Categories
Food For Thought

3eanuts

If can’t get enough of Garfield minus Garfield, you’ll surely love the existential angst of 3eanutsPeanuts comic strips with the fourth panel left out. (The size of the comic strips is kept small – and this is only a conjecture – to stay in compliance with fair use laws.)

(via venomous porridge)

Categories
Food For Thought

“I didn’t think of Iraqis as humans”

Abeer Qaseem Hamsa, the girl killed by Steve Green and others from 502nd Infantry Regiment

…Abeer’s mother told her relatives before the murders that, whenever she caught the soldiers staring at Abeer, they would give her the thumbs-up sign, point to her daughter and say “Very good, very good.”

…On March 12, 2006, the soldiers (from the 502nd Infantry Regiment) at the checkpoint had been drinking alcohol and discussing plans to rape Abeer. In broad daylight they walked to the house (not wearing their uniforms) and separated Abeer and her family into two different rooms. Steven Green then murdered her parents and younger sister, while two other soldiers raped Abeer. He then emerged from the room saying “I just killed them, all are dead”. He then raped Abeer, shot her in the head and proceeded (along with the other soldiers) to set fire to the house and bodies.

– From the Wikipedia entry on 2006 Mahmudiyah killings in Iraq

Steve Green, the primary accused in the case, later said, “I didn’t think of Iraqis as humans.” I came to know about this horrific incident on Reddit, as the whistleblower who brought this to the attention of the media – Justin Watt – is holding an ask-me-anything session there.

Looking through the flak Watt is receiving on Reddit (and elsewhere) – he mentions numerous death threats so far – I continue to be baffled how human beings, even when faced with such a heinous crime as this, can even think of labelling him as ‘a traitor’ who ‘outed his brotherhood’. Higher-ups in the US Army tried to cover up the incident – and it’s these things that make people hate America in the Middle East.

****

Three weeks ago I posted a link to another Reddit ask-me-anything thread, purportedly by a cancer patient who was going to be euthanised. A lot of vitriol has flown online since then, as it turns out that the thread was probably a hoax.

Many have said that even though the premise might not have been true, they were touched by the words of a stranger online and that’s all that matters. But then by asking to do that and ignore that it might be a lie, this becomes a question of faith whether you want to believe it or not – and whether it ‘touches’ you if you find out it’s a lie. Like believing in God, for instance.

Categories
Food For Thought

“51 hours left to live. Ask me anything.”

…nothing we have is worth hurting anyone else for. It’s all fleeting people. Stop seeing race, color, sex, religion, etc…. Theyre all just people, and if you try to love them you won’t lose anything.

– Lucidending

Lucidending is a reddit.com user who has been suffering from cancer for the last six years and is going to euthanised within the next 51 hours. In his last hours, he holds an ‘ask me anything’ thread on reddit.

I am lost for words. Not just at Lucidending’s words, but dozens of others like him who have suffered / are suffering / have someone who suffered from cancer come out and talk about their experiences.

Update: This is possibly a hoax.

Categories
Food For Thought

A change of perspective. A dialogue in the dark.

No, I didn’t get so exhausted by my first (mammoth) post of the year that I have stopped writing. I have a couple of draft blog posts that I need to edit and refine before I publish them. So much to say, so little time to do so due to ten academic courses, learning a new language, job applications / interviews, a TV studio director role, and a new pillow cover. Life, I tell you. ‘Tis like a grapefruit.

But you know what? It’s curious how a difference of a few weeks can bring about a change of perspective. :) How things remain the same and yet not the same. Now, I feel glad to have opted for a full-year on study exchange. I have even more faith that the decision I took in 2009 to do this is worthwhile. I could speak now – or I could wait till the end of my stay in Singapore and speak wiser with added hindsight.

You can figure out what I’m going to do, can’t you? You smart cookie!

****

Fourteen storeys below my cosy and warm room, the noise from the traffic lights was incessant. Tick tick tick tick beep beep beep beep tick tick tick tick beep beep beep beep. I couldn’t sleep! Was it because of the part of town I was staying in? Should I have coughed up cash for a costlier hostel somewhere else?

