Mumbai Sorrow

on Sunday, November 30, 2008

Photo by Reuters

How many greeted that sunrise brimming with the joy of hope?
How many awoke that morning bowed by the burdens of life?

Perhaps some anticipating happy reunions at the rail's journey end.
Or some enjoying late evening dining and romancing with loved ones.

Others in fleeting transit on business or on pilgrimage to Ghandi's nation.
Many just coming to the end of a day of toil and ready for simple rest.

Surely not one expected to die in a hail of bullets and bombs that day.
Not one deserved that their lives, their hopes and dreams ended that way.

They had no part in creating the hatred and madness that overtook them.
But for their memory, let us strive for this hatred and madness to end.

Real Life Award

on Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Reception after the Ceremony (Photo by LGS)

Monday the 24th of November 2008 was a very special night for me. Although I have generally avoided talking about my work on this blog, I feel the need to mark this occasion.

At a very special function, which was held at the base of the famous KLCC Twin Towers and which was attended and presided over by the Prime Minister of my country, awards were given out under several categories for outstanding contributions to the country. This was a new national award that was launched last year in conjunction with the 50th year of Independence. The very first inaugural award recipients were named at this function.

There were 5 categories. The first for Community and Education was won by a well known scholar who studied poverty and influenced the development of the country's education system. Another category was for Science and Technology and that was jointly won by a) the medical research team that risked their lives during a fatal disease outbreak which led to them discovering a new disease and b) to a doctor,researcher and lecturer who has greatly influenced diabetes research and treatment in the country. The award for Economic Contributions was given to a gentleman who discovered the way to greatly increase the yield and profitability of the oil palm crop which became a major source of income for the country. There was no award winner this year for the category for Scholastic Achievement.

The final category was for the Environment and it was awarded to the organisation that I work for. I was one of 10 representatives and supporters that were invited to receive the award on behalf of the organisation. It was a great experience. The award recognised the persistent effort of the organisation for more than 14 years which eventually led to the protection of a very large tract of wilderness forest. The award clearly belongs also to all the volunteers and partners that helped along the way.

Standing with all the other award recipients was very memorable as I have a deep respect for all of them (and especially for the medical research team) and therefore felt incredibly blessed to be counted amongst them. The award comes with a RM500,000 cash prize which will be a great help to us as we continue to try to get adjacent forests protected as well. But for me, it has been by far a most welcome encouragement to myself and to all the staff and volunteers that have given their hearts to the cause of conservation of our country's natural heritage.

I had a ball. I am now a little hung-over from the post-adrenaline rush. But the work must now go on. Nose back on the grindstone!

Neither I Condemn You

on Sunday, November 23, 2008

This Sunday, I would like to share with you, one of my favorite passages from the Bible. It so happened that I was reminded of it during the church service today.

John 8:1-11
1 But Jesus went to the Mount of Olives.
2 At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered round him, and he sat down to teach them.
3 The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group
4 and said to Jesus, "Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery.
5 In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?"
6 They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him. But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger.
7 When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, "If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her."
8 Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.
9 At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there.
10 Jesus straightened up and asked her, "Woman, where are they? Has no-one condemned you?"
11 "No-one, sir," she said. "Then neither do I condemn you," Jesus declared. "Go now and leave your life of sin."

A woman is caught in adultery. The religious leaders made her stand in shame before the crowd. In the narrative, it is clear that nobody cares or has any sympathy for the woman. They obviously thought that she was deserving of any humiliation she was facing and in fact they thought that she should be stoned to death. But before they condemn her, they figure that they could have some sport with her and even use her to lay a trap for Jesus. They were fed up with this upstart that was making the general people question their authority and position as interpreters of the scripture. If Jesus had always talked about love and compassion, this was an opportunity to expose his empty rhetoric.

