Two Bingos

I joined Facebook two weeks ago when I discovered that it wasn't just college kids anymore.
I got hooked into Scrabulous almost as soon as I got on Facebook, thanks to a friend who convinced me to play a game with her.

When Scrabulous got shutdown by Hasbro for infringing on the Scrabble trademark, I migrated almost immediately to the official game. Since I've not been playing long enough to even finish a game, I have no great loyalty to Scrabulous.

Yet ... Scrabble's user interface is painfully amateurish. Whoever's been designing the application has been designing it like a desktop application. It does not take advantage of all the social networking that Facebook provides. It also is graphics-heavy and takes a long time to load. Scrabble does not work properly on Linux. Which may be for the better since it cuts down on temptation to sneak in a play at work.

Still ... my first two plays with Scrabble were: pardine/tinea and fomented. Two bingos (using all 7 tiles), for a grand total of 143 points. I think I like Scrabble.

Making no waves

The New York Times posted exams that Obama assigned to his students when he taught at the University of Chicago's Law School. Akhil Amar, a Yale law professor, notes:

First, As a constitutional law professor, I came away impressed — dazzled, really — by the analytic intelligence and sophistication of these questions and answers. A really good exam — an exam that tests and stretches the student, while simultaneously providing the professor with a handy and fair index to rank the class — is its own special art form. Composing such an exam is like crafting a sonnet or a crossword puzzle. We don’t have Obama’s answer key every year; but the questions themselves are in many instances beautifully constructed to enable students to explore the seams and plumb the depths of the Supreme Court’s case law. I am tempted to use variations of several of these questions myself in some future exam. (I won’t say which, lest I tip my students off.) When I read Jodi Kantor’s piece, I was very interested to hear that the University of Chicago Law School was willing to offer Obama tenure. In these materials I see why [emphasis mine].

That last sentence is interesting. The Law School offered Obama tenure even though he did not publish any papers! Why would one of the leading law schools in the world would offer tenure to someone with no scholarly publications? I suppose, as Amar notes, his exams were enough proof that he could. But I'm more interested in why he didn't.

John Eastman, a law professor and former Supreme Court clerk notes in the same blog post:
Perhaps then-Professor Obama’s observation of the way other legal scholars such as Robert Bork and Lani Gunier had had their work distorted for partisan political purposes counseled him against publication of his scholarly views. Too bad for us, and for the legal academy more generally. The chilling effect on true and important scholarship that has resulted from the last few decades of obnoxious confirmation fights is quite evident in Senator Obama’s prior silence.
That to me, is the really chilling part of this story. That the way to advance in America today is to avoid articulating strong positions. Even John Roberts, the current Supreme Court justice, seems to have followed that strategy.

Something Funny

"Something funny happened," the six-year-old informed me on the phone. He confuses "fun" with "funny", so I waited for him to tell me about the new fun thing in his life.

"My second tooth fell out," he informed me.

"Which one?"

"The one right next to the first one."

"So, you are now missing two front teeth?"

"Ya ..."

"You can actually sing the song All I want for Christmas is my two front teeth" this Christmas!"

"But I've forgot the song."

"When you come back to Norman, ask Grammy. She'll teach you."

Then, the three year old got on the phone.

"When are my teeth going to fall out?" Emphasis on the "my".

"When you're six years old."

"Can they fall out when I'm four years old?" She's recently learned to negotiate when we lay down the law. But she doesn't quite get what she can negotiate about.

"Your teeth will fall out when you are six years old. You'll have to be patient until then, OK?"


"You know something funny that happened?"

"What happened?" She's now competing with brother. If something fun happened to him, something fun must have happened to her.

Long pause. "Nothing".

There's a three-year-old 10,000 miles away who badly needs a hug from dad. 10 more days!

Two books on China

I didn't plan it this way, but I ended up reading two books on China over the last week. Both, in different ways, address the dramatic changes in the country -- from the cultural revolution to today's one-party market economy.

