Friday, May 31, 2013

A shipwreck in South China Sea

About 200 Km west of Palawan island, located at the southwestern end of the Philippine archipelago, two scattered groups consisting of few rocks, project out from the deep waters of the South China Sea. During low tides, much of the reef is above water. It even encloses a small lagoon. The rocks, known as “First Thomas Shoal” and “Second Thomas Shoal (also known as Ayungin),” are part of “Spratly islands” group and have gained in recent years some importance from a strategic point of view. Out of these two reefs, “Second Thomas Shoal is considered as a strategic gateway to Reed Bank, believed to be rich in oil and natural gas. Philippines claims that Reed bank tabletop, where all the oil and gas fields are supposed to be located, is within the country’s 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone.

There have been claims and counterclaims of littoral countries of the region, on these reefs, which are a part of Spratly islands. In 1999, in a sudden action, Malaysia occupied Erica Reef and Investigator Shoal. Responding to this, Philippines purposefully ran aground two ships, BRP Sierra Madre and BRP Benquet, on Ayungin (Second Thomas) Reef and Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal during the same year. China, claiming sovereignty over Spratly Islands, requested the Philippines to remove the grounded ships. The Philippines immediately replied that it will do so whenever it can remove the ships. However, the one on Scarborough Shoal, was the only ship that was removed. On the contrary , considering the importance of the Shoal as a gateway to reed bank, Philippines actually assigned soldiers to take shelter on the grounded ship at Ayungin Reef and they continue to do so even today.

In 2010, Manila awarded an Anglo-Filipino consortium a license to explore for gas on Reed Bank but drilling stalled last year due to the presence of Chinese ships. Manila says that Reed bank is within the coutries 200 nautical miles exclusive economic zone, whereas Chinese say that it is part of Spratly Islands over which China has undisputed sovereignty.

This week, all of a sudden, three Chinese ships including a naval frigate appeared on the horizon and moved up to a distance of 9 Km from the old and rusting transport ship, ran aground by Philippines and over which a dozen Philipino marines have been stationed. This action immediately ringed alarm bells all over ASEAN as many of the members already have running territorial disputes with China. A Philippines spokesman asked the Chinese to immediately pull out of the area as they were clearly in the waters belonging to Philippines. Chinese refused to vacate from this area saying that “Second Thomas Shoal” was part of the Sparatly Islands over which China had indisputable sovereignty.

So, here we go again. China having just managed to create another international incident similar to what it did on Depsang plains in northeast Ladakh on border with India, where 30 or 40 Chinese troops encroached 27 Km on India's side of Line of control making it somewhat difficult to comprehend the logic and motive behind these repetitive Chinese actions.

An Analyst from Institute of Southeast Asian studies says: “ Tension at Second Thomas Shoal could prove more dangerous than last year's standoff at unoccupied Scarborough Shoal, given the presence of Philipino troops.” He adds: “It is hard to imagine China using force to gain control.... but some kind of blockade to drive out the Philipines troops would be a possibility. There is a real chance of escalation or miscalculation.” This feeling was echoed by another senior Philippine navy officer, who said that the Philippines believed China was trying to pressure it to leave the shoal. He added :“We don’t want to wake up one day with fresh structures sitting near our navy ship there. We have to bite the bullet and strengthen our position there or risk losing the territory.” China says, it was merely acting to prevent illegal fishing in Chinese waters.

There is another striking similarity between this incident and Depsang plain incident in Ladakh, which happened weeks before Chinese premier Li Keqiang was to visit India and hold important bilateral discussions. Here also, the incident has taken place just before US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel meets his Asia-Pacific counterparts at the so-called Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore at the weekend. The South China Sea is on the agenda of the regional security forum. Also Chinese President Xi Jinping will be visiting the United States in June. A Chinese military think tank have already put the blame for the incident on the US “pivot” back to Asia which had “shattered” the relative calm of the South China Sea, warning of crisis ahead.

After Philipino protests, Chinese frigate and some fishing boats have cleared the area but two Chinese marine surveillance ships remain near “Second Thomas Shoal.”

The flashpoint may not create fire at this point of time, just like Depsang plains incident, but potential of conflict remains creating much tension in South-East Asia and ASEAN.

31 May 2013.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

India deploys front line fighters at a new base in deep south

Thanjavur is a historic town deep in the interior of the southern state of TamilNadu on India;s east coast. The city is an important agricultural centre located in the Cauvery river Delta and is known as the "Rice bowl of Tamil Nadu". In the year 1674, a Maratha feudatory “Ekoji I,” who was also the half brother of the great Maratha king “Shivaji,” successfully conquered  Thanjaur and founded the Thanjavur Maratha kingdom which ruled Thanjavur till 1855. The Marathas exercised their sovereignty over Thanjavur throughout the last quarter of the 17th and the whole of the 18th century before British rule took over.

India's defense minister inaugurated a new air force base situated near this town, this week. An airfield of World War II vintage existed here. In 1990 this was used as a civilian airport with a lone flight operating to Chennai every day. Eventually this was stopped and the air field remained disused, The air field has been done up and and has been converted into a spanking new air force station that will handle fighters, transport planes and refuelling aircraft.

