Saturday, October 18, 2008

I love you, hic

Like many other people who have emotional range (also called ‘volatile’ or ‘unstable’), I am subject to fits of abject, revolting sentimentality. At times like this I love my friends unequivocally and tell them so in the purplest prose; my colleagues are the bestest in the world and I will clasp their ankles in a death-like grip to prevent them from leaving for a better job elsewhere; dog poo on the road seems unbearably poignant; and life is beautiful so I must hug everyone in it.

I can behave like this all on my own when stone cold sober; throw a little alcohol on top of those coals, and the results can singe your eyebrows. I have never leerily called an ex, or a professional superior to vent long-suppressed abuse; but I have done thoroughly inappropriate things (like text a colleague at 4am saying that I’m listening to a song that reminds me of him, realising only the next morning that given the lateness of the hour and the lack of nuance in text messages, not just his wife but he too might have misinterpreted my utterly innocent geniality. Cringe.)

Most people, though, need to be seriously inebriated to do things like this. They’re often restrained by their friends, who will vigilantly rip the phone from their drunk-dialling little fingers. The same friends will put them in a cab and call to make sure they got home, and come over in the morning with strips of alka seltzer.

But what happens between the damage control and the alka seltzer? That’s right: more damage. Wino gets home, still rollercoasting all over the unregulated markets of his or her emotional life, staggers to the computer, logs in to his or her email, and sends drunken emails that in the morning will make him or her wish that he or she (or the recipient) were dead.

Enter corporate responsibility. Google has decided to do its bit to protect you from yourself, with a piece of tough-love software called Mail Goggles (a name taken from the common expression ‘beer goggles’ to describe the phenomenon of suddenly noticing, after a couple of drinks, that everyone at the bar is sexually irresistible).

Mail Goggles is a late-night digital chaperone that is designed to determine whether you are really, actually sound of mind enough to send the mail you just typed with the tip of your nose and tongue, skipping the letters you can’t find/remember. You know, the one you’re about to send to your lawyer saying that your ex-spouse can have all your money, or the one to your boss saying that you and she would be good together.

Mail Goggles does you the wonderful favour of suddenly taking you to a dialogue box that poses a few quick arithmetic problems. What’s 93 minus 17? 18 times 4? 72 divided by 12? And so on. If you’re sober enough to solve these correctly, you can send your email. If you aren’t, your mail quits and a gloved hand comes through the screen and slaps you a couple of times before crashing the whole programme.

Not really—but it won’t send the mail. The downside is that while the mathematically gifted can raise the difficulty level of the problems, it won’t do what some people need, which is ask, “If a man on an escalator is travelling at 2kmph and a thief comes charging past him at 6kmph, and taking into account a wind speed of 15kmph as they pass, what is the colour of the cashier’s wig?”

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Intelligent design?

A friend of mine called and made a plan to meet as soon as his knee is better. He’s a strapping fellow who, for all I know, could have busted it in a skydiving landing, or while plunging through the jungle on the trail of a tiger, so I asked how it had happened. “I bent down, and then straightened up,” he said grimly. We performed the telephone equivalent of going ‘Ah’ while rocking on the balls of our feet with arms crossed and head respectfully bowed to avoid embarrassing eye contact.

This moment of empathy about the serial humiliations of ageing put me in mind of other avoidable indignities of the flesh. I think the human body is a marvel, but there are things about it that could have been designed better—in some cases, a lot better.

The greatest design flaw is, of course, inevitable death. Even if you grudgingly concede immortality, however, the business of decay seems cruel. Why not just design a body with a certain life span that simply shuts off when time is up? Why not just go from bursting with youth and beauty to fallen down dead as a doorknob in a second, without screwing around with the psychological and physical torture of sagging flesh, melting joints, blunted senses, incontinence and dementia?

(We wouldn’t make the mistake of the Cumaean Sybil, who asked Apollo for immortality but forgot to ask for youth; she lived, but her body shrivelled away until she had to be kept in a jar, and finally there was nothing left but her voice. At the end of it all, her deepest desire was, “I want to die.”)

Even if you sulkily concede lifelong health and beauty, the search for which continues, there are other things that make no sense.

