On Wrestlers and Faceless Women

I saw a Hindi movie called Daangal a few days ago. A true story of amateur wrestler Mahavir Singh Phogat in Haryana who raised six girls (four daughters and two nieces whom he adopted on the death of his brother) to be world-class wrestlers who have won many international championships. From a social standpoint, the most remarkable thing is that Haryana is the state with among the worst male/female sex ratios in the country (in 2011, 877 females for every 1000 males). This negative sex ratio is a reliable indicator of low status of women in a society. One can only imagine the real-life battles the Phogat girls faced, in overcoming traditional rural prejudices, cutting their hair, uncovering their faces, competing in early tournaments with boys, finally winning respect by beating many of their male peers and winning championships.

Even though some of the details in the film are untrue, or exaggerated for dramatic effect, there is no disputing that the greatest victory of these young women may not be counted in medals won in the wrestling arena, but in society as a whole. Changes in a society happen in a thousand unexpected ways. Their victories on the floor of the wrestling arena may be reflected in unrelated events in a community. One such example appeared as a feature recently in a Sunday newspaper. In this story, Mahima Jain tells of three women fighting the ghunghat (face veil) in Haryana’s patriarchal stronghold of Faridabad. They wish to show no disrespect to their elders, but also wish to be free of the restriction imposed by the veil. One of them is an educated woman who works in the city with head uncovered all day and sees no reason to cover her face as soon as she returns to her village home.

This news story shows that gender discrimination does not stop with rural, uneducated women, but also affects intelligent, articulate women with advanced educational degrees. As Hans Rosling powerfully shows through statistics in the video posted on this blog earlier in January (Reading the Tea Leaves: a primer for 2017), true development happens in a nation when gender discrimination has been largely overcome. By this definition, there are very few truly developed nations in the world; merely rich ones, poor ones and increasingly, widening gaps within societies between rich and poor.

One amusing and unexpected similarity between the real-life female wrestlers and their film counterparts: the professional wrestlers look just as elegant and sophisticated as the actors who play them in the movie. Check out the photos below without reading the captions first and see if you can tell who’s who.

publicity photo from the film

publicity photo from the film

3 of the 6 girls with their parents. Image courtesy thebetterindia

3 of the 6 girls with their parents. Image courtesy thebetterindia

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Fossil Fuels are for Dinosaurs II

Wake up, Donald et al.! According to the Guardian of 6 January 2017,

China now owned:

  • Five of the world’s six largest solar-module manufacturing firms
  • The largest wind-turbine manufacturer
  • The world’s largest lithium ion manufacturer
  • The world’s largest electricity utility

“At the moment China is leaving everyone behind and has a real first-mover and scale advantage, which will be exacerbated if countries such as the US, UK and Australia continue to apply the brakes to clean energy,” he said.

“The US is already slipping well behind China in the race to secure a larger share of the booming clean energy market. With the incoming administration talking up coal and gas, prospective domestic policy changes don’t bode well,” Buckley said.

For more by this author, see his Amazon page here, or links to his 4 books on the Google Play store.

Out of Africa and from the Middle East

Food for thought for those in many countries around the world who wish to permanently stop immigration of ‘foreigners.’

When the first migrants left Africa 75,000 years ago for the Cradle of Civilization — modern Iraq and Kuwait — Stoneking and his team estimate there were fewer than 100 people. They suggest there were just 15 men and 26 women. They also point to a Bering Strait crossing, from Asia to North America, around 15,000 years ago, as is commonly accepted.

Source: M. Stoneking, et al. Human paternal and maternal demographic histories: insights from high-resolution Y chromosome and mtDNA sequences. Investigative Genetics. 2014.

For more by this author, see his Amazon page here, or links to his 4 books on the Google Play store.

Reading the Tea Leaves: a primer for 2017

I recently saw a snippet of an interview with actor Denzel Washington where he talks about the media. “If you don’t read the news,” he says, “you’re uninformed. And if you do read the news, you’re misinformed.” There’s a lot of truth in that statement. However, it’s one thing to read the news as an endless litany of the day’s evils all over the world, and quite another thing to seek out those media that offer in-depth, thoughtful news coverage of trends that shape the world. In the latter type, there is more information on the trends that shape events rather than on sensational local events with no geopolitical significance. Social media is not all bad. In fact, like most technology, good or bad depends on how you use social media and whether you feed off it indiscriminately or choose to sip from the nourishing bits on offer. Gandhi apparently once said: life is like a mirror; if you smile at life, it will smile back at you. Keeping that in mind, go ahead and read news roundups of the year 2016, which has been a pretty horrible year.

But remember that mirror and keep smiling for 2017. Here are some things that the daily news stories do not say. Or if they do, not as headline news but only buried on an inside page. Below is a post by stalwart statistician Hans Rosling that shows unmistakeable positive trends in the world today. I encourage you to sample at least a few minutes of it, and if you’re hooked, there are plenty more by him on YouTube.

I suspect that most of the people who voted for Brexit and the current US President-elect are unaware of the basic facts illustrated by this lecture. In an earlier blog, I cited a quote by Karl Menninger that said: attitudes are more important than facts. Very true, but if facts are accepted to be true they can help to change attitudes. Whatever the year 2017 brings, there will certainly be a lot of surprises, so don’t forget to smile at the mirror of life.

