Saturday, December 16, 2006

The Beauty of Bureacracy

Nothing in life is guaranteed. We all know that. Will plans work out? Will everything we hope to achieve actually be realized? Everyone has these doubts. Or at least I know I do.

But there is one thing guaranteed in life. Bureaucracy.

I have never been some where that did not have some form of bureaucracy involve in getting there, being there, leaving or staying. Of course I am thinking of India, where I sit and write. But I can think of a million other examples from everywhere else around the world. It's hard to conceive of a world without bureaucracy. Everything from paying taxes, airline tickets, paying electricity and phone bills, to international travel, visas, and government permits.

What if every time you got on a plane or train, no one asked for a ticket. What if you paid cash, and walked away. You never had to make a reservation, no paper record was ever made? Of course it seems as though the world would fall apart. Nothing would function.

Is there a way to get rid of bureaucracy? Or at least to get rid of paperwork? What would happen if all paper transactions became entirely digital? There are of course several ways in which this could happen. At present the most likely seems to be embedded RFID chips in various forms of identification, such as passports, drivers licences and credit cards. Recently there has been a huge outcry from the technology community over the security or rather lack of security with RFID chips. Not only can individuals be tracked using RFID, but the chips themselves can be hacked to access personal information. Therefore not only is it an open floodgate for identity theft by those who know how, but also a means for pan-surveillance, a sort of 21st century version of Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon. Panopticon on Wikipedia.
Bentham's orginal Panopticon text.
Also, see this story on RFID in passports in the Washington Post.

As frustrated as I am with paperwork, paper pushing, form filling, and blue ink, I think I prefer this form. It is a human system. Because it is a human system it is slow, flawed, and frustrating. It is subject to prejudice, among other human weaknesses, but it has it's beauty too. It certainly doesn't facilitate the kind of surveillance that would come from a paperless bureaucracy based on RFID. It also means that sometime, if you have a problem, someone can fight for you, someone can intervene on your behalf, and take care of things.

Bureaucracy's greatest flaw is it's greatest beauty. The problems of cronyism and corruption, of the influence of money over bureaucracy and the hearts of the people who make up a bureaucracy make it what it is. Bureaucrats can be heartless, and unwilling to help. In some places, and for some people, the greasing of palms can be the only way to get something done. Bureaucracy is certainly in most cases, in most countries around the world, a game in which the cards are stacked against the poor.

Corruption in bureaucracy could perhaps be called the largest problem of the last 100 years. News articles abound about the disaster of Hurricane Katrina, corruption in various governments around the world, corruption in American politics. A search of the BBC News website shows more articles on the subject of corruption than the search engine can return in one go. They suggest I narrow my search.

I am not the only person in the world who wonders what the solution is, or if one can be found. It seems to me that many people think that the digital solution is the best. Perhaps mathematically that is true. It would certainly be the most efficient for time and money, since a computer (however large or small) can do the work of hundreds of (mere) humans.

But as a human, despite the flaws of other humans, I think prefer to subject myself to a human system of bureaucracy than a digitalized one. However, the fear I have is not one in which computers become self aware and take over the earth, like in the movie The Terminator.

The problem is that with digital bureaucracy is still run by humans, and the potential for a secret puppeteer is even greater than with the current human/paper system. If we don't like the idea of government wiretapping home phones, or secretly reading our email, then the idea of an more efficient, and complete record keeping system, of someone tracking your every move is not at all appealing.

If you were ever afraid of the wizard behind the curtain in The Wizard of Oz be afraid now. The secret of a digital bureaucracy is not that there is some kind of machine running the world without prejudice, rather that it will be an even more rigid system designed and run by the same flawed humans. It will be harder to get help if you need it, and whatever injustices and prejudices currently exist will only become more permanently entrenched.

Should you need to reach a representative in government, or call someone at the IRS to correct an error, you will now be routed to a call center somewhere in Asia, or perhaps on the new moon base, where the person on the other end of the line will be very friendly, and kind, and completely unable to help you.

For a fun and interesting fictional/sci-fi exploration of the idea of pervasive digital surveillance read The Traveller by John Twelve Hawks.

