Quick lessons on what not to do in life

Just as asking a government employee to do something before or after lunch, morning tea, or afternoon tea can get you in trouble, there are other things you should never do either:

1.       Never protest when others think you are drunk, insane, stupid, or angry. You will only confirm suspicions.

2.       Never admit that your business projections are theoretically sound but based on chaos theory. Not everyone loves those butterflies.

3.       Never present the bride or groom at a wedding with a book on divorce law. Save it for after the honeymoon.

4.       Never eat a samosa with a knife and a fork no matter how many years you’ve spent outside South Asia. You will be forever ostracized for this blunder.

5.       Never make martinis with Benadryl unless you’re out of both gin and vodka.

6.       Never use a lungi in place of a bed sheet. I don’t care how short you are. It just doesn’t work.

7.       Never accuse a cadaver of pathological lying.

8.       Never tell a camel-trainer that you have trouble “getting over the hump” at your own workplace.

9.       Never eat sushi at a Chinese buffet. Trust me on this. Just don’t.

10.   Never admonish a pineapple farmer for going after low-hanging fruit. They are not a forgiving kind.

11.   Never use a brand of shampoo that mentions that users should “avoid contact with eyes, skin, and hair”.

12.   Never ask a fan of Vikram Seth’s “A Sweetable Boy” if there is a zero-calorie light version unless you have an hour to spare. Life is just too short.

13.   Never refer to brain-freeze as sphenopalantine ganglioneuralgia if you ever want to be invited to any real non-medical party.

14.   Never use the phrase “there are many ways to skin a cat” at the Humane Society.

15.   Never take seriously any advice given by unknown bloggers.

© Text: Anirban

How to eat at an Indian buffet

There is a proper way to eat at an Indian buffet which those who are not desi may not appreciate. Being desi myself, I feel that I’m qualified to advise others. But my qualifications to pontificate on this topic don’t end with a blanket ethnic designation. In an earlier era, I was a graduate student who subsisted solely on a fellowship. Back then most of what I ate in my apartment fell into three food groups – chicken, rice and spices.

As a non-vegetarian desi, I’ve always preferred chicken drumsticks to the drumsticks that come from trees, and so this guide primarily deals with the non-vegetarian Indian (or Pakistani or Bangladeshi) buffets that serve the common generic dishes.

Your preparation for eating at a buffet should always start much before you actually go to the restaurant (which hopefully you’ve selected after extensive research). You should also decide on an optimum day to go to the restaurant. If the restaurant has a buffet for both lunch and dinner, go for lunch. Meals for lunch are almost always cheaper. Also try to avoid going on a weekend or a holiday, since many restaurants charge more on those days.

Once you’ve made long-term preparations by deciding on a day you’ll go for lunch, you need to prepare for the meal itself. The day you plan on eating at the buffet for lunch, you must skip breakfast. This is essential to making it count. Expert buffet-eaters are also adept at timing their lunch buffet to just before the close of lunch so that they don’t need to eat dinner either. A little secret is that drinking cups of black coffee or another caffeinated beverage approximately two hours before the first morsel is ingested is helpful for eating more food. Caffeine stimulates acid secretion in the stomach which if timed properly has the effect of making you feel hungrier than you would otherwise.  And don’t worry about the long -term effects of stomach acid; if you’re a graduate student, your stomach is probably already non-stick from all the teflon you’ve ingested cooking your meals with cheap pots and pans anyway.

Now, once you’re at the restaurant and have been seated here, follow a game-plan. Stick to the water; don’t order any beverages off the menu. Scan the buffet area and commit all the dishes to memory. Then go back to your table, look at the menu and identify which entrées are the most expensive to order à la carte. It is inconsequential whether you like these entrées or not. The purpose of eating at a buffet is to get the most value for money by selectively feeding the face with the most expensive dishes. As a general rule, avoid the rice, samosas (and other fried food), raita, and dal. Gulab jamuns are usually microwaved straight out of cans, so don’t go near them. Paneer dishes never have any paneer, so you can avoid those too. At a quality buffet, there will at the least be a lamb, goat, or shrimp entrée. You should be good at fishing out only the high-value bits from the curry with an elegant, clean Azharuddin-worthy flick of the wrist. If a cooked-to-order masala dosa is offered, you are permitted to eat the dosa, but not the potato-based masala. The rationale behind this is that even though the dosa is made from cheap ingredients, it is a value-added product because of the specialized expertise and time required to make it properly. If you eat the tandoori chicken remember not to pick off all the meat from the bone as you would at home. As a rule of thumb, round up 0.5 or greater of consumed food-unit to higher whole number. If others stare at you, it is their problem, not yours.

