Saving Atheism from New Atheists

The problems in the Middle East stemmed, not from imperial meddling in an oil-rich region but from Islam itself, a faith that resulted from (and then fostered) delusional thinking. On that basis, Hitchens was increasingly able to ally himself with the worst elements of the American right while insisting he remained a progressive.

You can see how the argument works. If belief in God stems from intellectual inadequacy, then all believers are feebleminded – and the most devout are the most feebleminded of all. All religions are bad but some religions – especially those in the Middle East, by sheer coincidence! – are worse than others.

In the name of enlightened atheism, you thus arrive at an old-fashioned imperialism: the people we just happen to be bombing are simple-minded savages, impervious to reason and civilisation. That was the secret of Hitchens’ success: he provided a liberal rationale for the “war on terror”.

You can proclaim you’re an atheist, a freethinker, a devotee of the enlightenment – and yet somehow still end up backing rightwing Christians like George W Bush and Ben Carson in their campaigns against the Muslim hordes.

Source: The Guardian. An excellent op-ed discusses the strange contradiction among ‘new’ atheists to focus solely on Islam as a way to understand terrorism in the Middle East without seeming to play right into the hands of the neo-conservatives.

I’ve been meaning to write on my thinking on why blaming some writing in a book for all the violence in the world is giving the terrorists an easy pass especially without acknowledging the non-violence of its other adherents. I’ll do that soon.

An entire industry has been built on the premise that creating gourmet meals at home is simple and effortless. But it isn’t true.

Nothing Left to Learn

Twitter is rapidly approaching that point where you no longer learn anything new from or you can no longer teach anyone new. Twitter’s quarterly report may suggested that growth has stagnated but I knew that a long time ago when my follower count seem to hover ~1700. Spambots follow and unfollow within a span of few days. I get the ocassional new ‘real’ follower but I still engage with the same old people that I have for the past few years.

Plus, everyone seems to be dead-set in their ways so much so that I was recently accused of not understanding what ‘scientific method’ is and it was by someone who has known me (online) for at least ten years now. Also, when I start hearing things like, “I know with certainty everything there is to know about this issue”, I know that person has stopped learning and is no longer open to new experiences or knowledge. Accuse the other person of being ‘too liberal’ or ‘too rightwing’ and you can call it a day on Twitter.No amount of reasoned discussion is going to change minds there. You wake up everyday and learn of a new outrage especially in India and you’re now just fed up.

But you can do something about it. Evaluate your priorities. Know that it’s not important to be aware of every ‘breaking news’ unless it is happening within a mile of you. All news within 24-48 hours of any major news event is eventually found to be wrong or misleading anyway and you’ve just spent precious brain cells jumping to the wrong conclusions or have simply solidified your pre-determined narrative that your brain now refuses to undo after the corrections roll in. You may call yourself a political junkie but there’s a difference between being aware and being obsessed with every little flap of the theoretical butterfly hoping that it will eventually cause a hurricane.

I’m re-evaluating my priorities as I write this and I won’t wait till the new year to implement my resolutions. It may or may not work and it may affect some friendships as well but judging by my blogging experience, I’ve known those to be always ephemereal. There are always plenty of avenues to learn new things and plenty of other people to learn it from. Those people don’t even have to know you exist to learn from them.

Have a safe Thanksgiving.

There have been plenty of horrific incidents lately wrought on by ISIS. People of Paris, Beirut, and in otherwise on a continual basis of Iraq and Syria have been devastated by these wanton attacks. You may hear plenty of opinions on Twitter, Facebook, and on blogs but be mindful that no one really knows anything. Karan Azar on Quora gives us a little peek into why these issues are so complex. Not about why these attacks happened. Or what should we do to prevent them. People have opinions and they’re in their right to express them but if someone claims to tell you that they know what the terrorists want or what we should do so they don’t want it anymore, run. Let the dust settle. Don’t make any decisions in haste and better still, don’t pop off with words you may come to regret later.

The Land of the Blue Smoke

Shaconage, or the land of the blue smoke as the Cherokee Indians called what we now call the Great Smoky Mountains. Straddling the state lines of Tennessee and North Carolina, this most-frequented National Park in these United States, is literally that. If you stand atop Clingman’s Dome, the highest point in the Smokies, you can look out at miles of forests over old hills and the creeping civilization beyond. The mist rising from the valleys of the mountains has a distinctive blue tinge. The fall colors start from the top of these mountains and move to the lower heights as the season progresses like a time-lapsed Mexican wave of reds, yellows, orange, and greens. Somehow, we seem to have made a tradition of heading out to parts of the country with great fall colors every couple of years so this didn’t feel all that new. Still wonderful and glorious but not new.

