Tag Archives: opinion

Steve Jobs (1955-2011)

Once in a while, you have a force that arises in this universe which grows its strength only through changing the very conditions from which it arose.

Gandhi. Einstein. Jobs. Yes, he belongs on that list of people we find hard to describe with words, and can appreciate only by the impact they had on our consciousness.

So long and thanks for all the fish, Steve. We will miss you.

Can neutrinos travel faster than light?

Scientists in Europe claim that they have observed neutrinos traveling faster than light. What are neutrinos? Why is it surprising that they can travel faster than light? What’s the big deal?

Neutrinos

What are neutrinos? They are sub-atomic particles – little wisps of almost nothing, with no electrical charge. Being neutral, they are found nearly everywhere and can pass through matter unabsorbed. If you hold your hand toward the sunlight for one second, about a billion neutrinos from the sun will pass through it.

These “ghost particles”, as they’re often called, are part of the universe’s essential ingredients, and play a critical role in helping scientists understand some of the most fundamental questions about the nature of matter and in crafting a picture of how our universe formed and evolved.

“Whence this creation has arisen. Perhaps, it formed itself, or perhaps it did not. The one who looks down on it in the highest heaven, only he knows, or perhaps he knows not” – A hymn from the Rig Veda

A group of scientists working at CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research) – among other things – have been attempting to measure the velocity (or speed) of neutrinos, by shooting these particles through an “accelerator” (sort of a long tunnel built underground). In their experiments, the group found that neutrinos were arriving at their destinations earlier than expected. Startlingly, they appear to be traveling faster than light itself. No definitive conclusions have been drawn yet. The results will have to be examined by a wider group of scientists before they can be confirmed or deemed wrong.

Speed of Light

If we were to view the exquisitely intricate design of the universe as a “program” with some of the parameters as “fixed, constant and coded in” and everything else as “variable, relative, dynamic and subject to change”, the only constant (that we know of) is the speed of light (‘c’). Why is the speed of light constant? It just is. We don’t really know why. And light travels at slightly more than 186,000 miles per second. All we know or can say in this regard, is that our measurements till date have not disproved that assertion. It’s the way things work in this particular version of the universe that we find ourselves in, to the best of our knowledge. That light never slows down or comes to a rest and is always moving at a constant speed. This assertion forms a critical basis for Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity.

Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity

The simplest way to explain this is to say that “nothing is absolute” or “everything is relative”. So, immediate answers to any question posed are “it depends” and “compared to what?” For example, a train said to be moving at 60 kmph is relative to a stationary observer on a platform, and not relative to another observer on another train moving in (say) the opposite direction at 70kmph. Everything in the universe is in motion or at rest, *relative to something*. Galaxies with their stars are racing, planets and moons are revolving and rotating and indeed the universe itself is expanding. Grossly simplified, the theory of general relativity is a framework that explains everything as relative and subject to a frame of reference with the notable exception of two things – the speed of light and the laws of physics themselves – which hold steadfast no matter whether you are in San Francisco or in some dark, uninhabited corner of the universe.

Einstein’s theory of general relativity is magnificent for many reasons. In particular, it is awe inspiring for the reason that it tells us that “time itself is relative”. Time itself moves faster or slower depending on the velocity of motion, a mind boggling notion. Clocks slow down when you move faster. Of course, this is not noticeable at speeds we humans move around at normally. The “time dilation” effect kicks in only when we can get to speeds resembling that of light.

Why the fuss about the CERN finding?

It’s tough being a sub-atomic particle these days with scientists constantly tracking your every movement and accusing you of some misdemeanor or the other. If it turns out to be true that neutrinos have been caught breaking the “speed limit of the universe”, the implications are profound at a fundamental level. No, it will not change the way we live in any way. The sun will still rise in the east. Our lives will weave their ways inexorably through to whatever lies ahead. We will continue to fight our daily battles, wage our petty wars and live our lives ordinarily as we did yesterday and the day before. It won’t tell us if there is a God who designed it all. It won’t tell us otherwise either. Yet, everything would have changed. Einstein once said “Time is just a mechanism that ensures that everything doesn’t happen all at once”. The future is nothing more than where light has not reached as yet, or in other words a past that is yet to happen. If something is found to travel faster than light, then notions of past, present, future, time, cause, effect, etc. become mysteriously murkier than ever.