Like magicians, most competitive eaters have techniques which they will not share with others. One fail-safe trick of gluttony is to eat rapidly before metabolism catches up. But, remember that you are pitted against desi restaurateurs who will try to thwart your noble objectives by making curries as oily, creamy, and hot as possible. So, tactically it is to your advantage to avoid the gravy altogether.  And don’t let the heat get to you. If your face is on fire, don’t stop. Pain is the new pleasure.

Leave as soon as you’re done eating and before you feel nauseous. Don’t add a tip to the bill. As you leave, fill your pockets and palms with as much saunf as you possibly can.

With practice you’ll be good at inflicting the maximum amount of damage for your own basal metabolic rate. Until then, bon apetit!

© Text, 2010-2012, Anirban

Sense and sensor ability

Each one of us is born with a gift. I think I’ve finally found mine. I’m invisible.

Yes, you heard correctly. I’m invisible.  I’m not invisible like Mr. India was in the Bollywood film Mr. India. To claim so would be delusional. In fact, I’m pretty sure that you could see me clearly if you met me. Unless of course, you’re visually impaired,  in which case you should probably not be staring at the Chinese letters on this screen.

I’m invisible in that motion-activated sensors can’t see me. Let me elaborate.

You know those stupid motion-activated light switches that they’ve installed everywhere these days? I’m talking about the ones that are supposed to turn on the lights when you enter a room. Well, I have one in my office and it doesn’t do anything for me. Every morning I unlock my office, put my briefcase down, and flap my arms like an extinct, flightless Mauritian bird in the hope that the motion-activated light switch will turn on the lights my office. I keep at it for a good four or five minutes stopping only to greet members of upper management as they pass through the corridors. Incidentally, I have never figured out why they choose to walk by my office when they sit on the other side of the floor. Anyway, after I resign myself to my daily power failure, I leave to go to the break-room to grab a cup of coffee. When I come back with the coffee, the lights turn on. Every single day.

I’ve tried wearing shirts and suits of different colors. I’ve worn different belts, shoes, and ties. I’ve tried cotton, linen, and wool (and for the record, I will not stoop to wearing polyester even if I have to sit in a dark cave forever). Nothing happens.The only think that works is coffee. That and, of course, other people.

I guess I just don’t light up a room when I enter it.

I could just come into the office every morning with a cup of coffee in my hands. That would be the rational thing to do. But that would also be giving up without a fight. When you give in to a motion sensor, how long is it before you ask how many sugars it takes in the morning coffee and whether it likes hazelnut or Kona? I don’t do that. I only give up after I’ve been roundly defeated and I’ve reinforced a notion that needs no further validation.

But my misery doesn’t end there. In the public facilities, I’m the one raising and lowering my hand at various awkward angles to get the water to pour from the faucet. And when the water finally comes on and I’ve washed my hands, I have to contend with the motion-activated hand dryers too.

Come to think of it, I’m not invisible to only motion-activated sensors. There are other machines that act weird when I’m around too. While you’re standing in a long line fidgeting about why it is taking so long, I’m the guy hogging up the airline self check-in counter at the airport because the touchscreen won’t recognize my prompts. Whenever I touch a metro train fare-card, I jinx it so that it isn’t ever recognized by the station-meters. When I enter a room, you can bet your life that your computer will lose the WiFi signal. And don’t get me started on how charming I am to the office photocopier. I could write reams on the office photocopier.

But I won’t. Today, I will use my powers for a purpose. No longer will supple, sophisticated thieves need to worry about deactivating invisible infrared trip wires which turn red when sprayed with mysterious aerosols. They can use the extra time to clean out their skin-tight black leather outfits. If the room guarding the Maharani of Mahipal’s precious jewels is anything like my office, I should be able to enter at will without tripping off any of the sensors.


