Thursday, 5 March 2009

Moving on

I am shifting my blog to Wordpress and can be found here. Hope to see you around in the future!

Ishwar Allah tere naam, Hey Ram!

Two amazing wtfmaxness in today's newspapers. The first one concerns a curious kind of ban that has been declared in Malaysia.

Action can be taken against non-Muslim publications in 10 Malaysian states if they use four words related to Islam, including ‘Allah’. A 'fatwa' had been issued to prohibit non-Muslim publications from using the words ‘Allah’, ‘Kaabah’, ‘Solat’ and ‘Baitullah’ in their reading materials.

Post buying the exclusive rights of A. R. Rahman's Jai Ho for its election campaign and engineering the appointment of the tainted Navin Chawla as the next election commissioner, the congress has decided to make the issue of acquiring Mahatma Gandhi's belongings a matter of national priority. But the current owner is playing hard to get as an article in NDTV reports:

In his proposal sent to Indian negotiators hours before the precious items were set to be auctioned, James Otis, who gave Antiquorum auctioneers Gandhi's iconic watch, glasses, a plate, a bowl and a pair sandals, asked New Delhi to "substantially" increase the proportion of its budget spent on health care of the poor, shifting priorities from military spending.

The second wtf comes in the form of Anand Sharma's (minister of state for external affairs) reply to James Otis (see article):

India rejected the conditions set by the American auctioneer of Mahatma Gandhi's personal items for stopping the memorabilia from going under the hammer and is in touch with United States and international legal agencies to get the articles back.

"Gandhiji himself would not have agreed to conditions. The Government of India representing the sovereign people of this republic cannot enter into such agreements where it involves specific areas of allocation of resources," Minister of State for External Affairs Anand Sharma said.

Reading these sanctimonious words would make one wonder if it was an indecent proposal that James Otis made originally to have elicited such a self-righteous response. The UPA layers are slowly beginning to unfold as elections approach, and the stench continues to rise; talking of elections, I feel a tingling roll in my stomach when I think of them. Are those butterflies of excitement or bugs of despair? I wonder.

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

The Middle

When I remember bygone days
I think how evening follows morn;
So many I loved were not yet dead,
So many I love were not yet born.

-Ogden Nash

Sunday, 1 March 2009

Slam-dog

Some quotable rhetoric from Jug Suraiya in a recent editorial:

More recently, Bachchan, in a blog that sparked off the current round of controversy on India's poverty, voiced similar sentiments regarding Slumdog Millionaire. Bachchan seems to find the portrayal of India's poverty gross and distasteful, rather like cracking racist jokes in front of a racially disadvantaged person, or breaking wind at the dining table. Unpleasant things, like racism, flatulence and poverty do, regrettably, exist. But must we have the bad taste to discuss or exhibit them, more so when guests are present? Wouldn't it be better all around, more polite and socially correct, to pretend that these awkward things just don't exist? And of course if you can afford to donate Rs 50 lakh to a temple which you visit with your son and your 'manglik' daughter-in-law to be, when you make as much money if not more from commercial endorsements, including an ad for what is billed to be the world's most expensive suiting material, as you do from your movie roles, poverty must seem like a really insensitive joke or a particularly nasty expulsion of gastric wind.

Saturday, 28 February 2009

Flowers

Those roses in our backyard have left this world
once again. Silently, without fanfare.

I suffered happier bruises
when I picked some for you,
foolishly bartering somber memories for an elusive hope.
The ones that escaped my touch persisted,
sticking to their unwavering loyalty
for a life that wasn't theirs to own or nurture.

The ones that stayed back-
scented our tea and enlivened our home
through their life;
Emboldening my need
for someone other than themselves.
Until,
A wandering dog decided to lie beside them
and breathe his last.
And pat they fell like a pack of cards,
to sheathe him in tender blossoms.
That was it.

The ones that I sent you-
must have long withered by now.
But in this short inconsequential life,
the grandeur of their silence
dwarfs our individual destinies.

Friday, 27 February 2009

The Boxer

One of my favourite-st songs performed by one of my favourite-st singers.


Now the years are rolling by me,
they are rocking even me;
I am older than I once was,
and younger than I'll be, that's not unusual.
No it isn't strange, after changes upon changes,
we are more or less the same;
After changes we are very much the same.

These lyrics, surprisingly, are not present in the original album version. But those are fantastic lyrics anyway. If I was the Mahmud of Ghazni and Simon and Garfunkel were my court composers, I would have given them a dinar for every couplet they ever wrote; and certainly not renege on my promise like the Mahmud originally did to Firdausi when the latter presented his magnum opus, the Shahnamah. Now enough with that anachronistic fantasy :P

Thanks Sudeep for 'leading' me to this :-).






Thursday, 26 February 2009

Really?

Some days ago, a friend with whom I regularly correspond by e-mail, complained that my blog posts were getting heavier by the day. I wrote back saying I could not help it for I don't really have a talent for humor in writing; or to put it more equivocally, I haven't really bothered to 'cultivate' that skill.

But then humor exists around you, and even knocks on your doorstep thanks to rapid dissemination through the internet. During the last two days, whenever I logged on to IBNlive to check for updates on the 26/11 chargesheet, a particular link caught my attention for it was the only one on the page in blue font. Of course, on finally reading the article I was "hee-haw-guffaw" for at least twenty minutes and promptly shared it with my fellow grad-student friends who, like me (as the rest of the world sees it), lead boring "monochromatic" lifestyles, in need of succor.

Now I won't go about analyzing the article because there isn't anything much to it beyond its hilariously ridiculous content. In a nutshell, it talks about the results of a survey which indicate that indians are extremely happy with their sex-lives and top the list in a 13 nation survey. Now that has either got to be a lie (99.9%) or unfortunately, as I have said before, I need to accept being on the wrong geographical side of cultural evolution at the wrong time (0.1%). However, it is more likely a case of flawed experimental design more than anything else. It's like conducting a survey on the degree of satisfaction with public intellectual discourse and having a tribe in the Papua New Guinea hitherto untouched by civilization topping the list. Or alternatively conducting a survey on cultural pride and finding that the Texans made it on the top.

On a side note, I confessed to a friend yesterday that eating tofu is going to be extremely difficult for the next few days (ref: article). As it is vegetarians have limited options in the west; the rest of the world, please don't hijack those to construct disturbing metaphors as you fancy :-). Now I go for lunch, but Oriental is out of the list for sometime.

Wednesday, 25 February 2009

I realized today

that I have completely lost interest in following any kind of commercial sport on the television or the internet. I do not look forward to 20-20 or the Grand Slams or the Football leagues. I wonder what happened.

Monday, 23 February 2009

A day in a life

Should have been practicing at the piano but did not. Was reading stuff that I should not have been. Was clicking my fingers when I should have been thinking more coherent thoughts.

I have been dreaming and sleeping all of today when it ought to have been a day of productive activity. Had the most peaceful nap on the floor of the common lounge on the side of the infinite corridor. I dreamt about my losses. The hour seemed like five and I woke up fresh and resolute, eager and earnest to seek redemption. But the cajoling lightness of the day caught up soon and I found myself walking out of a tepid immunology lecture to watch the early sunset by the Charles. Then I felt bad about it and wondered when I was going to catch up on the biology that I have been procrastinating for so long. As one grows older, one wishes one were more cavalier during past years.

I attempted a jog in the cold but inadequate stretching over the last few weeks is troubling me in the form of a prohibitive muscle sore. Came back to my room, dreamt for a while and read some inconsequential physics for sometime with an attempt to engage a wandering mind. But the flickering yellow across the street is hell bent on putting me to sleep again I shall go back to some more unconsciousness with a hope of waking up to a more engaging day. It's been a light and tender day I could have done without:

This is my dream,
It is my own dream,
I dreamt it.
I dreamt that my hair was kempt.
Then I dreamt that my true love unkempt it.


- Ogden Nash
Not the best follow-up to an uncanny poetic brilliance but all my body is up for now is a big yawn! A sorry blasphemer I will be.

