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What 132 schoolchildren should teach us.

Two recent newspaper articles have been very troubling; one of them positively horrific. One hundred and forty-one people died, all but 9 of them children, in a Taliban attack on a school in Pakistan.

The picture below appeared on an online news site nearly two months ago. An Indian love story that could be the beginning of a fairy tale. She is 21, a Muslim, a student at a dental college. He is 24, an engineer, a non-practicing Hindu. They fell in love. Her parents had planned an arranged marriage for her. She did not want it. So Anshida secretly married the man she loved. And they lived happily ever after. Oops, no! Apparently there are enough people in her community willing to resort to violence in order to prevent inter-racial unions, and this couple has been forced to live under police protection ever since. Here is a link to an interview with the couple where Gautham says their only desire is to live in peace together and they might have to leave the country to do so.

Anshida and Gautham, in the Indian Express Nation online edition if November 12.

Anshida and Gautham, in the Indian Express Nation online edition of November 12, 2014.

Einstein was apparently once asked to explain how radio worked and famously used the example of a long cat. You see, wire telegraph is a kind of a very, very long cat.  You pull his tail in New York and his head is meowing in Los Angeles.  Do you understand this? And radio operates exactly the same way: you send signals here, they receive them there.  The only difference is that there is no cat. The explanation is not so simplistic as it sounds, since nerve impulses are also electrical impulses of a different kind. Now what has this got to do with the persecution of a loving young couple (don’t tell me there’s something wrong with love) and murder of 132 schoolchildren by religious fanatics?

Growing up in the south of India, I experienced Islam as a very benevolent religion of deep faith anchored in tolerance as epitomised by the work of Rumi and Hafez. I saw the following quote taken from the wall of a recently demolished house.

Translation from the Persian of a framed script in a South Indian Muslim household, around 1914

Translation from the Persian of a framed script in a South Indian Muslim household, around 1914

When I came across the apocryphal tale of Einstein’s explanation of how radio works, I realised that Islamic fundamentalist theologians have taken a step backwards in the 20th century and invented a real cat to interpret the gap between scripture and practice. And indeed, it is a cat that squeals horribly. I much prefer the Einsteinian version of an imaginary cat. Counter-progressive theologians have not yet disputed the efficacy of radio transmission without cats. I long for them to do the same in the case of the transmission and observance of religious beliefs. It is to be hoped that the murder of 132 children moves at least some of them to re-examine the dead certainties of their religious beliefs.


Love Oil, Hate Oil

The story of oil begins more than 2,500 years ago. Reliable indicators show that in China people were drilling a mile deep with bamboo pipes to recover natural gas and liquid hydrocarbons that were used as a source of fuel for fires. This was before the start of the Han dynasty in 400 BC. See this fascinating slide presentation on the progress of drilling technology by Allen Castleman, a self-confessed oil redneck.

Image: courtesy ecowas.com

Image: courtesy ecowas.com

The modern oil age is popularly considered to have started in the 19th century with the use of internal combustion engines for everything from pumping water to transportation. A glorious age, but now it’s time to move on (pun intended) to other fuels. As Saudi oil minister Sheikh Zaki Yamani predicted more than three decades ago, “the Stone Age did not end for lack of stones, and the Oil Age will end long before the world runs out of oil;” a statement at once prescient, rueful and flippant. In today’s lugubrious world, they don’t make oil ministers like that any more.

As a reminder that the world turns and turns and comes full circle in more ways than one, here’s a parting thought; an article from the Guardian of 30 January 2014. In 2013 alone, China installed more solar power than the entire installed capacity in the US, the country where the technology was invented. There is a caveat to the article that some of this newly installed capacity is not yet connected to the grid but, once installed, connections are only a matter of time.




Why do I write? revisited.

A short story deals with a tiny slice of life on a local scale but can, like a hologram, contain the big picture or illustrate universal themes. A novel does the same, but tries to give the hologram greater depth and detail. In choosing new fiction, a prospective reader looking at an unknown author can decide based on the genre: crime, thriller, romance, sci-fi, and so on. For an author who explores the world and writes stories that do not fall into any of these genres and therefore classes his work as “literary fiction”, the task of finding a readership is close to hopeless, given the number of fine writers and superb new books that appear online and in bookstores every day. It takes a certain stubborn foolishness to attempt to do this. On this count alone, I consider myself eminently qualified to be a writer of literary fiction. The rest is up to unknown readers out there to take a risk and invest some of their precious time reading a new author’s work.

