Saturday, December 30, 2006

Postcards of the hanging...

... the circus is in town.

So Saddam has been executed. Various Indian politicians have slammed this, and the Indian government had previously opposed his execution.

Not on any principled grounds, mind you, but because it would obstruct the restoration of peace. But surely that's Iraq's internal affair?

The UK has every right to be upset: they abolished the death penalty long ago, and many people there are uncomfortable that Tony Blair was accessory to the execution, by being Bush's most consistent cheerleader. (Officially, it seems, the British Government was opposed to the execution but said it was a matter for the Iraqis.)

But what about India? We are not as noose-happy as the US or China, but nor have we renounced the death penalty. At this moment, Mohammed Afzal is awaiting execution for his role in the attack on parliament, and we are mired in a debate on whether he should be executed or not. The right wing says, yes, he deserves the ultimate penalty. Some on the left -- in particular, Arundhati Roy -- argue that his part was peripheral, much of the evidence was fabricated, and he had no proper legal representation. (Indeed, the courts dismissed the police's cases against two others, and reduced the sentence on a third, but were satisfied with the evidence against Afzal). Yet others, like Prem Shankar Jha, argue (as the Indian government and politicians now argue in Saddam's case) that Afzal's execution will worsen the Kashmir situation.

It seems to me that all of them are missing the larger question: should one support the death penalty or not? My opinion is clear: it's high time we got rid of it. Even in cases like Saddam's, where there's no doubt of his guilt, it would be useful to have him around simply because of what he knows. And in lesser cases, I don't think you have to be a believer in God to think that the accused's life is not yours to take away.

But if we in India want to retain the death penalty, and impose it in the case of Mohammed Afzal (and, earlier, Kehar Singh who was accused of nothing more than conspiracy), we have no grounds whatever to protest the hanging of Saddam, who was one of the worst killers of our times.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Non-synchromeshed gears and synced lips

Some time ago, when I was in a local bookshop, the saccharine 1970s disco coming over the music system sounded vaguely familiar. I listened for a bit -- could it be? -- yes, it was -- Boney M.

And as I listened, the already syrupy sound abruptly became a bit more high-pitched. The song ended (or faded out) a semitone higher than it started.

The next song was Boney M, too. So, I believe, were the next three (though I recognised only the last one). It was Boney M day at that bookshop. And every one of those songs became more high-pitched at the end. I used to have a cassette player that would randomly speed up or slow down a little, changing the pitch up or down a semitone now and then; this was like that, except it wasn't random. It was always towards the end of each song, at the repeat-to-fade, and it was always up.

Apparently this is a known ethnomusicological phenomenon that someone with the unlikely name of Siegfried Baboon has devoted an entire website to, dubbing it the truck driver's gear change. It is something a music producer does when he wants to extend the song by another minute or so, and repeating the chorus again and again would become boring, and he can't think of any other way to vary things. Says Baboon: "This reflects the utterly predictable and laboured nature of the transition, evoking a tired and over-worked trucker ramming the gearstick into the new position..." He supplies an impressive list of offenders, in which, to my disappointment, Boney M does not figure. As you may expect, the list is dominated by the likes of Barry Manilow and Westlife, while Michael Jackson's "Man in the mirror" is cited as the champion among stomach-churning gear-changes. But there are examples from more respectable rockers such as The Who, Eric Clapton, and even the Beatles (who, surprisingly, are repeat offenders). All examples are accompanied by amusing commentary (and, in the case of the Beatles' "Penny Lane", a defence).

Back to Boney M -- as I remember, they were wildly popular in India when I was a kid (including with me), so I was disappointed to discover, when I was perhaps 12 or 13, that (unlike the other wildly popular europop group, ABBA) they weren't actually a band. They were a front of West Indian pretty faces for an individual, German music producer Frank Farian; most of the female vocals were by session singers and most of the male vocals were by Farian himself. More infamously, Farian did the same thing some years later with Milli Vanilli, where initially spectacular success was followed by a savage backlash and the withdrawal of a Grammy award.

Boney M probably avoided Milli Vanilli's fate by never actually penetrating the US market, let alone winning any Grammies. But in India, the land of the playback singer, they fitted right in during their heyday. Subsequently they seem to have quietly faded away.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Happy holidays

Christmas time is here, by golly: disapproval would be folly... -- Tom Lehrer

It's that time of the year when people celebrate Jesus in every possible way except by reflecting on his teachings. So a few words from me the atheist shouldn't be amiss.

As others have noted, Jesus was a Jewish Palestinian from the West Bank, a socialist, a pacifist, and an anti-establishment figure. The Romans crucified him; it is doubtful that today's Bushies would have treated him better.

Bertrand Russell noted years ago, in his essay "Why I am not a Christian", that he agreed with Christ "a great deal more than the professing Christians do." He cited statements like "Resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also" and advised the reader against trying that with Stanley Baldwin. I think Dick Cheney would not much appreciate being smote on the cheek either. Other excellent points that Russell cites are "Judge not lest ye be judged", ""Give to him that asketh of thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away", and "If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that which thou hast, and give to the poor." I do not expect these to form the planks of the Christian right wing's domestic or foreign policies any time soon.

These, of course, are not the reasons why Russell was not a Christian. He goes on to describe where he finds Jesus's teachings less appealing, but I won't go into that now: you can find his essay here.

In fact, I think Jesus took a bold stand against not only the Roman empire, but the orthodoxy of the Old Testament. He replaced the wrathful, vengeful, jealous God of Moses with a kinder, gentler, more loving God. Where the faithful were commanded to stone adulterers, Jesus wanted the first stone to be cast by someone free of sin. I even think it possible that some of the things Russell objected to were inserted into the gospels by Jesus's followers, who felt an inner need for the old fire-and-brimstone religion.

It is amusing that while Christian teaching, since the early Roman Catholic church, has listed the seven deadly sins as lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy and pride, the God of the Old Testament is self-proclaimedly jealous, repeatedly exhibits his wrath and pride. That's three of the seven. (I could make cases for the other four, too, I believe.)

Nobody could possibly believe, much less obey, the Bible in its entirety, regardless of what they may claim to do. But the Christian fundamentalists seem to take a perverse pleasure in adopting the oldest, most barbaric aspects, and ignoring the later, more humane teachings of Jesus.

Having opened with Tom Lehrer, I couldn't resist quoting from two other singers, describing the same Old Testament scene...

The door it opened slowly,
My father he came in,
I was nine years old.
And he stood so tall above me,
His blue eyes they were shining
And his voice was very cold.
He said, I've had a vision
And you know I'm strong and holy,
I must do what I've been told.
So he started up the mountain,
I was running, he was walking,
And his axe was made of gold...
-- Leonard Cohen

God said to Abraham, "Kill me a son"
Abe says, "Man, you must be puttin' me on"
God say, "No." Abe say, "What?"
God say, "You can do what you want Abe, but
The next time you see me comin' you better run"
Well Abe says, "Where do you want this killin' done?"
God says, "Out on Highway 61."
-- Bob Dylan

Hasta la visa

Some months ago TR described his experience trying to get a visa to a Caribbean country to watch some India-West Indies cricket.

Now, with the World Cup approaching, it looks like thousands of others will repeat his experience, with some twists.

The local universities may suddenly become very popular.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Just unlike a woman

I've been reading a lot on the net lately about women.

Christopher Hitchens, who was once a good writer and therefore still commands some attention, wrote an entire article on "Why women aren't funny". Apparently men are funny to attract women, but women don't need that because they look pretty. (Apparently, also, all women are nice-looking and no man is interested in anything except good looks.) Surely this ought to make women the final judges of what is funny. In fact, the Stanford study, which he quotes and bases his article on, says women are "swift to locate the unfunny" -- Hitchens' paraphrasing. But his conclusion is not the obvious one: instead he declares that this quick reaction to unfunniness is why they are "backward in generating [humour]". Meanwhile, he himself praises scatological jokes but is unamused by Dorothy Parker. He does admit that some women are funny, but they're generally "hefty or dykey or Jewish".

[Update: Hitch's paraphrasing is wrong too: Mark Liberman talks about it here and the original PNAS paper by Azim et al is here. Thanks to Abi for the pointer.]

Natasha has a thought-provoking post (not really gender-specific) on why we think others are more attractive than ourselves, based on a recent study, and on how fashion photographers airbrush defects from models (who have impossibly skinny bodies anyway -- I personally can't see why that should be attractive).

On that topic, here's an example of what you get if you airbrush models to make them even skinnier.

In other recent news, an Indian athlete failed a gender test after winning a silver medal at the Asian Games. Here's Scott Adams' take on that. He offers his own gender test to his readers. (On a serious note, the Gulf Times / DPA suggests that poor nutrition could be to blame by causing hormonal imbalances, and points out how traumatic it must be for the athlete at the moment; and Otis Hart observes that failing such a test may be much easier than you think.)

Which brings me to that well-known misogynist, Bob Dylan, who observed in 1987 that he "hate[d] to see chicks perform" because "they whore themselves." The interviewer asked if that included Joni Mitchell. Dylan said "Well, no. But, then, Joni Mitchell is almost like a man..."

