Thursday, December 07, 2006

Stolen manhole covers?

"Currently the south-western monsoon is in full swing. Chennai is of course in the south-east of India but the rains appear to have no respect for geography and there is a regular downpour every evening at the moment. Yesterday night we were attempting to get home by autorickshaw after the rain had subsided, only for the main road to have turned into a large lake. Undeterred our rickshaw-wala put his foot to the floor and charged into the maelstrom at a good 10mph. Given that autos have a ground clearance of about 15cm the predictable happened and we stalled in the middle. There was nothing for it but to wade out into the murk and push... Happily no-one had stolen the manhole covers, as occurs in some of the flood-prone metros here!"

by Matthew Mayer


Lord Ayappa

Who is Lord Ayappa ?

The amazing phenomenon, which takes place at the hill temple of Lord Ayappa is spell binding & defies all explanation. Lord Ayappa, is said to have been born out of the union of Lord Vishnu & Lord Shiva & is therefore also called Hariharaputra & Sasta. His Holiness Jagadguru Sri Shankaracharya of Kanchi, thus describes the phenomenon : "When the merciful charm of Vishnu and the serene jnana (knowledge) of Shiva combined, an effulgent light (tejas) was the outcome. Out of this tejas was born Lord Ayappa.

What is the significance of Lord Ayappa ?
In south India, atop a hill, is situated an ancient temple, where Lord Ayappa is said to reside. It is said that the Lord entered the sanctum sanctorum after the completion of his mission and disappeared, as He re-united with the supreme. Lord Ayappa has been the refuge of millions, who come here to get their wishes granted. Millions converge at this temple to witness the the following incredible spectacle at a particular time of the year, which enacts itself every year, as a proof of Lords existence & his continuous benevolence.

How can we reach the temple and what is the tour ?
People from all castes, creed & religions trek to the temple, chanting "Swamy Sharanam Ayappa," which means "O Lord Ayappa, I come to Thee for refuge." This chant turns into a roar, when at the time of the aarti or worship service, a flame is lit in the temple. At the same time, there emanates a miraculous celestial light, from inside the forest covered mountain, on the opposite side, to the one on which the temple is situated. It is said that sages & celestial beings pray to the Lord at the same time. Not a soul lives on the said mountain. Another amazing sight is the appearance of a mysterious eagle, which soars above the treasure (treasure includes the priceless ornaments & items of clothing, with which the idol of Lord Ayappa is adorned on this day), as if guarding it. It sits perched atop the temple, till such time that the worship is over and the treasure is returned to it’s place & put under lock & key. Thereafter the eagle disappears to re appear exactly after one year. This is an incredible sight to see & experience.


India - Stats

31 states, 1618 languages,6400 castes,6 religion,6 ethnic groups,29 majour festival

1 country

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Ramana on the last moments

Q: There is a religion called Christian Science that has a similar doctrine. Is it correct?

M: Yes, but do not concern yourself with results.

Q: What is the State just before death?

M: When a person gasps for breath, it indicates un-consciousness of the body; while gasping the person is in something like a dream, and not aware of the present environment.

Monday, May 02, 2005


A haiku list of memories of India:

Watching my sanskrit teacher leap up to shoo the crows out of the kitchen.
Crows are notorious for invading Indian kitchens and hunting down the tasty snacks to be found in them. Most kitchens have iron bars on them to help prevent such attacks.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005



Coming to India
How many people?
Goddess Maya - Mother Earth
We Hold These Truths...
Mountain High, Valley Low
Romance every which way but real
Life is not a test - it is a space to look in the mirror
Plain stoopid
Kali ...without cause - there is no effect...
Chaos and John Ruskin

Saturday, April 23, 2005

The greatest fine art of the future will be the making of a comfortable living from a small piece of land.

That is a quote by Abraham Lincoln.

How many people?

Malthusian Twaddle
by Ronald Bailey

It turns out that dissenting from the popular dogma that the world is about to be overwhelmed by a population explosion tends to provoke people. Many readers of my column about Real Environmental Racism decided that I might finally see the error of my ways if I would just read Daniel Quinn's novel Ishmael: An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit. So I read it.

The book opens with the protagonist responding to this advertisement: "TEACHER seeks pupil. Must have an earnest desire to save the world. Apply in person." The unnamed protagonist (pretty clearly a stand-in for the author), after some gnashing of teeth, goes to a nondescript office building where he meets Ishmael, the teacher who placed the ad.

The twist? Ishmael is an elderly telepathic gorilla who for years has studied humanity at the behest of a rich benefactor, and is now in a position to offer deep insights about our species from an outsider's objective point of view. And what are these insights? Pure simple-minded Malthusianism.

