Thursday, June 25, 2009

Huge news from Iran, thanks to The Hindu

I refer to this article (hat-tip: Rahul Basu).

In response, I just sent the following e-mail to the Readers' Editor at The Hindu:

Date: Thu, 25 Jun 2009 14:34:41 +0530
From: Rahul Siddharthan
Subject: The Hindu: information that nobody else carries

Dear Sir,

Old-timers in Chennai have always counted on The Hindu for information and enlightenment, and this morning you did not disappoint. I was amazed to know, thanks to your editorial pages and specifically to our former foreign minister, K. Natwar Singh, that the former Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and the current Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, are in fact one and the same person, whom Mr Singh refers to (twice) as "Ayatollah Ali Khomeini" (and also as "supreme leader", "great man" and numerous other flattering epithets).

So Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini did not die in 1989, as widely reported, but merely changed the spelling of his name and continues in power to this day. (One assumes that a person as eminent as Mr Singh, and a newspaper as prestigious as The Hindu, will not misinform the public on such grave matters.)

I believe this news is significant in today's context and should be more widely known: it could have grave international implications. I request you to carry it prominently on your front page, and disseminate it as widely as possible.

With best regards,

Rahul Siddharthan

UPDATE: The Hindu has a correction/clarification today, and I sent the following in response.

Date: Fri, 26 Jun 2009 10:50:20 +0530
From: Rahul Siddharthan
Subject: Today's correction Re: The Hindu: information that nobody else

Dear Sir,

(Ref: my mail yesterday, quoted below)

I am disappointed that the conflation of the two "supreme leaders" in Mr Natwar Singh's article yesterday was a simple error. However, the explanation that he was referring only to Ayatollah Khomeini and not to Ayatollah Khamenei is rather puzzling.

Mr Natwar Singh, as you observe, uses present tense throughout for Ayatollah Khomeini; and this is not a general habit with him in referring to deceased people, for he uses the past tense in referring to Mr Rajiv Gandhi. ("Ayatollah Ali Khomeini has a magnetic personality. If one is eye to eye, you blink first... Rajiv Gandhi too had uncommon charisma.")

Later, he writes:

"The Ayatollah is still the supreme leader. The West and Israel would be unwise to take him on.

"I have related this memorable episode to highlight the fact that the Iranian leader is no run-of-the-mill leader...."

But Ayatollah Khomeini is not still the supreme leader. The memorable episode, according to your clarification, features a man who died in 1989 and it is not relevant today whether or not he was a run-of-the-mill leader. This is similar arguing for caution in dealing with Gordon Brown because Margaret Thatcher was no
run-of-the-mill leader.

Here is the alternative explanation that I had thought of before your clarification: today, international conferences are attended by Iran's President, not the Supreme Leader. So the person whom Mr Natwar Singh met at the NAM summit was probably the President, who at the time was Ali Khamenei. Perhaps his 1982 anecdote also refers to Ayatollah Khamenei (who was the president throughout the 1980s). He was not the supreme leader then, but he was an important man; and if Mr Natwar Singh was referring throughout to Ayatollah Khamenei and not to Ayatollah Khomeini, and the error was due to his own mistyping or due to sub-editing errors, his article makes much more sense. (It is still doubtful whether there is any useful content in the article, and whether it is worthy on its merits of being published, but this is a separate topic.)

But your clarification, I'm afraid, raises more questions than it answers. If what you say is true, on what basis was this article published? Perhaps Mr Natwar Singh's advanced years are to blame in what he sent you, and one should not be too harsh on him, but how could such flagrant errors pass your editorial desk?

Sorry if I seem to be belabouring the point, but I think this case is symptomatic of a large number of problems I see in The Hindu lately.

With best regards,

Rahul Siddharthan

Friday, June 19, 2009

The long route to Microsoft

Sometimes I surprise myself. I have no Microsoft software installed on my office computer. I have Microsoft Windows Vista on my laptop, because it was pre-installed, but it is in a separate small partition that I almost ever use. I detest Windows, and have detested it since it was a separate program that one used by typing "win" on an MS-DOS computer. (Actually, I have rarely used it since those days.)