For a more intellectual read on the history of surveillance, bureaucracy and punishment, check out the section on panopticism Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison by Michel Foucault.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Pierced Through the Nose

Ah the beauty of my new Macbook's built in iSight camera with sepia filter. I mean they almost look professionally done.
Anyway, I don't really know what came over me, when I decided I wanted to punch another whole in my body. I don't really consider myself the piercing kind. In fact, it was such a fad for so long that I resisted getting piercings precisely because I didn't want to do what everyone else was doing. In India of course, and Madurai especially this is a common thing for women, so I did end up doing what everyone else is.
I went to the doctor for the piercing after buying the jewellery, because it was recommended, and I thought it would be the most sanitary. I even told the doctor that I came to him so that it would be cleanly done, and I wouldn't get an infection. I expected him to clean my nose with alcohol, but he didn't. He wanted to give me a local anaesthetic, but I said no. I would rather feel pain than feel numb.
So I sat in a chair and he stood over me with a big hollow needle (on which he had poured some kind of disinfectant). I closed my eyes. He pushed the needle in. I thought,"Well, that didn't hurt so much". Then he tried to pull the needle back out again. It was stuck. That hurt. Then he went in again from the other side. Ouch. Finally his woman assistant pushed the jewellery through the hole. It didn't bleed much, which was good. But it sure was sore. And ironically when I got home I realized part of my nose was numb. They had poured some kind of liquid over it after piercing, which might have been a topical anaesthetic. I was annoyed because the numb part was not the part with the hole. Unfortunately the numbness stayed for about three days. Now that part of my nose is no longer numb, but it feels like someone is tickling me with a feather.
With liberal application of antibiotic ointment, so far there's no infection. Thank goodness.
I almost think I would have been better off with any old lady off the street. I'm sure they know better what they're doing than this guy.
Not to mention he proscribed me three different medications to take for two days afterwards. It was probably totally unnecessary, but because I was forced to buy them from him, and one was an antibiotic I decided to take them. After the not-so-sanitary way in which he pierced it, I thought it couldn't hurt. However, once I looked at the pills I realized I didn't know which one was which so I took all three. I hope if I have kids they aren't born with two heads or something.
Ah, India!

Friday, November 10, 2006

The Story of Pumpkin

This is Pumpkin.

I first saw Pumpkin lying in a pile of garbage by the side of the road. I was not surprised. She was shivering, and her nose was inside a plastic bag. Every rib and vertebrae was visible. She was coated in filth. Once I realized the thing I was looking at in the pile of garbage was alive, and was clearly suffering from starvation, I couldn't do nothing. I have walked past suffering (in humans and animals) too many times here in India, and for some reason I could not do it one more time.

I wanted to do something, but I still wasn't sure what would be best. What can you feed a starving and suffering animal that won't harm it further? I called another American friend who had previously adopted a puppy off the street here in Madurai. The answer was biscuits and milk or water. I bought biscuits and water and went over to the dog. I didn't yet know what else I would or could do, but doing something to help felt right.

After she started eating the biscuits and water I took her out of the garbage pile. After she ate the entire package of biscuits and drank some water, I decided to take her home. I didn't know if I could keep her, but she had such enthusiasm for the food, and it seemed like she deserved to be given a chance at living, rather than die in a pile of garbage.

As I was walking home with her in my arms, it dawned on me that her shivering was not really shivering at all, but a muscle twitch that was persistent. It occurred to me that something might be wrong with her other than starvation. I called my American friend again and asked if she knew of a Veterinarian. I went to the recommended location, and found the Vet operating out of an office about 4 feet by 5 feet. I was skeptical, but it is generally true in India that people care less about animals and have fewer pets than Americans. So it was understandable. I paid the Vet 400 rupees, for which he gave her an antibiotic shot, and two vaccines, one for Rabies and one for a variety of other communicable diseases. But he also diagnosed her muscle twitches as Distemper, a viral infection, which I was not at all familiar with. He said she had a chance at recovery, although he did warn me that it is sometimes fatal. I took her home, not knowing what else to do, but try to feed her sufficiently to help her get over the virus.

I bathed her and discovered that she was barely strong enough to stand. She had difficulty it seemed, mostly because her muscles had wasted away to such an extent that they just couldn't support her for more than a few seconds. The other problem was the twitch. But she kept trying, and I deemed her "a fighter".
"She wants to live." I told my friends who questioned the decision to adopt a sick stray off the street. "She deserves the chance to live."

I bought the antibiotic tablets the Vet prescribed and Pedigree puppy chow. After the first night, in which a puddle of pee and a puddle of puppy diarrhea appeared on my floor, I decided to keep her mostly on the balcony, and outdoor space that would be easier to clean. Since she could barely get up to go bathroom off the mat she was laying on, this seemed best. I also had come to realize that I probably wouldn't be able to keep her, or take her to the US, and I should not allow either myself or her to develop too much of an attachment.

