Tuesday, December 30, 2008

How dare a lawyer represent him?

Not long ago, some brave thugs of the Shiv Sena gheraoed the house of a lawyer and pelted it with stones for his crime of being willing to represent Ajmal Kasab, a Mumbai terrorist. Every criminal may be entitled to a lawyer, but the Sena boldly declared that no lawyer should take up his case.

According to today's TOI, the Chief Justice, K G Balakrishnan, has now declared that it would be difficult to convict Kasab if he is not provided with a lawyer by the lower courts: "He cannot go unrepresented during the trial. If he does, then under our justice delivery system it would be regarded as a vitiated trial."

So will the Sainiks demonstrate their thuggish bravery by gheraoing the Chief Justice or pelting stones at his house? I anxiously await the answer.

Monday, December 22, 2008

In praise of Y V Reddy

Joe Nocera of the New York Times says (with quotes from several top Indian bankers) that the man responsible for Indian banks still being afloat is our "anti-Greenspan", the "irascible" former Reserve Bank of India governor Y V Reddy.

“He basically believed that if bankers were given the opportunity to sin, they would sin,” said one banker who asked not to be named...

Unlike Alan Greenspan, who didn’t believe it was his job to even point out bubbles, much less try to deflate them, Mr. Reddy saw his job as making sure Indian banks did not get too caught up in the bubble mentality. About two years ago, he started sensing that real estate, in particular, had entered bubble territory. One of the first moves he made was to ban the use of bank loans for the purchase of raw land, which was skyrocketing. Only when the developer was about to commence building could the bank get involved — and then only to make construction loans. (Guess who wound up financing the land purchases? United States private equity and hedge funds, of course!)
Seeing inflation on the horizon, Mr. Reddy pushed interest rates up to more than 20 percent, which of course dampened the housing frenzy. He increased risk weightings on commercial buildings and shopping mall construction, doubling the amount of capital banks were required to hold in reserve in case things went awry. He made banks put aside extra capital for every loan they made. In effect, Mr. Reddy was creating liquidity even before there was a global liquidity crisis.

Did India’s bankers stand up to applaud Mr. Reddy as he was making these moves? Of course not. They were naturally furious, just as American bankers would have been if Mr. Greenspan had been more active. Their regulator was holding them back, constraining their growth!

Read the whole thing. I'm not an expert but if it is even partly true, Mr Reddy deserves our thanks and applause. Standing up to the lobbying powers and armtwisting of big businesses in India cannot be any easier than it is in the United States. But unlike Mr Greenspan, Mr Reddy had clearly not been a devotee of Ayn Rand in his youth.

(By the way, if anyone thinks today's Greenspan-bashers are benefiting from hindsight, take a look at this 2000 article by Ralph Nader. Also see this recent article by Arianna Huffington, taking apart the "Who could have known?" argument being thrown about by uncontrite regulators and politicians.)

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Good to be wrong

A few days ago, I wrote about Rahul Dravid: "In the best scenario, he will answer all skeptics at Mohali with a match-winning innings (or two), but somehow I doubt that will happen."

I'm glad to have been proven wrong. (It is too early to call it a match-winning innings, but he and Gautam Gambhir have almost certainly made the match safe.)

Monday, December 15, 2008


Dilip looks for sincere answers as to why the Mumbai attacks were condemned across the political spectrum and have spurred our leaders to action, while much worse atrocities in the past (in terms of numbers of lives lost) did not get the same reaction. (The answers he gets, so far, are sadly predictable.)

The Washington Post notes that in the case of an Iranian court ordering a man blinded because he blinded a woman with acid, few are protesting the appropriateness of the punishment. I noted my own ambivalence in a blogpost a few days ago. More recently, police have shot dead three acid-attackers in an "encounter" in Andhra Pradesh, and while some activists object on principle to such encounters and police action, most of the public applauds. But why do other commonplace crimes against women -- even murder -- not get the same attention?

I think Sherlock Holmes had it right. When Watson, a veteran of Afghanistan who had seen his own comrades "hacked to pieces" there, wondered why an individual murder (in A Study in Scarlet) upset him more than that war, Holmes remarked: "I can understand. There is a mystery about this which stimulates the imagination; where there is no imagination there is no horror."

In the above cases, it is not the mystery, but the circumstances, that stimulate the imagination. A faceless riot victim, or 3000 of them, does not stimulate most of our imaginations. (The face of Qutubuddin Ansari, widely reproduced during the Gujarat riots, did however create a widespread impact.) But the Taj? A gunman photographed stalking CST? We could all imagine ourselves there. And if we can't, the news channels dinned it into us in real time, over 36 hours. Similarly, random brutalisation of women does not impact the imagination, but an acid victim's face does.

When we are forced to ask ourselves "How does it feel?", and try to answer that question, then we are moved to words and, hopefully, action. Otherwise we ignore it all and get on with life.

End of the Wall?

India's win today against England was impressive; India now has two of the four highest winning fourth-innings scores in history. Sachin, who some have claimed does not contribute adequately under the pressure of chasing (in fact, of his 41 centuries in Tests, this was the only one that occurred in the fourth innings of a game that India won), and Yuvraj, who many doubted was suited to Test cricket at all, saw India through, scoring an unbeaten 103 and 85 respectively.

But I wonder what Rahul Dravid is thinking at the moment. His form has entirely deserted him since late 2006: his few high scores have been gritty and quite unpretty. Before being out for 4 today, did he think he had the ability to play India into a winning position, if not actually see India through? (After Sehwag's innings yesterday, India was more or less obliged to try for a win today, though the ask was more than twice as large as the previous best 4th-innings chase in Chennai.) Having got out for 4 (to no great harm done), does he feel that he has it in him to contribute a good score in the next Test? If the answers to these questions are no, can he, in good conscience, allow himself to be selected and play? And if he plays and does not measure up, what do the selectors do next? His loss of form has lasted two years, and at his age, a temporary dropping until he recovers his form really does not make much sense.

Rahul Dravid has been one of our all-time greats and deserves a send-off on a high note. However, as many pointed out in Sourav Ganguly's case, a befitting send-off is possible only when the player recognises that the time is right and shows a willingness to go. Is the time right? In the best scenario, he will answer all skeptics at Mohali with a match-winning innings (or two), but somehow I doubt that will happen. If not, it is for him to make the call on continuing to play, and I hope others will not have to make it for him.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

On responding to criticism

First (via Space Bar): William Radice's review of "The Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Indian Poets", edited by Jeet Thayil.

Second (via Nilanjana Roy): Jeet Thayil's response.

I left my opinion of the response as a comment on Nilanjana's posting, so I won't repeat myself here. Short summary: it bothers me. Radice's review of the book is generally positive, but he wonders a bit at the subject matter and style of most of the poetry on display. Thayil's response seems, to me, quite intemperate in comparison: he ignores all the positive comments in the review, raises strawmen arguments ("orientalism") that have nothing to do with what Radice was actually saying, issues a non-clarification (prefixed, for good measure, by an "of course") to Radice's observation that Indian modernism predates independence, and accuses him of a "preoccupation" with Bengali writing and being a Bengali "apologist", and suggests that Radice's expertise in translation into English -- which surely requires an excellent command of poetic English -- makes him unsuited to reviewing English-language poetry.

What is it about Indians and criticism by non-Indians? Why are we so quick to accuse them of orientalism, quaint nostalgia, patronisingness, reductionism, and who knows what else? But perhaps I should be happy that there are no explicit accusations of racism or colonialism.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

On his triteness

I wrote the following about 8 years ago (the last line was written first, and the rest followed fairly naturally), and I sent it to a few friends who could see what I mean; now I feel the urge to put it out, with a bit of tinkering. Why now? Like its subject matter, it was an exaggeration, even at the time; and I have since changed fields and no longer feel quite as irrelevant. But it still contains some truth. There is enormous excitement in modern molecular biology but I sometimes wonder whether scientific standards are being upheld consistently in the process.

Nonetheless, please do not construe this as serious commentary. That may follow sometime, but not now.

With those disclaimers, here goes...

When I consider how my life is spent
Ere half my days in this bright world of science,
With assumptions, handwaving, and reliance
On toy models that aren't worth a cent,
In hopes that a paper will soon be sent
To PRL, to Nature or to Science,
Or if nowhere else, perhaps, in defiance,
To a conference or such event:
When funding agencies murmur, "What use
Is it?" I point to goals lofty and high,
It sounds better when I exaggerate.
When experts tell me, that does not excuse
My lack of rigour: to them I reply,
They also research who only speculate.
(2001, revised 2008)

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Two articles on Ajmal Amir Kasab, the Mumbai terrorist

The first is from The Observer (the Sunday edition of The Guardian, UK), which confirms that he is indeed from a village called Faridkot, in Pakistan, and even supplies the national identity card numbers of his parents. It's a remarkable piece of investigative journalism in the face of local denial and official hostility.

