A Tale Fit For Aesop

You may remember reading one of Aesop’s fables when you were a kid.  Aesop was the ancient Greek — believed to have been a slave on the island of Samos — who lived around 600 B.C. and wrote short tales, often involving sentient animals, that always imparted a simple, direct moral lesson.

rat-for-rat-info-page-on-website-14-15Some of Aesop’s best-known efforts include the Fable of the Grasshopper and the Ant, in which the industrious ant works hard and saves for the winter while the shiftless grasshopper messes around and ends up starving (moral: look ahead and be prepared, or pay the consequences), or the Fable of Belling the Cat, where mice have a meeting to discuss how to protect themselves against a predatory cat, decide someone should put a bell on the cat so that the mice will know when the cat is approaching, and then realize that no mouse would be capable of attaching the bell (moral:  it’s easy to propose impossible solutions and harder to come up with remedies that actually can be accomplished).

I thought of old Aesop when I read this news story about a rat that somehow got into an ATM machine in India.  The rat crawled into the machine in the northern Indian town of Tinsukia, wasn’t detected by security cameras, gorged itself on $18,000 worth of Indian rupees — and then died.  It’s not clear whether the rat was killed by the ink and chemicals on the banknotes it chewed, or whether it became so bloated that it was unable to get out of the ATM after its feast.  In any case, the dead rat was discovered only after the ATM stopped working and technicians were sent to investigate.

Now, there’s a tale fit for Aesop!  But since he’s not around any more, we’ll have to come up with our own moral for this story of the money-loving rat.  How about:  “Gluttony is its own punishment”?  Or:  “A taste for money should only be indulged in moderation”?  Or:  “A rat with money is still just a rat”?

Lion

Last night Kish and I went to see Lion at the Drexel.  It’s one of those independent films that lurk under the radar screen and never get shown at the local suburban multiplex — but that really have an impact, where you find yourself thinking about it hours or days later.

Lion tells the story of “Saroo,” a five-year-old boy growing up in a desperately poor family in northern India.  To help his illiterate mother, who heads the family, Saroo and his older brother Guddu steal and sell coal and look for work whenever and wherever they can.  When Saroo convinces Guddu to take him on a quest for “night work,” everything breaks down.  Saroo finds himself trapped on a train that travels more than a thousand miles and deposits him in Kolkata, where he is alone and unable to speak the local language.  He becomes one of India’s lost children.  (Shockingly, the film notes, in the closing credits, that each year 80,000 Indian children become “lost.”)

The boy doesn’t know the  correct name of his home town, or his mother, and has no way to return.  The scenes of the small yet resourceful little boy trying to eke out a life in a vast city are unforgettable and heartbreaking — yet he survives, is eventually placed in an orphanage, and is adopted by an Australian couple who later adopt another Indian boy.

Twenty years later, Saroo has grown up in a beautiful waterfront home in Tasmania and speaks English with an Aussie accent.  He begins to find himself haunted by memories of his long-lost mother and brother and an overwhelming guilt that they have been frantically searching for him for all those years.  Using Google Earth, railroad routes and estimated speeds, and a lot of maps he starts a seemingly impossible quest to find his home town — a quest that complicates his relationship with his adoptive parents, his adoptive brother, and his girlfriend.

Lion is a well acted and filmed movie, with staggeringly beautiful scenes of the Indian countryside and overwhelming scenes of little Saroo abandoned in an uncaring city.  Dev Patel is excellent as the grown up, obsessed Saroo — showing acting range far beyond the comedic roles I’ve seen him in previously — and Nicole Kidman is equally good as the strong and loving adoptive mother who resolutely tries to hold her diverse family together.  But the movie is stolen by Sunny Pawar, who plays young Paroo with a genuineness that can touch even an insensitive brute like me.

Keep an eye out for Lion and try to see it in a theater, where you can fully appreciate the cinematography and really terrific soundtrack.  And if you do, be sure to stay in your seat until the very end — when you’ll learn why the file is entitled Lion.

