Saturday, July 30, 2011

Reader's Log Part I: Why the Enlightenment?

Hello everyone! So, I have a quick personal story to relate: Last week, I happened to attend Mass at the University Catholic Center of my alma mater, and caught one of the final homilies there by Father Ivan, a wonderful priest who always seems to nail down simple but elusive truths. His topic was passion, and his premise was that, regardless of what we are passionate about, nurturing that fire and developing one’s gifts would ultimately help us do God’s will.

I’m passionate about the Enlightenment, so dammit, I’m gonna run with it and hope it makes itself relevant!

I’ve been re-reading Rousseau’s “The Social Contract,” and have decided to start a reading log. The problems with this approach is that, as you proceeds in a book on political theory, the questions you have tend to answer themselves, and the impressions you get are modified by new information. So, I’m tackling the book in chunks, and am trying my best to stay focused on the larger picture.

In my next post, I’ll focus on the first book of “The Social Contract,” particularly Rousseau’s opinions on property. In the meantime, I’m going to force you to endure a few sentences explaining my personal interest in the Enlightenment. I expect you will find them incredibly dull.

For those unfamiliar with “The Enlightenment,” it was an intellectual movement from the late 1600’s until 1800 that emphasized the application of reason to every human problem. It is the movement of that birthed both the USA and the French Revolution.

So, let’s start off with a question: Why the Enlightenment? Why study political and philosophical thought devoted to solving the particular questions of the eighteenth century, especially when the answers it provided were embodied in the dysfunctional government of Revolutionary France? The great thinkers have moved on in the last 200 years; why haven’t I?

I think the appeal of the Enlightenment is best expressed by Enlightenment thinker Emmanuel Kant:

“Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed nonage. Nonage is the inability to use one’s own understanding without another’s guidance. This nonage is self-imposed if its cause lies not in lack of understanding but in indecision and lack of courage to use one’s own mind without another’s guidance. Dare to know! “Have the courage to use your own understanding,” is therefore the motto of the enlightenment.”

In other words, the Enlightenment is about faith: faith in reason. Enlightenment thinkers had a faith that reason could solve every problem, and (perhaps more importantly), that with proper understanding, and a dash of courage, every person is capable of rational thought. This faith is fundamental to belief in free will, and is the foundation of my own worldview. It is a faith that has been under attack in the 200 years since the Enlightenment.

I lack the philosophical muscle to prove or disprove the existence of rational free will. But, I can put it to the test, and see what conclusions it yields. So, I’m studying Rousseau to understand the logic that underpins the American and French Republics,  and to see where that logic leads.

Rousseau was the last and greatest of the Enlightenment thinkers. To a point, all subsequent human thought could be considered a particular interpretation or reaction to Rousseau.  I want to gauge whether this giant of the Enlightenment was capable of cutting through the most difficult philosophical knots, or whether he simply leaves our thoughts as tangled as ever.

Stay tuned.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Thoughts on the conclusion of the Harry Potter phenomenon

The last Harry Potter movie hit theaters with the impact of an artillery shell last week. Millions of rabid fans dressed up as their favorite characters and lined up hours before showtime to celebrate the end of the thrilling saga of "the boy who lived".

I was airborne when the movie arrived, squiggling around in a miserable economy class seat, itching to get off at Los Angeles. I obviously didn't get to see it on opening day, and since most of my friends had already seen it, couldn't find anybody to come with me until today. I saw Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 in a 70% empty theater in Anaheim Hills. And I thought it was the best out of all eight.

Now plenty of reviewers and internet pundits have done some extensive analysis on the movie and expounded upon its many themes, prominently highlighting the end of childhood aspect of it. I won't do much of that anymore because, frankly, it's boring at this point. I just wanted to offer some of my personal thoughts on it.

