March 31, 2006
Well, it’s official. If you’re scheduled for a coronary bypass, and the local Ned Flanders is busy organizing the congregation to pray for you, order the bastard to cease and desist immediately. Science has determined that intercessory prayer may significantly increase the risk of post-surgery complications for you.
This month’s issue of the American Heart Journal has a paper by Benson et. al. on the effectiveness of intercessory prayer. They begin the paper by saying:
"Intercessory prayer is widely believed to influence recovery from illness, but claims of benefits are not supported by well-controlled clinical trials. Prior studies have not addressed whether prayer itself or knowledge/certainty that prayer is being provided may influence outcome. We evaluated whether (1) receiving intercessory prayer or (2) being certain of receiving intercessory prayer was associated with uncomplicated recovery after coronary artery bypass graft (CABG) surgery."
And their conclusion?
"Intercessory prayer itself had no effect on complication-free recovery from CABG, but certainty of receiving intercessory prayer was associated with a higher incidence of complications."
In English: Prayer is ineffective at best, and knowing that you’re being prayed for can be a risk factor as well.
The doctors are to be commended for three things: (1) for having the cojones to study the supernatural; (2) for giving "intercessory" a slightly sinister connotation; and (3) for making the Universe a slightly funnier place.
March 30, 2006
Once upon a time in the curved and red-shifted future, Mrs. Tribodice and her child — at least, it looked like a child — walked into a Rare Books Store. Mrs. Tribodice immediately apologized:
"I’m so terribly sorry. Didn’t see you standing there. Say you’re sorry, Midget."
Midget scowled and held on to Mrs. Tribodice’s arm.
"That’s quite alright," said the Rare Books Store. "Not your fault. Part and parcel of being rarefied. Were you two looking for something?"
"Actually, yes. The Lemmiad by Trurl and Klapaucius. Midget here is quite the fan of the classics."
"The Lemmeiad, Ma!" muttered Midget.
"Um… Well. I’m afraid we only stock things a little more rarefied. How about some Ottoman poetry? The circular ghazal of Octal Girsay perhaps? Quite a marvel, I’m told. Haven’t read it myself. Gives me headache, it does, reading in circles."
Midget began to pull at his mother’s hand.
"Won’t do." Mrs. Tribodice was quite apologetic. "Midget has his heart set on The Lemmiad."
"It’s The Lemmeiad !" corrected Midget, fed up. "There’s a silent ‘e’, but it ain’t dumb! The Lemmiad is an arithmetic manual."
"See what I mean?" said Mrs. Tribodice, with a little helpless laugh.
The Rare Books Store didn’t but managed to look as if it cared. "Yes… Let me see… Maybe I do have something that could work." It began to rummage around in its vast pockets. Shelves, books, silverfish and manuscripts began to get shoved around here and there. The Humido Delectron’s 25th century collection of Mannerist erotica — 1st edition, color plates and all — spread out in flagrante delicto.
"Oh dear me," murmured Mrs. Tribodice, "your gears are showing."
The Rare Books Store hurriedly adjusted its shelves. A book fell out. Midget caught it with his widget before it hit the ground (which was fortunate because the notoriously short-tempered ground would probably have thrown a fit and the fit would probably have landed on something else and before you knew it there probably would’ve been a dead bald man in a bathtub somewhere. Life isn’t all ha-ha hee-hee when you run the world on probabilty).
"What’s this?" asked Midget, suspiciously thumbing through the pages.
"It’s The Lemmeiad," said the Rare Books Store, with a wink.
"Then why doesn’t it say so?" Midget sniffed the book and even tentatively licked a page.
"Because it’s written in English, not Polish notation. Here, run the Kandel translator."
"Oh dear," bleated Mrs. Tribodice. "English? That simply won’t do. No meat languages–"
But Midget had already run the Kandel and was snarfing the pages down, tearing them into nice chewable byte-sizes chunks.
"Awesome!" exclaimed Midget. "Aesop’s Fables by Stanislaw and Lem. So that’s what the meat called The Lemmeiad. Which one is Trurl? Stanislaw? I bet it is. He’s my favorite. Can I have the book as a gift?"
The Rare Books Store didn’t bother to answer the Midget. It’d found the cash register deregistering under a pile of vulgar fractions, and proceeded to pull it out by its randy buttons. "Something to spice up the old femfatalatron, Madam? That Humido Delectron perhaps? Or is that all for today?"
In memoriam: Stanislaw Lem (1921-2006).
Image credits: Mrs. Tribodice — Mrs. Trojanka in Polish — is due to Stanislaw Lem. The original may be viewed here. The Rare Books Store was mistakenly called The Librarian by Giuseppe Arcimboldo (c. 1527-1593). The interlocked, um, machines was found in Giovanni Braccelli’s Bizarrie di varie figure (1624).
March 29, 2006
William Makepeace Thackeray was one of those rare writers who could criticize something without developing a contempt for it. Writing for him was a way of coming to terms with human nature, specifically, his human nature. As Gordon N. Ray in his definitive biography of Thackeray, wrote: "Closely scrutinized, his novels turn out to afford a kind of diary of his intimate life" . So it is interesting that the theme of racial mixing — of miscegenation — runs like a bright red thread through Thackeray’s work.
