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Never Say No to a Witch: Mai dire no ad una Strega

This is a short story with a punch line in Italian that goes to show that some jokes or puns are untranslatable. But I’m going to try anyway, in an attempt to cross cultural barriers, as we all urgently need to do these days.  So here goes!

Never Say No to a Witch (a short short story)

Two failed crooks decide to rob a bank. They’ve both attempted bank robberies alone in the past, but their efforts have failed. Miserably. One has tried legal and accounting methods to embezzle money, and was forced into hiding when the embezzlement was discovered. The other attempted armed robbery and was forced to flee when the carabinieri turned up within seconds. The police car happened to have been stopped right outside the bank in a traffic jam when the emergency call came through. So these two hapless wannabes decide to join forces and pull off a major bank robbery using brain as well as brawn.

The smart(er) crook uses deceit and inside knowledge to determine the precise hour and date for the robbery. The second one gathers untraceable weapons from the black market to use in case force is needed. They slip into the bank just before closing hours on the appointed date. They force the terrorised customers and bank staff to the floor and storm the vault. At the open door to the vault sits an elegant black-clad lady behind a desk with a bottle of yellow liquor and two empty glasses on it.

“Move over,” snarls one, brandishing his weapon.
The woman calmly fills two glasses with the yellow liquid and proffers them.
“Have a glass of Strega,” she smiles.
“I said move over,” he snarls again. His finger tightens on the trigger.
In the split second before he fires, she flings the liquor in their faces and Poof! There is a blinding flash of light and the two men disappear! The elegant lady smiles and refills a glass.
“Mai dire no ad una Strega,” she whispers as she takes a sip. Never say not to a witch. (Translator’s note: Strega is an Italian liqueur. The word also means witch in Italian).

I dreamt up this story some time ago and the makers of Strega are quite welcome to use it in one of their ads if they wish. But the story is also meant as a parable and a warning to the European Union. If the bank in the above story represents the citizens of the united nations of Europe, one of the two robbers stands for the nationalist factions in the various countries that led to Brexit, the Italian rebellion, the rise of the AfD, and the move away from democratic norms. The second crook, the one who uses his legal background to determine the best time and method of entry represents the bureaucracy of Brussels and of the European parliament. Everyone is entitled to an honest wage, but there are too many EU bureaucrats with tax-free salaries who are completely out of touch with the citizens they represent. When they prescribe austerity measures for countries that fail to meet certain economic criteria, they should practice austerity on themselves as well, so that they share in the pain they inflict on the collective. This principle is just as true within individual countries of course.

EU Parliament, Brussels. Image courtesy EU.

Politicians seem to have forgotten that the word “minister” implies that one is a servant whose duty is to minister to the well-being of the public.It is reasonable for ministers and prime ministers to enjoy rank and honor as a reward for self-sacrifice and public service. But they are not royalty. They are not infallible. They are not entitled to rob the bank. As someone who is ardently pro-EU, I see there is great need for democratic reform within the EU. I also see the Brexiteers, the AfD, the xenophobes, and the far-right of every country are like the second robber, the unintelligent one, looking to force as a way to getting the reform that they want. But they are using failed methods. Nationalism, xenophobia and fascism have been tried before, and have only led to repeated wars and mass destruction on the continent. Europe needs the EU more than ever. The world needs the EU more than ever.

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Are You Choking on Carbon? #MeToo

I recently read of efforts by a young Swiss duo, both engineers, whose company, Climeworks, sucks CO2 out of the air and carbonates water, injecting the water underground into basaltic rock. To its own surprise, Climeworks finds that the gas converts to solid carbonate forms underground in a couple of years. So is this a stable way to remove greenhouse gases from the air? There are other uses for captured CO2 of course but the quantities are minuscule compared to global emissions. So the pundits talk of capturing the carbon dioxide and storing it in underground caverns or pumping it under pressure into the depths of the ocean. Why isn’t there more talk among technologists of reducing emissions, instead of accepting emissions as a given and figuring out ways of converting them at great cost to benign forms?

