polygynous - because an average man is slightly taller and broader than a woman of that society. Though not a very convincing point, he would proceed the discussion as to how the species' mate-loyalty can be deduced by the size of the male versus female in that society.

In a slide that discusses this aspect, my wife typed 'Mindly Polygynous' instead of 'Mildly Polygynous' (which now stands corrected) and a friend promptly asked if it was a Freudian Slip and the whole crowd started giggling at me. Just a thought: when it's a man's fidelity that's discussed in a crowd in a somewhat conservative society, it can be treated as a joke; but I'm quite sure that had it been a woman's fidelity questioned in a similar society, the discussion would have assumed serious proportions. If you want to understand the paranoia associated with a woman's loyalty to her partner, read the book, or at least go through the slides which are fairly indicative.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Smoke Signals

Let me do a minor dissection of a piece from Wall Street Journal:

About 40% of countries still allow smoking in hospitals and schools, according to the WHO report. Additionally, only 5% of the world's population lives in countries with comprehensive national bans on tobacco advertising and promotion. Services to treat tobacco dependence are fully available in only nine countries.

Yet tobacco tax revenues are more than 4,000 times greater than spending on tobacco control in middle-income countries and more than 9,000 times greater in lower-income countries, the WHO says.

When the report says that 40% of the countries allow smoking in hospitals & schools, it fails to mention exactly what percentage of the population have the freedom to smoke in such places. I'm quite sure that those countries all are rich or poor. The rich think of smoking anywhere they want as a symbol of freedom and the poor don't care. Usually the middle-world countries like India & China which assign secondary preferences for personal freedom don't encourage such stupidities. There is no point in keeping a hospital sterile when the patients become passive smokers. Schools are cat-on-the-wall places where kids who're susceptible to peer pressure or who try to look smart & cool pick up the habit.

5% of the world's population lives in countries with comprehensive national bans on tobacco advertising and promotion. Now we're talking about population, which I think is a more concrete and useful figure compared to the % of countries where the actual number of smokers is hidden. I wonder if the lack of advertisements has any effect at all. Well, in a country like India where movie/cricket stars are demigods, their smoking may cause a considerable impact. But I still think the major driver here is your neighbor/friend/colleague/mate. When they stand next to you smoking, the chances are high that you either pick up the habit (given that you're vulnerable) or resume (how many times smokers quit) or increase your frequency (just for the sake of company). Moreover, there are alternatives when it comes to marketing: most of the alcohol beverage brands available in India advertise their.... yeah.. their music CDs.

Yet tobacco tax revenues are more than 4,000 times greater than spending on tobacco control... The writer again glosses over and fails to provide concrete numbers through which an educated reader can gain some insights. How much does a country spend on tobacco control? In middle-income countries, which is where I guess India & China would comfortably fall under, the fund allocated to combat such public menaces would line the pockets of bureaucrats and only a ludicrous amount would come into the fore. What kinds of techniques are used to fight tobacco? Billboards, radio/TV advertisements, short films... Do the government officials actually care about these messages reaching its intended audince? I'm not surprised at all that the tax revenues paid by cigarette manufacturers are thousand-fold the budget to fight smoke. This is the only way how it could be and the way the writer puts it hardly shocks me.

Fighting tobacco, comparable to quitting drugs or alcohol, involves a good deal of will and strong encouragement & support from family. I also believe that the formative years between 13 and 21 will heavily decide the course of one's personal traits. As for the WSJ piece, there are a few numbers & names thrown here and there, but not much food for thought.



Sunday, February 03, 2008

The.Moral.Science

In a piece that starts softly, wavers a little bit but then progresses strongly and ends with a bang, Frank Furedi writes:
The slippage between a scientific fact and moral exhortation is accomplished with remarkable ease in a world where people lack the confidence to speak in the language of right and wrong. But turning science into an arbiter of policy and behaviour only serves to confuse matters. Science can provide facts about the way the world works, but it cannot say very much about what it all means and what we should do about it. Yes, the search for truth requires scientific experimentation and the discovery of new facts; but it also demands answers about the meaning of those facts, and those answers can only be clarified through moral, philosophical investigation and debate.
Frank brilliantly argues how under-informed, misguided people are trying to replace moral & religious authorities with a shadow of science. In most cases, I try to be a man driven by reason and science is a wonderful tool that helps me wade through the multitude of options available on a daily basis ranging from the trivial like the brand of tooth paste to weighty issues like child psychology.

But an extreme insistence on science in every walk of life (anatomically comfortable sexual position, your TV viewing angle shouldn't exceed 30 degrees, sun screen lotion with an SPF of 12.5.....) makes decision-making robotically boring. As humans with free will (don't we?) the fun comes with owning responsibilities for our actions. By thoroughly turning towards scientific proofs/experiments we deny ourselves in breathing a fresh whiff of air.