The second is from the Times of India, on Kasab's present lifestyle. As a content-free fluff piece it surpasses any I've seen recently. And I sincerely hope the TOI reporter got something garbled in writing: "A Special Branch officer gets to taste Kasav's fare -- because it's feared he might be poisoned." The implications if this is true -- that the Indian side can't find a trustworthy cook, or that they would rather see a Special Branch officer die than a terrorist -- are staggering.

Why is it that even on stories of national importance, like this one, we need to depend on the international press for our journalism?

Monday, December 01, 2008

Different attitudes

What is your reaction when you see the headline "Court orders Iranian man blinded"? I know mine was "typical medieval barbarism".

What is your reaction when you then click on the link and read that the man's crime was blinding a woman who spurned his advances, by throwing acid on her? Mine, to be honest, was: "Well, at least the Iranians care about crimes against women, then."

Here's an article by Nicholas Kristof on the "personal" terrorism of acid attacks. He focuses on Pakistan, and mentions Afghanistan and Bangladesh, but it's not unheard of in India either.

A daughter's story

As long as such people are around, there is hope for the country. A must-read. (Seen on dcubed).

Thursday, November 27, 2008

What to do?

It seems very likely that the perpetrators of the Mumbai attacks came from Pakistan. I don't believe for a moment that ordinary Pakistani people, or Asif Ali Zardari, condone this sort of thing, but it seems clear that they are not in control, whatever Zardari's official designation -- and nor was Pervez Musharraf. Indeed, Pakistan has been a much bigger victim of terrorism, as in the recent attack on The Marriott in Islamabad.

Pakistan's domestic terrorists were certainly encouraged by their establishment, who did not foresee -- or did not care -- that one day they would turn on their own country. But that is not very relevant anymore. The terrorists continue to be supported by elements of Pakistan's intelligence agencies, even if not officially, and that is certainly relevant. The question is, where does one go from here?

Barack Obama has talked of going into Pakistan to root out the terrorists, but he had the northwest in mind, which is largely not under the Pakistan government's control. These terrorists very likely come from -- or are supported from -- Karachi, the city where Daniel Pearl was killed, and there is no way to go in there without actually declaring war on Pakistan; and I'm not sure we in India want that in our backyard. Besides, it will solve nothing and will create a mess ten times worse than Iraq.

Pakistan is become dangerously close to a failed state, and we -- India, and the international community -- cannot afford to let it fail. Demonising the entire country, or invading it or trying to bomb it into oblivion, is the surest way of letting the jehadis win. Strengthening civil society and the civilian government is the only long-term solution. At one level, these are internal problems of Pakistan, but at another level, the consequences are being faced by all of us.

Mumbai again

Recent terrorist attacks in Ahmedabad, Bangalore, Delhi seemed low-tech affairs: crude but powerful bombs placed in crowded areas. Easy to do and impossible to prevent. What happened in Mumbai seems altogether different. These terrorists were well-armed and well-equipped, and the whole sequence of attacks seems to have been planned well in advance. It is certainly a failure of our intelligence, as well of the security systems in place at the hotels concerned (it is much harder to enforce security at a crowded railway station like CST). It seems clear that this is a larger and better-connected group than whoever set off the previous bombs.

In other news, the England cricket team has called off their tour. I wonder why they didn't leave England when the London underground was bombed in 2005, or when the IRA was wreaking havoc in the 1980s. Life must go on and the terrorists must not win -- unless they're someone else's terrorists.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The other side of the Christianity/Science fight

Apparently some people think that if Christian conservatives cannot justify their opposition to an idea via a consistent argument, it cannot be repugnant. Here's William Saletan on whether we should clone Neanderthals:

If we do this Church's way [using a chimp mother], I don't see how conservatives can object. They didn't object last year when scientists announced the cloning of rhesus macaque embryos. That, too, was the creation of nonhuman primate life. Follow the human lineage three branches beyond the primate order, and the rhesus macaques are still with us. Follow the human line two more branches, and the chimps are still with us. One more branch, and you're down to us and the Neanderthals. If it's OK to clone a macaque and a chimp, it's pretty hard to explain why, at that last fork in the road, you're forbidden to clone a Neanderthal.

How about because it is (almost) the last fork? Neanderthals were probably almost as intelligent as us, and no longer exist. What would it be like for the cloned creature, alone and an object of curiosity and experimentation in an alien world? Isaac Asimov tried to answer that question in his short story "The ugly little boy" (Wikipedia summary; the original is probably not online, at least not legally). It is one of the most moving short stories I have ever read.

For that matter, I also dislike experimentation on chimps, for reasons that neither Christian conservatives nor people like Saletan are likely to fathom. Unlike people who believe in a Biblical view of the world, it seems to me -- and anyone familiar with modern biology should agree -- that there is no sharp dividing line between humans and other primates, or between primates and other mammals. We draw the lines arbitrarily: what creatures we may eat, what creatures we may experiment on. Chimps and other primates are, it seems to me, too close to humans for comfort.

This framing of the ethics debate in terms of fundamentalist Christianity has problems on both sides. Everyone in the west, apparently, implicitly accepts the Biblical position that humans are different from other animals, and animals exist solely to meet our needs. Neanderthals were not the same species as us; ergo, we may do as we like with them. Non-Biblical religions, in particular Buddhism and Jainism, would not argue such a position.

And if it is OK to do this with Neanderthals, how about humans of lower intelligence, or humans of other races? We have been there and don't want to go again.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Old-style music

A few weeks ago I picked up a cheap, portable turntable (a Numark PT01, meant for DJs) on a trip to the US, and a pile of ancient LP records from my parents. So now I'm listening to them and transferring them to my hard disk, and plan to clean up the transfers a little and burn them to CDs. The kid has been listening to some of the same LPs that I heard when I was his age.

There is no doubt that LPs have an immediacy that CDs lack. You hold the LP in your hand and can actually see where the music goes on the grooves. Place the needle on the groove; needle goes up and down, tracing the waveform of the sound; that movement gets converted into an electrical signal, which gets equalised, amplified and sent to the speakers. Compare that with an explanation of the digital signal processing in CD playback. And you can see the thing spinning around, and if you stand close, you can hear the "direct" sound emitted by the moving needle. I placed the machine high, out of the kid's reach, but now every time I play it he wants to be lifted up so that he can see it.

And they sound good -- even the badly worn ones that sound as if there's a rainstorm in the background. (What's wrong with imagining a rainstorm in the background while the music's playing?) But I suspect I say that because I grew up with LPs and have a nostalgic fondness for that sound. What does one make of those audiophiles who claim the best-made LPs sound better than the best-mastered CDs? CDs have no background noise, vastly better dynamic range, and can accurately reproduce every sound audible to the human ear: those who argue that a few samples per period at high frequencies is inadequate merely expose their ignorance of the Nyqvist theorem. And though the amplitudes are discrete (with 65,536 possible values), that is capable of better accuracy than what LPs can achieve. As a clincher -- my subjective impression of a "nice sound" was achieved by piping the audio through my computer, where it was digitised, and out again: so the audio that went out to the speakers could not have been better than what CDs can achieve.

(However, it is true that many CDs are mastered these days with a deliberately compressed dynamic range, which makes them sound dreadful. I talked about this some time ago, in the context of Bob Dylan's complaints about the "CD sound". The fault is with the industry, not the medium.)

So nostalgia takes me only so far: all the LPs are being digitised. For those who have a turntable and a computer and would like to convert their vinyl disks to zeroes and ones, here's what I do:

  • Use an external USB audio device: I find results noisy when I use the internal soundcard of the computer. I use a Griffin iMic that I picked up some years ago when the sound card of the laptop I had then stopped working.
  • Connect the output of the LP to the input of the computer (ie the input of the USB device), and the output of the computer (USB device, though this is optional) to the amplifier. Note: my turntable comes with a pre-amp (with equalisation) as well as a volume control. Most internal soundcards have mic-level inputs, which are very sensitive and will saturate with pre-amplified signals; raw "phono" (magnetic cartridge) signals will be OK but will need equalisation. The Griffin iMic has a setting for line-level input, which I use. Also, many turntables these days come with USB output, which I assume will work will.
  • Start the recording program; I use audacity. I set the input and output sources to the USB device and ask it to duplicate input to output.
  • Start recording, play the LP, stop recording.
  • Save the resulting sound (in WAV format).

