Recently in Personal Category

Gopal Chandra Ganguly didn't touch Muslims. When they came to his house, they were served with separate plates and glasses, to avoid having his Hindu Brahmin family contaminated by their ritual impurity. My grandmother's grandfather didn't hate Muslims; he worked and interacted with them, as long as they knew to keep their infernal Islamic cooties out of his upper-caste Hindu home in Calcutta, India.

The British would finally quit India the following year after a century of anti-colonial struggle, but in 1946, the future of the nation was still being hotly debated in conferences and dining rooms across the subcontinent -- and no issue loomed larger than the Hindu-Muslim question. In formerly peaceful Calcutta, in both majority Hindu and Muslim neighborhoods, racist mobs led attacks on members of the religious minority--the Great Calcutta Riot.

Anti-Muslim riots were spreading closer to his neighborhood when my great-great-grandfather approached two neighborhood Muslim merchants, asking them if they needed help. Could he give them shelter? My grandmother doesn't know what her grandfather was thinking, the mental calculus crunching away in his head, but he said yes. Yes, knowing the disastrous consequences for the two men if they were caught. Yes, knowing the possible violence his family would potentially face from their co-religionists if word got out.

Sheltering hunted minorities in the face of religious violence was no easy task. Gopal Chandra was the head of a large household, comprising about two dozen family members and a number of servants. He had to think fast. If word got out that their household was sheltering Muslims, the house might be attacked by angry Hindu mobs. And he couldn't trust the servants to keep mum. He needed a plan.

Gopal Chandra led the two men into an unused room upstairs, usually left locked. They were cautioned to remain absolutely silent. Late every night, after the servants had gone to bed downstairs, the door was quietly opened so the men could be let out and fed. Most families in the area were living on very limited rations, but the Gangulys was better off than their neighbors. A friendly local merchant, fleeing to a safe area, had given them some extra food before he left, his last gift to a family that had treated him well.

The two men remained hidden away in the unused room as anti-Muslim riots raged. Ten days later, the violence died down and Gopal Chandra Ganguly bid the men goodbye as they fled to safety. My great-great-grandfather's story wasn't exceptional. A people's history of South Asia is filled with these tiny acts of solidarity across communities, at times of peace and crisis.

If I'm ever so tested, I hope to be able to show the same kind of courage under fire, standing up to personal and community prejudices.

Sadly, I am tested every single day, with critical issues of life and death, injustice and war, where I can safely respond without needing to make these difficult decisions, just by exercising my basic democratic rights and wielding my checkbook in the richest country on the planet. I sometimes do a little, but my great-great-grandfather's story challenges me to do more, to take greater risks, in the battle to be human.


| | Comments (1) | TrackBacks (0)
Shinjuku station crowds descending

It's Tuesday night, 9:30 pm. I'm in Shinjuku, Tokyo, heading back home from a bookstore. It's late and rainy, and the path's a bit confusing, so I ask a fellow pedestrian in my mangled travel Japanese to point me to the train station. He does so, indicating that he's headed that way himself. We walk together, taking a shortcut to get out of the rain, navigating through a lonely section of the huge underground arcade.

Finally, I see a third person walking nearby. A fourth, a fifth. And then suddenly, the number explodes. I see twenty people around me. A hundred. Two hundred. And I'm moving in a giant sea of humanity toward the train station entrance, a human millipede in motion.

We whiz through the fare gates, a solid block of mostly-black-clad flesh. This is like having all of Heathrow packed into a single train station. There must be over ten thousand people passing through here, just in the areas where I'm walking. It reminds me of that moment at the end of large concerts or sporting events where everyone's heading out in the same direction at once. But this isn't peak rush hour -- it's hours in, and the people are still coming, hordes of tired office workers heading home, young people, shoppers, and the very occasional foreigner or woman in a kimono to keep things interesting. Some carry dripping umbrellas, others walk in wet jackets, while others just look damp. The noise of our collective footsteps and occasional conversation reverberates, a continuous companion as we make our way forward.

Very soon, most of us will have made our way to the right platform and crowded into trains which get emptier and emptier at every successive station, as Tokyo's huddled masses yearning to get home disembark, looking forward to a good night's sleep.

I have chills. This is what a megacity feels like.

Shinjuku station crowded train

Written aboard the MV Hanjin Madrid, part of our Year of No Flying

Almost every day of our trip from Seattle to Yokohama by sea lasted 25 hours. Traveling westwards, we gained an extra hour every time we traveled a time zone, 1/24th of the planet. We'd head down to dinner at the mess, and there would be a big sign on the door: "RETARD 1 HOUR TONIGHT."