Often, that seems to be the highest compliment a man can pay.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Paris syndrome

The French are famous for their politeness, except when they're not. According to the BBC, while tourists from Western cultures may laugh off the occasional rude behaviour, others can be overwhelmed: the Japanese embassy in Paris has to repatriate several of its traumatised citizens every year, with a doctor or nurse on board for support.

The article, like many others, alleges that the French are rude if you don't speak "fluent French". But in my experience (I lived 2 years in Paris), while they often prefer that you speak French, fluency is not a requirement. They were happy with my atrocious French and rarely even betrayed amusement. And many of them responded by showing off their English.

But I'm sure a conversation conducted in Engrish and Franglais can become a bit stressful after a while.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Let's thank Indira Gandhi for our 1990s boom

I generally read newspapers for their opinion pages, not their news. In my early days in America, therefore, I was genuinely puzzled to discover that the Washington Post (whose opinion pages hosted George Will, Charles Krauthammer, the late Michael Kelly, and other specimens of the raving right) was regarded as a "liberal" newspaper. I figured it's because they "balance" this with more centrist (not leftist) opinions, which the right-wing media there (Fox News) would never do.

Even so, I found today's editorial on the recently deceased Chilean dictator, Augusto Pinochet, jaw-dropping. The editorial points out that he ruled Chile for 17 years; he ceased to rule 16 years ago; and Chile has boomed in the last 15 years. And it somehow credits the boom to Pinochet. (It also, by the way, blames the democratically elected Salvator Allende for "creating the conditions" to be deposed by Pinochet.)

Let's all thank Indira Gandhi for the boom that began around 1991, which was undoubtedly due to her, since she had been ruling only seven years previously.

Thankfully, the Post is balanced, so includes Eugene Robinson's column as a very effective rebuttal.

(Note - I've been slow at posting because real life intervened, in the form of the next generation.)

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Dialup, it's been so long

I'm not at home, not at work. But my laptop can still go online, thanks to Airtel/GPRS. Alas, GPRS gives you dialup speeds at best, and often much worse (it depends on how heavily the mobile network is being used at that location at that time).

So after a long time I'm realising how much the modern internet sucks at such connection speeds. Some sites work well, some crawl. Guess which ones have eschewed HTML (which ought to have been the language of the web) for flash, java and other rubbish. Macromedia (now Adobe) and Sun have much to answer for.

Google and its allied sites (including, yes, blogspot) are among the worse (but not worst) offenders. That's the same Google that beat the earlier generation of search engines by offering a lean, mean, fast website. They aren't flash-heavy; I suspect all that new-fangled ajax stuff is to blame.

Some people have talked about the withdrawal symptoms such a situation gives you. Luckily, I have other (nicer) things on my mind...

Saturday, December 02, 2006

The best Bond ever

We just saw "Casino Royale" and it has the best James Bond ever. David Niven.

This is the 1967 movie, and has an all-star cast: Bond girl Ursula Andress as Vesper Lynd, Orson Welles as Le Chiffre, Woody Allen as Bond's nephew Jimmy, Peter Sellers as a Bond impersonator.

I haven't yet seen the movie with Daniel Craig, the current "Greatest Bond Ever", but I wonder why the Broccolis bothered to remake this. I suppose they wanted to correct the record.

Science as a career

I had intended this blog to be an outlet for my after-hours, non-academic side. However, Wednesday's post seems to have attracted some attention, leading to an interesting discussion, with Anant in particular. He argues that the primary aim of Prof C N R Rao's article was to attract more young people to careers in the sciences and arts, which is a laudable aim. Why don't more young people in India take up careers in science, in particular?

I think there are several reasons (mostly misconceptions) and we need to tackle those. Here's a first attempt:

  • Money
    The young may not be entranced by glitzy lifestyles on TV (at least, I don't think the majority are) but earning a decent living is still a concern. Well, science jobs can't compete with the private sector but they do pay pretty well (and they're linked to other government pay scales and come with the other usual benefits). All the scientists I know live comfortably and enjoy life. And few other careers give you the same job satisfaction and independence.

  • Availability of jobs
    If you're good, you'll get a job. All the top research institutes are expanding and eager to attract new talent. If you think, halfway through your Ph.D., that a research career is not for you, you can exit any time and get a good job -- the training will be useful. Physicists in particular have excellent job opportunities in financial institutions and other sectors that require a talent at mathematical modelling. (Note to anyone from IISc who's reading this: IT'S OK FOR STUDENTS TO LEAVE. Even if they're leaving to do a PhD elsewhere. Don't shut down programmes like the integrated Ph.D. on those grounds. First get the good students in, and then motivate them to stay.)

  • Work environment
    Many people, ignorant of science in India, asked me when I moved back here: "Isn't the work atmosphere stifling? Don't you have to do what the boss tells you? Aren't there layers of bureaucracy?" No, no, and no. There is no boss, facilities are excellent, computer systems are the best, best-maintained, and least-bureaucratic I've seen anywhere in the world. My workplace may be particularly good, but this seems to be true at all the places I've seen.

    Though faculty members don't have bosses, students (and, often, postdocs) do have de-facto bosses -- their faculty supervisors. And it is true that student-advisor relations span a broad spectrum, from excellent to absolutely awful. Still, I know students who hated their advisors' guts but enjoyed the science and went on to have good careers. A doctoral student's life is probably much more enjoyable than an apprenticeship in any other field.

  • Scientists are boring
    No. Software engineers and business executives are boring. Scientists aren't.

  • The mating factor
    Stemming from the above, this is something of an international worry (see this post for example). Don't worry, science students come in both genders, and even if you don't meet your match in the lab, there are enough bright non-scientists who are attracted to scientists (of both genders).

Anything I left out?

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Our crassly commercial youth?

Recently, Professor C. N. R. Rao wrote an article (link via nanopolitan) bemoaning the value system of young Indians. Since I happened to disagree with nearly everything he said, I sent a rejoinder to The Hindu, which I'd be surprised if they published in full (or in any form actually). So here it is, with some changes and additions for web-suitability and to accommodate 24 hours of further reflection.

Prof. Rao's is not an unusual complaint to hear these days. It never was unusual: some of the earliest deciphered Egyptian hieroglyphics are reportedly of elders lamenting the youth of their day.

Professor Rao's main worry (for which he lays some blame on the media and government) seems to be that the youth of today are too busy making money and exhibit "hardly any concern about other matters." Though much younger than him, today I am approaching what many would call middle-age, so I presume I am not the subject of his diatribe. However, I myself was a student at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) shortly after Professor Rao retired as director there. I had no direct interaction with him, but vividly remember similar attitudes from the "old guard" in the faculty there, who opposed scholarship increases (it was Rs 1800 a month at the time, and many students supported families on that money) on the grounds that we would waste it on Bangalore's nightlife. Even today, most people regard going to pubs as somehow a sign of depravity.

But let us look at a few other indicators of our value system. Professor Rao says that "India has continued to progress as one country, by and large because of our Indianness." But I find today's urban, educated youth much happier, compared with their parents, to think of themselves as Indian. The older generation tended, and still tends, to think of itself as Iyer or Nadar or Saraswat or Vokkaliga first, Tamil or Kannadiga next, and Indian last, if at all. It would be untrue to say parochialism has disappeared among younger people, but it is certainly becoming less common in urban areas. Inter-regional and inter-caste marriages are increasingly common, they wear Indian clothes and patronise traditional arts from all over India.

Except on very formal occasions, older men wore western shirts and trousers, and older women wore mass-made saris of synthetic fabric. I remember, as a child, asking older women in my family why they wanted "imported" saris (made in England, of all places) when nobody wore saris out there. It seemed absurd, and it was absurd. Today, retailers of traditional cotton fabrics -- both government emporia, and private enterprises like FabIndia and Anokhi -- enjoy booming business, among both genders. In those days, "Made in India" was a label of contempt (an attitude my elders openly displayed); today it invites respect.

Professor Rao wants us to support the arts. But the Bangalore of a few years ago was a cultural wasteland, except for Carnatic and (occasionally) Hindustani music and Bharatanatyam dance, which were patronised mainly by elderly Brahmin families. While the NCPA in Mumbai was set up to support Indian performing arts, old-timers remember that the people who ran the show regarded their main priority as Western classical music. Today traditional folk arts have undergone a revival, thanks to institutions such as the late Protima Gauri's Nrityagram which gives tremendous importance to folk dance, and Arundhati Nag's Ranga Shankara which devotes over half its time to Kannada theatre; they, and others, attract a large, enthusiastic, diverse young audience who (importantly) are willing to pay for the performance. In Chennai, too, traditional folk dance and theatre (from all over India) have increased in popularity, and the Margazhi festival no longer features only Carnatic music and Bharata Natyam to the exclusion of everything else.

After castigating the importance given to money, business deals and commercial ventures, Professor Rao argues that we need to take pride in intellectual and creative accomplishments, and adds that "one is not asking for monetary support here, but moral support..." I beg to disagree. One is asking for monetary support: I am, and so is Professor Rao, as he has done throughout his career. He is known as an institution builder: he opened several new departments in his tenure as director of IISc, and subsequently built up a new institution, the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research (JNCASR), in Bangalore. He is also known for running a laboratory, with dozens of people under his supervision, directly or indirectly, producing dozens of papers a year. These things require vast amounts of money, almost all of it from the taxpayer, and he is disingenuous to suggest that he is not asking for it. In fact, I would venture to suggest that the sciences have never been as well funded in India as they are today, both from the government and from the private sector.

