Saturday, January 31, 2009

"Secret lives", again

I previously mentioned Natasha Mhatre's Secret Lives, a book on the fauna of the IISc campus, and finally got my copy yesterday. I expected it to be very good, but it is way better than that. It is mind-boggling the variety of wildlife with which I was in close proximity for six years of my life without ever noticing.

The pictures are outstanding, and some of the best ones never appeared on Natasha's blog, while even the ones that did look better in the high-quality print. The book is very well produced, and Natasha's text (that discusses a lot of behavioural and evolutionary ecology) is very informative. A few references would have been welcome, but it is not meant to be a scholarly book. It is, however, much more than a pretty coffee-table book. I'd say it is essential, not just for anyone who loved the IISc campus, but anyone who wants to know what sort of wildlife may be found within city limits in India.

IISc is surely not alone in this: Mumbai has a national park in Borivali, and Chennai has the Guindy national park, for example. A keen photographer, willing to put in the sort of effort and labour that Natasha did, could surely document these equally well. But the difference is that IISc is not a national park. It does not even adjoin one, as IIT Madras does. What it is, is a truly remarkable academic campus. And this book documents a side that most visitors, and indeed most residents, never see.

The link above tells you how to get it; if you live in Bangalore or Chennai, the easiest would be to drop in at Tata Book House, on the IISc and IIT campus respectively.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Fan letter

Dear Barkha,

I doubt you will remember me -- in fact I don't think we have ever spoken -- but we overlapped for a year at an elite undergraduate institution in Delhi. I have watched your subsequent career with some interest. Not directly, I'm afraid: I rarely ever watch TV, and we disconnected ours a few months ago, before your widely-discussed coverage of the Mumbai attacks. Nevertheless, it was nice to see, via second-hand reports, your emergence as one of the leading figures in Indian journalism.

But I have managed to catch you second-hand now and then. Most recently, TR posted a clip of you interviewing Sanjana Kapoor during the Mumbai attacks. From your introductory remarks, I learned much that was new to me:

  • Wasabi was burning.
  • Wasabi was in the Taj.
  • It was a Japanese restaurant, in the Taj.
  • It was so good that they opened a branch in Delhi.
  • You couldn't actually see it on the screen, but it was in the Taj, right behind you.
  • It was burning.
  • Oh my god.

Clearly I have missed a culinary experience in never having dined at Wasabi. (I did idly wonder why a restaurant would be named after horseradish paste, the most toxic culinary substance concocted by humanity. Or is it the second-most toxic? I wonder if I can hope to dine at Taj Connemara, here, at a future restaurant called "Blowfish testicles." But I digress.)

Anyway, the main criticism that I saw everywhere was that your coverage of the movements of the police, army, commandos and others was aiding the enemy. So I was happy to see this morning that you are finally taking on the enemy. An enemy, furthermore, that nobody had previously identified: one Mr Chyetanya Kunte, a blogger. He apparently made critical statements of NDTV, and, particularly, of you. The nerve. You discussed freedom and civil liberties with Ms Kapoor in the interview above. But how are you to defend our freedoms when people are criticising you all over the place?

The nerve. The guy has probably never even eaten at Wasabi.

Keep going. I will keep an eye on your future career with considerable anticipation. Not directly -- as I observed above, we have disconnected our TV -- but I am sure you will continue to make more news than you report.


Rahul Siddharthan

Sunday, January 25, 2009

"Partisan" statements

Which of the following statements from Barack Obama's inaugural speech indicate a partisan mindset?

  • The assurance that the federal government will "create new jobs" and "lay a new foundation for growth."
  • "The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works."
  • "The nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous."
  • "[To] those nations like ours that enjoy relative plenty, we say we can no longer afford indifference to the suffering outside our borders; nor can we consume the world's resources without regard to effect. For the world has changed, and we must change with it."

Answer, according to Robert L. Ehrlich in the Washington Post: All of them.

Boom and bust, and other matters

"How to play chicken and lose" is how The Economist describes it. Commenting on former Citigroup chairman Chuck Prince's statement in 2007 that "as long as the music is playing, you’ve got to get up and dance. We’re still dancing", they say: "It was not a silly thing to believe. In financial services, wallflowers are losers. A bank of Citi’s size cannot sit out the boom without confronting commentators and investors alike. The winner is more likely to be the bank that dances in the hope that it can scramble to a seat when the music stops (even if, as in this crisis, there are virtually no seats)."

Two thoughts on that:

1. So the people to blame are not the banks, but the regulators who allowed the bubble to develop. If the bubble is there, any bank would, in its own short-term interest, speculate to its own likely long-term detriment. So much for the libertarian free-market philosophy.

2. Isn't this equally true of a pyramid scheme or a Ponzi scheme? You're fine as long as you're early onto the bus and get off before the masses do.

