October 31, 2005
We here, and that man, this man,
and that other in-between,
and that woman, this woman,
and that other, whoever,
those people, and these,
and these others in-between,
this thing, that thing,
and this other in-between, whichever
all things dying, these things,
those things, those others in-between,
good things, bad things,
things that were, that will be,
being all of them,
he stands there.
The God in Nammalvar’s hymn (or rather, A. K. Ramnujan’s translation of it [9, pp. 120-121]) is a god of thresholds. The threshold is of enormous interest to the Tamils. For example, the classical corpus of Tamil poetry is traditionally divided into akam (interior) poems and puram (exterior) poems . The kolam is but one of the many manifestations of that interest.
Marcia Ascher’s description of the kolam is succinct and mostly accurate:
Traditionally, the women of Tamil Nadu, in southeastern India, sweep their thresholds every morning, sprinkle them with a solution of cow dung and water and cover the area with elaborate, symmetrical figures using rice powder. They trickle the rice powder in a stream between their middle and index fingers, using their thumbs to guide the flow of the powder. According to tradition, the cow dung cleans and purifies the ground, and using the rice powder begins the day with an act of kindness by providing food for ants and other insects. Girls learn this
kolam ritual from their female relatives, and kolam skills are viewed as a mark of grace and as a demonstration of dexterity, mental discipline and ability to concentrate. 
It is doubtful whether kolams are geometrical acts of kindness. It’s also doubtful whether kolams are purificatory acts. They could be; most things are usually lots of things. There are a great many ways to purify something in Indian tradition, but kolams are unique, more or less, to south India. What do the kolam-artists say when they’re asked why they draw these gorgeous graphs?
Fortunately, the anthropologist Lance Nelson asked that very question in his recent doctoral study of the kolam tradition . One of his respondents from Thilaikkudi village in Thanjavur District, a women in her fifties, explained that:
Bhumi Devi [earth goddess] is our mother. She is everyone’s source of existence. Nothing would exist without her. The entire world depends on her for sustenance and life. So, we draw the kolam first to remind ourselves of her. All day we walk on Bhumi Devi. All night we sleep on her. We spit on her. We poke her. We burden her. We do everything on her. We expect her to bear us and all the activities we do on her with endless patience. That is why we do the kolam. [7, pp. 273]
It seems almost churlish to question the matter further. Yet, I can’t help wondering. Why draw geometrical figures to thank someone? Why not chant a simple prayer or two? Why not heap a pile of rice if the intent is to feed ants and insects (wouldn’t the ants prefer a heap as opposed to trudging alone a maze)? Why aren’t people in the Eastern, Western, and Northern parts of India driven by a similar sense of remorse and gratitude? Why is the Ganges — equally beloved and equally abused — not thanked in a similar manner. What makes Bhumi-devi special? Besides, if gratitude is the point of the performance, why allow it to be summarily destroyed by the first person to cross the threshold? Indeed, why draw it on the threshold at all?
In particular, take a second look at the boy (figure above) drawing graphs in the sand. The boy’s from Malekula, the second-largest island of Vanuatu. He, like the women of Tamil Nadu, is also engaged in an ancient performance. Why are their drawings so similar?
October 19, 2005
a bit like that character Mustafa in the first two Austin Powers
movies. Mustafa (played by Will Farell) is burnt, shot, poisoned,
thrown down a cliff and made to wear a red fez cap. Nevertheless, he
survives. Ditto for humankind.
So far, that is.
Dr. John Leslie’s book, The End of the World: The Science and Ethics of Human Extinction
(Routledge, 1996) makes the astonishing claim that we are likely to be living towards the end of human
history rather than its beginning. As he puts it:
ought to have some reluctance to believe that we are exceptionally
early, for instance in the earliest 0.001 per cent, among all humans
who will ever have lived. This would be some reason for thinking
that humankind will not survive for many more centuries, let alone
colonize the galaxy. [2, pp. 1]
If that doesn’t put the nail in social security, I don’t know what will.
He’s the latest in a long line of philosophers,
and mathematicians to squint pessimistically at humanity’s chances "in
the long run." The good doctor’s also the latest in a long line of
philosophers, poets, prophets and mathematicians to misuse probability
theory. The great Leibniz thought that a throw of twelve with two dice
was just as probable as a throw of eleven. Pascal made a mistake in his
analysis of Chevalier d’Mere’s problem of points with three players
one of the founders of analytical mechanics, thought the probability
that at least one head should appear in
two consecutive throws of a fair coin is 2/3 (it’s 3/4). Almost every
mathematican who analyzed the St. Petersburg problem made some kind of
mistake or the other till Bachelier came along. Paul Levy
(1886-1971), who is sometimes credited as the father of modern
probability theory, made the mistake of thinking that Bachelier had
made a mistake in one of his papers. The mistakes haven’t ceased in
modern times . To this distinguished list, we can add Dr. John
October 6, 2005
In 1857, Maria Mitchell (1818-1889), the first female American astronomer, went on a tour of Europe.
She was already very famous. At 29, she’d discovered a comet (after calculating its expected position), was elected to the American Academy of Arts & Sciences a year later, and was the first female professor of the United States. These bland biographical details obscure a more interesting story. It was an age where women were considered too stupid to be entrusted with the vote. It was an age where a Thomas Huxley could argue that women were not worthy of membership in learned societies because they were, ipso facto, amateurs. It was an age where the American Academy felt it necessary to mention in their 1848 report that they’d decided to grant her membership "in spite of her being a woman" . The next admission of a female to that august assembly would be in 1943!
In Europe, she met everybody who was somebody: Roget, Babbage, Humboldt, Somerville, George Airy, Leverrier, Stokes, Struve, Herschel … the list is a who’s who of 19th century Arts & Science. Her diary reveals a keen mind with a droll sense of humor . For example, she comments that:
Thus far England has impressed me seriously; I cannot imagine how it has ever earned the name of ‘Merrie England.’
She demolishes the ever-reliably pompus William Whewell with:
An Englishmen is proud; a Cambridge man is the proudest of Englishmen; and Dr. Whewell, the proudest of Cambridge men.
She comments about a statue of Dr. Johnson that, "It must be like him, for it is exceedingly ugly."
Then there’s her entry on November 2, 1858. She commented that:
It was hard for me to become accustomed to English ideas of caste. I heard Professor Sedgwick say that Miss Herschel, the daughter of Sir John and niece to Caroline, married a Gordon. ‘Such a great match for her!’ he added; and when I asked what match could be great for a daughter of the Herschels, I was told that she had married one of the queen’s household, and was asked to sit in the presence of the queen!
"When I hear a missionary tell that the pariah caste sit on the ground, the peasant caste lift themselves by the thickness of a leaf, and the next rank by the thickness of a stalk, it seems to me that the heathen has reached a high state of civilization — precisely that which Victoria has reached when she permits a Herschel to sit in her presence!
This particular entry got me thinking. It’s a natural and intuitive analogy. However, Ms. Mitchell made two errors. First, though the caste system is related to class, race and religion, it’s a very distinct entity. Second, though the caste system establishes a pecking order, it’s not a hierarchy. I will attempt to justify both statements.