What surprised the observers was the decision to base a squadron of India's front line Sukhoi Su-30 fighter aircraft here, making it the first fighter squadron in Tamil Nadu. Along with the fighter squadron some Unmanned aerial vehicles, UAVs and committed air warriors would be deployed here. Ever since their induction in the air force, Su 30 aircraft were always deployed in bases that served India's western and eastern border areas. This was logical and obvious with India's two troublesome neighbours, Pakistan and China fomenting trouble on the borders. The air squadron is expected to be fully operational by 2017.

The defense minister himself explained the reasons for establishing a full-fledged air station almost near the tip of the southern peninsula, was dedicated to the nation here by Defence Minister A.K. Antony on Monday. He mentioned that considering the current geopolitical scenario and in view of the threat perception in the oceanic region around the peninsula, assets envisaged for this futuristic air base would be able to provide maritime security cover to all strategic and vital installations in this region. According to him this base would be able to protect the territorial waters and borders from any kind of threat. He felt that the strong presence of IAF fighter squadrons in stations like Thanjavur, the country can be confident and feel safe.

I am giving here a Google Earth map of this region with a circle superimposed to mark the operational range of Su 30 aircraft. Three important observations can be made from this map. The Indian island of Andaman and Nicobar, where a strong air force and navy presence already exists, and the Maldives archipelago falls within this operational area. I have also drawn roughly the maritime trade shipping channels used by all countries in this part of world including China. Most of the oil is carried along these channels from middle east. Thanjaur air base covers this shipping channel completely right up to Melaka straits. This map would make it clear, why India has established this base here and how critical it is going to be with growing Chinese naval presence in Indian ocean area.

As per statement issued by Air Chief Marshal NAK Browne, Chief of Air Staff, the Thanjaur air force station is likely to emerge as a major establishment as air force has extensive plans to equip the airbase with more assets. It is quite amusing to see how security concerns scenario is evolving for India and how strategic steps are being taken to address the concerns.

30 May 2013

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Roaches are forever

I am aware that for most of the feminine readers of my blog, subject matter of this post is not likely to be very palatable, yet I have found it so interesting that I would request them to suppress their natural aversion and continue reading it because the facts are absolutely amusing. I am writing here about Roaches, Cockroaches to be precise.

Perhaps there is no other organism, which is found everywhere on this globe. Cockroaches have been here from the Carboniferous period or from 354–295 million years as fossils from this period have shown their presence. They come in all kinds of shapes, sizes and packages. There are about 4,600 species of cockroaches against 5400 species of mammals and only 30 species from this long list are considered as pests. The world's smallest cockroach is only 0.3mm long and lives in ant nests. The heaviest cockroach is the huge Australian Rhinoceros Cockroach that grows to length of 8 centimeters.

A team from North Carolina State University in US, led by Dr Coby Schal has been studying cockroach behaviours for more than 2 decades. Researchers from this team first noticed 20 years ago, that some pest controlling poisons were failing to eradicate cockroaches from households and other properties, because the insects were simply refusing to eat the bait. The team decided to take up a study of cockroach behaviour to food.

In an article published in the journal Science, Dr Coby Schal has explained the results of this new study that has revealed a "neural mechanism" in cockroaches behind this refusal. Dr. Schal's team carried out experiments in two parts. In the first part of the experiment, the researchers offered the hungry cockroaches a choice of two foods - peanut butter or glucose-rich jam [known as jelly in the US]. Dr. Schal writes "The jelly contains lots of glucose and the peanut butter has a much smaller amount.” Surprisingly researchers found that " The mutant cockroaches tasted the jelly and jumped back. They were repulsed and then they swarm over the peanut butter."

In the second part of the experiment, the scientists immobilised the cockroaches and used tiny electrodes to record the activity of taste receptors (cells that respond to flavour that are "housed" in microscopic hairs on the insects' mouthparts.) By analysing the electrical impulses, the team was able to find out exactly why the cockroaches were so repulsed from eating sweet food.

There are specific cells in the mouth of all animals and insects that respond to a specific taste such as bitter, sweet etc. In case of these cockroaches, the cells that normally would respond to bitter compounds were actually responding to glucose, which meant that they were perceiving glucose to be a bitter compound. The sweet specific cells also responded in this case, but cells that responded to bitterness actually inhibited the cells responding to sweet taste. So the end result was that bitterness could override sweetness.

Highly magnified footage of these experiments clearly shows how a glucose-averse cockroach reacts to a dose of the sugar. Dr. Schal says: "It behaves like a baby that rejects spinach. It shakes its head and refuses to imbibe that liquid, at the end, you can see the [glucose] on the side of the head of the cockroach that has refused it."

I find this extremely amusing. We humans are told all the time by medical profession and dietary experts, how sweets and junk foods are bad for our health, but even with our advanced brains and knowledge, we have not been able to get away from these foods, whereas a lowly insect has modified itself so that it can avoid glucose and a possible death by eating along with it some other poisonous substances used in pest controllers.

