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Friday, April 30, 2010

Strange connections

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When I tinker with my eyes, as in when I am trying to put on contact lenses, specially when it takes longer than usual and my eyes become watery, why does my nose start running too?

Why do I cough when digging in my ear using an ear stick?

Why does sneezing makes me momentarily deaf?

Why are there such strange connections between two unrelated parts of the body? What are other examples?

Edit 30/04/2010: See comments for some asnwers.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Surcharge on vegetarianism

If you are an Indian and a non-vegetarian, you should probably stop reading now, because I am going to write about you.

India is a vegetarian’s paradise. It is perhaps only country in the world where vegetarianism is culturally and religiously ingrained, unlike other countries where it is outcome of personal choice usually later in life. Those not familiar with Indian history of vegetarianism often find surviving on meatless diet impossible and it is not uncommon to find doctors in western countries proscribing pure vegetarian diet for pregnant women, a notion amusing at the least. Inclination to meat eating is growing in India alongside average affluence of urban generation. Religious apathy, consumerism and emphasis on instant gratification probably also have something to do there. That said, about one-third of Indian population remains lacto-vegetarian and no food service provider can ignore them. In an interesting cross-cultural business mishap story, when KFC tried to position itself as pure non-vegetarian restaurant, it saw its sales low and stagnant. That even one vegetarian person in the group of people can veto a going to KFC for eat-out was the reason behind this otherwise successful chain not taking off in India. They ultimately introduced limited set of vegetarian options to reduce the barrier to entry.

Eating out remains a group and social activity in India and in a group of people there are bound to be few vegetarians. Vegetarians almost always suffer small economical loss every time they go on group lunches or dinners. This is because (1) meat always costs more than vegetables in Indian menu, and (2) group usually splits the bill equally. Thus, vegetarians always subsidize their non-vegetarian brethren. While difference can be substantial within single bill itself, none speaks lest he be cast ‘cheapskate’ by others. This difference compounds over life and ends up being surcharge on being friendly to animals. Group that benefits from this subsidy will naturally not protest against it — not necessarily intentionally but possibly because thought never occurred to them — though it is surprising that no non-vegetarian has even raised an issue or questioned this practice even once in my twenty five years of experience involving numerous such meals. On the other hand, few vegetarians have confessed silently this systematic bias to me occasionally.

It is not that I want accounting done to minute detail but elephant in the room is worth acknowledging. Of course, writing about this might makes me ‘cheapskate’ to others but then, truth will have those it hurts trying to mock or curb it.

Edit 30/04/2010: As some commentators point out, same surcharge applies in case of alcohol consumption as well.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

A classic love story

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Like any love story, boy and girl are passionately in love with each other. Like any classic love story, their parents don’t approve of this.

I’ve seen it happen at least three times and I’ve heard about it about double the number of times and story is always the same. Parents do come around and accept the proposed nuptial after rounds of persuasion, cajoling and threatening — assuming that the couple didn’t choose to go ahead anyway, not at least right away. And Indian couple do attempt to bring families together for marriage because despite choosing to find their partner themselves, they still believe in marriage as relationship between two families. There is a catch, of course. One parent is the most difficult one to please: he is (almost) always father of the groom. Question is, why?

I don’t wonder why parents oppose love based or inter-caste unions. Answer is obvious, even if conservative and prejudiced. I do wonder, however, among four parents, why must it be father of the groom?

We can rule out two women quickly, because, as mothers they usually don't care for social rules over happiness of their wards. They might not like it — in fact, they might feel cheated of their right and dream to choose their daughter- or son-in-law — but they accept anyway. They might need to be persuaded but gentle stream of tears is enough to melt their hearts. They might be angry but that doesn’t stop them from blessing the couple.

Among the two gentlemen, though, debate becomes tougher. Girl’s father has many reasons to be angry. He is going to lose his reputation in the community if he gives away his daughter to another community. There is larger tag of shame on his name as his daughter rescinds his caste and joins another. There is a danger that his way of life may not prevail, that traditions will not be continued and that daughter might change her name and her habits to something despicable in his caste (viz. may cook, or worse, eat meat). Boy’s father, on the other hand, has less reasons to be antagonized. He is gaining a member to his community and symbolically winning over other caste by stealing its woman. His way of life and traditions are guaranteed to prevail. New member of the household may not be conversant with the traditions of his house but can be taught and moulded accordingly. So far, we’ve listed reasons to be affronted and found that girl’s father has more and hence must be more outraged. Why, then, the anomaly?