The “New Space” Race

Yesterday, the Indian mission to Mars, called Mangalyaan, fired rockets that caused it to leave Earth orbit and begin a voyage that will see it rendezvous with Mars in September, 2014.  This morning China launched its first moon rover, with a rocket carrying the “Jade Rabbit” on a mission to explore the lunar surface.

India and China are competitors in a new space race.  They are vying to join the United States, Russia, and Europe in showing the scientific and engineering capability to conduct complicated space missions and enhance their international prestige as a result.

In the meantime, the focus of American space efforts have changed.  Although NASA continues to produce amazing unmanned space exploration missions, with the end of the shuttle program the United States government is temporarily out of the business of launching humans into space.  As the Washington Post has recently reported, the torch of manned space flight is being picked up by a number of private companies that are taking a different, more entrepreneurial approach.  Many of the companies are located in the Mojave desert — a location familiar to anyone who has read The Right Stuff and knows the history of the Mercury space program.  The companies feature imaginative business models that forecast how space flight and exploration can become a profitable venture.

As the Indian and Chinese missions show, there will always be a role for government in space.  Many of us regret that the federal government didn’t ignore the naysayers and move much more aggressively into space after the triumphs of the Apollo program with the building of a large, functioning space station, lunar bases, and other efforts.  But the government didn’t do so.  Now those of us who dream of space exploration should be pleased that private enterprise sees opportunities in the heavens.  The history of America has shown that capitalism can work wonders, and competition among companies can spur extraordinary technological advances.  If the same visionary leadership and engineering savvy that produced our personal computer and smartphone revolution can be brought to bear on the commercial development of space, who can say what opportunities might be realized?

Keep your eye on the high desert.  When we start reading more about readily available “space tourism” flights or mining efforts in the asteroid belt, we’ll know that the future envisioned in countless science fiction novels has moved a little bit closer.

The Web’s “Bad Neighborhoods”

Every city has a “bad neighborhood” — a squalid, dark, depressed area where sullen people are roaming the streets and the unwary stranger can easily be the victim of crime.  It turns out that the internet is the same way.

A Dutch researcher tried to determine if there are patterns to the generation of malicious email used in spam, phishing, and other fraudulent scams.  It was a huge task, because there are more than 42,000 internet service providers worldwide.  The researcher found, surprisingly, that about half of the malicious email that is the bane of modern electronic communications comes from just 20 of the 42,201 internet service providers.  The worst “bad neighborhood” was in Nigeria, where 62 percent of the addresses controlled by one network were found to be sending out spam.  Other cyberspace skid rows were found in India, Brazil, and Vietnam.

The hope is that the study will allow internet security providers to better understand the sources of malicious email and further refine filters to try to block the efforts of spammers and fraudsters.  It’s a worthy goal, but I’m not holding my breath.  There have always been people who would rather hoodwink people than earn an honest living, and the internet has provided them with a vast new arena in which to ply their criminal trade.  If they can’t use that “bad neighborhood” in Africa, they’ll just find another “bad neighborhood” somewhere else.

The Hitler Brand

What is it about Adolf Hitler that causes businesses in foreign countries to use his name to market their products?

First it was “Fuhrerwein” being sold in northern Italy, now it’s a Hitler clothing store — complete with a circular swastiska dotting the “i” — that has opened in a city in western India.  The owner says that he didn’t know that Hitler was the name of a Nazi dictator who gave the order to kill millions of innocent Jews.  Instead, he claims, “Hitler” was just a nickname given to the “very strict” grandfather of a friend.  Really?  And the very strict grandpa dotted the “i” with a swastika?  Give me a break!

It turns out that Hitler is popular in certain parts of India, because he is viewed as giving “dignity and prestige” to Germany.  Apparently Indian schoolbooks don’t teach people that he was a mass murderer whose bloody dictatorial reign made Germany a pariah state that, even now, 70 years later, is still trying to to live down the inexplicable horror of the Nazi years.

But hey . . . if using the name Hitler and the swastika brings curious people into the store and results in a few purchases that might not have occurred otherwise, what’s the harm of trading on the name of one of history’s most evil figures?

 

Grateful For Our Grid

In India, more than half the country has lost power as three different electrical grids have failed.