I am huge huge HP fan since I was 11. That's when my parents bought me the four-book set (the fifth one hadn't come out yet). I think I finished them off in a span of a month. I was so sorely disappointed that the fifth part wasn't going to be out for a long time that I spent hours conjuring up storylines for it. I have a rule that I don't read the same book twice, but I made a grudging exception for HP. In later years (after all seven were out), I would randomly pick up one of them and flip right to my favorite parts. I remember spending an obscene amount of time on this one website, called, reading up on every little detail and reveling in the eclectic essays posted by crazed fanboys. (BTW, last I heard the owner of hp-lexicon got sued by Rowling over plans of writing an encyclopedia and lost)

The world crafted by Rowling is incredibly imaginative and very complete. Her attention to details is admirable (minor plot points initiated in, say, the second book find resolution in the sixth). Her humor (or humour, I guess, in her honor) is like Diddy Riese cookies: thoroughly delicious and always fresh. Sure she kept readers waiting for answers in the early books - what is up with the diary? Why can Harry talk to snakes? - but the payoff was worth the long waits.

I grew up with the books and it was one hell of a decade living with more books or movies to look forward to. But I guess it must all end at some point. Hope the actors find other good work down the line, and more importantly, Rowling overcomes her firm insistence on not writing anything Harry related. Would love to experience that thrill, that anticipation all over again. 

Friday, July 22, 2011

Pleasure of taking pleasure in the misfortune of others

Germans are known for their efficiency. German engineering is known for its precision and innovation, and its spacious roads lauded and emulated all around. It is hardly surprising that the language follows the dictum of efficiency as well. Then again I suppose if your language is liberally peppered with (and I kid you not) 38 and 39 letter words you are uniquely equipped to be judicious with your words. Why hello, rechtsschutzversicherungsgesellschaften. It's a pleasure to meet you.

I have a friend who is very fluent in German and would probably find a lot of faults with my analysis below, but I don't think he reads this blog. So for the purposes of this post, I am your resident expert on German words.

Since English is a Germanic language (linguist wonks classify extant languages in "language families" and under that system, English falls under the Germanic family, which itself is a sub-division of the Indo-European language family), we have borrowed plenty German words over the years. Did you, for instance, ever experience angst at having to eat sauerkraut when you were in kindergarten?

But there are some German words that are so awe-inspiring for their frugality and precision, we have borrowed them without any modifications and with apparent gusto. Meet schadenfreude. Sham-what? Exactly. Schadenfreude. 

The word schadenfreude means "taking pleasure in the misfortune of others." Now why would you want to use seven words to describe something when just one awesome German word would suffice? Plus it makes you sound oh-so bourgeois.

Schadenfreude's precision is clearly admirable. It is not quite jealousy. Nor is it meanness or malice. It is somehow a combination of all of the above and some more. It perfectly captures a complex feeling in one succinct word - something that English fails to do in this case. Let me demonstrate: 

Close encounters of the third kind in De Neve

What do you do when a complete stranger walks up to you and gives her number - unsolicited - in the dining hall, of all places?

Answer: You push the incident to the attic of your mind for nearly a year until rummaging through old text messages revives the memory, and blog about it.

This, dear readers, is a thrilling tale of one man and his quest to finish his sudoku and how he was so strangely interrupted.

There I was, on a pleasant September afternoon, minding my own business and having a quiet lunch at UCLA's famed De Neve residential dining hall. The new academic year had just begun and one could still sense the excitement in the air. I don't recall what I had for lunch that day but for the sake of completeness, let us pretend I had a bowl of pasta, a plate of cheese pizza, a plate of garlic bread, a banana, a bowl of pudding (I always get dessert first before ravenous hordes of over enthusiastic freshmen and battle hardened upperclassmen raid the stores) and a glass of water sitting on my tray. A well-used copy of the day's Daily Bruin, the school's esteemed student newspaper, sat clumsily folded in front of me. I was knee-deep in the sudoku puzzle, ominously marked "fiendish." Since I had already completed the crossword, I was forced to confront this fiend. I nibbled at the bread now and then, but my attention was mostly on the empty grids. I was about to enter sudoku nirvana when...

"Excuse me, where did you get the paper from?"

The speaker was female. I looked up to see her smiling at me. I had a strong urge to blurt out the first thought that crossed my head, which was the paper is all over freaking campus;are you blind? Politeness and restraint prevailed, however, and I replied, "I got it right by bruinwalk. There is a stack of them outside De Neve too."

