Saturday, June 28, 2008

Water and Plants

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Fans at the farm

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PS 1 Public Farm

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Jackson Avenue

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Another Angle

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Close up

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Opposite PS 1

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angle 2

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Manhattan from the bridge

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Lamp post

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Walking the Bridge

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The Falls

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Take your time: Olafur Eliasson

Olafur Eliasson is all the rage in NYC this summer, he has exhibits on the East River, MOMA and PS 1. We walked the Brooklyn Bridge to see his art on the East River. It was hard to see from such a distance, but the idea is to lift water up, opposite from the direction of gravity and then have it fall, like a waterfall. I like his photographs of Iceland.

NEW YORK, January 17, 2008—Take your time: Olafur Eliasson is the first comprehensive survey in the United States of works by Olafur Eliasson, whose large-scale immersive environments, installations, sculptures, and photographs elegantly recreate the extremes of landscape and atmosphere in his native Iceland, at the same time as they foreground the sensory experience of the work itself. Drawing from public and private collections worldwide, the exhibition will include 34 works that explore Eliasson’s diverse range of artistic production from 1991 to the present, including six new works created specifically for The Museum of Modern Art and P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center. Eliasson recontextualizes elements such as light, water, ice, fog, stone, and moss to create unique situations that shift the viewer’s perception of place and self. By transforming the gallery into a hybrid space of nature and culture, Eliasson prompts an intensive engagement with the world and offers a fresh consideration of everyday life. The exhibition will be on view at The Museum of Modern Art and at P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center from April 20 through June 30, 2008.

Mira in the wire

Here is Mira, enjoying the petting zoo at Roosevelt Island Day. Picture is from the Main Street Wire.

Upinder Singh

Sheela Reddy profiles historian Upinder Singh in Outlook. I like the idea of visiting ancient sites while writing about them. Also I did not know that the simple game of Pithoo, is 5,000 years old..I like her middle path approach critiquing both hyper-nationalist right-wingers or blindly following the Marxist historians.

You can't miss it," says historian Upinder Singh rather apologetically, giving directions to her home in the St Stephen's staff quarters. "It looks like a fortress." It does: a towering blank metal gate, of which a chocolate square pops open at the first knock to reveal the head of a grim securityman. And there's a whole posse of Black Cats behind the gate, befitting the home of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's daughter. But inside, it's a different world: cane chairs, cement floors and peeling white walls. The shabby-genteel world of two university dons who, between them, share most of the housework—there's a part-time cook, Neena, to whom Upinder wants to dedicate her next book and "the boys help a little but not as much as I'd like them to".

"My father never laid down the law. He asked us to take our decisions. Today, we're fiercely independent."

And between them, they have also probably read all the books lining their walls, where plaster casts of Socrates rub shoulders with Harappan dancing girls. In fact, half-a-dozen of these books have been written by Upinder herself. Her latest, A History of Ancient and Early Medieval India (Pearson), is being bandied about even before its release early next month as a book that "takes on" both right-wing and Marxist historians. Like father, like daughter?

She is certainly her father's daughter when it comes to thinking for herself, stoutly refusing either to be browbeaten by what she describes as the "hyper-nationalist" right-wingers or to blindly follow the Marxist historians' line. "My father has never laid down the law because all three of us (she has two younger sisters: an environmentalist, and a lawyer who lives abroad) are fiercely independent. His approach has always been: Ok, this is my view but you make up your own mind." It's the approach he took when Upinder opted for history instead of economics in college.

"I applied for economics, probably out of deference to my father, but I couldn't do it because I was so terrible at maths," she recalls.

And again, when she decided to marry a fellow academic, Vijay Tankha. "I think it was the first time anybody in our family was

"The occupational hazards notwithstanding, it's important to say what is valid from a historical point of view."

marrying outside the community," recalls Upinder. "It created a little consternation in the larger family circle, but my parents were fine with it. Ever since we were adults, they told us to make our own decisions. I realise now as a parent how difficult it is to accept that young people look at things differently. But they realised it and accepted it."

Old Stephanians still recall a prank young Upinder, then a second year student at the college, played on the don who later became her husband. She barged into the staff room, accusing the young philosophy lecturer, to his acute embarrassment, of betraying her love. She laughs about it now: "Looking back, I find it rather audacious. We used to have this tradition, a practical joke week, and I played a joke on him." The "joke" did not turn into a love story until some four years later, when she joined St Stephen's as a history teacher. "That's when we got to know each other," she says.