Badly modeled on Plato's Dialogues, the novel is a series of long conversations between protagonist and ape, during which the gorilla essentially rehashes Thomas Robert Malthus' arguments in his first edition of An Essay on the Principle of Population. "Population," Malthus famously asserted, "when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio. Subsistence increases only in an arithmetical ratio. This implies a strong and constantly operating check on population from the difficulty of subsistence."

Ishmael echoes the sentiment: "[A]ny species in the wild will invariably expand to the extent that its food supply expands." In other words, the goal of all species is to convert food into offspring, and more food means more offspring. What's more, "In the natural community, whenever a population's food supply increases, that population increases. As that population increases, its food supply decreases, and as its food supply decreases, that population decreases. This interaction between food populations and feeder populations is what keeps everything in balance."

In the real, non-idealized world, the population of our human ancestors was kept "in balance" (i.e., low) by high mortality rates for infants and mothers. "For hundreds of thousands of years as hunter-gatherers, and subsequently in agrarian societies, our predecessors had an average life expectancy of 25-30 years," Australian epidemiologist Tony McMichael has pointed out. "Most of them died of infectious disease, and many died of malnutrition, starvation and physical trauma." In other words, Ishmael's "balance" is just a euphemism for starvation and disease.

Our supposedly enlightened gorilla calls civilized humanity the "Takers," in contrast to the remaining bands of hunter-gatherers, whom he christens the "Leavers." Modern civilization, he argues, has violated what he calls the "peace-keeping law," which mandates that "you may compete to the full extent of your capabilities, but you may not hunt down your competitors or destroy their food or deny them access to food." Ishmael illustrates this alleged "law" by claiming, "the lion that comes across a herd of gazelles doesn't massacre them, as an enemy would. It kills one, not to satisfy its hatred of gazelles but to satisfy its hunger." He's implying that lions and other species are "prudent predators," that is, they are careful to preserve a breeding population of its prey species in order to insure the survival of its own species.

But as evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins has pointed out, the concept of prudent predators is evolutionarily incoherent. Such an arrangement could not remain stable, because a single mutant that became a selfish exploiter would quickly outbreed the "prudent" members of its species. In other words, genetic evolution cannot confer this type of foresight on species—short-term advantage will always out-compete long-term prudence.

Ishmael makes another factual error when he swallows the myth of the noble savage living in harmony with nature. He sagely informs our hero that the American Indians "were looking for ways to achieve settlement that were in accord with they way they'd always lived, ways that left room for the rest of life to go on around them."

Complete twaddle. Those early immigrants from Asia were responsible for killing off the Pleistocene megafauna, such as mammoths, mastodons, and giant ground sloths. Similarly, the primitive people who arrived in Australia some 40,000 years ago devastated that continent's wildlife. Primitive peoples are no worse than other animal predators, just more effective. Despite this history of depredation and disease, Ishmael's advice is that civilization must return in some fashion to the ethos of primitive humanity. How to do that, he leaves up to us.

Fortunately, civilized humanity is solving the problem of long-run prudence by using culture. As our civilization develops, we are becoming better at foreseeing the consequences of our actions, and have built institutions that encourage long-range thinking. Private property is one such vital institution, because it forces people who reap the benefits to bear the costs of using a resource. Private property is a cultural institution that turns people into real "prudent predators." Both coyotes and men eat sheep, but while more coyotes mean fewer sheep, more men mean more sheep. Ishmael's flawed anthropology overlooks the fact that Amerindians, like the Mesopotamians before them, independently invented agriculture and civilized life to overcome the food shortages that plagued their hunter-gatherer ancestors after they ate all the big tasty animals they could catch.

Quinn's dim protagonist makes the telling observation: "The biological community is an economy, isn't it? I mean, if you start taking more for yourself, then there's got to be less for someone else, for something else. Isn't that so?" Ishmael answers, "Yes," thus disappearing along with our protagonist down the usual Malthusian zero-sum rabbit hole.

The fact is, our supposedly resource-plundering civilization is actually creating new resources. Tripling crop productivity over the past 40 years has spared hundreds of millions of acres of wildlands from being plowed down to grow food. Future farming should leave more, not less land for nature.

But still, you may wonder, doesn't wise old Ishmael (and his creator Quinn) have a point? As humanity's food supply has increased, hasn't population burgeoned? The gorilla further argues that food produced by Nebraska farmers is fueling population growth in poor parts of the world. (The question of why each Nebraska farmer doesn't produce a couple dozen children himself and feed his progeny all that excess food goes strangely unaddressed.) In fact, the countries in which people consume the greatest number of calories are precisely the countries with the lowest fertility rates: the U.S., Canada, Europe, Japan, and so forth.