Final thoughts: There is an episode in the now-dead TV series Better off Ted which describes a different debacle with automated sensors. I won’t give the story away, but I do recommend that you watch it on DVD if you can.

© Text, 2010-2012, Anirban

How to reply to any request to do any work

Dear Ty Kundu:

I hope this email finds you well. I for one have been passing my days just fine, though I will be the first to admit that I find the climate sometimes not agreeable with my health (the result of which is often a change in my disposition). In those unfortunate times, I take solace in the assumption that it is always nice somewhere in the world, even though I realize that it might just be a passing fancy that I’ve picked up with the passing years! Well, I certainly do hope it is very nice wherever you are!

I’d like to take this opportunity to thank you for taking valuable time to provide your perspicacious input. I know it is a matter of concern to you and that you’ve taken great pains to articulate your thoughts in a well-reasoned manner. I’d also like to assure you that it is one of my top priorities and that I will leave no stone unturned in making sure that we get to the bottom of the matter.

As you know, I am not a person who makes hasty decision without considering the full implications of what may in the future come to pass. I am sure you will agree with me when I say that we need to do a full assessment lest we make a foolish decision in haste. I must begin to impinge on you that though resources are finite, our goal is to consider the various angles keeping in mind the best interest of all concerned parties.

Therefore, I will endeavor to proceed to try to think about mulling over potentially attempting to reflect on further investigating a solution that gauges the prospect of analyzing the implications of elucidating the undercurrents and overtones of deciding whether or not the prospect of finding conclusions derived from your input merits additional consideration.

We have started the dialogue, which in itself is a sign we are making good progress. I am staunch believer that in the grand scheme of things, our intentions are noble, and that is what matters most.

Lastly, I do very much hope that through my correspondence I have been able to assuage any concerns that you might be harboring. I for one, feel much better already!

Warm personal regards,

Sunyat Sen

What? Am I acquainted with the musings of Sir Humphrey Appleby? Why do you ask?

Why do Indians dance all the time?

An American coworker once asked me why we Indians break out into song and dance all the time.

At that moment I vaguely remember answering that we like to shake a leg instinctively because our streets have a lot of rabid, stray dogs which we want to shoo away when they attempt to bite us. But although asked in jest, the question is worth thinking about in greater detail.

And on further reflection, I blame Bhasmasur.

“Who is this Bhasmasur?” you ask. You may remember him from your reading of mythology, but his story bears repeating considering the recent fascination with burning whatever our fringe elements don’t like.

Bhasmasur - the dancing demon

According to the version I heard from my grandmother (by the light of a hurricane lantern during one of the many monsoon nights we had no electricity)  Bhasmasura was an asura or demon who performed continuous penance in a jungle until he grew a really long beard. Pleased with the attentiveness and especially with the termite mound that had formed around him, Shiva came down from Mount Kailash to grant him a boon. This was perfectly natural to me when I was a child and I too wished I could meditate until a termite mound formed around me, at which time I would wish for all the ice cream in the world.

But I digress. When granted a wish by Shiva, the asura asked for a boon –  the power to burn to ashes anyone whose head he placed his hand on. And what did this ungrateful demon do? Immediately after getting the boon, he showed his true colors by attempting to place his hand on Shiva, his benefactor. The asuras were evil; even as a child, I knew that.

Shiva ran as fast as he could. And as Shiva ran to escape from Bhasmasur, he prayed to Krishna –  as the gods did from time to time when in deep trouble –  to save the day.

Faced with a situation rapidly getting out of hand, Krishna could have taken one of many approaches to make Bhasmasur place his hand on his own head and immediately burn himself to ashes. He could have given the demon severe dandruff or insufferable lice.  But perhaps, the demons used a kind of hair oil which prevented dandruff or lice. (And this gives me a tangential idea: we should market an anti-dandruff and anti-lice hair oil to the modern consumer as a Bhasmasur Hair Oil).

As a playful shape-shifter, Krishna could have also transformed himself into a bird and pooped on the demon’s head. On the other hand, if Bhasmasur wore a crown like every fashionable demon did in the day, it might have impeded the falling bird feces.