As they paraded the woman before Jesus, if Jesus spoke out to release the woman that would clearly show everyone that he had no regard for their religious laws. If instead, he agreed to stone the woman to death, then he was no different than the religious leaders that he was decrying as lacking love and compassion. What would Jesus do? How would he get out of this situation?

I like the way that Jesus made them wait for his answer and when it did come, what a wise answer it was. In one sentence, he protected the woman and convicted the religious leaders of their own guilt. "If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her."

In this, Jesus recognises the law but reminds us that all mankind are sinful and guilty and therefore have no right to judge others lest we also are judged. At the same time, his words must have been both comforting and liberating for the woman. Even more so when he says"Neither I condemn you. Go now and leave your life of sin."

In fact, the Bible tells us that Jesus is holy; that is he is sinless - the only man to ever achieve this. Therefore, if anyone there could have righteously condemned the woman, it was Jesus. Yet, this is the comforting message that Jesus has for all of us. Though we are sinful and are enemies in the sight of God, God sent Jesus to earth, not to condemn us but to provide a way for reconciliation. We are not condemned but if we turn from our sinful (Godless) way, then we will be reconciled with Him.

This is also an example for all of us to be more generous and less judgmental to those around us. On a personal note, I am so grateful that Jesus came not to condemn but to save. His message to me and to all of us is the same; "Neither I condemn you. Go now and leave your life of sin."

This is one of my favorite passages as it reminds me of God's love, compassion, fairness and wisdom in dealing with us.

My First!

on Saturday, November 22, 2008

This post is about my first, my very first .............. stuffed toy. What did you think it was going to be about? I have quite a collection of stuffed toys and toy figurines which were all given to me by friends and loved ones. For some reason, I got a reputation of being a stuffed toy collector and the toys kept coming.

My wife is also a collector and of course, I have contributed to her collection as well. If you could see our bedroom, you will find her menagerie neatly arranged next to her side of the bed and mine in a playful jumble on my side.

My reputation for stuffed toys started with a few which came as gifts from close friends and took off from there. My very first one was very special as it was hand made by my girlfriend, Julie, at that time. Although it has seen better days and is a little tattered, it still holds a lot of sentimental value for me.

This picture which was uncovered from a current archeological dig, shows a very much younger me posing with the stuffed animal perched on my shoulder. I was a student living in University accommodation at Chelsea College, London, England. This photo is very important for two reasons. One, it shows the object of the post today and two, it is scientific proof that I was skinny once!

Anyway, if you have not already guessed, the animal on my shoulder is a penguin. No ordinary penguin, mind you! He goes by the grand name of Oliver Noona-Nanook of the North. He was dubbed "Oliver" in remembrance of a trip that Julie and I had shared on a boat named the "Cromwell". I am sure most of you would know about Oliver Cromwell from English history. "Nanook of the North" was actually the world's first full length documentary and was about an Inuit and his family in the Canadian artic and was filmed in 1922. It was just a way in my crazy mind to link the poor little chap to his frozen northern heritage. Finally, "Noona" was just added as it sounded like a nice accompaniment to "Nanook". Also, my friend, Helen the Greek Goddess, told me it was a term of endearment in Greek. While she was not always the best source for reliable information, I used it anyway.

And so, Oliver Noona-Nanook of the North was christened. Needless to say, it did not take long for him to be called by the shorter pet name of "Ollie". So he became, Ollie the penguin.

Over the years, I have also had "Cedric the Snake" (cause bureaucrats are snakes and Cedric sounds like a bureaucrat's name)and Tubby (the cap wearing rabbit-bear thingey, on account of his pot-belly, just to name a couple.

My wife's collection is much larger but two recent acquirements were a couple of bears dressed in the style of the Roaring Twenties which she got on special offer at Starbucks. Very imaginatively, she named the female bear, "Starr" and the male bear, "Bucks".

What strange animals cuddle next to you in your sleep? .....And please no jokes at the expense of your spouses.