We timed our long-overdue vacation for the fall season mostly for two reasons; one, obviously to take in the splendor of autumn that Texans are bereft of, and two, to avoid the madding crowds of the families with school-going children. In addition, we chose to time our visit on weekdays because with its proximity to several high-population centers, this park draws visitors in droves over the weekend even during the off-season. It turned out that was a prudent move because we learnt later that roads were packed the weekend we left. Even leaving earlier than usual in the mornings will help you escape the slightly-late risers. The car line waiting to get in at Cades Cove as we exited made us thank our stars for getting there early. We had learnt a lesson the previous day when we ran out of parking spaces near a popular hiking trail and had to park half a mile away.

View from Newfound Gap

The best way to take in the Smokies in a short time, is to drive through it. At a leisurely speed. You can go north-south on US-441 or otherwise called the Newfound Gap Drive or head west to Cades Cove on the Little River Road or east on a very short loop called the Roaring Fork Motor Trail. There are numerous trailheads along these roads that you can pull off and head into the forest. Either way, if you visit during autumn, the fall views are astounding wherever you look and after a while, you just have to stop trying to capture it all on your camera. The dappled light on the trails with various shades of green and red or the bright hills mottled with warm colors will not get old. To take it all in a longer time, well, you just have to stay for couple of weeks and hike a trail every day. There are trails as short as 0.5 miles and as long as 12 miles; not all are destination hikes, some are simply journeys unveiling a different version of fall and chances to come across bubbling creeks. You can sit on make-shift wooden log benches or stones cleared of moss and gape at the beauty around you or continue deeper into the forest to seek even more wonders.

View from Roaring Fork Motor Trail

Wildlife, I think, is smart to keep away from trafficked areas in the park and those that do venture, are often attracted by availability of easy food. Once a bear or an elk is spotted, hordes of people gather around with their smartphones pointed at the animal without any regard for safety. Thankfully park rangers are quick on the scene to prevent foolish people from getting too close. We encountered couple of black bears and elk but from a safe distance. The missus had been wary of running into them while on a trail but I’m sure such instances, given the crowds, are rare.

Farm at Cades Cove

Talking about crowds, the park at this time of the year is full of retirees toting fancy camera equipment gear; patiently setting up their tripods and clicking long exposure shots of the streams. You’ll rarely encounter families with children and even if you do, most with toddlers trying to push up a stroller on a trail. We wish them luck mentally and thank our stars that our kid prefers to walk everywhere. We haven’t used a stroller in six months. By the end of the trip, according to our pedometer app, he would walk nearly 20 miles and climb an altitude of 1,500 feet over three days. Not bad for a budding hiker. As long as he doesn’t go ‘into the wild‘, it’s good practice for a lifetime of adventures across the wonderful vistas that this country affords. Back to the old folk; it’s admirable that most are well into their 70s and even 80s but are walking up and down the trails as much as we are. Some are with grandchildren but most are with people their own age, all thanks to Medicare, I guess, that allows them the luxury of spending time and money on things other than healthcare. Also, missing are people of color. We went three days without seeing a black or Hispanic family and encountered only two Asian or Indian families. National Parks unfortunately, are still domains of white folk.

Photographers at Roaring Fork Motor Trail

Although there are only so many places you can go, every turn of the road presented a different vista and variedly so at different times of the day. It hadn’t rained a drop while we were there but the gushing streams along the Roaring Fork trail or the Lynn Camp Prong Falls road would make you think you’ve just missed a downpour. While we could easily spend more days hiking around, we had to get back to work and our lives in Austin. As we drove through the park one last time early Friday on our way toward Atlanta, we were presented with a glorious fall morning at the Newfound Gap and few minutes later at the Ocanaluftee Visitor Center on the south entrance that truly caped off a great vacation. Even a herd of elk came up to the road to bid us farewell. Or they were simply welcoming the weekend visitors.

Morning at Newfound Gap in Smoky Mountains

Morning at Oconaluftee Visitor Center

Until next time. More photos for your perusal here.


In India, people—especially when they are your elders, relatives, or close friends—tend to feel that by thanking them, you’re violating your intimacy with them and creating formality and distance that shouldn’t exist. They may think that you’re closing off the possibility of relying on each other in the future.

[Source: The Atlantic]

A few outrage cycles ago, this story on Atlantic made the rounds on Twitter. Obviously, Indians were pissed off at the implication that we’re not thankful or express our gratitude to people. However, I think people misinterpreted the article and I can see the point that the author was trying to make.