The process of natural selection, discovered by Charles Darwin in 1858 would suggest that over a period of time, such individual cockroaches, that have by chance the genetic change that causes them to avoid the sweet bait and therefore death, would have a greater chance of survival and reproducing. It is natural that their descendants with the trait would in time, replace those that lacked the trait in the cockroach population. Dr. Schal says that this is the same process that has led to the evolution of antibiotic resistance in disease-causing bacteria, and warfarin resistance in rats.

According to Dr Schal, this was another chapter in the evolutionary arms race between humans and cockroaches. He adds: "We keep throwing insecticides at them and they keep evolving mechanisms to avoid them, I have always had incredible respect for cockroaches," he added. "They depend on us, but they also take advantage of us." Very true!

This household insect, hated most by almost everyone, thus has won a major battle against sweets that could lead it to its death, something we humans simply are unable to do. Even if we hate cockroaches, it is high time that we respect them.

29 May 2013

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Dinner theater

As a major attraction, many of the places, that are famous for fine dining, usually offer to their customers, some form of some live artistic performances. These are normally in form of instrumental or vocal music and even Jazz bands. Sometime back, I had visited a small place in Chicago, where a Jazz band would play every evening entertaining the patrons. I also remember that on Bengaluru's Brigade road, there was one such restaurant and where I would invariably go for my dinner, whenever I was in town for some business trip or other, simply because a smooth voiced male singer, with a good instrumental accompaniment, would sing there, all the latest hits of Bollywood actor/singer “Kishor Kumar.” I still remember his rendering of a famous song from a Bollywood hit film “Amar Prem.” I have forgotten now even the name of the restaurant, yet vividly remember, the rendering of that song. Such is the power of music. No doubt that a live musical performance, adds immensely to the ambiance of the eatery.

A restaurant in Singapore has now taken this dinner time entertainment a step further. It has started offering a short drama play to the diners for a few days, while they enjoy some finest gourmet food. Fine Palace cafe, located on Waterloo street, is offering a somewhat morbidly titled play “The Woman who cooked her Husband” to the diners. However, the audience, would not be served the cooked husband (Ha Ha!) but a 3 course gourmet dinner. The audience would be limited only to 30 patrons.

As I see it, one possible outcome of such kind of entertainment, could be that the patrons would neither fully enjoy the drama nor the food, as their attention wold get divided. This was really a challenge faced by the creative team as it wanted to incorporate the food served to the patrons into the theatrical event itself so that the diners would not feel the whole effort as a disconnected “dinner theater event.” Singapore is known world over, as a “foodie” country and food is highly regarded here. Show organizers hope that foodies of Singapore would be enticed to watch the drama because of gourmet menu.

Initially the idea was that the actors themselves would be serving the food. The idea was quickly vetoed by the restaurant management because to serve 30 patrons efficiently a much larger number employees would be needed. So now the kitchen and the wait staff will be on hand to prepare and serve food as the show goes on.

The audience would now choose from a watered down version of standard menu. Since the original play was written by an English author and produced in England around 1990, the show organizers have selected dishes that emphasize modern European cuisine with an Asian touch.

The logistics of serving food is now linked to the plot of the play. Everything has been fixed in such a way that serving would be linked with specific time markers from the play. An interesting problem, however remains to be solved. Throughout this play, some of the characters are shown drinking and the actors want real alcohol served to them. The show organizers remain worried and hope that they do not have to physically carry the actors home because they are drunk.

27 May 2013

Monday, May 27, 2013

The back door

I grew up in a joint family, which consisted of, besides my parents and a sibling, my grand parents and grand grand mothers. In addition, we always had couple of old widowed ladies staying with us, who were family acquaintances and had no where else to go. They just stayed with us and helped my mother and grand mother with the household duties. That is how it used to be in most of the households in India, half a century ago. We had a fairly big, multistoried house with each individual having a room for himself. My parents and we kids, had a suite for ourselves. The kitchen, dining room and toilets were all common. There was no luxury of attached bathrooms.

Our house had three doors. The front door was very formal looking leading to a lobby and a staircase. The lobby opened into a veranda, which had another door opening into a court yard. There used be one more door near the pantry and washing rooms, from which usually servants came in and went out.
Surprisingly, the front door of the house was used very seldomly, mainly when we had some important guests visiting us or at the time of Deepavali festival, when my mother would lighten up rows of oil burning earthen lamps on both sides outside the door. Except for such occasions, the front door remained closed, locked with a padlock. Everyone used the veranda door, which was always referred as back door. All our relatives, acquaintances, postmen knew that to approach our house, they needed to ring the bell on the back door. Everyone in the house had almost forgot that our house also had a front door.