I made a practice of setting back our clocks every night at 10:00 pm. In fact, I even set an alarm to do it. It beeped at 10:00 pm, and I changed the clocks back to 9:00 pm. An hour later, it beeped again -- it was 10:00 pm again. I quickly learned to delete the automated alarm after I'd reached it the first time.

I wish I could say that we did something amazing with that extra hour every day, but we didn't. Sadly, it just blended into the copious quantities of free time we had. For those who don't have it, an extra hour of free time every day is an unimaginable luxury; but for us, on a ship for a week and a half without hard scheduled tasks, it made no difference at all.

Unfortunately, you only get 25 hours a day going westwards. Coming back the other way, you end up advancing your clock as you go, losing as hour at each step, leaving just 23 hours a day. The difference between 25 and 23 hours may not have made much difference to us, but according to crew members we spoke to, they definitely noticed the difference.

I've read that it takes the body about a full day to catch up with an hour's time difference. Fly from San Francisco to New York on Monday, and your body will have adjusted to New York time by Thursday. When it comes to minimizing jet lag, ships beat planes hands down, by traveling at the speed of the body's natural adjustment to time differences.

And then Friday disappeared. On a Wednesday afternoon, an officer informed us that, by the way, Friday would not exist. We'd just skip ahead from Thursday to Saturday, losing a day as we headed toward the International Date Line. Oddly enough, we'd be losing our day some ways before we actually hit the date line. It turns out that we'd normally have lost Saturday, instead of Friday -- but the crew works a shorter day Saturday, and would be unhappy seeing their day of (relative) rest suddenly vanish. Shipboard time would be modified accordingly.

This was my first experience with shipboard time, an idiosyncratic timezone floating through space, applying only to a tiny band of sailors (and us). Officers on the bridge were incredibly aware of time at local ports and UTC, but shipboard time ruled every important part of our lives -- work times, meal times, and occasionally, social event times. So far away from everything else, it made little sense to hew religiously to arbitrary external requirements. Time is ultimately for the people.


| | Comments (0) | TrackBacks (0)

Written aboard the MV Hanjin Madrid, part of our Year of No Flying

I wake up at night. Pitch black. The bed moves, as if I'm in the beginnings of an earthquake. I'm on a ship. In the middle of the Pacific. And I need to pee.

I feel around, find a wall, make my way to the bathroom, do the needful. Why is it so dark? I can't see my hand in front of my nose. B and I fully closed the shades at night in our cabin, before going to bed. I didn't realize how effective those shades would be. It's been a long time since I've been in such total darkness. I feel around, trying to find the clothes I hung to dry in the bathroom. My pants have mostly dried, but my thick cotton socks are still sopping.

I head back to bed, thirsty. We left a water bottle on the table; where is it? I slowly sweep my arm around several inches above the table, hoping to make contact with the bottle. Failure. I find only the book I was reading last night, and my glasses.

The male line of my family is prone to poor vision. There was a time when I had a -5 prescription, my dad had a -10, and my grandfather had -15, My grandfather slowly went blind over the years, the soda-bottle lenses of his glasses increasingly unable to compensate against the effects of diabetes. What would he have done in my situation?

I feel around on the table, very carefully. My grandfather was incredibly organized, with or without sightedness. At his home, he'd navigate back to his room, open a drawer, and find a small item exactly where he remembered leaving it years ago. Sight makes us lazy, forgiving sloppiness. It's like the way cell phones have changed the way we make plans with others, making us more comfortable with half-made plans we hope to flesh out along the way.

Some time after my grandfather lost his sight, he and my father were heading to a small corner market a few blocks from the family home in Kolkata. My dad held his father's arm, as they wended their way through the streets. Then the power went out. Everything flickered and disappeared -- street lights, lights from homes, the sound of televisions. Pitch black. My father must have exclaimed. His father didn't. He just continued on, leading his son through the dark to the corner store. "Two more steps, then take a very large step," he told my father, guiding him over a gap in the sidewalk. My grandfather led my father safely to the store, and back home. In the land of darkness, the blind man is king.

I spend another minute, trying to find the water bottle, my hand running across every manner of unfamiliar shape except the one I'm looking for. Finally, I get up, find the shades, and pull them open a tad. Light streams in. There's the water bottle, right in front of me, mocking my sense of space and touch. I take a drink, and climb back into bed, falling asleep to the ship's slow rocking.