But Krishna also loved the opportunity to toy with weaknesses in character (and I have to admit that even a sinner like me has enough wits to realize what an amazingly brilliant god Krishna was in this respect). He knew that every Indian – human, god, or demon – loved to dance. So instead of taking any half-hearted attempts at making Bhasmasur destroy himself, he transformed himself to Mohini, a voluptuous temptress, and started dancing to intricate moves.

Dance, Bhasmasur, Dance

And what did Bhasmasur do when he saw Mohini? In what is likely one of the first reality dance shows on record, Bhasmasur began to emulate Mohini’s intricate dance step for step. As an Indian male, when he saw an attractive female dancing, he did the only thing he could to impress her – he danced. And when Mohini placed a hand on her own head playfully, Bhashmasur imitated the same move.

(Yeah… somehow I had figured even as a child that though the asuras were pretty evil, they weren’t particularly bright).

Bhasmasur burned to ashes when he placed his hand on his head, but to this day the irresistible urge to dance at every opportunity lies dormant in every Indian. And what of Krishna’s intricate dance as Mohini? It is the inspiration behind the Indian classical dance form Mohiniyattam.

So if my American coworker or yours ever asks why Indians love to dance at the slightest provocation, here is a  shorter answer: it is because we can’t help it.

© Text, 2010-2012, Anirban

What scientists say at meetings versus what they actually mean

What they say: I’d like to thank the organizers for inviting me to this session…
What they mean: I’d like to thank the organizers for inviting me to Hawaii in December. In return, I am inviting them to talk in my department’s seminar series.

What they say: The raw data is in the graph next to the results…
What they mean: I hope the graph which has n=9 and error bars convinces you what I’m saying is true even though no one believes me.

What they say: A very interesting talk. In our lab we’ve shown…
What they mean: I don’t believe you.

What they say: On the left is a representative gel showing an experiment we performed…
What they mean: After getting a graduate student to run this experiment a hundred times, this was the only gel that turned out presentable.

What they say: These were very hard experiments to perform…
What they mean: Don’t even think about competing with us, and if you do, these results are not reproducible.

What they say: To the best of our knowledge…
What they mean: We were too lazy to do a proper literature review.

What they say: This is my last data slide.
What they mean: I am over time but also technically correct when I say that this is my last data slide. The next five slides deal with the conclusions, broader implications, future directions, and acknowledgments.

What they say: The implications of this study are profound and have the potential to influence cancer drug discovery.
What they mean: The implications of this study are profound and have the potential to get me a good postdoctoral position.

What they say: How much time do I have left?
What they mean: I know I am over my allotted time by twenty minutes, but this ploy always gets me an extra ten minutes.

What they say: I think we’ve set the stage now and we’re actively looking opportunities to commercialize our invention.
What they mean: I think we can get a patent out of this, but I have no clue how an actual commercial entity works and what they look for in potential products.

What they say: I’m happy to share the source code and reagents with anyone who is interested…
What they mean: I am happy to share this source code and reagents with anyone who is interested but not before we’ve milked them dry for additional publications and conference abstracts.

What they say: This slide represents five years of work done by a graduate student in my lab, Wong.
What they mean: This slide represents nine years of work done by a graduate student in my lab, Partha.

What they say: I see you’re reading my poster and I won’t bother you, but if you have any questions let me know.
What they mean: Screw you. My Principal Investigator would only let me come to Hawaii if I presented a poster.

What they say: Do you want me to run you through my poster?
What they mean: Do you have twenty minutes to listen to me talk about my work without making eye-contact while assuming that you already know the background of my work?

What they say: I have a comment and a question…
What they mean: I have neither a comment nor a question, but I am a tenured windbag. I have a timeshare and am close to retirement.

What they say: I have a question with two parts…
What they mean: I have five questions with seven parts for each.

What they say: No, we haven’t gotten around to doing those experiments. But certainly those are ones that we were planning on doing.
What they mean: No, we haven’t gotten around to doing those experiments. And frankly, we hadn’t thought of them before either.

What they say: That is a very interesting question…
What they mean: That is a lame question. Were you Reviewer 3 who had the particularly harsh comments on our manuscript?

© Text, 2010-2012, Anirban