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Excerpt from 'India after Gandhi'

It's the late hours of the night and I'm finding it difficult to sleep. I was flipping through the pages of Ramachandra Guha's wonderful book on post-independence India - India after Gandhi. I had read this book cover-to-cover in a marathon attempt about a year ago. It is a profoundly important book and deserves a second reading, especially when one easily forgets important details over time.

I was re-reading chapter 27 -titled Riots- and I came across a passage that I felt the need to quote on this blog. It was an excerpt from an older book called Nailing the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (by a certain D. R. Goyal) which Guha quotes as 'a concise summary of the ideology of the Sangh Parivar'. Now, many will think this is hackneyed and unnecessary. In our liberal minds (sorry for the presumption; but I doubt any conservative reads my blog), we know what the RSS/BJP/VHP stand for and desire to perpetuate. But such razor-sharp characterization is rare and I feel obliged to share it with the others. Goyal states that 'without fear of contradiction, it can be stated that nothing more [than the following] has [ever] been said in the RSS shakhas during the past 74 years of its existence'. (brackets mine)

Hindus have lived in India since times immemorial; Hindus are the nation because all culture, civilisation and life is contributed by them alone; non-Hindus are invaders or guests and cannot be treated as equal unless they adopt Hindu traditions, culture etc.; the non-Hindus, particularly Muslims and Christians, have been enemies of everything Hindu and are, therefore, to be treated as threats; the freedom and progress of this country is the freedom and progress of Hindus; the history of India is the history of the struggle of the Hindus for protection and preservation of their religion and culture against the onslaught of these aliens; the threat continues because the power is in the hands of those who do not believe in this nation as a Hindu Nation; those who talk of national unity as the unity of all those who live in this country are motivated by the selfish desire of cornering minority votes and are therefore traitors; the unity and consolidation of the Hindus is the dire need of the hour because the Hindu people are surrounded on all sides by enemies; the Hindus must develop the capacity for massive retaliation and offence is the best defence; lack of unity is the root cause of all the troubles of the Hindus and the Sangh is born with the divine mission to bring about that unity.

This straightforward ideology is transmitted among the Hindu thinking class in subtle ways - lofty religious liturgy from the Ramayana and the Gita are cherry picked to sugar-coat this nonsense, it is then mixed with a manufactured fear of a culture and identity threat; the Congress, with its many shortcomings and incompetencies, provides a closure to this potent recipe of obfuscation. As I sit in a foreign land and type these words, nearly 80% of my kin day-dreams and romanticizes about the BJP overthrowing the UPA in the forthcoming general elections. They are good people, lead honest lives as far as I know, nurturing their family and doing well in their careers; and they only form a microcosm of the large chunk of affluent society in India who openly root for the Hindutva brigade as a result of a self-imposed faith-based insecurity and manufactured consent that spread like a virus. They are blissfully unaware of the moral wager that rests on their conscience and more importantly, their common sense that is on a vacation. The BJP government in Karnataka has, with its mute spectator-ship of organized persecution of Christians in the state and its stellar handling of the Shri Ram Sena goons, proved once again where its loyalties lie. Rajnath Singh and Advani are resurfacing with their Ram-Janmabhoomi-talk; it is important not only that we call a spade a spade, but also try reason with others who sit on the fence.


Taliban havoc continues

A week after a supposed 'peace-treaty' was arrived at between the Taliban and the state of Pakistan, a Journalist who was doing no more than what his profession demanded was shot and decapitated in the Swat Valley. The ceasefire is a euphemism for Taliban to impose its will on the valley and its people in the name of the oppressive Islamic Shariah law. I wonder what was going on in their minds when the safeguards of democracy in Pakistan agreed to something like this. What could this possibly achieve? It reminds me of the fable of the frog and the snake.

This is disturbing news. India has palpable reasons to fear Taliban's rise; I wonder what the West is thinking. As another article puts it:


But in the event the Taliban are seen to be moving in on Islamabad or there is a danger of Pakistan's nuclear weapons falling into their hands. America's mini war in the tribal territories could escalate into a full-scale war with uncertain consequences.

----------------------------------------------------------


I came across the Opinionator article in the New York Times earlier today; notwithstanding its title that might obscure the gravity of the Taliban takeover of the valley, it spreads out some of the western opinion on a platter:


The Pakistani government has essentially given control of the Swat Valley to the Taliban. It means that the Taliban are now 100 miles from Islamabad and the military center of Rawalpindi. It also means that Pakistan’s Northwest Province is well on its way to becoming what Afghanistan used to be–a sanctuary for Al Qaeda and related terrorists. The most infuriating aspect of this development is that the Swat Valley residents were apparently looking for a simple government service that Islamabad could not provide–a justice system.

Monday, 16 February 2009

Muhammad Yunus

A conversation with a friend earlier today reminded me of Muhammad Yunus's autobiography which I had the chance to read a year and a half ago. In fact, I had gifted a copy of Banker to the Poor to my dad on his 53rd birthday without reading it myself. It was my dad who read the book and shared his excitement with me over a dinner table conversation which lasted till midnight. He presented, in a seasoned raconteur's style, the gist of what Yunus and his colleagues accomplished by establishing a sustainable system of microcredit in Bangladesh. I was thoroughly inspired by what my dad said and I ended up reading the book over the following week.

Today I found myself in my dad's shoes, making a loose attempt at narrating the events that led to Yunus's conception of Grameen bank. I came back to my room to look for some online chapters from the book to refresh my memory as I have forgotten most of the details. It turns out that the online website of the book displays the very chapter that affected me the most (when I first read it) for free reading. It's only a few pages long , the prose is simple and I strongly recommend that you read it. What is perhaps most striking is Yunus's underlying humility behind the things that he did, his earnestness to learn about the problem before attempting a solution and the sense of purpose that motivated him to execute his vision.

I remember a conversation I had with an American office-mate some months ago; he happens to be a registered republican. He was explaining (nothing was argumentative here because I was a mute listener) why he was economically conservative- 'people are poor by their own choice and deserve to be so. I work hard to earn my money and I don't want to part with it to help someone undeserving in the name of taxes or charity'- a simple argument with high rhetoric value more than anything else; but something that people find easy to buy and ideologize. After all, one doesn't have to read Milton Friedman to be Republican. Furthermore, this is probably what many libertarians feel too. Perhaps the reasonable right minded ones among these might change their mind or move to a less extreme ideology if they read Yunus's account of rural Bangladesh and are willing to be affected by what he saw.


People like Sufiya were poor not because they were stupid or lazy. They worked all day long, doing complex physical tasks. They were poor because the financial institutions in the country did not help them widen their economic base. No formal financial structure was available to cater to the credit needs of the poor. This credit market, by default of the formal institutions, had been taken over by the local moneylenders. It was an efficient vehicle; it created a heavy rush of one-way traffic on the road to poverty. But if I could just lend the Jobra villagers the twenty-seven dollars, they could sell their products to anyone. They would then get the highest possible return for their labor and would not be limited by the usurious practices of the traders and moneylenders.

Thursday, 12 February 2009

The Art of Mozart

I just got back from a wonderful All-Mozart program at the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO). Once again, free tickets could be procured through channels available to a lowly graduate student at MIT. As with the previous visit, armed with our cavalier sense of adventure, Priya, Varun and I managed to sneak into expensive balcony seats on the first floor. Over the period of two hours, the orchestra played 5 symphonies - 1) No. 1 in E-flat, K.16, 2) Symphony in G, K.45a, 3) No. 13 in F, K.112, 4) No. 14 in A, K.114, 5) No. 18 in F, K.130 (P.S: I'm typing these names out from the program brochure so that interested people can search for them on youtube. It's not like I remember them off the top of my head :P ).



