Sunday, December 21, 2008

Whose media? Which people?

Source: The Hindu, Magazine


The coverage of the terror attacks showed that when the media becomes a purely business enterprise, news becomes a commodity, serving the interests of the few. It ceases to be the guardian of democracy or the protector of public interest.

Walter Cronkite of the CBS takes off his glasses while announcing the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. He puts them back on slowly, and takes about seven seconds to read the next sentence in a voice struggling to regain its composure.

Hastiness and superficiality are the psychic diseases of the 20th century, and more than anywhere else this disease is reflected in the press.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn

On November 22, 1963, some 38 minutes past two p.m., Eastern Standard Time, Walter Cronkite of the CBS takes off his glasses while announcing the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. He puts them back on slowly, and takes about seven seconds to read the next sentence in a voice struggling to regain its composure. Those few seconds of time, which are an eternity for live television, surely would rank among the most poignant moments of television journalism. Reams of pages could not have evoked the same pathos as those moments of silence. Contrast these with the plasticity and obscenity that characterised the 60 hours of visual media coverage of the terror in Mumbai, especially in English. As Jean Baudrillard puts it, the obscenity of media events “is no longer the traditional obscenity of what is hidden, repressed, forbidden or obscure; on the contrary, it is the obscenity of the visible, of the all-too-visible, of the more-visible-than-visible”. What the terror exposed was not just the underbelly of the Indian State but also the innards of the institution of media in India.

Role of commercial media

But the few critical responses to the terror coverage do not go beyond the superficial and technical aspects of this phenomenon to understand the deeper question, which is the role of a commercial media in a democratic society. The real issue, therefore, is the systematic erosion of the concept of the press as the fourth estate: the belief exemplified by people like the 19th-century historian Thomas Carlyle that “invent Writing” and “Democracy is inevitable”; the belief that the press is the guardian of democracy and the protector of the public interest. And this erosion is the inevitable culmination of the long process of the appropriation of the concept of public press for the private interests of a few, in short, the turning of the press into a business enterprise. The news here becomes like any other commodity in the market. Of course, the media in India has hardly assumed the scale and the depth of corporatisation in countries like the United States. But the signs are ominous and these are hardly encouraging for the miniscule number of media outlets that seek to be a real “public press”.

The most problematic aspect of the recent coverage is the media’s posturing as an “objective” and “neutral” entity — above all kinds of power interests — which merely seeks to bring the “truth” to the public. This posturing is seen in the shrill rhetoric of the blaming of the State and the political class for the tragedy. In this simplistic formulation of the “good” press versus the “evil” politicians, the media panders to something called the “public opinion” instead of acting as a critical catalyst of the latter. Public opinion must be the most abused term in a democracy. But what we forget in the aura of Obama is that it is public opinion that sanctioned the U.S. war in Iraq and it is public opinion that elected George Bush back to power. So a public opinion uncoupled from higher universal principles of justice and ethics is merely a mob stoning an alleged adulteress to death. Walter Cronkite went on to become the “most trusted man in America” for often going against the public opinion, even from within the confines of a commercial media. When he, against the logic of television ratings, delivered the verdict against the American war in Vietnam, President Lyndon B. Johnson famously remarked: “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost America.” With hundreds of debates on television in the last few days, it was reprehensible that not even one proposed a political solution, rather than a technical or military solution, to the problem of terrorism.

A modern myth

The moral superiority of the media in relation to the political class and the State is the biggest myth in any capitalist democracy. The recent politician-bashing undertaken by the media hides the deep need of both for one another. Such a synergy could not be better illustrated than by the media celebrity status attained by politicians like the late Pramod Mahajan. The same goes for the media’s harmonious and mutually beneficial relationship with capitalist interests which include the entertainment industry. It is almost laughable that the media, after 60 hours of shameless voyeurism, chose to call Ramgopal Varma’s visit to the Taj as “disaster tourism”. The media’s defence that the lack of coverage of the victims at the CST railway station as compared to those at the five-star hotels was not “because of some deliberate socio-economic prejudice” but an aberration and imbalance that crept into the chaos of covering live tragedy ignores the deeper systemic problems hinted above. Even after the tragedy was over, the sanity of the studios could still not restore the imbalance. For instance, NDTV’s “We the People”, telecast on November 30, had among its expert panellists, Simi Grewal, Kunal Kohli, Ratna Pathak, Ness Wadia and Luke Kenny! These people are supposed to represent us, citizens, against the inept and carnivorous State. Through the magic wand of the media, the rich and the famous transmogrify into “we the people”. The philosopher Slavoj Zizek had noted that the “close door” button in the elevator is actually inoperable: it does nothing to hasten the closing of the door, but gives the impression that it does. The presumed power of the media as the representative of the people is something similar: it merely gives the illusion that we are all participating in it. And it has always been this way. That is why the suffering and tragedies of the few elites who lost their lives in the terror attack become more important than that of the other victims. That is why the media spectacle of terror has the habit of ignoring the systematic horrors and tragedies undergone by millions of Indians on a day-to-day basis. And that is why the Taj and the Oberoi will enter our wounded collective consciousness, unlike Kambalapalli and Khairlanji.

It is shocking that a slogan like “enough is enough” is bandied about in the media now after a terror attack. The moral angst of the media could not be roused all these years even when 1.5 lakh farmers committed suicide in a period of mere eight years from 1997 to 2005. How many channels did exclusive “breaking news” stories when India, the second fastest growing economy in the world, secured the 94th position, behind even Nepal, in the Global Hunger Index Report? Where were the Shobha Des and Ness Wadias then, who are now out on the streets mouthing revolutionary slogans like “boycott taxes”? Where were the candle light vigils and demonstrations when policemen rode on a motorbike with a human being tied to it? Or when a father and a child were crushed under a bus after being thrown off it for not being able to pay two rupees for the ticket? For the 40 crore Indians who live like worms, the prospect of being shot dead by terrorists would seem like a dream come true. At least it is more glorious and patriotic than swallowing pesticide!


POIGNANT MOMENT: Walter Cronkite announcing John F. Kennedy's Assassination.

The clamour for the accountability of the State and political class that has been occasioned by the terror was long overdue. And the media has played a role in giving a stage to vent this anger. But ultimately, it hides the fact that commercial media is just another partner in the State-corporate alliance. Otherwise, how can you explain the lopsided coverage in the English media about poverty, hunger, health, nutrition and violation of human rights (which would not exceed 10 per cent of the total number of stories and reports)? While a lot of questions have been raised about democracy after the terror attack, there is none about the need for a real independent media which is free not only from the clutches of the State but also from profit and commercial considerations. Enforcing some security guidelines for the media for wartime and emergency coverage does not address the larger question of the freedom of the press and its accountability to the public which can happen only if the latter are treated as citizens and not as consumers.

Blaming the media alone for our problems or not acknowledging some of the benefits of even a commercial media is naïve and one-sided. Nevertheless, the “public debates” that were staged on television in the last few days operated on a thoroughly emasculated notion of democracy and security. What the urban middle classes and the elite want is not democracy but Adam Smith’s night watchman State which does nothing more than the strong and efficient protection of the life, limbs and property of the people (read the classes). Once that is accomplished, whether the masses sell their blood, kidneys or their bodies to make a living is none of their problem. Despite the clamour for democracy, even the media is aware that if real democracy is established, it will not be able to sell many of the things that it is selling now, including terror as a packaged product. Until then, it will continue to be the vulture in the Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of photojournalist Kevin Carter: the Sudanese toddler, all skin and bones, lies slumped on the ground in her attempt to crawl to the feeding centre, while it waits in the background, for her to die. At least, Kevin Carter had the conscience to end his life.

The author is Assistant Professor with Dalhousie University, Canada.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Faith equals fertility



Religious people have more babies than non-believers--and not just for the obvious reasons. Anthony Gottlieb looks into a philosophical puzzle ...

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, Winter 2008

If a Martian were to look at a map of the Earth’s religions, what he might find most surprising is the fact that such a map can be drawn at all. How strange--he might say to himself--that so many of the world’s Hindus are to be found in one place, namely India. And how odd that Muslims are so very numerous in the Middle East. With the disconcerting curiosity that is so typical of Martians, he might wonder what explains this geographical clustering. Do people move countries in order to be close to others of the same faith? Or do people simply tend to adopt the religion they grew up with?