Besides teaching, the two share another passion: travelling to remote places of either historical or archaeological importance. Upinder says she started off as "an armchair scholar", but somewhere along the way discovered the importance of visiting the relevant sites and understanding things for herself. "I think the best way to learn about ancient Indian history is to visit archaeological sites." But these trips have become both harder and easier to undertake since her father became prime minister. As, for instance, when she visited the Chandraketugarh site in Bengal two years ago, where the plunder of artefacts from the 2,500-year-old site has been going on unchecked for years now. Upinder went in a three-car convoy, examined the site, looked at some artefacts in a private collection and returned, silent and helpless to stop the loot.

"I think a great deal needs to be done in terms of conserving a huge amount of very rich and varied remains of the ancient past in the country," she readily admits. So why can't she speak up about the appalling conservation work when she visits sites? "One doesn't want to do anything that can be misconstrued as interfering, even if you're trying not to interfere," she says reluctantly. "There is a certain hesitation that comes in about being proactive, even on issues you feel strongly about."

This hesitation to encroach into anything even remotely concerned with her father's domain is something that was deeply ingrained since her childhood. "My father had a very strict rule from ever since I was a child: he had his work and what he's doing, and we had our own thing. We don't interfere. I am very fond of my father, and I respect him and everything but there is a very clear line in our family life that I just can't (transgress). There's no question of my trying somehow to influence government agencies or departments."

Upinder with husband Vijay and son Madhav
But can she really, with history becoming almost as contentious as politics, keep her world from colliding with her father's? Just four months ago, her family boundaries notwithstanding, she got dragged into a controversy over a compilation of articles on the Ramayana. Angry students of a right-wing group ransacked Delhi University's history department, roughing up the head of department to protest against the book, forcing the university officials to clarify that the prime minister's daughter was neither the author nor compiler of the selection of essays. But she makes no bones about the fact that her views on religious texts will hardly be in consonance with "the way an ardent religious person would look at these texts". She sees herself as a liberal historian, Upinder says. "I do not subscribe at all to the contemporary right-wing hyper-nationalist views of Indian history."

Her goal, she says, was to write a book that prods the reader into thinking for herself, and to convince students that history was not dull and boring, but about "real people with emotions, needs and the sort of issues that we are used to dealing with in contemporary life." Whether it's the bathrooms in a Harappan city (they used to squat quite literally on a large pot!), or the games they played ("pitthu"—a game that's quite popular in northern India even now, 5,000 years later), or an epitaph to a dead parrot, or the graffiti scrawled by a love-lorn youth to a devdasi, the pet dogs that ended up in the same grave as their masters, no detail is too small to find a place in her book. She wanted to tackle two different aspects in this book, she explains. One is to discuss the various sources and their interpretation, the arguments and debates among historians; and to share her sense of excitement and passion about the subject, "something almost magical about trying to understand the life of people who lived long ago."

But isn't she afraid that in this politically charged atmosphere, her open-ended new book, which doesn't shy away from giving her own point of view, will spark another ugly controversy? Upinder considers the possibility with her trademark composure: "It's true that ancient Indian history has become very contentious, and I think some amount of debate and disagreement is important." But it's the methods that these "polemicists" use that she deplores: "If you don't agree with something in my book, then review it critically or write your own book to vent your point of view, but not this violence and intimidation as happened in the history department."

Considering the occupational hazards, she says, historians like herself have begun to think very carefully before they write.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Ashis Nandy

Outlook has an interview with Ashis Nandy who has been charged by the Gujarat Police for criminal offense. This blog has also been attacked by the Hindu and Sikh right. The piece on Martha Nussambaum always gets strange comments written in poor English by Hindu fundamentalists. It is so important for other voices to be heard, so that communal, purist and fundamentalist belligerence does not get center stage.

Famously trenchant political psychologist Ashis Nandy is charged with criminal offence by the Gujarat police for "inflaming" communal hatred. His crime: an article he wrote in January blaming Gujarat's middle-class Hindus for destroying communal harmony in the state. In an interview with Sheela Reddy, Nandy lashes out at Gujarat's NRI-inspired culture of hate and what it's doing to the national fabric.

Why did an article blaming Gujarat's middle class for the Hindu-Muslim divide anger Narendra Modi?

I don't know if it angered Modi but it surely angered a sizeable section of Gujarat's middle class and many expatriate Gujaratis.

"Many in Gujarat's middle class take any criticism of them as an attack on Gujarat. It threatens their fragile, beefed-up self-image. My article challenges their illusions."

