Who Decides What You Eat?

This Mint article on school lunches in Japan is rather alarming in its enthusiasm for the nanny state. It also gushes about the Japanese self-sufficiency movement, which actually dooms Japanese farmers to small farms and eats up money in food subsidies:

Chisan, chishou, the local term for ‘produce local, consume local’, is a major campaign in Japan and it is reflected in the school menu as well. The cabinet office directive says that ingredients for the meals have to be sourced from places no more than 30km away.

And also about government campaigns which set out what people should eat:

So, on 15 July 2005, a new law on syokuiku came into force. It lays down the basic philosophy for “dietary education” to eradicate all these problems at the root. Says Miho Kawano, assistant counsellor at the cabinet office on dietary education promotion department: “Syokuiku is based on the theory that every individual needs to acquire knowledge about how to choose food, be aware of healthy diet and food safety.” What is impressive is the scale and precision with which the movement has been launched all over the country and how every school, prefecture, municipal office, corporate, NGO and literally every citizen on the street has been drawn into the programme.

Which are expensive and intrusive:

According to Kawano, the programme has an annual budget of $98.31 million (Rs391.27 crore) and there are 190,000 volunteers involved. The goal is to get at least 20% more volunteers by 2010 who will spread awareness about nutrition and the link between diet and health all over Japan. And, in a brilliant masterstroke, health insurance societies, too, have been drawn into the programme. Hutami says that from April 2008, the government is planning to route special health checking and guidance facilities to every Japanese citizen through insurance societies. Successful societies will be given a reward, while unsuccessful ones will be penalized.

On a slightly less rational note, the praise given to The Shri Ram School annoys me:

Although it is not organized on military lines like the Japanese school lunches, The Shri Ram School lunch programme is constantly evolving. For instance, the menu, devised by the teachers, is circulated to parents and also vetted by dieticians.

Bah. Death to TSRS.

But the article is still very nicely written and has lots of interesting details. Do read it.

Preempting the Slimes

Kodhi messages in:

If Vodafone does a lot of outdoor advertising, can we say that it is painting the town red?

The Times of India will catch on to this as soon as it’s done masturbating over the Twenty20 win, and it will cease to be funny. But while that window of TOI-less opportunity exists, let the funda be posted here in all its glory.


Yet more woe. The Palio’s coolant pipe has sprung a leak. On the way to Saturday’s Open Quiz, the needle on the temperature indicator shot up beyond the red line, and stayed there in frightening ways. This set off a cascade of daamaal-dimeel events.

The engine stopped burning petrol properly. Driving from Indiranagar to Nrupathunga Road and back took about twenty more times petrol than it should. The car was smelling of unburnt or partially burnt petrol. Scariest of all, it was stalling at all speeds, in all gears. On BV Iyengar Road.

It’s now safely at Manipal Motors, where it will have the pipe replaced, coolant filled, and whatever else the mechanic decides he can safely slap onto the bill. Death.

On a side note, after Saturday’s quiz, I’ve decided to start calling the Palio Rocinante. The steed of a madman who tilts at windmills? Arely are.

I Want to be a Cultural Nationalist

(I’m posting this now, because I have to rush for work. I’m not too satisfied with how the post is written, though, so I’ll probably continue to edit and update it over the day/ week. Your comments will be welcome, as always.)

More than three years ago, Ravikiran inserted these lines into a blogpost about why Sonia shouldn’t be PM:

But nationalism isn’t discovered, it is constructed. Every generation finds things we have in common, things that we share, things that we value and things that we can be proud of, and builds a nationalism out of it. Just because it is constructed it doesn’t mean that it isn’t real.

When I say that “X” is something we share it doesn’t mean that every Indian shares “X” and that anyone who doesn’t appreciate “X” isn’t an Indian. But I am saying that many Indians share it, and X, Y and Z together defines Indianness.

These were practically throwaway lines, but they somehow packed more punch than the rest of the blogpost. The insight here is utterly stunning.