And what I haven't yet started doing: clean up the results (scratch removal, etc), though not too aggressively; split into individual tracks; save; burn to CDs. For all this too (except the burning part) I plan to use audacity, but I haven't got there yet.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Strange similarities

For some reason yesterday an old recording popped up into my memory. It's of Jean Sablon singing "Rendez-vous sous la pluie" ("Meeting in the rain"), and was on a Django Reinhardt compilation cassette that I used to have (Django plays guitar on that track). Not only do I not know where the cassette is, I don't even have a cassette player anymore. So I went online and found it on YouTube:

My reactions were: 1. Nice song. 2. Django is a pretty good accompanist. 3. Doesn't it sound familiar? In particular, doesn't it sound like this?

The YouTube page says "Rendez-vous sous la pluie" was written by Charles Trenet and Johnny Hess in 1936 (and is corroborated by other sources, such as this obituary of Trenet), while "Singing in the rain" (the song) dates to at least 1929, and possibly earlier, according to Wikipedia. Yet there is a striking similarity, at least to my ears, in the tune of at least the first two lines of the songs. And, of course, in the titles. Inspiration, or something more?

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Scrabble back on top: the irony

Apparently Scrabble is now Britain's best-selling game, for the first time in decades. And the article credits, among other things, the popularity of Scrabulous (though the spokesperson for Mattel, noticeably, doesn't.)

Let's recapitulate the Scrabble story:

  • As a game it is decades old. My great-grandfather brought back a set for the family, in the 1960s, that my grandparents still own. My parents bought one in the UK in 1980, that they too still own. We bought a set here the other day, of which more below.

  • It is curiously fragmented in ownership: in the US and Canada it is owned by Hasbro, and in the rest of the world by Mattel, by virtue of their purchasing J W Spears, the original creators of the game.

  • As with so many old British things -- Morris/Ambassador cars, Enfield bikes, P G Wodehouse, Agatha Christie -- the game stayed popular in India long after other games surpassed it in its country of origin.

  • A couple of years ago, two brothers Agarwalla from Calcutta created an online application, Scrabulous, that proved an astonishing success, particularly in its facebook version. The popularity, as a secondary effect, boosted sales of the board game.

  • Predictably, the owners of the Scrabble trademark (specifically, Hasbro, the US owners, as well as Mattel, owners in India and elsewhere) were upset and sued to stop Scrabulous. Facebook buckled and removed Scrabulous, but the website remained available.

  • Soon afterwards, the Delhi High Court ruled, very sensibly in my opinion, that though Scrabble is a trademark and Scrabulous is confusingly similar, the rules of the game itself could not be copyrighted and the Brothers Agarwalla could resume service under a different name.

  • Perhaps anticipating all this, the Agarwallas had in fact already created a similar game, Wordscraper, that differed from Scrabble only in the absence of the blank tiles and in the fact that it permitted a customisable board. Wordscraper remains available on Facebook.

  • Subsequent to the court ruling, Scrabulous resumed service under the name Lexulous. As of now, it has not returned to Facebook. I am not sure about the reaction of Hasbro and Mattel. My guess is that they want Lexulous shut down too, and don't care about the increase in sales: to them, it's the principle of the thing.

  • There is now an official Scrabble application on facebook. In fact there are two: one by Hasbro and available only to users in the US and Canada, and one by Mattel available only in the rest of the world. So I can't play with friends in the US. But that's ok, because the interface is dreadful, and Lexulous is available.

Footnote: Interest being re-piqued, I am one of those responsible for increased Scrabble sales in India. We bought an official board, in a handsome box reminiscent of the one my parents bought years ago, for Rs 599. Alas, the board in the interior is unbelievably flimsy and ugly-looking. Better results would have been obtained with a colour printer and some cardboard purchased in a local shop. I regret having contributed to Mattel's coffers, and have promised myself not to do so in the future. I hope the Agarwallas see the opportunity here, and produce a board-game of Lexulous that is more solidly built than Mattel's pathetic offering; I think there will be a good Indian market for it.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

The "eat local" fallacy

There is a growing movement in the west to eat locally-produced food (grown within, say, 100 miles of your location) on the grounds that it is allegedly better for the environment. Here (via Andrew Sullivan) is an excellent takedown of that viewpoint, showing that freighting of food contributes negligibly to emission of greenhouse gases, and hothouses in temperate countries are far worse offenders. Sample quote:

Local food production does not always produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions. For example, the 2005 DEFRA study found that British tomato growers emit 2.4 metric tons of carbon dioxide for each ton of tomatoes grown compared to 0.6 tons of carbon dioxide for each ton of Spanish tomatoes. The difference is British tomatoes are produced in heated greenhouses. Another study found that cold storage of British apples produced more carbon dioxide than shipping New Zealand apples by sea to London. In addition, U.K. dairy farmers use twice as much energy to produce a metric ton of milk solids than do New Zealand farmers. Other researchers have determined that Kenyan cut rose growers emit 6 metric tons of carbon dioxide per 12,000 roses compared to the 35 tons of carbon dioxide emitted by their Dutch competitors. Kenyan roses grow in sunny fields whereas Dutch roses grow in heated greenhouses.

Nevertheless, organic food activists in Britain's Soil Association argued for lifting the organic certification from Kenyan food exports because they are brought into Britain on airplanes. Some high-end British retailers have begun slapping a label featuring an airplane on various food products to indicate that they have been air freighted. Kenyan growers cannily responded by launching their own "Grown Under the Sun" label, pointing out that their agricultural production methods emit far less greenhouse gases than many crops grown in Britain do.

A die-hard response to the above studies would be: Don't eat either British or Spanish tomatoes out of season; don't cold store apples, dry them in the sun instead; don't ever eat dairy products; and give your true love a bouquet of in-season root vegetables for Valentine's Day...

However, they only peripherally touch on how this issue relates to food production in developing countries. Here is a key issue that has always bothered me -- in India, where we have practically non-existent cold storage and food freighting facilities, produce rots rapidly, and a good crop is paradoxically bad news for the farmers. Year after year we read of the throwaway prices at which farmers are forced to sell their mangoes, tomatoes, onions, or whatever it is; and of course, at times of scarcity prices shoot through the roof. Those mangoes would be welcomed in temperate countries (or, indeed, in other parts of India where the glut didn't happen), but there is no way to get them from one place to another without rotting.

It is undeniable that produce tastes best when fresh, but cold-stored vegetables and fruits are better than none at all. Food miles are enforced on us by our lack of infrastructure, and it seems obvious to me that they are bad both for our farmers and for our consumers.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Is the US still behind the curve?

The most common refrain about the Obama victory seems to be the message that it sends out about the post-racial American society. A country that was among the last to grant its ethnic minorities civil rights has now elected one of them its president. As Jonathan Zimmerman observed in the Washington Post, the US lagged other nations -- both European powers and newly-independent nations in the Americas -- in abolishing the slave trade, abolishing slavery, granting voting rights and civil rights to its minorities. It was the only significant supporter of the apartheid South Africa regime, only imposing sanctions in 1987. Yet it has now become the first white-majority country to elect a coloured leader. It is a remarkable achievement by any measure.

Yet P. Sainath seeks to downplay its significance by comparing with the Indian subcontinent, and with India in particular:

India today has an upper-caste Hindu woman as President. A dalit (former Untouchable) as chief justice of its Supreme Court. A Muslim for Vice-President. A Sikh for Prime Minister. And the leader of its biggest - and ruling - political party, the Congress, is Sonia Gandhi, a Catholic from Italy. The Speaker of Parliament is a godless Communist.

India's most famous war hero (and the only one to make Field Marshal rank) who died this year was a Parsi (of Zoroastrian faith). Sikhs (Prime Minister Manmohan Singh) account for less than two per cent of the population. Muslims (Veep Hamid Ansari) 13.4 per cent. Dalits (Chief Justice Balakrishnan) 16.2 per cent and Parsis are the tiniest of minorities - less than 100,000 in a population of one billion plus.Roman Catholics from Italy -- we have just one and she is the most powerful politician in the country.

Incidentally, the last President of India was a dalit. No, this does not prove anything positive about the status of those communities. It does mean, though, that the US, far from being unique, is an awful latecomer to representation of minorities...

Now, I admire all the above things about India, but -- even leaving aside the howler about the "last President" -- I find the argument extremely sloppy. First, none of the above figures were directly elected by the people of the entire country -- we do not have such a system. We do have direct election of parliamentarians, but only to the lower house (I strongly feel that we should adopt a US senate-style direct-election system for the Rajya Sabha too); only Sonia Gandhi and Somnath Chatterjee, of the names listed above, won Lok Sabha elections. Our head of government, in particular, did not stand for election to the Lok Sabha and was not advertised before the election as the probable prime minister. Our head of state, the President, is not directly elected. So this comparison is pretty meaningless. If we are talking about people other than the heads of state or government, the US has had minorities and women in position for quite a while: even the Bush regime included Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice.

