Our crassly commercial youth?

Recently, Professor C. N. R. Rao wrote an article (link via nanopolitan) bemoaning the value system of young Indians. Since I happened to disagree with nearly everything he said, I sent a rejoinder to The Hindu, which I’d be surprised if they published in full (or in any form actually). So here it is, with some changes and additions for web-suitability and to accommodate 24 hours of further reflection.

Prof. Rao’s is not an unusual complaint to hear these days. It never was unusual: some of the earliest deciphered Egyptian hieroglyphics are reportedly of elders lamenting the youth of their day.

Professor Rao’s main worry (for which he lays some blame on the media and government) seems to be that the youth of today are too busy making money and exhibit “hardly any concern about other matters.” Though much younger than him, today I am approaching what many would call middle-age, so I presume I am not the subject of his diatribe. However, I myself was a student at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) shortly after Professor Rao retired as director there. I had no direct interaction with him, but vividly remember similar attitudes from the “old guard” in the faculty there, who opposed scholarship increases (it was Rs 1800 a month at the time, and many students supported families on that money) on the grounds that we would waste it on Bangalore’s nightlife. Even today, most people regard going to pubs as somehow a sign of depravity.

But let us look at a few other indicators of our value system. Professor Rao says that “India has continued to progress as one country, by and large because of our Indianness.” But I find today’s urban, educated youth much happier, compared with their parents, to think of themselves as Indian. The older generation tended, and still tends, to think of itself as Iyer or Nadar or Saraswat or Vokkaliga first, Tamil or Kannadiga next, and Indian last, if at all. It would be untrue to say parochialism has disappeared among younger people, but it is certainly becoming less common in urban areas. Inter-regional and inter-caste marriages are increasingly common, they wear Indian clothes and patronise traditional arts from all over India.

Except on very formal occasions, older men wore western shirts and trousers, and older women wore mass-made saris of synthetic fabric. I remember, as a child, asking older women in my family why they wanted “imported” saris (made in England, of all places) when nobody wore saris out there. It seemed absurd, and it was absurd. Today, retailers of traditional cotton fabrics — both government emporia, and private enterprises like FabIndia and Anokhi — enjoy booming business, among both genders. In those days, “Made in India” was a label of contempt (an attitude my elders openly displayed); today it invites respect.

Professor Rao wants us to support the arts. But the Bangalore of a few years ago was a cultural wasteland, except for Carnatic and (occasionally) Hindustani music and Bharatanatyam dance, which were patronised mainly by elderly Brahmin families. While the NCPA in Mumbai was set up to support Indian performing arts, old-timers remember that the people who ran the show regarded their main priority as Western classical music. Today traditional folk arts have undergone a revival, thanks to institutions such as the late Protima Gauri’s Nrityagram which gives tremendous importance to folk dance, and Arundhati Nag’s Ranga Shankara which devotes over half its time to Kannada theatre; they, and others, attract a large, enthusiastic, diverse young audience who (importantly) are willing to pay for the performance. In Chennai, too, traditional folk dance and theatre (from all over India) have increased in popularity, and the Margazhi festival no longer features only Carnatic music and Bharata Natyam to the exclusion of everything else.

After castigating the importance given to money, business deals and commercial ventures, Professor Rao argues that we need to take pride in intellectual and creative accomplishments, and adds that “one is not asking for monetary support here, but moral support…” I beg to disagree. One is asking for monetary support: I am, and so is Professor Rao, as he has done throughout his career. He is known as an institution builder: he opened several new departments in his tenure as director of IISc, and subsequently built up a new institution, the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research (JNCASR), in Bangalore. He is also known for running a laboratory, with dozens of people under his supervision, directly or indirectly, producing dozens of papers a year. These things require vast amounts of money, almost all of it from the taxpayer, and he is disingenuous to suggest that he is not asking for it. In fact, I would venture to suggest that the sciences have never been as well funded in India as they are today, both from the government and from the private sector.

An important part of our value system, at least according to our elders, is how the youth should treat their elders. But surely the treatment is a two-way matter. As a student, I treated my advisor, other faculty, and the IISc administration with respect, but on more or less equal terms. My advisor and other faculty members expected and encouraged this and treated me accordingly; some other senior officials were unaccustomed to it, but accepted it nevertheless. At the same time, I would witness some senior professors who interacted with Professor Rao (by then no longer the director, but still influential) genuflecting in an utterly demeaning manner (and Professor Rao did not seem to discourage this self-abasement). This was, again, not unusual in the older generation when they dealt with someone powerful, and such behaviour survives in our political culture today. Thankfully, in the better Indian academic institutions, such servility is a thing of the past and independence is encouraged.