But a couple of days ago, I set the default search engine on my Firefox search box to Microsoft Bing.

I've been going back-and-forth between Bing and Google for a while, and not only does Bing look nicer and show up a useful mouse-over preview of search results, but the results look mostly more relevant. Most of my searches are academic-related. I still have the Google toolbar installed, with its own search box, so I can easily go back and forth. When searching for scholarly articles, I use either Google Scholar or PubMed -- so far there seems to be no Microsoft equivalent of those, but I won't be surprised if it's on its way.

I used to be a free software idealist, but the question is somewhat moot with online services. Besides, I have figured out now that what I really want is customisability. (This is also the reason I was never very tempted by Apple.)

Linux is almost infinitely customisable, but the days when I would build my own kernel and compile much of my software from source are long over. Nowadays it's just a question of selecting from the options in Ubuntu's software repository -- and, in rare cases, enabling an external repository.

Now, suppose my next computer is pre-installed with Windows 7, and it turns out that I can configure it to a unix/X-like interface with my own key bindings and can install most of my favourite open-source software, pre-built, with a few clicks (as I can in Ubuntu): would I consider going with it, and not repartitioning and installing some form of Linux? Till recently, I would have laughed at the idea of Microsoft becoming so open-source friendly: but the world is becoming a strange place now.

Friday, June 12, 2009

What if I can't look angry anymore?

I've had a problem with psoriasis on my foot for years. Recently it became rather bad, and I visited a well-known dermatologist in Kilpauk (who also practices at one of Chennai's best-known hospitals).

I have a mistrust of new doctors, so I cross-checked all items on the prescription. They all looked standard stuff for psoriasis; the ointment, in particular, was similar to something I've been prescribed once before (a different preparation of betamethasone, a corticosteroid). So I went ahead with the treatment and the problem cleared up within a week, as it had before.

I then told the doctor that the problem tends to recur after I stop the treatment (even if I keep the area moisturised). She said there is another tablet that she would consider prescribing, but wanted some blood tests done first to be sure it is safe to take it.

Today I went there, blood tests in hand. And while I was waiting, two people got up to the reception to speak. One guy introduced himself as from the company that makes Botox, and he said the young woman next to him will be sitting in the doctor's clinic assisting her; meanwhile they wanted to inform and educate us about this treatment.

I promptly announced that I am cancelling my appointment, scratched my name, wrote the doctor a brief note, and walked out.

I had already been disturbed, on my first visit, at the sight of Botox advertisements in the doctor's clinic, telling patients how they could keep the wrinkles away and stay looking young; but I ignored it because I had strong recommendations to this doctor. (And, for all I know, she is indeed very good.)

There was a time when doctors would not prescribe medicines that were advertised to the public. For example, if you needed an aspirin, they would prescribe not Aspro (advertised in the glossies of the time, and on TV) but Disprin (not advertised). I know times have changed, and I have even seen a few Disprin ads. I can also understand a doctor prescribing Botox for someone who needs it (I first heard of it, years ago, in the context of treating writer's cramp).

But cosmetic Botox is another matter. And direct-selling it to patients, in a doctor's clinic? I find that utterly unconscionable. I mean -- the thing is a neurotoxin, derived from bacteria that cause a deadly form of food poisoning (botulism). Its therapeutic use is in paralysing muscles -- which is sometimes good (alleviating writers cramp), but sometimes surely unnecessary (paralysing facial muscles, which allegedly cause wrinkles not to form). At best, it should be suggested by a doctor after carefully explaining the pros and cons of the treatment -- not direct-marketed by a pharma company on her premises!

And if the doctor indulges in this sort of practice, how can I be sure that the pill that she was going to prescribe me was in my interest and not in the interest of some pharma company or the other?

I've heard it said that the reason for the wooden appearance of several Hollywood celebrities (think Nicole Kidman) is their excessive use of Botox; one quote that sticks in my mind (I forget where I saw it) is, "few actresses are able to look angry any more". [UPDATE: found it.] Well, sometimes I do want to look angry. For example, right now.