Thursday, June 22, 2006

Movies, mad scientists and image makeovers

Scientists must be the most ill-treated and maligned community, at least in cinema. At least on celluloid, there are no normal, peaceful, life-loving scientists.

Hollywood has made millions out of making scientists (a) freaks (think of The fly), (b) crazy (how many movies can you think of where the intelligent scientist wants to rule/destroy the world? If I got a nickel for each one you could think of, I’d be rolling in bagfuls of the stuff by now), (c) Goofy, absent-minded and nutty (like, Honey, I shrunk the kids or Back to the future), (d) Schizophrenic (popular now, especially after A perfect mind), or (e) completely expendable, and the first person to die when the monsters/dinosaurs/volcano/shark/terrorists/any one else attacks. There never has been a scientist who has fit in to (f) none of the above.

Sad, but unfortunately true.

Why is that, I ask? Most scientists I know (and I know a few, being one myself) usually fit neatly in to (f) none of the above. Most of them do not have crazy white hair. At that age, they’re retired, or called “professor emeritus” (i.e. guy who doesn’t need to do any work). Some are (unfortunately) bald, but that’s just bad genes, and the percentage of bald scientists are the same as that of bald men out selling dope on the streets. Some poor sods are absent minded, but never so absent minded that they don’t remember their own names.

But these poor souls, who have worked hard to provide Hollywood with so many ideas, remain sorry caricatures. If it weren’t so funny, it would be tragic. And here’s Hollywood, using the nice technology scientists create (CGI, any one), who make a special-effects filled movie where the super-scientist, brain of the first order, is crushed to pulp by a dim witted guy bitten (say) by a radioactive spider, who usually can’t decide if he wants to be a super-hero or not. Science, clearly, has no role in success.

The poor scientist (if it’s male) has not once chance in hell of even having a girl ever like him. So, he ends up kidnapping the prettiest girl on screen, who happens to be the hero/superhero’s girlfriend, and therefore aforementioned scientist will meet his doom, after cackling loudly on screen. The one chance out of a million that there’s a female scientist in the movie, it’s a dimwitted bombshell (Denise Richards in “The world is not enough”, anyone) who falls for the guy who can start a stalled car. Is there no justice in this world?

Bollywood goes even further to make the scientist a bonafide lunatic. Here’s how casting parts go. Doctor? Good. Engineer? Good. Underworld don? Fantastic. BA “gold medalist” without connections and therefore without a job? Perfect. Knows how to play solitaire on a computer? Outstanding. If you’re Shilpa Shetty and can do that, even better than outstanding.

Scientist? You get to be Doctor Dang in Subhash Ghai’s Karma. Or else, a guest appearance (Rakesh Roshan in ”Koi mil gaya”) as a scientist who believes that aliens with supernatural powers are likely to invade earth.

Either that, or there’s option (3), as Anil Kapoor’s now dead blink-and-you’ll-miss-the-role dad who can make a watch that will make people disappear, but will never get to wear that watch (and therefore be cool, and get girls to like him) because, duh, he’s dead.

Science itself will be conveniently relegated to the “evil black-magic” category, and Sai Baba’s grace giving a blind woman her eyesight will be hailed with rousing cresendo of euphoric cheers.

Such is life. In some random gathering, people will introduce themselves, with grand descriptions of what they do (I have a “business” (translation "I sell stuff through Amway"), and will be met by approving looks.

And then I’ll say I’m a scientist, and will be met with looks of pity (“I’m so sorr…..I mean, that’s great”), shock (“Really? Why the fuc…..I mean, really, that’s great”), derision and mockery (“Scientist? You’re one of those guys sitting in a lab at midnight growing bacteria? I mean, that’s great.) (Ok, there might be some truth in that), utter contempt (“That’s great. I work for a start-up. Oh, by the way, I just bought a plasma TV”) (translation “you pathetic fool still doing research and only able to afford a second hand TV”), or sympathy (“That’s great. What do you do?”).

And, in all their eyes, I can see a little twinkle and an image of crazy-white-haired-dork flashing by.

Hollywood, Bollywood, some day us scientists will have the last laugh.


(Laughter fades. I plan my newest scheme for world domination….)

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Schools, reservations, vouchers and us

While the bogey of reservations in higher education has created many entrenched groups clamoring for or against it (with apparently little middle ground), many interesting developments have passed quietly in the primary and basic education sector, which perhaps needs the most urgent reform.