If Professor Rao had opened his eyes in the past, he would have found much to bemoan, and if he opens them today, he’ll find much to appreciate, in today’s Bangalore and today’s India.

Finally, Prof. Rao complains that the government and the media do not devote enough attention to scientists and artists, and too much to sportspersons and money-makers. I do agree that our cricketers’ performance is far from commensurate with the coverage (and sponsorship money) that they get, and I’ll be quite happy never to read of Aishwarya Rai or Salman Khan again (I do want to know when they run over pavement-dwellers or hunt deer, though). But I also see ample press coverage of academicians like Amartya Sen, or classical musicians like Amjad Ali Khan, when they do something newsworthy (and often even when they don’t); and dozens of less eminent scientists and artists get government honours every year.

Some of the media coverage of Indian science is worthwhile, while some is decidedly dubious. I find the media, if anything, too uncritical of self-promoting charlatans. The joke about one professor in Bangalore was that, while his colleagues published in the Physical Review, he preferred the Deccan Herald.

If we don’t have better science coverage, is it possibly because we don’t do better science?

Scraping the sky

The first of Arthur C. Clarke’s “laws” (like Newton, he decided to have three of them) was: “When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.”

Actually, when a distinguished scientist states that something is impossible, he is almost certainly right. There have been a few exceptions — pronouncements on heavier-than-air flight, space travel, and so on — but they’ve been pretty rare.

I was reminded of Clarke’s law at a recent public lecture on nanotechnology by the distinguished scientist Professor Mark Welland, FRS. In the midst of talking about the potential applications of nanotechnology, he displayed the cover of an issue of American Scientist magazine depicting a space elevator, a geostationary satellite connected to earth by a cable which could be used to send payloads up to space. He complained that any undergraduate physics student could tell you why it was nonsense, and that this sort of irresponsible hype in the press had done great damage to nanoscience.

It was particularly amusing because the space elevator is a concept long championed by Arthur C. Clarke, who wrote about it in a 1979 novel, “The Fountains of Paradise”. (Soon afterwards, Charles Sheffield published “The web between the worlds” based on the same device, and Clarke supplied an afterword absolving Sheffield of plagiarism and calling the space elevator an idea whose time had come.)

So does Clarke’s law apply to our distinguished scientist? I couldn’t think of any physics reason why the space elevator was impossible. It would require an enormously strong and light cable, very delicate positioning and carefully-monitored corrective movements of the geostationary satellite, and a counterweight at the other end. I have no doubt that the engineering challenges would be formidable. But those can be surmounted (greater problems have been overcome through the history of space science). I know of no laws of physics forbidding such a thing.

The stumbling block has always been finding a material strong enough and light enough. Carbon nanotubes could, theoretically, fit the bill, but in practice nothing close has been achieved in the laboratory. There are many other difficulties. The Wikipedia article is quite detailed and has a good set of further links (including this article on space.com).

Professor Welland is hardly the only skeptic, but his statement that “an undergraduate would tell you it’s nonsense” is unusually strong. Is there a fundamental reason, that has eluded me (and many engineers and investors), that it won’t work? I’d love to know. Or will Prof. Welland prove to be an instance of Clarke’s law? Time will tell.

A good example

I have only ever heard two police officers speak in public, and curiously, both were women. The first was Kiran Bedi, whom I have heard several times, beginning when I was in school. She speaks (and acts) from the gut. She was the country’s first woman IPS officer, but today by no means the only one.

The second was yesterday, and the speaker (the second in the programme) was Chennai’s police commissioner Letika Saran. She provided an interesting contrast to Bedi: though she spoke without notes, her words were precise, carefully weighed and measured. The topic was child sex abuse by travellers. It seemed like she wanted to make a difference, she knew the police haven’t done the greatest job, but she didn’t want to come out and say that (or even blame political interference).

That apart, two things impressed me about her. First, she was an hour late — and apologised as soon as she got the podium. She made a self-deprecatory joke about it, but only after making a straight apology. Second, she used the silent mode on her mobile phone.

Trivial, I know, but both of these suggest a sensitivity and courtesy to others that is generally lacking in all our public officials, and especially our police. It sometimes seems to me that I’m the only one in the room who’s getting annoyed by phones ringing during public meetings or performances, or by VIPs delaying programmes by showing up late and unapologetic. At any rate, I’m pretty sure she didn’t apologise for tardiness or silence her phone because someone had previously complained to her.

I wonder how we can impress these niceties on our other public figures, or indeed on our public.