A friend recently commented on efforts to remove atmospheric CO2 and store it underground. It’s like swallowing gas, he says. You know what happens when you have too much gas. You either fart or burp, or both. Accumulated internal gas is painful and you wouldn’t do it to yourself, so why do they want to do it to the earth? Do they know what will happen when the earth farts? So why don’t we plant trees instead?

Relative strengths of major greenhouse gases. Image courtesy IPCC

Planting trees is a solution. An average tree sucks up 25 kilos of carbon per year. Humans emit 30 to 40 gigatons of CO2 every year. Let’s say emissions are kept at 30 gigatons a year. Thirty billion tons. That’s… let’s see, forty trees take up one ton per year, so multiply 30 billion by 40… so you get 1,200 billion. That’s 1.2 trillion trees per year just to break even!

How many trees are there on earth already? I found a BBC report of a 2015 Yale University study that estimates the number of trees currently on earth at 3 trillion. That’s 3,000,000,000,000. Since atmospheric CO2 concentrations are going up steadily, the situation would be much worse without these 3 trillion trees. So we still have to suck up the additional 30 gigatons a year, or else reduce emissions. If we take 7 billion to be the global population, leaving aside the old, the infirm and the very young, that leaves around 3 billion people of tree planting age worldwide. In order for 3 billion people to plant 1.2 trillion trees per year, each one will have to plant 400 hundred trees per year.

Persistence of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Image courtesy IPCC

Can (and would?) 3 billion people plant 1.2 trillion trees in a year? Of course not. But if even 10% of that number were to plant 10% of the target, we would be well on our way to doing what we need to do. Is this realistic? Quick answer: No. So is there a quick fix? Yes. Eat less meat. Depending on the type of feed, a cow produces 70 to 120 kg. of methane per year. Remember, methane as a greenhouse gas is 23 times more potent than CO2, so cutting down on meat is a quick way to reduce emissions. And it has the added benefit of freeing up pastureland for tree planting. So now we’re beginning to get a handle on things.

If we pump huge quantities of CO2 underground and undersea, the earth might fart (so to speak), with unintended consequences. But cows already fart on an ongoing daily basis, emitting considerable quantities of methane, so eating less meat is a relatively painless quick fix. And then there are lots of concomitant steps that are in the process of hesitantly being implemented, like switching to public transportation and electric cars. And, oh yes, the most environmental step the world is taking is the #MeToo movement! Let’s write that on our foreheads as a reminder to the world. Education and empowerment of women is the fastest way to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions and save our planet.

How much Prosperity?

Around 2009 economist Tim Jackson wrote a book called “Prosperity without Growth” that attracted the attention of policy makers worldwide. Maybe the excitement was mainly in the academic community, but I do know that Tim Jackson was sought after by policy makers and politicians for several years after the publication of his work. I assume the latter were looking for advice about ways to institute policies that would ensure deep systemic change. Of course they did not get any useful information. Jackson’s answers only showed what had to be done, not how to do it. That ‘how to’ is the preserve of politicians and, ultimately us, the electorate.

This brings me to the real reason for failures of governance. Us. We. The. People. Many years ago I had a brief interview with the foreign minister of a country and asked him why he did not implement what we both agreed would be a common sense measure to enhance regional food security at practically no cost. The helplessness implicit in his reply was illuminating. One of the ‘aha’ moments of my life. “Bring me a mandate,” the minister said, “and I will gladly take this decision.” In that moment, like cascading coins from a slot machine, the realization dawned. In democracies, it is us. We have to use our starling intelligence, as members of the swarm to mould societies as we wish. In travels through many countries I’ve noticed that where people sit back and complain about the government, the corruption, the lousy politicians; they are not doing anything much to change the status quo.

Starling image courtesy Wikipedia

In the words of George Monbiot, writing in the Guardian, we have only the one planet, but we’re living a four-planet lifestyle. In 2018 Earth Overshoot Day fell already on the 1st of August. This is the earliest date since the practice began in the 1970s, calculated by the WWF and the Global Footprint Network. This is the date when humanity’s annual demand on Nature exceeds what the Earth can regenerate over the entire year. In other words, this is the date when we begin to rob the bank. And most of us, good people, in our struggle to provide a comfortable life for our families, in ensuring livelihoods for our children, are totally oblivious to this. So before the politicians act, we have to change ourselves, reduce our demands on the planet. Sometimes this can mean enriching our lives by doing more with less. And very often this change begins with an inward journey that only we can make. No politician can ever do this for us. The transformation that the world needs is inside of us. All of us.