Ishmael ignores the real demographic trends that contradict his dire thesis. Demographers agree that if current fertility and mortality trends continue, human population should peak by mid-century at around 8 or 9 billion, then begin falling. In fact, the United Nations' low-end population projection foresees humanity's numbers maxing out at less than 8 billion around 2040, and beginning to fall thereafter.

In other words, Ishmael gets it exactly backward: Civilized humanity is actually more prudent than primitive man. If there is such a thing as a "prudent predator," we are it. Unlike other species and our hunter-gatherer forbears, modern man does not just blindly convert food into offspring.

In the end, all that Ishmael proves is that Malthusianism remains a simple, powerful idea that is simply and powerfully wrong.

Friday, April 22, 2005

Goddess Maya - Mother Earth

In 1964, India was reeling from the death of Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of independent India. The world watched anxiously to see how the fledgling democracy would handle this crisis of political succession. However, there was an ever greater crisis looming on the horizon--Nehru had tried to fashion India's centralized economy by focusing almost exclusively on heavy industry, while seemingly intractable problems of food shortages and famines had arisen to plague the agriculture sector.

Two consecutive droughts in 1966 and 1967 threatened to bring on famine on a massive scale. The new prime minister, Lal Bahadur Shastri, inherited a country on the brink of a human catastrophe. These developments seemed to confirm the worst fears of biologist Paul Ehrlich, who famously wrote in The Population Bomb, his 1968 bestseller: "The battle to feed all of humanity is over," and "In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now." Ehrlich also said, "I have yet to meet anyone familiar with the situation who thinks India will be self-sufficient in food by 1971." He insisted that "India couldn't possibly feed two hundred million more people by 1980."

Little did Ehrlich know that Borlaug and his team were already engaged in the kind of 'crash program' he had declared would never work. Working in Mexico, they had developed a special breed of dwarf wheat that resisted a wide spectrum of plant pests and diseases and produced two to three times more grain than the traditional varieties.

C. Subramaniam, then minister of Food and Agriculture in India, came to know of Borlaug's work. It was transparently obvious to him that this was the answer to India's crisis. Acting with great urgency, the Indian government took the plunge, and several chartered Boeing 707s loaded with 16,000 metric tonnes of seeds of the new 'miracle wheat' headed for the eastern skies.

Borlaug's team began teaching local farmers in the region how to cultivate this new strain of wheat properly, in both India and Pakistan. Borlaug's work is credited with sparking what has come to be known as the "Green Revolution" in these countries, defying all predictions and achieving an astounding increase in the production of wheat within the span of a few years.

Since Ehrlich's dire predictions in 1968, India's population has more than doubled, its wheat production has more than tripled, and its economy has grown nine-fold. By 1974 India was self-sufficient in the production of all cereals. Pakistan progressed from harvesting 3.4 million tons of wheat annually when Borlaug arrived to around 18 million today, India from 11 million tons to 60 million.

In the mid-1980s, India even entered the world export market for grains. Soon after Borlaug's success with wheat, his colleagues at the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research developed high-yield rice varieties that quickly spread the Green Revolution through most of Asia.

Not only did Ehrlich's predictions of hundreds of millions of deaths in massive famines prove to be false, India fed far more than 200 million more people, and was close enough to self-sufficiency in food production by 1971. (Ehrlich discreetly omitted his prediction about that from later editions of The Population Bomb.)

According to Gregg Easterbrook writing in The Atlantic, "perhaps more than anyone else, Borlaug is responsible for the fact that throughout the postwar era, except in sub-Saharan Africa, global food production has expanded faster than the human population, averting the mass starvations that were widely predicted. The form of agriculture that Borlaug preaches may have prevented a billion deaths."

It would seem that there is very little in the world today that could be considered of greater consequence than the wide application of ideas and techniques with the potential to elevate masses of humanity that reside on the brink of starvation and death from malnutrition.

Since 1984, Borlaug has turned his attention to the African continent, where starvation remains a most visible threat . He has been involved in Sub-Saharan African programs to revolutionize farming. As a result of his efforts, yields have been at the worst double, nearly always triple, and sometimes quadruple what the traditional practices are producing. African farmers are enthusiastic about these new methods. But almost in keeping with these successes, Borlaug's work has encountered a wall of resistance.

Gregg Easterbrook, when he writes: "Borlaug's mission -- to cause the environment to produce significantly more food -- has come to be seen, at least by some securely affluent commentators, as perhaps better left undone. More food sustains human population growth, which they see as antithetical to the natural world."