A for orange

Earlier this week I spent two days in the only large Indian city I hadn’t yet visited (at least, not since I was 3): Kolkata. It was too short a trip to expect much, and most of it was spent in a hotel on Chowringhee Road. I’m not sure what I expected. I didn’t expect streets littered with dying beggars (an image bequeathed the world by Mother Teresa) and I didn’t find that. I did expect to hear much bong spoken everywhere (I’ve been surrounded by the species all my life), and I didn’t find that either. Passers-by, hotel attendants, everyone seemed to be speaking Hindi. And as for the writing — shop signs and advertisements — nearly all of it was in English. I see much more written Tamil in Chennai, or written Hindi or Marathi in Mumbai, than written Bangla in Kolkata — at least, in those streets I actually passed through.

I wonder what the reason is. I could only think of:
1. The advertisers there haven’t yet learned that people who don’t read English do often have significant purchasing power
2. People there who don’t read English do not actually have significant purchasing power
3. Bengalis who don’t read English can’t read Bangla either.
4. Bengalis are now a minority in Kolkata.

I find (1) the most likely. At any rate, I hope that is the answer.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have the chance to learn anything much about the city. But I expect the opportunity will come. At quick glance, it did look like the kind of city I can live in.

The perfect LCD display

Since I can remember, the aspect ratio of computer monitors has been 4:3 or 1.33 (eg, 640×480, 800×600, 1024×768). This was inherited from TV, which inherited it from (old) movies.

But movies went widescreen in the 1950s, and TV and computer monitors have been (slowly) catching up. Many newer monitors and laptops have very different aspect ratios from the above. American (NTSC) DVDs are mostly 720×480 or 3:2 (1.5). This is uncommon among displays for some reason. The one I am typing on at the moment has 1280×768 or 5:3 (1.66). Some newer machines have 1280×800, or 1440×900, or even 1920×1200 (all of which are 8:5 or 1.60).

Why all this mucking around with aspect ratios — can’t they settle on one aspect ratio, or have they still not found the perfect one? I wondered about that idly today and realised that the last three ratios I gave, while not perfect, are tending towards the perfect ratio.

Oddly enough, this “perfect ratio” (often called the “golden ratio”) is not a rational number. It is the positive root of the quadratic equation x^2 – x – 1 = 0, and is roughly 1.618. Rectangles with this aspect ratio have been regarded as perfect (in particular, the most pleasing aesthetically) since ancient times. Why? Well, one reason is: take such a rectangle, and draw a line dividing it into a square and another rectangle. The new rectangle has the same aspect ratio (rotated by 90 degrees).

There are several curious facts relating to the golden ratio. I’ll only mention the relevant one here (referring you to MathWorld and Wikipedia for more). If you take the Fibonacci series — 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, … — and take the ratio of successive terms, it approaches the golden ratio as the terms grow larger. (This is fairly easy to prove.)

Apparently the display makers are slowly rediscovering this. 1:1 or 2:1 seem to have been passed by. NTSC DVDs are 720×480 or 3:2. For some reason this was rarely the screensize: originally they went with the TV-inherited 4:3 (which, I suppose, was two 3:2’s joined along the long edge). Then they found 5:3 was better. Then they found 8:5 was better. After this they’ll give us 13:8 (1950×1200 anyone?), 21:13, and so on. When they reach 89:55, they’ll give us 1942×1200, which is the best you can do with an integer number of pixels at resolutions comparable to HDTV.

High-energy jazz

The trouble with high expectations is that you generally come away disappointed. But not this time. Madhav Chari promised a “high-energy” performance (previewed here) and boy did he deliver. My expectations were high, but the standards of all three musicians were evidently even higher. They opened with a rousing “Our delight” (Dameron) and a more sedate “How insensitive” (Jobim), and went through a bunch of other standards (including Bud Powell’s “Parisian Thoroughfares”), some of Madhav’s own compositions (“Elegy”/”Rejoice”, a tribute to Elvin Jones), and a highly-rearranged “Yesterday” (Beatles) with gusto. Liberated by the presence of a top-notch rhythm section (Fabien Marcoz, bass and Mourad Benhammou, drums), Madhav played jaw-dropping solos at break-neck speed. Marcoz and Benhammou kept up reliably. Benhammou seemed a tad heavy-handed at times, but was clearly listening to Madhav carefully. I haven’t been at such an exhilarating concert since hearing Uri Caine at the Village Vanguard nearly three years ago (luckily, those shows were recorded).