Many in Gujarat's middle class think that any criticism of them is an attack on Gujarat itself. Criticism threatens their fragile, artificially beefed-up self-image. Traditionally, Gujarati Hindus and Muslims have been very close to each other culturally. Studies of genocide show that when two communities are close to each other and then their
relationship sours, it releases uncontrollable passions. This happened during Partition in Punjab, where Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs were remarkably close. But when that relationship collapsed, it released unimaginable furies. It was arguably the only known case of successful, large-scale ethnic cleansing in India. The non-Muslim population in West Punjab and the Muslim population in East Punjab came down from around 25 per cent to almost zero. This has a lesson for states like Gujarat.

Is this assault on freedom of expression in Gujarat recent?

It began earlier. Ask M.F. Husain or the students and staff of Baroda University's Fine Arts faculty. But the situation has worsened after human rights groups started giving a tough time to the Gujarat government. After Modi was refused a visa to the US, he felt he had to refurbish his image. There is huge support for Modi among First World Gujaratis and that support also often translates into money for Hindu nationalist causes. It is guilt money. The more they and their kids make a beeline for McDonald's and KFC, the more they feel that they have to donate for "Hindu" causes. Moreover, NRIs are more defensive about the status of India in the outside world because that status impinges directly on their self-respect in their adopted country. Indians and the Hindus back in India always seem to embarrass them. They are ever ready to fight to the last Indian in India for the glory of India outside India.

Was the article inflammatory as the complaint suggests?

It seems inflammatory because it challenges the self-serving illusions of the middle class against which it is directed. But since when have attacks on the middle class become a means of fomenting enmity among communities? My attack may seem strident, but it is tame compared to, say, Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay's critique of the Bengali middle class, a prescribed text in Bengal for at least seven decades. A middle class that can't stand radical criticism is not really a middle class; it only has middle-class income. I admit I am a traitor to my class, but I am in good company. I do believe that a robust scepticism towards the middle class is vital for the survival of a democratic culture. For, when a fish rots, it always begins to rot from its head.

Is the middle class more culpable than Modi in drawing the battleline between Hindus and Muslims in Gujarat?

Modi does represent the class. Development authoritarianism like in Singapore and China today is a hidden dream of the Indian middle class too. Modi personifies that dream. However, there is a larger issue involved here. Indian democracy is fast degenerating into a psephocracy—a system totally dominated by electoral victories and defeats.The moment you enter office, you begin to think of the next election.

So any critic of Narendra Modi is a traitor?

No, anyone who disagrees with the majority is a traitor. Anyone who asks why elections have to be won by organising riots is anti-Gujarat and anti-Hindu. The game started in Gujarat in 1969. Modi has strengthened the process and used it to win two elections. Now he thinks he can get away with anything.

Why do you see this as a government-inspired action ?

Because the Gujarat government has officially permitted the police to begin criminal proceedings against me.

Where do you think this is going?

This is part of a larger onslaught on freedom of speech and freedom of self-expression in India. The Taslima Nasreen episode was not a brainchild of the BJP. She was expelled first from Bengal and then from India by exactly those parties that criticise Modi and the Hindu nationalists.

thought for today

You have a problem preoccupying you, you don't know the solution of the problem; well, you objectify your problem in your mind, put it in the most precise, exact, succinct terms possible, and then concentrate, make an effort; you concentrate only on the words, and if possible on the idea they represent, that is, upon your problem - you concentrate, concentrate, concentrate until nothing else exists but that. And it is true that, all of a sudden, you have the feeling of something opening, and one is on the other side. The other side of what?... It means that you have opened a door of your consciousness, and instantaneously you have the solution of your problem.
It is an excellent method of learning "how" to identify oneself.
For instance, you are with someone. This person tells you something, you tell him the contrary (as it usually happens, simply through a spirit of contradiction) and you begin arguing. Naturally, you will never come to any point, except a quarrel if you are ill-natured. But instead of doing that, instead of remaining shut up in your own ideas or your own words, if you tell yourself: "Wait a little, I am going to try and see why he said that to me. Yes, why did he tell me that?" And you concentrate: "Why, why, why?" You stand there, just like that, trying. The other person continues speaking, doesn't he? - and is very happy too, for you don't contradict him any longer! He talks profusely and is sure he has convinced you. Then you concentrate more and more on what he is saying, and with the feeling that gradually, through his words, you are entering his mind. When you enter his head, suddenly you enter into his way of thinking, and next, just imagine, you understand why he is speaking to you thus! And then, if you have a fairly swift intelligence and put what you have just come to understand alongside what you had known before, you have the two ways together, and so can find the truth reconciling both. And here you have truly made progress. And this is the best way of widening one's thought.