Ha Jin's Waiting is about an army doctor who, ashamed of his rural wife's bound feet, never brings her to live with him in the hospital quarters. He has a girlfriend, a nurse, but hospital regulations prevent them from having sex. And, this being China, they wait and wait -- the doctor can't even imagine the consequences of not following the rules. The prose style is slow, but it draws you into the manners of thought and society of China even as the economy opens up and life changes dramatically.

Colin Thurbin's Shadow of the Silk Road is a travelogue of the author's trip from Xian, China to Antioch, Syria. He'd been to China, to the province of Xinjiang, nearly two decades ago. He looks up old friends, and observes the changes in attitudes between generations. The old, he notes, wish to forget the horrors of the past. The young (who are mostly cossetted products of the one-child policy) are nationalistic, having never faced up to their country's history. Everyone looks forward expectantly to the future.

One book informed the other and I started to imagine the military doctor in the streets that Thurbin observed ... ashamed of his meekness, jealous of the corrupt men who are making it, and wanting the best for his child. China, it seems to me, is full of such men.

Of course, the travelogue is not quite about China -- it is about the mingling of cultures and confusion along the Silk Road. The Chinese thought, extrapolating from silk, that cotton was produced by an insect. The Romans thought, extrapolating from cotton, that silk was from a plant. And yet, they traded. Through dozens of intermediaries. And knowledge did get passed back and forth, leading to catasclymic events on either side. The stirrup was a Chinese invention, and made possible the Middle Ages of highly armored knights. So was gunpowder, which brought the era to a close by providing a way to lay siege to fortified castles. And when the Portugese discovered a sea route, they disintermediated the Azers, Uzbeks, Kazhaks, Uighurs and all the other societies along the Silk Road. Until oil was discovered in Central Asia, the Soviet Union fell apart leaving independent Turkic republics in its wake, America went on a consumerist binge for cheaply made Chinese-junk and China decided to solve its Muslim problem by shipping Han Chinese into its northwest frontier.

Interesting books, both of them. I can't view the Olympics, and Chinese nationalism, in quite the same way again.

Simple in New England

I rediscovered the scale of early America this week in New England. The Plymouth Rock, that rock on which the pilgrims first set foot in America? Based on the mythology around the rock, I expected it to be at least a small hill. It turned out to be smaller than a two-seater convertible.

Franklin Public Library, the first public library in America? About half the size of Norman's public library. Norman, of course, is going to be building a new library because the current one has been deemed to be too small. I even got on a library planning committee in Norman to ask why they needed a new library, but was told politely that the purpose of the planning committee was to decide what to do in the extra space, not to question whether the extra space was even needed.

After seeing gigantic museums in the south dedicated to the civil war (the one in Richmond, Virginia manages to have thousands of square feet without mentioning slavery), this nice simple statue to the Union dead was moving.

Beaver Pond is a smallish swimming hole minutes away from town. The trees on the other side of the pond screen out a 8-lane interstate -- you can hear the cars, but can't see them. I got talking to a local there. He told me about a father who'd drowned his children in the pond a few years earlier. I told him about noodling, but he thought I was putting him on.

Went for a refreshing swim in Beaver Pond Friday evening. Then, to a nearby pub for a pint of locally-brewed amber ale. The beer was cold and the hops had the just the right hint of bitter. Aah ... the life!

Not that hard

Sure, machine intelligence is hard, but not this hard.

Apparently, McCain's website has comment filters to prevent people posting links to external websites (what if the external site contains pornography or Obama-hagiography?). The filters don't let in any words that contain "net" or "com". So, you can't say "planet or commercial" on the blog's comments, you have to say "plan et or co mmercial".

Several ridiculous things about the scenario:
  1. Why are they writing their own comment moderation software? What is wrong with using one of the half-dozen blog running software products out there? A party of business should know what specialized knowledge is, right?
  2. There is no need to "discover" embedded URLs in text. If it doesn't have http://, don't make it a link. How hard is that? Few people are going to copy and paste some random words into the URL text field of their browser.
  3. Finding URLs in text is done all over the place. Every mail program in the world does it. Surely, there's a standard algorithm or routine out there? Oh, yes, there is (CPAN).
Finding URLs in text is a machine intelligence problem. And these can be counter intuitively hard because the human eye is better at recognizing patterns than a computer is. But this particular problem could have been avoided so easily that it makes me wonder if McCain has high-school kids (or worse: political hacks) running his website.