I am keenly aware of this formidable entry barrier and therefore grateful to several unknown reviewers and three friends who have taken the time and trouble to write a total of (currently) fourteen four and five-star reviews of my three books on Amazon’s various sites and on Goodreads.

Napoleon Hill, in concluding his famous self-help classic “Think and Grow Rich” quotes Emerson as he states: if we are related, we have through these pages met. So to those many unknown reviewers I say, we have, through these pages met, and I am honoured to make your acquaintance. This is why I write. It is you who make the work worthwhile.

The_Ironwood_Poacher_Cropped Islandgothic.cropped




Terrorism and Climate Change: A Single Solution

Much of the electricity that lights the world is generated by burning oil.

Two thirds of the world’s electricity is generated by burning fossil fuels.

Much of the world’s wars and terrorism occur in the Middle East where, not so coincidentally, much of the world’s oil also originates. A lot of the world’s climate change problem (the majority of the world by now admits that there is a problem) is due to burning fossil fuels. In 2013, oil provided around 33% of global primary energy consumption* (i.e. energy contained in fuels used to generate electricity, heating, industry, transportation or other end users). This amounts to nearly 87 million barrels of oil per day. One third of this oil came from the Middle East.

The World Coal Association states that (in 2013): Coal provides around 30.1% of global primary energy needs, generates over 40% of the world’s electricity and is used in the production of 70% of the world’s steel. Coal is more democratically distributed around the world than oil, and there is not much likelihood of wars being fought over coal reserves. Coal is also a relatively “dirty” fuel and produces more CO2 (ca. 200) per unit of energy delivered than oil (ca. 150) or natural gas (117).

A listing of principal terror groups in the world includes ISIS, Boko Haram, Al-Shabaab, Al-Qaeda, Al-Nusra, Ansar al-Sharia, Hezbollah and Hamas. Al-Jazeera news notes that the United Arab Emirates published this week a list of 80 organisations worldwide, including the foregoing, that it formally identified as terrorists. Some of the organisations on that list perhaps do not belong there, but the larger point to be made in this article still holds. When great wealth flows from all parts of the world into the hands of a few, great disparities ensue; injustice and violence occur. The world needs to get off its greed for oil and move to renewable sources of energy. Of course the transition will be painful; but less disruptive than continued terror. Reduced global oil consumption can lessen the flow of disproportionate wealth that the world directs into the coffers of a few by 20 to 30% in the next ten years.

Is the transformation do-able within this time frame? The world’s experts are divided fairly equally between yes and no. Why? Because it hasn’t been done before. But here is an indirect answer. The Paris-based International Energy Agency (IEA) has revised its estimates for deployment of renewables worldwide upwards several times in the past decade. The forecasts made in 2002 for the year 2020 were exceeded by the year 2010. So perhaps the correct answer is not to be found among energy experts but in a quote from Spanish poet Antonio Machado (1875 – 1939) who said:

Caminante, no hay camino
Se hace camino al andar.
Traveller, there is no path
The path is made by walking.

Paraphrased less poetically into modern business-speak: walk the walk, don’t simply talk! We have to make choices as individuals before nations and governments follow in our footsteps.

*For more background, see Energy Trends Insider, with links to BP’s widely used Statistical Review of World Energy 2014. Oil accounted for 33 percent of all the energy consumed in the world in 2013. This amounts to 86.8 million barrels per day. Of this, roughly 32% came from the Middle East.