An important part of our value system, at least according to our elders, is how the youth should treat their elders. But surely the treatment is a two-way matter. As a student, I treated my advisor, other faculty, and the IISc administration with respect, but on more or less equal terms. My advisor and other faculty members expected and encouraged this and treated me accordingly; some other senior officials were unaccustomed to it, but accepted it nevertheless. At the same time, I would witness some senior professors who interacted with Professor Rao (by then no longer the director, but still influential) genuflecting in an utterly demeaning manner (and Professor Rao did not seem to discourage this self-abasement). This was, again, not unusual in the older generation when they dealt with someone powerful, and such behaviour survives in our political culture today. Thankfully, in the better Indian academic institutions, such servility is a thing of the past and independence is encouraged.

If Professor Rao had opened his eyes in the past, he would have found much to bemoan, and if he opens them today, he'll find much to appreciate, in today's Bangalore and today's India.

Finally, Prof. Rao complains that the government and the media do not devote enough attention to scientists and artists, and too much to sportspersons and money-makers. I do agree that our cricketers' performance is far from commensurate with the coverage (and sponsorship money) that they get, and I'll be quite happy never to read of Aishwarya Rai or Salman Khan again (I do want to know when they run over pavement-dwellers or hunt deer, though). But I also see ample press coverage of academicians like Amartya Sen, or classical musicians like Amjad Ali Khan, when they do something newsworthy (and often even when they don't); and dozens of less eminent scientists and artists get government honours every year.

Some of the media coverage of Indian science is worthwhile, while some is decidedly dubious. I find the media, if anything, too uncritical of self-promoting charlatans. The joke about one professor in Bangalore was that, while his colleagues published in the Physical Review, he preferred the Deccan Herald.

If we don't have better science coverage, is it possibly because we don't do better science?

Monday, November 27, 2006

Scraping the sky

The first of Arthur C. Clarke's "laws" (like Newton, he decided to have three of them) was: "When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong."

Actually, when a distinguished scientist states that something is impossible, he is almost certainly right. There have been a few exceptions -- pronouncements on heavier-than-air flight, space travel, and so on -- but they've been pretty rare.

I was reminded of Clarke's law at a recent public lecture on nanotechnology by the distinguished scientist Professor Mark Welland, FRS. In the midst of talking about the potential applications of nanotechnology, he displayed the cover of an issue of American Scientist magazine depicting a space elevator, a geostationary satellite connected to earth by a cable which could be used to send payloads up to space. He complained that any undergraduate physics student could tell you why it was nonsense, and that this sort of irresponsible hype in the press had done great damage to nanoscience.

It was particularly amusing because the space elevator is a concept long championed by Arthur C. Clarke, who wrote about it in a 1979 novel, "The Fountains of Paradise". (Soon afterwards, Charles Sheffield published "The web between the worlds" based on the same device, and Clarke supplied an afterword absolving Sheffield of plagiarism and calling the space elevator an idea whose time had come.)

So does Clarke's law apply to our distinguished scientist? I couldn't think of any physics reason why the space elevator was impossible. It would require an enormously strong and light cable, very delicate positioning and carefully-monitored corrective movements of the geostationary satellite, and a counterweight at the other end. I have no doubt that the engineering challenges would be formidable. But those can be surmounted (greater problems have been overcome through the history of space science). I know of no laws of physics forbidding such a thing.

The stumbling block has always been finding a material strong enough and light enough. Carbon nanotubes could, theoretically, fit the bill, but in practice nothing close has been achieved in the laboratory. There are many other difficulties. The Wikipedia article is quite detailed and has a good set of further links (including this article on

Professor Welland is hardly the only skeptic, but his statement that "an undergraduate would tell you it's nonsense" is unusually strong. Is there a fundamental reason, that has eluded me (and many engineers and investors), that it won't work? I'd love to know. Or will Prof. Welland prove to be an instance of Clarke's law? Time will tell.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

A good example

I have only ever heard two police officers speak in public, and curiously, both were women. The first was Kiran Bedi, whom I have heard several times, beginning when I was in school. She speaks (and acts) from the gut. She was the country's first woman IPS officer, but today by no means the only one.

The second was yesterday, and the speaker (the second in the programme) was Chennai's police commissioner Letika Saran. She provided an interesting contrast to Bedi: though she spoke without notes, her words were precise, carefully weighed and measured. The topic was child sex abuse by travellers. It seemed like she wanted to make a difference, she knew the police haven't done the greatest job, but she didn't want to come out and say that (or even blame political interference).

That apart, two things impressed me about her. First, she was an hour late -- and apologised as soon as she got the podium. She made a self-deprecatory joke about it, but only after making a straight apology. Second, she used the silent mode on her mobile phone.

Trivial, I know, but both of these suggest a sensitivity and courtesy to others that is generally lacking in all our public officials, and especially our police. It sometimes seems to me that I'm the only one in the room who's getting annoyed by phones ringing during public meetings or performances, or by VIPs delaying programmes by showing up late and unapologetic. At any rate, I'm pretty sure she didn't apologise for tardiness or silence her phone because someone had previously complained to her.

I wonder how we can impress these niceties on our other public figures, or indeed on our public.

Friday, November 24, 2006

A for orange

Earlier this week I spent two days in the only large Indian city I hadn't yet visited (at least, not since I was 3): Kolkata. It was too short a trip to expect much, and most of it was spent in a hotel on Chowringhee Road. I'm not sure what I expected. I didn't expect streets littered with dying beggars (an image bequeathed the world by Mother Teresa) and I didn't find that. I did expect to hear much bong spoken everywhere (I've been surrounded by the species all my life), and I didn't find that either. Passers-by, hotel attendants, everyone seemed to be speaking Hindi. And as for the writing -- shop signs and advertisements -- nearly all of it was in English. I see much more written Tamil in Chennai, or written Hindi or Marathi in Mumbai, than written Bangla in Kolkata -- at least, in those streets I actually passed through.

I wonder what the reason is. I could only think of:
1. The advertisers there haven't yet learned that people who don't read English do often have significant purchasing power
2. People there who don't read English do not actually have significant purchasing power
3. Bengalis who don't read English can't read Bangla either.
4. Bengalis are now a minority in Kolkata.

I find (1) the most likely. At any rate, I hope that is the answer.

Unfortunately, I didn't have the chance to learn anything much about the city. But I expect the opportunity will come. At quick glance, it did look like the kind of city I can live in.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

The perfect LCD display

Since I can remember, the aspect ratio of computer monitors has been 4:3 or 1.33 (eg, 640x480, 800x600, 1024x768). This was inherited from TV, which inherited it from (old) movies.

But movies went widescreen in the 1950s, and TV and computer monitors have been (slowly) catching up. Many newer monitors and laptops have very different aspect ratios from the above. American (NTSC) DVDs are mostly 720x480 or 3:2 (1.5). This is uncommon among displays for some reason. The one I am typing on at the moment has 1280x768 or 5:3 (1.66). Some newer machines have 1280x800, or 1440x900, or even 1920x1200 (all of which are 8:5 or 1.60).

Why all this mucking around with aspect ratios -- can't they settle on one aspect ratio, or have they still not found the perfect one? I wondered about that idly today and realised that the last three ratios I gave, while not perfect, are tending towards the perfect ratio.

Oddly enough, this "perfect ratio" (often called the "golden ratio") is not a rational number. It is the positive root of the quadratic equation x^2 - x - 1 = 0, and is roughly 1.618. Rectangles with this aspect ratio have been regarded as perfect (in particular, the most pleasing aesthetically) since ancient times. Why? Well, one reason is: take such a rectangle, and draw a line dividing it into a square and another rectangle. The new rectangle has the same aspect ratio (rotated by 90 degrees).

There are several curious facts relating to the golden ratio. I'll only mention the relevant one here (referring you to MathWorld and Wikipedia for more). If you take the Fibonacci series -- 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, ... -- and take the ratio of successive terms, it approaches the golden ratio as the terms grow larger. (This is fairly easy to prove.)

Apparently the display makers are slowly rediscovering this. 1:1 or 2:1 seem to have been passed by. NTSC DVDs are 720x480 or 3:2. For some reason this was rarely the screensize: originally they went with the TV-inherited 4:3 (which, I suppose, was two 3:2's joined along the long edge). Then they found 5:3 was better. Then they found 8:5 was better. After this they'll give us 13:8 (1950x1200 anyone?), 21:13, and so on. When they reach 89:55, they'll give us 1942x1200, which is the best you can do with an integer number of pixels at resolutions comparable to HDTV.

Friday, November 17, 2006

High-energy jazz

The trouble with high expectations is that you generally come away disappointed. But not this time. Madhav Chari promised a "high-energy" performance (previewed here) and boy did he deliver. My expectations were high, but the standards of all three musicians were evidently even higher. They opened with a rousing "Our delight" (Dameron) and a more sedate "How insensitive" (Jobim), and went through a bunch of other standards (including Bud Powell's "Parisian Thoroughfares"), some of Madhav's own compositions ("Elegy"/"Rejoice", a tribute to Elvin Jones), and a highly-rearranged "Yesterday" (Beatles) with gusto. Liberated by the presence of a top-notch rhythm section (Fabien Marcoz, bass and Mourad Benhammou, drums), Madhav played jaw-dropping solos at break-neck speed. Marcoz and Benhammou kept up reliably. Benhammou seemed a tad heavy-handed at times, but was clearly listening to Madhav carefully. I haven't been at such an exhilarating concert since hearing Uri Caine at the Village Vanguard nearly three years ago (luckily, those shows were recorded).