For example, childbirth. Female reproductive biology is, in many ways, an awesome thing. The process of pregnancy does all kinds of incredible hormone-driven things to prep the body for birth, for instance by softening pelvic joints to cushion the strain of delivery. But you have to ask: who or what came up with the idea of a birth canal that is stretchy, but not quite stretchy enough to avoid pain that, on a scale from 1 to 10 where 10 is death, has been described as 9.5? That seems like bad design.

Better design might be the kind plagiarised from the python’s jaw, which actually unhinges itself to allow its mouth to open wide enough to swallow a deer. Or a hormone secreted on the appointed day that turns your pelvic girdle to elastic. I can think of a few women who might welcome a painless three-minute delivery.

Another example: evacuation. I’ve known people who had colostomy and ileostomy bags after intestinal surgery, and I assure you that a couple of spare sphincters would not be out of place on the human body. The colon should come with one or two alternative exits that can kick in should the regular one fail. Placing these extra sphincters is a matter of aesthetics, of course (you don’t necessarily want one in your armpit), and maybe they could appear around the same time as most colostomies and ileostomies become necessary.

There are other things. Who really needs miles and miles of intestines when you could have a short, nutritionally super-absorbent length of pipe? Why couldn’t we have fat deposit itself daily in one small lump on, say, the sole of the foot, instead of in one’s arteries and belly, said lump to be shed at night? There, plop, it would just fall off while you slept.

Evolution, or intelligent design, whichever your poison, has a long way to go.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Collateral damage

Rarely have I been so pleased to know nothing about money and have very little of it; in fact, for the first time in my life I feel quite fashionable. It turns out that tightened belts are really in these days, because of a complicated on-going economic phenomenon called the 'sub-morgue overprime greedypigs catastrophe crisis', which, after a lot of painstaking research and staring at graphs and pie charts, I have finally understood to be completely beyond my grasp.

I do know that it’s important, though, and that people are losing their houses and having to live in their cars, and that the bulls and the bears and the circus emcees are all spending a lot of time trying to work out whom to send to the corner wearing the dunce cap. Apparently consensus is increasingly swinging the way of the sharks, who have so far only said “Here’s the bill, and when you bring us the money, ask us no questions and we’ll tell you no lies,” while crossing their dorsal fins. Or something.

It’s all happening in America, which looks very far away, but remains a powerful global trendsetter—hence the old saying, “When the US economy has chest pain, the rest of the world should consider making some lifestyle changes”. Because of this, and because of incredibly sophisticated modern financial structures that you won’t understand either, called 'globaloid credit intercrunching rack-and-ruin linkations', experts speculate that the current scene of hopeless devastation in the US could very well infect the rest of the world in an unpleasant domino effect that will bite ordinary people’s investments and pensions right in the backgammon.

In anticipation of this nasty prospect the whole world might have to stay up all night seated on the edge of its chair, filling landfill after landfill with chewed-off fingernail parings, recalibrating its economic outlook and trying to trim the household budget by examining non-essential expenditure and asking tough questions like, Do we really need this household?

Luckily, according to a banker I recently met, we don’t really have to worry here in India, thanks to our extremely sensible fiscal structures and policies, which provide what’s called the 'prudent insulation slowpoke Sensex conservative thingy'. Besides, our mortgage habits are tailored by the fact that we tend to live with our parents until we win the lottery or our parents die trying to throw us out, whichever comes first, so our version of playing house-house is quite different.

He was very reassuring, though of course it’s possible that his dorsal fins were crossed under his jacket.

If we were playing the same game as the US, however, we’d be way ahead of it, thanks to our long-standing commitment to maintaining high national reserves of roofless, despairing people at all times.

Very important in this enormous financial cock-up is its bearing on the outcome of the US presidential election. The winning ticket, whether it turns out to be Maverick-Moose or Messiah-Motormouth, will have been elected largely on the basis of the public’s faith in the candidates’ ability to chivvy the bulls into action, pamper the bears, smack the sharks, give back the houses, find Osama bin Laden, restore America’s standing in the world (or at least make up with the Allies), and pay for the doctor’s visits and pills to cure the national dyspepsia and headache.

And that, in a nutshell, is what’s going on this week. I hope you’re keeping up; it’s complicated, but if you can just manage to keep your eye on the ball long enough, you’ll get dizzy and fall over.