Sunday, November 25, 2007

Nandigram links and thoughts

Last time I blogged about Nandigram and certain craven lefties in the media, Space Bar pointed me (in the comments) to Kafila, who have some excellent coverage of the matter.

Here are some more links from prominent leftists peddling the CPI(M) line: Noam Chomsky, Tariq Ali, Howard Zinn et al. ("We understand that the government has promised not to build a chemical hub in the area around Nandigram. We understand that those who had been dispossessed by the violence are now being allowed back to their homes, without recrimination. We understand that there is now talk of reconciliation.") Kafila provides an admirable takedown, signed by Mahasweta Devi, Arundhati Roy, Sumit and Tanika Sarkar, and other prominent Indian leftists, here. ; Kunal's savage response to Tariq Ali, in particular, is here. And our usual local suspects, Irfan Habib, Jayati Ghosh, Prabhat Patnaik et al have not been silent; a Kafila response to them is here.

A cynic, such as myself, will note that both the Chomsky and the Habib letters appeared in the Hindu (to which I deliberately did not link directly above). Perhaps they are the only Indian newspaper willing to peddle this rubbish. Perhaps, more insidiously, they are the only source of information for the foreign writers of the first letter. (The Chomsky letter opens: "To our friends in Bengal." If they really wanted to address their friends in Bengal, why did they choose a Chennai-based daily that has no edition published in Bengal?)

Finally, even a hard-core CPI(M) veteran like Ashok Mitra feels compelled to speak out, here. I have never found myself in agreement with his writings before, but he seems to be a rare example of a communist who actually believes that the people should come first.

There is much, much more on Kafila's site; take a look if you are interested.

My first reaction to Nandigram (and, before that, Singur) was this: why is anyone surprised?

One needs, first, to draw a distinction between the "liberal left" and communists -- a distinction that is often not appreciated even by the liberal left. Communists are not liberals in any sense of the word. They do not believe in individual liberty. They do not believe in property rights. They do not even believe in the sanctity of human life. The state is the absolute master. If one thinks of the history of communism, one thinks of Stalin, Mao, Kim Il-Sung (and his son), and numerous lesser figures. One thinks of the Gulag, China's Great Leap Backward, and the wasteland that is today's North Korea. These were only the most extreme examples of savage repression of the people in the interest of a mythical "greater good". India's democratic institutions and free press have prevented such extremes from happening yet. But it's happening now.

That said, one would hope that anyone calling themselves "liberal leftists", even if they thought of themselves as soft communists, would, most importantly, have the ability to think for themselves. Studies in the US have suggested that liberals are more open than conservatives to new ideas (sorry for not providing a better link); this very likely accounts for the dominance of liberals in academic environments. Yet we see Chomsky, Patnaik, et al. falling for the CPI(M) line, not even attempting to do their own research on the matter.

The most despicable part of the Chomsky letter is this: "The balance of forces in the world is such that it would be impetuous to split the Left." To me, "all those in the left must stand together" is just as bad as saying "all Hindus must stand together." These are alternative routes to totalitarianism, and a negation of the supposed receptiveness of the liberal mind to new ideas.

Let's recapitulate what happened in Nandigram: On January 2, 2007, the Haldia Development Authority issued a notification earmarking this land for a proposed Special Economic Zone. (It was no rumour, as the CPI(M) now likes to claim.) The people of Nandigram had already seen what happened in Singur, where land was taken by force to give to the Tatas for their small car project. They decided to resist, and took over the area by force, in the process expelling many villagers with CPI(M) sympathies. For months Nandigram remained out of reach of the state government or the CPI(M). The state government machinery was totlaly absent. Then the CPI(M) decided to act by sending in armed cadres to take over the villages by force. Bloodshed, rape, murder ensued; the state government kept out the Central Reserve Police Force until the "operation" was completed; and finally the place was back in CPI(M) hands. Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, the chief minister, declared that the villagers had been "paid back in their own coin."

Most of the country was outraged; but a section of the left -- including a self-proclaimed "national newspaper" in Chennai, certain "intellectuals" at JNU, and certain international talking heads -- declared that all was well, except for a few trouble-makers who had been taken care of. Great. Now let's celebrate.

Not even Narendra Modi dared to say in public that the victims of the Gujarat riots were "paid back in their own coin". If this is what Buddhadeb was willing to say publicly, I wonder what was said in private.

But it is fair game to communists. It has happened all over the world.

After the Tehelka sting on Gujarat, I commented that Gujarat was in a real sense worse than the 1984 anti-Sikh riots and other riots in our history, because it wasn't a one-off but "arose from an ideology that has been poisoning our lives since well before independence".

But Hindutva isn't the only toxic ideology in our midst. I do not consider Nandigram a one-off incident. It is time for our leftists to ask themselves some hard questions.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

"Why am I surrounded by idiots?"

That's the worry, at the moment, of LuboŇ° Motl. It is prompted, at the moment, by the fact that this preprint, that Motl calls "a huge joke", is attracting significant media attention.

When such "manifestly crackpot" work can cause such excitement, one is inclined to sympathise with Motl when he frets: 'Would cranks with their "theories of everything" who know less than 1% what I do and whose IQ is 45 below mine - literally an inferior species - would be placed upon us or even dictate what we can think about physics? Well, this epoch just here...'

Motl observes that the author, Garrett Lisi, is so ignorant of basic physics as to add fermions to bosons, or Grassman numbers to ordinary numbers. As he says, high school students know not to add quantities of different dimensions. So this Lisi guy must be quite a crank.

But the media quotes some well-known physicists -- Lee Smolin, for one -- as being quite excited by Lisi's work. And Abhay Ashtekar is quoted here as being receptive to the work, and unconcerned about its defects: "You have to solve problems one at a time." We're surrounded by crackpots.