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Medici, McClellan and Star Wars?!

I am currently reading a book called "The House of Medici: Its rise and fall" by Christopher Hibbert. The Medicis were a political dynasty who "ruled" Florence for 200+ years. I put ruled between bunny ears because technically Florence was a republic - by their standards, not ours.

They were bankers first and foremost, but under the watchful tutelage of three generations of very capable Medicis, they seamlessly branched out into politics, art patronage and even the clergy. And Italian politics of the age was pretty freaking nasty. It was like playing a boisterous game of Risk. Elusive alliances, ruthless backstabbing, mind-bending diplomatic overtures - the whole package. I think it is fair to say the Medicis birthed the renaissance. Look at the list of painters, artists and sculptors they discovered and supported lavishly: Donatello, Michelangelo, da Vinci, Brunelleschi. Man that thing reads like the Louvre's guidebook (up top!).

Two of the Medicis went on to become popes. Did you read that? Two! Giovanni di Lorenzo de Medici became Pope Leo X in 1513. His cousin Guilio de Medici became pope in 1523. Both were related to the family's greatest member, Lorenzo de Medici (also called Lorenzo the Magnificent or, for you Italian fetishists, Il Magnifico) - Giovanni was his son and Guilio was his nephew whom he later adopted.

In short, the Medicis were Kennedys, Rockefellers, Vanderbilts and Carnegies all rolled into one. And their names are just so awesome you can't help but savor them like Bazooka Joe bubble gum: Cosimo, Giovanni, Guiliano, Lorenzo, Piero.

I was always interested in finding out more about the Medicis and their rise to power. So when my friend JP gave this book as a birthday present I was quite elated. It has been a pretty interesting read so far - I am about half done - and I want to share a few interesting passages from the book.

Ready? Here we go:

-"Lorenzo was now twenty, virile, clever and inexhaustibly energetic...he was was quite strikingly ugly". This is how Hibbert introduces the greatest Medici to the readers. Way to put someone down, dude. Pretty hilarious, though. His pic doesn't look that bad. Judge for yourselves:

Lorenzo deep in thoughts about discovering the next budding artist. Or pwning the next fiefdom.

-"When urged by the Florentines to move his [Florentine army general] men more quickly, he ridiculed such exhortation from 'mere mechanics who knew nothing of war'". When I read this line I thought, "Hmm. Where have I seen this tactic of belittling your leaders at the time of war before?" And then it struck me. General McClellan, the commander of all Union troops at one point in the Civil war, had nothing but contempt for Lincoln and the cabinet. In letters to his wife, he called Lincoln well-meaning baboon. Wow.

From left to right: man and baboon.

-To avert a pan-Italian crisis that would have consumed Florence Lorenzo took a peace mission trip down to Naples. Florentines were suspicious of the King of Naples. Why? Apparently, "King Ferrante [of Naples] was reported to preserve bodies of his enemies embalmed in a private museum".

Doesn't this sound a lot like a scene in a certain sci-fi classic made by a gentleman by the name of George Lucas? Maybe this picture of Han Solo frozen in Carbonite by King Ferrante Jabba the Hutt will refresh your memory:

This could have been Lorenzo instead of Harrison 

Fortunately for Lorenzo and the Florentines (that could be a great band name, BTW), the King wasn't that bad and let Lorenzo come and leave in peace. Literally. They signed a peace treaty in about ten weeks.

Finally let me leave you with a quote by the quintessential renaissance man Leonard da Vinci to give you a glimpse of the power of the Medicis.

"The Medici made me and the Medici destroyed me"

Monday, July 11, 2011

The multiple mini-interview: miracle drug or meh?

Multiple mini-interviews are all the rage these days among U.S. medical schools. Most Canadian schools already follow it, and last year UCLA, Stanford, UC Davis and a couple other places followed suit.

The concept is simple: there are 8-10 interview stations, each with a different question designated to it. Applicants are typically given 2 minutes to read the question at the station and then give a well though out answer for about 8 minutes to the interviewer at that station. After time's up, they rotate to the next station. The entire thing lasts about two hours. Questions mostly deal with ethical and moral quandaries one is expected to face as a physician.