The first of these was composed by Mozart when he was eight (by that time I had read my first comic book), the second when he was ten (that's when I started sleeping alone at nights courageously), the third when he was eleven (almost puberty), the fourth when Mozart had barely reached fifteen (that was when I first fell in love with a girl in my class; part sexual, part juvenile) and he was sixteen when he wrote No. 18 (never mind the attempts at correspondence). If I, without absolutely no talent for music could feel liliputian, read this:

Of course when we recall that Mozart was twenty-seven when he wrote that impressive piece (referring toSymphony no. 25), and that he was only a few months past his thirty-second birthday when he composed the great final triad, we are jolted into the realization that all his symphonies are in a sense early works (he wrote forty-one in his lifetime). At thirty-two, Brahms, Bruckner, Elgar, Hindemith, Martinu, Sibelius, and Vaughan Williams-among others-had not yet dared their first symphonies.
-Quoted from the BSO brochure (italics mine)


I have admitted before that I have no particular acumen for music or the technicalities behind it. If I love a piece, even my ability to describe my feeling in a manner that people might call 'aesthetically refined' is highly limited and susceptible to fallacies. But I have always felt with Mozart's music, that simple transcendental quality that makes it immediately appealing to one's ears. Be it the buoyant Turkish March, the sombre Requiem, the beatific Eine Kline Nachtmusik (one of the many movements) or my favourite, Symphony no. 25 in G minor, they are simple and will not fail to enthrall the accommodating and discerning ear. As a columnist in the brochure puts it:

Mozart of course came to take pride in his ability to write music that seemed simple to the simple but whose non-obvious complexities were there to delight those with more demanding ears. The minuet along with its tightrope horn lines, offers a canon to begin with and a few surprising harmonies in the Trio, and the finale brings everything to an exuberant, joyous close.

There's something in Mozart for everyone :-)

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

Modi's Gujarat

When my father was visiting Boston a few weeks ago, I brought up the topic of Modi and his recent deification by the Indian corporate lobby. I was not surprised to find some sympathies and even admiration for the man in him,being an entrepreneur and an industrialist himself. This naturally led us to a heated debate and the only concession I managed to extract from my father was the following - Modi's much admired efficiency in commissioning SEZs and removing red tapes for corporates with economic interests in the state is not going to extricate him from the moral obligation to commit to a fair trial on the 2002 events where his culpability as the leader of the state is a matter beyond reasonable doubt to any person of moderate intelligence. Even that drained me out of my powers. But as an essay by a sociologist that Deepa Nair mailed to me states:

The career of Narendra Modi is a case study that will intrigue many. He's a politician seeking to redefine himself and Gujarat. He's doing this not in terms of a holistic vision, but a fragmentary one. He has the industrialists on his side because he simplifies rules and regulations for them. He has the religious sects with him because he speaks the hybrid language of history and modernity. He claims the new by antagonizing the old, creating a middle class urban base that dreams of change, tired of the old grammar of party politics and caste equations. No leader is more contemptuous of his own party than Modi.


Continuing,

What defines him is speed: He is in a hurry, so he is intolerant. He hates any form of opposition and his ruthlessness stems from there. Often in India, we confuse the arbitrary and the ruthless with the decisive. Ratan Tata forgot the Tata tradition to opt for Modi's modernity, and created a favourable social contract between two outstanding modernizers. Gujarat is probably the only state where the SEZ and the privatized ports have legitimacy. In the short run, Modi is king. Long live the king of the short run. What of the long run?

It's no surprise that such qualities will immediately find the admiration of industrialists like my father. It is not that their kind is morally shallow or even oblivious but one has to understand that one is often limited by the boundaries of one's own interests and perception. It will, however, be an extremely sad state of affairs if in the futute, political dissent becomes the prerogative of merely the academic elite and the vast ocean of illiterate masses. As the essay puts it better than I could dream of:

As John Maynard Keynes said, we'll all be dead, but memory lives, and the future will ask questions which may not be popular today. Is Gujarat India's China, seeking to substitute Chinese ruthlessness for Indian deliberative democracy? What of justice for marginals and minorities and for all the opposition that paid the price for dissent? Dissent is a precious way of life. If Gujarat were measured in terms of a dissenters' index, it would rank abysmally low. If competence were evaluated in terms of diversity, well-being and value maintenance, we've already lost the battle.

Modi's Gujarat is a future urban nightmare. On ecology, health and welfare, Modi shows little competence. Privatising health is no way to well-being. Creating education as a business is no guarantee of quality. As a master of methodology, Modi is all technique and speed, without vision.

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Two things

made my day today.

The first was an article in the Indian Express which Purushottam Dixit forwarded this morning. The article described RSS's recently announced plans to synthesize a cola drink based on bovine urine, which is considered extremely nourishing in some older Hindu texts. Ordinary human beings and the late Morarji Desai would disagree there, albeit with different points of view and naturopathic propositions. Now, we always accuse the Hindutva brigade of the lack of imagination but the Sri Ram Sene and now the RSS have proven beyond reasonable doubt that they have developed a fine capacity to think out of the box. I imagined it'll be wonderful if these guys actually make and market such a drink and get it patented. Furthermore, it'll be awesome if this drink, let's call it Gau-cola, kicks Coke out of business. They might even sign up Aamir Khan as their brand ambassador, who knows!

But then the Coca Cola company might hit back with their own shocker. Remember, the recipe for the original Cola drink still remains a secret from the world. There might just be a secret ingredient beyond our imaginations. Yikes!

The next was this blog page about the 'Pink Chaddi' campaign. It's suddenly all over the place- Amit Varma has written about it, there are facebook and orkut groups attracting throes of members and even the TOI and IBNlive mentioned it over the last couple of days. It's pink chaddi vs saffron dhoti one on one now. Suddenly, the west has become a hackneyed spot for St. Valentine's. Some Indians always find themselves on the wrong side of revolutions :P

Saturday, 7 February 2009

Ram is back

The headlines of all the Indian newspapers are displaying a new pet topic - the BJP has asserted its intention to resurrect the Ram Janmabhoomi issue and place it among their primary political agenda. Articles in the Indian Express, TOI and The Hindu have quoted Rajnath Singh's words at a recent rally:
"Jahan tak Ram Janambhoomi ka sawal hai, koi ma ka lal Bhagwan Ram me hamari aastha aur nishta ko diga nahi sakta (No one can shake BJP's faith and reverence to Lord Ram),"
I was surprised to see the party president so vehement on the issue for I have memories of him as an inarticulate, almost incompetent speaker when he tried miserably to defend his party in the aftermath of Godhra. But then I saw the actual video of his speech where the man raises the gauntlet of faith to be cheered by an audience with cries of "Jai Shri Ram".

It is just miserable that a mainstream political party is able to win seats in the parliament by harnessing its agenda on an religio-centric issue like this. The talk of giving this issue the highest priority in their political agenda is understandably directed to a section of the Hindu classes comprised of the middle class and upwards. And it would be least surprising if a large part of educated Hindus actually vote for the BJP across constituencies obeying the calling of their faith. A good part of my extended family falls in the bracket of these deluded fools. They remain blissfully unaware of the moral obligations that they have failed to live upto.

We have a plethora of political critics attacking the BJP's stand on the basis of its provenance in pernicious identity politics but surprisingly, not on the basis of its inherent irrationality and subterfuge.

Friday, 6 February 2009

Some music

I attended a concert at the Boston Symphony Orchestra today; MIT students get the privilege of attending fifteen free concerts in a year and today was one of those days. The menu consisted of two Mozart arias, a piece by a modern American composer by the name of Schuller and Brahms' Symphony no. 2 in D, Opus 73. I had not heard any of these previously. The two sopranos were wonderfully sung by a lady in a pretty black-purple dress and the Brahms' Symphony turned out to be a fantastic experience. The Schuller piece was a bit tedious and I didn't enjoy it very much (the complete absense of melody was one reason. Postmodernism may sound cool, but it does get a little difficult on you sometimes). The concert was conducted by a cheerful corpulent old man in the grand Symphony Hall which dates back to the late 1800s. Though all student tickets had been assigned the front rows on the ground, some of us to smuggle ourselves to the balcony seats on the second floor since they were vacant and inviting. The theater has a wonderful ambience that combines baroque designs on a Victorian canvas with some Greek sculptures placed in a series on the high walls. When the concert ended with the Brahms' crescendo, it was as if the entire hall lit up with a double luminescence as everybody arose to close the ceremony with a thunderous applause.