 (Photo- The Hindu)

As I grew up, I soon realized that the concept of a back door was not so simple and straight forward like the back door in our house. A back door had meanings like “Fifty shades of gray” or had many undertones in it. In those days, India faced great shortages of almost all commodities including food, cooking oils and sugar. These commodities were rationed and used to be sold through Government controlled shops at prescribed prices. However, every time I passed along the street, where our ration shop was located, I would always see notice boards proclaiming no stocks of these commodities. Still, we always managed to get our rationed quota of food every week or fortnight. We had a man Friday in our house. We used to call him “Babu” though his real name was Mohamad Shaikh. “Babu” would make trips to ration shops with three or four giant canvas bags attached to his bicycle every week and bring back cereals, oil and sugar from the ration shop. Once I asked him  the secret of his success with the ration shop, when the shop displayed boards declaring that there were no stocks available of these commodities. He had just laughed and told me that everything is easily available from back door. I had then learned for the first time, one of the uses of these words.

Any foreign visitor arriving at an Indian airport, experiences serpentine queues at the immigration counters moving at snail's pace. He would also see some special people arriving on the same flight as his, being taken to the immigration counter by a special route and being cleared quickly. These people would be usually accompanied by some humble airport staff, who would whisper something in the ears of the immigration officer and these people would be through, whereas others, including the foreign visitor himself, would rot in the long queue. This would be that foreigner's first experience of the back door system prevalent in India.

Back door systems works everywhere. Be it getting admissions for your child in a kindergarten school or buying rail tickets. Sometime back, Indian railways introduced computerized on line reservation systems to overcome the back door system. However, Indians are always super ingenious, when they face such minor challenges. A glitch was soon discovered by which front door ticket sale could be blocked , while agents got tickets for their back door customers.

Till liberalization of 1990's, vehicle production was totally controlled by the Government. A Fiat car would take more than 12 years to arrive at your door. Even a modest two wheeler scooter delivery could take as many years. If you needed a scooter yesterday, What would you do? It was simple! Use the back door entry and get it. You may have to pay double or triple the price, but delivery would be next day. There were thousands of intelligent people, who would book scooters on names of every family member and when it was delivered, sold it back to the dealer himself with lots of premium. Dealer would then sell it to the needy customer coming from back door. Wasn't it a simple arrangement?

Even in International relations, Indian are very clever. Pakistan and China are two of our neighbours, with whom India has border disputes and strained relationships. It is almost impossible to start any direct negotiations with them as their would be public anger. So, the Government sometime back started back door negotiations and called it track II or track III discussions. These track II or track III negotiations also did not bring out desired results. But that is a different story.

Recently, I renovated my old house. In the new plan, our beloved back door and the veranda were demolished. We all now use the front door, though I miss the back door no doubt. I might have changed my entry from back to front door, but not so by Indians. In India, back door entry is the surest way of acquiring or getting entry to anything you want quickly and surely. Back door reigns supreme in India.

27th May 2013

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Parenthood for sale? No way!

More than a decade ago (2002), I had watched a Bollywood movie, dealing with a subject that was quite revolutionary and path breaking at that time: surrogate motherhood. The film was about a married couple, who found that they can never have a baby because the lady could not carry the fetus during pregnancy and how her best friend agreed to become a surrogate mother.

Today, surrogacy has not remained a taboo any more and there are fertility clinics in India that offer this service commonly. Many married women with children, agree to carry someone else's fetus for full 9 months to be able to earn a substantial chunk of money that awaits them, when the baby is delivered and which can help in their own children's education or meet some other expenditures. I do not want to discuss here ethics or propriety of surrogacy, because it is now socially accepted and considering the facts that many childless couples can finally find a new joy in their lives and the baby is genetically theirs, there could hardly be any moral objection to it.

However, there are many unfortunate couples, for whom even surrogacy can not help, because the woman is unable to produce an egg that can be impregnated in a petri dish. If such a couple wants to have a baby, they do not need surrogate mothers, but female egg donors. In such cases, many other issues crop up. All parents want their children to look like themselves. For this reason, Japanese or European couples may not accept an Indian egg donor even though in these affluent countries, it is rather difficult to find an egg donor. However, as far as Europe is concerned, they have found a new source plentyful of egg donors, after the Spanish economic disaster. Spain has become a new destination for women and couples seeking to become pregnant through in vitro fertilization in recent years, because egg donors are plentiful.

I recently read about the case of a Spanish woman, Mónica Campos, a 34 year old Spanish lady, who has long, dyed-blonde hair. She worked for a time as a model while still in high school, but was a happily married woman till the real-estate crisis hit Spain. Spain's construction industry was collapsing and Campos' husband Eduardo, had to give up his business selling used luxury cars as his customer base dried up. Soon, the couple was no longer able to afford their monthly mortgage payment on a house with a garden in Maçanet de la Selva. The bank was threatening to foreclose and Campos could already picture herself on the street, with a four-year-old and an infant.

