Friday, February 27, 2009

Conservative dishonesty

For sheer chutzpah it is hard to beat American conservative columnists. I used to regard William Safire as intellectually honest, in that his views may be off the wall but he would not hesitate to attack the Bush administration if they trampled on civil liberties. But he ceased his NYT column and they are yet to find a successful replacement: their last attempt, Bill Kristol, was a disaster. George Will, at the Washington Post, till recently seemed somewhat principled, but two recent columns on climate change make a mockery of both words I used above: "intellectual" and "honesty".

On February 15, Will wrote a column on climate change that attracted rebuttals from around the web. George Monbiot's, on The Guardian, is here. James Hyrnyshyn's, on scienceblogs, is here.

Today Will rebuts those rebuttals. Except that he doesn't. He ignores nearly all of the rebutters to focus solely on Andrew Revkin of the New York Times. He claims that "[his previous] column contained many factual assertions but only one has been challenged. The challenge is mistaken." Apparently challenges by well-known columnists and activists like Monbiot don't count.

What is this "mistaken" challenge? It is to the claim, in Will's previous article, that
"Since September, however, the increase in sea ice has been the fastest change, either up or down, since 1979, when satellite record-keeping began."

to which his rebuttal is... actually, he doesn't rebut it (and Monbiot reports that he can find no evidence for this claim). What he rebuts is a separate factual challenge, to his previous claim (which he does not quote here) that
"According to the University of Illinois' Arctic Climate Research Center, global sea ice levels now equal those of 1979."

To this, Monbiot (and others, including, apparently, Revkin) quote the ACRC's response:
"No, it is not correct. I don't know where they are getting that. As of today, there are 1.43m km sq less Arctic sea ice than this same date in 1979. (Roughly the size of two Texas-sized states)."

Inadvertently partially defending himself on this point, Will links to this document. But Will seems to think the document defends himself against his claim that "since September the increase in sea ice has been the fastest change, either up or down, since 1979". Nowhere does the document suggest this.

What it does say is that reduction in northern hemisphere ice (about 1 million sq km) is partially offset by an increase in southern hemisphere ice (about 0.5 million sq km), thus leaving a much less visible change in global ice levels; but it makes it clear that the southern hemisphere increase is expected and temporary, and that the surface cover is only one of several worrying indicators. Perhaps Will hoped that nobody would click and read that link. Or that if they did, they would be incapable of understanding simple English, since it is apparently beyond his comprehension.

The article that Will links to suggests (if one simply subtracts the estimates for the two hemispheres) that global ice levels have in fact fallen by 0.5 million sq km since 1979. He reports that the Illinois centre said the difference since 1980 is "less than three percent", which is about consistent with this number.

He then triumphantly ends his column with the news item, that from early January 2009 until February 18 2009, faulty measurement had underestimated the Arctic ice area by 193,000 square miles (about 0.5 million sq km). Why the jubilant tone, I wonder? Did he fail to comprehend that (a) this faulty measurement does not affect the previous data, reported in 2008 and clarified in a document dated January 1 this year? Or that (b) though the number is coincidentally close to the reported global drop in ice since 1979, it is dwarfed by the Arctic drop, so even if it were relevant, it wouldn't affect the conclusions?

It seems to me that, when political columnists turn their attention to science, they do themselves a serious disservice. After watching George Will's ability in reading comprehension and basic scientific, mathematical and geographical literacy in action over two recent columns, how are we to react to his political pronouncements?

But perhaps these people do serve a purpose. Whenever I get annoyed by the Indian punditocracy I head over to new world. Will, Kristol and Charles Krauthammer, to name just three, can make anyone in the world look good by comparison.

Slumdog and real life

What do you do when you are a slum dweller and your kid gets in all the papers because he was in an Oscar-winning movie?

If you happen to be Ismail, father of Azharuddin Mohammed, you get your own name in the papers by slapping your kid in the presence of photographers. Why the slap? Because the kid was tired and did not want to parade in front of the press any more.

The cringe-making images are here.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Early start

I wonder if it is a sign of things to come that our 2-year-old's first ever complete sentence in English was "Give me money."