But why am I bringing up a three year old blogpost? Because it offers answers to questions raised in a three month old blogpost! This one on The Acorn, where Nitin asks what India is fighting for, besides territory and people:

Nationalism was given a nasty connotation decades ago, and going by its general portrayal in the international media, even patriotism is somehow suspect (except, that is, if you are in America). Yet without a sense of patriotism, a sense of shared values worth defending, it is hard to see how plural democratic societies can prevail over totalitarian ideologies.

And now, I’ll bring in a third angle, from Chris Anderson’s book The Long Tail (read more about it at the Wikipedia entry, or the official site), which says:

The same Long Tail forces that are leading to an explosion of variety and and abundant choice in the content we consume are also tending to lead us into tribal eddies. When mass culture breaks apart, it doesn’t re-form into a different mass. Instead, it turns into millions of microcultures, which coexist and interact in a baffling array of ways.

As a result, we can now treat culture as not one big blanket, but as the superposition of many interwoven threads, each of which is individually addressable and connects different groups of people simultaneously.

In short, we’re seeing a shift from mass culture to massively parallel culture. Whether we think of it this way or not, each of us belongs to many different tribes simultaneously, often overlapping (geek culture and LEGO), often not (tennis and punk-funk). We share some interests with out colleagues and some with our families, but not all of our interests. Increasingly, we have other people to share them with, people we have never met or even think of as individuals (e.g., blog authors or playlist creators).

Now, obviously Long Tail forces are going to operate much slower in India than they are in the United States. But when they do, two things are going to happen:

  1. Any attempt to define India or Indianness through One Grand Idea is going to be even more doomed to failure. This holds for attempts to impose Hindi on the rest of the country, or trying to push a top-down version of Hindutva as the BJP once tried, or to go the 1980s Doordarshan route and aim for National Integration through Repeated Airplay of Bharat Bala videos.
    (I’d also like to point out here that an idea of cultural nationalism based on One Grand Idea is untenable even now. If your idea of India is based on commonality of culture, then Akhand Bharat in’t just desirable, it’s a moral imperative. And it would have to incorporate not just Pakistan and Nepal and Bangladesh, but everything up to Indochina and Bali and even Jackson Heights and Southall.)
  2. But paradoxically, national integration will actually improve as Indians create new cultural touchpoints which will be shared across geography and demographics. A hundred years ago, a Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyaya novel had no audience outside literate Bengalis. Now, YouTube allows a music enthusiast from Bangalore to see Bangla rock videos; online forums allow geeks sitting in Madras and Ludhiana to help each other out with Perl problems, and blogs make it possible for a TDC to appreciate humour grounded in Tamil culture. Common cultures will be created faster, except that the creation will be messy and undirected and emergent, and quite probably the despair of the eighty-year olds in political parties and the Sangh Parivar.

What’s going to make things even messier is that these new shared cultures could very easily spring up across national borders. So Indians and Pakistanis could have even more of a shared culture, while India and Pakistan continue to be antithetical ideas and antagonistic states. Which brings us to the real point of this post: how the hell do you create and spread an idea that transforms the nature of the state? How do you infuse the Indian government with the idea that it’s meant to empower its citizens, not dictate to them, and how do you change the mindset of the Pakistani state to worrying about the growth of Pakistan, not the liberation of Kashmir or the quelling of India?

That is probably going to require creating institutions like think tanks and political parties and liberal newspapers,  which is going to be much more painful and complicated than people in different states bonding over the same YouTube video. The costs of creating such institutions is probably much less today then it was ten years ago, but how to drive the costs down – and create more incentives for doing so – is an open question, and one which I’ll hopefully write more about in the near future.


WordPress is going to upgrade to version 2.3 next week. While I’m thrilled to bits about the upgrade and the core support for tags, I’m not so thrilled about having to find a tag-compatible theme. Consider my requirements for a theme:

  1. Needs to be compatible with WP 2.3 and thus with tags and widgets.
  2. Needs to be three-column.
  3. Needs to support Indic fonts (which I use rarely, but even on rare occasions they need to be rendered properly).
  4. Needs to have next post/ previous post links in every post page.
  5. Needs to not screw up embedded photos.