I didn't follow any of the technical details in the musical pieces, but hopefully someday I will. I learn that Mozart's 25th and 40th are going to be played sometime soon; I hope in all earnestness that they allow students. Following this line of optimism, on someday much farther than today, I hope I'll be able to play Chopin's waltzes to someone willing to listen.

So intimate, this Chopin, that I think his soul
Should be resurrected only among friends
Some two or three, who will not touch the bloom
That is rubbed and questioned in the concert room.

- from Portrait of a Lady (by T. S. Eliot)
-------------------

Over the last few days, I've developed a great liking to Bruce Springsteen's latest song which also happens to be the title song of "The Wrestler". It is 'existentialist' in its theme, and that is perhaps the most appropriate word that fits the feeling that the song induces. But it's not exactly that either. There is more of the defiance of Prometheus than the stoicism of Sisyphus in the song according to me, and that makes it all the more appealing.

http://www.wishfulthinking.co.uk/wp-content/sisyphus2.jpg


Something about the song resonated with my own mood for the last couple of weeks and I guess it gradually grew on to me and I became fond of it. I don't have the words to express it, but then these friends always defect when you want them the most. Of course they have your interest in mind lest they appear out in the open and reveal more than you yourself can fathom. It is difficult to talk about the things and experiences that affect you while avoiding the landmines of affectation.

I remembered the first time I had read Albert Camus' 'The Stranger' and the thoughts that occupied my head when I tried to make sense of the philosophy from the fiction. Mersault, the principal character in the novel and the narrator, reveals so less of himself throughout the story and suddenly there is an avalanche that flows from his voice in the last few pages. The last paragraph of the book is one of my favorites in among all the fiction I have read:

People were starting on a voyage to a world which had ceased to concern me forever. Almost for the first time in many months I thought of my mother. And now, it seemed to me, I understood why at her life’s end she had taken on a “fiancĂ©”; why she’d played at making a fresh start. There, too, in that Home where lives were flickering out, the dusk came as a mournful solace. With death so near, Mother must have felt like someone on the brink of freedom, ready to start life all over again. No one, no one in the world had any right to weep for her. And I, too, felt ready to start life all over again. It was as if that great rush of anger had washed me clean, emptied me of hope, and, gazing up at the dark sky spangled with its signs and stars, for the first time, the first, I laid my heart open to the gentle indifference of the world. To feel it so like myself, indeed, so brotherly, made me realize that I’d been happy, and that I was happy still. For all to be accomplished, for me to feel less lonely, all that remained to hope was that on the day of my execution there should be a huge crowd of spectators and that they should greet me with cries of hate.

Thursday, 5 February 2009

Pramod Muthalik, the kingpin of the Sri Ram Sena has announced (Excerpt from www.indiauncut.com):

Our activists will go around with a priest, a turmeric stub and a mangalsutra on February 14. If we come across couples being together in public and expressing their love, we will take them to the nearest temple and conduct their marriage.

There exists a second level of absurdity beyond the obvious - the tacit assumption that the couple in question would necessarily be Hindu.

Myanmar

Already Myanmar’s government is one of the most brutal in the world, and in recent months it has become even more repressive.

A blogger, Nay Phone Latt, was sentenced to 20 years in prison. A prominent comedian, Zarganar, was sentenced to 59 years. A former student leader, Min Ko Naing, a survivor of years of torture and solitary confinement, has received terms of 65 years so far and faces additional sentences that may reach a total of 150 years.

We blame our political history for what goes wrong in India today - reservations, minority appeasement, corruption, Kashmir and what not. But isn't it noteworthy that we have a reasonably stable democratic political establishment compared to our immediate neighbors in the subcontinent? It is no less than a miracle of fate that has escaped our notice. I need hardly mention the state of Pakistan and its military history; Nepal is a fledgling republic with a history of Maoist terror and palace intrigue, parts of Sri Lanka are still reeling with civil war in its north and Bangladesh has just recovered from a inhuman period of military emergency.

A possible danger of a military coup in India would hardly occur to any of us even in the wildest of our imaginations. Unlike Myanmar or Bangladesh our military has been "mostly" loyal to respecting constitutional civil liberties (quotes to highlight Kashmir and the eastern states as outliers to this simplification). And unlike Pakistan, the Indian military has been quite faithful to the central governmental directives and non-intrusive in state policies.

It's difficult to imagine what the situation might be in countries like Myanmar, for even journalistic reporting of facts is scarce. One feels the same moral outrage against the Indian government for not speaking out against atrocities meted out by the military government as one feels against the US for its complicity with Israel against Palestinians. It's a country where over 3000 political prisoners are suffering injustice including the country's only Nobel Laureate who has been under house arrest for nearly eleven years. The military outlawed her lawful right to assume prime-ministership of the country in spite of winning an 80% vote in the general elections around 1990.

India has her own troubles to deal with at the moment. As I remember reading the words of an author (can't recollect the source)- India is an "unnatural nation" and an "unlikely democracy". My idealism might fade away soon enough as I gradually age. But will there be a time when we have governments and leaders who speak unequivocally against such crimes in our neighborhood (after having set our own house in order to begin with) calling a spade a spade? Or will future political and economic power (wishful thinking) make us indifferent or worse, embrace the American ways of unlawful intervention for propagation of self-interests under a sanctimonious guile? Only time will tell.

But one thing is certain - we can change our political friends and enemies, but not our geographical neighbours





Wednesday, 4 February 2009

A fascinating story

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/05/world/africa/05nazi.html?hp

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

onerous music notes

The wasp and all his numerous family
I look upon as a major calamily.
He throws open his nest with prodigality,
But I distrust his waspitality.

-Ogden Nash

My piano instructor is a real wasp. He's passionate about his teaching but he stings when you try to be a smart-ass. I assumed I'd be able to compute note positions as fast as I could play them on the piano, but only ended up falling flat on my presumption and looking stupid. If only natural numbers were one-hundredth as close and personal with me as they were with Ramanujan, I'd have pulled this one off :-(.

No more mental gymnastics from now on. Read, repeat and remember will be the way hereafter. Ess muss sein!

Monday, 2 February 2009

The scientific method

This lofty phrase that cuts through much of the debate between proponents of intelligent design and Darwinists, theists and atheists, seers and scientists, astrologers and statisticians is really this simple (watch video).

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/c/cf/Pluralitas.jpg

One of the qualities of greatness is the ability to keep things simple and to be able to harness insight with a clarity of vision. People might disagree to this obvious simplification and they may be quite right in their criticism. Complexity is quite a necessity in the domains of writers, artists and poets - and I won't try to go exploring the nature of that kind of complexity because it is quite likely I might fail miserably. After all, there certainly is a reason many of us prefer Umberto Eco over Dan Brown. We can use this as a point of convenient departure.

A mail from a friend got me thinking for a while about directive principles like Occam's razor - unarguably human psychological artifacts that have proved quite useful while constructing scientific theories. They have also been misleading at times- the simplest example that comes to mind is the misplaced Aristotelian assumption that planets moved in circular orbits, the circle being the perfect shape. Another cute example that comes to recollection is the following conversation between a philosopher and his friend (I forget the names of the characters and I cannot find the source; I shall try to reproduce it from memory to the best of my abilities):

Philosopher: Tell me, why did they assume that the sun went around the earth in older times?

Friend: Why, because it's obvious isn't it?

Philosopher: What's obvious about it?

Friend: Why, it's obvious from the way it looks up in the sky, isn't it?

Philosopher: Well then, do tell me how it would have looked if instead, the earth went around the sun?


So, simplicity (or perceived obviousness) isn't always the name of the game. That said, there are other kinds of artifacts which scientists have exploited in recent years- things that fall under the bracket of 'transcendental reasoning' or 'enlightened empiricism'. Physicists, especially post Einstein, have very frequently made successful "leaps of faith" in order to preserve abstract concepts like conservation, symmetry, parity and even things like immutability of the second law of thermodynamics.