I found her on Tuesday afternoon. Halloween, and it was then that I decided to call her Pumpkin. Wednesday she seemed better, stronger, and although sad to be left alone a lot of the time. Thursday seemed even better. She was still weak, but she was eating heartily, including the scrambled egg I cooked for her.

My landlady complained that she whined a lot, but there was not much I could do. On Thursday afternoon after I went out, and found her lying in an awkward pile with her neck bent backwards. She had gotten up to go to the bathroom, and fallen down on her way back to the mat. She had been unable to get up.

Friday was worse. I fed her another scrambled egg and puppy chow in the morning, and when I found her Friday afternoon, she had vomited all the food I had given her and was lying in the puddle of her own diarrhea and had been unable to get up and move. It occurred to me then that she might not make it, and that the best thing to do might be to have her euthanized. I cried at the thought of it, but still I started thinking that might be the end result.

By Saturday morning she was having seizures, and had been unable to get up off her mat to go to the bathroom. She was having trouble breathing but was still holding on. She had vomited even the water that I gave her.

I knew it was time to let her go. She was twitching, seizing, and whining as if in pain. I decided it was time to take her to the government veterinary hospital to have her euthanized.

When we arrive at a quarter to seven in the morning, the auto driver assured me they would arrive at seven. But they didn't open until 8 and the Vet didn't come until 8:30. When he did arrive, and finally saw me and the puppy he told me they don't do that there. He claimed there was some kind of government law or regulation against it. I sort of pleaded with him, saying it was the humane thing to do. And he said something vague to the effect of "Maybe we can do something to ease her pain." I looked at him completely blankly, and he walked away.

Finally I went to find him, to ask if they couldn't or wouldn't euthanize her here, where could I go? He said, "No, No. I'll send my deputy." I looked at him blankly again, tears running down my face.

What is a deputy for a Veterinarian? In what way is he a deputy? What does that mean? So the deputy, came and told me I had to write a letter. It was all very vague, but he brought me a piece of paper and I started writing. Then the Vet came out and looked at the letter and told me it was all wrong. I had to start over. I had to address it a certain way, and give the specifics of the dog. Her name, age, sex, color, breed, etc. I looked at the Vet when he said breed, like, what do you mean "breed"? Look at her. She's a street dog. And he said: "You can put down 'local breed'." So I rewrote the letter and gave it to the Vet. He took it and waved me off in a vague direction. "Take her over there." I wandered in that direction, dog in my arms, sobbing. Finally someone pointed me to the "operating room" and had me lay her on the table. Then they told me to leave the room. When I left her, she started crying loudly and I started crying even harder.

The auto rickshaw driver was telling me "It's ok madam, don't worry." And one of the women working there, was saying to me in Tamil, "Don't cry, don't cry." And then, finally, practically shouting it, "STOP CRYING!" I tried to stop but couldn't really do it. I realized it was culturally inappropriate to display so much emotion over a dog. But there was nothing I was going to do about that.

The Vet called me over again to inform me that they would not be able to do anything with the body, that I would have to take it with me. I said ok, I don't really know where to take it, or what to do, but I will take it and I will figure something out. I said this because it seemed to be a condition of their doing this thing for me. The auto driver was there, and the Vet explained it to him too, and he said he could find someone. So then the Vet asked if I was done with the dog.

I said no. I hadn't really said goodbye. So I went back inside, and said goodbye to her. I kissed her face, and said I was sorry, and I hope she gets another chance at another and a better life. I didn't know that I believe in reincarnation, but apparently I do. She got such a bad deal in life this time, I just kept thinking I hope it gets better than this. I looked her in the eyes, and I felt that she understood. And then I left again. They forbade me to be in the room.

A few minutes later they came out and told me it was over. I went in and saw her, both sad that she was gone, and happy that she was free of the shell in which she had suffered. Her body was still for the first time. The muscle twitching that had been constantly plaguing her was gone. I collected her body in the shawl in which I had been carrying her, and lay her on the floor of the auto.

I cried the whole way home, despite the auto drivers pleas of "Don't worry, madam. It will be alright, madam."