In fact, Madhav’s playing reminded me a bit of Caine: robust rather than delicate, complex harmonies and structure, often spectacular, always fully in control. Madhav is capable of being poetic too — at his WorldSpace concert he played one of the best versions of Thelonious Monk’s “Reflections” that I’ve ever heard — but that wasn’t much on display last night, except paradoxically right at the end, when he segued the thunderous last piece into a delicate blues (during which Benhammou did rather interesting things with his drums) — ending with a whisper not a bang.

The audience loved it all. It was a much larger crowd than at his poorly-publicised WorldSpace concert — not house full but quite substantial. (Which is impressive, since there was another concert elsewhere simultaneously, a jazz-fusion thing with George Brooks, Kai Eckhart, Kala Ramnath and others, promoted by the city’s leading newspaper. On another day I’d have gone there. In a city that sees 3 or 4 jazz concerts a year, I wonder why the cultural bodies can’t share timetables in advance to avoid such clashes.)

From here they move to Bangalore (today, Nov. 17, 8 pm, Alliance Francaise), Kolkata (Nov 18, 7:30 pm, Princeton Club), Pune (Nov 19, 7 pm, Mazda Hall), and Delhi (Nov 21, 6:30 pm, IIC). Passes needed in Delhi (available at AF), entry free everywhere else. If you’re there, be there.


In my perception, my writing style was regular British English, but an in-depth study of this article (from The Economist’s style guide) obligates me to affirm just how much American English has impacted my language.

Curiously, the Economist disagrees with the Guardian on whether California should be adjectived as “Californian” or “California”.

"Parisian Throroughfares" in Chennai

(This is a plug, in the “previews are more useful than reviews” spirit: skip to the end if long write-ups bore you.)

When people think of music and Chennai (or Madras, to use its older name), they think of Carnatic music — the southern branch of Indian classical music. People from around the country (and expatriates from around the world) make a trip here in December, the “music season”, when there are 20 or 30 concerts happening every day. These days, Hindustani music (north Indian classical music) is also finding a growing audience.

But, on moving here, I found that the city was also home to Madhav Chari, pianist, the finest Indian player I’ve encountered in quite another form of improvised music: jazz.

I use the words “finest” and “jazz” carefully. There are several musicians in India who claim to play jazz but don’t know what it means (cf. T V Gopalakrishnan and his — ugh — “carnatic jazz”). There are many who play authentic jazz (eg, Frank Dubier in this city, Rex Rosario in Bangalore) but have not really succeeded in going beyond an imitation of swing-era musicians. They’re fun to listen to (especially given the shortage of live jazz here) but I’ve heard more inspired music on the streets in Paris and in nondescript bars in New York. There are some who have tried to take their jazz beyond Louis Armstrong and give it a contemporary colour (Louis Banks in Mumbai, Amit Heri in Bangalore) but the results, to me, are dubious.

Madhav Chari is different. To begin with, he is a scholar (literally — he was pursuing a Ph.D. in mathematics in Illinois when he decided that music is his true calling) and is well grounded both in the practice of contemporary jazz and in its history, folklore, and roots, in the blues, ragtime, New Orleans creole music, west African rhythms, and, of course, European classical music. His technique has the solidity of a classical pianist, while the music he plays is something the best contemporary jazz musicians in New York will identify with. In a word, he groks jazz.

My first introduction to him was a workshop series that he was conducting a month or two after I moved to Chennai. Subsequently I have heard him perform several times, in public and in private (including twice at my workplace). At his best he is the equal of anyone I’ve heard in the world; while even his least-inspired music is very listenable and thoroughly professional, never dull or careless.

He once told me that one reason he lives in Chennai is that one gets to know all kinds of interesting people here that one wouldn’t in most other cities. To me, he himself is an example.

Unfortunately, apart from a trio CD that he recorded in New York several years ago, I’ve only ever heard Madhav play solo piano. But that will change this Thursday (the 16th), when he plays at the Museum Theatre with Fabien Marcoz on bass and Mourad Benhammou on drums. He describes them as two of the best young French jazz musicians. Which is nice. I love the sound of a trio: many of my favourite recordings are by piano/bass/drums trios, from Bill Evans to the Ellington/Mingus/Roach “Money Jungle” to today’s Brad Mehldau, Uri Caine, Kenny Barron and others. So I’m really looking forward to it. (And it’s free, courtesy Alliance Fran├žaise.) Subsequently they’re playing in a few other cities (Bangalore, Pune, Kolkata, Delhi I believe).

If you’re a jazz buff, be there.

Courting crime

Prem Shankar Jha nails it about the court-mandated sealing of shops in Delhi.