It is then, when Monica heard about fertility clinics and approached a private clinic for reproductive medicine in Granollers, near Barcelona, and decided to become an egg donor. For each donation cycle, Campos received just under €1,000 as compensation for both her time and the inconvenience. Despite a legal limit of six donations, Campos had her eggs harvested 14 times in just under two years. She earned around €10,000, exploiting her body to keep her family from plunging into poverty. Since both she and her husband were self-employed, neither of them could claim unemployment benefits. Only after a year, did they start receiving a family allowance of €640 a month. She had saved the family from financial ruin.
Egg donation is a cumbersome and time consuming medical procedure. It takes place anonymously, and a maximum of six children can be born from eggs donated by any one woman. The donor has to go through check-up at the clinic, where a minimum of 10 appointments are necessary. Potential donors are tested for hereditary diseases and possible genetic defects; they have blood drawn, receive an electrocardiogram and undergo a psychological evaluation. If found acceptable, donors have to take daily hormone injections in the abdomen for two weeks to stimulate ovaries and produce more eggs.

Once Monica realized that egg donation was an easy way out to earn money, she started approaching other clinics in Barcelona or the surrounding area as soon as she could, ready to donate again and keep her source of income. She never told the doctors about her previous donations. On the contrary she pretended to be philanthropic and told the doctors that she was motivated by a desire to help infertile women conceive. She never said that she is doing this only for money.

Mónica Campos donated eggs regularly for two years, until her ovaries could no longer produce any more eggs. She even tried injecting herself with the highest possible hormone dose. The result was that her abdomen swelled, but her body didn't produce any more eggs. After an ultrasound check, she received the final payment of €300 and that was the end of her egg donations and the income out of it. Yet greater health problems awaited her. Three years after her final course of hormones, Campos' gynecologist diagnosed her with abnormally enlarged ovaries. She experiences chronic pain, not only in her abdomen, and in 2010 was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, a condition that makes every movement an agony. She has been medically certified as 51 percent disabled. She barely eats anymore, trying to lose the weight she has gained.

Her husband still remains unemployed. Her illness makes her irritable and her marriage is barely holding up under the strain. Since Monica is 51 percent disabled, she can not claim disability allowance , which requires at least 65% disability. The only right spot for the couple is that they have obtained a two-year debt moratorium and will be able to keep living in their house for at least that long.

The really tragic part of this story is that in spite of all the troubles, she has undergone, Mónica Campos, for her part, is now considering hiring herself out as a surrogate mother. Surrogacy is banned in Spain, but couples in the United States will pay up to $150,000. She says: ."If a rich couple provides me with a place to live, I'll carry their baby.”

Monica's case demonstrates that egg donation can be real harmful if done on regular basis. Similar is the case with surrogacy. In India, fertility clinics say that them limit surrogate pregnancies to two times for a woman. However what happens on ground and the health problems that face surrogate mothers are not accurately recorded. In short, parenthood can not be offered for sale as a business and can not be considered as a means of earning money. It has to be a philanthropic endevour. The major responsibility here is of the fertility clinics, who consider this as part of their business, as poor women are likely to get attracted by the easy money.

25 May 2013

Friday, May 24, 2013

Internet swindlers find a new way to cheat; through a woman's heart!

The other day, I came across this story of a 47 year old businesswoman. She is a divorcee with a 13 year old son and runs a successful restaurant business. Let us call her Rachel. She met a man who called himself as “Andrew Terry” on a China matchmaking website called He claimed that he was a 45 year old British businessman, dealing with oil rigs, based in the middle east.

Rachel and Andrew fell in love with each other. They talked on phone almost every day. He sent her photographs of himself and send e-mail messages, expressing his love for her and addressed her as his wife. They planned to get married by end of 2012. Rachel thought that she has found the love of her life and adored the idea of starting her life afresh in a new country after her marriage. They continued their web and phone relationship for almost 5 months, after which this Andrew made his first demand for money. He told Rachel that his business was facing problems and he needed money to buy equipment and chemicals in order to complete a $7 Million contract.
Blinded by her new found love, Rachel totally trusted this man and sent him $10,000 that month. Next month he asked for more. She used her savings and borrowed from credit companies, to raise an amount of $1,20,000 and sent it to her love. She had to sell two of her restaurants to pay back.

Rachel was very lucky because before she was to send another tranche of money to Andrew, an alert customer service supervisor of the company, through which this money transfer was being done, smelled a rat and called Rachel to warn her about sending more money and told her that she was probably being cheated. Rachel, in her first reaction, got extremely angry with the service manager and scolded him. But when the supervisor told her that she personally had nothing to gain by stopping her and on the contrary would loose her commission, Rachel quietened down and started thinking. She soon realized that she has become a fresh victim of internet swindlers, who cheat through hearts of the women. Rachel now in fact, warns that for any internet relationship, if the other person demands money, you should realize that he is trying to cheat you and close the relationship.

The usual “modus operandi ” of internet swindlers these days is to hack an e-mail address and capture all his e-mail contacts and then send the contacts, bogus mails describing phony situations, mostly getting stuck abroad, and demand immediate transfer of money, has become rather well known. The internet thieves therefore are now concentrating on other tricks to cheat innocent people on the net.