For example, in The Tremendous Adventures of Major Gahagan (1838), Gollian Gahagan falls madly in love with a half-breed, the fair and lovely Julie Jowler, daughter of Colonel Jowler and his Indian wife, a "hideous, bloated, yellow creature." Later on, Gahagan is chased by the lady Puttee Rooge with the "complexion of molasses" and "rendered a thousand times more ugly by the tawdry dress and the blazing jewels with which she was covered." And at one of the novel’s many crisis points, Belinda Bulcher, 100% white and "dazzling as alabaster" extracts a promise from her hero:
‘Captain Gahagan,’ sobbed she, ‘Go-Go-Goggle-iah!’
‘My soul’s adored!’ replied I.
‘Swear to me one thing.’
‘That if–that if–the nasty, horrid, odious black Mah-ra-a-a-attahs take the fort, you will put me out of their power.’
Gahagan promises and then goes around offering the same service to the other white ladies in the camp. However:
Fancy my disgust when, after making this proposition, not one of the ladies chose to accede to it…
Disgust? Why? That the white women preferred rape and possible survival over virtue and certain death? Thackeray was unusually sympathetic to human foibles, especially feminine ones. He was the first major English writer to see that in a thoroughly materialistic society, morality too becomes just another status symbol. But when it came to racial mixing, there is an uncharacteristic latent disgust in his writing. Phillip Davies, who first studied Thackeray’s obsessions with racial mixing, concluded:
It would appear that Thackeray was strongly conscious of what he might have imagined to be a skeleton in his closet. 
But just what was this skeleton?
March 24, 2006
In 1995, Hussain Ali Quambar, a forty-five year old Kuwaiti businessman and father of two — Najiba, 6 and Taha, 3 — converted to Christianity. He would probably have escaped public notice had he not got into a messy custody battle with his wife. Hussain Ali Quambar, now exposed for what he was — Robert Hussain Ali — found himself in deep ontological shit. At first, he was approached by reasonable men with a reasonable offer — recant and reconvert — but like all new converts, Robert Ali was quite inflexible. Besides, Kuwait is practically the Netherlands of the Middle East; what could possibly go wrong?
March 19, 2006
Take up the White Man’s burden–
Send forth the best ye breed–
Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives’ need;
To wait in heavy harness,
On fluttered folk and wild–
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half-devil and half-child.
Take up the White Man’s burden–
In patience to abide,
To veil the threat of terror
And check the show of pride;
By open speech and simple,
An hundred times made plain
To seek another’s profit,
And work another’s gain.
Rudyard Kipling, The White Man’s Burden, 1899.
March 18, 2006
It’s hard to know when a difference makes a difference. For example, if you’re Humpty Dumpty, your ‘cravat’ could just as well be your ‘belt’. Or not. Likewise, the Patriot act was what used to happen in Victorian bedrooms and though the situation is a tad different these days, the original meaning still works. But ever since the Republicans discovered framing, things have gotten tricky. ‘Clean air’ is about smog permits. ‘Tax relief’ means ‘let’s help the rich.’ ‘Sex’ means ‘let’s not.’ But some words did not need any changing at all; ‘traditional’ family values, for example, never did mean ‘liberal’ family values.
In a recent talk at Harvard’s Kennedy School, Prince Turki Al-Faisal, the Saudi ambassador to the United States, made an off-hand comment:
Are the Saudi people conservative? Yes. Are we traditional? Yes…
an interesting distinction. Isn’t ‘tradition’ what conservatives conserve? Could a non-conservative claim to be traditional?
As I see it, a traditionalist is someone who uses the past in his/her daily life. For a traditionalist, the past is neither dead nor inaccessible. If a particular tradition no longer works – slavery or foot-binding or burning widows – it is modified to make a new tradition. The modification is usually a series of minor changes: a sari may be exchanged for a salwar, a particular dish may no longer be cooked, a man may go to Lamaze class, a Bollywood movie may include a gay character, etc.
In contrast, a conservative’s relationship is not with the past, but with the future. The conservative does not love the past as much as he fears the future. The Shiv Sainiks flip out on Valentine’s day not because Urvashi never sent a "I heart you" to Pururava (she did), but because their version of the future only permits docile women. The actual past is quite irrelevant for a conservative.
After a number of detailed studies on how institutions adopt new technology, the late Elting E. Morison, came to the conclusion that we needed,
…a relatively greater reverence for the mere process of living in a society than we possess today, and a relatively smaller respect for and attachment to any special product of a society, a product either as finite as a bathroom fixture or as conceptual as a fixed and final definition of our Constitution or our democracy.
[Source: Man, Machines, and Modern Times. M.I.T. Press. 1995. pp. 43]
Perhaps this identification with process as opposed to artifacts is what separates a traditionalist from a conservative.