(He was asking for a 50p coin that we were playing with. He has previously said similar 2-word sentences in Tamil.)

Wednesday, February 25, 2009


I haven't seen or read Slumdog. I have read several intelligent criticisms of the movie. This, however, doesn't seem to fall into that category.

Salman Rushdie apparently thinks that the movie has too many impossibilities. Whereas, of course, it is an entirely possible thing to be endowed with magical powers just because you happen to be born on the same night as India's independence.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Violence, police high-handedness and response

I couldn't help comparing these things.

First, via dcubed, an account of violence against women by self-proclaimed "sons of the soil" (actually influential rich louts in Bangalore); police high-handedness; and how the victims responded (entirely within the system and via the rule of law). A must to read.

Second, what's going on right now in the Madras High Court. It started with lawyers protesting against the Sri Lanka Tamils issue, but has spiralled into violence, destruction of property, the alleged stripping of a police officer by lawyers, and even the burning by lawyers of a police station on the high court premises. The lawyers, who are supposed to fight to uphold rule of law, claim police high-handedness as the provocation, and have retaliated by jettisoning any pretence of law-abiding behaviour.

Are these concepts of rule of law, due process, and so on meant only for the elite pub-goers in Bangalore, and not for the "sons of the soil"? Are they elitist Western concepts that have no place here?

Friday, February 20, 2009

Prawo Jazdy, Ireland's worst driver

According to this story, someone called Prawo Jazdy was listed as having racked up speeding tickets and fines -- over 50 of them -- all over Ireland, but had given a different address each time and could not be traced...

(go read the article if you don't want the punchline)

...until someone figured out that "Prawo Jazdy" is Polish for "Driving Licence".

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Dear Faber,

A letter that I just sent to Faber HeatKraft India, manufacturers of kitchen equipment. [EDIT: if the letter is cropped on the right margin, try reducing the font size. Unfortunately this seems to be a problem with blogger, or at least this blogger theme.]

Date: February 11, 2009

Mr [name deleted]
Asst Manager Customer Care
Faber Heatkraft

Dear Mr [deleted],

Many thanks for your letter of February 9, 2009, as well as the cheque
refunding us the cost of the Faber HeatKraft dishwasher that we had
purchased on December 30, 2008. As you required, we have signed the
letter, after making several annotations that you would have noticed
and that we explained to your company representative who visited us.
In particular, we accept that -- subject to the cheque being credited
-- this is a full and final settlement of the issue, and binding on
both parties, and commend you on the relative speed with which it was
arrived at.

Below I discuss several pertinent points in your letter. First,
however, let me observe that I claim copyright on my text, as your
firm does on all e-mails sent by you. Nevertheless, I hereby grant
permission for VERBATIM reproduction of the ENTIRE TEXT of this
letter. Indeed, I propose to reproduce it myself: I believe it may be
useful to some prospective customers of your company. Respecting your
copyright, I will not quote your letter, except for a couple of short
sentences where needed and in contexts that, I believe, are protected
by "fair use".

Let me first summarise the situation to date, to refresh your memory
and for the benefit of any other readers of this letter.

1. On December 30, 2008, we were persuaded by your representative at
Rathna Fan House, Chennai, to purchase a Faber Heatkraft dishwasher
(model WQP12-9011B). We were told that it would be delivered on
the following Monday, January 5, 2009.

2. After much delay and telephonic discussion, the machine was
delivered at our residence on January 12, 2009. Installation was
promised the same day or the next day.

3. After further delay, which included discussion with your office in
Pune, the machine was installed on January 20, 2009. The
installation occurred later than scheduled, on a working day, and
therefore the machine was perhaps not perfectly inspected and

4. On the night of January 24, the machine ceased to function.
January 25 (Sunday) and January 26 (Republic Day) were holidays.
Your engineer arrived to inspect it on January 27.

5. On January 27, as we were inspecting the machine, we as well as the
engineer noted the following details:

a. The "date of import" for the machine was stamped as June 2005.
The date of manufacture was unknown but could well have been
over 4 years prior to purchase.

b. At least one screw was missing, and there were signs of rust.

c. Water was leaking from the machine.

d. We had previously observed that the manual accompanying the
machine was for a different model (WQP12-9213).

