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The Daily Rhino
Friday, September 30, 2005

I-blog Nano
Oooh being a blogger is like joining a club isn't it? A secret wonderful and exclusive club. Except for the fact that everyone knows about it (not too many) and anyone can join. Anyway, keen to be true to form and jump on another bandwagon, I have been inspired by blog-celebrity (I can't decide if that's a compliment or an insult) Anna at Sepia Mutiny to inflict 55 words on the general public. Or rather the four people who pretend to read this. Like all blog-related crazes or online competitions, it is a poorly-disguised vehicle for showing off. So I like it!

I put this one up on SM too:

“Not yet!”

His lungs drowned with each scream. Soon he felt his head being sucked under. Kicking and punching, he refused to go quietly, “you’re not taking me without a fight!”

Too late. His time had come. After what seemed like an eternity of darkness, finally he was cold.

“It’s a boy!” shrieked the midwife.



But I thought this was far too fucked up to put on a nice board like that:

Sweat dripped greasily onto the girl’s face. Contorted in effort he spasmed, forcing his weight on her slight frame. He looked for a reaction from her before rolling off.

He stumbled out, leaving her prone. She curled up and began to sob. He pulled off his balaclava to reveal a broad grin.

“That was easy”




And just to show I'm not THAT weird...

Asif surveyed the interrogation room as Detective Francis of Scotland Yard’s anti-terrorism squad bumbled in. Francis was searching in his case, “Sorry, I seem to have misplaced my list of secret Al Qaeda officials.”

Asif spoke up, "oh it’s okay, I’ve got one” and pulled a piece of paper out from his sock.

“A ha! Gotcha!”


Don't worry, I'll be sticking to the day job.
 


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Monday, September 26, 2005

The World of Apu
This is a cross-post on the group blog Pickled Politics.

BLOGGERS often begin by stating their credentials on their topic of choice – so let me assure you, you will not find a more devoted fan of The Simpsons. Yet I write this with some trepidation as I recently had my impression that the world loves all things Springfield shaken.

As an Asian, I’ve always felt some affinity towards Apu. Apu Nahasapeemapetilon is the industrious convenience store-owner and one of the major cast characters, with several episodes revolving entirely around him. Growing up in my middle class corner of London, I have never felt that Apu’s character could carry any negative connotations; however several American South Asian chaps recently expressed their intense dislike of Apu. I wondered why. For them, Apu personifies every stereotype they wish to shake off. He’s got a thick accent, he spent many years living in the US illegally, works in a cornershop, had an arranged marriage, rips off his customers, is continually the butt of Homer’s jokes about Hinduism and has an unpronounceable long surname. Brown-skinned Americans, especially those living outside the major cosmopolitan cities, have come to associate Apu with insults – Apu’s catchphrase “Thank you, come again!” is shouted as abuse by thick-headed bigots.

So let me explain why I think Apu is a positive character for Asians – particularly those living outside India. One could legitimately claim that Apu is a fascinating case study of Indians immigrants, their trials, tribulations and triumphs. Had The Simpsons been a live-action show, Apu would have represented the first regular South Asian character on a prime time show outside the subcontinent. I still find it quite remarkable that way back at the start of the 90s, the makers of The Simpsons decided to include him. To argue that he is a stereotype is to miss the whole point of the cartoon. Everyone is a stereotype, that’s how The Simpsons works – it plays up to our stereotypes to create a realistic microcosm of America’s social structure. Springfield is populated with all walks of life – I’m sure we all know a Barney - propping up the bar, a Ned Flanders – goodie two-shoes bible-basher, a Wiggum – incompetent cop and like it or not, we all know Apu; just go to your cornershop. In comparison to Bumblebee Man and Krusty's father (woefully stereoptypical Mexican and Jew), Apu is a very rounded character indeed.


Try The Chutney Squishee!