The Free and Compulsory Education Bill, which, if executed well could have truly made a difference to the mass of underprivileged, undereducated children of India, has pretty much been scuttled by our lawmakers. The Central government has washed its hands off the bill, and instead the current proposal intends to pass on the proposals to the states, which can then individually act on it. There was also a proposal to reserve 25% of all seats in private schools in India for children from disadvantaged/underprivileged sections.

The proposal concedes the fact that the government schooling system is in shambles, and parents, if they can afford it, will send their kids to a hole-in-the-wall private school rather than a government school. Gone are the days when people could expect a good education in government schools (many of our parents went to government schools, and went on to become engineers, doctors, academics, scientists and the like). Yet this new proposal (of 25% reservations in private schools) has its own concerns.

This proposal though typically invokes three types of reactions amongst people. One is outright dismissal of the idea, and the dogged refusal to concede that all is not well with primary education in India, that social inequities are entrenched and perhaps even reinforced in schools, and that often getting an education in a government school is as good as no education at all. However, many people belong to one of two other groups. Both groups are in complete agreement that the primary education sector is in an unhealthy state, and that government schools are failing miserably to impart a quality education. This is not due to teachers’ salaries (see an earlier post). It is also not due to the government not being capable of imparting good education. The Kendriya Vidyalayas, Sainik schools and some central schools still do a good job. But most schools are terrible. The need for reform and new alternatives is apparent to both groups. Yet one of these groups favors the reservation being extended in to private schools, the other does not.

Those who oppose it instead suggest an incentive based model. Their argument is that any coercion is not acceptable, and will result in further dividing the haves and have-nots. It is also the government’s job to provide good education to the masses, not the role of a private school (though educational institutions in India cannot be “for profit). Instead, if the government provided economic incentives to private schools to become more inclusive, they believe the schools might. An incentive might perhaps be some form of tax-breaks to schools for percentages of underprivileged students studying in it. Another proposal is a “voucher scheme”, where poor parents are given government vouchers that can be “cashed” only by schools, as fee payments. Even if private schools deny opportunities for kids of parents with vouchers, the market will observe that there is a clear opportunity for new schools that accept vouchers to be built, and these will serve the purpose of providing good education to the underprivileged.

Those who would accept it do not accept it outright, as an only solution. But, in this case, it is mostly “some effort is better than no effort”. They also raise some valid points. In an ideal world, the government would move towards a good central schooling system, where schools serve areas, and all children from the area study there. This would enforce social mixing of all children in the area, and “have-nots” will study with “haves”, decreasing discrimination. There is a greater likelihood of better education being imparted. However, in the absence of any government effort to do any such thing, extending reservations in private schools might ensure that at least there’s a chance of underprivileged students getting a decent education. Most also agree that the school should not bear the expense of these students, but the state must. They believe economic incentive or voucher system, though conceptually good, will fail in an Indian system. In the Indian system, with its still very rigid and prevalent class mores, educational institutions are unlikely to voluntarily accept any inclusion. The urban middle class will baulk at the though of their kids studying with kids from slums, and will not allow schools to include these children, even if the government gives schools some economic incentives. They will be willing to pay more than voucher amounts to schools, to ensure that the schools their kids study in remain “elite”, or “better”. Even if new schools come up that accept vouchers, it may be that only underprivileged kids with vouchers will study in it, creating or perpetuating a class system, without assimilation or mixing of groups. 25% reservations in schools might still perpetuate inequities (since the underprivileged will remain a minority), but some effort is better than nothing.

My own take is that in both these stands undoubtedly have valid and forceful arguments. However, both are based on anecdotal reasoning, or arguments by analogy. By saying “the Indian middle class will not accept poor students studying with their kids”, you are only creating a hypothesis. It remains the same if you say “vouchers will provide incentives for schools to accept all students”. Again, a hypothesis.

Now, a hypothesis is not just a statement or opinion. It is a reasoned explanation of a phenomena or observation, usually based on some evidence. However, any hypothesis needs to be tested to be proven to be correct. In this case, both arguments could even fall in to the trap of Occams Razor. The Indian middle class thinks it is beneath them to mix with the lowest strata, therefore all schools that use vouchers to enroll underprivileged students will not have a mix of students from all classes is fallacious. Similarly, saying that vouchers will enable all students to gain access to education is also not as straightforward as it sounds. My own view is that the only way we’ll know is if there is an independent verification of both suggestions, perhaps by selecting say two districts with similar socio-economic conditions, and trying these two systems for a sufficient period of time (five years? Ten?). Or use other means of data collection, with data that will simulate the Indian system the closest. But these things take time, commitment and effort. Do we have that?

Any views (except flaming) are welcome.

