The ultimate map room

Maps have fascinated me all my life.  As a child, I pored over the family atlas all the time.  But what fascinated me even more were the few pages of historical maps - appended almost as an afterthought to the atlas.  They primarily showed Europe at various points in history and how United States grew through purchase, conquests and claims.  I think there was even a map outlining major battles during the Civil War.  It was a window into history that beguiled me.

I rarely met any kindred spirits while growing up but when I travelled around Europe, I realized that I had ample company amongst dukes and earls and kings.  Many of their palaces have map rooms - perhaps to keep track of their extensive landholdings as well as those of their rivals.  Palazzo Ducale in Venice has an amazing map room which sports 2 humongous globes as well, all of which I admired and at moments imagined had been restored just for my pleasure.

In today's technological age, it has become trivial to find good current maps.  Thanks to Mapquest, Yahoo Maps, Google Maps and others, you can not only see the world map, you can zoom in and out and spot individual streets and ask for directions and even get a satellite view.  Google Earth lets you delve into even greater detail.  I have managed to trace down the exact alleyways that I used to walk when I worked in Connecticut!  But now I wish for a new dimension - the dimension of time.

Imagine, just imagine, if you could call up the map of New York City from any time.  See how the fields in Manhattan island give way to houses and high rise buildings.  Or call up a map of Switzerland and see as new train tracks are laid out and new cantons keep joining the Swiss confederation.  Or see how New Delhi goes from this elegant and sparse new capital for the crown jewel of the British Empire to this bustling gargantuan metropolis in just 70-odd years...

There would be so much to learn from such a map room.  We could track how people moved about, how empires have risen and fallen, how kingdoms have expanded in unexpected ways.  We could also see the morphing of various countries and get a handle on various boundary disputes that plague the world.  We could also see how names of places have changed -Bombay, Londonium, New Amsterdam and Peking becoming Mumbai, London, New York and Beijing.  Imagine the history of the world coming alive as we scan across the globe...

Wouldn't it be wonderful?


Postcard from Europe #3: The Clinton Dividend

Another post from the time in the early 90s when I was working in Germany and traveling on weekends...

16 years back, I was in Bordeaux for a weekend. I was in the mood for some local food. The lady who ran the Youth Hostel knew that my French was limited to "Parle vous Anglais?" so she said "I know this place but..."

Well, I ended up going there, a tiny, tiny place that was filled with regulars. The only one who knew English was the waitress, Marie, whose entire length and breadth of High School English was tested when I asked her to explain what was on the fixed-price menu. She ended up dragging me into the kitchen and showing me the actual vegetables and meats and furiously scribbling down the words as I told her the names in English. Throughout a delectable 6 course meal, the regulars and I had an odd conversation - single words traded back and forth to appreciate and enjoy the food and the wine we were served.

When the meal ended and Marie had a little bit more time, the questions came in more complete form and the conversation turned to the Bill Clinton. You see, just 3 weeks before, Bill Clinton was elected the President of United States. He had really piqued the interests of these folks in Bordeaux. They felt they understood him. They were also quite confused how he could be elected with only 43% of the votes.

That started a whole new conversation on electoral college and the curious way that America held its elections. In the end, when I got up to pay, the owner of the place gave me a hefty 15 Franc discount on 50FF meal and didn't charge for all the wine I drank - because I was so patient with the questions. I call that discount my "Clinton Dividend". I yearn for another such dividend...


Open Letter to California Supreme Court

Well, the citizens of California passed Proposition 8 last year with 52% of the votes. Many felt heartbroken while others, including me, vented that the conservatives were up to their old dirty tricks again. Anyways, the issue is now in the hands of the California Supreme Court, which just last year had ruled that the constitution of the state precluded barring same-sex couples from getting married.

I figured that I should weigh in on the subject and give the justices something to chew on. And here it is.

Dear Judges of the California Supreme Court,
I am a fellow citizen of California and I would like to give you a hand in deciding the knotty problem facing you - the resolution of Proposition 8. Yes, I know that it is a messy situation and I also know that I am no lawyer. I am just a poor farm boy from Iowa and all I have is horse sense.

First of all, let us look at Proposition 8 itself. It essentially says that only marriages between one man and one woman would be recognized by the state of California. There is a problem right there. Imagine if we had a similar law on the books saying that only people of the same race could marry each other. (Hint: We used to have that). Or that only US citizens could marry each other (no non-citizens thank you). Or that only coreligionists could marry each other. What happens when fundamentalist Hindus get involved and they want to ban inter-caste marriages? Does it not sound absurd that the state of California is inserting itself in the matters of the heart?

Second, let us look at the argument put forth by Kenneth Starr - that the citizenary is sovreign and while the citizens may approve dumb propositions, the court cannot ignore the will of the people. Yes, ultimately, the citizens are supreme. I have made that assertion and I stand by it. But can just 52% of them change the constitution? Here in California, we cannot even pass a 0.0001% tax on lollipops without a 2/3rds majority! Yes, the citizenary is sovreign but to assert that 50% + 1 votes is laughable at best - especially when it comes to changing the constitution, the supreme law of the state.

Finally, let us look at the difference between amending the California constitution and revising it. The proponents of Proposition 8 say that it is an amendment, a minimal change that only changes the restrictions on who can get married. But there is a larger principal involved. What Proposition 8 does is change the very nature of our constitution. Proposition 8 says that the government must treat certain people in a fundamentally different manner - not because of any criminal activity or bad behavior but because of who they are. That is a major revision in just about anyone's eyes.

Proposition 8 sets up a dangerous precedent and can easily undermine the core of the spirit of California - Live and let live. We have been an incubator of dreams, of ideas and of passion. Teenagers around the world dream of California. We are a diverse state - home to people of all lineages and thoughts. Enshrining discrimination in the very core of our legal framework cannot be good for us.

Can you stand up for common decency and fight this scourge?


Flip-flop of time

Last Sunday morning I adjusted many clocks - in the stove, in the microwave oven, on the kitchen wall, on the bedroom dresser, in the programmable thermostat and in the car. No, there was no power failure which threw all the clocks off. No, there was no mysterious magnetic storm. No aliens landed in my backyard. The reason was that earlier that day, at 2am precisely, we switched to Daylight Savings Time. So, the twice-yearly ritual of fixing all the clocks took place. There is even a mnemonic to make sure people get it right "Spring forward, Fall back".

On Monday, I drove to work and after parking my car, I had a strong urge to take a nap before going into the office. Every day this week I have had trouble waking up with the alarm clock even though I have been getting enough sleep. What gives?

Well, this one-hour change is a mini jet lag. And it takes a while for the body to synchronize back to the wall clock. During this time, people feel less energetic, less coordinated and are more susceptible to accidents - at home, in the office and on the road.

So, why do we go through this time change if there is such a downside? Well, years ago - back when most people worked on the same schedule, such time changes saved us daylight time in the evening and hence reduced energy consumption. But those days are long over now. We have factories and offices that are open 24-hours a day. Many people work flexible schedules. Many of us interact with people living in other countries. This time-shift business only adds to confusion when you are trying to figure out what time it is on the other side of the globe. And let us not forget what messes get created when various computer systems either fail to account for the time changes or fail to keep up with ever-changing laws in various countries.

Face it people, there was a point in time when daylight saving and the subsequent fiddling with time made sense. But it doesn't any more. This flip-flop in time only causes more headaches. Like many ideas whose time has come and gone, we must retire this concept and go back to fixed time. Perhaps we can put a proposition on the California ballot. Who is with me?


End of the one-child policy

In late 1970s, China embarked on the one-child policy - forcibly limiting couples to one child - in a desperate effort to curb population growth. China's booming population was a runaway train and the government could foresee the upcoming misery and chaos if something wasn't done.  That something was the new policy.  Of course, there were exceptions to the rule - for rural farmers, ethnic minorities, parents of disabled children and, in some cases, where the first child was a girl (after all, it is the sons that carry on the family name everywhere). 

This year marks the 30th anniversary of that policy. Those original singular children have been having their own children for a while. China is no longer the poverty-stricken country of the 70s. It has, through rapid industrialization and transformation into a manufacturing juggernaut, managed to improve its lot tremendously.  Prosperity, at least the financial kind, is everywhere. Yet the policy endures.

But today, there are strains on the horizon. The demand for sons has not dropped as the government had hoped and so there is an acute shortage of young women for the men to marry. Also, long term macro-economic forces are at work. As the population shrinks, the Chinese economic clout may get blunted. But there is a bigger worry - especially for the communist party that continues to have a monopoly on the political life in China.

Recently, there have been two tragedies that have shaken the Chinese population. The first was an earthquake in Sichuan which destroyed a lot of buildings and other infrastructure but it had a special affinity for shoddily built schools. Tens of thousands of school-going children died. The second was man made - mixing melamine with milk powder which has led to tens of thousands of children to hospitals and a handful of deaths. Both of these tragedies have disproportionately struck children and often the parents are old enough that having another child is difficult.