Plenty of Indians work in convenience stores. Plenty of Indians are doctors. Hence these tend to be roles brown actors are frequently cast in – yet few criticise the character of an Indian doctor in a drama/soap/film. Matt Groening and The Simpsons’ creators are no fools (in fact they demonstrate their intellectual chops with Apu’s name – an homage to Satyajit Ray’s legendary Apu Trilogy) and they chose Apu’s profession deliberately. Scratch the surface and you find Apu is far more than just a token brown. He embodies the things that have made Asian immigrants some of the most successful communities in America, the UK and elsewhere. He works relentlessly, the famous Asian work ethic means he stays at his post about 23 hours a day and has been shot 8 times ("Ah! The searing kiss of hot lead; how I missed you! I mean, I think I'm dying."). In fact the penalty for shooting Apu is now just $100 and he claims he can survive any calibre up to 9mm. It's funny, but armed violence is often the reality for store workers across America.

With a computer science PhD, he is freakishly over-qualified for his job, due to the fact he was unable to land anything paying more as an immigrant. The topic of his arranged marriage was dealt with in a realistic, although somewhat twee, way – he was reluctant to acquiesce to his mum’s request, but met his bride-to-be and fell in love. At a time when many Westerners equate arranged marriage with forced marriage, this was a welcome plot. In contrast to the generally buffoon-like idiots that inhabit Springfield, Apu is educated and far more knowledgeable about American history:

Homer: Are you sure you don't want to come? In a civil war re-enactment we need lots of Indians to shoot.
Apu: I don't know what part of that sentence to correct first.

Proctor: All right, here's your last question. What was the cause of the Civil War?
Apu: Actually, there were numerous causes. Aside from the obvious schism between the abolitionists and the anti-abolitionists, there were economic factors, both domestic and inter--
Proctor: Wait, wait... just say slavery.
Apu: Slavery it is, sir.

Some argue that it’s far more useful for NRIs (non-resident Indians) to have characters who are of Indian heritage, but otherwise identical to other characters, to show the white man “look we’re just like you!”. However I think most white people are capable of accepting the fact we’re NOT like them in some respects, without feeling threatened. Apu could’ve been like countless characters in British soaps or TV shows, called Bobby or Kurt, distinguishable as Asian only by their colour. Apu’s Indian-ness is apparent for all to see and yet he is great friends with all the other Springfielders, especially Homer.


So why did I post this on a politics blog as well as here? Because Apu’s story is all about integration, a topic that crops up again and again. Apu hasn’t sacrificed any of his cultural identity, he displays a statue of Ganesh proudly and is a strict vegan, yet he has become an integral cog in the small town somewhere in America’s heartland. The citizens are fond of him and he has made some real friends, and even sung in a hit barbershop quartet. He is a three-dimensional person, not a token Dr Patel who reads an X-ray and vanishes for a few episodes of whatever series you happen to be watching.

He has also faced racism and prejudice of his own – when Springfield renamed itself Libertyville in a nationalistic fervour, Apu was scared into acting American (“let’s take a relaxed attitude towards work and watch baseball”) and renaming his children (all of whom have very Indian names) Coke, Pepsi, Condoleezza, Lincoln, Freedom, Apple Pie, Manifest Destiny and Superman. When The Simpsons satirised the scapegoating of immigrants with Proposition 24, Apu was targeted by Mayor Quimby to distract voters from bear attacks!

Finally, Apu has done what we’ve all done as part of a defence mechanism – seen the funny side and occasionally taken the piss out of condescending white folk:

Snooty lady: Attendant, I’d like some gas.
Apu: Yes I’m sorry I do not speak English.
Snooty lady: But you were just talking to-
Apu: Yes, yes. Hot dog, hot dog. Yes sir, no sir. Maybe, okay.

To conclude (I know I’ve rambled), I can easily see why Apu is loathed by some NRIs. Had I grown up in a racist neighbourhood, I may have received the same Apu-abuse they have. But I think I would have still loved Apu. He was a hero to me when very few Asian people were on TV. And The Simpsons has blazed a trail in portraying him as Indian through and through, not a 'coconut'. Take Star Trek, another American institution. Since its inception it endeavoured to be politically correct, with a multinational cast. Yet none of the characters had any traits from their cultures other than perhaps a dodgy accent. Fast forward to the late 90s and Star Trek Voyager and you find characters talking about native American spirit guides and ‘my people’.