According to David Seckler, the director of the International Irrigation Management Institute, "The environmental community in the 1980s went crazy pressuring the donor countries and the big foundations not to support ideas like inorganic fertilizers for Africa." As a result, high-profile yet 'image-sensitive' organizations such as The Ford and Rockefeller Foundations and the World Bank, once sponsors of Borlaug's work, have begun disassociating themselves from it.

Support for the International Maize and Wheat Center -- where Borlaug helped to develop the high-yield, low-pesticide dwarf wheat upon which a substantial portion of the world's population now depends for sustenance -- has also dwindled. The net result, according to Easterbrook, is that "although Borlaug's achievements are arguably the greatest that Ford or Rockefeller has ever funded, both foundations have retreated from the last effort of Borlaug's long life: the attempt to bring high-yield agriculture to Africa."

This resistance from environmental groups seems especially ironical, when one considers that in developing nations where population growth is surging, high-yield agriculture holds back the rampant deforestation of wild areas. According to one calculation, India's transition to high-yield farming spared the country from having to plough an additional 100 million acres of virgin land -- an area about equivalent to California.

In the past five years India has been able to slow and perhaps even halt its national deforestation. None of this would have been remotely possible if Indian farmers were still trying to feed the country by growing traditional crops using traditional methods.

Opponents of high-yield agriculture "took the numbers for water pollution caused by fertilizer runoff in the United States and applied them to Africa, which is totally fallacious," David Seckler says. "Chemical-fertilizer use in Africa is so tiny you could increase application for decades before causing the environmental side effects we see here. Meanwhile, Africa is ruining its wildlife habitat with slash-and-burn farming, which many commentators romanticize because it is indigenous."

Borlaug found that some foundation managers and World Bank officials had become hopelessly confused regarding the distinction between pesticides and fertilizer. He says, "The opponents of high-yield for Africa were speaking of the two as if they were the same because they're both made from chemicals, when the scales of toxicity are vastly different. Fertilizer only replaces substances naturally present in the soils anyway."

When asked about the criticisms stemming from fears of the potential hazards of biotechnology and genetically engineered crops, Borlaug comments: "As a matter of fact, Mother Nature has crossed species barriers, and sometimes nature crosses barriers between genera--that is, between unrelated groups of species. Take the case of wheat. It is the result of a natural cross made by Mother Nature long before there was scientific man.

Today's modern red wheat variety is made up of three groups of seven chromosomes, and each of those three groups of seven chromosomes came from a different wild grass. First, Mother Nature crossed two of the grasses, and this cross became the durum wheats, which were the commercial grains of the first civilizations spanning from Sumeria until well into the Roman period. Then Mother Nature crossed that 14-chromosome durum wheat with another wild wheat grass to create what was essentially modern wheat at the time of the Roman Empire.

Durum wheat was fine for making flat Arab bread, but it didn't have elastic gluten. The thing that makes modern wheat different from all of the other cereals is that it has two proteins that give it the doughy quality when it's mixed with water. Durum wheats don't have gluten, and that's why we use them to make spaghetti today.

The second cross of durum wheat with the other wild wheat produced a wheat whose dough could be fermented with yeast to produce a big loaf. So modern bread wheat is the result of crossing three species barriers, a kind of natural genetic engineering."

In response to the sustained campaign against his work, Borlaug has said:

Some of the environmental lobbyists of the Western nations are the salt of the earth, but many of them are elitists. They've never experienced the physical sensation of hunger. They do their lobbying from comfortable office suites in Washington or Brussels. If they lived just one month amid the misery of the developing world, as I have for fifty years, they'd be crying out for tractors and fertilizer and irrigation canals and be outraged that fashionable elitists back home were trying to deny them these things.

As Borlaug has pointed out, "Africa, the former Soviet republics, and the cerrado are the last frontiers. After they are in use, the world will have no additional sizable blocks of arable land left to put into production, unless you are willing to level whole forests, which you should not do.

Future food-production increases will have to come from higher yields. And though I have no doubt yields will keep going up, whether they can go up enough to feed the population monster is another matter. Unless progress with agricultural yields remains very strong, the next century will experience sheer human misery that, on a numerical scale, will exceed the worst of everything that has come before."

- From A Better Earth Website

Wednesday, April 20, 2005


A lot of things can and do cause me frustration in India. I am not used to so much bureaucracy, to so many delays to get simple things done, to so much corruption and to so many double meanings. Interestingly many Indian friends I have here share such frustrations in abundance. Despite all of this, I welcome many things about coming here - in particular those rare individuals who are alive to reverence. Such people are rare anywhere - but in India where there is reverence, it is very real and very powerful. Perhaps far more so than any place I have so far ventured.