In the neighborhood near my house we pulled over to the side of the road next to some people sitting there. The auto driver called a man over and explained that he should dispose of the body. The man made a face, but said yes. Then the drive turned to me and said, "Give him 100 rupees." So I gave him 100 rupees, and he took the body. The driver assured me he would do a good job burying it.

I got home, and my landlady asked what happened. I couldn't really explain it to her, but she gave me coffee, and asked in Tamil if I "felt". "Feel pannriyaa?", she asked.

"Yes," I said, "I feel."

Thursday, October 26, 2006

The Rest of Hyderabad

Here are some pictures from Hyderabad, the rest will be up on flickr.

Self Portrait in the Queen's Mosque

A view from inside Golconda Fort

Hero Stone from the Archaeology Museum in Hyderabad

Monday, October 23, 2006

Happy in Hyderabad

*retyping a lost post sucks. That's all I have to say.*
The guidebook says Hyderabad is a city of contradictions. Old and new, Hindu and Muslim, rich and poor. They are right. Hyderabad is in some ways the most modern city I have been to in India yet. ATMs on every corner. Rampant consumerism, malls areas with flashing lights reminiscent of New York City. But at the same time there are things that lag behind. For one the garbage problem is still there. On the small street on which my hotel is located, there is a giant garbage pile which is generally smoldering or fully on fire. Its smoke fills the entire street. And despite signs every few feet along the walls that prohibit urination and defecation, people still regularly squat down in the gutter and just "go". The signs even threaten a 50 Rupee fine, but people regularly ignore it. There is less sexual harassment here though, which is a step forward. Some younger women wear jeans, tank tops, and tight t-shirts without being harassed. So that's great. On the other hand many women also wear Purdah, which the guide book claims is mostly to avoid harassment. I'm not certain that they're right, but it certainly makes for visual contradictions to see women in tank tops and jeans, and women covered head to toe in draping black fabric.
One of the contradictions, Hindu and Muslim definitely has a traumatic history which is being relieved even today. The clashes took place decades ago, but the animosities between Hindus and Muslims living in close contact are still evident. On the bus today I saw an "heated conversation", you might call it, between a Hindu man and a Muslim man over who had the right to sit in the seat. But so far as I could tell it was really not about the seat at all, but rather the expression of pent up anger and frustration. I guess if shouting and arguments on the bus are the manifestation of these hostilities it's better than the communal rioting that took place here in the past.
I did have one good "inter-cultural" experience. Yesterday, when coming back from the Laad Bazaar and Charminder, I caught an auto with a Muslim auto driver. Initially he was talking to me in Hindi and very broken English about how my god and his god are all one Allah. And I said Yes. But mostly I didn't understand a word he said. Then I said something to the effect of "I don't know Hindi" in Tamil, and he answered me in Tamil. It turns out he is Tamil, and has been living in Hyderabad for the past 20 years. He converted to Islam 25 years ago, and moved to Hyerabad, married a Hindi speaking woman and has 5 children. He converted to Islam from Hinduism, and was very sincerely enthusiastic about his religion. So he starts asking if I have read the Koran, and I said No. Then he asks me if I will read it, and I said Yes. Finally I promised him I would read the Koran (something I should do anyway) and he was very pleased. Then he started asking me about marriage. A common line of questioning. I told him I am not married yet, don't know when I will be, or to whom, and my parents will not arrange it for me. So then he told me I should marry an Indian Muslim and convert to Islam. I said something to the effect of "Maybe, you never know what will happen." And he was very happy about this too. By the time we arrived at my hotel he was calling me his younger sister and offering to arrange my marriage. I declined that offer. Then he offered to send me a copy of the Koran, and I told him he could do that, I would certainly read it. He wanted my phone number which I declined to give, but gave the Institutes address so he can mail me a copy of the Koran. Then he told me not to pay him for the ride.
If he does send me a copy of the Koran (in English) I really will read it. As I think many Americans (or at least the liberal ones) are now thinking, I need to learn more about Islam and understand it better if the world is going to become a better place, with less hatred and more understanding.
On another topic completely, yesterday I went to the Archaeology Museum here in Hyderabad, and saw their very lovely collection of Bidriware, Chinese pottery, Hindu sculpture, and bits and pieces of Buddhist stupas. While there I was wondering around the courtyard and saw an office with a sign that said NO ENTRY, but the walls were lined with books. So I poked my head in the door and said "Are you the archaeologists?" and the woman sitting there said yes. She turned out to be Dr. Suguna Sharma, an archaeologist who was working on textiles and patterns. So we talked for a little while and had tea, and she referred me to Dr. K.P. Rao, at the Hyderabad University. His was a name I thought I recognized, and indeed he is the author of the book Deccan Megaliths (1988, Sundeep Prakashan, Delhi), which I have often cited. So she gave me his contact information, and this morning I called him on the phone and asked if I could meet him. He proposed this afternoon, and so I went by bus to the campus (18 km away from the town) to meet him.
Dr. Rao turned out to be a very friendly man, and very helpful and interesting to talk to. He gave me copies of many of his articles, and allowed me to look at and photograph some of the pottery from a megalithic site that he has been excavating recently. He also said that when he goes for field work I can join him and participate in surveys and excavations and the like, whatever he's doing next summer. To top it all off he said I can come back and do some analysis of pottery and human remains from his recent excavations. It's all very future and tentative, but I'm still thrilled and excited nonetheless.
I have been doing some sightseeing too, and will post those pictures soon.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Systems to prevent voter fraud