How Cholera Was Beat

The title of Steven Johnson's book -- The Ghost Map -- was what prompted me to pick it up. I love maps, and this promised to be about a historical map.

Instead, it turned out to be the story of Dr. John Snow, considered the greatest doctor of all time. He created the world's first dosage manual -- for the use of chloroform and ether as anaesthetics during surgery -- after realizing that the dosage of a gas needed to depend on the ambient temperature. His obituary mentioned only his work on chloroform. But what he's remembered for now is for his work in tracking down the cause of cholera.

A part of the map referred to in the book title is on the left. Snow created the map to fight then-current misconceptions about cholera -- that it was spread through the air. The map shows the relationship between an infected water source (the pump) and the walking (not aerial) distance to the pump. He was also able to show that clumps of deaths far away from the pump were because someone in the household had a drink from the Broad Street pump. John Snow is now regarded the world's first epidemiologist.

The map was published in one of the two official reports of the cholera outbreak. The other report continued to blame the general stink of the neighborhood.

A couple of great vignettes from the book:

1. Because cholera was thought to be caused by the stink of cesspools, the urban reformers of the day built sewers to drain the cesspools directly into the Thames. Steven Johnson notes that this remedy actually made cholera outbreaks more likely because it was a guaranteed way to infect the entire populace with fecal matter. No bioterrorist, he says, could have come up with a more nefarious plan.

2. The waterborne theory of cholera did not win out immediately -- people continued to cling to the theory that it was due to bad air ("miasma"). When a second cholera outbreak happened a couple decades later, Snow was dead. But a convert to his theory named Whitehead was able to show that this second outbreak was due to an impure water supply from the Thames. At a parliament hearing on the subject, Whitehead fingered commercial interests for fighting the waterborne theory. Why? Because air was free, it could be blamed with impunity. But water delivery was commercial, and so the water corporations would try to muddy the scientific consensus. Interesting parallels to today's battles (on tobacco and on carbon-pollution) ...

But London did act, with one of the greatest engineering feats in history. London's sewer system was built, to flush the sewage indirectly into the sea. And there were no more cholera outbreaks. There's a wonderful book (by Stephen Halliday) about this feat and the brilliant engineer Bazalgette who brought it about. But I wasn't blogging when I read that book, so no summary to point you to.

Read the two books and you'll never think of big cities the same way again.

The news out of Iraq

Nothing like a slow Saturday afternoon to digest all the Iraq-related news.

(1) Militarily, the surge has worked. We built walls within their cities to prevent them from killing each other and paid off various gangs to stop harassing the populace.  The Iraqi population also decided to stop aiding the insurgents. So violence is way down.

(2) Politically, the surge has started to work.  The Sunnis just rejoined the government in Baghdad. So, they do have some national reconciliation going on.

(3) The Iraqis like Obama's 16-month timetable.  They're asking us to leave. We'd be fools to not take this opportunity to declare victory.

(4) McCain, like Bush, wants a longer-term occupation of Iraq.  But Americans don't want it. Iraqis don't want it.  I don't see the point.

Brains and Football

This diagram from Ben Fry, a visualization expert, is pretty cool.

The magic of good visualization: He took this unappetizing list of numbers from ESPN:
Offensive tackles: 26
Centers: 25
Quarterbacks: 24
Guards: 23
Tight Ends: 22
Safeties: 19
Middle linebackers: 19
Cornerbacks: 18
Wide receivers: 17
Fullbacks: 17
Halfbacks: 16
and converted it into the diagram on the left. The radius of the circle at each position is proportional to the average intelligence score of all the players playing that position in the NFL. Defensive players are in red and offensive players in blue.