Consider the often hideous precepts of the Manusmriti. How can a Brahmin parent (say) square this ghastly text with his/her kid? A conservative parent would have to lie, because his/her idealized past can admit no evil. In contrast, a traditionalist only needs continuity, not permanence. Such a parent can not only acknowledge the many mistakes made but also the possibility of recovering from them. Even better, the traditionalist’s own life is a living example of such transformation.
It’s a difference that makes a difference.
March 12, 2006
So you’re having dinner at Chittor, a Marwari eatery on
Deccan Gymkhana road in Pune. The decor is Rajasthani-chic: walls with
Chittor palace scenes, wooden Palithana chairs with reddish
dandia-stick arms and ornate arabesque ceilings.
There’s none of the "Hi, I’m Tiffany, I’ll be your waitress tonight" crap. You enter, sit, gulp down the jaljeera and tuck in. It’s that simple. As per Rumsfeld’s shock n’ awe doctrine, the jaljeera is followed by buttermilk is followed by a chilled mint-concoction. A small battalion of waiters in traditional wear seem to take it personally if any of the six+ katoris on your steel plate are even half-empty. There’s khichdi and chaas, good enough to make Prithviraj weep. Chutneys. Marwari dal. Gatta sabzi. Ras malai, raita and kachoris. There are four kinds of breads — methi tepla, bajre ka roti, phulkas and bati — and panchrang pulow and white rice for a little variety. There’s fruit salad, khichdu, shrikhand and glares for little Moti who won’t stop weeping for KFC. As a take-home test, the stomach is offered a clutch of jalebi puzzles; sweet little kolams in ghee and sugar.
The bill is not optional. But at a measly $5/head, it includes a bonus laugh + unlimited mukhwas.
It’s been one hell of a dinner. You whip out that palm pilot and tap out a note-to-blog on Chittor. You tuck it away, pay the bill ("no check please gentlemen!"), nod to the turbaned doorman and step out into the humid night, bloated and happy.
A forest of hands. Damn beggar kids. Its practically the entire cast from the City of Joy. You close your eyes and then re-open them. Nope. The little bastards are still there.
Look, forget the grand gestures and deep thoughts. Fuck guilt. Screw Jeffrey Sachs and micro-financing and freakonomics. Just cough up a few bucks and head for the car. Yeah, its totally wasted, these pointless acts of feel-good charity. The pile of hands is a half-a-billion deep.
The kids act so filmi hungry, it’s almost cartoon funny. Hell, it is funny. Your friend says he knows a great meetha-paan place.
A long time later, someone asks: how was Chittor?
So you begin to describe. It sounds, you realize angrily, a bit like a confession.
March 11, 2006
In a sense, the Dutch invented America. They called it, however, the Dutch Republic.
The Dutch republic existed from 1581 to 1795, give or take a few decades on either end. At its high point, it was a society unparalleled for its freedom, tolerance, naval power and creativity. They knew they’d achieved something special. The Dutch put it this way:
"God made the world, but the Dutch made Holland." It probably sounds
even better in Dutch.
Its similarities with United States are astonishing. The republic too had emerged out an exhausting war with a much stronger foe (in this case, the Spanish Empire). In a world ruled by priests and royalty, the republic was a bizarre anomaly, the subject of much envy and much derision. The republic had an almost indecent excess of creative genius: Rembrandt, Jan Vermeer, Jan Steen, Franz Hals, Christian Huygens, Jan Swammerdam, Anthony van Leeuwenhoek, Rene Descartes, Baruch de Spinoza, Hugo Grotius and John Locke all found a home here. And the Dutch republic too was a mercantile society. The Dutch pioneered most of the speculative instruments in existence today, including short selling, option trading and joint stock companies. In fact, the Dutch East India Company was the first corporate monster: unethical, ruthless, violent, rapacious, insatiable and very profitable. In 1776, Adam Smith wrote:
In a country which had acquired its full complement of
riches … it would be necessary that almost every man should be
a man of business, or engage in some sort of trade. The province of Holland seems to be approaching near to this state. It is there unfashionable not to be a man of business. (Wealth of Nations, Chap. 9).
In the 1590s, immigrants made up about 10% of the population in the United Provinces. In 1685, at the high point of the republic, one observer estimated that 50% of Holland’s population consisted of immigrants.
One such group were the Puritans, who had fled to Holland in the reign of Charles I. At first, they found the Republic a congenial place. But as the full implications of a tolerant society sank in, they decided that they wanted a much narrower vision of religion after all: the Speedwell set sail from Delftshaven in 1620 (its passengers were later transferred to the Mayflower). The pilgrim fathers may have been fundamentalists, but they’d also been infected with another virus: the idea of a free republic. The struggle between these two incompatible strains continues to this day.
I think it was Bertrand Russell who said that all movements end by subverting the very principles they were founded on. Naturally, the Dutch republic founded on tolerance and humanism would also produce a Jan Pieterszoon Coen and the first slaver ships to the United States.
The Dutch republic was the first real proof — in modern times at least — that the unleashed entrepreneurial spirit can work social miracles. The founding fathers of another great republic-to-be were not unmindful of that proof.