The answer, of course, is the latter--on the whole. There are exceptions: Jews moving to Israel, for example, and there are many other cases of religious migration. Still, the huddling of the faithful is mainly explained by the fact that religion runs in families. If you have a religion, it is probably the same one as your parents. Earlier this year a survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that nearly three-quarters of American adults professed the religion in which they were raised. But instead of finding this glass to be three-quarters full, newspapers preferred to notice that it was one-quarter empty. It was the minority of Americans who either switched religions, or abandoned religion altogether, who were highlighted in reports of the survey (“Poll Finds a Fluid Religious Life in US”, ran a headline in the New York Times). Plainly it does not count as news that religion remains largely a family affair. Yet it should do, because of its largely unnoticed consequences. Some religious groups are dramatically outbreeding others, in ways that have an impact on America, Europe and elsewhere.

Consider the Mormons, who grew from six people in a log-cabin in upstate New York in 1830 to 13.1m adherents around the world in 2007. At the beginning of the 20th century, Mormons were a fringe sect in America, with decidedly unusual beliefs. (They officially hold that God once had a body; that people exist as spirits before they are physically conceived; and that Jesus will one day commute between somewhere in Israel and somewhere in the United States.) Today Mormons are about to overtake Jews in America; in fact, they may already have done so. And they almost had their own presidential candidate, in the person of Mitt Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts. The rapid rise of Mormons in America, growing by an average of 40% every decade in the 20th century, is mainly due to their large families. The American state with the highest birth rate is Utah, which is around 70% Mormon. In America, on average, Mormon women have nearly three times more children than Jewish women.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews, however, do have plenty of offspring. This fact is changing the face of Israel, where such families have three times more children than other Israelis. As a result, at least a quarter of Israel’s population of under-17s is expected to be ultra-Orthodox by 2025, according to Eric Kaufmann at Harvard. A similar but more gradual increase in the religious right has been taking place in America for decades, and not just because of Mormons. Conservative Protestant denominations as a whole grew much faster than liberal ones in 20th-century America, and it has been estimated that three-quarters of this growth is due simply to higher birth rates. Were it not for the fact that Evangelical Christians reproduce faster than other Protestants, George Bush--who attracted most of the Evangelical votes--probably could not have made it back to the White House in 2004.

Like other demographers, Eric Kaufmann expects western Europe to become markedly more religious in the course of the 21st century, as a result of the relatively low fertility of unbelievers and immigration from more pious places. Not only do denominations with traditionalist values tend to have higher birth rates than their more liberal co-religionists, but countries that are relatively secularised usually reproduce more slowly than countries that are more religious. According to the World Bank, the nations with the largest proportions of unbelievers had an average annual population growth rate of just 0.7% in the period 1975-97, while the populations of the most religious countries grew three times as fast.

If they want to spread their gospel, then, one might half-seriously conclude that atheists and agnostics ought to focus on having more children, to help overcome their demographic disadvantage. Unfortunately for secularists, this may not work even as a joke. Nobody knows exactly why religion and fertility tend to go together. Conventional wisdom says that female education, urbanisation, falling infant mortality, and the switch from agriculture to industry and services all tend to cause declines in both religiosity and birth rates. In other words, secularisation and smaller families are caused by the same things. Also, many religions enjoin believers to marry early, abjure abortion and sometimes even contraception, all of which leads to larger families. But there may be a quite different factor at work as well. Having a large family might itself sometimes make people more religious, or make them less likely to lose their religion. Perhaps religion and fertility are linked in several ways at the same time.

Mary Eberstadt, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution in Stanford, California, has suggested several ways in which the experience of forming a family might stimulate religious feelings among parents, at least some of the time. She notes that pregnancy and birth, the business of caring for children, and the horror of contemplating their death, can stimulate an intensity of purpose that might make parents more open to religious sentiments. Many common family events, she reasons, might encourage a broadly spiritual turn of mind, from selfless care for a sick relation to sacrifices for the sake of a child’s adulthood that one might never see.

Eberstadt argues that part of the reason why western European Christians have become more secular is that they have been forming fewer stable families, and having fewer children when they do. This, she suggests, may help to explain some puzzles about the timing of secularisation in certain places. In Ireland, for example, she notes that people started having smaller families before they stopped going to church. And, she argues, if something about having families can incline one to religion, this might shed some light on another mystery: why the sexes are not equally religious.

According to Rodney Stark, an American sociologist of religion, the generalisation that men are less religious than women “holds around the world and across the centuries”. In every country--both Christian and non-Christian--analysed by Dr Stark, based on data from the World Values Survey in the 1990s, more women than men said they would describe themselves as religious. There is no agreed explanation for this striking difference. Perhaps the fact that women play a rather larger role than men in the production and rearing of children has something to do with it. If family life does contribute to religiosity, then having larger families might backfire on unbelievers. It might make them more religious. And since faith is still largely a family affair, their children would then be more likely to be religious, too.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

The toilet revolution

Source: The Hindu


Villages in Kurukshetra district, Haryana, are showing that providing clean sanitation to everyone is not an impossible task.

In government schools around this country, adolescent girls are dropping out, or missing school, because there are no toilets.

Photo: Kalpana Sharma

Changed lives: Rekha in front of the toilet in her compound.

Rekha is a landless labourer in the village of Bishangarh in Haryana’s Kurukshetra district. All around her poorly constructed open brick house, where the rain pours in through the rafters, are lush fields of potato and wheat. She lives there w ith her husband, an agricultural worker like her and her three children, a girl and two boys. Between the two of them, on the days they get work, they bring in around Rs. 150 a day. Her husband gets paid twice as much as her.

Rekha’s pride is her outdoor toilet, built on the corner of her small plot. She has no money to build a door. A jute curtain does the job. But she has a constant source of water. So the toilet remains clean and there is no smell. The design is a simple one, easy to maintain, with a soak pit that we are told will not pollute the water table.

Talking point

The toilet revolution in Bishangarh and other villages in Kurukshetra district has become a talking point. It draws visitors from around India and the world who look on in wonder as well-built Haryanvi women lustily shout “Jai Swatchatha” (Long live cleanliness) and show off the toilets attached to their homes. Each costs around Rs. 1,200. The poor, like Rekha, get a subsidy. The others pay what they can and the rest comes from an NGO run by the local MP, young Navin Jindal, whose beaming countenance greets you at every street corner as you drive through the district.

Bishangarh has received the Nirmal Gram Puraskar, the prize instituted by the central government in recognition of villages that are free of open defecation. It is one of hundreds of villages across the country that are qualifying for this award. The women in the village, who are part of the Nigrani (vigilance) Samitis, go around with torches, sticks and whistles early in the morning. If they catch anyone defecating in the open, they blow the whistle and shine the torch on the crouching figure. This, they believe, embarrasses the individual to the point that they will not do it again.

There is no question that the toilet revolution has made a huge difference to the lives of women, as well as elderly men and children. No more do they have to scramble in the dark in the nearby fields. Women, especially, would have to go before dawn or wait until after dusk. The absence of toilets assaults their dignity, lays them open to sexual harassment and has a direct impact on their health. Not anymore.

Is it sustainable?

But questions remain. Can this be sustained without policing? Will people change their habits so easily, particularly men who feel no embarrassment defecating in the open? Can it work without a subsidy? Is it possible in villages where there is no water? Where there is no electricity? In Kurukshetra district, out of 418 villages, 412 are electrified. And will it work in villages with caste and communal divides, where the villagers are not willing to cooperate? In Bishangarh, the majority belongs not just to one caste, but even one gotra (clan). The woman Sarpanch is also from the same caste and gotra. Hence, getting everyone to work together is a little easier. Women I spoke to acknowledged that the situation would have been different if they had been a “mixed” village, in terms of caste.

One also hopes this will the first step in enhancing women’s status. For, women are visible in their support of the toilet revolution. Yet in Haryana, and Kurukshetra district, the sex ratio remains skewed in favour of boys. And dowry has not disappeared although some women insist it is declining. If one goes by what Rekha’s 18-year-old, college-going daughter Babita has to say, it has increased. “People pay upto Rs. 10 lakhs”, she says ruefully. And marriage, of course, is inevitable, she adds. What other option is there?

Babita is lucky that she has got as far as she has in her education. In government schools around this country, adolescent girls are dropping out, or missing school, because there are no toilets. So when they get their monthly period, they simply don’t go to school. In Kurukshetra district, all the schools have toilets, claims the indefatigable Sumedha Kataria, the Additional District Collector who is also the force behind the sanitation movement in the district.

Bigger challenge

Of course, urban sanitation is an even bigger challenge and intimately linked to the almost insurmountable problem of providing housing for millions of urban poor. You can build community toilets but until you solve the housing crisis in cities, you really will not be able to deal effectively with sanitation. For women especially, the absence of toilets is a far more traumatic experience in cities than in villages as there are practically no secluded places.