What do I make of this? Essentially, the brain-trust on the field is the offensive line, with the tackles and centers smarter than the quarterbacks. The defensive line is next, followed by the rest of the defense. The receivers and backs are the dunces on the field. The offensive line has to carry out many plays and react to defensive blitzes, so the smartest players get assigned there. Receivers and backs need to be athletic, but don't need to do much thinking.

How do these players compare with folks in other professions? The offensive players are about as smart as journalists (average score: 26) and smarter than clerical workers (average score: 22). The receivers and backs are about as smart as your average security guard (average score: 17). Scientists (average score: 31) and programmers (average score: 29) have football players and journalists beat. Of course, this is your average player and average scientist. Tom Brady is probably smarter than you and me put together.

Tamil and Hindi movies

When did Indian movies get so good?

I'm not talking about movies like Water, Namesake or Bend It Like Beckham -- Indian movies made in English. These have always been as good as, well, other English films. Some worth watching, others not. What makes them different is not just the language they are made in. Instead, it's that they're not music-and-dance extravaganzas wrapped around thin plot lines set in a fantasyland of black-and-white characters.

Since the wife and I were going to be spending a few weeks all by our lonesome selves, several friends loaned us a bunch of their movies. The movies are quite diverse ... some chick flicks, some sci-fi, some comedies. But also some Tamil and Hindi movies..

I've been surprised that I've been reaching out for the Indian movies more than for the Hollywood fare. These Indian movies are smart and well-made. The songs are still there, but are less bothersome because several are in the background and I can always forward through the others. It probably doesn't hurt that the actresses are ... are gorgeous. When I read that Julia Roberts is glamarous, Keira Knightley beautiful or Meg Ryan is cute, I just take it on faith because I've long given up on discerning on what makes them particularly attractive. Maybe because I grew up in Africa and spent my teenage years in India, it's black and Indian women that make me take a second look.

These are some of the movies that made me reconsider what I used to think about Indian movies:

Paruthi Veeran is a Tamil movie that would never have been made 10 years ago. In Tamil movies, the dialogues were in a made-up upper class accent that was not to be found anywhere in real-life -- imagine that Hollywood consisted solely of movies where everyone talked like Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn in Philadelphia Story. This movie, about romance between rural dead-end folks caught in an arid, unforgiving land, is absolutely true to the speech patterns and society of rural Tamil Nadu. If I closed my eyes, it could be my grandmother going at someone who'd gotten on her wrong side. The movie was absolutely enthralling although it lost steam towards the end. I thought that this movie could be appreciated only by someone who actually knows Tamil and rural South India, but IMDB reports that it received a special mention at the Berlin Film Festival, so maybe you'll like it too.

Chalte Chalte is a Hindi romantic comedy that captures the behavioral patterns that couples seem to descend into out of familiarity. The actress, Rani Mukerji, is gorgeous and that's always helpful in a romantic comedy. It seems that they must have done a focus-group testing of different endings because the one they chose seems incongrous with the rest of the story. But still a fun movie.

Khosla Ka Ghosla
is a Hindi comedy that follows the adventures of a fellow who buys land in a far-flung suburb of Delhi to build a house. It's probably the best movie that I watched this year. In any language.

Of course, this could be just a selection bias i.e. are the movies so good because these are the movies that our friends (who would tend to have tastes similar to mine) decided to buy? Or is the general quality much better?

p.s. Where would you get these movies? Obviously not in your neighborhood Blockbuster. Netflix does carry Indian movies. Otherwise, try an Indian spices store in your neighborhood. They often double as movie rental places. The movies all come with English subtitles -- Africa, Arabia and South-east Asia are big markets for Indian movies -- so Indian movies have always had multiple-language subtitles. I don't know Hindi, so I watched the Hindi movies with subtitles.

A Favorite Cookbook

I made cottage-cheese pancakes for supper today from what's one of my favorite cookbooks. It's out of print now. I found it, by chance, in a old book sale and picked it up because, really, how wrong can you go spending a dollar for a book?