In United states, this love scam is being called “soldier scam” as internet scammers are now posing as members of US military. Jeff Manning, spokesman for the Oregon Department of Justice says that
internet swindlers have conned people out of millions of dollars, including a Hillsboro, Oregon, woman who recently lost more than $750,000. Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum has a warning for people looking for love online: That soldier who’s been professing devotion via email may actually be a con artist looking for cash. She has this advice for people who look for love on the internet.

The anonymity of the Internet means that you cannot be sure of the real name, age, marital status, nationality or even gender of your new “heartthrob.” The con artists are often from foreign countries using untraceable email addresses. Once these “soldiers” make a connection, they begin asking for money for transportation, medical bills, cell phone and Internet charges ,even the cost of a wedding. They route accounts through numerous locations and use pay-per-hour Internet cyber cafes, which makes finding the scammer and recovering the money extremely difficult.”

Coming back to our “Rachel story,” the money transfer company, “Western Union”, through which, Rachel had sent her money, has now decided to do something about this and have a launched a new campaign to educate young people about dangers of online dating. This company apparently receives regularly requests from female customers to transfer money overseas to foreign men they met on line and whom they consider as their boy friends.

The company thinks that after listening to painful real life experiences of women who have been cheated by net swindlers, these prospective target women of the swindlers, would become aware of this dangerous scam, that can shatter the life of the individual young woman. The company wants to join the female advocacy groups to organize events, where these unfortunate love victims would narrate their experiences with so called boy friends, whom they never have met in person but ended up loosing thousands of Dollars. Company also wants to put up posters and distribute pamphlets at their offices to make future target women aware of the dangers in sending money, to men, whom they have never met.

There is no doubt that the swindlers and scamsters of the internet have found out a very effective method of cheating here. Unfortunately, people tend to trust anyone they meet on internet, because the true identity of the other person is hidden behind his communicating skills. If he or she is a superior communicator, he would be able to hide his real name, age, marital status, nationality or even gender effectively from the victim. Any one, who is lonely in his personal life, can be easily trapped.

24 May 2013

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Take a break please. Be gadget free!

Since last several decades, three to be exact, I have been meeting a group of friends over a cup of coffee, every morning at a popular joint in my home town Pune, whenever I am in town. Things have changed over these years. My old group of friends is almost disbanded. Some have grown too old and are no longer able to make it there every morning. A long time friend is no more. Yet I continue with my routine as I have found new friends, who are much younger to me, but apparently can tolerate me for that half or three quarters of an hour, when we chat over a cup of tea. (I no longer drink coffee and have since changed over to tea.)

Though our discussions, on any subject under the sun, over that cup of tea, have remained equally engrossing, ardent and intense as before, yet another definitive change has come over. Earlier, when we left our respective places of business to enjoy company of friends for next hour, we left our business worries back at the office and would spend next hour or so in the company of friends with a tension free mind. Now, it is no longer that simple, each and everyone except me, carries a mobile smart phone in his pocket and even when we sit in the coffee shop, most of the time my friends keep watching that gadget for incoming calls or e-mails. I do not do so because, firstly I do not have a smart phone and secondly no one really calls me. There are occasions when everyone in our group, except me, can be seen talking or writing replies to mails on the phone. I would be only person in the group just sitting idle and watch the friends so engrossed with their phones.

Same thing happens these days, even when I meet my relatives in their homes. Their mobile phones keep ringing all the time and disrupt any talk, we may have. I often wonder, how did I manage to do business during my working years without a mobile phone. A couple of years ago, I made a short trip to New Delhi along with my friends. Throughout this trip, my friends kept talking to their offices in Pune and helped people back home solve day to day problems in the office. I remembered that I also used to make quite a bit of business travel, but since there were no mobile phones, I was never burdened with attending my Pune office local problems and situations.

I am not against mobile devices at all. I often admire and wonder, the changes and speed, they have brought to our daily lives. Yet I feel that we are being over burdened with more and more technology, all the time. We are now totally addicted to our gadgets. The question is do we continue like this or is their a solution to de-addict ourselves.

An informal group has been formed (again over internet) that calls itself as Technologists Anonymous. Interestingly, some of Silicon Valley guys, who in the first place, build the technologies, we are addicted to, are trying to join this group to wean themselves from this 24-hour technology diet. But how do we do it? Silicon valley addicts suggest few ways.

Set up gadget-free zones in your home, maybe the bedroom or kitchen table, or both. In those settings, make it a strict rule that there are no smart phones, tablets or laptops allowed. Do not rely on smart phones and laptops for listening to music, taking photos or jotting down notes. Switch your gadget to “airplane mode,” which turns off the wireless data connections, when you need a break. That way your device can be still used for capturing and creating information, but you won’t be prodded by texts, tweets or e-mails. If you feel that you must remain connected at least turn off all the notifications on your phone, including Facebook, Twitter and text messages, so you’re not constantly disturbed. You can still receive your phone calls..