Why? Because there is a gut feeling that these things must be overarchingly correct. Of course, as Feynman himself says, the experiment should be the final judge of the thesis and also the progenitor of enlightened reasoning (as I read a couple of years ago in Freeman Dyson's "The Scientist as a Rebel", they found out that nature violates the principle of symmetry during reflection).

I have rambled enough without a direction. I return to my basic point about the power of simplicity and I now contrast it with what I percieve as obscurantism in the domain of knowledge (which safely leaves out art from the discussion). Many of us (and I confess I have been a prey too) have sometime or the other, succumbed to the temptation of being obscurantist in the process of sounding lofty and intellectual to others. Well some people in the world make make an entire life out of it :-).

I have, in the not so distant a past flung many a diatribe at my disregard for such postures. A much more eloquent essay against pseduoscience is the "Postmodernism Disrobed" by Darwin's rottweiler. I might be totally wrong (as my friend kp used to passionately reason) with my views and there is a possibility that I might be misplaced to an extent too. As a a student of science and more importantly a Bayesian, one cannot rule out any possibility wholly. But it does serve as a pretty robust working principle and makes me personally prefer Russell over Sartre, Feynman over Lacan and V.S. Ramachandran over Sigmund Freud.

But as much as I dislike obscurantism in scientific claims (to the point of possibly being irrationally militant against it :P), I love fiction and poetry. Oscar Wilde could not have been more closer to the truth when he said:

We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as long as he does not admire it. The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely.

All art is quite useless.

Sunday, 1 February 2009

The Respite Ends

Semester begins tomorrow. Coursework is not particularly exciting - a course on systems engineering which I daresay would be tedium, one on advanced reaction engineering which might hold something interesting and a graduate course on immunology; I'm looking forward to the last one for that is the only one of direct relevance to my research at the moment.

Florida turned out to be a welcome break for all sorts of reasons. For one, it helped me get away from the sense of mental haste that seems inescapable in Boston. Besides, thanks to my father, I indulged in a good deal of luxury and leisure during those five days. When pleasure ceased to please me, I thought. Some hovering delusions became apparent in the light of calm and calculated reason; the path of liberation, however, was not so evident.

My mind seems to waver and I cannot pay attention to the news either. Moving on,

I plucked out my tattered copy of Nineteen Eighty-Four and started flipping through its pages. Few books have affected me as this one did five years ago; it was like being punched out of a coma. I leave you with some of my favorite passages:

Never again will you be capable of ordinary human feeling. Everything will be dead inside you. Never again will you be capable of love, or friendship, or joy of living, or laughter, or curiosity, or courage, or integrity. You will be hollow. We shall squeeze you empty and then we shall fill you with ourselves.

----------

Winston Smith: Does Big Brother exist?
O'Brien: Of course he exists.
Winston Smith: Does he exist like you or me?
O'Brien: You do not exist.

---------
THREE SLOGANS Image
We are not content with negative obedience, nor even with the most abject submission. When finally you surrender to us, it must be of your own free will. We do not destroy the heretic because he resists us; so long as he resists us we never destroy him. We convert him, we capture his inner mind, we reshape him. We burn all evil and all illusion out of him; we bring him over to our side, not in appearance, but genuinely, heart and soul. We make him one of ourselves before we kill him. It is intolerable to us that an erroneous thought should exist anywhere in the world, however secret and powerless it may be. Even in the instance of death we cannot permit any deviation . . . we make the brain perfect before we blow it out.

Thursday, 29 January 2009

Bernie Madoff

Shocking skeletons are coming out of the closet from the Madoff scandal as revealed by a recent editorial in NYT:

I’ve obtained a list of nearly all the private foundations that invested money directly with Mr. Madoff, at least at the time of their most recent tax filings. Even in the unlikely event that they cashed out since then, they may still have to repay the money to others.

What is staggering is how many of these 147 foundations had all their assets invested with Mr. Madoff and may have been wiped out as a result. For example, the Avery and Janet Fisher Foundation, which supported everything from various museums to meals-on-wheels programs, appears to have been fully invested with Mr. Madoff. And the same is true of dozens more.

The Picower Foundation of Palm Beach, Florida, with nearly $1 billion in assets and a major contributor to non-profits across the nation, has already announced that it will close down because of its Madoff investments. Its beneficiaries have included a neurological research institute at MIT, the New York Public Library and the Children’s Health Fund.


The MIT institute mentioned is the "Picower Institute of Learning and Memory" which stands opposite the Stata center on Vassar street. I pass through the building everyday on my way to the campus and I often think of taking courses there in my future semesters given my developing interest in neuroscience. Now its very survival seems to be a matter of speculation.

Wednesday, 28 January 2009

The Story of India (BBC documentary)

Some days ago, I got a chance to watch "The Story of India" which is a six-episode documentary produced by the BBC. Conceived and narrated by historian Michael Wood, it is a panoramic sweep on nearly six-thousand years of Indian history. The perspective of curious enthusiastic westerner is dominant throughout the film, but it is a substantial effort on the part of the crew and deserves to be watched as a fitting acknowledgment to their meticulous attempt. Therefore -Highly recommended!



The first episode presents a few glimpses into the pre-Aryan history of the subcontinent, finally culminating in the Indus Valley period. What particularly got me interested was the presentation of small investigations that possibly hold answers to the anthropological history of the Aryans in the subcontinent. First, satellite topographic images showing compelling evidence of the past existence of a river in the North West frontier have been published by a group in Imperial College, London. Though they don't mention it explicitly in the episode (to the best of my knowledge), this is a clear reference to the river 'Saraswati' which is mentioned in the Vedas (on a tangent, the other river that finds mention in the Vedas is 'Suvatsu' loosely translated to 'white serpent'. The associated valley is now known as the Swat region in Pakistan where the Taliban have taken over and are wreaking havoc). Then follows a cute part where Wood goes around the streets of Afghanistan trying to re-create 'Soma-rasa' that is frequently mentioned in the Rig Veda (The climate of the Indian plains is supposedly not conducive for this plant to grow). But the most fantastic part was the visit to an archaeological site in Turkmenistan (Central Asia) where remains of a lost civilization that reared horses and used chariot-carts (raths) have been excavated.

I got interested on this debate some months ago and though it's completely baseless, my gut inclination has been towards the invasion hypothesis. Prima facie indications responsible for this are two - 1. the Indus Valley script has no seeming resemblance whatsoever to Sanskrit or Tamil. 2. Anthropological and archeological evidence state that the horse (which finds very common reference in older Hindu texts) was first domesticated in Central Asia and not in the plains. Anyways, I'm neither skilled nor qualified to be able to authoritatively comment on this issue; it is just something that interests me and I have gathered some superficial knowledge on the issue based on recent reading. The last part of the episode deals with the excavation of (the possible) Hastinapura, the capital city of the Mahabharatha by the Indian archeologist B. B. Lal (incidentally, this research is discussed in length in William Dalrymple's City of Djinns)


The second episode deals with the extraordinary life of Buddha (who is one of my personal heroes) and Alexander's famed attempt at invasion through the Khyber pass. Subsequently, the rise of the Mauryan empire is presented at length, with primary emphasis on the lives of Chandragupta and his grandson, the emperor Asoka. The story of Asoka is the stuff that legends are made of. We owe it to the British for bringing us this part of our history into our consciousness starting with William Jones who founded the Royal Asiatic Society in Calcutta in the 18th century (V. S. Ramachandran calls him the 'father of comparative linguistics'). I remember being deeply inspired by Asoka's story when I heard it as kid from my grandfather during bedtime; those memories were revisited when I went to the National Museum in Delhi in the summer of 2008. Outside the main entrance is one of Asoka's stone edicts, where he proclaims the message of universal tolerance and compassion with an emphasis extended to the animal kingdom.