More than 600 million people — 600 million! — have been affected by the power outages.  That’s about two times the entire population of the United States.  Imagine the chaos if our entire country were suddenly to lose power.  Then, imagine that occurring in a smaller geographic region, where the density of people is much, much greater than is found here.  Then, think of thousands of cars trying to navigate through crowds of hundreds of thousands of pedestrians without traffic lights, subways and trains that have stopped running, hospitals without power, and food spoiling in withering heat.  Successfully imagine all that, and you still probably couldn’t grasp the current conditions in Delhi.

Interestingly, India has one of the lowest per capita rates of electricity usage in the world, and significant parts of the country are not wholly electrified.  Even so, its power grid simply is not capable of supporting the growing demand.

It makes me appreciate our power grid in this country, where outages usually occur only after devastating storms and service is typically restored within hours.  It also makes me wish that some of that stimulus money the federal government shelled out a few years ago had been spent on our power systems, rather than on unnecessary road improvements or other make-work, “shovel ready” projects.

Unknown Superstars In A Very Big World

It’s a big world out there, and here in America we don’t see a lot of it.

Consider the death of actor Rajesh Khanna, the first superstar of “Bollywood,” the Indian film industry.  Khanna, who was nicknamed “Kaka,” was a romantic actor who starred in more than 160 films that set sales records and were seen by millions.

At the height of his fame, Khanna was astonishingly popular.  According to one obituary, he was “like the Beatles” and was routinely mobbed by female fans who kissed his car, got married to his photograph, and sent him creepy marriage proposals written in their own blood.  When the tastes of Indian fans turned from romantic films to action-oriented movies, he went into politics and served in India’s Parliament.  His death was mourned by the President of India, its Prime Minister, and other political leaders.

In short, Rajesh Khanna was a huge figure for millions of people and instantly recognizable to them — but until today I’d never heard of him or any of his movies, and I’m guessing that the same statements would be made by most Americans.  It’s just another useful reminder that we live in a very big world, where many of the things that matter deeply to us are irrelevant to billions of fellow inhabitants of planet Earth and we, in turn, are blissfully unaware of the realities of their lives.

On The Value Of Free Public Toilets

What separates a “first world” country from a second or third world country?  Free and sanitary public toilets would be high on the list of distinguishing features.

In Mumbai, India, a campaign is underway to try to shame public authorities into establishing free public toilets for women.  Currently, women have to pay for the privilege of using a public toilet, while men can do so for free.  Moreover, there is a huge shortage of toilets, both public and private, in India.  Indeed, a recent survey showed that half — half! — of Indian homes do not have toilets.  As a result, it is commonplace for people to relieve themselves in public.  In a nation as crowded as India, that reality has obvious public health consequences, to say nothing of its negative effect on the sights and smells of everyday existence.

Americans take the existence of (relatively) clean and accessible public facilities for granted.  It’s hard to imagine what life would be like if they weren’t available — but in many parts of India that is the way of the world.  As India continues to surge forward to solidify its position as a global economic and military powerhouse, it also should focus on basic decencies like public toilets for its people.  You’re far more likely to be happy, productive, and full of self-respect if the call of nature doesn’t require you to squat, embarrassed, by the side of the road.

MF Husain, R.I.P.

This week has seen the passing of one of the world’s most legendary artists — a painter who was as celebrated and vilified in India as he was unknown in America.  His name was MF Husain (also spelled Hussain).

Husain, who often was called “India’s Picasso,” was a highly controversial figure.  He was an artist who did not shy away from the public or from political or religious themes in his paintings.  Indeed, Husain’s representations of Hindu deities in certain paintings got him into trouble in India, causing his home to be vandalized and eventually leading him to leave India and live in the Middle East.  He died in London.

Husain’s artwork is quite interesting, although it is not well known in the United States.  His most controversial painting apparently was Mother India, which I have posted with this piece and which shows a naked woman on a map of India.  Conservative Hindus were outraged by the piece and brought lawsuits against Husain for obscenity and sacrilege; the India Supreme Court eventually upheld dismissal of several of the cases because in India there is a deep-rooted tradition of sexual iconography and portraying nudity in artistic work.  Imagine, bringing an obscenity and sacrilege lawsuit based on a painting!