In India, most informal transactions that do not involve money rely on the implicit and often unsaid understanding that if I do a favor for you, I can count on you in the future to return the favor. Also, you do favors only for people that you consider your friends so introducing any formality often clouds that interaction. This is true especially within a family.

As much as it is obvious to say that you are thankful and yet you will be there for them in the future, saying ‘Thank You’ and especially in English, suddenly makes it sound like a deal that’s concluded. The person whom you say thanks, interprets it as if you’re no longer in their debt. Additionally, people often consider it their duty to help others out and if you thank them in explicit terms, it diminishes their help at least in their eyes. You’ve suddenly robbed them of the joy it gives them when they help others even though like giving for charity, it is for a ‘selfish’ reason.

That said, not thanking anyone for the help they provide is very different from not actually appreciating their help. At times, even saying thanks may help. But cultural differences help you understand why continuously thanking others, like it sometimes happens in the U.S., may not go over so well in the desh.

Jon Stewart may be irreplaceable…and that’s just fine. #JonVoyage

A New Addition to the Family

We have been considering getting another dog for a while. But at the same time, being responsible for one more individual in the household especially when things get uncertain have been deterring us. The least we could do was to restart fostering pets. We fostered for more than a year before the kid was born and found the experience immensely rewarding. Since the kid was growing up, we weren’t sure about adding another unknown variable into the mix but now that he’s four and acts responsibly, we thought of giving it a shot again.

We contacted Austin Pets Alive and subscribed to their mailing list where they send out requests for fosters. We are selective about the breeds and sizes we want to foster due to Lucy and our home size. Both of us also work full-time and the kid goes to daycare so the dogs must be crate-trained as well. Sadly, there are a lot of pitbulls in the shelter but as much as sorrow we feel for them, we cannot foster pitbulls. So we keep looking. Finally, one day we came upon a request for a temporary pet-sitting for an adorable chow-chow mix. His foster parents were leaving on a vacation and wanted one of the volunteers to temporarily care for him. Although he was larger than we would’ve liked, we agreed and got Leo for two weeks.


Leo turned out to be the cutest and the friendliest dog we had the pleasure of ‘fostering’. He was a chow-chow mix and we think the mix part [1] won out as there wasn’t an iota of meanness to him and he had this habit of rolling over as soon as you start to pet him a little more vigorously. Lucy, as usual, ignored him and then tried to play roughshod with him in her own inimitable style but he couldn’t care less and was actually a little wary of her although he outsized her three times over. We had steeled ourselves to not fall for him but when it was time to return him to his original foster, Ash was all tears on the way home. It didn’t help that the foster family saw how much he loved us and dropped enough hints trying to make us adopt him permanently.

Our vacillation lasted all of two days as we decided to adopt him and bring him home permanently. We filled out the paperwork and had no troubles being approved. A week later, our family had one more member.

  1. either labrador or golden retriever []

Beware of Phishing Attacks

The majority of the time your online accounts get ‘hacked’, it is because of social engineering more than technical vulnerabilities. This is applicable for normal folks like us and obviously high-value targets face the full ‘brute force’ of the technical attacks. Social engineering hacks or ‘phishing’ makes you believe that the communication mostly via email is from a person you know and trust and it makes you click a link in the email that will further ask for your login details. Once you enter those in, bam! They’re in.

Yesterday, I got an unusual email from my dad [1]:

Phishing Attack

Fortunately, it rang plenty of alarm bells when I opened the email. First, the tone of the email was casual and if you know my dad, his emails even with his sons are extremely formal. Even the ones he sends as personal emails start and end very officiously.

Second, it asked me to click on an allegedly Google Docs link. My dad (and his assistant) are barely able to use email let alone Google Docs. Sometimes I wish they were more technically savvy but in spite of trying several times, I haven’t been able to teach him. In fact, his email is operated entirely by his assistant and we communicate with him via his assistant (we call her Maushi so it’s not that formal of an arrangement). He dictates his email to her and she types it out and sends it to us. Third, if it was some kind of official work, he would call me and tell me about it several times within the span of that call. This email was way too short to be anything from him. Finally, if you hover over the link in the email, it doesn’t point to Google Docs and also, the To: field in the email was blank indicating the use of BCC: My brother confirmed that he too got the same email and so did another family friend.