A few months ago, when I tried to find a theme which matched all these requirements, I ended up trying out about twenty different themes. None of them fulfilled all the requirements. By the time my disk space usage had exploded to 80% under the weight of all the new installations, the only theme which worked was the current one. Which, as is painfully obvious to anybody not reading this on a feedreader, is excruciatingly orange. My mother thinks it looks cheerful and sunny, but everyone else who ever expressed an opinion hates it.

And now the rigmarole will start anew next month. Oy vey.

Finally, an Entertaining Bad Book

I have abused bad books on this blog before. I roasted One Night @ The Call Center and If God was a Banker. But that was only because they were unmitigatedly bad books. On the other hand , Tarbela Damned – Pakistan Tamed has humongous mitigants to the badness. It is a conceptually bad book, the way Jaani Dushman: Ek Anokhi Kahaani (Timepass Pages Review here, Greatbong Review here) is a conceptually bad movie. It makes up for the bad implementation by being based on awesome fundaes.

The back cover speaks for itself:

TARBELA DAMNED – PAKISTAN TAMED is a work of fiction that deals with the coming together of the Indian Intelligence services (RAW), and the Mossad of Israel, with help from the Irish Republican Army, to strike at one of Pakistan’s most prestigious and sensitive structures, the Tarbela Dam, in order to tame a country gradually but definitely becoming a ‘rogue’ state. All this is possible because an Indian Jew who after graduating from IIT Madras, emigrates to Israel to join the Mossad, teams up with his schoolmate, now an officer in RAW. Both of them share an ambition, and are in pursuit of the same goal, namely bringing Pakistan to heel. The two men have been deeply influenced by their teacher in school, the Irishman, Brother Manahan, who has inculcated in them a sense of admiration and empathy with the IRA. The planning, the execution, and the repercussions of their schemes for the substance of this unusual novel.

Stunning, no?

With concepts like this, you can happily overlook the writing itself. The book violates all the unities. There is no unity of place. The plot jumps from Shillong to Madras to Dubai to Ireland to the NWFP. There isn’t unity of characters either. Characters are brought in, given dialogue that sounds like an Indian National Interest blogpost, and then disappear, never to be seen again. The Indian Jew and the friend in the RAW who are supposedly the main characters make their last appearance fifty pages before the book finishes. In fact the last chapter features Musharraf and Manmohan Singh, neither of whom have appeared at all. And the last chapter is followed up by a non-fiction epilogue detailing the foreign policy of Pakistan since 1947.

The whole book reads like a string of abstracts of counterterrorism and foreign policy papers, which have been converted into fiction by the simple expedient of inserting characters, bad sex and awesomely mixed-metaphor dialogue like ‘I was always of the opinion that these American dogs will use us as condoms!’. You can’t not love it.

And Now, Some Geek Humour

From my Technorati inbound links, I discover that someone called Mohan KV has called me ‘Arrogant.Opinionated.Must Read.’  (Arrogant? Really?). The man is a must-read himself. The whole blog are strong, but this post about Mech Engineering endterms at IITM is sublime.

Especially power plant engineering:

Doing a simple energy balance, we (all of us) find the exit temperature of water be a slightly warm 35,000 degrees Celsius. Tungsten vaporizes at 5600 degrees Celsius. Hot.
Oh, and the Second Law of Thermodynamics ( 35,000 deg C > 6,000 deg C K, Temperature of the sun) is for sissies, we’re Mechanical Engineers now.

And once you’ve violated the Second Law, what’s the Theory of Relativity in comparison:

Question 6: An induced draft wet cooling tower [blah blah yada yada]. It receives 4,50,000 kgs of air per minute, and 68,000 kgs of water per minute. [Some arbit question requiring the use of a psychrometric chart.]
For any reasonable size of the cooling tower, the mass flow rates involved will cause the velocity of air to be comparable the speed of light in vacuum.