If we turn around and question who can afford to be angry we obtain different answer. This, clearly, must weigh more for we observe this. If couple elopes, then girl’s family suffers much more social dishonour than boy’s family. This risk defines who can afford to be offended and not who has reasons to be offended.

In all three cases, wedding was organized only by girl’s family and boy’s family boycotted it completely. Couple, after months and years of cajolery, had to give up trying to join two families. Some still hope: some day. Your take?

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Books you should read

Ideally, I’d like to review books I read, particularly those I loved. However, I almost always don’t go beyond short excerpt at my online catalogue and hence here I take this opportunity to list all English books I really really loved so far and count among my top recommendations. You may, of course, go through whole catalogue of 116 books to pick other favourites and read more detailed review at librarything.

  • Fiction
    • Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri is one of the excellent collections of short stories with vivid narrative and appropriate tug of heart.
    • To Kill a Mocking Bird by Harper Lee is a classic which needs no introduction. Read it for deep dive into difference between good and evil and high dose of cathartic emotion.
    • Cosmicomics by Italo Calvino binds science with imaginative fiction to come up with most strangest set of science fiction stories.
  • Non-fiction
    • The Code Book by Simon Singh is a fascinating tale of evolution of coding and decoding interspersed with stories of people involved, incidents that changed the world and mysteries that still remain unsolved.
    • The Story of My Experiments with Truth by Mahatma Gandhi is an autobiography everyone must read irrespective of whether you agree with him or not. Not because it tells you about one of the greatest man ever lived but because it tells you what makes greatness.
    • Logic of Life by Tim Harford is among my must read books for every person for it introduces one the most important subject of Economics which governs pretty much whole world and interactions within.
    • Surely, You are Joking Mr. Feynman! by Richard P. Feynman is book which completely changes the way you would want to live your life. Even though author is noble winning Physicist, book almost brushes past Physics to introduce a character you don’t want to forget.
    • Why Men Don’t Listen and Women Can’t Read Maps by Allan Pease is perhaps one book you may be surprised to find here among list of intellectual books. I, however, found this indispensible in understanding many things and living life a little less confused. Don’t take everything as gospel and you’d be fine.
    • A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson is one book you can give to a teenager and expect him want to become scientist. If all important scientific discoveries of the world since dawn of time are rolled into a paperback, you’d have this book.

Friday, April 2, 2010

60 hours without food

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More because I was bored and because I wanted to do something exciting with my body — I’d always imagined that I’d want to subject my body to limits such as starvation, thirst and exhaustion (not simultaneously) just to see what happens and whether I can do it, particularly after reading days long hunger strikes of popular leaders — than really intending to lose weight, I decided to go on crash diet for three days. I chose a simple one: only warm water with honey and lemon for three days and nothing more. I eventually didn’t continue third days but not because I was feeling hungry or weak. In fact, my experiment surprised myself so much that I didn’t feel any particularly different that I delayed writing about it so far, because, there wasn’t anything to write about.

After a moderate dinner night before, I went through first day on 4-5 helpings of water+honey combos without feeling much twist in my stomach. After momentary hunger pang at lunch time, which I would have felt any other day as well when I delayed my lunch, I was perfectly okay well up to the night. That night, I did feel little difficulty in falling asleep and my stomach kept me awake for one hour before letting me slip in to land of dreams. Next day, surprisingly, was better. I went through whole day without as much as pang of hunger and had a peaceful sleep the next night too. I could have easily continued for the third day, or even longer, before my body starts giving hints of starvation, but I didn’t. Particularly because I knew getting back to routine would take time and I didn’t want my first meal to be on work day (Monday) where my luncheon menu is less healthy and beyond my control. My break-fast was light, as required, and by the dinner time I was back to my original routine. My physical activities during past two days were normal and didn’t include huge acts of physical exertion.

Only thing this experiment has taught me is that I feel no difficulty in not eating for two days straight and that I should try even longer time frame next time if I really wanted to stretch limits of my body.