Some of the more innovative projects on show at the recent Sacosan III (South Asian Conference on Sanitation) in New Delhi — which incidentally was virtually ignored by the “national” media in the capital — were those where village self-help groups are using simple technology to manufacture sanitary napkins at low cost. This is being done in several States and in at least one location in Tamil Nadu, the increase in school attendance of adolescent girls has been dramatic.

Toilets, sanitation, sanitary napkins, defecation — these are not things we like to talk about. Yet, this is such a fundamental issue that affects all our lives — especially if we happen to be poor and women. Half of India defecates in the open. The government hopes to get all these 600 million people to start using toilets by 2012. That’s a lot of toilets to build in just four years.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Start-Up Teaches Math to Americans, Indian-Style

Source: New York Times.

Indian Math Online
Screen shot of Indian Math Online.

The New York Times recently reported on a study that found, once again, that the United States is failing to develop the math skills of its students, particularly girls, especially compared to other countries where math education is more highly valued.

Indian Math Online is a start-up that aims to take on that disparity by teaching math to American kids using techniques from Indian schools.

Bob Compton, an Indianapolis-based venture capitalist and entrepreneur who co-founded Indian Math Online, hatched the idea when he was producing Two Million Minutes, a documentary comparing high school education in India, China and the United States. He realized that Indian teenagers who were the same age as his daughters were three years ahead of them in math.

“If you don’t get mathematics to the highest level you possibly can in high school, your career options shrink dramatically in the 21st century,” Mr. Compton said. “Our society basically tells girls they’re not good at math. I was determined that was not going to happen to my daughters.”

Mr. Compton and Indian Math Online’s co-founder, Suresh Murthy, hired a team of math teachers and software developers in India to build the site and its curriculum. At first, the site was meant for their daughters, but soon friends started asking if they could use it and word gradually spread. It has lessons for students in grades one through 12 and offers several packages for $12.50 to $20 a month.

Two-thirds of the students using it are children of Indian and Chinese immigrants. Mr. Murthy’s children are an example. “He grew up in India, and he worried about his daughters falling behind in the global competition to be educated for the 21st century,” Mr. Compton said.

The site’s curriculum is based on some crucial differences between math education in India and the United States, Mr. Compton said. Math homework in India consists of math problems that students work through, as opposed to the United States, where homework is heavy on reading about math topics in a textbook. Math teachers in India have college or graduate degrees in the topic, he said. Meanwhile, most American students in grades five through eight learn math and science from teachers without degrees or certification in these topics, according to a National Academies report.

Indian Math Online gives students a diagnostic test for their grade level and then breaks down the results by topic area, such as factors or prime numbers. It sends parents a report showing the topics in which their children are strong and weak and sends students learning modules full of practice problems. It will soon add online chat and live tutoring from math teachers in India for an extra fee.

By testing specific subject areas, Indian Math Online picks up weaknesses that a typical school test would miss, Mr. Compton said. When his youngest daughter was in seventh grade, for example, she took the diagnostic test and discovered she missed every question on prime numbers. Yet she had always received good scores on school math tests.

“It identified and diagnosed a missing fundamental math concept that her teachers hadn’t noticed,” he said. “And yet, it would have caught up with her later on, and we wouldn’t have known why she was struggling.”

Mr. Compton said that children of Indian and Chinese parents use the site consistently, but American children often lose interest after a couple months. He compares math to athletics — youths must practice a bit every day to master it. “For some reason, American kids seem to be willing to put in the work with athletics, but not put it in with the one subject that’s going to matter more to their lives than any other activity.”

Sunday, September 14, 2008

A 1-in-1,000 Chance of Götterdämmerung

Source: Reason online

Will the world come to an end on September 10? That fear is motivating two lawsuits—one American, another European—that aim to stop the physicists at the European Center for Nuclear Research (CERN) from switching on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) on that day. The LHC is a $10 billion 17-mile long particle accelerator lying in a circular tunnel beneath the border of France and Switzerland. Its massive superconducting magnets cooled with liquid helium accelerate two beams of protons and lead nuclei to nearly the speed of light. These particle beams will eventually be crashed into each other to produce temperatures and particles not seen since microseconds after the Big Bang 13.7 billion years ago.

One of the chief goals of the LHC experiments is to find the elusive Higgs boson, the only fundamental particle predicted by the Standard Model of particle physics that has not been directly observed. The Higgs boson plays a key role in explaining the origins of mass in other elementary particles. Exciting, if esoteric research, to be sure, but why oppose it?

Walter Wagner, a former nuclear safety officer, and Spanish science writer Luis Sancho, have filed a civil suit in federal district court in Hawaii asking for a temporary restraining order to stop the researchers at CERN from switching on the LHC until further safety analyses are completed. In Europe, Professor Otto Rössler, a chemist at the Eberhard Karls University of Tübingen in Germany filed a similar suit with the European Court of Human Rights.

These LHC opponents fear that the Earth could be destroyed by vacuum bubbles, magnetic monopoles, microscopic black holes, or strangelets produced by the high-energy proton-proton collisions planned by CERN physicists. Vacuum bubbles have been described as a kind of "cosmic cancer." If it turns out that there is a lower energy state into which the universe could settle, then the LHC might produce "bubbles" of such a state which would then expand, ripping apart the Earth and eventually the entire universe. If magnetic monopoles were produced they might induce protons to decay and thus destroy normal matter. Microscopic black holes might grow by gobbling up the Earth. And strangelets are combinations of quarks that theoretically interact with normal matter and transform it into strange matter.

At the Global Catastrophic Risks conference at Oxford University this past July, CERN's Michelangelo Mangano described the findings of a report released in June by the LHC Safety Assessment Group (LSAG). The bottom line: "There is no basis for any conceivable threat from the LHC."

While the LHC safety report goes through a number of scenarios, its chief point is that the energies produced in the LHC are "far below those of the highest-energy cosmic-ray collisions that are observed regularly on Earth." In fact, cosmic rays produced by phenomena in the universe "conduct" more than 10 million LHC-like experiments per second. If such energies actually produced vacuum bubbles, microscopic black holes, magnetic monopoles, or strangelets that could destroy planets and stars, physicists wouldn't be here to perform experiments in the LHC now.

At the Global Catastrophic Risk conference, Future of Humanity Institute research associate Toby Ord asked an interesting question: How certain should we be about safety when there could be a risk to the survival of the human species? As Ord argued, "When an expert provides a calculation of the probability of an outcome, they are really providing the probability of the outcome occurring, given that their argument is watertight. However, their argument may fail for a number of reasons such as a flaw in the underlying theory, a flaw in their modeling of the problem, or a mistake in their calculations."

In other words, for the argument that the LHC poses no existential risk to humanity to be sound, the theory underlying it must be adequate. But physical theories have been upended in the past. Ord pointed out that Lord Kelvin had calculated the age of the sun. Using the best physics of his time, Lord Kelvin concluded that the sun was 100 million years old. It was not until the discovery of radioactivity that the current estimate of 4.6 billion years could be calculated. So Ord argued that it's not unreasonable to think that there is a 1-in-1,000 chance that the theories underlying the LHC are flawed in some important details.

In addition, the model of the problem itself could be flawed. As an example of how flawed models can impact the real world, Ord cited the Castle Bravo 15-megaton thermonuclear bomb test in 1954, the explosive yield of which was two and half times what had been calculated by the bomb's designers at Los Alamos National Laboratory. Those experts had missed the fact that the lithium-7 isotope, when bombarded by high energy neutrons, decomposes into tritium and boosts neutron production. As a more recent example, Ord claimed that Lloyds of London's insurance models for New Orleans had failed to consider the risk that the city's levees might fail.

And finally, it's possible that errors in calculation could slip into errors of analysis. Ord cited the frequency of miscalculations in medication dosages as an example of such errors. To get an estimate of argument failure, Ord cited survey evidence which found that 1-in-1,000 to 1-in-100 articles are retracted from high-impact scientific journals. For an article to be retracted something must be found to be seriously wrong with it. "If the probability estimate given by an argument is dwarfed by the chance that the argument itself is flawed, then the estimate is suspect," argued Ord. He suggested that multiplying the probabilities that the theory, model, and/or calculations on which the operation of the LHC rests are wrong dramatically increases the probability estimates that switching it on will destroy the world. Thus Ord concluded that the LHC should not be switched on.

Mangano from CERN objected furiously to Ord's presentation, arguing, "I can apply that estimate of a 1-in-1,000 chance to everything." Ord responded that his analysis should only apply to experiments that pose an existential risk to humanity, not to experiments whose outcomes can be ameliorated later. I asked Ord if he could think of another experiment or situation to which he would apply his analysis. He looked surprised for a moment and then reluctantly said, "No." Over canapés after Ord's talk, several of his colleagues expressed glee at the prospect that a philosopher's arguments might derail a $10 billion physics experiment. Personally, I estimate the probability of that happening at less than 1-in-1,000.