The Demoiselle Cranes of Khichan

The town of Phalodi lies halfway between Jodhpur and Jaisalmer on the Rajasthan tourist circuit. Phalodi is an unremarkable town that one drives through in a couple of minutes on the good highway that links the two larger cities. Phalodi is known as the salt city of India and was an important trading post in the days of camel caravans travelling along the overland silk route. Six kilometers away from here, driving along a narrow dirt road, is an even more unremarkable and dusty village called Khichan. The village has been a traditional stop for decades on the annual migratory route of Demoiselle Cranes between September and March each year. Sometime during the 1970s, after a series of droughts, a local Jain merchant decided to help the few dozen migrant visitors and began to feed them grain. The following year, the number of visiting birds doubled and more volunteers stepped in to contribute grain or funds for the feeding of the birds. By 1996, Otto Pfister writes in a despatch of the Oriental Bird Club, that 6000 cranes were visiting and being fed half a ton of grain per day (mainly sorghum) for six months every year. By 2012, there were an estimated 20,000 of these elegant birds in Khichan every year, on their way back from breeding sites in Mongolia and Eurasia. After crossing the steppes of Central Asia, where they are hunted by predators like the golden eagle, these delicate-looking birds fly at heights of 5000 to 10,000 meters to cross the Himalayas. This is an incredible feat at oxygen-starved altitudes and along the way are other dangers; the wars in Afghanistan, or human disruption of their habitats.

Image: courtesy birdingblogs.com

Image: courtesy birdingblogs.com

The crane is known as  Koonj in Hindi, and there are many stories told about why the village community decided to feed the birds. One villager, when asked, speaks of the birds as auspicious symbols. “As long as the birds come, the future of our village is assured.” In the epic Mahabharata, the disciplined flight formation of the family groups of these birds is imitated when forming battle lines (Krauncha Vyuha) in the Kurukshetra war. In the crane-shaped formation of infantry units, forces are distributed to imitate the cranes’s wingspan, with a formidable, penetrating centre depicting the crane’s head and beak.

Through the power of the media, what was once a small local custom has attracted a large international following. The village of Khichan is now on the tourist map of Rajasthan and bird lovers from all over the world visit the place. What started forty years ago as a gesture to help a small flock of 150 migrant birds now attracts over 20,000 cranes annually. There are several amateur videos of the remarkable spectacle on You Tube. Here is one example https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YSWEWdp-X_k

One observer writes: The most amazing thing during the morning feeding sessions perhaps is how disciplined the cranes are. They fly into specially created enclosures, walled fields of around an acre each. When one batch has fed, the next batch flies in for their turn. If the field is full, they land outside the field and patiently wait their turn.

Beginning in the 1970s, several remarkable people have transformed the face of Rajasthan. One of these, Rajendra Singh, mentioned in an earlier blog (Stepwells and Johads:digging into the past) as the man who restored the flow of seven dried up rivers in Rajasthan, now finds his expertise in demand at international meetings like the Economist Water Forum in early November where he advised property owners in the UK about methods to prevent flooding in Northumberland and elsewhere. For more, see The driest part of India offers a solution to Britain’s floods, from the Telegraph of 7 November 2014.

A lot has been written in recent years about mitigation and adaptation measures to counter AGW (anthropogenic global warming) and climate change. It is to mankind’s own long-term benefit to protect biodiversity. Ecological studies show that biologically diverse communities are more productive and stable. Traditional communities have long followed this wisdom, hard-won through years of observation and patience. Modern science confirms their wisdom. Positive actions usually come full circle, but when the circles are on a global scale they so large that we often do not see it.


A FRIWAFTT* essay about Hong Kong

This posting is a bit of a FRIWAFTT (as in fools rushing in…) about the ongoing standoff between the Occupy Central/Umbrella Revolution protests (dominated by young people) and the Hong Kong government (as a proxy for the Politburo Standing Committee of the Communist Party of China).

Economic newspapers over the past several years have pointed to the rising Gini coefficient of income distribution in China. Jonathan Kaiman, writing for the Guardian newspaper in July 2014 says that China’s “Gini coefficient, a widely used indicator of economic inequality, has grown sharply over the past two decades. A Gini coefficient of zero represents absolute equality, while one represents absolute inequality. About 20 years ago, China’s Gini coefficient for family net wealth was 0.45, according to the People’s Daily website, a Communist party mouthpiece, but by 2012 it had risen to 0.73.
According to some analysts, societies that have a Gini coefficient of more than 0.40 are at increased risk of widespread social unrest. Data from the OECD gives the US the highest Gini coefficient in the G7, after taxes and transfers, at 0.39, followed by the UK at 0.34 and Italy at 0.32.”

The website socialindicators.org.hk lists the Gini coefficients for Hong Kong in 1981 and in 2011 at 0.45 and 0.54 respectively. In 2012, the Chinese government refused to release the country’s Gini coefficient to the World Bank and the UN. Using data from six surveys conducted by five universities in China, University of Michigan sociologist Yu Xie estimates China’s Gini at around 0.55 in 2012, perhaps a more accurate figure than the 0.73 of the Guardian article cited above.

