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Thursday, March 27, 2008

Gone cuckoo...

There's a large leafy tree near the gate of my house, and it has been the refuge of lots of birds over the years. Literally hundreds of sparrows returning to rest in its branches at dusk made such a din, chirrupping all together, that I sometimes had to break off my evening classes until they settled down, because I could hardly hear myself speak. Of late the sparrows seem to have vanished, God knows why and where (I have heard dark murmurings that the electromagnetic emanations from all the mobile-phone signal relay towers that have mushroomed around the town have killed them off en masse, though I have no idea whether it is a scientifically-valid explanation or not).

Now that it is (at least technically) springtime, my garden is full of the cooings and chirpings and twitterings of a variety of birds. It sounds melodious and soothing as a rule, and I thank my lucky stars that I live in a place where I can still enjoy such natural charms without having the privileges of a tycoon. Unfortunately one young Mr. Cuckoo, desperate to attract a suitable lady love, has been taking things too far lately. He doesn't coo - there's nothing remotely sweet and delicate about his call - he literally yells his head off. And he's been at it night and day, waking us up at four in the morning, screaming at a demure female who can be heard coyly cooing back from many trees away even in the evenings until the boys and girls start giggling and I begin to grimace so furiously that the class has got to be suspended now and then (it's the middle of a rather hot day right now, but young Galahad is still at it: the thing's becoming faintly like the notorious Chinese water torture). I hope he finds a consort soon, otherwise he'll drive us nuts. No wonder one meaning of cuckoo is 'mad'!

The lovesick fellow probably ground through umpteen school crambooks to get a berth in some second or third-rate private engineering college, and now that he's landed a twenty-thousand -rupees-a-month cybercoolie's job in Bangalore, his mother's nagging him to find a bride. After all, he has 'shone' and become 'successful' by every middle-class standard, so why should he not 'settle down' now, so that the new Mrs. Cuckoo could raise a brood and get them admitted to school and then shriek at them night and day to study hard and follow in daddy's footsteps. It's all as Mother Nature wrote, for generation after generation, ad infinitum, ad nauseam.

I only wish the poor dumb brutes had the advantage of facilities such as shaadi.com and bharatmatrimony.com provide us humans these days. Then they would not have had to yell their heads off night and day for several weeks on end in such primeval fashion to find wives for themselves, and my ears would get some rest.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Exit another grand old man!

Yet another titan of yesteryear has just passed away. Arthur C. Clarke, author of 2001: A Space Odyssey, breathed his last in Colombo on Wednesday, 19th March 2008, at the ripe old (and I hope happy) age of 90.

An electrical engineer by training, the man who correctly predicted the dawn of the era of geostationary communication satellites in space which would usher in a miraculous revolution in worldwide communications, he lived it up in the first glorious era of rocket-and space science (the 1940s to 70s), advising NASA on various grand missions and electrifying the world with his fantastic science fiction yarns, among which 2001 (alongwith its sequels) is by far the most famous, if not also the greatest. I’m sure every sci-fi buff in the world has seen Stanley Kubrick’s superb and mystical movie version of 2001. His short stories, like The Nine Billion Names of God, are just as magnificent, I can vouch for that.

Personally my greater hero in this genre was Clarke’s long-time friend Isaac Asimov. I could never decide who was the cleverer, wiser man, but I hugely enjoyed their good-natured rivalry (Asimov wrote far more copiously, at a more furious pace, and he hardly travelled. At one public gathering Clarke supposedly jibed at him: ‘Isaac, you want to write 200 books in 90 years. I am more ambitious. I shall write 90 books in 200 years!’). Together these two men educated me in a rare and magical way, instilling an abiding love for the wonder, the excitement, the romance of science and technology – and perhaps they also played a big role in my decision at the age of 18 that science was taught and done in such a dull, silly, pedestrian and unambitious way in India, with such a singleminded and mediocre aim (one must get a decent job, period) that it would kill me if I pursued it academically for much longer – though I was a good enough student to have continued if I had wanted to. But my fascination with science has stayed with me, and books like Clarke’s The View from Serendip (published 1967) will go a long way to explain why. These two giants, taken along with many other talented writers, have also left me convinced that science fiction is so vast and rich a field of study that it ought to be regarded as the most important literary genre of the 20th century, and the fact that it hardly figures in our contemporary college courses in literature is to be ascribed solely to the fact that our professors of the humanities are so scientifically-illiterate that they know they will be completely out of their depth the moment they take up the great masters. And that is a great misfortune for all our young, because, as intelligent men since the time of Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Conan Doyle and Kipling have understood, science and technology have become such an enormous and inseparable part of contemporary life that a literature course that does not directly engage with them is bound to be both useless and absurd. Imagine teaching a minor fantasy classic like Beowulf from the early-middle ages but giving Asimov’s Foundation series or Clarke’s 2001 or Childhood's End the go-by!