- The Mother [CWMCE, 5:220-21]

Friday, June 20, 2008

Madhav Chavan of Pratham at Asia Society

I heard Mr. Madhav Chavan give a wonderful talk on Pratham and the Read India movement sweeping India. By 2010, 60 million kids will have been reached through the integrated schools program.

The Read India program was started in 1997 and 70 million kids have been impacted by Jan 2007. Pratham asked the government to publish the data on education in India.
In 2005 86% of India was surveyed. And 90% of the children did go to school. But Pratham found that 50% of that school going population was not reading even at a first grade level.

Also the percentage of kids in the Southern states were reading at a lower level than kids in the Northern states.

He compared the Read India program to Teach for America program. He said he had started this project with a simple idea of doing the right thing. This had lead to volunteers agreeing to tutor young kids within their communities. The volunteering made the teachers feel important within the community, by giving them a role and status in the village.

He quoted Lao Tzu, who said about children, love them, build on what they know and let them think they have figured it out for themselves, that is empowerment.

He gave an example of the Read India program in Chattisgarh State, that was successful because of people's initiative and government's participation.

By publishing the ASER report (more about this on an earlier blog post), the governement was brought to task on the quality or lack of good education that it, is providing. Outcomes are as important as outlays. Pratham is successful because they can show what the problem is and help with the solution.

He felt it was important to empower others, without feeling that you were being dis empowered. Pratham needs to be independent of government control, therefore it prefers independent funding.

They have some videos on YOU TUBE Angreezi from A to Z, which shows how they are teaching English to children in Himachal Pradesh.

They also have some bridge programs for children 6 through 14 and they have an adult education program called Siksha Ke Badle Me Siksha. You teach someone for 6 months and we will teach you for 3 months what you do not know. They were also toying with the idea of a finishing school and learning labs. Pratham has a successful mobile library project running in the slums of Delhi.

Indian corporate houses were doing a lot to help Pratham, along with Major American foundations like google. But he felt the corporates could be allocating many more funds than they do.

Mr. Chavan's steps for success were -:

1. Trust people that you work with.

2. Do not try to control things and people.

3. Every step you take is a step against failing. Social capital is where people belong to each other, they feel accountable.

He felt in India change was possible because of less structures, regulations and restrictions.

Asia Society blurb.
United States of America (Press Release) June 6, 2008 -- Education is the responsibility of the government. But, what happens when governments do not deliver? In 2005, the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER), a survey of children’s learning levels facilitated by Pratham, India’s largest non-profit in the area of primary education, revealed that although more than 94% of children were enrolled in school, learning levels were low. In 2007, Pratham launched the Read India movement with the ambitious goal of teaching all children in India how to read, write and do arithmetic by 2009. Pratham has today mobilized volunteers in almost 300,000 villages across India and has formed partnerships with over 15 state governments to improve the quality of teaching in schools. Over 14 million children have benefited from the first 6 months of the campaign.

Dr. Madhav Chavan, Founder and Director of Programs for Pratham, will speak about how ASER and Read India, initiatives led by people, are bringing about social change on a large scale. More broadly, he will speak about how this education movement has become a learning school for a model of democracy in which the government is an effective instrument of the people and not an inadequate master.

Geeta Shroff

Outlook is reporting that Dr. Geeta Shroff is using stem cells to cure patients. The ethical issues of using human embryonic stem cells remain.

Two years ago, 33-year-old Shannon Centman, an American Navy officer stationed in Port Huenme, California, fell asleep at the wheel. The next thing she knew, her car was wrapped around a pole, and she was being flung 50 feet back through the cold night air. Shannon resurfaced to find herself a paraplegic—"dead from the mid-back, all the way down". Her doctor told her she would never walk again. "I told him, 'I don't think so!'" Shannon recalls. "Oh, I can't wait to see him now! I'll walk in the door and say, 'How're you doing?' Now I can stand up with the help of callipers and I can use the rest-room like a normal human being!"

The turnaround took place, Shannon says, after just six weeks at Dr Geeta Shroff's Delhi clinic, Nutech Mediworld, where regular injections of human embryonic stem cells (hescs) were administered to her. She's not the only one to have been wheeled out of this clinic, dizzy with hope and exhilaration. A fortnight ago, Australian motivational speaker Perry Cross, a quadriplegic who'd been paralysed by a rugby accident at the age of 19, said he could breathe without his ventilator after two months of treatment from Dr Shroff. "I feel that by coming here, my lottery numbers have finally come up," he told the world media.