The book's by Michael Field, was published in 1972 and is about waffles, pancakes and crepes. Like the best cookbooks, it's not just a bunch of recipes -- Michael Field tells you what works, and why it works. When I had wonderful savory crepes at a hole-in-the-wall eatery in Toronto, I knew where to look to get started toward recreating that recipe. It's now a staple at home. Our blueberry-pecan waffles and mango crepes both got started from this book.

If you see any other cookbook by him (back in the day, Michael Field was a bonafide rival of James Beard so he wrote quite a few), pick it up!

I know who you are, but tell me your name

Yesterday, I called the grandparents'.

S2 (our 3-year old) picked up.

"Hello, S-", I said, "how are you doing?"

"Appa!," she squealed.  Then paused. 

"What is your name?"

"It's Appa, you silly goose," I said.

"What is your name?," she asked again.

Then Mom got on the line and explained that grandpa had lectured the kids on always asking who it was on the phone.  Hence, "Appa!" followed by "What is your name?"

Sixth best college town?

The big news in town is that Norman was rated 6th best small city in America by Money Magazine. Colleagues at a meeting at work talked about it, as did my bridge partner this evening. Got to crack the newspaper open when I got home. The front two pages of the Norman Transcript are devoted to the "Sixcess".

Last year, Norman was ranked 40th on the list, which to me is about right. What accounted for the sudden rise in rankings? This year, the magazine also factored in average commute time. What this did was to over-emphasize small towns that have lots of jobs at the expense of bedroom communities. Small towns with jobs are either industrial park suburbs or college towns.

Universities will locate in small towns and offer lots of employment. A college town typically also has a good, diverse cultural scene. Norman has two world-class museums. The Fine Arts school puts together a good musical theater season. The athletic department offers great football, basketball and volleyball teams. Restaurants are cheap and good because they cater to locals (students) who eat out a lot.

So, now, Money's best small cities list is pretty much a list of college towns and industrial park suburbs:
  1. Plymouth, MN (industrial park suburb of Minneapolis)
  2. Fort Collins, CO (Colorado State University)
  3. Naperville, IL (industrial park suburb of Chicago)
  4. Irvine, CA (Univ. of California, Irvine)
  5. Franklin Township, NJ
  6. Norman, OK (Univ. of Oklahoma)
  7. Round Rock, TX (industrial park suburb of Austin)
  8. Columbia, MD
  9. Overland Park, KS (industrial park suburb of Kansas City)
  10. Fishers, IN (suburb of Indianapolis)
All the list confirms is that college towns are great places to live. And industrial suburbs are where the jobs are.

Norman is not really that great, folks. Don't all of you come all at once.

Abstract geospatial art

This is a satellite photograph of the Anti-Atlas mountains in Morocco.

A whole gallery of satellite pictures that double as abstract art is available.

Why this sudden outpouring of all things NASA? I'm at a meeting. The room has WiFi. As I've been looking things up, I've been running across all this cool stuff.

Firefighting with remote sensors and maps

Interesting article ... NASA flies a plane over forest fires and sends back a high-resolution image, which is then used to head off fires:

Last week the drone identified a hotspot headed straight for the northern California town of Paradise, and that information allowed firefighters to head off the blaze and save the town.

Still more food

Continuing my observation of food, food everywhere in Oklahoma (perhaps I notice it more now that I've been away so long ...):

Went to a a friend's barbecue on Saturday. I took along chicken marinated in a ground mixture of basil, green chilies, fish sauce, cilantro and yogurt.

"Wasn't it too spicy?", asked the wife. She knows all about taking spicy stuff to parties [blog from 1998!].

"No ...," I said, "it vanished five minutes off the grill."

I didn't mention that the vanishing act was no testament to my cooking skills. More likely that the chicken vanished because there were graduate students at that party.

And today, there was an ice-cream social at the building where I work. The ice-cream brought out all manners of cubicle dwellers. They even talked to each other!