Strange to say, despite his serenading the high-tech post-modern society, Clarke, though born British, chose to spend the last few decades of his life in relatively backward Sri Lanka, vigorously scuba-diving into his eighties, and completely ignoring the fact that, politically speaking, Sri Lanka had lost its fabled tranquil charm long ago!

"I think the passing of Arthur C. Clarke is really epical," said Alan Stern, associate administrator of NASA's Science Mission Directorate. "There is no one of his caliber or vision on the scene today ... Clarke's contribution was to motivate people to go after careers because they wanted to help shape a certain kind of future, to be at the beginning of something of millennial importance."
Stern said Clarke's legacy at NASA and in the space exploration community was particularly significant.
"For my generation, the children of Apollo, Clarke's writings were hugely and deeply inspirational," Stern told SPACE.com. "He was not just a technically competent writer of science fiction, science fact and futurism, but he was incredibly optimistic. I have had many emails in the last 18 hours, from friends of mine, from childhood, graduate school, adulthood. It's amazing to me how many say the same thing: 'I wouldn't be in this line of work if it weren't for Arthur Clarke.' People across the world, especially the backbone of American aerospace exploration and space science, were inspired by Clarke's writings at one stage or another in their youth."
Clarke had a profound impact on technology and invention. His idea for the communications satellite has affected the whole planet.
"Arthur was not only a major figure in the first baby steps in humans' exploration of space, but a major figure in the building up of our planet as an interconnected organism," said writer Ann Druyan, widow of science popularizer Carl Sagan. "He was someone really significant."
Druyan said she met Clarke many times over the decades that he and Sagan were friends, as well as after Sagan's death.
"He was not only a great technical mind, but of course he had a powerful imagination, which influenced every one of us," Druyan said. "If we use anything based on a communications satellite then we definitely owe Arthur a huge debt. In my mind, '2001' remains the greatest sci-fi movie ever made. In many ways today it seems more futuristic than movies made 30 years later."
Here are a few more words in salutation, and I am providing links on the Net:
You may also be interested in what they have written about him on the official google blog, whose link is provided here (scroll down along the right hand side).
I grew up in an age of much cleverer men: now they are all going away (Asimov died in 1992) – and alas, all the PhDs, MDs and MBAs notwithstanding, I don’t see either much goodness or much wit and wisdom around me today!

Monday, March 10, 2008

The 'sage of Omaha'

Warren Buffett is a man I deeply admire.
This, despite my religious orientation, despite my socialist convictions, despite my contempt for your average rich man, and despite the fact that I have nothing but loathing for people who slaver over money and will do virtually anything to lay their hands on a bit of it: not billions of dollars but a few paltry lakhs of rupees!
Visiting the following link might help some of my readers to figure out why I respect the man:
wikipedia, too, offers a good thumbnail biography.
Given a slightly different roll of the dice, I might have been proud to follow in his footsteps, and I shall be delighted if my daughter does. If she does, indeed, make a mountain of money (which, of course, will depend not only on skill, courage, tenacity but a very large dose of luck - where would Sachin Tendulkar be today if he had been born in China?) I hope she will know how to spend it rightly. With $62 billion in his kitty, Buffet still lives in the house he once bought for $31,000 (which is why I should be ashamed if my daughter became even a mini-version of one pretty pathetic Mr. Mittal).
I should be glad if some people wrote in to say they have understood exactly why I respect the man.