As intriguing as Ord's argument is, I am ultimately unpersuaded by it. Why? Largely because the empirical evidence is that the universe has been running trillions of these high-energy physics "experiments" for billions of years without disastrous results. In fact, Ord's colleagues Nick Bostrom and Max Tegmark from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology calculate that the empirical evidence suggests a conservative estimate of the annual risk that LHC-like experiments would destroy the earth is 1-in-a-trillion. At the end of his talk, Mangano reminded the Oxford conferees, "Jeopardizing the future of scientific research would be a global catastrophe." Any theory, model, or calculation that suggests otherwise is clearly flawed.

Ronald Bailey is reason's science correspondent. His book Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution is now available from Prometheus Books.

Pathetic handling of blasts' aftermath

Source: Rediff

alf an hour after the first blast in New Delhi on Saturday, the NDTV 24/7 telecast telling visuals that said it all. We just don't know how to handle the aftermath of the terror attacks which we don't know how to forestall.

Take, for example, the young woman in a yellow top and black trousers, hurt in the bombing of the Connaught Place's Central Park. She was shown being carried away, four persons holding a limb each to a police vehicle several yards away in Connaught Place. She was dripping blood, her head snapped back under its own weight and in agony.

No stretcher in sight, no ambulance within miles and crowds who should have scattered to safety and enable the police to do their job, such as the job they do -- ham-handed, impulsive, not to a drill that would maximise results.

One does not know what happened to the poor young woman who later. such victims, are threatened with death less because of the injuries but more due to the way she was handled by well-meaning but perhaps misguided people. We may actually be pushing up the death toll and bolster the designs of the terrorists. And the State owes something better to its citizens.

Cut to the train blasts in Mumbai on July 11, 2006. Scores of people, badly mauled, were seen carried away in bed sheets thrown at the impromptu rescuers from homes along the railway tracks. Persons with a limb torn away were carted away in auto-rickshaws by good Samaritans, the ride being given free.

Speed, one accepts, is of the essence. But the means also has to be proper so that the good intent does not translate to death or further complications. It is as if the disaster managers don't even know that there is something called the Golden Hour when best support is required, even before the person is reached to the hospital. That is why modern civilisations -- we are living in one, aren't we? -- has the concept called an ambulance.

This kind of speedy but amateurish shift of the hurt, dying and the dead has been seen in every location where the terrorist struck by seting off explosions -- Hyderabad, Bangalore, Jaipur, Ahemedabad and now Delhi. This mishandling and the delays in being attended to on reaching the hospitals, I bet, are the causes of several deaths. Or permanent damage to the body.


Because, we have just not got our act together, despite the country having had a high-powered committee, headed by Sharad Pawar to outline how disaster management ought to be because of his experience of handling the aftermath of the March 12, 1993 serial blasts in Mumbai.

Now cut to the scenes outside the various train stations in London after the July 7, 2005 train bombings. Not an individual who needed medical help was just carried away any which way. Fully equipped ambulances with paramedics on board moved in with stretchers and ensured that help was fully professional. Within minutes plastic tents for on-the-spot support was set up.

It is here that we fall short; grievously so, in fact.

There are other critical phases of post-terrorist attacks where we fail abysmally, though there have been a few instances of positive gains made in policing. Here is the brief, very brief, positive list:

One, the Indian security agencies have now learnt to zero-in on the suspect computers or their routers used to send out terror threats or claims owning up attacks and IP addresses are located.

Two, in Surat, bomb after bomb which did not go off were found and defused, bomb by bomb, without any untoward collateral damage.

However, and unfortunately, there is not much to be added to this list because, apart from Afzal Guru and those convicted in the Mumbai's 1993 blasts, how many terrorists have been brought to book? Even Afzal Guru's death sentence remains to be carried out.

Now, let us look at the negative list of our so called anti-terror policing.

In Surat, in their hurry to unload and defuse the bombs found in the cars left on Surat roads, the police obliterated every fingerprint on it. These prints would have been valuable to fixing the involvement of people who otherwise would get the benefit of doubt and be let off for want of evidence.

They made a villain of Kenneth Haywood, feeding the media stories about sinister dimensions to some religious activities of his. He even left the country, returned and said he had not fled but only gone away to take a break from the stressful moments he was plunged into.

Often, and in most cases, the police establishments across the country speculate about the involvement of some faction or the other of the militants, pin the blame on the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence -- which well might be the real thing -- and announce the name of an outfit as the culprits. If they know it within the hour of an event even before the first clue is gathered, then pray, why did the police which was so close to the culprit's identity, not pre-empt the bombing?

This sleight of hand is now a thing of the past because the Indian Mujahedeen has made it a habit to announce its ownership of the dastardly acts. Now, it has even started sending e-mails minutes the blasts it sets off, saving the police the task of speculating as to who did it.

Take again the failure of the close-circuit cameras set up on the toll plazas on the highways going out of Mumbai. They caught not a single car that was stolen from Navi Mumbai for use in Ahmedabad and Surat because, as a senior police official of Thane district adjoining Gujarat explained, 'They were all at angles to photograph trucks' and not cars which are low-slung in comparison.

Equally galling was the -- yes, well meaning but potentially hazardous -- way a constable grabbed the plastic bag containing a bomb from two rag pickers in Delhi on Saturday, using a stone to crush the clock that was a timer. He saved lives, but he may have jeopardised those in the vicinity. Who knows, instead of disarming, he may have even set off an explosion. Where, pray, were the bomb disposal squads?

Policemen just do not have the means to chase the clues, and my feeling is that if there are suspects who have been brought to courts, then they are those who have confessed because of the third degree and those confessions found their way to the charge sheets. The good old policing is just dead.

They do not even go by the forensic laboratory findings. They begged to differ with the forensics who said the August 26, 2003 blasts near Gateway of India were carried out using RDX.

Fact, you see, has to fit a theory, not otherwise.

For, the police have to find someone, tell the media that they have a terrorist in the bag, damn and tar him/her in the media that's what trial by the media, trial in the media is all about, isn't it? and claim successes. And then what? The next terrorist attack and a few shibboleths like the one spouted by Union Home Minister, Shivraj Patil. The country would find the criminals and punish them.

That is an assertion the country, now angry at the spate of bombings, in city after city, can digest. Find something more credible to say, Mr Home Minister or you would be laughing stock. They are already saying enough was enough and time we stopped depending on these incompetents. Strong sentiment, that.

And in this posturing, he is not alone. He has L K Advani for company. He demands stringent laws like the Prevention of Terrorism Act, 2002 be brought back to the statute. He forgets the simple fact that for a terrorist driven by passion, laws are no deterrent. Before any stringent law is used against the criminals, they have to be caught. But have we caught enough of them?

Therefore, I have a more humane suggestion. Before we learn to catch the terrorist and then use any law against them, let us learn to handle those innocents who fall victim to the terrorists. Or else, we would be only shadow boxing.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

A heart that can feel

Source: The Hindu

We need to reach out with compassion to help people in pain.

Ahimsa teaches us that having a heart that can feel not only brings pain, but also great joy.

The concept of ahimsa comes wrapped up with the idea of compassion. Although today we have hijacked it by concentrating mainly on non-violence, we need to remember that it was the idea of compassion that gave way to that of non-violence. It is an amazing fact that this idea of love and caring not just for one’s own family and one’s own little circle, but also extending the same care and love to one who has done you harm, originated and was practised in our country centuries ago, by both kings and the common person alike. Just imagine how revolutionary this idea must have been at the time when hurting the person who hurt you, or being indifferent to those who were weak or poor or sick, was the norm. The first people who practised this kind of ahimsa with compassion as its main component, not just towards people, but also towards animals and all of Creation must have been people with great hearts.

Importance of empathy

Compassion flows straight from one heart to another and reaches out to those who deserve it, and those who don’t. Often we think that compassion is that feeling which makes us feel sorry for someone who is poor, sick or suffering in some way. On a superficial level, we toss a coin, give away an old sari, or write a cheque. Ahimsa teaches us that real compassion is more than just this.

It is using our hearts to feel someone’s pain, insecurity, fears, injustices, and reaching out to support, relieve and help them through this.