For more by this author, see his Amazon page here, or links to his 4 books on the Google Play store.

Learning in a Village

Studies about global warming talk about the need for developing countries to adapt to climate change. The good news is that in India a wide range of mitigation and adaptation measures are taking place. To use the phrase of Augustin, Vienna’s well-loved figure of historical myth, “the situation is serious but not hopeless.” At the end of this article are links to some examples that illustrate various initiatives that are already working. However, with 68% of the country’s population in villages, India needs many more such miracles. My wife and I recently joined a project, started by some local partners, to develop a sustainable school in a village in Tamil Nadu.

The village lies in a green, agricultural area about forty kilometers from the city of Chennai (pop. 8.23 million) in the Chingleput district of Tamil Nadu. Although surrounded by productive farmland, approach roads to this village are so poor as to be almost non-existent. The roads were badly damaged in the extensive flooding that followed the unusually heavy monsoon rains of September-October 2015. Parts of the city of Chennai and the surrounding countryside were inundated to depths of one to two meters.

Water wells and green fields: the surrounding countryside

Water wells and green fields: the surrounding countryside

The village itself, when one arrives, is relatively prosperous. There are many large wells that supply water for irrigation. The land seems fertile and a variety of crops is grown. Despite this, young people are moving in droves to the cities, lured by scenes of urban wealth and glamor on television. These people are merely following a trend happening in many countries around the world as small farm holdings sell out to larger entities and corporations that can practice industrial-scale farming with all its recognized negative consequences.

The many faces of learning

The many faces of learning

The idea of a rural sustainable school is really very simple. In addition to conventional education, the childrens’ learning will be focused on practical skills that are relevant in a rural environment; from organic farming, forestry, carpentry, medicinal uses of plants, setting up and servicing small-scale photovoltaics, forestry, wildlife management (the area is very rich in bird-life) etc. In addition, there are plans to use a locally patented system that incorporates waste plastic into long-lasting road surfaces. In all of these efforts, voluntary labor (shramdhan) will play the most important role. For without local participation, there will be no long-term program. With local participation, the community takes ownership of all the above areas, become experts in selected areas and run it themselves. This is the main reason that the partners are starting this school project on a self-financed basis. As soon as outside money enters the equation, a certain precious balance is lost and people will tend to sit back and wait for capital to provide answers that they would otherwise look for themselves.

A shadow puppet play made by 8-year-olds using home-made props

A shadow puppet play made by 8-year-olds using home-made props

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3LHe9I6QPu8 jal khet (Water Fields)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aBfjsdICGT0

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9hmkgn0nBgk

The school building itself will be constructed on-site with compressed stabilized earth blocks (CSEBs) that do not need firing or baking like conventional bricks. They just need compression following which the bricks are kept wet for a month and then sun-dried for three months. Electricity will initially be provided by 5 Kw of solar panels that are expected to cost around €4000 at current prices. More capacity and storage will be added as the price falls. For more information about the philosophy behind the project, see this article on my blog. “Development as an Attitude: learning to unlearn.”

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Why is it Dark at Night?

The nights of 13th and 14th November 2016 were supermoon nights. I’ll resist the temptation to post my supermoon photos, since Facebook and the Internet were flooded with superb photos of the event, and mine were taken with a cell phone camera. But looking up at the beautiful, impressive moon on that light-flooded night, I remembered a question I was asked three decades ago by an uncle of mine, a keen amateur cosmologist.

“Do you know why it gets dark at night?” he asked.
“Because the sun goes down, naturally,” I replied. Absurd question.
“Think again. What about the light from all the stars you see at night? Many of them are brighter and more powerful that a thousand suns. We should be continuously dazzled by their light, and life on earth as we know it should be impossible.”

Image courtesy National Geographic

Image courtesy National Geographic

I didn’t know the answer to the question and, infuriatingly, my uncle refused to give me the answer, leaving me to search for it myself. I first read the answer in a scientific journal, Physics Today, in an article published in 1974 by someone named Edward Harrison. The article was heavy reading, but I ploughed through it, memorising several paragraphs, so that I could finally answer my uncle’s question. But my understanding was not deep enough to retain the answer, and in a few weeks, the answer evaporated from my mind, leaving only faint traces like water stains on a dry rock.

In October this year, an article appeared in the The Telegraph newspaper which showed me that many academically brighter minds than mine were still wrestling with the answer. This article by science journalist Sarah Knapton should be enough to satisfy the curiosity of the average lay reader. And finally my mind is at rest now.

An Old Word for New Times

Sometimes, we need a new word to describe new trends. But to describe recent events that mirror the rise of demagogues and dictators in the past, an old word will do. Many thanks to my friend, Canadian economist Larry Willmore, for posting the following on his blog “Thought du Jour.”

“kakistocracy”
noun
1829, “government by the worst element of a society,” coined on analogy of its opposite, aristocracy, from Greek kakistos “worst,” superlative of kakos “bad” (which perhaps is related to the general IE word for “defecate;” see caco- ) + -cracy.

Source: Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved November 25, 2016 from Dictionary.com website