Posting has been slow, but I've been reading (though rarely commenting on) others' blogs. Partly this is because I was busy. Partly because I resolved to use my computer (both office desktop and laptop) only for work-related internet surfing, and move all non-work surfing to my new mobile (a Nokia E63). I was already surfing a lot on my previous mobile, but this one has a larger screen and a full qwerty keyboard.

The resolution hasn't been entirely maintained but it has gone better than I expected (the current post is an exception). The Nokia is fine for surfing, both via its inbuilt browser and via Opera Mini, which I installed separately (as I had on my previous phone). It supports IMAP email services, including Gmail, natively; plus you can install the mobile Gmail application, as I did. The keyboard is quite comfortable for typing: I have sent a few mails without trouble. But the browser isn't really equipped for interacting with blogs. I did try typing a blog post on Opera Mini, but somehow lost it. I posted comments on a couple of other blogs using a computer, but only after reading those blogs first on the mobile.

So for now, I expect the non-workflow to be: read on mobile; write, at night or on weekends, on laptop.

None of the browsers I use, on any platform, is Internet Explorer; this has been true for many years (in fact, it has always been true). But the interesting thing is that it is going to be true for many people very soon. Mobile phone sales dwarf those of computers, and as more and more people use their mobiles to get online or for serious work, website designers will need to drop the already invalid assumption that Internet Explorer is the only browser that matters. Reportedly the most widely used mobile browser is Safari on the iPhone. Opera Mini scores high on quality if not yet on popularity. Mozilla is working on their own mobile browser. Meanwhile, even on regular computers, IE's share is dropping. And the fastest-growing category of computers is the "netbook", the ultra-portable ultra-cheap variety pioneered by the Asus Eee, and the majority of those run Linux, with OpenOffice for office tasks and Mozilla Firefox for web browsing (and are incapable of running Windows Vista).

Microsoft will survive for a long time as an important company in the technological sector, but its days of overwhelming dominance are indeed over.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

The wrong answer

Since the Mumbai attacks (and, indeed, before), several prominent Indian voices have said that we should tackle terror firmly, like, in particular, Israel. In fact several industrialists have demanded that Israel's Mossad train our own security and intelligence agencies.

Let us imagine what would have happened if we had dealt with, say, Kashmir the way Israel dealt with Gaza:

  • We would have granted a narrow strip of the Kashmir valley, measuring about 350 square kilometres, "independence" and withdrawn our forces from there. However, we would have maintained control of all entry and exit points into the strip, and they would be dependent on us for imports, exports, essential supplies, power, and everything else.
  • We would have demanded that they elect a democratic government. Then we would have declared that we don't approve of the separatist party whom they did elect, and blockaded them, starving them of fuel, food, medicines, electricity, and other essential supplies.
  • When the residents of the valley, in frustration and anger, launch rockets at us (that mostly don't manage to hit anything), we will give them an ultimatum to stop. When they declare a ceasefire, we generally ignore the matter. When they offer to extend the ceasefire in return for lifting the blockade, we refuse.
  • When we don't lift the blockade, and the separatists step up rocket attacks, we go ahead and bomb the daylights out of them. (The bombing would have been planned for several months, and any gestures by the separatists, or "terrorists", would be irrelevant.) Having packed 1.4 million people into 360 square kilometres, we can safely accuse the "terrorists" of cowardice in "hiding" among the civilian population. Real terrorists, of course, live in isolated houses with "Bomb me" painted on the roof.

As of this writing, I'm not sure what the next step is. But if anyone thinks Israel has ensured its safety with this bombing campaign, or that India has anything positive to learn from such tactics -- well, I'm glad such people don't seem to be in our government right now.

What India has actually done in Kashmir is not good, either. Though we like to point at Pakistan-occupied Kashmir's (and, indeed, all Pakistan's) lack of democracy, we have shamelessly rigged elections throughout Kashmir's history, to stop the undesirable guys from winning. It was after the 1989 elections were rigged that the valley erupted in violence, and if the violence has abated, it is more because of weariness than any new friendliness towards India. Despite the reduction in violence, we have not reduced the presence of our security forces, seen as an occupying force (just as, say, a huge contingent of non-Tamil troops enforcing "peace" in Tamil Nadu would be seen as an occupying force). Our media largely ignores the daily abuses that occur under these troops, as they must -- there never has been an external military that did not abuse the local population. There have been widespread reports of voters being escorted by the police to polling stations. Worst of all, now that violence has abated, non-violent protestors are being gunned down. For the (generally pro-India) Wall Street Journal's take on all this, see here; for a Kashmiri perspective, see here.

I don't know what the solution is to the Kashmir problem, but I do know that Israel doesn't have a solution to offer us. If we are to look for places to learn from, perhaps we can look to Britain (the Northern Ireland problem) or Spain (the Basque and Catalan problems). But not Israel, please.