The compassion that ahimsa brings is active. We need not only to open our eyes, but also open our hearts and reach out with our hands. To do this one needs a heart that can feel. One of the lessons I learnt from a Vietnamese doctor was to actually want a heart that I could feel. This might seem strange as, in today’s world, it is easier not to feel. The mechanical way in which we live today makes us harden our hearts to any kind of feeling. When we stop feeling, we stop connecting. When we stop connecting, we become himsa people, caring only about ourselves. My Vietnamese friend who was a doctor was chased and hunted by the army and spent some rough times in refugee camps rife with TB, malaria, fevers and malnutrition. One night, in desperation, he caught a boat to America and found his freedom — or so he thought.

Unnerving experience

When he found a job again as doctor, he found that he was listening to well-fed people talking about wanting to lose weight; healthy people wanting surgery to change their noses and other parts of their bodies; very young girls wanting to abort their children; children who were abused in a variety of ways. He became angry and hard and very mean as he listened day after day to such people. He became short tempered with his patients and did not like the person he was becoming. So he went away for a few days and forced himself to remember how the people he had met and treated in the refugee camps felt. He forced himself to remember their anxieties, pain, and fears. Then he came back to work and began to look at his obese patients and neurotic patients in the same way. He put himself in their shoes and tried to understand their fears and worries and over time found that his clinics were busier than his colleagues’ and were always overflowing with patients. The reason? The patients found this doctor was compassionate and much more caring than the others. He had discovered that having a heart that could feel anger, pain, fear, worry, were the skills he needed to being not just a good doctor, but a good person as well.

Compassion is a much-needed ingredient in life for all of us, but more so for those in the healing and teaching professions. And somehow, it is here that it also seems to be missing the most in today’s life. A gardener’s children who go to local school were punished for not bringing Rs. 50 for something and the parents were scolded. “If you can’t afford to pay such a small amount of money even, then you are not fit to educate your child. ” The poor parent came away in great agony and went back to borrow some money.

Need of the hour

A woman I know had great difficulty when she was a young mother. Her boss was a spinster and could not understand why this woman took a day off when her baby was sick, or was teething. When this woman herself became the boss, I thought she would be more compassionate and understanding to her female staff. But sadly, she was just like her old boss. Hard and sometimes very mean. A truly himsa person. When we experience himsa behaviour, it becomes even more important that we practise ahimsa, to prevent our families and workplaces from disintegrating into ugly places.

Ahimsa teaches us that having a heart that can feel not only brings pain, but also great joy.

If you are an ahimsa person and have a story to share please write to the author at

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Life of the Mind

Source: BostonGlobe

ON A SUNDAY morning in 1974, Arthur Fry sat in the front pews of a Presbyterian church in north St. Paul, Minn. An engineer at 3M, Fry was also a singer in the church choir. He had gotten into the habit of inserting little scraps of paper into his choir book, so that he could quickly find the right hymns during the service. The problem, however, was that the papers would often fall out, causing Fry to lose his place.

Daydream achiever (David Flaherty for the Boston Globe)

But then, while listening to the Sunday sermon, Fry started to daydream. Instead of focusing on the pastor's words, he began to mull over his bookmark problem. "It was during the sermon," Fry remembers, "that I first thought, 'What I really need is a little bookmark that will stick to the paper but will not tear the paper when I remove it.' " That errant thought - the byproduct of a wandering mind - would later become the yellow Post-it note, one of the most successful office products of all time.

Although there are many anecdotal stories of breakthroughs resulting from daydreams - Einstein, for instance, was notorious for his wandering mind - daydreaming itself is usually cast in a negative light. Children in school are encouraged to stop daydreaming and "focus," and wandering minds are often cited as a leading cause of traffic accidents. In a culture obsessed with efficiency, daydreaming is derided as a lazy habit or a lack of discipline, the kind of thinking we rely on when we don't really want to think. It's a sign of procrastination, not productivity, something to be put away with your flip-flops and hammock as summer draws to a close.

In recent years, however, scientists have begun to see the act of daydreaming very differently. They've demonstrated that daydreaming is a fundamental feature of the human mind - so fundamental, in fact, that it's often referred to as our "default" mode of thought. Many scientists argue that daydreaming is a crucial tool for creativity, a thought process that allows the brain to make new associations and connections. Instead of focusing on our immediate surroundings - such as the message of a church sermon - the daydreaming mind is free to engage in abstract thought and imaginative ramblings. As a result, we're able to imagine things that don't actually exist, like sticky yellow bookmarks.

"If your mind didn't wander, then you'd be largely shackled to whatever you are doing right now," says Jonathan Schooler, a psychologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara. "But instead you can engage in mental time travel and other kinds of simulation. During a daydream, your thoughts are really unbounded."

The ability to think abstractly that flourishes during daydreams also has important social benefits. Mostly, what we daydream about is each other, as the mind retrieves memories, contemplates "what if" scenarios, and thinks about how it should behave in the future. In this sense, the content of daydreams often resembles a soap opera, with people reflecting on social interactions both real and make-believe. We can leave behind the world as it is and start imagining the world as it might be, if only we hadn't lost our temper, or had superpowers, or were sipping a daiquiri on a Caribbean beach. It is this ability to tune out the present moment and contemplate the make-believe that separates the human mind from every other.

"Daydreaming builds on this fundamental capacity people have for being able to project themselves into imaginary situations, like the future," Malia Mason, a neuroscientist at Columbia, says. "Without that skill, we'd be pretty limited creatures."

Teresa Belton, a research associate at East Anglia University in England, first got interested in daydreaming while reading a collection of stories written by children in elementary school. Although Belton encouraged the students to write about whatever they wanted, she was startled by just how uninspired most of the stories were.

"The tales tended to be very tedious and unimaginative," Belton says, "as if the children were stuck with this very restricted way of thinking. Even when they were encouraged to think creatively, they didn't really know how."

After monitoring the daily schedule of the children for several months, Belton came to the conclusion that their lack of imagination was, at least in part, caused by the absence of "empty time," or periods without any activity or sensory stimulation. She noticed that as soon as these children got even a little bit bored, they simply turned on the television: the moving images kept their minds occupied. "It was a very automatic reaction," she says. "Television was what they did when they didn't know what else to do."

The problem with this habit, Belton says, is that it kept the kids from daydreaming. Because the children were rarely bored - at least, when a television was nearby - they never learned how to use their own imagination as a form of entertainment. "The capacity to daydream enables a person to fill empty time with an enjoyable activity that can be carried on anywhere," Belton says. "But that's a skill that requires real practice. Too many kids never get the practice."

While much of the evidence linking daydreaming and creativity remains anecdotal, rooted in the testimony of people like Fry and Einstein, scientists are beginning to find experimental proof of the relationship. In a forthcoming paper, Schooler's lab has shown that people who engage in more daydreaming score higher on experimental measures of creativity, which require people to make a set of unusual connections.

"Daydreams involve a more relaxed style of thinking, with people more willing to contemplate ideas that seem silly or far-fetched," says Belton. While such imaginative thoughts aren't always practical, they are often the wellspring of creative insights, as Schooler's research shows.

However, not all daydreams seem to inspire creativity. In his experiments, Schooler distinguishes between two types of daydreaming. The first type consists of people who notice they are daydreaming only when asked by the researcher. Even though they are told to press a button as soon as they realize their mind has started to wander, these people fail to press the button. The second type, in contrast, occurs when subjects catch themselves daydreaming during the experiment, without needing to be questioned. Schooler and colleagues found that individuals who are unaware of their own daydreaming while it's happening don't seem to exhibit increased creativity.

"The point is that it's not enough to just daydream," Schooler says. "Letting your mind drift off is the easy part. The hard part is maintaining enough awareness so that even when you start to daydream you can interrupt yourself and notice a creative insight."

In other words, the reason Fry is such a good inventor - he has more than twenty patents to his name, in addition to Post-it notes - isn't simply because he's a prolific daydreamer. It's because he's able to pay attention to his daydreams, and to detect those moments when his daydreams lead to a useful idea.

Every time we slip effortlessly into a daydream, a distinct pattern of brain areas is activated, which is known as the default network. Studies show that this network is most engaged when people are performing tasks that require little conscious attention, such as routine driving on the highway or reading a tedious text. Although such mental trances are often seen as a sign of lethargy - we are staring haplessly into space - the cortex is actually very active during this default state, as numerous brain regions interact. Instead of responding to the outside world, the brain starts to contemplate its internal landscape. This is when new and creative connections are made between seemingly unrelated ideas.

"When you don't use a muscle, that muscle really isn't doing much of anything," says Dr. Marcus Raichle, a neurologist and radiologist at Washington University who was one of the first scientists to locate the default network in the brain. "But when your brain is supposedly doing nothing and daydreaming, it's really doing a tremendous amount. We call it the 'resting state,' but the brain isn't resting at all."