Physics For Adolescent Males

on Thursday, November 13, 2008

Okay, I admit to being a big fan of Shakira and her mesmerizing hips. I blame this on my physics teacher back in school. In trying to explain the concept of simple harmonic motion to us impressionable youngsters, he used the example of the sway of a woman's hips. For you cold scientific types, the swing of a pendulum is a more commonly quoted example of simple harmonic motion or SHM. I guess that he thought that young adolescent males who have probably never seen a grandfather clock would have very little interest in pendulums. Swinging pendulums versus swinging hips - no contest, he probably thought.

So if you catch me looking at swaying hips, I am merely studying physics or so I try to tell my wife. Even as I write this the following words from the song "Girl from Ipanema" comes to mind;

"Tall and tan and young and lovely,
the Girl from Ipanema goes walking and,
when she passes, each time she passes,
I go ......aaaaaaaahhh."

Anyway SHM or Shakira's Hip Movements is the extreme example of Simple Harmonic Motion or SHM. For your introduction to physics, I have included two videos. The first is Shakira, herself performing during the 2006 World Cup (Soccer) and the second is a video of a bunch of Shakira wanna-be's and some of them aren't half bad and some of them are real funny.

The real thing.

The imitations.

A Better Way

on Sunday, November 09, 2008

Muhammad Yunus (Photocredit: LGS)

The current economic crisis has revealed the flaws of an unregulated free capitalistic financial system. The biggest flaw to the system is clearly the greed of men but closely associated to it is the expectation of continuous growth and ever increasing profits. Doing business to achieve maximum financial profit is just not a sustainable model for the world. It does not eventually, for the majority, promote a better standard of living, a healthy environment nor reduce the widening gap between the poor and the rich.

I am not an economist but I realise the current profit first approach and profit always increasing expectations are fundamentally wrong in that it does not recognise a real world with finite and depleting resources. It's time to replace that approach with a new sustainable approach. There must be a better way.

I recently had the privilege of hearing Muhammad Yunus, the founder of the Grameen Bank, give a speech. Muhammad Yunus and his bank were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006 for this reason:

"Muhammad Yunus has shown himself to be a leader who has managed to translate visions into practical action for the benefit of millions of people, not only in Bangladesh, but also in many other countries. Loans to poor people without any financial security had appeared to be an impossible idea. From modest beginnings three decades ago, Yunus has, first and foremost through Grameen Bank, developed micro-credit into an ever more important instrument in the struggle against poverty."

Basically, Muhammad Yunus lent small loans, primarily to women to help them develop business ventures that would enable them and their families to break out of the poverty cycle. An example would be where a woman sews clothes for a living. Hand sewing, she can maybe complete 5 dresses a week and earn barely enough just to keep the family fed. However, with a loan of just USD1oo, she could buy a sewing machine. With the new machine, she can sew about 20 dresses a week, earning enough to repay the loan and slowly enable her to extract her family out of poverty. The large traditional banks would never lend money to poor people in this manner.

The Grameen Bank has now helped more than 7 million people in this manner and has remained profitable with a high repayment rate and a low but achievable interest rate. It is now a model that has been copied in other parts of the world.

During his speech, he told a story about one of the earliest woman that took part in the scheme. She was able to build up her business and provide for her family and break out of the poverty cycle. Years later, she invited Yunus to attend her daughter's graduation from University with a doctor's degree. Yunus showed a picture of him posing with the woman and her daughter on that graduation day. He then asked the audience to consider how the daughter was different from the mother. Was she more intelligent? No, he proposes that the only difference was that the daughter had the opportunity that her mother never had. Microcredit creates the opportunities. He stressed that the mother was not poor because she was not intelligent but because she had never got the opportunity to do better.