Voter fraud is a problem. It has always been a problem (as long as democracy has existed), and I'm sure it will always be a problem. A while ago I saw a news story in the form of video of a man testifying before the US Congress that he was hired to create a program to hack the computerized voting system in Florida. He claimed that as he understood it, he was writing this program so that future attempts at fraud and hacking could be more easily identified. I paraphrase: "It only took a few lines of code to insert a few extra thousand votes on whichever side you wanted them to be."

India has another sort of problem all together. For one they use paper ballots with pictures for the different parties and candidates. This results in several problems which are equally difficult to solve. The Indian press has been reporting on these problems and the government's efforts to solve them. One significant problem are armed gangs coming with fake ballots to stuff the ballot boxes. This has been solved with each of the voting centers being heavily guarded with armed police. So what if it feels like martial law when you go to vote. All those men with guns are there to protect democracy...

Another problem involves tampering with votes after they have been cast. For that they put giant padlocks on the metal boxes in which the votes are placed.

The third and perhaps most serious problem you might think would be individuals who attempt to vote more than once, or at more than one voting station. Since many people here don't carry government identification (there are no ID cards like drivers licenses that people carry regularly) instead the resort to a semi-permanent form of body modification. Like a club in New York, or a theater where they stamp your hand, once you have cast your one and only vote, they put a plus sign in ink on your finger and fingernail. Since there are multiple elections, for district representatives, ministers, etc., they reserve different fingers for different elections. In this way they mark you as a citizen, as one who has legally and rightfully participated in the democratic process.

In some ways it seems silly. In America we have computers for that, and you can only vote at your registered center where you are listed on a roster. You have to present proof of identity, but in the end they don't mark you in any way. And yet marking seems like a good idea. That way you can see who cares and who doesn't. On election day if you run into your friends, and you don't see black ink on their fingernail you can chastise them, and tell them to go participate in their democracy. That's what Democracy is supposed to be for. For that matter maybe it should be a tattoo. A small one, to be sure. But still, a small unique mark for each year that you vote. How brilliant would that be?

Video of the congressional testimony on vote machine hacking.

A poet and a saint (and a woman)

This most recent weekend we took a trip to the temple in the town of Srivilliputhur, about an hour away from Madurai. The temple there is dedicated to the saintess and poet Andal, who wrote bhakti devotional poetry about the Lord Rangunathan, an avatar of Vishnu. The temple there was built in the Nayak period (14th century) and had exquisitely beautiful stone sculptures of which I took an excessive quantity of photographs. There isn't much else to say about it, so instead I'll refer you to my Flickr Page.

The Temple Gopuram
The main gateway or gopuram at the temple in Srivilliputhur.

Monday, October 16, 2006

No Wonder the British Preferred the Hills

View from the train going up the mountain to Ooty

Ooty is one of the most beautiful places in India. It was one of several important "hill stations" built by the British to avoid the heat and dust of the plains. The Nilgiris in general are unbelieveably beautiful. And I was fortunate enough to live there, in a town called Lovedale, for 3 months several years ago. This past weekend I went to Lovedale to visit the friends that I made there. Because of it's beauty and temperate climate, the Nilgiris have long attracted outsiders. Including the British, but also North Indians and various European expats.

Tea plantations in the clouds and fog.