I went to Hong Kong a month ago, and while I will be writing about those adventures when I get time, I wanted to talk about an eye-opening (you’ll soon realize the significance of these choice of words) experience I had on the trip. I was looking up things to do in Hong Kong on Wikitravel from my hostel room there, when I stumbled across Dialogue In The Dark. It’s a one-of-a-kind of series of ‘experiential exhibitions’ across the world with the aim of increasing public awareness on issues surrounding visually impaired people in society. Intrigued, I put it on my HK itinerary.

Let me state what the concept of Dialogue in the Dark is. Essentially, its purpose is to bring about a change of perspective. A sighted person is led to pitch black rooms where locations that a person might encounter in daily life are recreated – a clothing store, a theatre, a café, a garden, a busy road intersection, a street market – and guided around by a visually impaired guide. The roles are reversed; here, it is the sighted person who is out of his/her element.

Dialogue In The Dark’s (DiD) Hong Kong chapter is in a shopping mall called The Household Center in Mei Foo, Kowloon district. It’s off the beaten track for most tourists. The mall itself is so different from the ones catering to tourists in Hong Kong (or Singapore for that matter) as it sells mostly Chinese goods; it is worth a whistlestop to see where residents go for shopping. All the while I was flitting about in the mall, never once did I see a tourist.

Anyway, I hadn’t made a booking online as I couldn’t use my Singaporean debit card in Hong Kong, so I showed up at the DiD office and enquired whether they had any tour slots for the day. At first, I was told that there were no tours being conducted in English for the day. I was disappointed that I would have to miss this as wouldn’t have any other chance to do this (at least on that trip), and to my surprise the staff called me a quarter-hour later telling they’d organized one for me.

At the start of the tour, I was handed a walking cane and introduced to my tour guide William. Over an hour-and-half he egged me on to explore my environment through my sense of touch, hearing, smell. It’s amazing how the human brain starts paying more attention to the other senses when sight is taken out of the equation. I felt leaves with my hands, trying to figure out what plant it was. I sat down on a park bench, feeling the smooth grain of the wood. “This one must be green in colour,” I told William. That was the first thing to came to mind when I thought of that texture. Almost silly, isn’t it. Above all, I felt guilty and embarrassed about saying that. How could I barge in and ‘definitely’ settle the look of an object with a person who couldn’t argue otherwise?

I remember throughout the tour of being paranoid that there would be a staircase in our path and I’d fall. (There were none.) Nevertheless, I couldn’t just let go of that feeling of fear. I crossed a narrow walkway surrounded by water. I crossed a street – and then I realized what the tick tick tick beep beep beep sounds that the traffic lights in Hong Kong make were for. Even when I was crossing the road, I feared the traffic light would change, or I’d trip, or I wouldn’t know when to stop (you’ve to figure out when to stop by feeling the texture of the road/pavement through your shoes). There weren’t any cars to hit me there, which only drove home the point how much more challenging this is in real life.

I tried to figure out what clothes were at a clothing store. Tried to identify fruits at a street market. Tried to figure out which magazine was National Geographic at a news-stand purely by touching the cover of the multiple ones on a rack. Found an empty seat in a music theatre and sat listening to a performance, and noticing the tiny vibrations that went across the floor as the tempo of the song changed. Experienced tiny ‘lightbulb moments’ every time I figured out what something was using senses I wasn’t used to. Bought and paid for in total darkness a can of cold coffee at the ‘cafe’ and sat down to chat with William. We spoke about what he was studying, what facilities are there for visually impaired people in the UK, how ‘friendly’ is Hong Kong for visually impaired people…

As I picked up my stuff from the lockers at the end of the tour, I finally got to see my guide. I was awed by the power of human resilience. Putting this experience into words is difficult to do and it is something you just have to go through yourself to realize how it is. It really shook me up; as I walked away, my hands were trembling and I needed a good half-an-hour to calm down.

That night, back in my hostel in Hong Kong, I realized why there was a need for that ‘noise’ from the traffic lights. And with that realization, it somehow didn’t bother me any more. I slept easily in my last night in Hong Kong.

****

Living by yourself at university comes with its own responsibilities, such as budgeting your expenditure. You aren’t a student unless you’re broke and short of cash.

Students often say they are on a tight budget and I agree that is true. However, I believe most of us can still afford to donate something or the other. What might be a ‘small’ amount in the pounds/dollars/rupees goes a long way in developing countries, so every little helps.

