Tuesday, 27 November 2007

The Ascent of Man

I recently bought the BBC series "The Ascent of Man" on DVD. This is a 13-part series on the evolution of human civilisation, presented and narrated by Jacob Bronowski. What brings back a rush of nostalgic memories is the fact that I saw this series when I was a boy, and I'm thankful for the eclectic, science-oriented upbringing I was privileged to have.

My father was a professor at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) in Bangalore, and I grew up on the campus. It was a small, cosy campus and a teenager could walk from one end to the other quite easily. I've done that countless times, climbing over the back walls of departments in the evenings looking for "treasure". My friends and I (all children of faculty) took great pleasure in raiding the dumps outside the chemistry departments (there were three of them, - Organic Chemistry, Physical Chemistry and Biochemistry, - and Organic Chemistry was our favourite). We would scavenge half-used bottles of benzene and similar chemicals and take them home to do experiments. (Did you know that thermocol dissolves in benzene with a most satisfying fizz?)

My dad was quite indulgent and would chuckle about my "experiments" when he walked into a room reeking of recently-burnt plastic or some such. I doubt if I'd let my son do such dangerous experiments today (we've lost the element of risk-taking in today's world, as I mentioned in another post).

We were a group of nerds, I realise now. I don't know what ambitions normal kids used to have, but my close campus friends and I knew what we were going to do - we were going to become scientists and cure cancer, winning the Nobel Prize for Medicine in the process. And we knew exactly how we were going to do it, too. Just inject cancer cells into squirrels, then extract the cancerous growths, dry them to "weaken" the cells, and inject them into healthy people. Voila! A cancer vaccine! (I think it was better for humanity that the two young geniuses who thought of that ended up in the software industry instead.)

They used to hold educational film shows some evenings in some of the departments, and a whole lot of professors' kids used to turn up at these. One of these educational shows was "Civilisation" by Kenneth Clark, which I found a bit boring at the time, but which I think I would like to see now. Another one was "The Ascent of Man". I remember this series quite vividly. The wireframe computer graphics shown seemed highly advanced in the seventies. Now I have a chance to see the series again, and I'm able to understand it much, much better. Jacob Bronowski is a genius. He can tie together science, technology, history, economics and a bunch of different disciplines and tell a convincing story of how we came about. (He's no more, but I feel like referring to him in the present tense because I'm still watching the series).

I would recommend "The Ascent of Man" to anyone interested in science. And I'm once again grateful for a weird and wonderful childhood spent in the innocence of scientific exploration.

Saturday, 24 November 2007

The End of the Howard Era

Like a guest who has shamelessly overstayed his dinner invitation, John Howard has finally been shown the door. Embarrassing, to say the least. He could have left with grace and dignity had he voluntarily stepped down last year, and he would have departed with an abundance of public goodwill and nostalgia. Now while his electoral defeat today is being hailed as the end of an era, the sentiment is being accompanied by rejoicing.

I feel an enormous sense of relief. I feel as if something has finally happened that was long overdue.

I migrated to Australia in 1998, at the height of the xenophobic hysteria whipped up by Pauline Hanson. Well-meaning friends even asked at the time if I felt safe going to Australia, when it didn't seem to be very welcoming to migrants. Thanks to reassurances from Indian friends already in Australia at the time, my wife and I decided to press ahead.

Sure enough, the Pauline Hanson phenomenon died out soon after, and her party even went bankrupt (financially as well), but what disturbed me was how Prime Minister John Howard seemed to take the wind out of her sails by quietly adopting many of the policies she espoused. She didn't want to acknowledge aboriginal land rights or admit that any wrong was done to aboriginal people. Howard echoed that by publicly refusing to say "Sorry" to the indigenous Australians on behalf of white Australia. (While I have a strong personal distaste for political handouts and believe that communities must lift themselves up by the bootstraps, I can see that John Howard was playing to a certain gallery that was beginning to look Hanson's way).

He took a stronger line on immigration and refugees. The shameful incident when he turned back the MV Tampa carrying 439 Afghan refugees rescued in a shipwreck off Australian waters (and even alleged (untruthfully) that the asylum seekers were heartlessly throwing their children overboard) revealed to me the unsavoury side of his character.

I learnt the term that described his behaviour much later - he was "dog whistling" Pauline Hanson's policy. Without seeming to be the racist that Hanson clearly was, he succeeded in attracting back the redneck voters who threatened to desert his party. He attacked multiculturalism as political correctness. Under Howard, attacking political correctness became politically correct, and it became acceptable to roll back (in word at least) the multiculturalism that was so strikingly in evidence on the ground.

He showed the opportunistic side of his nature once again in the November 2001 elections when he cynically manipulated the fear that September 11 generated to win his third term.