But, it will add a smidgeon of hope and joy that we would have inched forward in the quest for knowing. It will tell us that there is more afoot, more thrill to be had in this pursuit, and simultaneously give us pause to examine this wonder that we call life.

Rajinikanth – The Tale of Two Superstars

What can you write about Rajinikanth that has not been already said? I guess you could start by asking how you go from a dark skinned, Marathi speaking, bus conducting Shivaji Rao Gaekwad in Bangalore to Rajinikanth, the biggest commercial movie star in India?

Rajini’s Sivaji – The Boss, released a few years back, was revelatory to Bollywood and English media, who until then had laughed him off as just another quirk of South Indian cinema and its uninformed audiences. Since its staggering success, they have all fallen over each other to sing paeans to this commercial supernova, who has put the likes of Shah Rukh and Salman firmly in the shade with his unfailing ability to crank out blockbuster after blockbuster. Even Hollywood in the last couple of decades has not had such a bankable star whose mere name has been enough to make cash registers ring.

I’ve read a few articles written in recent times about Rajini. And the first thing that struck me was that they’ve all missed the point by a mile. The best one by Grady Hendrix “The biggest movie star you’ve probably never heard of” in slate.com, was intended to introduce the superstar to western audiences (quoted below)

“But the No. 2 spot (in Asia) goes to someone who doesn’t make any sense at all. The second-highest-paid actor in Asia is a balding, middle-aged man with a paunch, hailing from the Indian state of Tamil Nadu and sporting the kind of moustache that went out of style in 1986. This is Rajinikanth, and he is no mere actor—he is a force of nature”

Even Hendrix, while entertaining, missed the point. Everyone has explained away Rajinikanth as the ‘unexplainable’, the ‘je ne sais quoi’ of Indian cinema. He is not what they expect to see in a matinee idol. In fact, he is the anti-thesis of what they expect to see in one who’s scaled the pinnacle of  movie superstardom. They wring their hands at his physical shortcomings, roll their eyes at his ‘ability to split a bullet in two’ and grudgingly acknowledge that ‘if he’s made a boat load of money, then he must be something special’. They haven’t done justice to the man, who appears to have defied the odds but was always destined to shine.

It is near impossible to understand Rajini the phenomenon, without being a fan and a believer. This is a case when you have to surrender to the experience before you can believe. Yes, his stunts require suspension of reality, punch dialogues zany, and his larger than life person incredible. What makes him tick is a well known word. The word used to describe Clark Gable, the Beatles, Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey and dare I say it, Mahatma Gandhi. The word is charisma. The man does not just have oodles of it, but has now foisted a higher bar on those who aspire to it. Also, to understand the phenomenon, you need to have been an “original” fan. Not one of those fair weather friends who jumped onto the bandwagon when it climbed to somewhere between the stratosphere and Jupiter.

You don’t just go “to watch a Rajini movie”. It’s not just another day in your life. The happiness of clutching the tickets to his latest caper is higher than the high of running a 10K or a marathon. And, then comes the movie watching experience itself. The roll of the titles, and the flashing of “superstar” in all caps using disco lights that went out in the seventies. And the approving roar of the crowd, followed by the frenzy when the superstar’s visage first appears on the screen (always preceded by a shot of his footwear squashing a cigarette). Sufi saints in communion with the One above or a child entering Disneyland for the first time will relate to this experience, one in which the soul soars in unfettered bliss.

That’s charisma. So, what makes Rajini charismatic?

Of the reasons, the biggest is his emotional authenticity. The most fascinating aspect of the man is that – when he’s not playing a superstar, he’s an unassuming individual who goes about in broad daylight unaffected by vanity, unhiding of hair loss and undenying of his past indiscretions. He comes across as a man who does not have an axe to grind. In a world filled with hucksters trying to sell you something or the other, that’s a luxury. Make no mistake. He (and his producer) *is* trying to sell you. But he convinces you that it was your idea to buy. And, it always turns out to be a good idea. It doesn’t get better than that.

It’s like there are two Rajini personas. The superstar actor and the genuine article. And, each persona has watched and learned from the other, always to the betterment of both and their fans. They have both been superstars. That’s a combination hard to find or beat, anywhere in the world.