One of other unique initiatives I started supporting in 2010 through donations is Kiva. Kiva helps crowd-source funding for micro-loans in developing countries across the globe. You make a donation (minimum of $25) and choose a ‘person’ that it will go to on a Kiva site. This is done to give the transaction a human touch, but what goes in the background is that it helps ‘backfill’ a loan already given to that person by a micro-lending company in that country. Once the loan is paid back, you get the amount you invested back and can then loan it out to other projects.

I’m really drawn to Kiva’s micro-lending concept, because it helps the people you loan to to start their own business, build their own house – something that helps them become self-sustaining and makes their lives better. I’m disappointed by just one thing though – Kiva has no lending partners in India.

I make conscious efforts to donate to charitable causes. I realize that no matter how much of a ‘bad day’ I have, there are many millions of people in the world who are worse off. I donated a month’s worth of part-time work wages towards the Haiti earthquake rehabilitation effort. I supported Room To Read and Teach For India (that latter with donations from gyaan.in members too), two organizations making grassroots level efforts in setting up new schools/libraries. I supported MADTV’s Mike Willis’ ‘Wheelchair Week‘ – a superhuman effort involving him spending twelve hours a day in a wheelchair for one whole week, something I hold him in very high esteem for having the courage and will to do. I didn’t believe in the Facebook campaign for changing profile picture to that of cartoon characters “to campaign against child abuse” until former University of Surrey sabbatical officer Nick Entwistle made a similar challenge on Facebook – and I got to see how many people actually did get involved rather than it just being a case of ‘clicktivism‘. That allowed me get over my dismissal of the campaign as a stunt, and donated to NSPCC UK when I heard that the campaign increased donations by 85%.

(I still maintain that this clicktivism in general does more harm than good. Read more by Malcolm Gladwell in The New Yorker on new-age activism – something, which for most part, sums up what I feel on this issue. My intention, BTW, in listing the above charity names in the previous paragraph is to link to organizations that I feel are doing a really good job and making an actual impact, with the hope that some of my readers will look them up too and hopefully contribute in some way.)

Those are a few of the charities I donated to in 2010. And then, I read about Gumball Capital on TechCrunch – a charitable organization started by Travis Kiefer who’s a student at Stanford University that tries to raise money for poverty alleviation with $27 and 27 gumballs. Travis did a shout-out for gyaan.in from Antarctica when on a 7 continent marathon too!

(No penguins in the video because it’s hard to find them inland, so here’s a drawing made by him instead.)

It’s inspiring to hear about students-like-us like Travis Kiefer and Mike Willis who even with their busy university lives take efforts to be a part of charitable initiatives. I wish I could say with a straight face that I don’t have time to get actively involved but I can’t.

And so for 2011, I am going to make an effort to not just donate to charitable causes, but also to volunteer for at least one cause.

Categories
Food For Thought

The scourge of ceiling fans

You might have heard the news story of a final year student at IIT Kanpur who committed suicide recently (the eighth such incident in the past five years). To the credit of the university’s administration, a panel was formed to investigate the tragedy and the root cause has been identified – ceiling fans.

The reason they’ve come up with such a solution is that if a student is depressed, his suicidal tendencies are aggravated looking at the fan hanging from the ceiling, as now he finds a ready setup to execute his idea.

– Anonymous Internet commenter

Photo credit: Jeff Kramer
The Devil's inanimate helper on earth

The plan – which reeks of genius – is to replace all ceiling fans with pedestal fans so that students cannot commit suicide any more. This, of course, is a problem if you want to commit suicide and don’t have ceiling fans. It seems to me, however, that there are a few loopholes:

  1. ‘Suicidee’ might chew the wire of the pedestal fan, ingest hazardous plastics initially followed by an incredibly painful electrocution.
  2. Suicidee might unscrew cover of pedestal fan and stick their face into the rotating blades, dismembering their face and causing an eventual, slow death due to massive blood loss.
  3. Suicidee might eat rat poison / overdose on sleeping pills / smoke cigarettes for 5-6 decades.
  4. Suicidee might jump out of a window, as demonstrated in the video below.

I stand by the finding of the panel that the most logical conclusion as to the cause of this tragedy is, indeed, ceiling fans. However, I believe that further steps are needed. In the best interests of the safety of students at IIT Kanpur, all of them should be straitjacketed and imprisoned in solitary confinement. These measures might seem drastic but what has to be done has to be done – in the best interests of the students.