 

Stewardship of the Earth – R.I.P. Simba

Many years ago, I was shocked when an economist friend of mine (not you, Larry) said “so what?” in response to my moaning about arctic sea ice loss and the threat of extinction to polar bears. The economist in question is a thoughtful, gentle human being who would never think of himself as cruel or unkind. But he was thinking in terms of economic resources for human needs and, like a lot of people, myself included, who are stuck in their heads (i.e. nurture their intellect and take pride in it), they see themselves as thinking people, and therefore naturally superior – unthinkingly superior – to all other living things.

I came to humility rather late in life. This late-found humility was triggered by a number of factors; the increasing number of vegetarians and vegans in my circle of acquaintance, the anti cow-slaughter movement in India, increasing evidence of methane emissions from cattle farming for meat, and a video about South African Anna Breytenbach who has made interspecies communication her life’s work. I had always appreciated animal pets as sentient beings, but Breytenbach’s work, in particular, brought me to see them at eye level so to speak, dispelling any vestigial notion of superiority. Yes, we can think faster, outwit them in IQ tests, juggle, ride bicycles, add numbers, make wars – and exploit our planet – much better than they ever can. Despite all this, if we don’t recognise them as sentient beings with as much right to live as we do, then we put our own humanity, and humankind, at risk.

A friend recently remarked on the number of stray dogs in her neighbourhood. She complained that animal rights activists were busy protecting the rights of the dogs, while ignoring the plight of poor people in the same area who were struggling to eke out a living. I neglected to point out at the time that a government that does not respect the rights of animals as sentient beings is much less likely to respect the rights of economically powerless people. Take the case of infrastructure. When have rich people ever lost their homes and land to make way for a dam? If you can show me an example, I would wager they were richly compensated and ended up materially better off than before. Never so in the case of the poor. The same applies to roads. An eight-lane highway is deemed necessary and land is appropriated, very often from people who can never afford to use that highway.

And so I come in this roundabout way to the fact that Simba died two nights ago. This blog posting is a mark of respect to the passing of a much loved animal. She was only a cat, but she was a sentient being. R.I.P. Simba.

Soccer as Development: Rooting for Senegal

Aristotle famously said, one swallow does not a summer make. In the same vein, one could also say, eleven soccer players do not a nation make. Nevertheless, the collective pride of a nation gathers behind its soccer team once every four years while millions of people take heart or lose hope when their national team scores goals or is defeated. One way of looking at soccer is as a proxy war. Much better to slug it out on the soccer field than on the battlefield. But to my mind there’s a connection between soccer and development as well.

African Crowned Eagle, Senegal. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Economic development has a lot to do with collective confidence. Way back in 1990, Cameroon’s Roger Milla became an international star on the World Cup stage in Italy that year. He was one of the oldest players on the field, and his habit of doing a victory dance in corner field after scoring a goal made him a celebrity worldwide, not only among soccer fans. It was during these World Cup weeks that I drove to Schärding, a small town in Upper Austria, close to the German border, to spend a weekend exploring a newly opened bicycle path between Schärding and Passau in Germany. In the evening, after a long ride, when I entered the Gasthaus where I had taken a room for the night, the owner behind the bar did a double take and shouted, “Schau, schau. Der Roger Milla ist da.” Look, look, there’s Roger Milla. Everyone turned around to look, some cheered, and I could think of nothing better to do than imitate Roger Milla’s victory dance. The evening went off very well after that. Some of the regulars in the room seemed to think I really was Roger Milla and asked me how come I spoke such good German. (I was born in India, by the way and none of my friends think I even remotely resemble Roger Milla).