(Some (quick reading) on the topic here, here, here)

Monday, June 05, 2006

Book review: The Priest’s Madonna

“Holy blood, holy grail”, a book that’s stirred plenty of controversy as well as admiration, and a whole slew of theories, mentioned Berenger Sauniere, a Catholic priest who may have discovered secret documents that suggested that Jesus Christ married Mary Magdalene, and their descendants went on to form the Merovingian dynasty. Perhaps, perhaps not. But this story provides Amy Hassinger plenty of material for her book, The Priest’s Madonna.

But this is not another conspiracy theory about the Catholic Church. The Da Vinci code did a sufficiently tacky job of that. This book turned out to be a rather enjoyable “romantic-thriller” (is that even a real genre, or did I make it up?).

It is set in late 19th century France, in a little southern village, Rennes-le-Chateau. The tale is that of Marie Denarnaud, a young girl in her teens when the story starts. A new priest, Berenger, moves in to the village, to take over the parish, and stays with the Denarnauds. He soon fascinates the village, and earns its devotion, with his passionate sermons. Marie is drawn towards him, as is Berenger towards her. Soon, they are deeply in love.

The story itself is narrated by Marie, and constantly flashes to the past, weaving in Mary of Magdalene’s life and association with Jesus. We’re soon drawn in to the lore of the region of Rennes-le-Chateau, through Marie. The region is full of legends and myths. Mary Magdalene herself was rumored to have lived in Gaul, after Jesus was crucified. Local legend believed that Mary Magdalene died in the region. The region was also home to the Cathars, who were suppressed by the Catholic Church, and rumors of hidden catacombs and treasure filled the hills. Marie befriends the mysterious Madame Simone Laporte, wife of the mayor of the village, who lives in the local chateau. There, Marie reads the many books Madame Laporte had in her library, while Laporte speaks to her of local legend, history, and lore. Of the Cathars, of Visigoths, and of the Merovingian kings of the region, and (perhaps) of herself. Marie begins to question her own rigid ideas of religion. Meanwhile, Berenger and Marie draw closer to each other, yet resisting each other, avoiding the “corruption of sin”.

We’re drawn in to little secrets. A rich nobleman grants Berenger wealth to restore the church, in return Berenger has to reveal any thing out of the ordinary he finds. He discovers some secrets, that he tries to hide from Marie, and the book really does take off from here, and there are plenty of hints of mystery, intrigue, and romance thrown in, and yes, questions about the bloodline of Christ.

Through this book, and through Marie, Madame Laporte and Berenger, Hassinger questions the rigidity of faith. Does becoming more rigid in your faith take you farther away from it? Does questioning and accepting history make your faith stronger? Through Edouard, Marie’s father, and a staunch supporter of a secular republic, questions of separation of church and state are raised. Thankfully though, Hassinger keeps these questions to the characters, and hence it flows well with the book. Rather, it all adds to the characters, and their own internal conflicts and doubts about doctrine and belief.

There are moments in the book though where I felt Hassinger gets carried away by her own (wonderful) writing skills, and some sections appear to just be showcasing her skills in sentences that delve in to excessive description.

“We passed through the kitchen-which was not so very different from our own, only bigger and better stocked-and then through the dining room, which boasted a long mahogany table, empty except for a three-pronged candelabra that held the dribbling stumps of unlit tapers, four dining chairs, and a plain mahogany sideboard”

Wonderful, certainly, but perhaps slightly distracting. A Marquez effect? Some parts of the novel (especially in the first half) drag as a result.

The book’s strengths are definitely in the characterization of Marie, and the growing relationship between Berenger and Marie. The growth of their feelings amidst tensions and their own questions are rather beautifully portrayed. As are all the other characters in the book, and it’s a pleasure to read about Marie, Laporte, Berenger, Marie’s father Edouard, her mother, and sister Michelle. As are the hints of local lore, history and myth. But the novel doesn’t delve in to the discovery they make, as much as a “thriller” would. There are no red herrings, or surprising twists in this tale. You can see what’s coming, and it comes.

Yet, through Berenger and Marie’s doubts and questions, the book ends up being a rather charming read about faith, belief and love. As a romantic novel, with touches of spirituality, it’s excellent, and here Hassinger’s skills as a writer shine. The little flashbacks, to Nazareth and Jerusalem, and Mary of Magdalene, are thoroughly delightful. There are sections in this book that are to be thoroughly relished. But perhaps it could have been absolutely riveting if we were thrust in to the legends, rumors, discovery, catacombs and treasures more, and some of the meandering of the first half of the novel had been sacrificed.

A very enjoyable read, none the less.