Rajinikanth is dark skinned, does not have chiseled looks and his voice is not baritone. He’s not tall, has not (regrettably) played a thespian and is self deprecating about his own short comings. He’s humble, honest and authentic. He’s not what a typical movie star is made of. Therein lies the secret of his success. That he’s not what a typical movie star is made of. That is the reason he’s anything but typical. And that’s why it comes as no surprise to those of us who’ve watched him stumble, transform and grow over time. And that’s precisely why he’s destiny’s child.

God bless Rajni.

Which Side Are You On?

We are witnessing a remarkable period in the history of the world’s largest democracy. In just a few months, we’ve seen the Prime Minister’s Office censured by the Supreme Court (a first), a Union Cabinet Minister sent to jail (a first) for alleged involvement in the largest scam in our history, and now the spontaneous eruption of public support for Anna Hazare and the movement against corruption

There are polarized viewpoints on Anna’s agitation. There are those who worry if this is anarchy at its finest. They fret over an un-elected, self appointed ‘civil rights society’ holding an elected government hostage. And there are those who feel that enough is enough, and the time has come for voices to be heard and action to be had – in the crusade against corruption. They are coming out in the streets, on Facebook and in the media, anxious to press forward with the momentum and the spring to the step that Anna has brought to it. In effect, they have transplanted their trust (which should have been ideally with their elected representatives) to Anna and friends.

Is this the beginning of the end of an organized way of governing the nation? Or, is it the beginning of the end of old and corrupt ways of doing business? One hopes it is the latter. But, time will tell.

If Anna and friends deserve our support, it has to be for the sole reason that they are our best bets in a nation, in which unstained reputations and selfless leaders are scarcer than tickets for a Rajnikanth blockbuster on opening day. Their methods may not always appear reasonable, and not all of their points of view acceptable verbatim. Change has always been wrought by unreasonable men. Let’s hope they succeed at least in part.

No matter which side we are on, we have to celebrate the fact that we are witnessing a public dialogue of this magnitude in India for the first time. Dialogue is a life force of democracy. The day you take away a person’s right to free speech, you drive a dagger through its heart and mortally wound it.

As Voltaire once said famously “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it”

No matter which side we are on, we have the responsibility to defend the life forces of democracy. Any government that fails to honor these forces deserves our firmest opposition, and to be shown the door.

No matter which side we are on, we have to agree that there is only one side. The side that wants to rid this country of the cancer that is surely consuming it. We have an obligation to take the time to find those we trust and give them our support. Whoever they may be. And discard the rest.

India is the world’s largest democracy.  It’s about time we proved it.

In Defence of America

There is a lot of hand wringing about the recent downgrade of the US debt, an unprecedented event, which some say, is the beginning of the end of the amazing run of the United States of America. What Ho! puts the American phenomenon, predictions about its decline and fall and other world sentiments about the land of the brave and the home of the free in perspective in this month’s Op-Ed.

Of the man-made phenomena in the last two hundred plus years, one that has to bubble towards the top of a ranking order has to be the rise of the American state. Built on principles of individual liberty and exercise of free will, America has shown the way and led a graceful transition of the Western hemisphere out of an old world ruled by kings, queens, despots and dictators. Along the way, it proved that an economic system built around free markets, merely another form of free will, can be world beating. The free flow of people, thoughts and money in and out of America has led to a renaissance in science, technology, economics and art, which has benefited the entire world.

The extraordinary founding fathers who designed this extraordinary system set out to simply give full expression to the positive and energizing aspects of human existence, a luxury they were not afforded by the masters they escaped from. “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of happiness” may appear simple and obvious today to those of us who have seen or experienced it. Obvious and simple – it was not, two hundred years ago. The birth and rise of America is an unquestionable  triumph of the sublime and beautiful aspects of human existence. Something the entire world should marvel and take pride in. After all, mistakes of entire generations past precipitated the necessity for an America to emerge. The American phenomenon truly belongs to the entire world.