The Incredible Lightness of Being Non-Fake

As you've probably noticed, I don't use the names of friends/family on this blog. They are entitled to their privacy. And since I blog under my real name, there are stories I don't tell either. Does this affect what I write about? You bet!

It's tempting to have the freedom to say whatever you want, under a cover of anonymity. But what happens if you're writing anonymously and someone "outs" you? Perhaps you have this reaction:
It happened to me, back in 1996. Some moron hack bloviating boulevardier editor doofus was having a drink with a humorless droid from that very same party-pooping organization that killed Fake Steve, and happened to mention my very well-kept secret identity. An article ensued, which attempted to inflict a mortal wound on my fake person. I survived, possibly because my fake personality has more friends than my real one. But I've never been able to be purely fake again.
Maybe you are not important enough to be outed in the New York Times. But believe me, you're going to be outed all the same. [interesting story redacted here] If secrecy doesn't last even when it's backed up by the threat of a lawsuit, what hope do you have of maintaining anonymity?

Rather than risk going through a sinking feeling in my stomach, I just started out non-fake. I also save posts in my drafts folder. And go back and delete them after a few days, because by then it's obvious that it's a story that I can not relate in public.

Midsummer Night's Fair

Midsummer nights' fair runs this weekend at the park on Boyd and Flood in Norman. Some of the wife's pottery is on display at the Firehouse Art Center booth.

Food, food everywhere

You know that you are in Oklahoma when there's food, food everywhere.

Left-over cupcakes from a July 4th party made their way to our break area ... these vanished in a few hours.

A Thai restaurant advertising their lunch special: Pad Thai, spring roll, red chicken curry and garlic pork together will run you $6.95 + tax. After feeling dirt poor in Finland (partly due to the weak dollar and partly because it is a few degrees south of the Artic circle), a full-course seven-dollar lunch sounds ridiculously cheap.

The title of the post is an allusion to Coleridge's poem:
Water, water, everywhere,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, everywhere,
Nor any drop to drink.
There's food everywhere in Oklahoma, but it's all edible and nobody's waistline is shrinking.

A job and a gardener

TR comes back after two months and finds his garden still intact:

In these two weeks I've worked diligently trying to eat an entire summer's worth of vine-ripened tomatoes, watermelon, cucumbers, okra, purple-hulled peas, banana peppers, and sweet corn washed down with a couple of gallons of sun tea flushed with the mint from my garden.

I was gone for just five weeks and only to three continents (in case that matters), but there's grass all over my basil.  The mint has gone to seed.  The tarragon is comatose.  And there are three sorry-looking bell peppers in the patch.

Not only do I want TR's 2 continents/month job, I also want his gardener.

Infrastructure collapsing

When I was in India, I could charge my mobile phone and the battery would last for 7 days.  Back in Oklahoma, the same cell phone has to be charged once every 4 days.

The only reason I can think of is that, in India, there were few gaps in the coverage.  The phone didn't have to constantly keep searching for new signals. Meanwhile, if I go two floors down in my office building, I lose the cell signal and when I come back up, the phone has to reinitialize.

At what point did we decide that it was just fine for the quality of our essential infrastructure to fall behind that of a third world country?

It ain't over till the ball hits the net

Always happens when I leave a game early ...

Yesterday, I was in Dallas watching (with a friend) the Federer-Nadal Wimbledon final.  We were cheering for Nadal -- I can empathize with Nadal's hard work ethic but find it hard to empathize with Federer's genius.  With Nadal up two sets, I left for Norman in the middle of the third set so that I could be home, do laundry, cook, pay bills and generally get ready for the work week.

And wouldn't you know it?  Apparently, I missed a classic.

Home cooking

Decided to cook dinner. I had a whole month of sambar-and-rasam in India. And last week in Helsinki has put me off and sandwiches for a while.

So what to cook? Gujarati food perhaps?

Constraints? The wife had left yoghurt in the fridge and home-made yoghurt tends to sour quickly. So needed to use it up. Also, the only fresh vegetables I could find in the market were: Brussels sprouts, carrots, celery and cucumber.