Apu: Today, I am no longer an Indian living in America. I am an Indian-American.
Lisa: You know, in a way, all Americans are immigrants. Except, of course Native Americans.
Homer: Yeah, Native Americans like us.
Lisa: No, I mean American Indians.
Apu: Like me.

British TV shows have featured Asians for many years (a good thing of course) but only recently have they become real people with back stories, families and the things that make Asians Asian.


Woohoo!


Apu (and Matt Groening) I salute you.

Thank you, please come again.



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Saturday, September 24, 2005

Anatomy of THE Equation
We all know it. The most famous equation in history is 100 years old this year. But not many of us know how it came to be. Einstein invented it, right? Here the DR profiles six amazing minds, including two trailblazing and sadly overlooked women, all of whom changed the very way we look at the world. Those three letters explained how stars shine - and paved the way towards a bomb that would kill hundreds of thousands of people.





E

Energy.


Michael Faraday, British scientist, 1791-1867

In the early 1800s, when Michael Faraday was a young man, the world had not grasped the concept that energy is a universal force. They believed the heat from a fire was quite separate from the light from the Sun or the chug from a steam train. Michael Faraday embodied the most inspiring of scientific heroes, the self-taught pauper who fought against prejudice and snobbery to win widespread praise.

A recent observation, not much more than a curiosity until Faraday turned his attention to it, was the finding that a compass misbehaved near an electric wire. Faraday methodically plotted the direction of the needle with respect to the wire and found that the needle was being deflected in a particular, consistent pattern. He realised a magnetic field is created at right angles to the direction of electrical flow. So what would happen if this was reversed?

He managed to deflect a wire through which a current was flowing, using a magnet. He had created the world’s first electric motor. Whilst today we are familiar with the invisible lines emanating from a magnet thanks to iron filings and primary school, Faraday was the first to realise that electricity and magnetism were intrinsically linked. He had discovered electromagnetism. This began a cascade of events leading to the realisation that energy was never destroyed nor created, merely converted between forms.

It is little wonder Faraday was so gifted, as he hailed from south London. He was the son of a blacksmith and began work as an apprentice bookbinder at the age of 14, with no education. He read every book that he laid his hands on and gradually worked his way up the ranks of the Royal Society, suffering much abuse on account of his class. But he showed those posh mofos!

m

Mass.


Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier, French nobleman, tax collector, lawyer and amateur chemist, 1743-1794.

Lavoisier was a fastidious French aristocrat, deeply unpopular with most of his fellow citizens due to his position as taxman. His meticulous nature leant itself well to his enthusiasm for chemistry and biology. His contribution to the equation consisted of discovering that mass, like energy, cannot be destroyed nor created.

At the time, people thought that when wood burned, for example, mass was lost during the process of burning – as obviously ashes weigh less than the original log. The bizarre explanation was that a substance called phlogiston was lost, forever. All materials contained phlogiston, some more than others. Lavoisier rightly thought to himself “Sacre bleu, c’est merde!” He set about weighing every single variable in simple reactions, like rusting iron.

Years of unbelievably painstaking work, ably supported by his highly intelligent and apparently beautiful wife, led to the conclusion that no mass was lost or gained in a closed reaction, the mass on both sides of a chemical equation must always be equal.

Lavoisier had a big impact on science. He named hydrogen and found that combining it with oxygen produced water (the reaction that put men on the moon). But his important contribution to E = mc2 was to be one of his last. Despite being one of the few liberal tax collectors, Lavoisier lost his head at the age of 51. The revolutionary who ordered his assassination had held a grudge for many years, after Lavoisier had dismissed one of his scientific proposals.

c

Celeritas, or the speed of light.


Michael Faraday and James Clerk Maxwell, British mathematical physicist, 1831-1879.