Relativistic Heat and Mass Transfer In Conventional Cooling Towers. Joy.

And let’s not forget question 11:

Now question 11 requires some perspective. Reasonable men would look at a power plant, and ask in moments of deep introspection: If I put in a kg of coal here, how much electrical energy am I going to get out of the other side? Reasonable men will go ahead, put many, many kgs of coal, and publish their findings as performance characterstics.

Agent Solar, on the other hand, waves away such efforts as mere child’s play. Real Men, he contends, find expressions for the input of a power plant as a function of its output.

All is well, till that function happens to be a cubic polynomial. With two real, positive roots and one negative root. What does that mean? It means you drop in a kg of coal, and pray. Pray hard, and the output tends to the larger of the three roots. Else, be warned, sinner ! Your power plant could end up drawing power, if the equation is to be believed !! Behold Divine Retribution !

But the absolute best vignette is this one about trying to mug a formula:

 Mojan: Mapullais, I know what you are doing wrong.
Makam: Oh, peace, you got it, eh? what ?
Mojan: You are not trying to understand concepts from a scientific perspective. The Spirit of Inquiry is what is missing.

This is profound, and has gigantic implications. The Spirit of Inquiry is essential, in all applications.

mChek Goes Live?

The much-hyped, long-in-development mChek seems to have gotten a little closer to mainstream commercialisation.

Okay, it’s much hyped only if you follow the telecom sector and read BusinessWorld every week, but within that set of people, it’s hyped enough. mChek is basically this company/ product which allows you to use your mobile phone as either a credit card or a card swipe machine.

So if you’re the guy paying, mChek theoretically allows you to stop carrying five credit cards in your wallet and just use your mobile phone. And if you’re a merchant, mChek lets you skip the pain of installing EDCs with dedicated phone lines, and just use the mobile phone you already have. (That’s the theory – I’ve never seen it in practice.)

Anyway, why I’m saying that it got a little closer to mainstream commercialisation today is that Airtel spammed me and told me that I could now pay my Airtel bill with mChek. Which is the first case I’ve ever seen of a merchant announcing that they would take mChek payments.

The only thing is that I won’t actually be using mChek, since I’ve already set up ECS payment on my credit card. Even if I hadn’t, I probably couldn’t, since mChek seems to be set up only for VISA, and both my cards are Mastercard.

Some thoughts on mChek in general:

  1. mChek actually brings together two of my favourite things: telecom and finance. I approve heartily, because as I’ve pointed out, they’re mostly the same thing.
  2. I think the reason mChek is set up on credit cards rather than on debit cards/ bank accounts is because of RBI regulations which don’t allow bank account transactions on anything other than chequebooks and debit cards. I’m not sure about the details – I’d have to mail some people to check. This is quite a tragedy, because something like this could demolish the costs of transacation banking for banks, and actually spread banking far faster than the FinMin’s diktat to provide no-frills banking accounts.
  3. Since I am a geek when it comes to stuff like this, I’ll go ahead and say it: this doesn’t go far enough. I’m dreaming of the day when your mobile phone credit limit and your credit card limit are the same. Instead of linking your phone to your card, your phone becomes your card. You shop with your phone, and your purchases are included in your mobile bill, whose credit limit is underwritten by your card company.
  4. I wonder what their sales strategy is for bringing merchants on to the system. Their own website admits that this sort of system works best for people like taxi drivers and auto drivers. But how is a startup going to sell to a massively fragmented and unorganised market like this? It’s easier for them to target corporates like Airtel, but for an Airtel, an extra payment system doesn’t have that much value. Or are they planning to piggybank on their partners? The website mentions SBI and ICICI Bank as partners – is this going to show up as a cross-sell target for ICICI’s EDC division? This promises to be interesting.

(And now I regret unsubscribing MobilePundit from my feedreader some months ago. Need to head over there and find out what Veer Chand Bothra’s been saying about mChek now.)