Recent research has confirmed the importance of the default network by studying what happens when the network is disrupted. For instance, there is suggestive evidence that people with autism engage in less daydreaming than normal, with a default network that exhibits significantly reduced activity during idle moments. In addition, more abnormal default networks in autistic subjects correlated with the most severe social deficits. One leading theory is that atypical default activity interferes with the sort of meandering memories and social simulations that typically characterize daydreams, causing people with autism to instead fixate on things in their environment.

The exact opposite phenomenon seems to occur in patients with schizophrenia, who exhibit overactive default networks. This might explain the inability of schizophrenics to differentiate properly between reality and the ideas generated by the imagination.

Problems with daydreaming also seem to afflict the aging brain: Harvard researchers recently discovered that one of the main symptoms of getting older is reduced coordination in the default network, as brain areas that normally operate in sync start to fire at different times. Scientists speculate that this deficit contributes to the inability of many elderly subjects to control the duration and timing of their daydreams.

"It's very important to use the default network at the right time," says Jessica Andrews-Hanna, a researcher at Harvard who has studied the network in older subjects. "When you need to focus" - such as during stop-and-go traffic, or when engaged in a conversation - "you don't want to let your mind wander off."

What these studies all demonstrate is that proper daydreaming - the kind of thinking that occurs when the mind is thinking to itself - is a crucial feature of the healthy human brain. It might seem as though our mind is empty, but the mind is never empty: it's always bubbling over with ideas and connections.

One of the simplest ways to foster creativity, then, may be to take daydreams more seriously. Even the mundane daydreams that occur hundreds of times a day are helping us plan for the future, interact with others, and solidify our own sense of self. And when we are stuck on a particularly difficult problem, a good daydream isn't just an escape - it may be the most productive thing we can do.

Jonah Lehrer is an editor at large at Seed magazine and the author of "Proust Was a Neuroscientist." He is a regular contributor to Ideas.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Where have all the real men gone?

Source: Timesonline

I know. Saving the males is an unlikely vocation for a 21st-century woman. Most men don’t know they need saving; most women consider the idea absurd. When I tell my women friends that I want to save the males, they look at me as if noticing for the first time that I am insane. Then they say something like: “Are you out of your mind? This is still a male-dominated world. It’s women who need saving. Screw the men!”

Actually, that’s a direct quote. The reality is that men already have been screwed – and not in the way they prefer. For the past 30 years or so, males have been under siege by a culture that too often embraces the notion that men are to blame for all of life’s ills. Males as a group – not random men – are bad by virtue of their DNA.

While women have been cast as victims, martyrs, mystics or saints, men have quietly retreated into their caves, the better to muffle emotions that fluctuate between hilarity (are these bitches crazy or what?) and rage (yes, they are and they’ve got our kids).

In the process of fashioning a more female-friendly world, we have created a culture that is hostile towards males, contemptuous of masculinity and cynical about the delightful differences that make men irresistible, especially when something goes bump in the night.

In popular culture, rare is the man portrayed as wise, strong and noble. In film and music, men are variously portrayed as dolts, bullies, brutes, deadbeats, rapists, sexual predators and wife-beaters. Even otherwise easy-going family men in sitcoms are invariably cast as, at best, bumbling, dim-witted fools. One would assume from most depictions that the smart, decent man who cares about his family and pats the neighbour’s dog is the exception rather than the rule.

I am frankly an unlikely champion of males and that most hackneyed cliché of our times – “traditional family values”. Or rather, I’m an expert on family in the same way that the captain of the Titanic was an expert on maritime navigation.

Looking back affectionately, I like to think of home as our own little Baghdad. The bunker-buster was my mother’s death when she was 31 and I was three, whereupon my father became a serial husband, launching into the holy state of matrimony four more times throughout my childhood and early adulthood. We were dysfunctional before dysfunctional was cool.

Going against trends of the day, I was mostly an only child raised by a single father through all but one of my teen years, with mother figures in various cameo roles. I got a close-up glimpse of how the sexes trouble and fail each other and in the process developed great em-pathy for both, but especially for men.

Although my father could be difficult – I wasn’t blinded by his considerable charms – I also could see his struggle and the sorrows he suffered, especially after mother No 2 left with his youngest daughter, my little sister.

From this broad, experiential education in the ways of men and women, I reached a helpful conclusion that seems to have escaped notice by some of my fellow sisters: men are human beings, too.

Lest anyone infer that my defence of men is driven by antipathy towards women, let me take a moment to point out that I liked and/or loved all my mothers. In fact, I’m still close to all my father’s wives except the last, who is just a few years older than me and who is apparently afraid that if we make eye contact, I’ll want the silver. (I do.)

My further education in matters male transpired in the course of raising three boys, my own and two stepsons. As a result of my total immersion in male-dom, I’ve been cursed with guy vision – and it’s not looking so good out there.

At the same time that men have been ridiculed, the importance of fatherhood has been diminished, along with other traditionally male roles of father, protector and provider, which are increasingly viewed as regressive manifestations of an outmoded patriarchy.

The exemplar of the modern male is the hairless, metrosexualised man and decorator boys who turn heter-osexual slobs into perfumed ponies. All of which is fine as long as we can dwell happily in the Kingdom of Starbucks, munching our biscotti and debating whether nature or nurture determines gender identity. But in the dangerous world in which we really live, it might be nice to have a few guys around who aren’t trying to juggle pedicures and highlights.

Men have been domesticated to within an inch of their lives, attending Lamaze classes, counting contractions, bottling expressed breast milk for midnight feedings – I expect men to start lactating before I finish this sentence – yet they are treated most unfairly in the areas of reproduction and parenting.

Legally, women hold the cards. If a woman gets pregnant, she can abort – even without her husband’s consent. If she chooses to have the child, she gets a baby and the man gets an invoice. Unarguably, a man should support his offspring, but by that same logic shouldn’t he have a say in whether his child is born or aborted?

Granted, many men are all too grateful for women to handle the collateral damage of poorly planned romantic interludes, but that doesn’t negate the fact that many men are hurt by the presumption that their vote is irrelevant in childbearing decisions.

NOTHING quite says “Men need not apply” like a phial of mail-order sperm Continued on page 2 Continued from page 1 and a turkey-baster. In the high-tech nursery of sperm donation and self-insemination – and in the absence of shame attached to unwed motherhood – babies can now be custom-ordered without the muss and fuss of human intimacy.

It’s not fashionable to question women’s decisions, especially when it comes to childbearing, but the shame attached to unwed motherhood did serve a useful purpose once upon a time. While we have happily retired the word “bastard” and the attendant emotional pain for mother and child, acceptance of childbearing outside marriage represents not just a huge shift in attitudes but, potentially, a restructuring of the future human family.

By elevating single motherhood from an unfortunate consequence of poor planning to a sophisticated act of self-fulfilment, we have helped to fashion a world in which fathers are not just scarce but in which men are also superfluous.

Lots of women can, do and always will raise children without fathers, whether out of necessity, tragedy or other circumstance. But that fact can’t logically be construed to mean that children don’t need a father. The fact that some children manage with just one parent is no more an endorsement of single parenthood than driving with a flat tyre is an argument for three-wheeled cars.

For most of recorded history, human society has regarded the family, consisting of a child’s biological mother and father, to be the best arrangement for the child’s wellbeing and the loss of a parent to be the single greatest threat to that wellbeing. There’s bound to be a reason for this beyond the need for man to drag his woman around by her chignon.

Sperm-donor children are a relatively new addition to the human community and they bring new stories to the campfire. I interviewed several adults who are the products of sperm donation. Some were born to married but infertile couples. Others were born to single mothers. Some reported well-adjusted childhoods; some reported conflicting feelings of love and loss.

Overall, a common thread emerged that should put to rest any notion that fathers are not needed: even the happiest donor children expressed a profound need to know who their father is, to know that other part of themselves.

Tom Ellis, a mathematics doctoral student at Cambridge University, learnt at 21 that he and his brother were both donor-conceived. Their parents told them on the advice of a family therapist as their marriage unravelled.

At first Tom did not react, but months later he hit a wall of emotional devastation. He says he became numb, anxious and scared. He began a search for his biological father, a search that has become a crusade for identity common among sperm-donor children.

“It’s absolutely necessary that I find out who he is to have a normal existence as a human being. That’s not negotiable in any way,” Tom said. “It would be nice if he wanted to meet me, but that would be something I want rather than something needed.”

Tom is convinced that the need to know one’s biological father is profound and that it is also every child’s right. What is clear from conversations with donor-conceived children is that a father is neither an abstract idea nor is he interchangeable with a mother.