In fact, Madhav's playing reminded me a bit of Caine: robust rather than delicate, complex harmonies and structure, often spectacular, always fully in control. Madhav is capable of being poetic too -- at his WorldSpace concert he played one of the best versions of Thelonious Monk's "Reflections" that I've ever heard -- but that wasn't much on display last night, except paradoxically right at the end, when he segued the thunderous last piece into a delicate blues (during which Benhammou did rather interesting things with his drums) -- ending with a whisper not a bang.

The audience loved it all. It was a much larger crowd than at his poorly-publicised WorldSpace concert -- not house full but quite substantial. (Which is impressive, since there was another concert elsewhere simultaneously, a jazz-fusion thing with George Brooks, Kai Eckhart, Kala Ramnath and others, promoted by the city's leading newspaper. On another day I'd have gone there. In a city that sees 3 or 4 jazz concerts a year, I wonder why the cultural bodies can't share timetables in advance to avoid such clashes.)

From here they move to Bangalore (today, Nov. 17, 8 pm, Alliance Francaise), Kolkata (Nov 18, 7:30 pm, Princeton Club), Pune (Nov 19, 7 pm, Mazda Hall), and Delhi (Nov 21, 6:30 pm, IIC). Passes needed in Delhi (available at AF), entry free everywhere else. If you're there, be there.

Thursday, November 16, 2006


In my perception, my writing style was regular British English, but an in-depth study of this article (from The Economist's style guide) obligates me to affirm just how much American English has impacted my language.

Curiously, the Economist disagrees with the Guardian on whether California should be adjectived as "Californian" or "California".

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

"Parisian Throroughfares" in Chennai

(This is a plug, in the "previews are more useful than reviews" spirit: skip to the end if long write-ups bore you.)

When people think of music and Chennai (or Madras, to use its older name), they think of Carnatic music -- the southern branch of Indian classical music. People from around the country (and expatriates from around the world) make a trip here in December, the "music season", when there are 20 or 30 concerts happening every day. These days, Hindustani music (north Indian classical music) is also finding a growing audience.

But, on moving here, I found that the city was also home to Madhav Chari, pianist, the finest Indian player I've encountered in quite another form of improvised music: jazz.

I use the words "finest" and "jazz" carefully. There are several musicians in India who claim to play jazz but don't know what it means (cf. T V Gopalakrishnan and his -- ugh -- "carnatic jazz"). There are many who play authentic jazz (eg, Frank Dubier in this city, Rex Rosario in Bangalore) but have not really succeeded in going beyond an imitation of swing-era musicians. They're fun to listen to (especially given the shortage of live jazz here) but I've heard more inspired music on the streets in Paris and in nondescript bars in New York. There are some who have tried to take their jazz beyond Louis Armstrong and give it a contemporary colour (Louis Banks in Mumbai, Amit Heri in Bangalore) but the results, to me, are dubious.

Madhav Chari is different. To begin with, he is a scholar (literally -- he was pursuing a Ph.D. in mathematics in Illinois when he decided that music is his true calling) and is well grounded both in the practice of contemporary jazz and in its history, folklore, and roots, in the blues, ragtime, New Orleans creole music, west African rhythms, and, of course, European classical music. His technique has the solidity of a classical pianist, while the music he plays is something the best contemporary jazz musicians in New York will identify with. In a word, he groks jazz.

My first introduction to him was a workshop series that he was conducting a month or two after I moved to Chennai. Subsequently I have heard him perform several times, in public and in private (including twice at my workplace). At his best he is the equal of anyone I've heard in the world; while even his least-inspired music is very listenable and thoroughly professional, never dull or careless.

He once told me that one reason he lives in Chennai is that one gets to know all kinds of interesting people here that one wouldn't in most other cities. To me, he himself is an example.

Unfortunately, apart from a trio CD that he recorded in New York several years ago, I've only ever heard Madhav play solo piano. But that will change this Thursday (the 16th), when he plays at the Museum Theatre with Fabien Marcoz on bass and Mourad Benhammou on drums. He describes them as two of the best young French jazz musicians. Which is nice. I love the sound of a trio: many of my favourite recordings are by piano/bass/drums trios, from Bill Evans to the Ellington/Mingus/Roach "Money Jungle" to today's Brad Mehldau, Uri Caine, Kenny Barron and others. So I'm really looking forward to it. (And it's free, courtesy Alliance Française.) Subsequently they're playing in a few other cities (Bangalore, Pune, Kolkata, Delhi I believe).

If you're a jazz buff, be there.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Courting crime

Prem Shankar Jha nails it about the court-mandated sealing of shops in Delhi.

I have another problem with it: Delhi is already the most unsafe big city in India, especially for women. And part of the problem is the deserted streets. When I lived in Delhi, shops were mandated to close by 7 pm, with the result that by 8 pm, even a central market area like Connaught Place would have a lonely, eerie look. (I believe shops are open a bit later now.) If the court has its way, there will be no commercial activity in residential areas, and one can imagine what it will be like for people returning home alone late in the evening.

Well, at least I don't live there any more.

Fixing it

One of India's advantages is widely held to be the service sector, and I agree. They don't greet you with a dazzling American smile and leave you with "Have a nice day", but they do their job. Repairs and servicing are prompt (hours rather than days), and generally reliable. I bought my car (a used 1999 Fiat Uno) incredibly cheap, because of Fiat's lousy reputation for after-sales service (since then, they have tied up with the Tatas for sales and service, which seems to be helping); but my unauthorised neighbourhood garage is doing a great job of keeping the car in shape. My laptop screen's backlight went kaput, and HP's service centre took a day to re-attach it and didn't even charge me (warranty had expired months earlier). When it happened again, they found they needed to replace it; they took 3 days and charged me a very modest service charge, plus the cost of the screen (which also was a fraction of what I'd expected -- about US$ 300, where I'd been led to believe it would be $1000 in the US, but no doubt that's how they sell you extended warranties).

It can get a bit overwhelming. Yesterday we went to a shop to seek advice on insect screening, and the manager talked to us at length, exploring various options, and for the most part suggesting solutions that he himself did not deal in and pointing out shortcomings in the solution that he did deal in. After a slightly surreal half an hour, we arrived at a scheme combining his material and another vendor's.

In the west, you buy cheap flatpack furniture at Ikea, load it into your car, take it home and assemble it yourself. Here, we bought a flatpack desk at Godrej (Ikea hasn't arrived here yet). They shipped it to our home, and said someone would be along the next day to assemble it. Being the DIY types, we assembled it ourselves. It was a bit trickier than Ikea stuff, but not all that hard. The next day the guy who's supposed to assemble it calls and we say we've done it ourselves. Stunned silence. Are we sure? Yes. Can he come and check anyway? No, really, we're not at home now but we've done it right. Five minutes later, he calls again. His boss wants him to come home and check we've done it right. We finally managed to convince him that he doesn't have to come.

But the annoyance at the intrusiveness is fleeting; generally, I'm grateful for the quality of workmanship here. In New York, the battery of my watch (a gift from my parents) ran out. I took it to a shop there, and the guy opened it, fiddled around, and told me that the battery is fine but the mechanism is kaput and he can't do anything. Whether it was or not kaput before, it was when he gave it back: I couldn't even adjust the time with the pin. I switched to my backup watch, put this one away and forgot about it...

...until the battery of my backup watch ran out too. By this time I was at my present location in Chennai. I walked a few metres up the road to a random watch repair guy I'd noticed earlier, and gave him both watches. He took all of 45 seconds to replace the battery of the backup watch, then opened the other one. Hm, he said. It's been tampered with, some parts are missing. Can you fix it, I asked. Sure, he said. Incredibly dexterous hands got to work, manipulating tweezers and miniature screwdrivers to take apart the thing in seconds, replacing a couple of missing parts, putting it back together, applying a microdroplet of oil here and there, and finally replacing the battery and closing the back. Good as new, and it all took about five minutes. I'm still wearing it, through rain and shine, a year later.

And what did he charge me? Rs 10 (that's under 25 cents) for the parts the New York shop stole, Rs 20 for the battery, and Rs 10 for labour. Total cost under a dollar.

More recently, I picked up a handy little keychain LED torch (this one) in Paris. It's a tiny cylinder, less than a centimetre in diameter and about six centimetres in length, with a bright white LED, focused by a lens, powered by four watch-type lithium button batteries. It worked nicely for a while, then stopped lighting up, or lit up very dimly. Assuming the batteries had run out (though they were supposed to last 100 hours) I took it to the watch guy to replace. He checked them and they were fine. But he was very intrigued by the torch (he didn't even realise that's what it was) and asked if he could look at it. After a bit of probing he figured out how to pull out the tiny little LED through the length of the tube with his tweezers, located a broken contact in the circuitry, soldered it, and put it back. It took about twenty minutes. During that time, three or four other customers came in with minor watch complaints; he spent about five to ten seconds on each of them before returning to my torch.