The result is that a North Indian woman and her husband moved down to Lovedale to retire. After he passed away she decided to start a school. She hired teachers including my friend Josephine, to teach in this school. After a few years she got tired of running the school and closed it down. Then she offered Josephine a job as her house servant, gave her and her family (husband and two children) a single room to live in. This room is attached to a three room cottage which she rents out, often to foreigners, such as myself, which is how I became acquainted with Josephine and Lovedale. Recently she added a kitchen on to the one room, so that now Josephine and her family have one room for sleeping, plus a kitchen.

What is worse than having to be a servant, is being treated like one. And that is the tragedy of the situation. "Leela" is her pet name for Josephine, and she shouts it at the top of her lungs whenever she wants tea.

So when I went to Lovedale to visit this weekend I decided to do something to try to help improve their lives. Josephine's husband is an Auto rickshaw driver, (like a small three wheeled taxi, if you've never seen one), but business is rough and he doesn't own his own auto. Most of his earnings go to pay the rent on the auto itself. Also, these days many auto drivers have cell phones, which allow them to maintain regular customers. Raja (that's his name) wasn't able to compete. So on top of the birthday presents for Cinderella, I bought them a cell phone and a subscription to service for life. All they have to do is pay 50 rupees every 6 months to keep it active. My good deed for the week.

If I wanted to here, I could go on and on about the not-nice deeds of the rich woman who employs my friend. But suffice it to say she does not treat her as an equal, and barely as another human being. It is not slavery, to be sure, but the analogy can be drawn.

And yes, Cinderella really is her name. I'm not sure if Josephine knows the American story or only heard the name somewhere, but she named her daughter, her eldest child Cinderella. And despite the fact that both her parents are still living, this real life Cinderella lives in almost as tragic circumstances. All I can say is that I hope her prince one day comes. It was her fourteenth birthday on Sunday and we celebrated with presents, church, more presents, and chocolate cake. The chocolate cake was amazing.

I was only able to stay for two days, but it was still lovely. And I hope I really did make a difference in their lives. We shall see.

Cinderella, Josephine, Malcom and Raja in front of their home.

The view from their front door. Clouds and mountains, clouds like mountains.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Women Dance the KummiAdi

Here is the video:

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Village Festivals

Yesterday I went to the village of Vilaacheri, where I hope to start pottery lessons next week. I went because I was invited for a festival the name of which I'm not entirely clear on. The festival consisted of the following: Extremely loud film music played over gigantic loudspeakers, drunk men, millions of children, women dancing the KummiAdi, men shouting and whistling, and the procession of the village gods around the village on ceramic horses painted brightly and carried with long bamboo poles by 8 young men each. The village was festively decorated with streamers and each house had beautiful chalk paintings, called 'kolam' out front. Where the procession was set to begin, the women were dancing. Then when they finished, the men picked up the ceramic horses, beginning with the head god of the village, seated on the first horse, and processed to the main temple, and from there to each of the other temples in the town. It was fascinating, but also exhausting.

I also seem to be playing a small role in the politics of the village, since I have been befriended by a woman who is running for village president (what used to be called 'headman'). Her husband who is now dead was the headman many years back, and now she also has the desire to run for office. I was with her before the procession started, as we walked around the village, she greeted many people and introduced them to me. Whether she thinks her friendship with a foreigner will help her in any way, I can't really say. Whether it could actually help her get votes, I don't know. But there are seven people running for the position, so who's to say.

The women dancing the KummiAdi.

p.s. I have a video of the women dancing as well, but I'm still working on uploading it.

Monday, October 02, 2006

An Earth a Day

As another aside, if you have a minute check out this quiz that estimates your consumption on a world scale. It's depressing, but probably somewhat accurate.

In India, where I consume almost entirely local products, never drive a vehicle, walk or take the bus almost everywhere, etc. I still consume more than my share of the planet per population. In America, according to my normal American consumer habits it tells me that if everyone in the world lived like me, we would need 4.5 earths to support us all.
Check it out: Footprint Quiz

Off the beaten path... Kodumanal

Finally I was able to get to visit the site of my future research: Kodumanal.
I left Saturday morning on a train to the town of Erode. This cost 32 rupees. A bus to the even smaller town of Chennimalai (6 rupees), and from there a bus to the tiny village of Kodumanal (3 rupees). A chance to visit the site of my archaeological dreams? Priceless. Or well, nearly so, anyway.