It was not an easy road for Yunus and the Grameen Bank either. There was opposition from violent radical leftists to the conservative clergy who told women that they would be denied a Muslim burial if they borrowed money from the Grameen Bank. Nor did the voices of conventional banking and business think highly of his efforts. In commenting on his Nobel Peace Prize award, The Economist stated explicitly that Yunus was a poor choice for the award. In their words "...the Nobel committee could have made a braver, more difficult, choice by declaring that there would be no recipient at all."

This may not be a total answer to what ills the world but might it at least be pointing to a more realistically sustainable financial and business model; one that addresses the issue of sustainability and defeating poverty. Maybe this is one way towards a better way.

Political Cows

on Wednesday, November 05, 2008

On this night, many will be watching the news and following the results of the U.S. Presidential elections as they come in state by state. Obama or McCain? Democrat or Republican? Black or White? Change or Experience? Left or Right? Socialist or Conservative? More taxes or less taxes?

Well, in my opinion, politics is all bull and hot air. Nevertheless, as a public service, the Realm of the Lone Grey Squirrel is posting a simple and well known explanation of the politics and economic systems as explained by cows. Maybe this will help the undecided voters to make their final choice.

TRADITIONAL CAPITALISM: You have two cows. You sell one and buy a bull. Your herd multiplies, and the economy grows. You sell them and retire on the income.

SOCIALISM: You have 2 cows; you give one to your neighbour.

COMMUNISM: You have 2 cows. The State takes both and gives you some milk.

FASCISM: You have 2 cows. The State takes both and sells you some milk.

NAZISM: You have 2 cows. The State takes both and shoots you.

DEMOCRACY: You have 2 cows. You hold an election to chose someone to decide how much milk will be taken and who should get the milk.

RELIGIOUS FANATICISM: You have two cows. You cannot get the milk as you are not allowed to touch their private parts.

BUREAUCRACY: You have 2 cows. The State takes both, shoots one, milks the other, and then throws the milk away...

SURREALISM: You have two giraffes. The government requires you to take harmonica lessons

AN AMERICAN CORPORATION: You have two cows. You sell one, and force the other to produce the milk of four cows. Later, you hire a consultant to analyse why the cow has dropped dead.

A FRENCH CORPORATION: You have two cows. You go on strike, organise a riot, and block the roads, because you want three cows.

A JAPANESE CORPORATION: You have two cows. You redesign them so they are one-tenth the size of an ordinary cow and produce twenty times the milk. You then create a clever cow cartoon image called 'cowkimon' and market it worldwide.

A GERMAN CORPORATION: You have two cows. You re-engineer them so they live for 100 years, eat once a month, and milk themselves.

AN ITALIAN CORPORATION: You have two cows, but you don't know where they are. You decide to have lunch.

A RUSSIAN CORPORATION: You have two cows. You count them and learn you have five cows. You count them again and learn you have 42 cows. You count them again and learn you have 2 cows. You stop counting cows and open another bottle of vodka.

A SWISS CORPORATION: You have 5000 cows. None of them belong to you. You charge the owners for storing them.

CHINESE CORPORATION: You have two cows. You have 300 people milking them. You claim that you have full employment, and high bovine productivity, and execute the newsman who reported the real situation.

AN INDIAN CORPORATION: You have two cows. You worship them.

IRAQI CORPORATION: Everyone thinks you have lots of cows. You tell them that you have none. No-one believes you, so they bomb you and invade your country. You still have no cows, but at least now you are part of a Democracy....

WELSH CORPORATION: You have two cows. The one on the left looks very attractive.

AUSTRALIAN CORPORATION: You have two cows. Business seems pretty good. You close the office and go for a few beers to celebrate

A BRITISH CORPORATION: You have two cows. They are both mad.

Of Ghosts and Monsters

on Sunday, November 02, 2008

Here is another "tall tale" or rural folklore which when you think about it was the rural, agricultural community's version of the modern urban legend. Perhaps, it is actually more correct to say that urban legends are the modern equivalent of these rural folklore. This one is said to originate in the rough farm country of Nova Scotia in the nineteenth Century. If it has changed in substance, it is only because I cannot fully remember the original version but in the ways of oral tradition, have embellished the story when needed. There are probably many versions of this core story around today.