I've been working on for almost 13 years now, but even the most amazing experiences come to an end. I'll be exiting in August, heading out on the very best of terms, and after years of planning to ensure that our users aren't impacted by the transition. started off as my class project in 1996. My best friend Charlie built the 486 computer that it ran on, and we teamed up in 1999 to rewrite the software and run the site as our small business. We've been together every step of the way, designing, building, and managing (and debating books and politics over lunch every day). I'm delighted to be able to pass my role on to him; the site's in incredibly good hands.

I've been planning to step back for several years now, to work on other projects, travel, and explore new opportunities. Please stay in touch:

  • via my homepage and weblog
  • via email, at anirvan (at) chatterjee (dot) not

I'm deeply grateful to the bibliophiles, booksellers, and marketplace operators I've worked with over the years. I've heard some pretty amazing stories, and I always promised myself that when I had some time, I'd try to collect and share them with others.

That's why I'm launching the Online Bookselling History Project, an effort to collect first-hand accounts of the online bookselling trade before 2000. If you were involved with the trade pre-2000, then I want your stories: bookseller BBSes, UIEE conversion nightmares, changing cataloging practices, the bricks vs. clicks debates, etc. You can help put together a patchwork history of our trade during a time of great transition. More on this soon.

P.S. Thank you to everyone who's been part of since 1996 -- Alison, Asok, Barbara, Boris, Bryan, Chaitee, Charlie, Christine, David, Fredrik, Garner, Giovanni, Hannes, Scott, Shaku, Shauna, Thomas, Tushar, Vanessa, and Wendy. I'm lucky to have friends like you.

[Now Reading: Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh]

Scribd takedown notice excerpt

I'm used to hearing about people receiving DMCA takedown notices, a procedure in which a copyright owner tells a service provider that they're hosting infringing data of some type, and requesting removal or the disabling of access. Being a techie with an interest in fair use, I often side with reform-minded groups that focus on abuses of the system, where DMCA takedown notices are incorrectly targeted, or ignore fair use rights.

Given that stance, I was surprised to find myself sending a DMCA takedown notice earlier this week.

While looking at online document-sharing service Scribd, I found a copy of article that I'd written several years ago. It was intact, and had my original copyright line on it, but the document was marked as being licensed under a Creative Commons license, when I'd never licensed it as such. The user, whose username made him or her difficult to identify and contact directly, had probably taken my article, uploaded it to Scribd, adding a default Creative Commons license on all the content in the account.

As far as I could tell, the use was harmless, but I didn't like the fact that the article's licensing details were incorrect. What to do? I emailed Scribd's copyright contact, describing the situation, and explaining that I didn't have a problem with the document being on Scribd, but that it was being redistributed with incorrect licensing information. I wouldn't have had a problem if it were uploaded for personal use (sort of like saving a photocopy of an original article).

A real live human being from Scribd got back to me, suggesting they could act only if I sent a DMCA notice, and including a sample DMCA takedown notice form letter. I filled it in: name, address, URLs, and replied. Within minutes, the document was taken down. Gone.

And now I have regrets. Should I have demanded more forcefully to speak to the original user, who'd clearly found the article of interest, instead of working only through Scribd's copyright department? Should I have participated in the process at all? How to balance the needs of users and content providers?

I headed down to UC Berkeley's Sproul Plaza yesterday to see Obama's inauguration on a massive JumboTron. There was a huge crowd, reportedly totaling nearly 10,000 students, faculty, staff, community members, and local schoolchildren. I started getting involved in electoral politics on Sproul Plaza as a UC Berkeley undergrad, volunteering to work on local and national campaigns. Closing the loop at the same place felt very right.

The crowd was happy, electric, friendly, diverse; I loved seeing such huge numbers out to cheer on our first President of Color, a once (and future?) progressive, and someone who might stand up for some semblance of "San Francisco values."

Obama did well, though as happy as I was to see him namecheck Hindus, Muslims, and nonbelievers, it was equally irritating to see him gloss over our major environmental crises, suggesting "we will not apologize for our way of life." Damn straight, we'd better apologize, and start working toward more sustainable futures.

A new president's honeymoon period is lovely, before he's gotten a chance to disappoint us all. As I worry about how to hold Obama accountable on the environment, health care, and the war, it's nice to be able to enjoy a day or two of good thoughts.

B and I crossed the Pacific Ocean. Or rather, we just got to India. The longest leg of our journey was 14 hours, from SFO to Hong Kong. We slept much of the way, then watched movies (her), read (me), and played video games (us),

We bitch about plane travel--the food, the cost, the security restrictions, the poor customer service--but it's pretty amazing how things have changed. We both have family stories of relatives traveling from India to the UK by ship. It seems like another world. B's uncle did that journey sometime in the 1950s; we talk about the journey as a curiosity from the past. He flew back to India, decades later, married to a British woman; it's the marriage that people remarked on at the time, not the mode of transportation. Air travel has become utterly mundane; how else would you get around?