The traditional interview format consists of one-on-one sit down interviews with faculty and/or current medical students (most schools do a combination of both).

Proponents think MMI is better because of two reasons:

1. It eliminates the subjectivity of the personal interview. At the end of each MMI session, each interviewer gives a score to each applicant. Since there are 8-10 stations, you now have that many scores for each applicant. These scores can now be compiled to create a list of the best applicants. Since multiple people are evaluating the applicant (as opposed to just one interviewer in the traditional format), subjectivity can be reduced.

2. The spontaneity cultivated by MMI will help "reveal" the true applicant and thus will help schools weed out poor applicants or posers. Each applicant at these interviews is made to sign a confidentiality form agreeing not to reveal any question to other applicants. In theory, this can prevent people from rehearsing questions beforehand. But just to be on the safe side, most schools also have two (or more) sets of slightly different questions they use each time.

The New York Times, in its curious, undying quest to define and implement the concept of the perfect doctor, latched onto this concept and did a lengthy article espousing its benefits. You can read the whole article here (provided you haven't run out of your 20 free articles a month quota or your subscription hasn't expired), but I will be quoting extensively in this post regardless.

First, let's let the good Times define what's at stake:

"Doctors save lives, but they can sometimes be insufferable know-it-alls who bully nurses and do not listen to patients."

Fair enough, but somehow the Times got this from the above:

"Even more dangerous is when poor communication becomes so endemic that the wrong operations are performed. A 2002 study published in The Annals of Internal Medicine of one such incident found that the patient, doctors and nurses went along with the mistaken treatment because they were used to being kept in the dark about medical procedures. A survey by the Joint Commission, a hospital accreditation group, found communication woes to be among the leading causes of medical errors, which cause as many as 98,000 deaths each year."

Whoa whoa whoa. I read the actual survey, and it cites "Communication" as a problem. Now that's a pretty broad term and it could include a lot of things, and I don't think the MMI alone is going to solve this problem.

But leave it up to the Times to tout this as the wunderdrug:

"The new process has enormous consequences not only for the lives of the applicants but, its backers hope, also for the entire health care system."

Look, let's not get ahead of ourselves, okay? I did two of these interviews last year, and I really really liked the format. It is very refreshing and unique. It definitely has its advantages over the traditional system. The pressure of coming up with a coherent response in a span of two minutes was very invigorating and it certainly helped polish my conversational skills. But to brand this format as the cure for all ills is a massive exaggeration at the very least, and a criminal lie at the worst.

For one, this system is not as fool-proof as the proponents make it out to be. It's kinda easy to fake being personable and all mushy-wushy when you have to do that for only 8 minutes. Furthermore, who is to say that personable people right now won't devolve into jackasses seven years from now, when they are attendings?

At a more fundamental level, I don't think bedside manner is as big of a handicap that can't be overcome . The Times has a new trend where it likes to create a straw man - arrogant doctor with no social skills and all the technical skills - and bash this to the ground. In reality, this is never the case (unless you are on TV and your name is Gregory House). Not everyone is outgoing and has the same level of rapport with everyone. But it is relatively easy to develop patient interaction skills through medical school. Of course, sociopaths must be weeded out but to predict someone's bedside mien seven years down the line based on a two-hour interview session as a pre-medical student is a gross mistake.

Just so you guys don't think I am all against this format, let me say that the spontaneity inherent in MMI is definitely worth it. The questions are thought-provoking and address real issues that physicians face once in practice.

Bottom line: It's a cute new format (at least for the U.S.), and I wouldn't mind if all schools adopted it. Use it to select students, but don't let it be known as the solution to communication and management woes down the line. Those issues are grave and likely have their own complex causes that are unlikely to be solved by a two-hour ethics-spouting session.

Is it the new penicillin? A big fat no from me. It's just a good interview format that probably has two or three advantages over traditional interviews.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

An Indian summer - 6: Rain over me

I went through a string of insanely lame subtitles like rainman, rainmaker, rain rain please do come and so on before settling down on rain over me, a reference to the totally badass The Who song "Love reign o'er me". I was even nice enough to link you to it so you can enjoy it.