Pinterest is one of the successful social media platform. Its founder Evan Sharp, and his wife have found a way out. They go on long drives together until their cell signal drops out. Many drive on weekends to a place that has no cell coverage and go there for a drive and a stroll. For Indians, this solution may not work, because firstly, very few of us can afford the luxury of a long drive every weekend and to find such spots, you may need to travel to remote places away from highways. 
The best way to break the habit, according to me is to use your willpower. Treat your smart phone or a laptop as a tool or a communicating device, which should be used at your own sweet discretion at the time and places you decide to use them. Ideally there should be no need to run away or reject them to be free of them.

Meanwhile, I can only hope vainly that my coffee friends would see the light and we can go back to the days, when we had those wonderful uninterrupted and intense discussions over a cup of coffee.

p.s. While writing this, I took a small break and checked what everyone else in the house is doing. They all are either looking at laptop or their smart phones. Do you get me?

23 May 2013

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Dreading loneliness

I know a young man since last several years. He was an exceptionally bright student during his school and high school days and could easily get through to an engineering course without much efforts. He passed out with reasonable success and managed to secure an admission in one of the US universities for a graduate course. After going there, he soon managed to get an assistantship and became financially independent. After he earned his MS degree, he managed to secure a job within few months and subsequently an H1 visa. For all practical purposes, this young man was rising on the ladder of professional success.

During all these years, till he departed for US, he had maintained a lean figure like most of the Indian boys of that age. I would say, he was actually thin. I met him recently, when he was in India on a vacation. I was shell shocked to see him as his appearance had totally changed. He had ballooned from a lean and slim figure into a giant fatso with bulging cheeks, overgrown shoulders and arms and well rounded tummy.

I could not obviously ask him the reason for this transformation and had to keep quiet. But, I kept wondering in my mind about the reasons for this change. Then I remembered two or three other chaps, who are in their early forties, married and well settled in the US. It is true that most of the Indian men, compared to their western counterparts of similar age, develop a heavy and rounded midriff around this age. Perhaps it is in our Jeans. But these two guys from US, look different because not only they have well rounded midriffs but also look like overweight giants. I had seen them during their early years in India and also later in US, after having settled down there. They had till then managed to maintain their weights and figures. Why have they gained so much weight much later in their life,when they had maintained their weights earlier, unlike my young friend, mentioned above, who has become a fat guy during his twenties itself.

Dr. John T. Cacioppo, an award-winning psychologist at the University of Chicago, perhaps has the most probable answer. He feels that the sole reason for this abnormal weight gain could be “loneliness.” He says that loneliness undermines people’s ability to self-regulate. He explains that lonely individuals tend to do whatever they can to make themselves feel better, if only for the moment. They may overeat, drink too much, smoke, speed or engage in indiscriminate sex. A review of research published in 1988 has found that social isolation is on a par with high blood pressure, obesity, lack of exercise or smoking as a risk factor for illness and early death. Psychologists now can measure a person's loneliness by an assessment known as U.C.L.A. Loneliness Scale.

In a series of experiments, Dr. Cacioppo found many bad effects on persons subjected to loneliness. In one experiment he gives as an example, participants were made to feel socially disconnected, and it was found that they ate many more cookies than those who were made to feel socially accepted. In a real-life study of middle-aged and older adults in the Chicago area, Dr. Cacioppo and his colleagues found that persons with high scores on the U.C.L.A. Loneliness Scale, ate substantially more fatty foods than those who scored low. Dr Cacioppo says: “Is it any wonder that we turn to ice cream or other fatty foods when we’re sitting at home feeling all alone in the world? We want to soothe the pain we feel by mainlining sugar and fat content to the pleasure centers of the brain, and absent of self-control, we go right at it.” Surprisingly, Dr. Cacioppo has found that loneliness even affects our Genes. His findings show that loneliness predicted changes in DNA transcription in turn dampen the body’s ability to shut off the inflammatory response. Loneliness can impair health by raising levels of stress hormones and increasing inflammation. The damage can be widespread, affecting every bodily system and brain function.

In another study by Dr. Carla M. Perissinotto and colleagues at the University of California, San Francisco, 1,604 older adults were followed and assessed for loneliness for six years. The study found out that those who were lonely were more likely to develop difficulties performing activities of daily living like bathing and dressing, using their arms and shoulders, climbing stairs and walking. Loneliness was also associated with an increased risk of death during the study period.

Extending Dr. Cacippo's argument, Dr. Lisa Jaremka, a postdoctoral fellow at Ohio State University, reported in January at the annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology that people who are lonely have higher levels of antibodies to certain herpes viruses, indicating more activated viruses in their systems. In another study, she found higher levels of inflammation-inducing substances in the blood of lonely people. Chronic inflammation can be linked to heart disease, arthritis, Type 2 diabetes and even suicide attempts, Dr. Jaremka says: “ People who are lonely also react more strongly to negative events and perceive daily life as being more stressful, which can depress the immune system.”

These studies bring out some startling facts such as divorced people have reported feeling lonelier in a bad marriage than they do being single, people who live alone may still have a large network of friends and family that helps to keep loneliness at bay. That is why Dr. Cacioppo says that having many friends and family members around does not guarantee immunity from loneliness if the relationships are missing a strong emotional connection. The quality of these relationships or how meaningful they are to the individual, really counts more than numbers in predicting loneliness, his studies and others have shown.