China’s leadership has proved to be extraordinarily astute and capable in walking the tightrope between managing its exploding economy and keeping a firm hold on political power in the years since Deng Xiaoping’s famous maxim “it doesn’t matter whether a cat is white or black as long as it catches mice.” From the point of view of the Chinese leadership, the Hong Kong protests could prove to be a heaven sent opportunity to experiment with ways to nudge the Gini downward on the island before attempting to repeat the exercise on the mainland. If this long-term positive scenario plays out, then one should expect more turbulence in Hong Kong over the short to medium term while the necessary political nudging and jostling takes place.

*The author applies the FRIWAFTT label (fool rushing in where angels fear to tread) to himself since he is neither an economist nor an expert on Hong Kong affairs, but merely an observer with strong opinions that one is thankfully free to express in Hong Kong.


Fireflies, Orang Utans, Palm Oil and Climate Change

Borneo is the third-largest island in the world. Some of the world’s carbon is locked up in its tropical forests, a good reason to leave the forests untouched, but a strategy that condemns the locals to a life of relative poverty. Enterprising as people are, they find it profitable (and it affords their families a decent living wage) to cut down a few acres of tropical forest and plant oil palms instead. Harvesting around 10 acres of oil palms yields an annual income of US $ 20,000 a year. By doing this, they are depleting the world’s remaining store of carbon, but does the rest of the world have a moral right to object, having already done so in the more affluent parts of the world over decades and centuries past? When asked, a small farmer shrugs and points to the undulating stretches of forest behind him. “I’m taking only 10 acres, and there’s over 100 million acres of untouched forest behind me.” Which brings us to the moral conundrum of climate change. A similar answer is heard from anyone who drives a car or flies to a holiday destination in a plane (yours truly, in this case); it’s just one more drop in the ocean.

This way to the gaint

This way to the gaint

The giant among giants

The giant among giants. 88m to the crown

Surprisingly, in a tropical jungle, the undergrowth is not dense. One can see the forest and the trees.

Surprisingly, in a tropical jungle, the undergrowth is not dense. One can see the forest and the trees; but not the leeches!

Talking to a businessman in Tawau, the third-largest city in the Malaysian third of the island, he spoke of the pains taken to extract only some of the most valuable timber using heli-logging methods (with large helicopters) to lift harvested tree trunks from the jungle, leaving the surrounding growth and trees untouched for future generations, and with no access roads to encourage future encroachment. Clear-cutting, he assured, is practiced only on second and tertiary growth forests that are replanted for further harvesting. In Kalimantan, I was told, lightning strikes (both celestial and man-made) set fire to thousands of acres of primal forest, and these clearings are later used for palm oil plantations.

Orang Utans are shy, solitary creatures, which is just as well for them, since encounters with humans, their close relatives, has not been very beneficial to them. At the Rasa Ria Orang Utan rehabilitation center, and several other places on the island, considerable sums of money are invested in rescuing orphan orang utans from the wild. They are painstakingly rehabilitated over a period of 6 to 8 years before gradual release again into the wild. The rangers entrusted with the task are obviously dedicated to their charges and proud of the natural wealth of their island.

A young male Orang Utan relaxes during feeding at a rehabilitation center

A young male Orang Utan relaxes during feeding at a rehabilitation center

After nightfall, fireflies emerge from the trees like thousands of falling stars. During the daytime, proboscis monkeys, looking like simian philosophers, forage in the undergrowth

After nightfall, fireflies emerge from the trees like thousands of falling stars. During the daytime, proboscis monkeys, looking like simian philosophers, forage in the undergrowth



Will tourism provide for a sustainable Borneo? Only time will tell. Actually, what happens there is up to us, as we help to shape the future with our cumulative thousands and millions of daily actions.

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The lake of deeds, and a dyslexic scholar

Ramcharitamanas (the lake of the deeds of Rama) is one of the greatest works of Hindu literature. Written by Goswami Tulsidas in the 17th century, it was written in Awadhi, a dialect of Hindi, and made the epic Ramayana, till then only read by the privileged few, (mostly upper castes) who knew Sanskrit, available to the common man. This widespread access to the Ramayana stories led to the birth of the tradition of Ramlila, the dramatic enactment of text, all over the north of India.