Light is pretty fast. 670 million miles an hour, in fact. The energy and matter bit seems reasonable, so how does light fit into the equation? Back to good old Michael Faraday. For years he had wondered whether electromagnetism (a term he coined) was the same as light. His lack of education had one drawback – he was not a great mathematician. But help was at hand in the form of the youthful and enthusiastic James Clerk Maxwell. Maxwell’s keen mind calculated that electricity could only produce a magnetic field and vice versa at a certain, fixed speed. He worked out this speed was 670 million miles an hour. The speed of light. The two friends had proved that light was a product of electromagnetism.

2

Squared.

Emilie du Chatelet, French aristocrat, mathematician and physicist, 1706-1749.

The tragically short life of Emilie du Chatelet was quite remarkable. The contribution that she made to E = mc2 actually disproved Newton. A moving body, such as a falling body, possesses energy. We know this as kinetic and potential energy. Newton believed that a ball going twice as fast as another identical ball would have double the energy – sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? du Chatelet believed it would have four times as much energy. She tested this with the strikingly simple experiment of dropping lead balls into soft clay and measuring how far they went in.

She found the balls dropped into the clay possessed energy equal to the SQUARE of their velocities. Any object’s energy is a product of the square of its velocity – thus the superscript 2 in the equation.

du Chatelet had an amazing life. I urge you to have a quick
read about her, especially any fans of girl power. For Emilie du Chatelet defied the position a woman was expected to hold in 18th century France. She had countless affairs – of which most her husband was fully aware – including with Voltaire. She learnt science, arts and languages was fiendishly intelligent and had a bunch of sprogs. Indeed an affair with a young soldier was her undoing. She fell pregnant at the dangerous age of 43 and died during childbirth.

E = mc2

Albert Einstein, German (later Swiss and American) pantheist, celebrity and physicist.

I could write reams on Einstein (in fact I will, in the future), so I’ll keep it brief for now. Einstein was one of the first to grasp that c is constant. No matter what speed you go, a beam of light always leaves you at 670 million miles an hour. It sounds bonkers. But Einstein grasped Maxwell’s idea and realised that if c does not change, what happens when a body approaches the speed of light? Its mass must increase.

It was a huge step to make. In a nutshell, his famous equation states that energy and mass are intimately linked – they are the same. Energy is mass and mass is energy. Due to the enormous figure of c2, the amount of energy possessed by even a small amount of mass is vast.

1905 was an astounding year for Einstein. I’ve included a picture of Einstein as a young man. We all know him as a crazy grey-haired joker sticking his tongue out, but it was young Einstein that wrote the equation. In the very same year Einstein put forward theories on Brownian motion, the particle nature of light and of special relativity.

A sound understanding of what the equation means – which is as straightforward as it looks – enables further leaps of imagination, some far darker than others. It explained nuclear reactions, which happens in the heart of a star, and ultimately it demonstrated how we are all stardust. The mind-blowing energy kicked out by our Sun is E = mc2 in action. A star converts mass into pure energy. Einstein’s equation also led to the devastating atom bombs dropped by the Americans, killing thousands. Einstein was haunted by this until his death.

The last figure worthy of recognition is Lise Meitner, another inspirational female scientist who battled against male-dominated establishments. Her work pioneered the field of nuclear fission – the process used by an atomic bomb. As a Jew, she fled her workplace of Berlin after the 1938 annexe, leaving all her work behind. She moved to Stockholm and found continuing her work very tough. Her colleague of many years, Otto Hahn, was left to take credit for all her work and he alone was awarded the Nobel Prize. Her friend Einstein praised her as “the German Madame Curie” and she was also a close friend of Bohr, Planck and Pauli. She died in Cambridge in 1968, aged 89.







The DR took much of his inspiration from this superb book.



 


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Friday, September 23, 2005

The Rhino Charges
The DR grunts and charges forth ahead of schedule. The menu of coming 'attractions' detailed in the previous post may have been a little cryptic. So stay tuned to find out more. The only way I can think of encapsulating what I hope to provide you, good reader, is stuff I find cool. With any luck you won't have heard about it and you'll think it's cool too.





A Mecca for me and thousands of other traceurs (followers of
parkour), la Dame du Lac in Lisse, France.
 


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