This is what I ended up cooking:

1. Bhatia Kadhi. A sweet and sour sauce for rice made from toor dhal liquid, sour yoghurt and vegetables (in my case: Brussels sprouts).

2. Lachko Dhal: Cumin-flavored dhal that you pretty much need to make if you are making bhatia kadhi because what else are you going to do with the toor dhal after you take out the liquid?

3. Cucumber-Tamarind Kuzhambu: a spicy-hot gravy that makes a nice contrast to the mild flavor of the first two.

It all turned out quite good. Pity that I'm the only one eating them.

Home at last

Got back home to Norman Sunday morning. The wife and I have now done a switcheroo. She's in India with the kids, and I'm here.

I drove to Norman from Dallas and could not help notice that:

1. The $4/gallon gas is not metaphorical. It really is $4 a gallon.

2. The typical speed on I-35 from Dallas to Norman used to be around 75 mph. Now, there's a steady stream of cars traveling 65 mph (5 below the speed limit!)

3. There were more buses than I recall seeing.

The price of gas seems to be doing what speed limits, environmental talk and state troopers couldn't. Bringing energy conservation to the American heartland. Cardigans this winter any one?

Snake in the cherries

This was in the open-air market in Helsinki. There are sea gulls everywhere and the plastic snake serves to keep them from grabbing a cherry or two.

Finnair cockup

Ridiculous. This is absolutely ridiculous. The wife goes to the Finnair counter in Helsinki airport to check in and gets told that she needs a UK transit visa to connect through London. According to the UK government website, she doesn't:

Holders of certain documents are, regardless of nationality, exempt from the requirement to hold a Direct Airside Transit Visa when transiting the UK.

A valid USA I-551 Permanent Resident Card issued on or after 21st April 1998;

But the check-in supervisor at Finnair feels that this is a matter of "interpretation" and so, she can't take the flight she is booked on. She is told that there is a direct flight from Helsinki to Delhi, but no seats on the Delhi-Chennai flight. Even though the Jet Airways website will sell me the ticket right now if I want. End result? She will have to spend 12 hours in Helsinki airport waiting for a flight to Mumbai and 12 more hours in Mumbai airport waiting for a flight from Mumbai to Chennai.

Demographic storm coming to India

Over dinner a few days ago, we got talking to an Austrian couple who were astonished how it was that the wife and I had managed to get to Finland for a holiday (the grandparents, in India, are babysitting). "We think our life is complicated," he said, "it seems that it is much harder with children."  Apparently, this preponderance to see the inconveniences rather than the wonders of having children is very common in Germany and Austria -- more than a third of women there say they want to have no children.

But it seems that Germany and Austria are an exception. Less than 4% of Italian women want no children. Yet, the birthrate of Italy is the among the lowest in Europe. Mostly, the low birthrates across Europe (the population of many countries will be half of today's in 45 years) have to do with what men do:

In other words, working mothers are having more babies than stay-at-home moms ... women who do more than 75 percent of the housework and child care are less likely to want to have another child than women whose husbands or partners share the load. Put differently, Dutch fathers change more diapers, pick up more kids after soccer practice and clean up the living room more often than Italian fathers; therefore, relative to the population, there are more Dutch babies than Italian babies being born. As Mencarini said, "It's about how much the man participates in child care."

Extrapolating brazenly from our circle of friends in Norman (those who have kids), there's quite a discrepancy between the ones of Indian origin and ones that are not. Among the non-Indian friends, it's very common for the fathers to cook at home or to bring the kids to a park. In fact, it would be downright unacceptable, socially, for them to do otherwise.  This social disapproval of uninvolved fathers is simply not there among the Indian families -- it's quite common to see the mothers take care of everything related to housework and kids.  What I saw among the younger generation in India was no better. It seemed to blow peoples' minds that our kids would be fine without their mother for a month.  "But I'm here," I would say.  They would simply shake their heads. There are some things, they would say, that a father simply can not do.  They didn't have breast feeding in mind -- our kids are well past that stage -- so I have no idea what they meant.