Or maybe Motl missed something? Lisi thinks so.

What is this work that is causing so much fuss? It is a preprint with the bombastic title "An Exceptionally Simple Theory of Everything", placed online by Garrett Lisi earlier this month. (Its categorisation on the arXiv seems itself to have been a matter of some controversy.) The title is partly a parody of the grandiose claims that have been made by string theorists in recent times, and partly a pun on its subject matter: it deals with the E8 group, a Lie group that is simple and exceptional.

Unfortunately (or fortunately) I studied quite different areas of physics, and have only a hazy idea of what this preprint is about (much less whether it is correct). However, it is clearly not a theory of everything; Lisi himself says it is at best a starting point that may prove to be wrong.

The background is that the "holy grail" of physics, since the middle of the twentieth century, has been to unify the four "fundamental interactions" known in nature. Three -- the strong, weak, and electromagnetic interactions -- are unified in the "standard model" that has been accepted since the 1970s. Efforts to include the fourth -- gravitation -- have proven futile.

Since the late 1970s, a particular idea has taken hold among a section of the physics community: the idea that the fundamental entities of nature are not particles, but one-dimensional strings. There has never been any empirical evidence for this, but many physicists have found the mathematics very attractive, with the result that an enormous body of work on "string theory" has been done in the past three decades. Yet there is not a single testable prediction. Worse, recent results in string theory suggest that our universe may be only one of 10500 possible universes. Such a result destroys any predictive power of the theory, without resorting to the "anthropic principle" ("our universe is the way it is because if it weren't so, we wouldn't be here") -- a principle understandably scorned by many physicists. Dissatisfaction with string theory resulted in the publication of two books, Lee Smolin's "The trouble with physics" and Peter Woit's "Not even wrong", last year. These authors argued that physics was in crisis because of the over-focus on string theory for three decades that had not only failed to produce any useful predictions, but had usurped some of the best younger minds (and funding) in the process. The books upset many string theorists; Motl is one of those who took up cudgels on behalf of his field, writing savage reviews on of Smolin's book (that was later removed by Amazon) as well as Woit's book, and also attacking them on his own blog and elsewhere.

Other approaches to "quantum gravity" have been tried, with no better success; "loop quantum gravity" is one of the more popular. Smolin and Ashtekar belong in the LQG camp, that attracts Motl's hostility.

As far as I can tell, Garrett Lisi doesn't claim to have solved the problem, but he claims to have found a significant piece of the puzzle. He believes that the "particle zoo" that we know today is related by the E8 symmetry (much as the strong interaction is associated with a SU(3) symmetry and the electroweak interaction with SU(2)xU(1)), associating particles with the 248 basis elements of E8, and that this framework predicts 20 new particles that could conceivably be found by the Large Hadron Collider (thus making his theory testable). His theory makes a number of other concrete predictions, many of which agree with what is observed so far. Notably, it requires only the three spatial and one temporal dimension that we actually know; string theory requires many additional dimensions to work.

That's about all I understand of the work. I'm hoping some of my colleagues will tell me what they think.

Garrett Lisi himself is an unorthodox character: he has a Ph.D. from UCSD, but no current association with any university; he spends his non-physics time surfing, snowboarding, or doing odd jobs to make ends meet (he says, "Being poor sucks. It's hard to figure out the secrets of the universe when you're trying to figure out where you and your girlfriend are going to sleep next month."). However, he is a recent recipient of a sizeable grant from the Foundational Questions Institute, enabling him to do independent research.

If this theory turns out to make correct predictions, he can certainly expect much bigger prizes to come his way. And string theorists may need to think of changing their field.

A fun take on the story is from Uncyclopedia (which, for the uninitiated, is a sort of bizarro-Wikipedia).
(Dr Lisi purportedly says:) "String theory is something that doesn't work, for guys without charm or a personality. No romantic prospect worth talking to will take a string theorist seriously."
Dr Lisi is not fazed [by Motl's attacks]. "String theory is a dying field," he said. "I mean, it's not like they're going to reproduce."

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Goodbye, Hindu

Though we buy The Hindu out of habit (there aren't many English-language options in Chennai), I long ago stopped giving it more than a cursory read. In particular, I gave yesterday's issue a miss. But today, while blogsurfing, I came across yesterday's editorial -- easily the most jaw-dropping ever in a sordid history of craven red-boot-licking editorials by N. Ram.

You may have read about recent events at Nandigram. You may have heard that local farmers were protesting the appropriation of their land for a Special Economic Zone (SEZ). You may have heard that the recent violence was perpetrated by armed CPI-M cadres, who kept out media, activists and even the CRPF for days until their operation was complete.


According to Ram, the Left Front is appealing for peace, it is the Maoists (who remain elusive, even according to the West Bengal Home Secretary) who are behind the violence, and it is "peasant families owing allegiance to the Left Front" who have been driven out at gunpoint. The CRPF was brought in at the state government's request; presumably they were also promptly deployed (Ram does not say). Governor Gopal Gandhi, who criticised the CPI-M government, overstepped his limits.

Well, N. Ram is welcome to his alternate reality, but there is no reason why I should (literally) subscribe to it. He does not need my money; he has ample other sources.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Mouldy sandwiches

One of my favourite comments on Frank Gehry's work was from The Onion: "Frank Gehry no longer allowed to make sandwiches for grandkids".

But it turns out that there are bigger problems than weirdness: his sandwiches, er, buildings, leak and develop mould. At least, that's the fate of one particular building, that I happened to admire (or not admire) from up close just three weeks ago.