As you might have guessed (doesn't take much to make this guess, BTW) this post is all about rain in India and how awesome it is. For the sake of gratuitous plugging, let me link to an older post from last year where I waxed lyrical about how I love the rain.

Ok let's move on then. India is one of those places with a regular, well-defined monsoon season. Traditionally monsoon arrives around mid-June and lasts till late September. In the last few years, however, it has rarely followed that schedule. This year was no exception. I arrived here June 22 (Operation Barbarossa, anyone?) and was sorely disappointed  to find no trace of this bratty rain. While Mumbai and even other parts of Gujarat enjoyed healthy showers over the next 10 days, I waited and waited, desperately ready to settle for even a teeny trickle of rain.

He finally decided to show his face yesterday (I use the pronoun 'he' because rain is often referred to as megha raja lit. cloud king). It began like a [insert your favorite musician/musical group] concert: magnificent streaks of light racing across the dark, overcast sky followed by self-assured rumbling. Soon the light and sound show was complemented by the rhythmic pitter-patter of roundlets of rain gliding across window panes. I was visiting my elementary school teacher with a few friends, and we eagerly opened the main door to let the soothing sound effects in.

Of course there was the question of going back. You see, I hitched a ride on my friend's very capable moped and now we were left facing the prospect of driving about 3 miles in this formidable downpour. I fantasized about this moment many times over the last four years. When I still lived in India, I loved racing my bike across rain-drenched streets, splashing water all over the place by zipping through large puddles. Now I could do it again! The journey was very eventful. Midway through a really large puddle (the size of a modest koi pond), our trusted ride sputtered to a stop. Uh-oh. These scenes are all too common during these rainy spells: hapless riders pushing their vehicles through ankle or knee deep water. Our ride started almost immediately and none of us had to wade through the water. I guess it was a tiny tantrum. By the time I reached my home, my shirt weighed twice as much. My hair leaked water. My sandals were drenched. And I had one of the best nights in this vacation. I can go back to the US a content man.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

An Indian summer - 5

I flinched as the moped jolted to a halt barely a foot away from my left leg. My leg hugged the metallic body of the scooter that I was riding on. My friend, the driver of this vehicle, seemed totally unconcerned about the invasion of the crazy moped drivers. Just a minute later, he braked hard to avoid a bicyclist. Meanwhile, an auto-rickshaw was trying to sneak its three wheels into a non-existent turn space. It was chaos all around me - honks, brakes, the rhythmic vroom of supercharged engines - and I was scared to be in this traffic. Those around me weren't, though. They dutifully braked and swerved and zipped past other riders with ease and serenity. Organized chaos.

Some kind soul took a picture of typical traffic in Ahmedabad.

Gridlock 3D

Ahmedabad is notorious for its traffic, but in my absence I had forgotten how bad it could be. Located about 70 km from my hometown, Ahmedabad is the biggest city in the state of Gujarat (total population, including suburbs and associated metro areas, is around 6 5 million)and it has grown in fabulously monstrous proportions over the last few years. Strip malls and massive movie theaters are cropping up in the blink of an eye. Hospitals, luxury condominium complexes and megamansions are rising to keep speed with the new urban development.

As a kid, I cherished visits to Ahmedabad. For us humble small town folk, it was a big deal. Since my parents had done their undergraduate and graduate schooling there, they knew the place very well and had a lot of friends too. And Ahmedabad housed the biggest bookstores in a radius of about 200 km. That was, without a doubt, the highlight of every visit. I always came back laden with enough books to shame a pack mule. These visits played a very crucial role in nurturing my early interest in books and reading. This was the one place that connected me to hittite art, translations of Jules Verne's fantastic adventure stories, and unabridged editions of Charles Dickens' works.
Kiddie book collection (pardon the flash)

This time I was more interested in acquiring Gujarati books, mostly from the pre-independence (i.e. pre-1947) era. These books are very hard to find in the US (even UCLA's well-connected library system has failed to do me any good in this department). I have never been too big of a Gujarati novel fan, but Gujarati non-fiction, specifically essays, is very enjoyable. There is an air of worldliness in these pieces, and it is not uncommon for these essayists to quote Dostoyevsky or Martin Buber to explain some social quirk in India.

