Jag Venugopal's Blog

April 27, 2011

The best paragraph of astrological mumbo-jumbo ever

Filed under: India — Jag @ 10:38 pm

Back in India, the navagrahas, or the nine planets are thought to be controllers of one’s destiny. Much money and effort are spent in propitiating these gods so that obstacles in one’s path may be removed, and any malefic influences eliminated.

Interested as I am in amusing myself, I browsed over to Wikipedia’s entry for “Navagraha”. This passage I found goes beyond my wildest dreams in the amount of gobbledygook one can fit into one paragraph. What’s more astounding is that many hundreds of millions in a nation of 1.2 billion people (minus a relatively small number of heretics, such as your correspondent) believe in this stuff.

Astrologers claim that Grahas influence the auras (energy bodies) and minds of beings connected to the Earth. Each Graha carries a specific energy quality, which is described in an allegorical form through its scriptural and astrological references. The energies of the Grahas are getting connected in a specific way to the individual auras of humans at the time they take their first breath in a given nativity. These energy connections remain with the natives of Earth as long as their current body lives.[5] “The nine planets are transmitters of universal, archetypal energy. The qualities of each planet help to maintain the overall balance of polarities in both the macrocosmic and the microcosmic universe – as above, so below…”[6]

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April 23, 2011

Novice skywatchers

Filed under: Digital Living — Jag @ 10:17 pm

My daughter and I are beginning skywatchers. Armed with a planisphere, a red flashlight, a galileoscope and binoculars, we spend our clear evenings trying to identify stars. We prepare beforehand by looking up charts from Night Watch and observe mostly with naked eye and binoculars. Thus far, we’ve covered the moon’s craters (with the galileoscope), all the major stars in the night sky, and Saturn and Venus. We’ve seen our first double-star in the Big Dipper’s Mizar, and the Orion Nebula. Though not much above rank beginner status, we’re making the best of the rare occurrences of clear sky in southern New England.

A gadget I bought recently that holds much promise is the Celestron Skyscout. The premise is very simple — aim the thing at any star in the sky, and it will name the star for you, along with an audio description. It can also guide you to specific stars and constellations, and give you a tour of the twenty best objects visible anywhere in the world on any given night. Our first unit test of the device went very well — it worked as advertised and was very useful for us novices. I’ll blog more as I put it through its paces, but initial indications are that it’s one useful doodad.

The biggest drawback to being a sky watcher in New England, as I have discovered, is the weather. It is one thing to brave the cold. It is totally another to spend weeks in anticipation of one clear night when something other than clouds can be seen in the sky.

April 11, 2011

Beat the banks at their own game

Filed under: Digital Living — Jag @ 10:08 pm

David Frum argues [1] that banks should not be allowed to escape from legislation capping debit-card interchange fees. Apparently banks are concerned that if debit-card interchange fees were lowered, many customers and merchants would gravitate to debit cards, thus lowering the profits banks make on the credit-card side of the business.

 I think his fears are overblown. There is no risk that Best Buy, Amazon, Wal-Mart or the local Stop and Shop will start charging more for credit cards than they do for debit card transactions, for routine purchases. They grudgingly fork over credit-card fees to Visa and Mastercard, because customers like to pay with their credit cards, especially for big ticket items where they experience instant gratification, but pay later. They’d rather pay the damn fees and loosen your wallet than pay a smaller percentage in fees and risk losing your business altogether.

Credit cards hold significant advantages over debit cards for those who are careful with their finances. I easily average a free tank of gas per month on my Shell Mastercard. And Chase takes it upon itself to give me 5% cash back on various categories each quarter. Amazon kicks back 3% of all my purchases in the form of a gift card.  All I have to be careful about is to pay off the entire amount by the monthly due date.

More power to the big card-issuing banks, [and cashback to me]. Excuse me while I go look up my checking account balance on my credit union website.

[1]  http://www.cnn.com/2011/OPINION/04/11/frum.bank.debit.fees/index.html?hpt=T2

April 10, 2011

The Gay Mahatma and the Intolerant State

Filed under: India — Jag @ 9:32 pm

Outing national leaders seems to have become something of a literary pastime. First it was Abraham Lincoln, who was described as gay [1]. Along comes Joseph Lelyveld with Great Soul [2], where he states that a close relationship existed between the Father of the Nation, and a certain Herman Kallenbach. Much of his writing is based on publicly available correspondence between the two individuals.

Even before the book is published, certain sections of India’s polity have a collective fit of apoplexy at the insult heaped on their “Mahatma”. The Chief Minister of Gujarat (incidentally an RSS man, against whom accusations have been made of staying silent while thousands of Muslims were butchered in 2002) took it upon himself to defend the Mahatma by banning Lelyveld’s book in Gujarat. Similarly, the chief minister of Maharashtra, a state known for its intolerance of the printed word [3, 4] proscribed the book without perhaps as much as reading a review.