Which is all just a long way of saying that India may be worried about a growing population now, but unless Indians modernize their views of parenting, there's a demographic storm coming to India too.  Korea with a birthrate of 1.1 lies ahead.

Tallinn: all the history that Helsinki lacks

Tallinn (see map) makes a nice complement to ultra-modern Helsinki. Helsinki has less history than Boston. Tallinn, on the other hand, has a beautifully preserved medieval core.

In medieval times, Tallinn was two separate cities. One city used to be a second-tier Hanseatic trading town filled with Swedes and Germans. This one here is a typical Hanseatic merchant house:

The other city used to be more aristocratic and Russian. The aristocrats' city was on higher ground and had a wall around it to keep the riff-raff out.

Tsar Peter even built a holiday home here in Tallinn. The Tsars would come here from St. Petersburg for fresh air.


This sign, near the entrance to the touristy part of Tallinn (capital of the former Soviet republic of Estonia) takes the cake in the department of misplaced quotes. I hope that the person who engraved this stone is not really mocking the whole concept of Estonia ...

Helsinki sights

The dome church in Helsinki is hollowed out of granite (due to the ice-age, much of Finland is just bed rock). We were lucky to catch a concert there -- great acoustics!

The Sibelius monument just north of the center of the city is a lovely, abstract homage to Finnish composer Jean Sibelius.

View of Helsinki from atop the Olympic tower (at the stadium where the Helsinki Olympics were held sometime in the 50s or 60s).

All the tourist brochures claim that Helsinki has 315 islands. Unlike Stockholm, though, one doesn't get the feeling of being on islands. Mostly because most of Helsinki proper is on a peninsula. And ones that are true islands are just spots for cafes and restaurants.

We did have two wonderful dinners on island restaurants, but the islands are more of a tourist thing than a matter of life. And it definitely won't help if this island is counted as one of the 315.

Gibraltar of the north

We visited the "Gibraltar of the North", Suomenlinna. The Swedes built it in the 19th century to guard against a Russian invasion by sea. It was to control the entrance to the Finnish wilderness -- important because Finland was a buffer between Russia and Sweden.

The fortress spans four islands off the Finnish coast and did help the Swedes hold off Catherine the Great. The "dry dock" helped the Swedes maintain a standing navy of shallow-water "archipelago" ships in the Gulf of Finland and launch them once the ice thawed.

Catherine the Great's successor, Tsar Alexander II, invaded Finland by land and the fortress was of no help at all. So, the fort passed into Russian control. The fortress was not of much help to the Russians either. British and French ships were able to ply the Gulf of Finland with impunity because the fortress's cannons didn't have the needed range. The Russians enhanced the fortress with bigger cannons. They also used camouflaged gunnery areas, sort of like the Hobbit's homes in Lord of the Rings.

When the Finns declared independence, the fort passed into Finnish control. So, the fort (constructed with great cost over 40 years) was defended successfully exactly once. In any case, the Finns hated the Russians so much that they lopped off the cupolas from the Orthodox church that graced the island and put a lighthouse on top of the church tower.

The Swedish count who conceived and built Suomenlinna is buried here. In his day, it was called Sveaborg ("castle of the Swedes"). But because Finns can't pronounce the letter 'b', the name got corrupted to "Viapori". The Russians used the name "Viapori" after they captured it. When the Finns declared independence from Russia in the early 1900s, they called the fortress "Suomenlinna" (castle of the Finns). But here's the clincher. About 5% of Finns speak Swedish, so it's an official language here (think of the French in Quebec). So, the fortress is called "Sveaborg" in Swedish and "Suomenlinna" in Finnish and both are official names. The municipal ferry that took us to the island had both names on it.

Helsinki pictures

There are two cathedrals that dominate the skyline in Helsinki. One of them is Scandinavian Protestant and the other is Russian Orthodox, neatly capturing the dual nature of this city.

Market square and harbor:

Interesting toilet at the Helsinki city museum:

We were guests at a reception at the Helsinki city hall: