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, 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.