Peoples around the world have little comprehension of the historical struggles of America and the demons it has cast out, in its rise to eminence. America has battled corruption, slavery, racism, sexism, phobias in its relatively young existence and emerged stronger after each tussle, giving rise to hope and optimism in that process. It is an undeniable fact that America was built by and made up of Christians, who have worked comfortably with their beliefs and not let these stand in the way of their guiding principles. It is more a testament to the triumph of reason, good judgement and principles and less to the Christian beliefs themselves. It is difficult to understand a system, its evolution and its struggles. It is easier to cast aspersions by filtered viewing of the demons that are yet to be cast out. Unsurprisingly, most people take the easy route.

Today, the view of America is tinged with many emotions – a little admiration, largely envious resentment and and even some outright hatred. While hundreds of thousands of people are busy emigrating their way to a hopeful life in America, thousands others are busy giving vent to their hatred and planning acts of violence against it. Millions others are busy simply observing and opining, some more animatedly than others. America’s recent economic troubles have provided plenty of fodder for all. There has been anger and resentment against America for a good part of the last five decades. Historically, this resentment was fueled by socialist and communist idealogues, whose discomfort with the brash, freewheeling, individualistic American system stemmed from their reluctance and inability to understand its success. Ostriches with heads buried in the sand, they resisted until they were no more.

Today’s anger and resentment against America no longer feeds off a conflict in ideology. It is shifting to something more personal and capricious. Even peoples in economies like India or Mexico or Brazil, which continue to benefit from borrowing American principles of free will and free markets, are surprisingly resentful. Why? This is surprising because one would expect these peoples to become increasingly familiar with and thus more understanding of American strengths and foibles, as they try to emulate it. Resentment of America seems to derive its energy from several perceptions-

1. Americans are arrogant. They wage unjustified wars for personal gain. They operate with no regard for the rest of the world. They take sides and are not fair.

2. Americans are lazy and stupid. They know little about the rest of the world. They live off the work of immigrants.Their elections are flawed and so are their leaders

3. Americans are materialistic. They place mammon above all, have no culture or soul. They are a bad influence on the rest of us

As with perceptions, there is a little truth, some misunderstanding and large amounts of bias in all of the above. For every bad apple in the American basket, there are several others that  restore the balance. Let us not pretend that America does not have its foibles. Rather, let us learn by observing how it corrects itself. Therein lies the strength and secret of endurance of the system. Unfortunate perceptions have prompted reactions to America’s recent misfortunes (9/11, sub-prime debacle, recession, etc.) ranging from schadenfreude ridden “chickens coming to roost, this is comeuppance, and the end of arrogant America” to well meaning “hope they get their act together”. It is said that you know you are down when the least qualified stop by to give you unsolicited advice. If that’s true, America is truly well and down.

Evolution is a series of mis-steps, punctuated by a-ha moments. The Americans, like anyone else, are evolving and discovering. The last decade has been a period of mis-steps and discovery for America. Election of George Bush, in hindsight, appears to have done more damage than good. If  9/11 had not happened, his presidency could well have been uneventful, even provided some comic respite and shorter by 4 years. it is pointless to speculate how the wheels within the wheels could have turned. Good news is that we all learnt some lessons. Bad news is that we cannot get that time back and some mistakes have to be undone. Yet others cannot be undone. Most important point is that America demonstrated a remarkable will to go down the learning and correcting path by electing Obama. Again, reason and good judgement triumphed over ideology, giving rise to hope and optimism.

The world will have find a way to let go of George Bush, Iraq and the rest of the baggage that America itself is anxious to dispose. If there is anything to be learnt from the last ten years, it is that the best can make mistakes, and often they do not seek or need others’ permission to make mistakes. In front of us, is an emerging world order with China, India and Brazil rising to the fore and making their presence felt. America may lead this new world order or maybe not. Everything that rises eventually fades. The time for America to fade away will come inevitably and surely. Let us hope that the sublime and beautiful aspects of human existence are respected and protected by the new leaders when they come. That’s the kind of world, I hope, our children and theirs will make their own mis-steps and discoveries.

The Funniest Indian Blog wins an Award

Why would anyone want to give us an award? A few days back, we received a congratulatory message from the young folks (let’s pretend that they are young) at indiantopblogs.blogspot.com. Suspicious that the contents of the message might contain inflammatory materials or worse, substances of the exploding kind, we called in the SWAT team – which crouched around the aforementioned message and gently prised it open – all the while on the lookout for blue wires, powdery substances, digital clocks and other tell tale signs of imminent detonation. To our relief, our fears were well founded. The message contained a bombshell of an announcement. It said that Laughing Gas had been ranked in their Directory of Best Indian Blogs in 2011.