The travel was uneventful save for the barrage of questions I usually get when people realize I speak some Tamil: Where is your native place? Why have you come to India? Why have you come here specifically? What do you do? What do you study (i.e. what degree)? What subject do you study? How old are you? Are you married? Do you have children? Do you have siblings? Are they married? Do they have children? What do your parents do? Will you get married? When? Do you have a groom already picked out? And sometimes questions like: Why do you have three piercings in one ear and only one in the other? Do you wear Indian clothes in America? Do you wear Sarees? Where do your parents live in the US? Is it a joint family? etc. etc. These questions I answered on the bus to several people on the way to the village and several times to different people in the village. Luckily, once I've told a few people, and they are around, whenever someone else comes by and starts asking the same questions, whoever I've already spoken with begins answering for me. What is especially fascinating is that everyone always asks the same set of questions. Sometimes they only ask the first three or four or five, but the order is almost always the same.
I was also questioned on the bus, as to whether I knew the address where I was going. And I didn't but I knew the name of the village, and the name of a man to talk to when I got there. I hoped that was enough.

Sure enough, I got off of the bus and asked for Mr. Somu and was directed towards a house. It turns out it wasn't Mr. Somu's house, but the house that Dr. Rajan had arranged for me to stay in for the night. They provided me with a bed and a meal, and were very hospitable and nice. Of course they too asked all the same questions, but I didn't mind. Theirs was a joint family, one grandmother, two sons, two daughters-in-law, and 2 grandsons, one for each couple. And they all lived under one roof. Anyway, they fed me a lovely dinner of rice, two kinds of vegetables, sambar, rasam and yogurt. It was delicious. Despite the fact that they had no running water, (a cistern over the kitchen sink and gravity provided it instead) they had a Sony Wega Trinitron TV, cable and a DVD player. So we watched a Tamil movie in the evening while the two two-year old boys played with their toy cars.
In the morning Mr. Somu came and got me and we went to check out the site.

There wasn't alot to see, especially in the habitation area. A mound was not especially apparent, although the scatter of pottery and the fine clear crystal debitage of bead making was very abundant. The trenches had all been filled in, and were not marked anywhere. And the whole thing was under cultivation. There was a lot more to see with the megaliths in the burial part of the site, although that too had been plowed at some point in the past. One large excavated megalith was left open, and I'm pictured below standing down inside it. A few others were apparent on the surface. Also, menhirs, or standing stones were still there and quite obvious. If there were really over 100 megaliths there when Rajan and the archaeologists studied the site nearly 20 years ago, many of them must be gone now, or are no longer visible on the surface.
In any case, it was immensely useful to get a first hand view of the site, rather than simply read about it or look at black and white pictures in a book. As you can see from below, the pictures are nice, but you still don't really get a sense of the whole thing. Of course it's spread out over 50 acres, or so Mr. Somu said.
Luckily I didn't fall in any more septic tanks... (there were several possible candidates, but I was adept at avoiding them.)

This is Kodumanal, the habitation site.

Me in front of the transepted cist of an excavated megalithic burial.

One of the stone circles, indicating a sub-surface burial.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Deadly Virus Resurrected

This is a sort of fascinating article about the 1918 flu that killed so many people in Europe. Read it if you have a spare minute. :)

Resurrected virus shows how 1918 flu strain committed mass murder from

Scientists testing a resurrected version of the 1918 flu virus on lab mice believe the 20th-century's deadliest pathogen reaped its toll through a combination of runaway tissue inflammation and cell death.


Tuesday, September 26, 2006

How many pots could a potter pot if a potter could pot pots?

After visiting the church in Idaikattur, we went to the small town of Manamadurai to see a local pottery operation. The director of the Tamil program Dr. Bharathy knows my interest, and I think that was the main reason for that part of the journey. It was an amazing operation. They were organized as a cooperative, a number of families sharing facilities, and the work involved in firing. They also appeared to be involved in fairly large bulk production operation, and were in the process of loading the pots in to trucks with straw cushioning when we visited. They make a variety of vessels, although the proportions have changed. Ceramic cooking vessels are used in the home here only on special or ritual occasions, and small oil lamps for altars are common. But the largest volume is flower pots, which are all hand made.
I would have loved to have studied pottery there with them, especially because of the family environment, but it's really too far to travel from Madurai on a regular basis. Instead I'll be taking pottery lessons twice a week in the village of Vilaachery about 45 minute bus ride from my neighborhood.
I don't start classes until next week but I'm excited, and I'll post pictures, if I manage to make anything with any success.

A young girl making small oil lamps for use in temples and home altars for worshipping the various Hindu deities.