A poor widow had to move into an old abandoned farm house which the locals all shy away from because they said it was haunted. Recently widowed and almost penniless, she also had to take care of her mother and her two young children. So, haunted or not, she was just glad to get a roof over her family's heads. The whole family were of frontier stock; tough as nails and strong in spirit. She had two sons. The older lad, James, was a strapping, tall youth of 15 years and her second was but a toddler of five years of age. The toddler's name was Tom, named after his late father and like his father was of stocky build and short temper. Indeed, if all their problems were not enough, many pitied the poor widow because she had to cope with young Tom's wild and loud tantrums.

The family coped the best they could at the old haunted farm house. They did sense an eerie presence in the house but soon learnt that it could be accommodated as long as they did not venture into the basement larder at night. Whatever that presence was, it was strongest there. During the day, they ran down the stairs and as quickly as they could, take whatever food supplies they needed and then ran back upstairs. But they, never ever went down after sundown.

One cold and dark winter night, Tom was throwing a terrible tantrum in the kitchen and wanted applesauce on his boiled oats. He refused to eat and threw cutlery and plates about and yelled as loud as he could,"I want my applesauce!" His poor mother tried everything to placate the child but he was adamant that he wanted his applesauce and carried on and on. Finally, the Grandma said that she could not take the noise anymore and said that she would go down to the basement larder to get the applesauce. The widow reminded Grandma about the spirit down there but Grandma said she would risk it and go down.

At this point, young James, who felt the burden of being the man of the house said that it would only be appropriate that he go down and get his brother the applesauce. And so, with his heart pounding, he took a lighted candle and went down the dark stairs. When he got to the bottom, he opened the larder door and went in. Almost immediately a chill wind blew out his candle. He fumbled with his matches to re-light the candle but when he did, he saw a hideous ghostly face in front of him. The terrifying apparition said, "I am the Ghost with the One Black Eye. I am the Ghost with the One Black Eye. Be afraid, be very afraid."

James ran up the stairs screaming in fear and told his mother and Grandma about the ghost in the larder. Now as I have said, they were of frontier stock and tough people. Grandma knew that it took a lot to scare a brave lad like James but she also figured that she had faced up to many scary things in her long life and that she could stand up to this ghost. So Grandma, grabbed a lantern and went down the stairs. At the bottom, the hideous face appeared and went right up to Grandma's face and bellowed in an angry voice, "I am the Ghost with the One Black Eye. I am the Ghost with the One Black Eye. Be afraid, be very afraid."

Grandma was so scared that she ran up the stairs, jumping two steps at a time despite her arthritis. Little Tom asked for his applesauce and when he saw that Grandma had not got it, he started yelling again.

Now a desperate mother will do amazing things for her children. Despite what James and Grandma saw, she could not stand not doing anything to placate her youngest child. So, girding up all her courage, she told herself to just close her eyes, run down and get the applesauce and run back up. And so, she tried but once in the larder, she had to open her eyes to look for the applesauce and there right in front of her was the hideous face and the ghost boomed out loudly, "I am the Ghost with the One Black Eye. I am the Ghost with the One Black Eye. Be afraid, be very afraid."

Up ran the poor mother without the applesauce and joined James and Grandma cowering at the far end of the kitchen.

When Tom saw that his mother also came back empty handed, he jumped from his chair and before anyone could stop him, he went down the stairs. They were all so afraid for Tom but none dared to go down after him.

After what seemed like an eternity, Tom came back up the stairs holding a bottle of applesauce and licking it from his hands. His mother scooped him up in her arms in relief but asked, "Tom, didn't you see the Ghost with the One Black Eye down there?"

Still enjoying his applesauce, he lifted up his fist and replied, "Sure I did but now he has two black eyes!"


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