Second, our privileged communities -- the Brahmins and other upper castes -- are in fact numerical minorities, and the oppressed communities are rather large in number. So it is not very surprising that, with free and fair elections, some members of those communities get elected. It is more similar to post-apartheid South Africa than to the US; the surprise (and cause for concern) is the continuing dominance of the upper castes, not the representation of the others. And some of the minorities he mentions -- Parsis, Sikhs -- have not been particularly oppressed historically, though the Sikhs endured much savagery after 1984.

Back to Obama: I have been, and still am, skeptical about his near-messianic appeal and do not expect huge differences in US policy, whether at home or abroad. I do expect better diplomacy, and it will be disappointing indeed if he does not use the goodwill earned by his middle name to rebuild bridges with the Muslim world in particular. But from all that I have been reading lately, he is one of those rare figures in politics who is genuinely well-read, intelligent, knowledgable, inquisitive, and exhibits the same personality in private as in public. He is easily one of the more talented world leaders in recent memory, and I hope he will be able to use his talents to rise above Washington's "business as usual". Sainath says, correctly, that his list of prominent Indian minority figures says nothing about the status of India's minorities; but I'd say Obama's election does say something about the status of blacks in America. More importantly, the fact of his election will almost certainly be positive for the future of race relations in America. Change in caste prejudices in India seems much slower in coming.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Obama-McCain dance-off

Pretty impressive stuff. Spotted on Donklephant, and as they ask there -- how long before we see an utterly credible but fake video that changes the course of the campaign?

Thursday, October 23, 2008

A richly deserved award

It is extremely gratifying to see a familiar figure, Sriram Shastry, being awarded the 2009 Lars Onsager Prize of the American Physical Society. The list of winners since 1995 on that page is impressive -- most of them have done work that is now standard graduate-textbook material (and in many cases, undergraduate-textbook too). Sriram's present university, UC Santa Cruz, has a webpage up with more details on his biography and work (and that of his colleague Peter Young, who also received an APS prize.)

Though Sriram is now in the US, he studied entirely in India (Nagpur University, IIT Madras and TIFR Bombay) and worked at University of Hyderabad, TIFR, and later, at IISc Bangalore. In the 1980s, while at TIFR, he derived the complete set of conserved quantities for the one-dimensional Hubbard model, the basic model used for correlated electronic systems (such as high-temperature superconductors). He did pioneering work on many other exactly-solvable quantum systems, at least two of which bear his name (the Shastry-Sutherland and Haldane-Shastry models). In addition, he has done important work on other areas of correlated electron systems, transport processes, and other areas. In recent years he has done very interesting work on thermoelectricity.

[edited 24/10/08, removing possibly unproductive discussion of past history. While it is something I feel strongly about, the more important question is how do we stop it from happening again, and how do we improve the science scene. I should also clarify that everything that was written here, like the rest of the post, was my own opinion and was not discussed with Sriram beforehand.]

Finally, on a personal note: Sriram was my PhD advisor. He joined IISc the same year I did, in 1994; I worked with him on a summer project (that eventually became my first international publication) in 1995, and soon after, joined him formally as his doctoral student; I graduated in 2000; and he himself moved to Santa Cruz a couple of years later. I am fortunate that my trajectory intersected his.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Powell postscript

From Maureen Dowd's column today:

[After Colin Powell endorsed Obama and addressed the charge of Obama being a Muslim,] he got a mass e-mail from a man wanting to spread the word that Obama was reading a book about the end of America written by a fellow Muslim.

“Holy cow!” Powell thought. Upon checking Amazon.com, he saw that it was a reference to Fareed Zakaria, a Muslim who writes a Newsweek column and hosts a CNN foreign affairs show. His latest book is “The Post-American World.”

Sunday, October 19, 2008

The really right answer

In Colin Powell's notable endorsement of Barack Obama, I was struck by Powell's comments on his party colleagues who claim or insinuate that Obama is a Muslim.

Powell comments, "The correct answer is, 'He's not a Muslim, he's a Christian, he's always been a Christian'. But the really right answer is, "What if he is?' Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer is 'No', that's not America." He goes on to ask what sort of a message they want to send a 7-year-old Muslim kid who dreams of being President, or for that matter the several genuine Muslim American soldiers who have fought and been killed for America.

Indeed, that's the "really right answer", and it is not an answer the Obama campaign has offered, as far as I have seen. Political expediency, no doubt. But I am curious to see what an Obama administration really turns out to be like, should he win on November 4, as almost all polls now predict. Will he be an improvement, or even a change (his favourite word), from the Bush or Clinton administrations in any notable sense?

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Airport security and our local terrorists

I have no sympathy for Jet Airways' recent moves in sacking and then reinstating nearly 2000 employees. (The downsizing was not a problem to me, but the manner of it was.)

Nevertheless, I am concerned that Jet Airways apparently backtracked in deference to Raj Thackeray's threats not to allow Jet flights to take off from Mumbai. Even if they deny it, Naresh Goyal did give Thackeray an audience, so the perception is hard to dispel.

The concern is this: Aren't our airports supposed to be about the safest places in our country? Hasn't every airport in the world been locked down hard since a certain day in 2001? Have we not taken security seriously since at least a couple of decades before that?

So why are they scared of Raj Thackeray and his riff-raff? And given that they are scared of him, should we be scared about other things too?

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Phil Gramm's law and the crash

Matt Taibbi lays it out here in a (rather one-sided but hilarious except for the subject matter) conversation with Byron York of the National Review. He lays a large fraction of the blame on a 262-page amendment, by John McCain's adviser Phil Gramm, to a 2000 law that opened the market for credit default swaps: he says the market ballooned from $900 billion then to $62 trillion in 2008 -- five times the value of the New York Stock Exchange, and all of it effectively a Ponzi scheme. He also answers criticisms, raised by York and previously by various people from pseudonymous bloggers (see reader comments here) to George Will, that defaulting home-loan takers were responsible for the crisis.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Khaled Hosseini on McCain/Palin


There is one thing that makes me uneasy though: Hosseini is upset at McCain/Palin's failure to "denounce the use of Obama's middle name (Hussein) as an insult." I, however, am puzzled at Obama's lack of a position on his middle name. It seems to me that he could have decided, long ago, that he does not like it, and had it officially altered or dropped. Or, if he does not object to it, he could declare that his middle name is a fine and honourable name, and though he is not himself a Muslim, direct or implied Muslim-baiting by the use of his middle name is not acceptable.

It seems to me that his lack of clarity on this kind of thing invites such attacks, and worse, raises doubts in the minds of those who don't believe that all Muslims are evil. But Obama is a consummate politician and there is no doubt that he has calculated the electoral costs and benefits of every possible course of action: presumably he has concluded that silence is best. McCain and Palin, with their increasingly grating tantrums, seem to be digging their own graves. Why take away their shovel?

Wednesday, October 08, 2008


Barack Obama is leading John McCain in many states that previously voted Republican, and leads overall by 9 percentage points, according to Gallup today. Nicholas Kristof, at the NYT, suggests that the lead would be even more were it not for subconscious racism among many: "racism without racists". Meanwhile, McCain and Palin are whipping up what seems like thinly-concealed racial hatred against Obama. (They dare not be overtly racist but they portray him as the strange guy, different from you, hiding sinister secrets.)

On the one hand: it is a sign of how far America has come along since the civil rights struggle that Obama can now be this close to becoming President.

On the other hand: the history of racism in America before the civil rights era was extremely ugly (of modern nations, only South Africa had a worse record), and it is naive to think that everything has been forgotten within a generation.

Here are two poems from the dark days: one by Claude McKay, and the other by Abel Meeropol.

If we must die
Claude McKay, 1919

If we must die, let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
Making their mock at our accursed lot.
If we must die, O let us nobly die,
So that our precious blood may not be shed
In vain; then even the monsters we defy
Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!
O kinsmen we must meet the common foe!
Though far outnumbered let us show us brave,
And for their thousand blows deal one deathblow!
What though before us lies the open grave?
Like men we'll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!

Strange Fruit
Abel Meeropol, 1937
Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

Pastoral scene of the gallant south,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh,
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.

Here is fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.

Notes: McKay was a Jamaican-born poet who wrote his poem in response to racial riots that swept several US cities in 1919. Meeropol was a Jewish writer from New York, and this poem was, of course, about lynchings in the south. He set his poem to music and Billie Holiday made it famous. Watch her sing it here.

Note 2: I found the McKay poem striking for its careful classical sonnet structure combined with its extremely militant tone: an interesting contrast.

Note 3: Does anyone think Neil Young's "Southern Man" (words, video) owes something to "Strange Fruit"?

UPDATE Mar 6, 2009: removed a comment by JF at his request, together with two follow-up comments.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Crony capitalism, Tata style

So Tata Motors have decided to pull out of Singur. The newspapers and news sites are full of lamentation about how bad this is for West Bengal's image, how Mamta Banerjee stubbornly thwarted progress, how nobody will ever invest in West Bengal again. Ratan Tata himself has squarely blamed Mamta Banerjee for it all. Reactions from dispossessed farmers are relegated to the bottom of an inner page in today's Times of India (but I suppose I should be happy these reactions were reported at all. (I can't find that report online, but no doubt it's buried somewhere.)

I have several questions about this business:

  • Why didn't the Tatas (and others who extol the virtues of the free market) acquire their land on the open market? Why did they require the West Bengal government to acquire it for them (thereby outsourcing the strong-arming of the farmers who were forced to vacate)?

  • Why did they require "lush green farmland" for a factory? Wouldn't barren, infertile land have done equally well?

  • Why did they require 1000 acres? That's about as big as the Ford River Rouge plant, among the largest in the world, which supplies the largest market in the world (in fact the manufacturing facilities at Ford's plant occupy hardly 600 acres, and they don't have a shortage of land in the American midwest). It is far larger than any plant in Japan, again hardly a small-scale manufacturing nation for cars.

  • Once they realised that there was a serious matter of concern over compensating the displaced farmers, why did they not take it up seriously?

  • And, finally, why aren't our craven mainstream media asking these questions?

The end result: Tatas gone, 1000 acres of fertile land ruined and probably unusable (in any case the West Bengal government has ruled out returning it to its original owners).

UPDATE (Oct 7): An excellent article by Prem Shankar Jha (via Shivam).

Friday, October 03, 2008

What does foreclosure look like?

Via Andrew Sullivan - the gory details.

It's really disturbing to see swanky homes, of the sort US-bound desis probably dream about, abandoned in such a hurry that the owners left behind furniture, equipment, computers, children's toys, even certificates... and it's all trashed (except the certificates) because the logistics of donating to charity don't work out. It seems worse than not having had any of that stuff in the first place. But as Andrew Sullivan (and others) say, these victims are as much to blame as predatory lenders, for taking loans they probably knew they couldn't afford, rather than living more modestly but comfortably and within their means.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Inverse Turing Test?

The basic idea of the Turing Test is that if, after an extended (written) conversation with a human and a computer, you cannot tell which is which, you must conclude that the computer possesses human-like intelligence.

But what if you want to test a human's intelligence, by comparing with computer-generated responses? Consider the Sarah Palin interview generator and compare with her actual answers..

Monday, September 29, 2008

Markets and honesty

Recently Space Bar posted three outstanding articles by Husain (1, 2, 3) that provoked some ferocious comments. The main theme of the criticisms was that you can't blame Wall Street bankers for being selfish and greedy, if that is what works in a capitalist society. (Sample quote: "I'm amused that there are still people out there who see the fact that bankers are selfish and mean-spirited as a revelation... crises like these are not the product of some global conspiracy by evil bankers collaborating together but the logical result of really smart people working competitively in a system designed to incentivise profit that is poorly regulated.")

I didn't really have a good response to that point per se, though it bothered me: didn't companies like the Tatas earn respect from their honesty and fair treatment of employees and customers, and didn't that translate to good business? But here's an article by Will Hutton (from a British perspective, but covering both sides of the pond) that brings out this point much better than I could. Quotes:

This is not the end of capitalism, as some wildly claim; there is no intellectual, social or political challenge to a market system based on respect for private property rights, even by the Chinese Communist party. Rather, it is a crisis of a particular capitalism that has set aside respect for trust, integrity and fairness as fuddy-duddy obstacles to 'wealth generation'. What we are relearning is that without trust and fairness, capitalism risks its own sustainability, even while it unleashes forces that undermine those self-same values.... Even in the dog-eat-dog financial markets, trust and integrity are matters of self-interest. However amoral you may be, it is in your interest to care about your reputation, because if you behave badly you will not do business with me - or others - on favourable terms again.
Worse, now that the system is in trouble, financiers are turning to taxpayers in the US and Britain for help without understanding the other key principal of fairness - that we will consider helping those who for no fault of their own get into trouble, but not those who freely created their own bad circumstances.

He goes on to predict the nationalisation of several banks, as happened in Sweden in 1992. (The NYT, too, refers to the Swedish precedent and lessons for today.)

Trust is key, in business as everywhere else. As Hutton says, even if you are not inherently trustworthy, you had better make others believe you are.

Which brings me back to the Tatas. I wonder whether JRD Tata would have countenanced the state-government-assisted land-grab at Singur, and now that it has apparently backfired on them, I wonder if the Tata's fortunes will suffer -- and not just from the financial loss and the delay in the Nano car project.

(PS: a few seconds after I posted this, I got a mail from Kapil giving me the following quote, taken from here:

Companies which do not audit completed projects in order to see how accurate the original projections were, tend to get exactly the forecasts and projects that they deserve. Companies which have a culture where there are no consequences for making dishonest forecasts, get the projects they deserve. Companies which allocate blank cheques to management teams with a proven record of failure and mendacity, get what they deserve.

Maybe the sentiment will catch on.)

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Who are you, and what have you done with Fox?

Even if I lived in the US, I doubt I'd ever watch Fox News; here, I only see the occasional news report about the latest outrageous example of their "fair and balanced" reporting. But some recent reports have been disconcerting:

  • A Fox reporter grilling John McCain's spokesman Tucker Bounds on how his campaign is misrepresenting Obama's tax plan.
  • Bill O'Reilly defending Barack Obama's use of the common American phrase "lipstick on a pig", saying it was obviously not about Sarah Palin, criticising the McCain campaign for making an issue of it and predicting that it will backfire on them.
  • And now, Fox News sending a cease and desist to McCain's campaign demanding that they withdraw footage of Fox correspondent Major Garrett from a campaign ad.

What's going on? Are the reported recent political preferences of the big boss really having an effect so soon?

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

RIP, Rick Wright

There will be no more Pink Floyd reunions. But let us be thankful that the full quartet did get together to play four songs in 2005, after a quarter century of acrimony.

NYT obit.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Uber Red Bull

Espresso coffee, chilled, 30 ml
Lemon juice, a few drops
Electral (ORS) salt (or sugar+salt in WHO-recommended mixture), 3 tsp
Soda water, 250 ml

Stir first three ingredients until ORS dissolves, and add the soda. Wakes you up faster than Red Bull, tastes more obnoxious, and costs much less.

More blasts

Another day, another set of bombs going off and killing the innocent: this time in Delhi. Several thoughts come to mind.

  • As I wrote a little over a month ago, preventing bombings of open markets in a free society is pretty near impossible. These particular bombings prove the cowardice of the attackers, and nothing else. But that won't stop magazines like India Today from raving about our being a "weak state", and the BJP-ites demanding draconian laws like POTA.
  • The attackers are probably a small outfit (the authorities claim they are linked to the banned SIMI). Finding them will require intelligence (in various senses of the word. What will not help is demonising the Muslim community as a whole -- most of them are as revulsed by such things as anyone else, and victimising them will only enlarge the numbers of those willing to throw bombs. (Say there are about 200 million Muslims in India. You alienate 10% of them, that's 20 million. 1% of the alienated ones become radicalised, that's 200,000. 1% of those are sufficiently radicalised to throw bombs, that's 2,000. Not nice.)
  • Everyone is agreed that this is terrorism. Why isn't everyone agreed that what has been happening recently in Orissa is also terrorism?
  • Many of the bombs are in garbage cans. I was in Paris when 9/11 happened in 2001; immediately after, the opaque metallic garbage cans in the city disappeared, to be replaced by transparent plastic bags hung from a ring. We in India have hardly begun to get used to public garbage cans, and will now be wary of them.
  • We live outside city limits in Chennai, so the municipal garbage collection service does not reach us. Rather than dump our garbage on the open mounds where the local panchayat periodically collects it, we tend to pack it in a bag and drop it in one of the garbage cans inside city limits, about 1 km away. But dropping a bag into an opaque container with unknown contents may make me nervous now. Moreover, other people seeing me drop a bag into a garbage can may get nervous too (who does that sort of thing around here?)

There are more thoughts, but I'll stop at that...

Saturday, September 06, 2008

What is poetry?

Just for fun, I tried in my previous post to respond to Kapil Sibal's poems "in kind", as it were. JF, in a comment, inserted appropriate linebreaks and asked why I "hid" my verse. I'm not sure why, but here is some of what I was thinking:

First, writing lines that rhyme and (more or less) scan is easy. As JF surmises, I took about half an hour over this. Many people can do it better and faster than me (eg, TR). Sibal wrote his Parliament poem (on whose rhyme scheme mine was modelled) on a flight, if I remember him right; at any rate, in a narrow window of time between the events in question and the publication of the book.