Large piles of pottery, finished and ready to ship.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Replicating Reims Cathedral

It was already sweltering hot when we four students piled into a jeep-like vehicle to visit the Reims Cathedral of the East. This impressive structure was built in 1894 by a French jesuit priest. He had wanted to built a church in the small village of Idaikattur in Tamil Nadu, but lacked the funds. And so, he went home to France for funding and found a protestant woman who had been miraculously cured of a heart ailment after praying to the Sacred Heart. She donated 2000 francs, which allowed the kindly French father to return to India to build his majestic cathedral, and in doing so encroach on a large section of the villagers land.

The villagers protested, but the Father had already laid the foundation, and refused to change his plans. The peasants took their case to court, and tried to prevent the building of the church. Though the Father's lawyer advised him to lie in order to win the case, the honest father refused. He had faith in the lord.

Then the judge had a dream, in it the church was being built by 153 angels. (He counted them all. How he could tell them apart I don't know. I always have trouble telling one angel apart from another.) In any case, the Judge found in favor of the father, and convinced the villagers to give up their land. The church was built. In it he installed sculptures of many saints, as well as the 153 angels. Whether they each sat for portraits individually, I don't know.

It was indeed quite beautiful. The stained glass and statues were imported from france although they decided pews were unnecessary as the villagers were used to sitting on the floor.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Pass the Roti

Ah, there's nothing better than a refreshing dose of bureaucracy. Today I decided to plan my travels outside of Madurai, to go visit my friends in Ooty, and to go to Hyderabad over my fall break. I started by looking at the newspaper to see which airlines were advertising the lowest rates. AirDeccan was advertising a rate from Hyderabad to Chennai for 74 Rupees, or about $1.85 plus taxes and fees. I went to their website to no avail, I tried every search possible and this fare did not exist. The actual rates were 700 Rupees, from Hyderabad to Chennai and 1500 from Chennai to Hyderabad. A round trip ticket costing about 5000 rupees with taxes and surcharges. This is ridiculous compared to train fares, so I decided to try booking train tickets online. The train ticket booking online doesn't allow for round trip tickets, and each leg had to be booked individually, with a service charge for using the internet booking facility. Because I had 6 separate journeys, I decided to give up and go to the railway reservation office, and despite having to fill out a separate form for each leg, I would probably get it done in better time. I also had received my ATM card from the State Bank of India, with a notification to obtain my pin by going to the branch office. I went to the bank to do this, and was informed by the security guard that I had to speak with the bank manager. Then he asked when I received the card, and I told him yesterday. He then informed me that the pin would not be available until Monday. I must come back then. I asked if I could speak with the bank manager anyway, and he said no, come back Monday.
No problem.
So then I had to wait in a 5 or 6 person line to withdraw cash from the bank without an ATM card, when woman carrying two two thousand rupee notes decided to cut to the front of the line, as if having large denominations of cash gave her that right. Even the man behind the counter yelled at her. He still took her in front of 4 other waiting people. After receiving my cash, I went to the railway reservation office, filled out 6 individual sheets for reservation requests with mostly redundant information. The only thing that changed was the date, and name and number of the train. Otherwise, I wrote the Class, number of berths, my full name, age, sex, berth preference, full address, telephone number, date and signature 6 times. But for 270 rupees I am going to Ooty to visit my friends for a weekend, and for another 850 rupees I am going to Chennai and Hyderabad for my break.
I know it will all be worth it in the end. On top of which I will have contributed to the archives of the Indian railway, which some future graduate student will surely study. If it doesn't all burn down. I mean, I think that amount of paper all held in one place has a natural tendency to spontaneously ignite.

On another note, my friend Vivek, and several of his friends have a blog about Indian politics and current events which is very informative. It can be found at

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

I guess I do have something to say after all...

For many years now I have resisted the idea of creating a blog, because, as I told people, I have nothing to say, and besides, no one would want to read it anyway. I have finally come to the point at which I don't really care if anyone reads it; and it turns out that I do have something to say after all.
This blog is the beginning of my commentary on events, politics, and my own personal experiences in the world, as strange and absurd as it may be.
Do I have any expertise, you may ask yourself. And I can say, no, probably not. Perhaps on some subjects.
And so I give you opinions, some justified, others not. I cannot promise to write without bias, since I think that's an impossible goal.

So I will quote Umberto Eco:
"I asked for a lawyer and they gave me an avocado."