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.