It's no joke that global warming is an inconvenient truth. Air travel is currently responsible for somewhere upwards of 3% of human-generated emissions, but is rising swiftly; the IPCC fears it may grow to as high as 15% by 2050. Assuming we actually want to slow down global warming, the facts seem inconveniently biased against air travel as we know it.

But what are the alternatives? We keep hearing of aviation tech efficiencies, but there's been no magic bullet yet. If there were, could we replace the entire global airline fleet in a matter of years?

Which brings me back to ships. It takes about a week and a half to cross the Pacific Ocean by freighter -- each hour by plane turned into almost a full day of travel. I'm tempted to try it sometime. It could be a way of exploring the past, or possibly a glimpse at part of an alternate future. Either way, it'd be a very different way of interacting with vast swaths of our "flyover" planet.

Offset Consumer Offset Consumer - Top providers

I've launched a new website, Offset Consumer, to help consumers learn about researching and buying voluntary personal carbon offsets. Please check it out.

After watching An Inconvenient Truth, I pulled up a carbon calculator and tried plugging in our household numbers. B and I don't own a car, live in a relatively dense city, and rarely use heat or cooling. I was shocked to discover that not only were we not low-carbon emitters, but that we were actually in the 90th percentile of most carbon-spewing Americans that year. Oh, the shame! Those pesky plane trips, most to visit family, had thrown us over the top, and turned us into the moral equivalent of Hummer drivers.

We've been working on lowering our carbon footprints, and have gotten much more involved in work to lower everyone's footprints through systemic change. But we also decided to buy carbon offsets, as part of the mix. Offsets are complicated. The more I read, the more clear it became that while offsets really do work (on a micro level), offsets products also vary wildly in quality and price--but nobody (besides the climate science geeks) are talking about it. It's been incredibly frustrating to see how little information there is out there for normal folks contemplating buying offsets.

The Offset Consumer website is aimed at reducing that information gap. It addresses questions everyone needs to know about offsets (pros and cons, and how to evaluate them), recommended carbon calculators, as well as a meta-analysis of top offset providers based on five separate carbon offset provider evaluators.

I'm particularly happy with the list of recommended providers. Building the list has forced me do more homework, and I'm confident in being able to tell folks they should consider getting offsets from CarbonCounter, a Portland nonprofit with a great mix of high quality offset products, at a surprisingly low price.

The process of researching the site has also helped me come to terms about my feelings about offsets. I started off more skeptical of offsets, but I'm now very confident that the top providers really do divert emissions from the atmosphere that would have been emitted, had it not been for the funded project. Global warming is a moral and humanitarian crisis. For those who are responsible (and I say this as someone very much in that camp), buying high-quality voluntary offsets can--and possibly should--go hand in hand with reducing personal emissions and working on better systemic solutions.

Try a calculator for yourself. The numbers may surprise you.

When I first started working, I decided to give away about a month’s income (about 8% before taxes) every year to nonprofits. Working in the tech sector during the boom, I figured I’d always have more money than time, and that I could be most useful bankrolling groups doing work I believed in.

It was relatively easy at first. My costs were low, certainly low enough to give away a bit. I think back to how freely I pulled out my checkbook at the time, and how much I gave without thinking about it. As I got older, costs started going up, and I realized that I needed to get serious saving for the future. At the same time, I realized I enjoyed volunteering, and that small groups sometimes need manpower more than they need money. The more time I gave, the more my donation rates slipped. B and I got married, we bought a house, and took on a mortgage.

As we were doing our 2006 taxes, we realized that as two white-collar working adults without dependents, we’d only given away about 4% of our income in the past year. It was embarrassingly low. (The average household earning under $10,000 a year gives away 5.2%.)

Over the past year, we’ve been working to change that pattern, giving away more to groups we already donated to (e.g. Asha for Education), and becoming first-time donors to groups we admire but have never supported financially (e.g. Stop Prisoner Rape). As I finished our 2007 taxes in April, I was happy to see that we made it to 10% in the past year.

I’m inspired by the stories at Bolder Giving in Extraordinary Times, which advocates for substantially higher levels of giving by those of us privileged enough to do so. (Which, per the Global Rich List, is pretty much everyone I know.) I’m not there yet, but it’s something to aspire to.