Second, his poems (as read out that day) seemed to lack something. I liked the Tehelka extracts, but they seemed more like light verse to me -- wry, humorous, biting comments on today's world. It turned out that his poems are meant to be more serious than that. Take the "nano" poem (which he proclaims his favourite): what was a brief and cutting verse in Tehelka turns out to be an excerpt of a much longer and rather meandering poem.

However, I did not want to be too judgmental: I have strong likes and dislikes in poetry but they may not be shared by all. I don't like a lot of "classical" poetry (an overdose of Wordsworth can get tedious), and I do like some poetry that doesn't have any traditional qualities. Also, compared to some other poetry by public figures (like a recent President), Sibal's poems were really pretty good. It was just when he tried to be very serious and philosophical that it didn't quite work out for me. I am not an expert on poetry and many people may well love his poems. Also, I didn't pick up his book that day (it was getting late for us) so I based it on what I heard; a second, third or fourth exposure to the same poems may well cause a different impact on me.

I wrote that post in verse for my own amusement, and to empirically prove the point that rhyming is the easy part about writing poetry. I've written lots of rhyming text in my time, which I would hesitate to call poetry. But I then formatted it as prose, because I didn't want to sound too snarky. Also, I thought that most people who actually read the thing will immediately spot that it's a poem. A colleague, Kapil, asked me if I was inspired by Wodehouse. It is possible. The epilogue of one of the Blandings books (Full Moon?) is a similar verse-in-prose news item. Also, Leonard Cohen's lyrics, as printed on recent CD inserts, are formatted as prose, though they rhyme and scan perfectly. So I'm not really breaking new ground here.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Mr Sibal witnesses

Tehelka reported, and briefly quoted, a book by Kapil Sibal: the science minister, and what's more sinister, a poetic-minded rebel. His poem on SMS did not seem amiss, and his ode to "nano" was fun. It seemed quite a lark: we went to Landmark to hear him read it in person. Eyes bright with passion, he bemoaned the fashion of the UPA confidence vote, which saved the government but demeaned Parliament with displays of currency note. His book, "I Witness", was already in press, but he made a poetic sprint. The ensuing verse, for better or worse, appears in the final print. His poems span themes that, it truly seems, reveal a polyglot polymath brain. Wordsworth could not have covered a lot of the topics he links like a train. No modern verse here: his metre is clear and he's meticulous with his rhymes. An orthodox pen takes, again and again, on various ills of our times. But though it's form-perfect, I feel, with regret, a lack of a deeper emotion. The rhythms may groove, but poems that move you are more than just phonemes in motion.

Update: Fixed a malapropism, and made a new post on where this came from.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Children should be neither seen nor heard

In 2005 I came across this article in the NYT, on child-free establishments, and was sufficiently provoked to write the following letter (which, of course, was not published):

I read "At Center of a Clash, Rowdy Children in Coffee Shops" (Nov 9) and the responses on the letters page (Nov 10) with disbelief. I have lived in the US and Europe and have noticed the child-unfriendliness of these places but never realised that the hostility is so institutionalised.

Here in India, such attitudes towards unhappy children would be unthinkable. A bawling child in a restaurant or cafe would very likely be comforted by strangers or given freebies by the management, certainly not given hostile stares or asked to leave.

Fortunately not all Americans react in the latter manner either. Some years ago, a few minutes into a Pete Seeger concert I attended in Bangalore, a child started crying -- mutedly but audibly. Seeger murmured "Oh, poor thing" and launched into a lullaby, and the child stopped.

In America, of course, the child would never have been allowed in.

"Unthinkable" in India? According to today's ToI, not any more.

PS - Space Bar doesn't find it unthinkable either. Odd. When I'm in a public place, it's generally the other adults whom I find annoying. An unalloyed dose of adults in all directions is not my idea of relaxation.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Hacking an unencrypted connection?

Once upon a time, the word "hacker" was meant to indicate a programmer capable of neat programming tricks that earned the admiration of his peers. (Read Steven Levy's book Hackers for a chronicle of that time, which ended in the early 1980s.)

Over the years, the word mutated to mean "someone who breaks into other people's computers." However, there was still a connotation of skill in the term.

Now, apparently, the word means "someone who borrows someone else's open wireless connection." And this, according to the Gujarat police, is not easy to do: they suspect a "techie", a Wipro engineer of having done it.

To recapitulate this story: an e-mail sent before the bomb blasts in Ahmedabad was sent from an IP address traced to a block of flats where an American, Ken Haywood, lived. The building had wireless internet, unencrypted. You could argue this is foolish, but it is not illegal. The police nonetheless have been making Haywood's life difficult (no word about the other residents of the building complex). At the same time, they think a Wipro "techie" could have "hacked" the connection.

Here's a news flash for our police and our equally moronic media: ANYONE with a laptop within a few tens of metres from the building in question could have used the internet connection, if it was unencrypted. It is not even clear that it is illegal to do so.

(Most internet connections that are encrypted use a discredited scheme called WEP, which can be broken in minutes. I think Haywood should consider himself lucky that his wireless connection did not use WEP. The police would have been totally convinced that he was the terrorist mastermind, since obviously nobody in the world could have "hacked" his connection: after all, it takes a Wipro "techie" to "hack" an unencrypted wireless connection.)

Now, it seems, Haywood has fled these morons and this country. Good for him. Good for the immigration authorities in Delhi for letting him through.

Saturday, August 16, 2008


Wikipedia is often clubbed together with open-source software (such as Linux) or open-access publishing (such as the PLoS journals) as an example of how information wants to be free. But, as many have pointed out, there is an enormous difference. Open-source software such as Linux, and scholarly journals such as PLoS, are rigorously peer-reviewed.

You can take Linux code and do what you like with it, such as adding a device driver for your own obscure hardware, within the restrictions of its licence: the GNU General Public License. You can reproduce PLoS articles and use their content in other ways, within the restrictions of their licence: a Creative Commons licence. What you cannot do, without satisfying extremely high standards of quality, is have your own code included in the Linux sources distributed by Linus Torvalds, or have your own research published by PLoS.

With Wikipedia, however, anyone may edit an article, and it is instantly readable by millions.

Surely the difference is glaringly obvious, but defenders of Wikipedia have claimed for years that mischievous edits are quickly reverted by editors. And this is often true, but I suspect that it is now much less true than formerly. Where it used to be rare to find a Wikipedia article, on a subject of even slight general interest, that had glaring errors or obvious "ego" additions, it is now rare to find an article that does not have such defects.

A couple of years I found Wikipedia a useful and largely reliable resource. Now I find it a useful resource that must be double-checked on every point, no matter how minor.

Here is a list of recent examples:

  • Some time ago Slashdot linked to a Donald Knuth interview, where he talked of, among other things, literate programming -- and linked to the Wikipedia article on it. Unfortunately, as of that date, that article was so incorrect as to be worse than useless (and sparked an ill-informed flamewar on Slashdot too). After the Slashdot link appeared, an "edit war" ensued and it seems to have been restored to a somewhat informative state; but the incorrect version was what was available for months earlier. It used to be that one could trust Wikipedia on technical subjects, but that seems no longer to be true.

  • When I checked Wikipedia for "semolina" some months ago, the following sentence [UPDATE 18/08: link fixed] caught my eye (and it was in the references section of the article!) "Semolina in India is known as "Sooji". Various delicious preparations are made with Sooji. Sooji Halwa is the most famous which is a sweet item. Among Bengali's also this is very popular and used for preparing various sweet items. One of them in Bengali cuisine is known as Soojir Payesh, which is prepared by boiling sooji balls in sweetened milk." Not incorrect, but hardly very professional-looking, and not in the appropriate section; but this text survived from March 25 until May 12.

  • Some time ago Rahul Basu observed, with amusement, that there was a Wikipedia entry for the name Rahul; and regretted that he did not qualify for the list of famous Rahuls. What he did not notice was that several others had had the same regret, and attempted to amend matters; the edit history of that page is rather interesting, and the current choice of "famous" Rahuls is quite strange. (Any such list seems rather pointless.)