In the third episode we visit the south, which, towards the beginning of the first millennium AD traded gold and lapis lazuli among other things with the Roman empire and even with the Hellenic world. A short glimpse into the unique Graeco-Indian empire that ruled India in the early part of this millennium with the Kushan king Kanishka is provided. This empire, that made its capital the city of Peshawar, was primarily responsible for opening up trade routes like the Silk route from China. Incidentally, the progenitors of this civilization were nomadic tribes from China; by what wand of nature they settled in the northwest and developed a beautiful synthesis of Buddhism and Hellenes remains an enigma.

http://www-tc.pbs.org/thestoryofindia/images/gallery/varanasi_main.jpg

In the fourth part, we come to the Gupta dynasty, supposedly referred to as the Golden age of India. This was the time when Vatsyayana wrote the Kamasutra, Kalidasa and Asvaghosha wrote their plays, Aryabhatta brought in the zero and Bhaskara estimated the circumference of the earth. However, the revival of Hinduism by Adi Sankaracharya does not find mention and we immediately jump to the south of India to the time of the Cholas (giving the Chalukyas, the Rashtrakutas and the Pallavas a slip for considerations of time). The art and the legacy of the Cholan empire is discussed in some detail (they are to my knowledge the first Indian empire to engage in colonial expansion through sea-routes) and there are glimpses into the beautiful temples of Tanjore (which happens to be my native place too!).


-----

I wanted to finish the blurbs for parts five and six but am feeling increasingly overpowered by sleep. They shall follow. But I shall mention in passing that all the facts covered by this documentary is a small subset of the spread that Nehru provides in his 'Glimpses..' or alternatively 'Discovery of India'. I have come across many people to have a very narrow and monolithic view of Nehru based (I believe) primarily on preconceived notions. We thus fail to understand his significance as a writer and historian of rare skill and erudition whatever be his political legacy and personal life scandals. I recently achieved my first 'conversion' on this issue - my victim being my own father who has started reading 'Glimpses..' to bedtime :-).

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Why does it keep repeating?

1. "Sri Ram Sena" and the Mangalore Pub
2. Shiv Sena and Hotel Intercontinental Grand.
3. MNS and Mumbai University

Embittered. Hurt. Depressed.

I don't want to think or write about it. I have nothing to state except the naivest of hopes that such vandalism ends and the youths, who are the principal instruments for effecting the will of fiends and demagogues against other youth find better avenues. Having stared at the computer screen for more than fifteen minutes without being able to continue, I give up, weary and helpless. One cannot be creative about issues that drive one to mad rage.

Unfortunately, mental disengagement seems difficult at the moment to do anything productive. Hence, capitulated sleep.

Monday, 26 January 2009

Boca Raton, Fl

I arrived earlier this afternoon in Boca Raton with my dad. While he is here for a business conference, I made use of the opportunity to make a getaway from the Boston freeze. As he got busy with his meetings immediately on arrival, I sought to explore the place on my own. Besides it had been a while since I could afford to go out on the roads with only one layer of clothing and roam around in shorts. The absence of public transport was expected; so, armed with my i-pod (which was resurrected from idleness after a whole semester), I started walking on the street right off the coast listening to my favorite Jim Morrison songs. They somehow fit snugly into the mood. The sun, somber yellow now, was on its way home mixing its warm benedictions with the cool sea breeze blowing soft and flat. I passed by a group of fat men smoking cheroots in a communion after a swim in the sea; behind them stood a bunch of pretty young girls drying themselves up and playing some sort of catch-and-run while at it. Their liveliness seemed inviting but I don't think they would have been even slightly impressed if I removed my t-shirt and joined them in their game. Besides, it seemed the boys they came along with were playing volleyball at a distance, so I looked askance and trod along the concrete road with 'Feast of Friends' playing inside my ears. Morrison's songs were getting somber and heavy down the playlist. It was then that I passed by a car whose music seemed to overpower the volume of my i-pod and my attention was all of a sudden beleagured. The driver of a car, a man of about twenty-five, had his stereo on full volume and was singing along in the loudest and the most monochromatic of voices:

How does it feel
How does it feel
To be on your own
With no direction home
Like a complete unknown
Like a rolling stone?

This man's appropriation of any other singer/group would have put me off, but this was just the change I needed. And I was happy to search and find that my derelict i-pod had all of Bob Dylan. I walked aimlessly for another hour or so (no intended metaphor with the song there please) and returned back to the hotel to find my dad still engaged in his meetings. He was finally relieved and we went out for dinner at an Indian place with a couple of his colleages. The were busy discussing business over dinner and there was very little I could participate in it except when they discussed current political affairs. I was quite up-to-date on the Satyam story and I was found useful when the others were trying to remember names from the new board of directors, their older CFO and CEO (I have a useless memory for such details; I wish I could remember facts from molecular biology/biochemistry with the same level of comfort). As I was relishing an especially good Masala Dosa, they started speculating on some M&A plans for the future. Though by then I had stopped paying attention and was on my own stream of thought, I could hear fancy words like profitability, revenue model, core-competency come up again and again. I recollected then the short period of my IITB life when I engaged in some serious preparation for interviews with consulting firms with some of my favourite people. Little less than a year before, I could fancy myself being quite interested in making sense of such conversations and trying to show off some of my own gyaan on this matter, given that I had the pride of being recruited on a hot-shot consulting job swelling up my chest. Presently however, the time, the thrill and the illusions are long gone. An ordinary graduate student with ideals in his mind and a hope of finding vitality in his work is all that remains.

------------------------

My dad is an interesting character. In spite of being a pucca man of business (which he undoubtedly is) he sometimes shows a childlike curiosity for matters of science that are of little use to him. When we were still in Boston yesterday, after relishing a lunch of rasam and pongal that his soon assiduously prepared, he asked me to sit down and explain what 'entropy' and the 'Gibbs free energy' meant. He confessed that he had never understood these things while he was himself a student of chemical engineering and all the books he read subsequently never really provided a clear understanding of these concepts. Over the twenty minutes or so, I tried my best to use simple examples (which included a most wonderful example I stole from Richard Feynman's Cornell lecture titled 'The distinction between past and future', the video recording of which I had seen recently during MIT IAP series. Interested people can find it in his collection of popular lectures called 'The Character of Physical law' available in paperback) and illustrations to explain the general concept of thermodynamic potentials and the corresponding consequences of the second law. My dad would incessently interrupt me to ask questions and make me constantly reflect on whether I was being effective in transferring what I understood about these quantities to him. He smiled when he finally understood one of the points I was trying to make - that the law of increasing disorder was not a consequence of some cosmic force in the universe but that it can be simply understood as the sheer statistical preponderence of disordered states over ordered states (once again here, Dawkins' nice analogy with a 'library' presented in his essay 'Darwin Triumphant' from 'The Devil's Chaplain' proved handy) and then he said that would be enough for the time being. I am not sure I entirely convinced him at the end and it made me realize that it's difficult teaching someone who has had a principal role to play in shaping your own conventional wisdom both by nature and nurture. I am sure he took his siesta that afternoon thinking that he sent me to all these colleges and bought me all the books I wanted in my 'pursuit of learning' but that the returns of those investments were not entirely evident at the moment. :-)

Saturday, 24 January 2009

Taliban and Arjun Singh

Rarely have I been as scared in the recent past as I was while reading this article in the NYT earlier today. It describes the Taliban gaining consolidation in the Swat valley in Pakistan and their flouting of every law of the land while spreading a wave of unspeakable terror among the natives. Every line is shocking beyond description. Doubts to whether the US reporting was cooked came to my mind, so I did a simple search on google Pakistani newspaper reports on the same issue. They resonated with the NYT report, for instance this one and this one. The Dawn article also glibly reports some spineless political moves that the civilian government is making to "keep the Taliban at bay".

Among the many things that the Taliban have kept themselves busy with, one is the "blowing up of approximately 150 schools in the Swat area" 100 of which were schools for girls. As the Dawn article states, one of the 'strategic measures' being employed by the Zardari government to reach a compromise with the Taliban is the promulgation of Shariah law in the region. Shariah, among many other things, forbids women from attending schools and permits only madrasa education for the men. In the light of all this, let us also remember with pride that not more than a few days ago, our wonderful HRD minister passed a law which places madrasa certificates on par with CBSE and SSC certificates (Read this article) for government job applications. What a travesty!