We promptly informed both you and your office in Chennai by
telephone, and sent you an e-mail the same day, and a speed post
the next day. We failed to receive any acknowledgement.

6. On January 31, we spoke to you and you claimed that the matter had
been resolved and the decision communicated to the Chennai office,
who claimed they were waiting to hear from you. You moreover
seemed ignorant of the missing screw, rust and leakage. We
therefore e-mailed you photographs of these as well as of the
import date, and got a rather non-committal acknowledgment.

7. On February 3, we phoned you and were told that the matter was
still pending.

8. On February 5, we decided, on advice, to consider legal options
under India's consumer protection laws. We telephoned your dealers
in Chennai, Aaa Pee Enterprises, to confirm their mailing address.
A little later that morning, we got a telephone call from you
telling us that the Chennai office had been instructed to give us a
full refund. You refused to convey this information by e-mail.

9. On February 6, not having heard anything further, we sent your
managing director a registered post, for which we have received the

10. Finally, on February 11, we received the refund cheque; but
accompanying it was a rather illuminating letter that we were
required to sign. It is this letter that I would like to discuss

You open the letter by observing that you disagree with us that there
is any defect in your products. We did not claim a manufacturing
defect. Actually, our objection was being sold a 4-year-old machine
under the belief that it was new. But we are happy to know that you
believe the machine defect-free.

You observe that the timer knob was broken after "several" (actually,
three) successful uses of the machine. (You say that we claim it was
broken; we made no such claim, and you must consult your engineer.)
You suggest, though we specifically denied it several times, that the
timer knob was wrongly turned anti-clockwise. It is possible that we
did this while sleepwalking, though neither of us has a history of
such an ailment.

You mention that the "manufacturing year of the machine cannot be
co-related with the future performance of the product". I am sure
materials scientists everywhere will be interested by the information
that materials, even rubber and plastic materials, suffer no
degradation despite four years of warehousing.

You observe that service was available under the one year warranty.
We should of course have been happy with the fact that, in January
2010, we would have had a five year old machine that was no longer
covered by warranty. And even if frequent repairs were required, it
would have been a pleasure to call your service agents repeatedly,
taking time away from work.

You observe that we failed to note the missing screw on delivery, on
January 12. Apparently we should not have waited for the installation
personnel (who arrived on January 20) even though we were strictly
told not to unpack the machine in their absence. We should have
insisted on unpacking it on delivery and examined it for defects on
the spot. Your future customers will find this information
particularly valuable.

You observe that missing screw or "water clogging" can be "resulted
due to mishandling of the product". What we reported was a water
leak, but it is interesting to know that screws in Faber's products
can disappear due to "mishandling". We additionally reported (and
sent photographs of) rust, which you don't discuss in your letter. We
assume that this means rust is normal and expected in a
freshly-delivered machine.

What entirely puzzles me, however, is why you chose to refund our
money. Our advice had been that, under Indian consumer protection
laws, selling a machine imported in June 2005 as new would be a
deceptive and unfair trade practice; but you seem to be arguing very
strongly in your letter that you have no obligation to do anything
more than service the machine under the terms and conditions of the

I can only imagine that you foresaw that we would waste our time on a
losing case, but out of a gesture of kindness, decided to save our
time and refund our money. For this we are extremely grateful to your
good self.

With best regards,

Rahul Siddharthan

Note: the lack of acknowledgement of the speed post mentioned in point 5 may not be Faber's fault. This was the shipment that I mentioned previously, and I am happy to report that, as of today, it finds itself in Talwandi Bhai, according to the online tracker.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

A well-travelled envelope

Trying to track an envelope sent by speedpost from Chennai to Pune a week ago, I entered the tracking number on this site. It showed no delivery status, so I clicked on "movement" and this is what I get. (Pasting the table directly into blogger didn't work: blogger, it seems, can't handle itineraries of such magnitude.)

I am interested to know that the consignment existed in late 2007, and am curious to see where it will find itself tomorrow.