  • And finally, my most recent peeve and the one that provoked this post: in the article on the Wodehouse character R. Psmith, Wikipedia (as of today) claims that his name, in the last book (Leave it to Psmith), was changed from Rupert to Ronald Eustace. The "Ronald Eustace" appellation dates from Wikipedia's very first entry on the subject, in March 2005. Now, the second question to ask is, "why did Wodehouse do this?" and Wikipedia suggests that it was to avoid confusion with another Rupert in the book (Rupert Baxter).
    But the first question to ask is, "is this true?" Leafing through my copy of the book, the only evidence I can see to back this claim is the following exchange towards the end of the book, between Eve (who had been taken in by Psmith's impersonation of the Canadian poet Ralston McTodd) and Psmith:
    "Mr..." She stopped. "I can't call you Mr McTodd. Will you please tell me your name?"
    "Ronald," said Psmith. "Ronald Eustace."
    "I suppose you have a surname?" snapped Eve. "Or an alias?
    "There's not much sense in pretending now, is there? What is your name?"
    "Psmith. The p is silent."
    Personally I cannot see how this could be read as indicating that Psmith's given names were "Ronald Eustace": he was obviously "pretending". But this bit of folk wisdom seems to have become replicated all over the internet, never to be stamped out.

Colbert was right: soon our reality will be defined by Wikipedia.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Big blue screen

Some years ago, I saw the biggest Windows error I'd ever seen at the Toys'R'Us store at Times Square, New York.

But it seems the Chinese do these things on a much bigger scale.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Putin them in their place

After its coverage of Nandigram and Tibet (note: those links are to my previous blog posts on the subject, and perhaps not very edifying), The Hindu is at it again. While most of the world press, that I have seen, is castigating the imperialist aggression of Russia (still believed to be led, despite his having stepped down, by Vladimir Putin) against small, harmless, democratic Georgia, The Hindu headlined its Sunday edition (which I saw, since we still buy the paper on Sundays) "Russian forces stop Georgian offensive against South Ossetia", and lest any doubt on its stance remain, published a stinging editorial on Georgia's "adventurism" today.

But this time I think the Hindu may have a point: if they are not actually themselves balanced, they may at least be balancing out the rest of the media.

Even the most pro-Georgia articles do agree that South Ossetia and Abkhazia are separatist with a pro-Russian population. They also agree that Georgia was the initial aggressor in sending in troops into South Ossetia. If separatism supported by the population is good in Chechnya, Tibet, and (for much of the western media, until recently) Kashmir, why is it bad in Georgia?

I am nowhere near sufficiently informed to draw a conclusion. But here are two relatively balanced-sounding Western articles (not surprisingly, both are from The Guardian): James Poulos and Mark Almond.

(PS: a nugget for those who were pained at my title. The former Russian president's name is spelled "Poutine" by the French, which is closer by French phonetic rules to the actual pronunciation; as it happens, "poutine" is a harmless Quebecois snack but "Putin", if pronounced phonetically in French, sounds like a rather impolite word. So I wonder what sort of headlines the pun-happy French have concocted on this occasion.)

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Fighting the terrorists

It is about a week since the bomb blasts in Ahmedabad and Bangalore, and a few days since the reports of 18 bombs being defused in Surat. India Today, among others, screams on its cover that India is soft on Islamic terrorism. Here are several thoughts:

Protecting planes is hard, and India seems to be doing that pretty successfully: the last "incident" was the Kandahar hijack, for which the security loopholes occurred in Nepal. Airport security in India seems pretty thorough but much more efficient and less intrusive than, say, in the US. I don't have to take off my shoes or my belt. I don't have to send my wallet or keys through the X-ray machine. They don't confiscate my shower gel or even my twin-blade razor -- both of which would be seen as lethal weapons in the US. (They did once make me check in a bottle of wine, though.) Subsequent to the recent attacks, I went through security checks in Chennai, Delhi and Bangalore airports and noticed no heightened security: clearly what is in place is felt to be adequate.

Protecting trains is much harder. They do routinely scan you and search your bag in the Delhi metro (again, not terribly timeconsuming, I found). But yesterday, at the (old) Delhi Junction railway station, was the first time I had to go through a metal detector to reach the railway platform. Still, given the sheer size of our rail network, there hasn't been much terrorist activity there either. On one recent occasion, I observed that the toll was as much due to lack of emergency exits -- and the practice, on that particular train, of locking all doors at night (for "security", of course), converting it into a steel jail -- as due to lack of security. If terrorists were to target, say, a cinema hall, this will be equally true: despite the Uphaar tragedy, the need for emergency exits is just not taken seriously.

Protecting public, open places is impossible. And public places were what were targeted in Bangalore and Ahmedabad. Unless one puts up entry barriers for the entire city and vets each one of the several million residents of the city. The cost of that -- and I don't mean monetary -- would be unacceptable. This is true not just in India. One can bomb an open market anywhere in the world. In airports abroad, it would be easy to bomb the departure lounge. It's not so long ago that a terrorist with Indian origins tried to ram a blazing vehicle into Glasgow Airport. Terrorism is always a cowardly thing, but I suspect the reason this sort of thing isn't more common is that, even to the terrorists, targetting civilians in public places is too easy, too cowardly.

Yet reading all the rants in the Indian media and blogosphere, one would imagine that the recent acts are a catastrophic failure of intelligence and security. To listen to the BJP, one would think either that a draconian act like POTA would magically stop such acts of terror, or that this is so hard to do that the government must have conjured it to distract attention from the BJP's recent antics in Parliament. Nobody wants to point out the obvious: not only is such "terrorism" easy, it signifies the desperation of the terrorists who, unable to strike at even medium-security targets, are forced to hit the defenceless.

These are acts that will earn them only contempt, even from their "supporters", and they know it.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Ali's World

When my brother and I were growing up in Delhi, among our closest friends were our neighbours the Mukhopadhyay brothers. Each was a year junior to us, and it would seem natural that the elder siblings would form a close friendship and the younger would form a close friendship too. But the closeness extended with all pairs. Though the age gap between the oldest (me) and the youngest (Arpan Mukhopadhyay, a.k.a. Ali) was five years -- a significant difference when you are ten and five respectively -- we had a great deal of fun together. We ceased to be neighbours when Ali was in his teens, and I left Delhi soon after, but the memory of watching him evolve from an impossibly cute child to a somewhat problematic student to a talented footballer to an extraordinary artist remains fresh. And the memory is all that remains. Ali died, shockingly, in January 1999 at the age of 20, leaving behind bittersweet memories and several astonishing canvases.

Now, almost ten years later, Ali's parents, brother, family and well-wishers have brought out a book, "Ali's World", published by Roli Books, available online here and soon to be available at bookshops across India, consisting of biographical notes and memories interspersed with nearly four dozen of his artworks. As part of its release, they are holding a two-day exhibition of 28 of his works at the India Habitat Centre, Delhi, on July 26 and 27, 2008. (I am typing this after having attended the first day.)

Looking through the exhibition and the prints in the book brought home to me, once again, what this young man had achieved at twenty. But I am probably too close to the picture to see it objectively, so let me quote an unbiased judge instead:

When I see Ali's work I am mesmerised. I feel moved by what I see. His paintings engage and enrich me... I just loved his work. It gets you in the gut and speaks to you, moves

So says actor and director Aamir Khan, in the foreword to the book; he clarifies that he had this reaction on first seeing the pictures, before knowing the personal story of Ali.

Why did Aamir Khan write the foreword? There one needs to get into the personal story. As I said above, Ali had a problematic childhood in many ways: partly his propensity to get into innumerable accidents (though nobody could have foreseen the one that eventually claimed him), and partly his very erratic performance in school: a mixture of immense talent and mediocre results. As his parents say in the book, though he was eventually diagnosed with dyslexia, awareness of such problems was not as common in those days as now. Thankfully, they followed their instincts in letting him choose his own path in life.

When this book was nearly ready, they say, they watched Aamir's movie Taare Zameen Par and were immensely moved by the story of a dyslexic child who is encouraged by his teacher to become an artist. "On an impulse", they sent Aamir a pre-publication copy of the book. Though he gets vast quantities of such unsolicited material, something about these paintings struck him, and on reading the text, he responded by writing the foreword.

Reading the text of the book was a little disconcerting: it showed me how little I really knew Ali in some ways, and how much his parents had to contend with in bringing him up. But at the end of the day it is an inspiring story -- not just to me, but, I think, even to those who never knew Ali.

I will upload a couple of images of the paintings, that I snapped at the exhibition today, when I get a chance. But if you read this early enough and are nearby, do try and make it on the second day: July 27 at the Convention Foyer of the India Habitat Centre, Lodi Road, New Delhi.

UPDATE: Pictures from the exhibition.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

"Believe me, it's torture"

At the request of Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter, Christopher Hitchens (one of the most consistent cheerleaders of the Iraq war and the Bush regime) undergoes "waterboarding", a technique being used by the Bush regime who claim it is not torture. His conclusion? "Believe me, it's torture."