I think that these studies really prove the profound effect, loneliness can have on our lives. Particularly susceptible to this dreadful state of mind, are young students living alone in foreign countries, married people, who have very little emotional connection with their spouses and above all the senior citizens. In today's societies, most of the seniors are left alone to lead their emotional lives. Physically they may be living alone or with the family, with whom they may not be emotionally connected. It is up to the individual to get out of this trap of loneliness. The way in which this could be done, would vary, as it is dependent on the social norms and the country, where one lives. But the underlying needs would remain same. We should all keep in mind that 'Loneliness' is a slow killer.

( The details about the medical studies mentioned above are based on a report in New York times.)
22 May 2013

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Manicuring the green image

Few weeks back, there was a freak kind of accident here in Singapore. During a especially violent thunderstorm with torrential and heavy rain, a large tree, grown on a side of Admiralty Road West road, got uprooted and crashed on the road. When it fell down, by strange coincidence, it fell down on top of a car passing on the road. The car belonged to a gentleman, who ran a driving school. He was sitting next to the driver's seat and his pupil was driving the car. The pupil was just saved from the impact, but the unfortunate car owner and driving instructor was not so lucky and died instantly in the mishap. Getting trees uprooted in a storm and in a rain outburst is fairly common in Singapore. There were 122 uprooted trees from January to April this year, compared to 184 trees in the same period last year. In 2011, 636 trees were uprooted.

Such kind of freak accidents happen everywhere in the world, but Singapore being what it is, have come out with a measure that probably no one would have thought anywhere else in the world. During yesteryear, most of the roads that led out of my home town Pune, had thick canopy of Banyan trees planted on both sided of the road many years before. Occasionally, a tree used to get uprooted and fell on the road, blocking the traffic. This was probably considered as an occupational hazard for road travellers, and no one ever thought of removing the trees unless there was a plan to widen the roads.

Singapore's “The National Parks Board (Nparks)” now wants to replace some of the tall trees on road sides with trees of less height to prevent such accidents in future. It says in a statement: “ The National Parks Board (NParks) has over the past two years stepped up its ongoing replacement planting programme taking into account shifts in weather patterns in the region. Incidents of "tree failure", defined as anything from broken branches to fallen trees, have been caused mainly by bouts of adverse weather conditions rather than maintenance issues. Some familiar trees with species that might be less vulnerable to mishap are being replaced and also different trees are being grouped together in some areas, so they can withstand bad weather. For example along Bishan Streets 11 and 14, Sea apple trees, a native species typically 30m tall, are being replaced by river Tristanias, which grow up to 20m tall. Other trees, that are being replaced in selected areas include Khaya, Angsana and Rain trees. The first two can reach 30m and are known to be especially prone to breakage. In areas where they are being replaced, smaller trees like the Sea Gutta, which grows to 20m, and the Golden Penda, which reaches 12m, will appear. The aim is to find the right trees for the right areas.”

Nparks also says: "Having clusters of different trees helps break the impact of strong winds, and more stretches of roads have been treated this way over the last year. Along the Central Expressway, which used to be spotted with single Khaya trees, there are now several clusters of mixed tree species.”

Nparks is the official authority that looks after greenery strategy and replacement planting in Singapore, and a decision taken by it is not normally questioned by any one. So in next few years, we would probably see more and more roadside trees planted in a systematic fashion growing only to allowed heights in a highly manicured way, fitting very well with the otherwise orderly and disciplined Singapore. Nparks however claims that Singapore's well-known green image would be in no way under threat.

Personally, I would rather prefer any day, the disorderliness and the haphazard manner of growth of naturally grown trees. According to me the beauty of trees really is hidden in its naturally grown shape. To have a manicured lawn for a playground is perfectly fair, but it can never really match natural beauty of thick wild grasses. A planned avenue may be necessary for urban living, but it can never beat wilderness.

Still, in a way, this decision, to replace taller trees is almost similar to what we all experience now in our lives, in any urban society around the world. We demolish old buildings that seem so awkward and not in tune now with changing fashions and living norms of modern world. For example, we never had any attached toilets in our old home. But, the first thing that I did during renovation process of my house, was to add an attached bathroom. Similar is the case, where all new buildings that come up, have facades with large glass panes, without bothering whether such designs are really suitable for the sunny environments of tropical countries. Fashion, safety and convenience are now the most dominating factors in our thinking.

Probably, even nature acts in the same way, gets rid of old animals and humans by death and replaces them with younger generations, who are better equipped to face the challenges of the modern world. So why be grumpy, resent and complain, when few trees are being replaced by Nparks in Singapore. It seems to fit in general order of things. 

Perhaps we may never have in future, an “Omar Khayyam” writing a Rubáiyát under a shaded palm tree or an Issac Newton imagining the concept of gravitation, sitting below a shaded apple tree and seeing a falling apple, but so what?

21 May 2013