You'll be happy to know that I was successful in my quest. Sure I had to dodge hellish traffic while holding on to my dear life. Sure I had to perform Indiana Jones-like acrobatics to get there. But I live to tell the tale.

Friday, July 1, 2011

An Indian summer - 4

Naps are an integral part of the Indian culture. Cricket is perhaps the only thing that can supersede naps in terms of uniting the national spirit. Here in smaller towns and cities, it is not uncommon at all to find shops and stores locked up for the oppressive afternoon as their owners go home for a couple hours of delightful sleep. Some of my fondest childhood memories is watching my dad take his naps. He used to come home around 1:30 and sleep till about 4:30 and go back to work. His naps were pretty legendary around our house. He followed a pretty fixed routine after waking up - after sitting up on his bed groggily for a few minutes he would drink a glass of water, wash his face and get ready to leave.

I never understood the allure of sleeping and wasting a couple hours of your day like that. Whenever I asked dad about his sleeping habits, he spoke wistfully about the redeeming qualities of it, as if it was the elixir of life or something. I used to shake my head in bewilderment, thoroughly not convinced.

Until yesterday.

I am not really a nap person , but there is something intoxicating about the potent combination of the hot afternoon air and the cool oasis underneath the ceiling fan. Before I knew it, I was out. I woke up a good two hours later, and that was when I understood every freakin' word I was told about these naps before.  Although I have taken afternoon siestas in the states quite a few times, this was quite different. Richer, more fulfilling, and certainly more satisfying. Like trading in instant coffee for premium Colombian brew.

Emoticons are stupid, and here's why

I hate emoticons. I think they are dumb, they are lazy, and they are completely misused. It is very irritating when people on the internet pepper almost all of their sentences with little smiley faces and winks and the one with the dude's tongue sticking out. My limited comprehension skills allow me to decipher only the most basic iterations of these devilish tools, and I become willfully blind to anything with tildes and big O's and little o's.

Pearls before swine, one of my favorite comic strips, captured my emotions about emoticons quite effectively:

Google+ and much ado about nothing

Google recently unveiled its own version of facebook, called Google plus. News organizations, always on the lookout for something sensational, touted this as the new facebook with better privacy options. As with all of its previous products, Google made this one invite-only. In any case, I have no interest whatsoever in ever using this newfangled contraption. Maintaining one social network is hard enough for me; I have no appetite or patience for another. In fact, I am seriously considering completely deleting everything on my facebook and leaving it for good. Even though I don't even use it that much, it is a huge distraction and a time sink. Maybe returning to email and phone will be good.

Google's new product raises a few questions, however. Why this irrepressible urge to one-up the other guy? Why are these tech companies in perpetual race against one other? I understand that innovation is key to growth (and ultimately profits), but sometimes you have to recognize a lost cause and concede. Apple has got the personal music player market pretty well covered, and Microsoft had to learn it the hard way. Google has so perfected the art of online search that it is foolish to spend money in R&D to come up with newer engines (I'm looking at you Bing). Similarly, facebook has a virtual monopoly on social networking in the cloud (600 million users and counting). Any new product designed to rival it has a very high chance of failing spectacularly.

But but isn't facebook the new myspace? Didn't myspace suffer a similar sad demise? Well, yes and no. Myspace arrived at a time when net users were still confused about their needs. It failed to offer complete protection against fake profiles and predatory behavior. It is not like facebook is much better in that regard, but facebook arrived with a sense of purpose. Its exclusivity (remember when you needed to have a college email address AND have someone from inside the network approve you to join? If you can't, you are too young) was a big part of its appeal. People trust it enough to post pictures of their lives and spend time searching for high school classmates, birth mothers and old flames. Just like youtube will never be dislodged from its perch, facebook is here to stay. Whether we like it or not.

Google plus, like its confused predecessor Google Wave, will be a minor player in netdom. Like the old bard said, much ado about nothing. More like google minus.