Water Wealth

This story about dropping water table levels in India, apparently due to excessive groundwater pumping, just reaffirms what I think will become an increasingly obvious fact: one of the greatest attributes of the American Midwest is an abundance of water. According to the U.S. EPA, the Great Lakes hold more than one-fifth of the world’s supply of fresh water, and the only bigger source — the polar ice caps — aren’t exactly accessible. In addition to the water stored in the Great Lakes, the Midwest is home to large rivers, like the Ohio and the Father of Waters itself, the mighty Mississippi. Our winters aren’t exactly filled with brilliant blue skies, but they do feature lots of rain, and snow, and sleet, and freezing rain, and other forms of bone-chilling precipitation that cause us to cinch our overcoats tighter and mutter under our breath.

The Great Lakes, shown from space

The Great Lakes, shown from space

The question for the Midwest is how to maximize this resource and put it to best use. To their credit, the state governments of the eight Great Lakes states, including Ohio, have been proactive on the issue. They have entered into the Great Lakes Compact, which provides for management of the fresh water in the lakes and, for the most part, bans diversion of the waters to locations outside the Great Lakes basin. The Great Lakes States therefore have said to the world, if you want our water, you’ll need to come to the American Midwest to get it. I think people ultimately will do just that.

What If India Won’t Play Ball?

India not only is balking at agreeing to limitations on carbon emissions, it also apparently is challenging the science underlying global warming theories. This development is noteworthy, because if India and the other growing economic powers — China, Brazil, and Indonesia — refuse to participate in some kind of binding worldwide effort to reduce our carbon footprint, it puts the United States in a terrible predicament.

Efforts to reduce carbon emissions involve both a scientific component and a geopolitical one. As I have written before, I am skeptical of the science underlying global warming and its heavy reliance on computer modeling. In any case, the geopolitical component is at least as important as the scientic. I do not mean to downplay the significance of getting agreement from countries like Germany and Japan on capping and eventually reducing their emissions, but at least part of that reduction will be achieved by the ongoing general population decline in those countries. Japan’s population, for example, is projected to decline from 128 million in 2008 to 95 million in 2050. Germany’s population is forecast to fall from 82 million in 2008 to 71 million in 2050. If a country is going to experience significant reductions in the number of people who drive cars, it is necessarily going to reduce its carbon emissions, without making any lifestyle sacrifices or handicapping its industry with regulations that raise costs and therefore prices.

What about China, India, Brazil, and Indonesia? According to the U.S. Census Bureau, those four countries and the United States are the five most populous countries in the world. And, unlike Japan and Germany, the populations in those countries are growing rapidly. India, which had about 1.1 billion people in 2008, is expected to become the most populous country in the world by 2050, with 1.7 billion carbon-consuming and carbon-emitting individuals. During that same time period, China’s population is projected to grow from 1.3 billion to 1.4 billion, Indonesia’s population is expected to grow from 240 million to 343 million, and Brazil’s population is forecast to grow from 195 million to 259 million. The population of the United States, on the other hand, is projected to grow from 304 million in 2008 to 438 million in 2050.

If countries like India and China refuse to agree to reducing greenhouse gases because they don’t want to saddle their growing economies with the costs that would accompany that effort, the impact of those decisions would obliterate any carbon emissions reductions achieved in Germany and Japan. Obviously, if any significant percentage of the 600 million new Indian citizens uses electricity generated by coal-fired power plants, wears clothing produced in smoke-belching factories, or drives a car powered by fossil fuels, the impact on India’s carbon footprint will be tremendous.

What does this mean for America? Perhaps it means that we should not charge blindly ahead with legislation designed to force our industry to comply with difficult regulations that can only increase the costs of the goods they produce and try to sell in the global marketplace. Our businesses already have to comply with significant wage and hour, safety, and environmental regulations that are not found in other countries. If we add carbon emission regulations that are rejected by other economies, the only immediate impact will be to make our companies even less competitive with those in India, China, and elsewhere. In an era of significant global economic challenges, taking unilateral action that cripples our industries and makes them less capable of employing Americans seems ill-advised — indeed, almost suicidal.