Tulsidas lived during the reign of Mughal Emperor Akbar (the great, 1556-1605) who was noted for his religious tolerance, emphasised by his promulgation of Din-i-Ilahi, a religion derived from a syncretic mix of Islam, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism and Christianity. To underline the point the Emperor took three principal wives from three religious faiths; Muslim, Hindu and Christian. Presumably due to Akbar’s religious tolerance, the enactment of Ramlila’s beloved text spread through Mughal lands and were adopted by the Phad singers and puppeteers of Rajasthan where they are still performed today (see my earlier post: Facebook for the Gods). Akbar was believed to be dyslexic, so he was read to every day, had a remarkable memory and loved to debate with scholars.

Written in seven kandas or cantos, Tulsidas equated his work with the seven steps leading into the holy waters of a Himalayan lake, Manasarovar. The lake lies on the Tibetan plateau and covers an area of 320 sq. km. The name comes from the Sanskrit words manas, mind, and sarovara, lake and refers to the belief that Lake Manasarovar was created in the mind of Lord Brahma before it was manifested on earth.

Lake Manasarovar. 4590 m.

Lake Manasarovar. Tibetan Plateau, 4590 m.

Akbar’s acceptance of different religious beliefs led Time magazine to note in 2011 “While the creed (i.e. :Din-i-Ilahi) no longer lingers, the ethos of pluralism and tolerance that defined Akbar’s age underlies the values of the modern republic of India.” Quite a tribute to a dyslexic scholar emperor who died four hundred years ago!

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Wake up, world. China is changing.

The recent pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong have undoubtedly triggered change in China, according to Han Dongfang, a 1989 Tiananmen activist who now works in Hong Kong as a radio commentator. Since the gist of my post today comes from articles by other authors, a few acknowledgements are in order. First of all, thanks to Larry Willmore and his “Thought du Jour” blog posting on Hong Kong, reproduced in full (text in italics) below.

Secondly, thanks to Joe Studwell for his sensible and measured op-ed, published in the Financial Times of 7th October, on where the focus of the protests should lie (What Hong Kong needs is not a strategy that backs Xi Jinping, the Chinese president, into a corner, but one that resonates with his own mindset. This is why the protesters should refocus on Hong Kong’s tycoon economy, and the anti-competitive, anti-consumer arrangements that define it.) Anyone interested in Hong Kong should read the whole editorial!

And third, thanks to Han Dongfang and Quartz digital magazine for “advice from a 1989 activist.”


You may think, like the Heritage Foundation [and Milton Friedman!], that Hong Kong is a free market. However, except for external trade, it is not. ….Cartels are everywhere in Hong Kong. Supermarkets are a duopoly, one whose pricing power allows the chains to charge higher prices for the same products in some of Hong Kong’s most deprived areas. Drug stores are a duopoly. Buses are a cartel: high-priced, mostly cash-only, running shoddy, dirty diesel vehicles with drivers who earn a pittance. Electricity is provided by two, expensive monopolies that handle everything from generation to distribution, one on Hong Kong island and the other in Kowloon. The container ports are an oligopoly, with the world’s highest handling charges. Yet they will not supply onshore electricity to vessels, which must instead run diesel generators that pollute the city air.Joe Studwell, “Hong Kong should focus its fight on the tycoon economy“, Financial Times, 7 October 2014 (ungated link).

Joe Studwell is a freelance journalist based in Cambridge (UK). His latest book is How Asia Works: Success and Failure in the World’s Most Dynamic Region(Grove Press, 2013). He blogs at joestudwell.wordpress.com/.

Mr Studwell writes from the political left, so overlooks two features of Hong Kong that illustrate the paucity of free markets. First nearly half the population lives in public housing. Second, anyone with a Hong Kong ID is eligible for subsidized medical care in public facilities. There are 41 hospitals and 122 outpatient clinics run by the government’s Hospital Authority (HA), but only 13 private hospitals.


Hong Kong Protests, Day 8

Today, Sunday 5 October, marks day 8 of the peaceful protests in Hong Kong and the sometimes violent reactions that the protesters faced. For today’s update, I’ve posted a link to the blog of Jason Ng, a Hong Kong-born lawyer, writer and democracy activist. See more on Jason’s blog at the link below.