I have another problem with it: Delhi is already the most unsafe big city in India, especially for women. And part of the problem is the deserted streets. When I lived in Delhi, shops were mandated to close by 7 pm, with the result that by 8 pm, even a central market area like Connaught Place would have a lonely, eerie look. (I believe shops are open a bit later now.) If the court has its way, there will be no commercial activity in residential areas, and one can imagine what it will be like for people returning home alone late in the evening.

Well, at least I don’t live there any more.

Fixing it

One of India’s advantages is widely held to be the service sector, and I agree. They don’t greet you with a dazzling American smile and leave you with “Have a nice day”, but they do their job. Repairs and servicing are prompt (hours rather than days), and generally reliable. I bought my car (a used 1999 Fiat Uno) incredibly cheap, because of Fiat’s lousy reputation for after-sales service (since then, they have tied up with the Tatas for sales and service, which seems to be helping); but my unauthorised neighbourhood garage is doing a great job of keeping the car in shape. My laptop screen’s backlight went kaput, and HP’s service centre took a day to re-attach it and didn’t even charge me (warranty had expired months earlier). When it happened again, they found they needed to replace it; they took 3 days and charged me a very modest service charge, plus the cost of the screen (which also was a fraction of what I’d expected — about US$ 300, where I’d been led to believe it would be $1000 in the US, but no doubt that’s how they sell you extended warranties).

It can get a bit overwhelming. Yesterday we went to a shop to seek advice on insect screening, and the manager talked to us at length, exploring various options, and for the most part suggesting solutions that he himself did not deal in and pointing out shortcomings in the solution that he did deal in. After a slightly surreal half an hour, we arrived at a scheme combining his material and another vendor’s.

In the west, you buy cheap flatpack furniture at Ikea, load it into your car, take it home and assemble it yourself. Here, we bought a flatpack desk at Godrej (Ikea hasn’t arrived here yet). They shipped it to our home, and said someone would be along the next day to assemble it. Being the DIY types, we assembled it ourselves. It was a bit trickier than Ikea stuff, but not all that hard. The next day the guy who’s supposed to assemble it calls and we say we’ve done it ourselves. Stunned silence. Are we sure? Yes. Can he come and check anyway? No, really, we’re not at home now but we’ve done it right. Five minutes later, he calls again. His boss wants him to come home and check we’ve done it right. We finally managed to convince him that he doesn’t have to come.

But the annoyance at the intrusiveness is fleeting; generally, I’m grateful for the quality of workmanship here. In New York, the battery of my watch (a gift from my parents) ran out. I took it to a shop there, and the guy opened it, fiddled around, and told me that the battery is fine but the mechanism is kaput and he can’t do anything. Whether it was or not kaput before, it was when he gave it back: I couldn’t even adjust the time with the pin. I switched to my backup watch, put this one away and forgot about it…

…until the battery of my backup watch ran out too. By this time I was at my present location in Chennai. I walked a few metres up the road to a random watch repair guy I’d noticed earlier, and gave him both watches. He took all of 45 seconds to replace the battery of the backup watch, then opened the other one. Hm, he said. It’s been tampered with, some parts are missing. Can you fix it, I asked. Sure, he said. Incredibly dexterous hands got to work, manipulating tweezers and miniature screwdrivers to take apart the thing in seconds, replacing a couple of missing parts, putting it back together, applying a microdroplet of oil here and there, and finally replacing the battery and closing the back. Good as new, and it all took about five minutes. I’m still wearing it, through rain and shine, a year later.

And what did he charge me? Rs 10 (that’s under 25 cents) for the parts the New York shop stole, Rs 20 for the battery, and Rs 10 for labour. Total cost under a dollar.

More recently, I picked up a handy little keychain LED torch (this one) in Paris. It’s a tiny cylinder, less than a centimetre in diameter and about six centimetres in length, with a bright white LED, focused by a lens, powered by four watch-type lithium button batteries. It worked nicely for a while, then stopped lighting up, or lit up very dimly. Assuming the batteries had run out (though they were supposed to last 100 hours) I took it to the watch guy to replace. He checked them and they were fine. But he was very intrigued by the torch (he didn’t even realise that’s what it was) and asked if he could look at it. After a bit of probing he figured out how to pull out the tiny little LED through the length of the tube with his tweezers, located a broken contact in the circuitry, soldered it, and put it back. It took about twenty minutes. During that time, three or four other customers came in with minor watch complaints; he spent about five to ten seconds on each of them before returning to my torch.

I asked whether he does anything other than watch repair and he said no, this keeps him busy enough. He’s a youngish guy who’s been doing this for about 11 years, and seems to be doing well, and having fun at what he does.

I hope they’re all having fun.