Such proclamations when they come out of thin air, without adequate warning can cause the gravest of alarms. Alarm? Why alarm? Isn’t this cause for celebration, you may ask. Time to open the bubbly perhaps and spread the cheer around? Instead, why did it cause us to leap six inches in the air like a startled gazelle stalked by an invisible predator?

What ho. We shall explain. The first and spontaneous cause for alarm was that someone was actually reading Laughing Gas. Till date, we have perspired blissfully under the notion that other than blood relatives and friends who owed us money, none else was aware of our presence or was under compulsion to examine its innards. The illusion of being a better kept secret than the Knights Templar before Da Vinci Code was shattered. And understandably, we pressed the big red button on the table. The emergency response system kicked into high gear.

Disaster recovery and mitigation was sought. We had been discovered. It was time to let our agents in the field know that their cover had been blown.

No sooner than the first round of dust settlement came the next round of dust. We wondered what on earth would make anyone rank Laughing Gas anywhere in anything? We are a mere stripling blog, recently born, all of sixty days old and just began to take baby steps. Our brows furrowed and our eyes narrowed to slits as we pondered the unponderable that had just occurred. We imagined the condition of Indian blogscape if *we* made it to the Directory of Best Indian Blogs. What ho, we whispered in a low conspiratorial tone. The picture we imagined did not look pretty.

The passage of seventy two hours have injected some calm into the proceedings at Laughing Gas HQ. We have come to our senses. For, we have finally seen the light. For, we have understood that there is no way this could have happened but for Laughing Gas fans. Those of you who stood in long lines at ration shops to get your weekly quota of the funniest Indian blog, we salute you. And, those of you who walked ten miles in pouring rain to the nearest keyboard to type in those magical letters http://whatho.in, we tip our hats. For it is you that made this happen. Thank you, Laughing Gas fans!

And, yes, thank you indiantopblogs.blogspot.com! Keep up the good work.

What ho, indeed!

Google+ versus Facebook

Google+ is out. In limited trials. So is it a facebook killer?  If you are not familiar with limited trials in the tech world, think of it as letting a select few people watch a movie premiere, so you can change the ending (if that’s possible) and also drum up publicity in advance of releasing to hoi polloi.

Since we move  around in the mysterious cognoscenti circles of the tech world (ahem), we received an invite  to check out the new social network from Google. Here are some first impressions.

The worlds don’t collide on Google+

Your family, friends, neighbors, the guy you met yesterday, the gal you have never met ever and your pet are all treated as equals on Facebook.  Let’s face it. Each of us has different worlds that we’ve created. From the world of family to relatives through acquaintances to people we simply transact with. Having them all in one network has never made sense. (But, that never stopped Facebook from acquiring 750million users, of which 200M+ login every day!) The worlds don’t collide in Google+. It lets you create umpteen number of “Circles” and create different worlds in which you can drop family, friends, acquaintances and relative strangers of various hues. This means that you can share certain things with only family and none others, and so on. This is how the real world networks work. This is definitely a plus.

Score: +1 point

Google+ is a one stop shop

It combines Facebook, Twitter, Email, Groups and a sophisticated private Chat room with video called “Hangout” in one place. None of this is radically new. With Google+, you can do it all in one place, and enjoy the convenience of having all your contacts in one place. In the tech world, they call this a ‘one stop shop’. Now, let’s think about it. Do we really want a one stop shop for fun things like social networking? Do you really like to eat at the same restaurant every time you go out? And, would you want to order Alu Paratha and Paneer Butter Masala from a guy named Madurai Murugan?

Score: -1 point

Google+ vs Facebook: Post office versus Disneyland

Google’s user interface has always been simple and minimal. Which makes it perfect for transactions like email and search. Not for fun activities like checking out your nephew’s first birthday pictures and idle gossip twittering among friends. The difference between Google+ and Facebook/Twitter experiences is the one between going to a post office and an outing in Disneyland.

Score: -1 point

Verdict

Final Score: -1 out of 3.  Time will tell if the world really needs another social network, that too from Google. In the battle between convenience and coolness, the latter often wins. Especially when teenagers and 20-somethings are involved.  This is a winner takes all game. There is no room for a number 2 in social networks. Zuckerberg can rest easy because he may have already won the game. If anyone has cause for mild worry, it’s probably Twitter at the moment.