There is another thing that deeply bothers me. I haven't yet come across one article in the Indian free press questioning this decision. Google for the subject and you will find a couple of dozen newspapers reporting the decision but I would be grateful if someone could find me an article by any journalist/op-ed speaking critically on this issue. One only finds comments and outburst such as the following (taken from an online discussion forum) :

The foolish rulers thinking this step will bring the muslim community in to national mainstream,no. psudo secularists betrayed hindu community by giving unconstitutional rights to minorities. where is our SNDP,NSS leaders who are always talking and fighting each other in the name of reservations? Why they are not open their mouths

hindu wake up.. wake up.

--------------------------

BJP will do nothing
If any one expects to BJP to do any thing, they are living in a fantasy world. BJP too is now behaving "secular" and would agree with this move. It is upto a Hindu at an individual level to understand his true situation and make his kids hard fighters. Let them use the existing schools and facilities, study hard and win in competetive exams. No madrassah based idiot would even come close. And let hindus start getting into every government job through sheer merit. Muslims then can do what they do best, Jehad and kill innocents.


A nation where public dialogue is of such stellar quality deserves such laws :-)


Friday, 23 January 2009

Strike one and two

True to his word, Barack Obama issued executive orders on two fronts immediately after the transfer of powers - to close the Guantanamo prison camp in no more than a year's time and to reverse the many bans and restrictions imposed by the Bush administration on abortion aid programs. Stellar!

I watched the inaugural speech alongside a number of MIT students. The unanimous verdict was that the speech was inspiring and one noticed jubilant approvals when the new President assured his audience that scientific research will not be compromised any longer (Bush and Cheney were booed correspondingly). Yet, one finds Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman playing Devil's Advocate in his recent editorial in the NYT on the economic policies addressed by Obama in his inaugural speech. Though Krugman doesn't go beyond criticism in this particular article, he has attacked specific policy initiatives of Obama ever since the latter's election.

It is reassuring to know that there exist smart and honest people out there who constantly question and criticize the administration even when the public opinion is largely approving. This might be a direct consequence of the skeptic outlook of the intellectual elite; but then, not everyone can pull it off in a scholarly manner. An ordinary chap like me finds it difficult to keep up with each and every topic that is important to the world. Skepticism that doesn't have information and depth to back it just amounts to pigheadedness. And to be perfectly honest, I've never had a intuition for economic concepts except the most rudimentary ones - if a million monkeys like me were laid end to end, we wouldn't reach a conclusion on an economic policy ;-). Besides, I have other fish to fry.

I have recently developed a great regard for dissenting voices across history. I wish I had the time to explore Voltaire, Rosseau, Bakunin, London, Thoreau and the likes. They were necessary in the absence of democracy, but now they are all the more important in democracies like America where propaganda is much more subtle. There probably exist dissenting voices in India too but the frequency of their appearances in popular newspapers is quite rare. On this thread of thought, I am reminded of a passage about the famous evolutionary biologist J. B. S. Haldane from an essay by Ramachandra Guha:

In 1957, Haldane left England to make his home in Calcutta. Several years later, an American science writer referred to him as a "citizen of India"**.Haldane replied: "No doubt I am in some sense a citizen of the world. But I believe with Thomas Jefferson that one of the chief duties of a citizen is to be a nuisance to the government of his state. As there is no world state, I cannot do this ... on the other hand I can be, and am, a nuisance to the government of India, which has the merit of permitting a good deal of criticism, though it reacts to it rather slowly. I also happen to be proud of being a citizen of India, which is a lot more diverse than Europe, let alone the U.S.A., the U.S.S.R., or China, and thus a better model for a possible world organisation. It may of course break up, but it is a wonderful experiment. So I want to be labelled as a citizen of India."

**There is very likely a typo here. It ought to be "citizen of the world"

----

Appa arrives in Boston tomorrow. We're going to Florida on Monday where he has to attend a conference and I will be making sand-castles on the beach. Presently, I have rediscovered:

1. that molecular biology is quite interesting. And that experiments can be wonderful. I read about the Meselson-Stahl experiment a few weeks ago; I cannot believe how it escaped my attention during undergrad. It is one of the most beautiful and simple experiments that I have come across and should be regarded as textbook in experimental design.

2. that Jawaharlal Nehru remains my favourite historian despite his biases for China, Russia and the Congress. He can be forgiven for innocence on the first two. We all know he paid his price for China years later.

3. that not all the happiness in life is confined to human relationships. In fact, hardly any is.

Thursday, 22 January 2009

Oscars

There must be cogent reasons behind it perhaps, but I am quite sad that 'The Dark Knight' did not make it to the top five :-(

Watched 'The Curious Case of Benjamin Button' and absolutely loved it (though it significantly diverges from Fitzgerald's original short story). Watched 'Slumdog Millionaire' and liked it too notwithstanding certain leaps of faith and willing suspensions of disbelief that were needed. 'Milk' and 'The Wrestler' are next on my list of movies to watch.

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Some more doublespeak

The following is an excerpt from a recent editorial in The Economist urging for a ceasefire between Israel and Gaza, an event that happened on the following day.

Some of the hypocrisy in the Arab world is unspeakable. Syria, for example, is one country to accuse Israel of “genocide”. But in 1982, when Syria’s own Muslim Brotherhood rebelled in the Syrian city of Hama, the regime responded by shelling the city indiscriminately for three weeks, killing about 20,000 or 30,000 civilians. In Gaza Israel has killed 1,000 people. It is not playing by Hama rules, let alone committing genocide. Russia’s onslaught on the Chechen city of Grozny in the mid-1990s is reckoned to have killed some 20,000 civilians. As for Hamas itself, it deliberately murdered hundreds of Israeli civilians in buses and restaurants in the intifada of 2001-03.

Before I sleep every night, I read about 3-4 news articles and the sites vary from day to day, all of them western newspapers. One is no longer surprised to find such glib language used with great facility to buttress the most ridiculous of arguments across respectable journalists in the west. It seems a pathological condition, a self-deception of an unprecedented kind in supposedly freethinking democracies - something that would have surprised Orwell himself. But it ceases to be funny when you remember that lives cannot be lumped in multiples of thousand. It is beyond belief that in a country where popular public discourse is so often conscious to the inherited "Judeo-Christian" values, it is so very difficult to find a voice in the popular media who opposes these west-supported invasions as 'morally outrageous' and not simply 'politically imprudent'. The article ends:
For Israel, however, the sword alone will never be enough. A small country with many foes cannot afford to become a pariah. And Israel has a particular reason to avoid killing civilians, since the people it is bombing are the neighbors with whom it so much needs to live in peace.

Some expedient reason to stop mass murder, isn't it?


Obama's inauguration

Yesterday, January 20th was a momentous day in the history of the USA. While President Obama made minimal references to this historical shift in his inaugural speech, he harmonized many emotions when he referred to the nature of improbability that "a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath".

His speech was forthright, emotional and pregnant with fresh confidence that we have come to regard as an epitome of great modern oration. In an attempt to be cordial on a day of celebration, he refrained from explicitly criticizing his predecessor other than saying that the present systemic failure was the sum total of the inability of "those who hadn't the courage to take hard decisions". He stressed on the immediate uphill tasks before his government - resurrecting and revitalizing the economy, demilitarization of Iraq and improving the health care system. There have been reports suggesting that he has immediate plans to disband Guantanamo Bay and also remove restrictions imposed by the Bush administration on pro-abortion groups, both of which would be immensely gratifying steps if implemented soon enough.

But there was one part in his speech that I was disappointed with (the constant references to God and Jesus throughout the proceedings was something that bummed me out further, but that's a given). Something, where I hoped the 44th President would have differed from his many predecessors. With sweeping patronization, Obama said “To all other peoples and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born, know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and that we are ready to lead once more.