He won his fourth term having wrapped himself in the national flag by going to war in Iraq alongside the US. In those days, when Iraqi weapons of mass destruction were a theoretical possibility and Western civilisation seemed under threat from the Islamic world, it must have seemed unpatriotic to white Australians to oppose Howard's policy. (In Western countries, who knows the difference between Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, or between Arabic, Farsi, Pushtu and Urdu?)

In the latest election too, he tried the same tricks of fear and xenophobia (of which a bit more in a moment), but it didn't work this time. His opponent Kevin Rudd was every bit as smooth and unruffled as himself, and played his game with the same degree of skill. I like to think that the Australian people ultimately saw through Howard's lies and showed him the door.

If I had two words to say to John Howard today, they would be "Mohammed Haneef." What angered me the most in the current election campaign was the character assassination of this doctor of Indian origin who was practising in a hospital in Queensland. In the run-up to the 2007 election, the government needed a bogeyman, and what better one than a Muslim who was related to one of the Glasgow bombers? The immigration minister, Kevin Andrews, has a lot to answer for regarding the utterly shameful treatment of Dr. Haneef, and if I were a religious man, I would say there is a special place in hell for cynical men who think nothing of destroying others' reputations and lives for their own political survival. Even after the charges against Dr. Haneef were proved baseless and he was released, Howard's immigration minister had his visa revoked "on character grounds", and the poor man had to leave Australia. I don't believe Kevin Andrews was acting on his own on such an important and explosive issue. John Howard was "dog whistling" again in the background. Getting Dr. Haneef out of Australia was a PR coup, because once the scandal dropped out of the headlines, the problem was over.

Ah, but not quite. In many people (myself included), the Haneef incident evoked deep and lasting anger. Mohammed Haneef is a Muslim and I am nominally Hindu, but I can recognise unfair treatment when I see it. I choose my words carefully here, but even if John Howard is not a racist, he is certainly anglocentric in his attitudes. And one of the real reasons why he has lost touch with Australia is that this country, at the grassroots level, is no longer anglocentric. Anyone can see the sheer ethnic and cultural diversity in Australia today by just walking down a Sydney or Melbourne street. No politician will cut ice with the contemporary Australian electorate by demonising minorities. The system of compulsory voting in Australia means that you cannot even count on minority alienation to keep hostile voters away from the polling booths. John Howard angered me, a voter. He's now history.

The election of Kevin Rudd is a fundamental generational shift in Australian politics. Whether it's merely symbolic or not, Kevin Rudd can speak Mandarin. How many anglophones can speak another language, much less a non-European one? When Rudd's family took the stage in Brisbane today during his victory speech, his Chinese son-in-law was on stage with him, dramatically illustrating the changing face of Australia.

I have no idea whether Kevin Rudd will make a good prime minister, but I do know that this country's future has no place for John Howard in a leadership role.

The end of an era? Thank goodness.

Wednesday, 21 November 2007

My Favourite One-Liner

"Don't waste your coffee. There are people in India sleeping."

Tuesday, 6 November 2007

Is the Age of Heroic Achievement Over?

If you read Peter Bernstein's book "Against the Gods", the major argument he makes is that Risk Management is the hallmark of the modern age. Sophisticated risk management techniques distinguish an advanced society from a less developed one, but I would like to explore the downsides to this advancement.

The first is cost. As a migrant to Australia from India, I can see some stark differences in the cost of goods and services in the two countries. Everything is so much more expensive in Australia, especially where human labour is involved. A prime reason is insurance. When I briefly had a company of my own in Sydney, a major part of my expenses came from Workers Compensation Insurance, even though I was my company's only employee. Had I taken out Professional Indemnity Insurance, my costs would have been even higher. (Incidentally, I was warned against taking out Professional Indemnity Insurance, because I was told the chances of my being sued for professional malpractice were greater if it was known that I had such insurance!)

In India, a lot of the labour employed by the middle class belongs to the "unorganised sector", and insurance is unknown. I remember being at a friend's place when an electrician came over for some repairs. I was amused to see the electrician also being asked to refix the chain on the family bicycle and also run a shopping errand. He was paid a modest sum for his bundle of services and he never thought the non-electrical requests were out of line. Contrast this with my experience in Australia when I ordered some furniture and had it home-delivered. The delivery guy brought a set of boxes in and left them there. When I asked if he was going to assemble it, he replied, "That's your job, mate."

When a society formalises job roles and risk-manages them to the nth degree, I think costs go up. It may be progress, but there's a definite downside.

The other, perhaps more important aspect of a sophisticated society is the intolerance for failure. It has been pointed out that if NASA had adopted today's attitudes towards risk and project management, the Ranger program would have been aborted after less than 4 attempts. As it happened, the Ranger program suffered no fewer than 6 successive failures before Ranger 7 finally made it to the moon.

What happened there was faith and dogged determination, hallmarks of a less civilised society with less sophisticated risk management in its collective DNA. I think we have lost something that needs to be mourned.