As Tom put it: “There’s a mystery about oneself.” Knowing one’s father is apparently crucial to that mystery.

Something that’s hard for many women to admit or understand is that after about the age of seven, boys prefer the company of men. A woman could know the secret code to Aladdin’s cave and it would be less interesting to a boy than a man talking about dirt. That is because a woman is perceived as just another mother, while a man is Man.

From their mothers, boys basically want to hear variations on two phrases: “I love you” and “Do you want those fried or scrambled?” I learnt this in no uncertain terms when I was a Cub Scout leader, which mysteriously seems to have prompted my son’s decision to abandon Scouting for ever.

My co-Akela (Cub Scout for wolf leader) was Dr Judy Sullivan – friend, fellow mother and clinical psychologist. Imagine the boys’ excitement when they learnt who would be leading them in guy pursuits: a reporter and a shrink – two intense, overachieving, helicopter mothers of only boys. Shouldn’t there be a law against this?

We had our boys’ best interests at heart, of course, and did our utmost to be good den mothers. But seven-year-old boys are not interested in making lanterns from coffee tins. They want to shoot bows and arrows, preferably at one another, chop wood with stone-hewn axes and sink canoes, preferably while in them.

At the end of a school day, during which they have been steeped in oestrogen by women teachers and told how many “bad choices” they’ve made, boys are ready to make some really bad choices. They do not want to sit quietly and listen to yet more women speak soothingly of important things.

Here’s how one memorable meeting began. “Boys, thank you for taking your seats and being quiet while we explain our women’s history month project,” said Akela Sullivan in her calmest psychotherapist voice. The response to Akela Sullivan’s entreaty sounded something like the Zulu nation psyching up for the Brits.

I tried a different, somewhat more masculine approach: “Boys, get in here, sit down and shut up. Now!” And lo, they did get in there. And they did sit. And they did shut up. One boy stargazed into my face and stage-whispered: “I wish you were my mother.”

Akela Sullivan and I put our heads together, epiphanised in unison and decided that we would recruit transients from the homeless shelter if necessary to give these boys what they wanted and needed – men.

As luck would have it, a Cub Scout’s father was semi-retired or between jobs or something – we didn’t ask – and could attend the meetings. He didn’t have to do a thing. He just had to be there and respire testosterone vapours into the atmosphere.

His presence shifted the tectonic plates and changed the angle of the Earth on its axis. Our boys were at his command, ready to disarm landmines, to sink enemy ships – or even to sit quietly for the sake of the unit if he of the gravelly voice and sandpaper face wished it so. I suspect they would have found coffee tins brilliantly useful as lanterns if he had suggested as much.

But, of course, boys don’t stay Cub Scouts for long. We’ve managed over the past 20 years or so to create a new generation of child-men, perpetual adolescents who see no point in growing up. By indulging every appetite instead of recognising the importance of self-control and commitment, we’ve ratified the id.

Our society’s young men encounter little resistance against continuing to celebrate juvenile pursuits, losing themselves in video games and mindless, “guy-oriented” TV fare – and casual sex.

The casual sex culture prevalent on university campuses – and even in schools – has produced fresh vocabulary to accommodate new ways of relating: “friends with benefits” and “booty call”.

FWB I get, but “booty call”? I had to ask a young friend, who explained: “Oh, that’s when a guy calls you up and just needs you to come over and have sex with him and then go home.”

Why, I asked, would a girl do such a thing? Why would she service a man for nothing – no relationship, no affection, no emotional intimacy?

She pointed out that, well, they are friends. With benefits! But no obligations! Cool. When I persisted in demanding an answer to “why”, she finally shrugged and said: “I have no idea. It’s dumb.”

Guys also have no idea why a girl would do that, but they’re not complaining – even if they’re not enjoying themselves that much, either.

Miriam Grossman, a university psychiatrist, wrote Unprotected, a book about the consequences of casual sex among students. She has treated thousands of young men and women suffering a range of physical and emotional problems related to sex, which she blames on sex education of recent years that treats sex as though it were divorced from emotional attachment and as if men and women were the same. Grossman asserts that there are a lot more victims of the hookup (casual sex) culture than of date rape.

Casual sex, besides being emotionally unrewarding, can become physically boring. Once sex is stripped of meaning, it becomes merely a mechanical exercise. Since the hookup generation is also the porn generation, many have taken their performance cues from porn flicks that are anything but sensual or caring.

Boys today are marinating in pornography and they’ll soon be having casual sex with our daughters. According to a study by the National Foundation for Educational Research issued in 2005, 12% of British males aged 13-18 avail themselves of “adult-only” websites; and American research findings are similar. The actual numbers are likely to be much higher, given the amount of porn spam that finds its way into electronic mailboxes. If the rising generation of young men have trouble viewing the opposite sex as anything but an object for sexual gratification, we can’t pretend not to understand why.

The biggest problem for both sexes – beyond the epidemic of sexually transmitted disease – is that casual sex is essentially an adversarial enterprise that pits men and women against each other. Some young women, now fully as sexually aggressive as men, have taken “liberation” to another level by acting as badly as the worst guy.

Carol Platt Liebau, the author of Prude, another book on the havoc that pervasive sex has on young people, says that when girls begin behaving more coarsely so, too, do boys.

“And now, because so many young girls have been told that it’s ‘empowering’ to pursue boys aggressively, there’s no longer any need for boys to ‘woo’ girls – or even to commit to a date,” she told me. “The girls are available [in every sense of the word] and the boys know it.”

Men, meanwhile, have feelings. Although they’re uncomfortable sorting through them – and generally won’t if no one insists – I’ve listened to enough of them to know that our hypersexualised world has left many feeling limp and vacant.

Our cultural assumption that men only want sex has been as damaging to them as to the women they target. Here is how a recent graduate summed it up to me: “Hooking up is great, but at some point you get tired of everything meaning nothing.”

Ultimately, what our oversexualised, pornified culture reveals is that we think very little of our male family members. Undergirding the culture that feminism has helped to craft is a presumption that men are without honour and integrity. What we offer men is cheap, dirty, sleazy, manipulative sensation. What we expect from them is boorish, simian behaviour that ratifies the antimale sentiment that runs through the culture.

Surely our boys – and our girls – deserve better.

As long as men feel marginalised by the women whose favours and approval they seek; as long as they are alienated from their children and treated as criminals by family courts; as long as they are disrespected by a culture that no longer values masculinity tied to honour; and as long as boys are bereft of strong fathers and our young men and women wage sexual war, then we risk cultural suicide.

In the coming years we will need men who are not confused about their responsibilities. We need boys who have acquired the virtues of honour, courage, valour and loyalty. We need women willing to let men be men – and boys be boys. And we need young men and women who will commit and marry and raise children in stable homes.

Unprogressive though it sounds, the world in which we live requires no less.

Saving the males – engaging their nobility and recognising their unique strengths – will ultimately benefit women and children, too. Fewer will live in poverty; fewer boys will fail in schools and wind up in jail; fewer girls will get pregnant or suffer emotional damage from too early sex with uncaring boys. Fewer young men and women will suffer loneliness and loss because they’ve grown up in a climate of sexual hostility that casts the opposite sex as either villain or victim.

Then again, maybe I’m completely wrong. Maybe males don’t need saving and women are never happier or more liberated than when dancing with a stripper pole. Maybe women should man the barricades and men should warm the milk. Maybe men are not necessary and women can manage just fine without them. Maybe human nature has been nurtured into submission and males and females are completely interchangeable.

But I don’t think so. When women say, “No, honey, you stay in bed. I’ll go see what that noise is” – I’ll reconsider.

© Kathleen Parker 2008

Extracted from Save the Males: Why Men Matter, Why Women Should Care by Kathleen Parker, published by Random House New York

Saturday, August 16, 2008

India’s indigenous speak-and-see phone

Source: The Hindu

Anand Parthasarathy
Make local/international calls through Internet connection

BREAKING BARRIERS: D-Link’s Internet Video Phone is the first to be designed and developed in India.

Bangalore: The Internet allows telephone voice calls to be digitised and sent as packets of digital ones and zeroes. There is no reason why the video images of the speakers cannot be sent in the same fashion as long as the Net connection is reasonably fast.

Broadband has become a reality in India (with the public sector BSNL playing a crucial role in lowering the price barrier so that all of us could afford it). So a video telephone call, harnessing what is known as Voice over Internet Protocol or VoIP technology, has been a real possibility for some time — but it tethered the users to a PC or laptop with an Internet connection. And wearing a headphone-mike combo is not every one’s idea of a simple phone experience.