If you are on Google+ or have been reading about it, do write and let us know what you think in the comments section.

3 reasons Why Life Only Gets Better

Reason number one. You are not going to be 16 forever.

Contrary to what they tell you, the best years of your life are not when you are a kid. This is a myth built on bad memories of disgruntled forty somethings, who remember only the ‘Oh, I didn’t have to pay any bills’ part and have long forgotten the parts involving acne, random hormone explosions, homework, exams and ‘you have to be in bed by 10pm’.

Yes, there will come a time when you will be out on your own, discovering the joys of running up credit card bills, managing house-help and warding off pesky telemarketers. As you get out into the ‘real’ world, it will be pizza for breakfast, pies for lunch and brewskies for dinner. Until, of course, the spleen bursts, ulcers sprout, the midriff widens and you see that dreaded furrow on the doc’s brow after an annual health check.

You know what, kids, freedom is not such a bad thing. You get to live by your rules and you get to break your own rules. Freedom is a beautiful thing. It makes you grow. And, growing is a beautiful thing. Unless, your name is Benjamin Button.

Reason 2: Nothing lasts forever, not even money and time.

Money makes the world go around. As the world gets bigger, there will be more of it. You will get your piece of it. Do not read this to believe that all you have to do is sit back and wait for some money fairy to magically rain cash in your living room. You will have to work for it. The good news is that there is money out there to be made, if you have the time for that sort of thing.

Speaking of time, it is the great healer. The most outrageous slings of misfortune, the worst of insults and the heartrending losses – all fade into black or grey, with time. Even in the darkest of hours, remember the four golden words “this too shall pass.” Except in the cases of a CBI enquiry or a re-run of Kabhi Kushi Kabhi Gam, when nimble footed escape may be more prudent.

Reason 3: Life is not as bad as it is cracked up to be.

Life is not what you see on the telly. When you grow up, your parents do their best to filter out the bad news. The television industry was invented to do exactly the opposite. They do what our parents do, except that they filter all the good stuff.  Why they do that is because bad news sells. Someday in life, you will encounter the phrase “free markets” and it will all magically start making sense. Everything that happens can be explained by either of two human inventions – free markets and stupidity. Quite often, it is both, and the latter is by far more powerful and innovative.

Someday in life, you will encounter the phrase “free markets” and it will all magically start making sense

There will always be a truckload of bad news. Violence, disasters and wars will never go out of fashion. It will often make you wonder “why live in such a crappy a world?’’. But, bad news does not make the world bad. Remember – for every Voldemort, there is a Harry Potter, for every A. Raja there is a Subramaniam Swamy, and for every Osama there is an Obama. Bad news needs to be heard so folks who can fix these ridiculous situations step in. Every fight needs a few good soldiers.

Doing the right thing.

“Life gets better” does not mean that you are going to swoop in, just in the nick of time to cut the blue wire on a dirty bomb to save a planeload of people. It means that you will be given a chance to do a right thing here, and a right thing there. And, if you keep at it, the chances are that it will add up to heroic proportions. And, chances are that no one will notice. Chances are that you will be an unsung hero.

It’s hard to fathom a cheerful world while in the throes of existential angst. Angst smothers you blind, chokes off the oxygen and stops from you seeing that sunrise on the horizon. It takes time and work to get out from under that pillow of anguish and see things for what they are. That, my friend, is how life gets better if you are willing to give it time.

We have a new home!

Laughing Gas is now What Ho! at http://whatho.in. We are in the middle of unpacking the boxes, applying for gas and phone connections, figuring out where to put the TV and hanging pictures on the wall. Welcome to our new home!  Do stay and look around, and let us know what you think. Thanks for visiting!

 

June 25, 1983 – A day in history

For us fogeys at Laughing Gas, there is unlikely to be a moment rivaling the euphoria on this day in 1983, when Kapil’s Devils won the Prudential World Cup, in one of the greatest team efforts in Indian sports history. Scorecard: India won by 43 runs. India: 183 (54.4 overs). West Indies: 140 (52 overs). Man of the Match: Mohinder Amarnath. Chak de India!