When I describe this incident, people ask me: how did you feel? Wasn’t that terribly racist?
Wait a minute, I tell them. Don’t be so quick with the R word. In a part of the world where there are few visible minorities, most people tend to be ethnically challenged. They see only themselves and other people like them, and everyone else is simply ‘the other.‘ This ethnic ignorance is the source of strength of divisive political leaders; the Orbans, the Kaczynskis, and the Petrys of Central Europe. To give an example of how I see it; I recently went on a field trip with a bunch of bird watchers. Where I only saw sparrows and the occasional bul-bul, they saw flycatchers, minivets, drongos, three kinds of woodpecker, kingfishers and many, many more. So too, with the ethnically challenged. Until they learn to see human life in all its rich variety, they will see only two kinds of people: us and them!

So that’s why I wish the Senegal team does well on the soccer field and even hope they win the World Cup, for maybe then, even the most ethnically (or ornithologically) challenged among us will finally realize: there are not only sparrows in Senegal, there are crowned eagles too.

Chasing Digital Dreams; Neglecting Nature’s Notebooks

I recently heard from a friend whose teenage son seems to be an atypical teenager. He’s home-schooled for one. And he doesn’t have a smart phone. He grew up running around barefoot in nature and learned naturally to avoid carelessly standing on ants nests. Once you’ve been bitten by a swarm of angry ants, you’re not likely to repeat the mistake. There are snakes and centipedes in the woods that surround his home. He is not afraid of them, but has learned to respect them.

He recently went to a local international school to write his board exams. The school is an approved center for these exams and he was registered to appear there as a private candidate. He was thoroughly perplexed by the behaviour of his peers during the exams, as they frantically  peered (no pun intended) at their smart phone screens until the last possible minute, and then convulsively reached for the same as soon as they had handed in their papers. This obsessive relationship with their smart devices was alien to him, making him think that smart devices seem to make their owners look less smart. For me, as an adult who has managed to leave this compulsive obsession with social media behind, it’s refreshing to see a teenager who’s in tune with his surroundings, has a sense of fun, loves the outdoors, and reads without compulsion.

Yes, smartphones; but do they make the owners smarter?
Image courtesy: stories.flipkart.com

Some years ago I followed the blog of another teenager who was brought up on a sailboat and had lived most of his life at sea, with periodic long spells on land, wherever his multi-talented parents happened to find a job. Home schooled again, he was no stranger to electronic devices, mainly those used in navigation systems. Judging by the blog, this young man was whip smart and culturally savvy. His descriptions of short stays in several countries (Mexico, Malaysia etc) revealed astounding sensitivity and depths of insight into the social mores of the countries he visited. Unfortunately his blog has disappeared from the web, otherwise I’d have posted a link.

A recent trip to a rain forest with a group of young people reaffirms my belief that the best education for young people is to open their eyes to the world around them, encouraging them to read from Nature’s notebooks, in addition to absorbing the accumulated wisdom contained in printed books. Some lines from a poem by Harindranath Chattopadhyaya seem most relevant here.

In days gone by I used to be
A potter who would feel
His fingers mould the yielding clay
To patterns on his wheel;
But now, through wisdom, lately won,
That pride has died away,
I have ceased to be the potter
And have learned to be the clay.

In other days I used to be
A poet through whose pen
Innumerable songs would come
To win the hearts of men;
But now, through new-got knowledge
Which I hadn’t had so long,
I have ceased to be the poet
And have learned to be the song.

 

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On Leeches, Jungle, Bliss and Beauty: things we have lost

I had the privilege of spending a week in a pristine rain forest in the northern Western Ghats with a handful of people best described as practitioners of deep ecology. Which means we moved about in the jungle in the least invasive manner humanly possible, on foot, leaving no footprints behind. On the contrary, it was the forest that left deep footprints in our memories. Here was a small segment of the planet that has been allowed to retain its wildness and its purity. It is still possible to drink water from these streams; pure, unfiltered, sweet; and we did, the whole week. Yes, there are leeches in paradise and my companions taught me to scrape them off with a fingernail from their tail end to dislodge them. “They have a right to live too, and we are the invaders in their habitat.” So-called primitive societies knew how to live in symbiosis with Nature, without the need to ‘conquer‘ it. Our modern civilization, with all its immense achievements, has ‘conquered‘ Nature and with climate change, we are currently witnessing the Pyrrhic depths of our victory.