You'd think Dr Geeta Shroff, the architect of these miracles, and, according to her, 500 others as well, would be hailed as something of a genius, if not a Jesus. Instead, she's been labelled a "maverick" dabbling in "dangerous quackery" by the western media and medical establishment, ever since she declared three years ago that she'd used hescs to successfully treat 100 patients with a host of incurable and terminal illnesses—including Alzheimer's, multiple sclerosis, renal failure and cerebral palsy.

The medical establishment abroad agrees that certain stem cells contained in the "blastocyst" (a five-day-old human embryo) are capable of unlimited growth, and that their ability to differentiate into any tissue of the body may hold the key to a number of diseases we now consider irreversible and incurable, including degenerative conditions like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.

Yet, despite the hype, the hope and the headlines this science generates, and the huge amounts of research money it attracts, it remains poorly charted territory due to the stringent laws restricting it in most countries, largely due to the ethical question of destroying a potential life to harvest embryonic stem cells. In India, hesc research and therapy isn't under legislation yet. There are only a set of non-enforceable guidelines, put into place in 2005 by the bioethics committee of the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR). The fact that India does not have legislation to regulate stem cell treatment is seen as a loophole or a "grey area of governance" abroad. But the occasional headlines that stem cell research generates abroad—about the uncontrollable neoplasias (cancers) it has unleashed in rats, for example—do seem to suggest that caution is far from unwarranted.

Dr Shroff, who had earlier specialised in IVF treatment for infertility, would beg to differ. She's certain that the criticism she's attracted is due to sour grapes from Western scientists consigned to labs, toiling over transgenic (not purely human) stem cell lines. Their refusal to acknowledge that the technology is ready for use on humans is financially motivated, she says, adding: "Anyone who's first is controversial, and I'm a woman, an Indian woman, and not a grey-haired woman."

"We're standing at the forefront of a new medicine that will change all medicine," she thrills.

Like when penicillin changed the world, and brought in the antibiotic era, and people no longer died of infections.... With hescs as the first line of treatment, the word incurable has to exit from the doctor's and patient's dictionary. My ready-to-use injections should be made available in pharmaceutical companies around the world, as easily as insulin or any antibiotic."

What irks the medical establishment, though, is that Dr Shroff hasn't disclosed what exactly these injections contain, in peer-review journals. Her defence: "What's peer, who's peer? Where do I have a colleague who understands what I do?" She's "totally above board", she insists, pointing out the reams of certifications her two clinics have been granted: ISO, GMP (Good Manufacturing Practices), GLP (Good Laboratory Practices) and GCP (Good Clinical Practices). She adds she's adhering to ICMR guidelines, and has formed an ethics committee to clear each and every patient's case.

All that's different about her case, Dr Shroff says, is that instead of publishing in journals and exposing her work to "rubbishing and theft", she's applied for a patent to protect her research. With a touch of asperity, she exclaims, "I don't know what upbringing (Western scientists) have to speak out of turn when they don't know me or my work. Remember," she adds, "I'm a doctor as well as a scientist. They may be capable scientists who understand what goes on in the lab, but they don't know how to get it into a clinic. They're doing research, but they're all doing research on rats, on mice! That's the difference between them and me."

And that, says Dr Vasantha Muthuswamy, ICMR senior deputy director-general and head of its bioethics committee, is unfortunately all too true. "Our contention is that this is experimental therapy, it's not accepted as standard therapy anywhere in the world, so it should proceed as clinical trials. But according to Dr Shroff, it's regular treatment." The pretext of protecting intellectual property is no excuse for secrecy, she adds: "We're not asking for the process, we would just like to know what she's injecting into her patients. If it's stem cell culture material, that can be easily shown under a microscope, and it can't be stolen." Sighing, she says, "I'd be the happiest if she really cured these patients.... But we don't know what's been injected, or of its scientific outcome. So the problem is that Dr Shroff is treating humans as rats and mice."

Shannon, however, couldn't be a happier mouse. "I think it's a miracle and other people need to know about it. When I go back, I'm heading straight to the Veteran's Hospital, going room-to-room and recommending this treatment to everybody, personally." That ought to stir things up even further in this bioethical Pandora's Box.

the corruption of priviledge

David Cameron