I asked whether he does anything other than watch repair and he said no, this keeps him busy enough. He's a youngish guy who's been doing this for about 11 years, and seems to be doing well, and having fun at what he does.

I hope they're all having fun.

Friday, November 10, 2006

A boiled bean by any other name

Bangalore is no longer Bangalore, and The Economist has an excellent take on it -- and on name changes in general.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Counting votes

As Howard Rodman points out, the media that called Florida for Bush in 2000 refused to call the Virginia race, even though Webb's lead (7000) was ten times what Bush had. And Allen has refused to concede. He wants a recount.

What is the likely error in this vote? There were 2.3 million voters. Lets say voters were equally likely to vote for either candidate, and every vote was a possible error. What would be the expected difference in votes? About 1500. (This is the standard deviation of a binomial distribution.) Even with these extreme assumptions, the margin (7000) is nearly five standard deviations away. The probability of getting that by chance is vanishingly small.

And, in fact, voters did not vote randomly. Very few votes (lets say 5%, to be generous?) would have been cast wrongly. Very few (let's say another 5%) would have been counted wrongly. That makes 115000. If these votes are assumed to be random, and equally distributed between the candidates (a fair assumption given the narrow margin of victory), the expected error is about 340. Webb's margin of victory is 20 standard deviations away.

Only if the miscounted votes were skewed in their distribution (because of voter intimidation, fraud, whatever), and only if there were many, many such miscounted votes, would the possible error begin to approach Webb's margin. I don't expect "Macaca" Allen, who wants a recount, to understand statistics (and if there was any voter intimidation, Allen probably already benefited). But what about the craven TV channels?

So I was wrong...

Though there have been reports of voting machine problems, my bold prediction did not come to pass. The election played out more or less as the opinion polls suggested. Democrats won a majority in the house and will very likely get one in the senate too. And Bush has reacted by dismissing Rumsfeld.

Now the question is: was the apparent lack of voting fraud because (a) the machines are secure and it was all a fuss over nothing, or (b) activists were sufficiently vigilant to prevent any hanky-panky, or (c) those clever guys at Diebold are biding their time, hoping for a lull in vigilance in 2008 -- when those backdoors will really be needed?

Anyway. In May 2004, when I was in New York, an American colleague congratulated me on India's throwing out the loony right at the polls, and hoped that his country would do the same later that year. It didn't, but two years later I can congratulate him after all.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Great artists steal?

One of Douglas Hofstadter's more interesting (and convincing) articles in his monthly column for Scientific American in the 1980s, "Metamagical Themas" (reprinted in a book of the same name), was on how creativity comes from variations on a theme. Most truly creative work comes from extending existing ideas.

Plagiarism is a matter of degree. Handel could get away with stealing a Bononcini tune and saying "It was too good for him -- he didn't know what to do with it". Others borrowed with acknowledgement, writing "Variations on a theme by Paganini", "Suite on themes from Carmen", and so on.

In the jazz world, a "composition" by, say, Gershwin is little more than a basic tune and chord progression, followed by variations on the same progression. Nonetheless, Gershwin is carefully credited and royalties are paid. In the bebop era, musicians like Charlie Parker took the chord changes of standards (especially "I got rhythm"), made some substitutions, played frenzied tunes on top, and claimed copyright for the resulting compositions (many of which remain standards today). Fair enough -- you have to strain to hear "What is this thing called love?" in Gillespie's "Hot house".

On the other hand, on a recent Kenny Barron CD I picked up (Live at Bradley's II: The Perfect Set), "The Only One" is attributed to Barron but, the liner notes say, is "based on" Thelonious Monk's "Hackensack". To my ears, at least, it isn't "based on" Hackensack: it is Hackensack. (The CD contains two other Monk tunes, properly attributed.) Barron's "based on Monk" caveat would have been perfectly adequate if it had been "based on Paganini", but with Monk it means the difference between paying royalties and not paying royalties.

But is it so bad? The "statement" of Hackensack -- as in any jazz cover -- is very brief, only one chorus at the beginning. Jazz solos are full of quotes from other tunes (Paul Desmond told entire stories in quotes) and aren't expected to pay royalties on that (or even attribute the source): why can't the statement of a theme be regarded as a long quote?

The dividing line between "creative borrowing" and plagiarism is evidently rather thin.

So we come to the blues -- a topic that came up in the comments on this post on plagiarism. km used the example of blues to argue that "rules of stealing don't apply the same way in music". I argued that the blues are a good example because rock musicians are, in general, careful to credit composers of blues standards, and many a blues musician who was in hard times in the 1960s received a windfall this way.

This can become ridiculous: Cream's cover of Robert Johnson's "Cross road blues" (which they called "Crossroads") was nothing whatever like Johnson's version: only the words were taken from Johnson. Lynyrd Skynyrd's version of the same song -- both the singing and the guitar solos -- was a note-for-note repeat of Cream's version (even if it took 3 guitarists to reproduce Clapton's original, and their bassist was no Jack Bruce). But the royalties from Skynyrd's recording go to Robert Johnson's estate, not to Cream.

Partly, attribution is a matter of the law, and partly it's a matter of decency. (Skynyrd did publicly acknowledge Cream in their concerts, and this is reproduced in an alternate take on a recent release of "One more from the road", so I suppose they're absolved.) Bob Dylan has been accused, rather convincingly, of plagiarising others' lines in his two most recent albums. One can argue that he produced original work that just included "samples" from other works, creatively used; but it seems to me that he should have acknowledged his sources.

How much quoting without attribution is fair, how much quoting with attribution is fair, how much constitutes plagiarism? What the Times of India does is plagiarism by any definition, surely. What Kaavya Vishwanathan did looks very much like plagiarism. Is what Dylan did plagiarism? Kenny Barron? Handel?

I close with one of my favourite examples of suspicious and unacknowledged similarity, that I've never seen discussed elsewhere.

In Saki's short story "The Seven Cream Jugs", Mr and Mrs Pigeoncote are distressed at the visit of their cousin Wilfrid Pigeoncote, a kleptomaniac commonly known as "The Snatcher", at a time when their house is full of valuable silver-wedding presents including seven cream jugs. Their paranoia leads them to look into Wilfrid's suitcase and find a cream jug there, which they assume he stole from them; and they take it back. In fact, he had brought it as a possible wedding gift, and on finding it missing, he raises the alarm that there may be a thief in the house. And it turns out that he is not the "snatcher" but another cousin called Wilfrid, a diplomat. Eventually Mrs Pigeoncote explains things, out of Mr Pigeoncote's earshot, by telling Wilfrid that her husband is a kleptomaniac.

In P. G. Wodehouse's novel "Jeeves in the offing", a subplot of the book is Uncle Tom's silver cow-creamer, and the visit to Aunt Dahlia's house of Willie Cream, who Bertie and Aunt Dahlia believe is a kleptomaniac. So when they find the cow-creamer in his possession, Bertie and Aunt Dahlia steal it back -- only to find that he had bought the thing off Tom, and now wants to find the thief. Moreover, it turns out that Willie Cream is not the kleptomaniac (Wilfred) but his brother (Wilbert). Jeeves eventually sorts it out, in Bertie's absence, by telling everyone that Bertie is a kleptomaniac.

This surely meets the Kaavya standard for plagiarism. But I think the various associations here -- "Cream", "Wilfred", "silver" etc -- suggest unconscious plagiarism (even if that excuse has been demeaned by Kaavya): a conscious plagiarist would have changed those details. Moreover, I think Saki's copyright had lapsed by the time Wodehouse wrote his book, so there were no legal issues, only ethical ones.

(Saki seems to have been a fertile ground for ideas: another Saki idea -- a short story, "The Background", about a man whose back was tattooed by an artist who subsequently became famous, so that he went through life with a valuable and coveted painting on the skin of his back -- was pinched by Roald Dahl in his short story "Skin", though Dahl's version is much more macabre. Now, is that plagiarism?)

(caveat emptor -- the last four paragraphs were plagiarised from myself, in a mail I sent someone some months ago. Great artists reused their material too.)

Scientific plagiarism is a whole other can of worms. Since it's closer to my "real world", I'll leave that for later...

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Lay Lady Day

What if Billie Holiday sang the modern poet-singer greats like Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Serge Gainsbourg, Tom Waits? That would seem unlikely, given that she died in 1959. But here's the next best thing: Madeleine Peyroux.

Her singing style is clearly inspired by Holiday, but her song selection is quite contemporary. Her blues tunes have a stronger, more rock-like beat than you'd hear from Holiday, while her jazzier selections (and contemporary singer-poet covers) have a nice swing to them. Her interpretations are original and fascinating. No casual pop singer she.

I just picked up her 2004 album "Careless Love", but her website contains complete streaming versions of all her albums (flash 8 required). Check her out.

Friday, November 03, 2006

The news we don't read

So we have heard all about Jessica Lall and Priyadarshini Mattoo, and anything else that happens to the elite in Delhi and other big cities.

So why hadn't most of us heard of this, which happened over a month ago? A search on Google News for Surekha Bhotmange throws up only three news items (two in DNA in early-mid October, and one in the Times of India on October 29), and a google web search throws up about 82 hits, very few of which are on news sites.