In the forest, we bathed in rock pools and under waterfalls, luxuriating in Nature’s bounty. Birds, butterflies, trees, and insects were identified and added to lists in notebooks. Latin names of species and botanical names were bandied about freely among the group. “We use the Latin names as definitive identifiers, since local names vary widely, sometimes from one village to the next.” We tasted button-sized jamun fruit (Syzygium Jambulanum, a.k.a.Java Plum, Jambul, black plum, faux pistachier, jambolāo… see what I mean about variations in local and regional names?), mini jackfruits, a variety of Kokum (Garcinia Indica), a cousin of the cashew fruit from a young tree with cashew-like leaves, and the leaves of a tree that left a mildly sweet taste on our tongues when chewed (apparently used as an ingredient for weight loss by the health food industry). I was told about, but did not see, a tree, the underside of its leaves as rough as sandpaper, and used as such by forest tribes to smooth wooden implements and furniture.

We stood at dawn under the eaves of a hut and listened to the Malabar Whistling Thrush sing its daily morning ode to joy. As it sang, I was told that they love the rain and welcome the monsoon with redoubled full-throated vigor.

Malabar Whistling Thrush (also known as the naughty schoolboy)

I learned that, of the many species of colorful butterflies that flitted through the forests, the ones that flew fast and rarely sat still were usually a favored food of birds and insects that preyed on lepidoptera. Some beautiful specimens, on the other hand, hardly bothered to conceal themselves and were often seen lazily gliding down from the treetops to eye level, knowing they were toxic to most predators. Most spectacular among them was the Malabar Tree Nymph, Idea Malabarica. I had never before seen a butterfly glide so far with hardly a flutter of its wings.

Malabar Tree Nymph – Idea Malabarica

The herpetologist in the group, a snake lover from childhood, thrust a hand into the undergrowth and brought it out to reveal a foot-long, slender green snake curled around his arm; a non-venomous vine snake. “Touch only its underbelly,” he cautioned. “Only predators touch a snake on its back and this causes them stress.” he gave us time to admire it for a few moments before allowing it to slide back into the undergrowth where it immediately became invisible again. A few moments later a metallic blue-black centipede wriggled across our path, looking for all the world like a shiny finished industrial product from Apple rather than a denizen of the wild. We respectfully watched it cross our path before continuing our walk.

While shy langurs leapt about among the topmost branches of the forest canopy, our guide showed us pale gray chalk-like lumps on the ground among the bushes. “Leopard scat,” he said. “There are several in this area, but they’re noctural and shy away from humans. I’ve not seen one in my two years here. There are sloth bears as well, but they too are very reclusive and we never see them” Just as well, since sloth bears, despite their name are very fast and can easily outrun humans.

In the evenings, there were more walks to look at the endless varieties of birds and trees, and we invariably ended up at woodland streams to bathe under a waterfall or soak in rocky pools, taking care not to pollute the water with soaps, creams or lotions. For cosmetic use, the woods provided us with wild aloe vera and a plethora of other medicinal plants I knew nothing about. On the way back to the hut that was our sleeping quarters, a few bits of sambrani were carefully scraped off the bark of a tree. Also known as benzoin resin, gum benzoin or gum Benjamin, it is used in perfumes, incense and medicines. Sambrani usage has a long tradition in India, and its sweet smelling smoke is used during pujas (religious ceremonies) and also in Christian churches to sanctify the communion service.

Nature’s bathtubs and showers: rocky pools and waterfalls

Standing 1 meter tall, this flower exudes a smell of rotting flesh when mature, thereby attracting insects that help pollinate it.

The week spent here was mind-expanding and humbling at the same time. How much knowledge have we lost in the race to industrial progress? How much intrinsic knowledge and wisdom of “uneducated peasants” have we ignored, simply because they had no diplomas on paper, no degrees from institutions of higher learning. After this week, I can’t help thinking, it is we urbanites who have lost out.

 

See this author’s page at Amazon.com to read more of his work