Last week, all that changed. India-based engineers in Bangalore and Goa of the Taiwanese networking products leader D-Link have created the first truly indigenous IP or Internet Protocol-based Video Phone — the GVC 3000. It looks and feels exactly like any standard landline handset — except that you can see the person you are speaking to, on a 5-inch liquid crystal screen. It bypasses the conventional telephone circuits and rides over the Internet — so in addition to the huge advantage of seeing as you speak, you can make local, national or international calls at the cost of just your Net connection.

How can two phones connected to an Internet cable or a wireless network, talk to each other without opening a browser? We put that question to S. Natarajan, vice president (R&D) for D-Link India. He suggested that readers could sign up at one of the many free IP Phone services available which allocates numbers to registered Net Phones like the GVC-3000. (examples: , ,, )

You can then call any one by dialling his or her number, just as you dial landline phones now. You can call any one with a similar IP Phone — it doesn’t have to be a D-Link — as long it meets a standard called Session Initiation Protocol (SIP).

A team of 15 engineers worked for over two years to create India’s own video phone, but D-Link is likely to market it worldwide as well. It should be available in electronic and lifestyle stores in India within three months as well as through D-Link’s own reseller networks and is likely to cost around Rs.23,000. (watch the “Where to buy” link at

If you want the convenience of an IP phone without the video, D-Link has also created a non-video version the GLV-540 that will set you back Rs.7,000. Either way this is a telephone technology whose time has come—for India.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

The crime merchants

Source: The Hindu


If crime and real-life violence are easy ways of increasing the consumer base for news channels today, it is because the demand is there, with new viewers bringing in different expectations. Why this obsession with morbidity?

We now have the statistics to quantify just how much of an overkill the Aarushi-Hemraj double murder case saw from the media. A study by the Centre for Media Studies (CMS) says that six channels beamed news and special programmes on the double murder for 39.30 hours out of a total 92 hours prime time — from 19:00 hrs to 23:00 hrs — between May 16 and June 7.

That’s 42 per cent of prime time over 23 days. The following channels — DD News, Zee News, Aaj Tak, Star News, NDTV 24x7 and CNN-IBN — telecast 234 news reports and 62 special programmes during the period. While Zee News topped the list with a coverage of close to 11 hours with 48 reports and 21 special programmes, DD News’ coverage of the crime was at the bottom with 24 reports running into just 41 minutes over the 23 days under review. Thank the Lord for small mercies.

When crime pays

What are the ways in which to live off a crime story? Here is a random but authentic sampling.

  • Times Now tracking her calls from cell phone call records leaked to them. Run numbers and times on the screen of who called Aarushi when, whom she called when.
  • NDTV showing a video of the dead girl doing normal things when she was alive.
  • Zee News informing us that this is the day when the CBI’s remand over Krishna ended. So? So nothing, just reminding you, that’s the news.
  • India TV conducting a monologue on a TV tower. Intoning, “Yeh mobile tower sab jaanta hai. Sector 25 ka tower. Sector 19, 20, 21 ke range mein hai.” This is the mobile tower that knows it all. Show it rising above the rooftops and say, Who was where? What was their location? This tower knows it all.
  • Headlines Today’s long feature on unsolved murders which enables them to dwell on each one, and fill a half hour slot.
  • Cyrus Broacha being funny on CNN IBN: “The CBI is looking for a khukri. Why look for a khukri when you already have a Talwar?”
  • Aaj Tak showing two presenters going around a flat which they said was exactly similar to the Talwars’ and was in the same complex. They show us the location of Arushi’s room and her parent’s room and Hemraj’s room. There is a model lying on the bed in Aarushi’s “room” placed exactly like it reportedly was, and there are blood stains on the door. (They kept saying this was reconstructed from CBI information) Then build a case for the fact that there was no way her parents could not have heard noises, despite the AC. Ergo, the Talwars’ testimony is fishy.
  • India TV’s amateur sleuthing: Krishna is lying when he says he flushed the khukri down the toilet. But look, we’ll show you how 10 minutes of repeated flushing does not flush a khukri! So a potty was there for 10 minutes on the TV screen, sometimes in the foreground, sometimes in the background, flushing away.
  • The judgment is announced in the Bijal date rape case. Headlines Today reconstructs the case with alacrity, using music and taglines like “Love Destroyed”. The anchor has an unhurried conversation with the victim’s sister. Then it goes off into Date Rape as an issue and live off that for several minutes.
  • News 24, Breaking News: No evidence against Rajesh! No evidence against Nupur! Wow. That really is breaking news, isn’t it?

    Did we become crime junkies overnight? Or are we seeing the multiplier effect of a trend that has been for some time in the making?

    Commercial compulsions

    Selling crime (and through it morbidity) are the route to widening the consumer base for news. Hindi newspapers emphasised crime when they were catering to first-time subscribers and trying to create readers in places where there had been none. Back in 2003, sitting in the office of the Hindustan in Patna, I got my first lesson in the importance of crime news and criminals. Said the resident editor: “Gangsters have become MLAs. Every political leader, every criminal wants to be covered in the Hindustan.” And the chief executive of the paper said that they worked hard to figure out what new readers in small towns and villages wanted to read about: “Crime news they want of whole State. Political news they do not want. Crime is on top of everybody’s concern, crime has to be there.”

    It takes demand to create supply. Crime would not trigger the media imagination the way it does without a society which hankers for such coverage. So what is it about middle class TV consumers the world over which makes crime coverage so irresistible to them? One answer is that it affects their lives. It has immediacy. As the owner of News 24 said in an interview a couple of years ago, to a man in Bahraich, it’s far more important that a local criminal has been caught than the talk about government formation in Bihar.

    That’s one part of the argument. The other is that with the steady influx of new news consumers into the viewer universe, there are constant shifts in a country like India in what people want to see on a news channel. A Star News executive commenting on news trends in 2007 said that the last few years had seen more new viewers added, many of whom have non-traditional preferences. A new news consumer is inevitably a less sophisticated news consumer, more attracted to neighbourhood crime and bizarreness than matters of State.

    Channels responded by adding reality show content news. The Star executive said, in 2007, news became more encompassing than ever before. “Thus, it was no coincidence that the year of experimentation was also the year that saw genre expansion.” (On Get that: when news stretches to encompass the bizarre and freakish, it is called genre expansion. Such expansion has now taken India TV to the top of the ratings chart.

    Changing definitions

    Statistics illustrate the broader trend of shifts in the content of news. The Centre for Media Studies in Delhi did a study which showed that the time spent on political news in the year 2007 has come down by more than 50 per cent. Political news coverage by Hindi news channels dipped from 23.1 per cent in 2005 to 10.09 per cent in 2007.

    But sports, entertainment, crime and human interest news coverage almost doubled from 27.9 per cent in 2005 to 53.1 per cent in 2007. At the same time, agriculture, education, health and environment-related news have not seen any net change; their coverage has been as insignificant in 2007 as earlier. Corruption, TV executives report, is no longer of interest to their audiences.

    Another important catalyst has been competition itself. With each new channel that breaks into the market, the distribution costs rise because DTH bouquets and cable operators increase their carriage fees. This now runs into a few crores per channel. When competition increases and distribution costs increase you balance your budget by cutting on news gathering costs. India TV recently spent a good 15 to 20 minutes showing how a magician had made a prostrate girl rise into the air without visible support.

    Think of what it would have cost to substitute that time period with hard news from several locations, and you will know why we see the news we do.

    The assault on young minds

    Photo: G.R.N. Somashekar

    Growing up with the TV: When children are the audience, channels need to be discriminating.

    Television is called The Other Parent because of the amount of time children spend in its company. In a book titled The Other Parent: The Inside Story of the Media’s Effect on our Children, Stanford professor James P. Steyer argues that the lack of social responsibility in many media companies as they cater to stockholders over children has meant that children are exposed to sex, coarseness, violence, and commercialism long before they are ready to understand them.

    In the Aarushi murder case, middle and upper middle class children too were sufficiently exposed to the crime’s coverage for the following to be noticed:

  • Children who reported a new fear of servants in the house.
  • Children who developed a fear of what their own parents could do to them.
  • Older children who were disturbed at the loss of privacy suffered by a dead teenager.

    Steyer suggests the following are essential for parents to do:

  • Putting kids on a media diet
  • Finding alternative activities for them besides television and the Internet.
  • Discovering what they think about the commercials, programmes and music they encounter on a daily basis.
  • Organising advocacy groups, contacting government leaders, and boycotting media outlets that target children with inappropriate content.

    Our news channels would argue that they do not target children. But the majority of Indian homes are one-room homes where children watch what adults watch. Parents will need to make more of an effort to understand what children absorb from the media they consume.

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