 The irony is that India has completely given the Mahatma’s ideology a go-by, with lip service and some token spinning of yarn on his birthday on October 2nd being the only acknowledgement of his contributions. Yet they rush ferociously to his “defense” when the slightest question is raised about his sexuality, that too based on inferences from correspondence published by the government.

Just as in Abraham Lincoln’s case, The Mahatma needs no such defense. Either he is gay, or he is not. Either Mr. Lelyveld’s book raises the right inferences or it does not. In either case, there is no denying his contribution to India’s independence, or to his unique methods of resistance against foreign oppression.

However, India is in need of defense. Not from the likes of Mr. Lelyveld, but from those that seek to ban any expression which is contrary to their opinion. Indians ought to be free to disagree with Mr. Lelyveld, indeed if they so desire, to protest non-violently over it. But for the sake of the nation, India ought to be a country where there is tolerance for differing points of view. Its a sad day when those in power disagree with expression and speech by banning its free exercise. Down that path lies tyranny. Tolerance of differing viewpoints is the hallmark of a mature nation, much more so than any chest-thumping about becoming the next “regional superpower”.

Postscript: Being the parsimonious individual I am, I will read Mr. Lelyveld’s book when it hits the remainder shelves. Gandhi’s sexual orientation would not matter an iota to me — I will be looking to see if Mr. Lelyveld can cut through the fog of hagiography that pervades most writing about Gandhi, and present us the real man.

  1. http://www.nytimes.com/2005/01/09/books/review/09BROOKHE.html
  2. http://www.amazon.com/Great-Soul-Mahatma-Gandhi-Struggle/dp/0307269582/ref=tmm_hrd_title_0
  3. http://www.indianexpress.com/news/shivaji-book-maharashtra-to-have-law-agains/645659/
  4. http://ibnlive.in.com/news/maharashtra-cm-backs-banning-of-mistrys-book/133435-40-100.html 

April 7, 2011

Skywatching — our latest hobby

Filed under: India — Jag @ 11:18 pm
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With the advent of spring, my daughter and I have taken up skywatching as a hobby. It is fascinating to see stars and constellations, some of which are millions of light years away, right from one’s own backyard. The best part is that skywatching can be easy, inexpensive, and very educational for young and old alike.

Most people assume that skywatching requires a telescope and rush out to buy a bottom-dollar shiny doodad for $100 or so, from either their nearest Wal-Mart, or Amazon. Having assembled their outfit, they are dismayed to find that they can’t find much, what they see is all upside down, and the image is both dim, and shakes very badly. These are all blunders I committed five years ago when I first set out to watch the stars.

A better approach is to buy little to no equipment. My daughter and I learned most of what we know from the book Night Watch, by Terence Dickinson. This book ought to be considered essential reading for any starting skywatcher. The author teaches a system for identifying stars and constellations starting from two very well known celestial landmarks — the Big Dipper and the belt of Orion. The sky maps provided in the book are just the right level of detail for a newbie — covering the major tourist spots in the night sky, without drowning the reader in detail.

Equipment-wise, all one needs is a good pair of binoculars. After researching on Amazon and elsewhere, I bought the Celestron Sky Master 15 x 70. This is inxpensive, yet well regarded. And my experience bears it out. In the month or so since I’ve had it, we’ve seen craters on the moon, Saturn with a hint of rings (to see the rings clearly, you need a small telescope or better), and various double-star systems and nebulae. Note that a stable tripod is essential to mount the binoculars for shake-free viewing. Good-quality photo tripods will do fine. I enjoy the binoculars far more than either my el-cheapo telescope, or even the oft-recommended Galileoscope.

About the only other thing one needs is a red flashlight, to read star charts in the dark. This will do just fine. Regular flashlights cause the pupils to constrict — thereby reducing the amount of light reaching the eyes, and getting in the way of skywatching.

The book, binoculars, and flashlight above can all be had for less than a hundred dollars total, about the cost of a dinner and a movie for the family. If you decide skywatching is not for you, the binoculars can be resold, or retained for other activities (e.g. birdwatching). If, on the other hand you’re hooked, you have plenty of time to save up and buy a really good telescope (our family is not there yet, and probably won’t be this year).

 One last recommendation — when you start identifying stars, look them up on Wikipedia, to learn a little more about them. And for those from India, you can look up “birth stars” for your family in the sky. When I talk to my dad next, I will tell him that his birth star, Rohini, is the easily identifiable Aldebaran, a red giant visible from our backyard, that has run out of hydrogen, and will eventually retire as a white dwarf. Punarvasu, the birth star of the mythological god Ram, correspond to Castor and Pollux, a short trip away from the Big Dipper in the night sky. And my own, Makha, is the star Regulus in the constellation Leo. You don’t have to believe in all the astrology mumbo-jumbo to have a good time correlating all the nakshatras to various shiny spots in the sky, and marvel at the imagination of ancient Indians in spinning their astrological yarn.

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