As Dilip D'Souza says, see the pictures. Yes, they'll disturb and disgust you, but that's the point. That's the only way to bring home the horror. I never understood why the media censors "disturbing" images.

The good part is that the internet is serving as a medium to expose these stories (apparently the mainstream national media is belatedly waking up too -- NDTV has a story today). And, if justice is done (I know that's a huge if), hopefully it will increase awareness among Dalits elsewhere in India of their rights, and recognition among upper-caste thugs that they can't get away with it.

(On another note -- it's sad that several Dalit readers on that blog are arguing for doing the same to upper-caste Hindu women. It's true that the women in that village didn't stop this, but women in traditional Indian communities are hardly in a position of power. Why must the women always be the victims?)

Many people in our prudish country object to the pictures not because they are disturbing but because they show naked bodies. So let me point out a parallel from another prudish country (which I mentioned in a post on another site). Stories of US torture in Iraq had been appearing for months in the international media, but it took the Abu Ghraib photos of naked, humiliated prisoners to actually wake up the American public. (And even then, the response was basically to punish the perpetrators in those particular photos. Everything else is ignored. If the US media hadn't been so self-censoring in its visual imagery from Iraq, the war would have been over long ago.)

Now it turns out that one of the first US soldiers to die in Iraq (the third woman, in fact, back in 2003) committed suicide after objecting to the interrogation techniques she was forced to use. I am not sure what these techniques are -- they have nondescript names like "waterboarding" -- but I'm sure a picture, or even better, a video, would be very enlightening.

Just writing "the soldiers stripped prisoners naked and humilated them" or "the villagers stripped the family naked, raped and killed them" doesn't convey the same impact as seeing it.

We need more photos, of every atrocity that happens around the country. Reading the news is not the same as seeing it.

A photo, from another generation, of a naked girl running for her life. The photographer says "At first (his editors) didn't like the picture because the girl had no clothes." But they published it around the world, and the world wasn't the same.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Et U tu?

I was going to make a quite different music-related post, but plans changed. Last night my wife and I watched a DVD of U2's Rattle and Hum. I remembered liking the album when I was a teenager, but had assumed I'd outgrown that sort of thing. I was surprised by how much I actually liked the movie. Bono's singing and playacting are a bit over the top, and I don't see why he brandishes a guitar without actually playing it (at least, not audibly). But the lyrics and delivery are honest and heartfelt and the music sounds genuine and original, if not quite what I normally listen to. (Some complaints: the BB King song is butchered, with multiple spliced segments and intervening interviews -- the only song to suffer such a fate -- and the Dylan collaborations and the Lennon tribute are omitted entirely. But the latter were pretty mediocre anyway, as I remember.)

The most striking moment was in "Sunday Bloody Sunday", a song about the violence in Ireland, when Bono breaks off mid-song to talk about the bombing that had happened earlier that day (November 8, 1987). I can't do better than quote his entire rant, as I found it in Wikipedia.

"Let me tell you somethin'. I've had enough of Irish Americans who haven't been back to their country in twenty or thirty years come up to me and talk about the resistance, the revolution back home... and the glory of the revolution... and the glory of dying for the revolution. Fuck the revolution! They don't talk about the glory of killing for the revolution. What's the glory in taking a man from his bed and gunning him down in front of his wife and children? Where's the glory in that? Where's the glory in bombing a Remembrance Day parade of old age pensioners, their medals taken out and polished up for the day. Where's the glory in that? To leave them dying or crippled for life or dead. Under the rubble of the revolution, that the majority of the people in my country don't want. No more!"

It applies beyond the Irish-American community: many so-called "nationalist" movements are sustained by expatriates. Members of the Sikh-Canadian community kept the Khalistan movement alive, Muslim communities in Europe are more radicalised than communities in Islamic countries. But Bono's speech particularly sums up what I think about Indian Americans who emigrated 20 or 30 years ago but lavishly fund fascist organisations like the RSS and its siblings, who then go and destroy hospitals in Thane or libraries in Pune or do pogroms in Gujarat. Where's "garv se kaho, hum hindu hain" in destroying the best-equipped hospital in a community and making patients jump from their beds and run for their lives, because your leader died in that hospital (and for no fault of the hospital's)? How does destroying valuable antique manuscripts in a leading oriental library demonstrate our superior Hindu culture? Above all, where's the Hindutva pride in burning innocent defenceless civilians alive, from politicians like Ehsan Jaffrey to hundreds of ordinary people struggling to make a living? And let's not have that shit about "they started it with the Godhra train". What connection did the people killed have with the Godhra train?

If the supply of funds from rich, self-styled patriotic Indians in America to these organisations were cut off, India would be a better place.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Heads up

André Carrilho, caricaturist for The New York Times, does not like Andrew Sullivan. And is not subtle in saying so.

I can't believe the editors missed the allusion, so presumably they approve.

The Republicans will win

Mark my words. In the upcoming elections, the Republicans will retain control of both houses in the US, and will very likely increase their majority. They will also win the presidential elections in 2008.

Not because the people voted for them, but because the manufacturers of the voting machines did.

This is not news: researchers at Princeton, Johns Hopkins and elsewhere have highlighted problems with Diebold machines for years (as I wrote recently). But America's craven media have refused to report on it: only now are a few reluctant articles appearing in mainstream newspapers.

Diebold's CEO was on record back in 2003 saying he was committed to delivering Ohio's presidential votes to the Republicans. There's no reason to think that commitment has changed.

Yes, people do unintentionally write buggy software and make defective hardware. But to screw up on this scale requires malice. There is no mistake in what Diebold are doing. It's all going according to plan for them, except for the occasional squawks of protest from researchers at east coast universities, that Diebold figure they can safely ignore.

After all, what can the skeptical eggheads do? The best they can do is mount a legal challenge, and hope it goes all the way up to the Supreme Court -- the court that originally voted Bush in.

UPDATE: Why tamper with the machine? Just say the Democratic candidate's full name won't fit on the screen and leave out his last name (but leave in his nickname, so he's now James H. "Jim").

I'll believe that's an accidental error when it happens with Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

The SF delusion

So does God exist? Suppose you, a humble mortal, find yourself inadequate to answer that, what do you do? You go to some of the great minds of our times.

Newton, of course, believed in God. So did Einstein, though his God may have little resemblance to the figure in the Old Testament. Very well, what's good enough for them is good enough for you, you say.

(Pascal had a good argument for believing: there may or may not be a God, you may or may not believe in Him, but you can only lose if there is a God and you don't believe in Him.)

Then Richard Dawkins comes along and not only argues persuasively that there's no God, but writes a book called "The God Delusion" to explain why not. (Watch him explain it to a mock-sceptical Stephen Colbert here.)

Then the ghost of Paul Erdős comes along and says, "Well, I don't know about God, but what about the Supreme Fascist, eh? Someone's out to get me, hiding my glasses and stealing my passport."


Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Hitch and hiked deaths

Christopher Hitchens is a pretty good writer -- erudite, insightful, witty -- until the topic becomes Iraq. Then he loses it. Unfortunately, these days the topic is generally Iraq.

This week (yes, I'm late to the party) he takes aim at The Lancet for publishing a recent peer-reviewed study from Johns Hopkins on excess deaths in Iraq since the invasion, poking fun at their "imprecise" figure; he's as ignorant of statistical sampling as he is of missile technology ("Not that there are any non-ballistic missiles" -- strange that the Iraq war hawk should be ignorant of guided missiles). Similar to the side-swipe that I just made at him, he takes a swipe at a letter to the editor that Lancet published some years earlier, on excess deaths of children due to sanctions.

After that, it gets a bit murkier: I really can't understand what he's saying. The few claims he makes that I follow -- such as that the occupying forces "issue regular statistics" on civilian deaths -- seem risibly naive. But mostly he doesn't make any claims at all, only insinuations, and it's hard to tell what those are too.

Why waste time on Hitchens? Because he used to be a valuable and entertaining writer and has done useful work in the past, including exposing such people as Henry Kissinger and Mother Teresa. (I wonder why more people never asked the obvious question: how did the good Mother spend those millions of dollars she received from prizes and donors over the world, and why didn't some of that money go into improving medical facilities at her hospices?) And he's still capable of taking accurate aim, with entertaining results, at the Catholic church and other easy targets when he feels like it. But he could have been a relevant writer. If he hoped, by defecting from the left (a defection I'm quite in sympathy with), to become more in tune with the new American century, it hasn't worked. He used to be amusing; now he's a joke.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

The bad old days

My last post was on how electronic voting machines have changed India's election culture, and "booth-capturing" and "ballot-stuffing" have ceased.

Yesterday, in my city, local elections were held the old-fashioned way -- with ballot papers -- and this was the result.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Pushing the wrong buttons

Once upon a time, any election in India would be accompanied by "booth-capturing", "ballot-stuffing", and other unsavoury incidents; and the declaration of results would be accompanied by allegations from the other side of theft and fraud. Then India's elections went electronic: after extensive testing and local use for 10 years, the 2004 general elections were entirely conducted on electronic machines, and were the most peaceful and least contentious ever. The world watched and applauded.

