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?