This has led to widespread anger amongst the parents. In Sichuan, parents refused to back down from demands that the people involved in the shoddy construction of schools be brought to justice. The government acted more swiftly regarding the melamine scandal and many involved are behind bars. But this has exposed a weakness in the communist party's grip. When an only child is harmed due to negligence of the government, the parents can no longer be restrained by the fear of what may happen to them.

Thus I believe that the Chinese government would end the one-child policy to defuse a potentially difficult situation down the road when another tragedy exposes the limits of the government's powers.  The question now is - are the Chinese, burnt by the global turmoil, willing to risk having another child?


1984 - A bad memory

I saw a movie last night - Amu.  The movie starts off light-heartedly before delving into the social unrest and murder (some would say massacre) that took place in wake of Indira Gandhi's assasination.  Now, most movies on social unrest, while interesting and impactful and engaging, do not suck me in as much as this movie because the events happened a long time back.

But this happened in front of my own eyes!  I was in high school and living in New Delhi and...  Well, the torrent of memories flash before my eyes...

I remember 31 Oct 1984 as if it happened yesterday.  Like any ordinary day, I went to school and came back home about 3pm by public bus.  BBC had already announced that Indira Gandhi was dead though the Indian media was deferring to the government which simply said that doctors were working on her.  I remember having my late lunch when my dad came home unexpectedly and he was so worked up!  He dragged me and my mom to the roof and we could see smoke billowing on the horizon from many fires in every direction.  We lived in Defence Colony (a residential area originally intended for retired military personnel) at the time and during the next 15 days it felt that we were on a military base.  There were uniformed and armed soldiers on every corner!

We were lucky.  There were no riots or mayhem in our little bubble.  But just 100 feet outside of Defence Colony, shops were burned and people murdered - all because they happened to be Sikh, the same religion as the murderers of Indira Gandhi.

Life came back to normal pretty soon.  Schools reopened and the debris from the riots swept away and the buses worked again.  But the people who incited the riots, those who wore the police uniforms and did not lift a finger to protect the people from the mobs and the political leaders who were complicit have basically escaped.  One of the accused, Kamal Nath, even serves in the cabinet of the first Sikh prime minister of India, Manmohan Singh!

On the surface things look good but I wonder what is festering beneath the placid surface of the Indian society.  Is this normalcy or simply a prelude to a bigger disaster which would unfold at the next opportunity?


The scar near my shoulder

The other day I watched a talk given by Larry Brilliant at TED.  The talk is from back in 2006 in which he talks about preventing future epidemics and then also talks about smallpox and how he helped rid India of smallpox, working there in the early 70s.  When he showed pictures of people with the smallpox blisters, it triggered a memory...

While Larry was helping WHO fight smallpox, I was in first grade in India and our entire school was vaccinated against smallpox in one day.  The doctor set up his station in a long corridor and we all queued up, rolling up our sleeves and getting vaccinated on the upper forearm near the shoulder.  I have always been afraid of needles and was physically trying to bolt from the queue.  My teacher, Shashi Dhamija, intercepted me and showed me a similar picture of someone suffering from smallpox and convinced me that getting vaccinated is not such a bad idea.  As a result, I too have the scar (an irregular circle)  that I had seen on the upper arms of my parents, my aunts and uncles and my cousins.  Not quite a merit badge, it is a reminder that we have been enlisted as soldiers in the fight against smallpox.

The other day I was listening to NPR (National Public Radio) and there was a lengthy article about children in USA who are not getting immunized against measles, mumps, chickenpox and the rest. And these are not children of poor parents who either cannot afford the vaccinations or do not grasp the utility of such vaccinations. These are children of well-educated, well-off people who think that vaccines are either dangerous and cause various diseases/illnesses/syndromes such as autism or that these diseases are caused by the vaccines themselves!

I felt angry at these parents because I feel that they are risking their children's health, both short- and long-term, and they are also risking the health of the population in general (by diluting the herd immunity). I am not saying that vaccines do not carry risks or errors are not made or that certain vaccines are losing their potency. But thinking that vaccines simply do not work and it is all a conspiracy perpetuated by a vast cabal of doctors, researchers and vaccine makers is, well, asinine.

It took an army of doctors, nurses and social workers to go door to door all over the globe, educating people regarding the benefits of vaccination and immunizing people and teaching them about the symptoms to eradicate smallpox.  It was a momentous feat - tackling a disease that used to kill millions and corralling the last remnants of the virus to a few freezers in a handful of labs.  With the right vaccines and the right infrastructure, we can reduce many diseases to the same fate as smallpox, locked in a freezer.  But it requires volunteers - to join the ranks of the immunized - which seem to be in short supply these days.  And to add insult to injury, it is not just the ill-educated who are shirking.  Please, get the word out.  Go out and get vaccinated!