Once upon a time, the US was the beacon of democracy. Then in 2000, the presidential election took ten days of wrangling and a Supreme Court vote to decide. Embarrassed by the international coverage of butterfly ballot papers and hanging chads, the US decided to go electronic too. But the 2004 elections were among the most contentious ever, especially in Ohio. And all signs suggest that future elections will be worse. Why?

For one thing, there's the main manufacturer of these machines, Diebold. Its CEO wrote to Republicans in 2003 that he was "committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the president next year." (He later said he didn't mean it that way.) Subsequently there have been numerous questions raised regarding the security of these machines. Recently, Edward Felten of Princeton University and his colleagues infected them with a virus that could silently change voting results. A little earlier, they showed that a commonly-available hotel minibar key could be used to physically open a Diebold machine. And that's just in the past month. Earlier, Avi Rubin of Johns Hopkins had made several devastating critiques of e-voting security, Diebold's in particular; an archive of his observations is here.

Robert F. Kennedy, Jr, has written two recent articles in Rolling Stone, arguing strongly that the 2004 election was stolen, and that the next one will be, too.

And now it seems the US is not the only country facing problems with electronic voting. Brazilian campaigners are worried about aspects of their system, and now there are reports that Nedap voting machines used in the Netherlands and France can be programmed to steal votes too.

So why is there such a lack of controversy in India? It's all to do with the sort of voting machines in use. The above countries use special-purpose voting machines that are really full-fledged computers, with RAM, hard disks, touch screens, networking capabilities, PCMCIA, peripherals, Microsoft Windows, and yes, security holes including viruses. The Indian machines are basically adding-machines: externally they just have 16 buttons (one for each candidate, but up to 4 machines can be chained together if there are more candidates), and internally they have no operating system; all their software is hard-wired on a sealed microprocessor that cannot be rewritten or replaced without damaging the machine. Moreover, the voting machine does not store vote tallies: a separate control machine does that.

This blog posting (from 2004) goes into more details. As Slate (and others) noted at that time, sometimes a pencil is indeed better than a high-tech pen.

Monday, October 02, 2006

How many links in a foot?

Just got over with tiling the house. Plenty to say about that, and we've been saying it on email, so here I'll restrict myself to just one of my numerous pet peeves, that extends beyond this project: why, nearly 60 years after the sun set on the British empire, are we still stuck with imperial units in India?

For the most part, we do use metric units: distances are in kilometres, weights are in kilograms, and so on. But a few things, like body temperature, body height, and surveying, are still in the old units.

So we needed to buy four boxes of tiles for skirting, each containing four tiles. All tile shops price their tiles "per square foot". But these tiles are "20x20", i.e., 20 inches to a side. So how many square feet are 4 boxes of 4 tiles each? Quick now! Of course, he reached for his calculator, and after several fumbles, got an answer I had obtained with pencil and paper: 44.44 square feet.

Is that the answer? Not exactly: though the shops and the contractors are stuck in British days, the manufacturers have in fact gone metric. So these tiles are not 20 inches to a side, but 500 cm -- half a metre -- to a side. If you account for that, the true answer is about 43.05 square feet. Of course, we didn't think of that in the shop.

Now let's see how that would have worked out if the price were in square metres. How many square metres to a tile? A half squared, that is a quarter. How many tiles to a box? Four. How many square metres to a box? One. How many square metres in N boxes? N. How many pushes of calculator buttons needed to do that? Depends on whom you ask.

When will these people decide that their lives would be simpler if they used the same units the rest of the world (excepting one, but including our former imperial rulers) use -- the same units that the manufacturers use?

Or maybe it's a scam: they call the tiles 20x20, rather than a quarter square metre, to be able to overcharge by about 3%.

Well, that was actually the least of our annoyances in the exercise, but at least the job got done and the result looks fairly good. Could have been better, could have been much worse.

Oh, by the way: according to Wikipedia, there are 1 17/33 links in a foot.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Cryptic script

The Thirumailai (Mylapore) station of Chennai's elevated train system (MRTS) has this sign pointing out their reservation centre. (Despite what it says, you don't reserve computers there: you reserve seats on trains.)

The sign is in Tamil, English and... what's the third language?

My guess is it's an encoded insult to Hindi.

(photo credit: my wife krithika)

Monday, September 25, 2006

Beyond chutzpah, Indian style

Every few months I receive, generally from some well-meaning but unthinking source, a mail claiming that India's national anthem was written in honour of Britain's King George V. Today's version begins "Did you know the following about our national anthem, I didnt (sic)" and ends "Please dont(sic) break the chain lets see how many people are coming to know about it" which suggests that it may have started life as a joke. Indeed it would be a joke if it didn't show up in my inbox (and on numerous websites) with such regularity. As it is, it proves my contention that right-wingers have absolutely no sense of humour, irony or subtlety.

The true story, well described here, is that Tagore was asked to compose a song in the King's honour in 1911 when he visited Calcutta; and he did write this song for that occasion. But the song is certainly not in the British king's honour. It basically flips off the king by proclaiming that there is a higher deity that rules the land. But I suppose this point is too subtle for some.

It is exceedingly distasteful that Tagore, one of the greatest figures India has produced, a man who was associated with the freedom movement for decades, should have his patriotism questioned by the sort of scum who destroy historical archives and wreck hospitals, descendants of the scum who assassinated Gandhi. And it is repugnant that such rubbish continues its way around the world's inboxes, forwarded by, as I said, well-meaning but unthinking people.

Meanwhile, over in the new world, Bush, who used his father's influence to avoid combat, can persuade his people that Kerry, the Vietnam veteran, has a dodgy war record. I wonder where the right-wing, everywhere, gets such chutzpah.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Dylan recording in modern times

So yesterday I picked up Dylan's(*) latest CD, the one that has been getting rave reviews and even topped the charts in the US.

My reaction? First -- the sound is every bit as bad as Dylan complains ("Atrocious... these songs probably sounded 10 times better in the studio when we recorded 'em.") Except that he blames it on modern recording technology and, in particular, on CDs, which he says "are small. There's no stature to it."

No, the medium is not the problem. I have a few hundred CDs and most of them, whether originally recorded in the '30s or the '00s, sound excellent -- as does a lot of live audio (in particular, the soundboard recordings) that you can pick up from places like The problem in Dylan's case seems to be an excess of reverb and echo (it sounds a bit like Phil Spector's disasters from the 1970s) combined with a "flattening" of the dynamic range, so that all the instruments, and Dylan's own voice, have roughly the same volume. As a result it all sounds indistinct and muddy -- or, in Dylan's words, "no definition of nothing, no vocal, no nothing, just like ... static." Dylan should get himself some new sound engineers.

Musically the band is competent. It seems extreme of Dylan to call them "the best band he's ever had" (what about The Band?) but they do their job well. And the words? Mostly they're reworkings of old folk and blues tunes (and I don't see why Dylan can claim music-writing credit for "Rollin' and Tumblin'", but maybe he figured that nearly all twelve-bar blues songs have the same tune anyway).

And the lyrics are disappointing. First, I find it hard to follow them by listening, and second, even if I "read along" (on the web -- my CD booklet did not contain lyrics) they don't seem to mean anything. "Visions of Johanna" didn't seem to mean anything either, but it seemed to speak directly and insistently to its listener. Not these songs. Taken as poetry, they're pretty bad, and the messages seem pretty naive too. ("There's an evenin' haze settlin' over town / Starlight by the edge of the creek / The buyin' power of the proletariat's gone down / Money's gettin' shallow and weak / Well, the place I love best is a sweet memory / It's a new path that we trod / They say low wages are a reality / If we want to compete abroad"). While it doesn't plumb depths such as 1983's "License to kill" ("Oh, man has invented his doom / First step was touching the moon") or his late-1970s born-again music, it doesn't soar to any particular heights either.

Comparisons are odious, so I'll be odious. The other elderly poet-singer enjoying a renewed burst of activity is Leonard Cohen, who released his last album ("Dear Heather") in 2004, and followed it up this year with a book of poetry ("Book of longing") and an album where he doesn't sing or perform but contributes lyrics (Anjani's "Blue Alert"). Most of "Blue Alert", and much of "Dear Heather", really is poetry set to music, and in songs like "Undertow" and the title song from Dear Heather he says more in a stanza than Dylan does in ten.

Cohen tells a story of how he and Dylan were sitting talking in a cafe in Paris; at that time Cohen had been impressed by Dylan's "I and I" (in fact he's an outspoken admirer of Dylan), while Dylan had been performing Cohen's "Hallelujah" in concert. Dylan asked Cohen how long it took him to write "Hallelujah", and Cohen said two years. Then Cohen asked Dylan how long it took to write "I and I", and Dylan said 15 minutes.

On this occasion I wish Dylan had taken a bit longer over his lyrics.

All the same, this is probably his best album since "Desire" thirty years ago.

(*)update - I mean Bob, of course

Friday, September 22, 2006

Blogging musicians

Sometime back I found an official Neil Young anti-war blog. I was impressed for a moment, but it appeared that he did not himself blog there, though it was "officially" his. (And for some reason, the most recent post is dated May 2007.)

More recently I came across David Knopfler's very lefty blog. David is no Mark, having extricated himself from Dire Straits after an early Communiqué, but his music (available at his myspace page) seems pretty listenable.