Anyway, my suspicions were confirmed when I directly called his assistant and told her to change their email password. Obviously, she hadn’t sent the email. But I learnt something more scary. Couple of weeks ago, my dad had received a similar email (except it asked for money to be wired) purportedly from my brother. But instead of calling him first, they exchanged a few emails with the spammer and only when it got a little too suspicious[2], did they call my brother. However, the spammer correctly targeted my dad’s fondness for wanting to send money even when we explicitly always tell him that we don’t want any. Luckily, he did not send any money but I’m sure he must’ve clicked some link in the email that may have given them access to his address book. It must be similar to the script that lets Twitter/Facebook/LinkedIn to import your address book.

This post is just meant to warn you to not trust any email containing links from your personal contacts especially if it sounds a little suspicious. Always call or Whatsapp them to first confirm whether it really came from them. The few minutes (or hours) you wait for their reply may end up saving you a lot of trouble.

  1. the screenshot is from my Spam folder where the message now resides []
  2. they wanted to money to be sent within India whereas my brother is currently in Canada []

How the little things in design matter.

Six Months of Cooking Experiments

I usually don’t make New Year resolutions but I decided to give it a shot this year and deliberately didn’t announce it. I wanted to try out cooking various recipes beyond the usual desi fare. We have diversified our home cooking; so much so that we cook desi food less than half the time now. Of course, my wife is the primary cook in the family and I try to cook at least a few meals during the week including one of the weekend breakfast. However instead of cooking regular meals, I decided to experiment and try out certain recipes that we eat outside but have never tried cooking at home. I focused mostly only meat dishes since we enjoy our non-vegetarian fare although my wife has forced me to add sides[1], that make the plate more green.

I relied primarily on the excellent NYTimes Cooking app and used Paprika app to store recipes from other websites. I tried to mix up various meats such as beef, pork, chicken, lamb, and even some seafood. Of course, the possibilities are endless and I’m just getting the hang of making slight modifications to the recipes. For now, I follow the recipes to the tee and instead focus on technique. If nothing else, you should invest in a good kitchen knife, a big cutting board, and a heavy cast iron skillet. Also, I not only focused on cooking a good meal but also plating it well enough to make it visually appealing. I documented my efforts on Instagram; sometimes even the process especially with steak that now I can cook well with comfort especially without using a grill. Jamie Oliver’s Dress-the-board steak is one of my favorite recipes; very simple, quick and yet extremely delightful.

Anyway, here are a few of the dishes that turned out well. There were a few others that tasted great but weren’t visually appealing for Instagram. I’m looking at you, Rhubarb Skillet Chicken.

Rack of lamb (partial) with naan and salad

A photo posted by Pratik Mhatre (@pcmhatre) on

Spicy chicken liver masala

A photo posted by Pratik Mhatre (@pcmhatre) on

The perfect pork chops?

A photo posted by Pratik Mhatre (@pcmhatre) on

Continuing our Greek week with grilled Branzini

A photo posted by Pratik Mhatre (@pcmhatre) on

Steak with shiitake mushrooms tossed in chimichuri

A photo posted by Pratik Mhatre (@pcmhatre) on

Braised short ribs #CookingExperiments

A photo posted by Pratik Mhatre (@pcmhatre) on

Dress-the-board bone-in ribeye to kick off the weekend. So good.

A photo posted by Pratik Mhatre (@pcmhatre) on

That's how I Valentine! #ScrewRoses

A photo posted by Pratik Mhatre (@pcmhatre) on

Cast iron skillet steak

A photo posted by Pratik Mhatre (@pcmhatre) on

Moroccan lamb shank Tagine

A photo posted by Pratik Mhatre (@pcmhatre) on

Feel free to drop any gems of wisdom that you may have gained in your cooking experiments.

  1. broccoli, brussels sprouts, asparagus, roasted cauliflower, french beans, mashed potatoes, etc. []

“Roof’s belief that black life had no purpose beyond subjugation is “sick and twisted” in the exact same manner as the beliefs of those who created the Confederate flag were “sick and twisted.” Ta-Nehisi Coates does not mince words when it comes to describing the true history of the Confederacy.

“Every day, 164 people move to Austin, Texas, the nation’s second-fastest-growing city. The next morning, they all get in line at Franklin BBQ.” It’s official. Austin is America’s next great food town.

Horrific account of post-partition targeted violence and how “the riots fatally undermined any trust Pakistani leaders may have had in their Indian counterparts.”

“Code has been my life, and it has been your life, too. It is time to understand how it all works.” An excellent primer into understanding code, algorithms, software, programming, and all the everyday jargon that you were afraid to ask but always wanted to know. It’s a long piece at 38K words but take your time to savor every bit, pun intended, of it.