And now, a message for the slow-witted diplodocuses in the audience. (Hi y’all at the back, chewing cud! Glad you could make it here!)

In case even this is not clear enough, you aren't seeing the sign(s).

****

It pains and angers me deeply (I don’t want to discuss ‘why’) when someone dismisses depression as ‘just feeling sad’. Depression is not that time when you really wanted to go to the cinema with your friends on your birthday and couldn’t because of heavy rains. There’s no way to “man up” and brush off depression by listening to a couple of jokes.

Depression is a certified medical condition; the onset might be triggered by social or other factors but once it sets in it causes physical reactions in your body such as hormonal imbalances. More importantly, depression is a treatable medical condition – given proper medical care and rehabilitation time.

Frankly, I am appalled by the state of psychiatric care in India. Psychiatrists are rarely found in hospitals except for the select few private ones, thus beyond the reach of anyone not fortunate enough to be a part of India’s rich or upwardly mobile middle class. Even then, Indian society does not accept that psychological disorders are valid medical conditions. The tendency is to equate any psychological condition to ‘insane’ or ‘retarded’, often exquisitely summed up as “How could my son/daughter be ‘mental’?”

Most Indian – showing an astounding level of stupidity and reckless disregard – turn any suggestion of a loved one needing psychological help into an ego issue. This same reckless disregard seeps through in the decision take by the IIT Kanpur administration. “These are the best and brightest students in the country! How dare you suggest they ‘might need help’?”, the thinking goes. And so, the blame must lie in something else. Maybe ceiling fans. Maybe Internet access. Maybe parents staying too frequently in touch with students through increased usage of cellphones. That’s it! Block cellphones!

Setting up a counselling centre and expecting students to self-evaluate and seek help is patently ridiculous. It takes a lot of personal courage admit that one needs to consult a psychiatrist, and the social stigma attached with taking that step doesn’t help matters at all. A person who’s depressed (or suffering from any other disorder) might not even realize they need to seek help.

At my university, for instance, we had students who volunteered to work with the Care Services department. I was a senior resident myself, and thus a part of this team. Each student volunteer was ‘assigned’ to 10-20 residents living in accommodations on campus. Our job was to meet with the residents weekly and proactively seek out whether everything was okay with them. This could be anything – academic pressure, financial trouble, health problems, psychological problems, roommates stealing food from kitchens – what have you, and we would refer this to the relevant department within the university. Residents could reach out to us not just in weekly meeting, but any time they wanted – by calling us directly or a student mentor helpline. It works. Residents are more likely to open up to peers – who are bound to keep any interactions confidential – than their own friend or straight-away approaching a counsellor.

All this is in addition to the existing 24/7 distress helpline and a member of teaching staff assigned as your personal mentor for the length of your university life. Steps such as this is just an illustrative example; universities abroad actively engage in such measures to care for their student population.

The hardest thing for a depressed person is to find someone to speak to. The trigger itself might have originated from parents / relatives / friends, which rules out approaching them. Add the social stigma present in India and the general fear of being made fun of for speaking about what undoubtedly would be their innermost thoughts, and you’ll realize how difficult it can be for a depressed person to speak up.

News reports after the recent IIT Kanpur tragedy quoted professors claiming such things “didn’t happen in our days”. They blame less face-to-face socializing among students these days as the reason. It. Doesn’t. Matter. Social mores change; what was relevant then may not be relevant now. For better or worse, this is how students today are – and the administrations of universities and schools across India have to deal with that. Yes, schools too. I know of friends who had classmates in high school committing suicide because they couldn’t bear the stress of entrance exams.

Going to university is naturally a time of emotional turmoil. You are away from family (and friends you’ve grown up with) for extended periods. Pressure to do well in exams after an eternity of missing lectures. Apprehension about finding a job after graduating. Romantic hookups and breakups. For the first time in your life, going to university forces you to deal with things as an adult – with the life experience of a teenager. This is why universities abroad take student care seriously. This is why they put in so much effort into it. It matters, if they can provide help on time to even that one person who is in their darkest hour. You are their responsibility for the years that you’ll be staying there.

And it is time that Indian universities stepped up to fulfill that same responsibility towards their students.