He adds,

You may have read by now the official lie about this treatment, which is that it “simulates” the feeling of drowning. This is not the case. You feel that you are drowning because you are drowning—or, rather, being drowned, albeit slowly and under controlled conditions and at the mercy (or otherwise) of those who are applying the pressure. The “board” is the instrument, not the method. You are not being boarded. You are being watered. This was very rapidly brought home to me when, on top of the hood, which still admitted a few flashes of random and worrying strobe light to my vision, three layers of enveloping towel were added. In this pregnant darkness, head downward, I waited for a while until I abruptly felt a slow cascade of water going up my nose. Determined to resist if only for the honor of my navy ancestors who had so often been in peril on the sea, I held my breath for a while and then had to exhale and—as you might expect—inhale in turn. The inhalation brought the damp cloths tight against my nostrils, as if a huge, wet paw had been suddenly and annihilatingly clamped over my face. Unable to determine whether I was breathing in or out, and flooded more with sheer panic than with mere water, I triggered the pre-arranged signal and felt the unbelievable relief of being pulled upright and having the soaking and stifling layers pulled off me. I find I don’t want to tell you how little time I lasted.

This is because I had read that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, invariably referred to as the “mastermind” of the atrocities of September 11, 2001, had impressed his interrogators by holding out for upwards of two minutes before cracking....

And here's the video.

Incidentally, even while cheering the war Hitchens has previously spoken out against torture, for example here. But it seems to me that his language then was deliberately obscure and clouded with rhetorical and irrelevant questions. (I say "deliberately" because he is a master of prose and certainly knows how to make his meaning clear when he chooses to.) This time, he couldn't have put things more plainly.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

More on the Pen Pricks

An inside look at the "Johann Bach" hoax is here. Very nicely done.

The fake "press release" that conned almost the entire Indian media is linked there, and I can't believe anyone fell for it. Leaving aside the amateurish logo, the suspicious names, the bumpy language and so on, here's a minor detail on the top right of the letterhead: the address of the police, which they say is "a slight variation of the official address of Berlin police":

Perus Narkp
Town Berlin Polize
Shede Road
Berlin VT 05602

Yes, that's a slight variation -- of the address of the police at Berlin, Vermont. (Says so right there, if you're familiar with US state abbreviations.)

Via Abi, here's Siddharth Varadarajan's take on the affair. He notes that "Even if the journalists did not know there was no concentration camp with the name ‘Marsha Tikash Whanaab,’ a quick search on the Internet might have at least triggered a warning light", and sanctimoniously lists the several media organisations that failed to perform such a check; but he omits the story from his own newspaper, who, though it (to its credit) displays some skepticism, does not seem to have benefited from the quick Internet search he suggests.

Wildlife protection, Indian style

Man rescues abandoned bear cub and brings her up with his daughter. Man put in jail. cub put in jail zoo. Way to go, forest department.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Fiction stranger than fact

Did you know that "Johann Bach" was a Nazi war criminal who was recently arrested on the Karnataka-Goa border after he tried to sell an 18th-century piano? So says Rediff, among other news sources. Apparently the Germans did this without the knowledge of the Karnataka or Goa police, and the press release was put out by "Perus Narkp", "the intelligence wing of the German Chancellor's Core at Berlin".

The article is noteworthy because it contains the only insightful reader comment I can ever recall seeing on rediff. As the commenter points out, "Perus Narkp" is an anagram of "Super Prank", there was no such concentration camp as "Marsha Tikash Whanaab", and all Google searches for those terms turn out, suspiciously, to lead to variants of this particular news story.

To which I will add, while a "Johann Bach" was certainly associated with 18th-century keyboard instruments, he is unlikely to have ever visited Goa or Karnataka, and would be rather old today.

Also, let me point out that the alleged concentration camp name is an anagram of "Ashram Shakti Bhawana" (whatever that may be).

I wonder what it takes to successfully generate such a news story that has also been picked up by TOI, the Telegraph, the Deccan Herald, the Express.

UPDATE: DH link corrected above (thanks Sunil); an article on the hoax; the perpetrators.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Women in the Tamil media

Here is the front page of today's Dina Malar:

Why are these six young women the most important news of the day? According to the caption (translation courtesy my wife: my Tamil is rather bumpy), "Anna University in Chennai had introduced several regulations for dress restrictions for women college students. However, because private colleges have no such bans, female students dress up according to their wishes and breathe the free air. Who will the people side with if a situation were to arise where individual freedom were to clash with social responsibility?"

And there you have it: women who dress in western clothes (which are not remotely "revealing" -- a sari reveals much more bare skin, but is somehow OK) are socially irresponsible, and Dina Malar suggests that, if they are harassed, the people should pick sides based on this concept of social responsibility. And this is such an important issue that Dina Malar finds it appropriate to invade the privacy of six random, inoffensive-looking women and frontpage their photos.

This is a side of Chennai that English-speakers do not see, and may not even know exists. I'm not sure what it's like in other cities but I don't think it is quite this bad. (My wife wrote an article some years ago on the attitude of the Tamil media to women, and nothing has changed.)

And anyone who wants to take the caption at face value should note a few minor details: First, contrary to the suggestion in the caption, Anna University's dress code applies to both genders. Second, at least one of the women in the caption (the second from the right) is clearly not a student: her employee identity card is dangling around her neck. Third, private colleges in this city are hardly more laissez-faire than Anna University: see this medieval example.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Redefining "chickenhawk"

The New York Times boasts, if that's the word, a rather pathetic stable of op-ed writers. There's Tom Friedman (flat-earther, "give war a chance", "France is our enemy", "Suck. On. This.") There's Maureen Dowd, prone to bestowing cute nicknames on her subjects (somewhat like Dubya), but with little substance. There's Paul Krugman, who generally mistakes polemics for argument, likes to stray far out of his field of economics (and these days fails to convince even when sticking to that field), and whose distaste of Barack Obama has inspired him to a series of absurd columns lately.

But one name leads the rest: the Times' latest hire, Bill Kristol. Some days ago he got in a twist over a commencement lecture that Barack Obama gave at Wesleyan University because Obama asked the listening students to consider public service, but did not mention the military as a possible form of service. "He felt no need to remind students of a different kind of public service — one that entails more risks than community organizing. He felt no need to tell the graduating seniors in the lovely groves of Middletown that they should be grateful to their peers who were far away facing dangers on behalf of their country"

Today he outdoes that, with an attack on MoveOn.org. He's talking about a TV spot by that group, portraying a mother with her infant son Alex, telling John McCain that she doesn't want Alex to be stuck in a 100-year-war in Iraq. That's enough to set him off on an increasingly incoherent rant: "the United States has an all-volunteer Army. Alex won’t be drafted... Unless we enter a world without enemies and without war, we will need young men and women willing to risk their lives for our nation.... The ad boldly embraces a vision of a selfish and infantilized America, suggesting that military service and sacrifice are unnecessary and deplorable relics of the past. And the sole responsibility of others."

A reader would be forgiven for guessing that Kristol had served his time in the military, but as others have pointed out, he never did -- though he became eligible in age during the Vietnam war -- and never explained why not. Nor did Kristol do anything else particularly memorable: any claim to fame he has can be traced to his being the son of his father, Irving Kristol.

But it is Kristol's ability to twist words that is breathtaking. Obama mentioned public service and not the military, therefore he must be against enlisting. The woman in MoveOn.org does not want her son to end up in an unnecessary and criminal war in Iraq, therefore she must not want her son to join the military. And so on.

Not only won't you hear from Kristol that he himself steered clear of the military, but you won't hear that

  • Even with a volunteer army, many families are not as well off as the Kristols were, and the military is, if nothing else, an attractive career option.
  • Though there is no draft now, there is increasing talk that the military is overstretched and a draft in the future may be hard to avoid.
  • Many Americans do want to serve in the military, but they want it to be in defence of their country: not fighting an unprovoked war overseas to satisfy the interests of the neoconservative chickenhawks or the oil industry.
  • The war on Iraq was sold to the public on false pretences, exaggerated and cherrypicked evidence, and a systematic silencing of all dissenting voices within the administration and elsewhere.
  • Kristol himself was one of the war's more enthusiastic cheerleaders and has not explained why, given what most Americans know now and what most of the world already knew back in 2003, the war was necessary.

A natural interpretation of the MoveOn.org ad would be that the mother thinks it possible that her son will join the military, out of patriotism or as a career option, but does not want his service to be misused for the chickenhawks' benefit. Clearly Kristol cannot allow his readers to see it that way. So he twists himself in knots explaining why the ad is unpatriotic.

Kristol's appointment as a NYT columnist met with many protests. If I had been a subscriber I would have cancelled in protest. However, even during the NYT's failed TimesSelect experiment, I was not tempted: Kristol's fellow-columnists do not impress either, except by comparison.