I came across David's myspace page by way of Anjani's. David is the brother and one-time backing guitarist of a well-known musician with a sandpapery voice; Anjani is the girlfriend and long-time backing singer of another musician with a gruff (or, as he puts it, "golden") voice, Leonard Cohen. More to the point, Anjani has recently released a fine album, Blue Alert, that combines Cohen's moody lyrics with her own tunes and musical arrangements: minimalistic jazz, mostly just her piano, a relief from Cohen's own recent pop-synth arrangements. Outstanding stuff. Other reviewers have said that she sounds like a female Cohen or that Cohen's voice (though it doesn't actually appear) "permeates the album like smoke", but I think she brings a quite different dimension to his words. (Compare, for instance, this version of "Nightingale" with the one on "Dear Heather".)

I don't know whether Anjani blogs, but she apparently reads and posts to them, actually getting into an amusing discussion with a reviewer who expressed his desire to bed her (simultaneously with two other female singers). LC himself chips in at one point.

I look forward to more from LC and Anjani. More music I mean, but the blog exchange was fun to read, too.

Monday, September 18, 2006

A scandal in Philadelphia

Today I came across this news (well, it's some weeks old, but I didn't know until a blogger friend linked it). A professor emeritus at Wharton, one of the top business schools in the US, was arrested on paedophilia charges.

The remarkable thing is that he's been in trouble before: he was caught in a sting operation in 1993, did not admit guilt but acknowledged the evidence against him, and in 1999 was sentenced to five years probation; the judge opined that he would "respond very appropriately". Indeed he did: this time he supplied even better evidence, in the form of mini-DVDs depicting himself engaged in sex acts with children.

I can picture the conversation with his lawyer. It would sound like Holmes and the king in "A scandal in Bohemia":

"How are they to prove you're a paedophile?"
"There are the trips to Thailand."
"Pooh, pooh! Academic research."
"My laptop."
"The videos on it."
"The mini-DVDs."
"I was in the mini-DVDs."
"Oh dear! That is very bad!..."

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Far-out resort

Recently I attended a meeting held at one of the numerous swanky new resorts that surround Indian cities these days (in this case Bangalore). It was bright and shiny with several "quirks". Well, quirky is cool, so here are some advertising lines they could use:

- Be different: Their shower taps turn the opposite way of every other tap in the world: clockwise to open, anticlockwise to close. Makes it easy to scald yourself if you feel the urge.

- Farm-fresh drinks: Some of India's best vineyards are in the neighbourhood, and the brochure suggests going out for "vine-tasting", particularly recommending "a glass of red vine" with lunch.

- Let it all hang out: Almost, but not quite, hidden by the bed and the bedside table was a hole in the wall from which numerous wires were trailing under the table. We noticed only as we were checking out though, so no sniffer dogs were called in.

- Get high on pot: The toilet seat was uncomfortably high, and sloped backwards: it felt a bit like riding a horse.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Two cities

One more visit to Bangalore, one more trip to a watering hole after a day's work, one more inevitable turn of conversation comparing Bangalore (where I spent 6 years as a student) with Chennai (where I live now).

The plus points of Bangalore are obvious: the weather, and the watering holes (the sort you can sit around in having a good time). The former Chennai can't compete with. As for the latter, Chennai has its share but they tend to be either expensive or illegal, and that's thanks to the politicians. It's not a prohibitionist city -- far from it -- but the trade is government controlled, and only the larger hotels can get alcohol licences. And the government-run shops only sell the cheapest and ghastliest junk.

(For those who haven't heard of Chennai, it used to be called Madras until the politicians got at that.)

In addition, Bangalore has a greater concentration of high-quality academic institutions than any other Indian city. This was its claim to fame long before it became an international synonym for outsourcing.

So what, I was asked, are the plus points of Chennai? Off-hand, I could come up with two -- the beaches, and the relatively disciplined traffic. (I couldn't have imagined saying this two years ago when I moved there. Chennai's traffic is horrendous. It's a mess, it's maddening, it's chaos. But it is far better than Bangalore and Delhi, the two Indian cities I visit most often.)

But it goes beyond. Chennai, I think, is a nice mix of relaxed-ness (like Bangalore 10 years ago) and happening-ness. You get good films, good theatre, good music, good food. Infrastructure is stressed, like in all Indian cities, but not at breaking point like in Bangalore. Roads are good, electricity is fairly reliable. And perhaps for all those reasons, there's a bunch of very interesting people living in the city, that I'm just beginning to get familiar with.

And the weather hasn't turned out so ghastly after all. It's pretty bad for about 3 months in the summer, but I work in an air-conditioned office and my home gets a good sea breeze in the late afternoons and evenings. And as for the monsoon rains, Chennai handled them much better than Bangalore or Mumbai last year.

Come to think of it, I'm happy about Chennai's weather: if it had been like Bangalore's, the city would have been choked worse than Bangalore years ago.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

W and music

Today I picked up a CD from my shelf that I hadn't listened to in a while, and was struck by the resemblance between Chet Atkins and someone else.

And some time back Jon Stewart commented on another connection between Dubya and music... [update - it's about 4 minutes into the thing]

Saturday, September 09, 2006

The Duke

Some days ago I mentioned Duke Ellington's "The great Paris concert" with bonus tracks that I had finally tracked down. The bonus tracks, which were all I'd heard earlier, were even better than I remembered--incredible solos such as Johnny Hodges on "Things ain't what they used to be", Cootie Williams on "Echoes of Harlem", and others, coupled with perfect big-band arrangements--but the actual album was mind-blowingly good. This is not an artist in the twilight of his career---he is at the peak of his powers (as his other 1960s albums attest).

It is interesting to contrast Duke Ellington and his contemporary Louis Armstrong. These are the two men the most responsible for jazz as we know it today. But while Louis remained solidly rooted in the Dixieland/Swing era, loved and respected till the end but not blazing any new trails after the 1930s, the Duke kept re-inventing himself every few years. Tunes like "Cotton Tail" foretold bebop before it happened. As his tunes acquired lyrics, he became the first significant non-Broadway contributor to the "Great American Songbook". In the 1950s, when he seemed to the general public have become irrelevant, he grabbed the world's attention with the blazing "Diminuendo and Crescendo in blue" at Newport. In the 1960s, he recorded a traditional-sounding album with Louis Armstrong, avant-garde albums with Charles Mingus and Max Roach and with John Coltrane, and much else---including this Paris concert album.

OK, that was somewhat incoherent. Perhaps I'll blog in the mornings on weekends.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

When a cultural critic blogs

The spectacular fall of Lee Siegel, cultural critic of The New Republic.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Unicode: whats the problem?

One of my pet peeves is the lack of standardisation of Indian-language fonts on the internet. No, let me correct that. The standard exists: it's called unicode. But hardly any Indian-language sites (at least, Hindi and Tamil---I haven't looked at others) use it. I can only think of the BBC news site and Wikipedia, and I doubt very many Hindi or Tamil readers read those regularly. The rest of them use their own arbitrary fonts, mapped sometimes to the encoding of Windows fonts (CP-1252), sometimes not; no two fonts are substitutable. (Hm---I just checked and saw that Navbharat Times does use unicode. But Dainik Jagran, Ananda Vikatan and many others do not.)

I'm not quite sure who is to blame for it. I generally assumed that it's the Indian government and academic bodies who failed to set standards, or tried to push half-baked standards like ISCII. but according to the Unicode Consortium's own FAQ, Unicode and ISCII correspond almost directly (the FAQ explains the minor differences), and the ISCII standard goes back to 1988. So why did all these websites choose to reinvent the wheel, poorly?

Meanwhile, today's Hindu has an article on Tamil character encoding: apparently some Tamil users are unhappy at the current encoding, which uses only 8 bits. I would have thought 8 bits is plenty for a language with 18 consonants, 12 vowels and a few other letters. But the speakers are unhappy that syllables (like "kA", "கா") need to be printed by combining consonants and vowels ("க" + "ா"), which allegedly can cause "delays during data processing". (I should note for readers unfamiliar with Indian scripts that the second character above, "ா", is not a raw vowel but an modifier to the previous consonant; the vowel by itself would be "ஆ". "கா" is conceptually a single syllable, not two letters. But this seems hardly a practical problem.)

The delays-in-processing claim makes little sense to me. Naively I'd have thought that an eight-bit font would be more, not less efficient to deal with. In fact, the Unicode site has a FAQ specifically debunking this and other claims.

I suspect that the problem is the usual mindless competition with the Chinese: they have access to 32767 characters via UTF-16 and still want more, so why shouldn't we? Quoth the article,

"The Chinese government succeeded in gaining space for more than 27,000 Chinese characters by threatening to develop its own 16-bit encoding, Ponnavaiko, director, SRM Deemed University said."

So does Dr Ponnavaiko, who believes that 8 bits don't suffice to support 30-odd distinct characters, want us to threaten to develop our own, incompatible encoding? We tried incompatibility before, and it's a mess. Now we have compatibility, and it is better---to the extent that people use it. It works out-of-the-box on any software that supports unicode if the system has an appropriate unicode font installed (which is nearly all newer Windows, Mac and Linux systems and software), and is used on an increasing number of websites. What's the problem?

Of course, I'm well aware that newspapers are not the best at reporting technical matters, and if some expert out there does know about problems with the existing Unicode setup, I'm very interested.