Obama's election coincided with my birthday here. I have had deep admiration for man ever since I heard of him and my reading of his autobiography only entrenched my respect for his indomitable courage, conviction and more importantly his aspiration to the highest office of the biggest democracy with a principled heart beating in his chest. But since his election, my regard for him has vacillated and even gone downhill for a bit. One principal nail was his stance on the Israel invasion of Gaza which he met with calculated silence initially and in the passing, appraised it as yet another 'strategic blunder' or 'mistake' (the other was the Iraqi invasion). by the incumbent government. I had hoped he would correct this in his inaugural speech, but it was not to be so.

Remarkably, such a poor stance is highly regarded among the American intellectual elite as 'principled opposition'. The official and reports in the New York Times are so depressing- nearly 1400 Palestinian deaths as opposed to 13 Israeli deaths and vast areas of Gaza devastated and raped off civilian infrastructure - one wonders whether there is any need to speculate as to what the 'real' figures and picture might be! With such outright crime before our eyes, how can calling this or Iraq a 'strategic blunder' be regarded as 'principled dissent'?

Boston is one of the places where you could sit in a coffee shop and find your neighbours involved in passionately sophisticated discussions about art, science and politics - the city having a rich academic culture. When one is bored of one's own work/reading, it is always a great pleasure to eavesdrop into something interesting. Yesterday, on one such occassion in Huntington avenue, I found a group of women (who I suspect were liberal arts teachers) discussing the coming of the new President. Boston, unlike the south, is a place where people openly support abortion, same-sex unions, the right to an independent stand on religion and abhor conservatism. Yet five out of seven among these consented the American support of Israel! (one of them even quoted the death tolls and referred it to as an unfortunate statistical consequence) One is surprised to find so much obfuscation in the conscience in the most powerful democracy in the world (with the grand specter of the fifth amendment) to not realize that there is something grossly wrong in American interventionism over the years. Not surprisingly, the two women who did not support the America's policy on Israel called it a 'mistake'. This is the legacy that every such subterfuge since the Monroe doctrine and the white man's burden has left us. But this is by no means a principled dissent!

Monday, 19 January 2009

Another Ramble

I have often tried to reflect on my schooling experience and attempted to deconstruct its effects in shaping my overall personality, outlook and character. These were merely contemplative exercises but nonetheless I think they helped me form some strong opinions about how primary and pre-college instruction ought to be in a general sense. When I try to gauge the ten odd years I spent in schools in terms of learning, I look back with a lot of disappointment at a good deal of 'lost time'. That there was an absence of direction towards life's broader goals does not bother as much as the pestilential presence of rigid constraints that conspire to limit you to much narrower, pettier goals - passing exams and beating your peers at grades for instance. I recently read an interview of Noam Chomsky (incidentally, I also had the good fortune of hearing him speak on the Gaza intervention in a recent public lecture at MIT) where the interviewer asked Chomsky on his schooling. Chomsky attended an experimental progressive school until he was twelve when he was transferred to a "college-oriented school" in the city. He says:

"...it wasn't until I was in high school that I knew I was a good student. The question had never arisen. I was very surprised when I got into high school and discovered that I was getting all A's and that was supposed to be a big deal.

In fact, every student in the school I had previously attended was regarded as somehow being a very successful student. There was no sense of competition, no ranking of students..... Well, anyway, at this particular school, judging from my experience, there was a tremendous premium on individual creativity, not in the sense of slapping paints on paper, but doing the kind of work and thinking that you were interested in. Interests were encouraged and children were encouraged to pursue their interests. They worked jointly with others or by themselves. It was a lively atmosphere, and the sense was that everybody was doing something important."

- taken from The Chomsky Reader

Such 'progressive schools' do exist in India in a small number. But I am quite certain most of them are prohibitively expensive and accessible to only rich families. Most of the other supposedly 'good schools' which include the ones I went to are primarily concerned with populating 'merit lists'- a term that I have come to regard with utmost disdain over the years. The unfortunate consequence is that most students who out happen to be outliers; those who do well in spite of the system, not because of it. I was no outlier as a schoolboy. I did well in my exams and lived in a world of my own delusion thinking that was all there was to learning. My parents and teachers were happy with me and the sum total of this status quo was that I learned absolutely nothing in my school beyond mechanically chewing and regurgitating the regimented syllabus.

The unfortunate thing, in the words of a Brazilian educator, is that most schools are "more preoccupied with the transmission of knowledge than with the creation, among other values, of a critical spirit. From the social point of view, the educational systems are oriented to maintaining the existing social order and economic structures instead of transforming them".

There is certainly a lot of truth in the above statement even if one were to refrain from sourcing these political accusations to an active agency in the system. But even then, this is a much more charitable position if we notice that even transmission of knowledge degenerates to rote learning in our schools- the pedantic recitation of facts as opposed to the assimilation of a principle and exploring its consequences thereon. To quote Richard Feynman from 'The Pleasure of finding things out', an inseparable part of robust learning is to realize the difference between 'knowing the name of something and knowing something'. The following is one of his famous anecdotes involving his early childhood experiences with his father:

‘See that bird?’ he says. ‘It’s a Spencer’s warbler. Well, in Italian, it’s a Chutto Lapittida. In Portuguese, it’s a Bom da Peida. In Chinese it’s a Chung-long-tah, and in Japanese it’s a Katano Takeda. You can know the name of that bird in all the languages of the world, but when you’re finished, you’ll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird. You’ll only know about humans in different places, and what they call the bird. So let’s look at the bird and see what it’s doing - that’s what counts!

The Necessity of Atheism

I recently came across a remarkable essay written by the famous English Romantic poet, Percy Shelley titled 'The Necessity of Atheism'. It was first published in 1811 when the author was merely nineteen and its "audacious content" led to his immediate rustication from Oxford. What surprises me is not that such an essay could be conceived and written nearly two-hundred years before this day- there had been a sufficient maturation of the scientific method and philosophical literature (with the exception evolutionary biology) for thinkers to be motivated in this direction and Shelley was by no means ordinary in his capacity to do so-, but that in spite of the avalanche of scientific work that was accomplished in the following two hundred years the kind of nonsense attacked in this essay still persists in the minds of the educated class (not the 'opiate masses' as Marx condescendingly put it). Shelley was writing at a time when western colonial powers engaged in slavery with impunity, sati and untouchability was shamelessly prevalent in India and the world was still in its infancy of socio-economic and political thinking. Undoubtedly, many of us can rationalize (Dawkins' saw-toothed shaped Zeitgeist curve for instance) as to why we haven't progressed in this direction - a big factor in contention is the championing of religion (or conservatism in a broader sense) by many managers of political power across the world to facilitate the propagation of their self-interest. But let me be infantile here for a moment and shout - this shouldn't be the case!

Sir W. seems to consider the atheism to which it leads as a sufficient presumption of the falsehood of the system of gravitation; but surely it is more consistent with the good faith of philosophy to admit a deduction from facts than an hypothesis incapable of proof, although it might militate, with the obstinate preconceptions of the mob. Had this author, instead of inveighing against the guilt and absurdity of atheism, demonstrated its falsehood, his conduct would have, been more suited to the modesty of the skeptic and the toleration of the philosopher.


Mind you, this was penned nearly sixty years before Bertrand Russell was born in Victorian England and readers would note that what I have marked as bold can be considered a trite version of Russell's famous 'celestial teapot' argument. What is more inexplicable is the observation that a book like 'The God Delusion' should be a bestseller two centuries later! In no way do I intend to disparage Dawkins' excellent book; I have to admit that in some manner, it led to my own 'conversion' or at least facilitated it greatly. Many of my friends would agree to this too. That is, until you read Russell and realize that he was much broader than Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens (the three 'bright' Musketeers of the present) put together. Perhaps in another ten years I will say the same thing about Kant and Bacon. But let me be childish yet another time and expostulate - My parents should have introduced me to this shit!

Sunday, 18 January 2009

India Inc.

While the Satyam fiasco is still fresh in the minds of the nation, news of India Inc.'s overwhelming endorsement for Modi as PM is the talk of the town. This support, apart from making L. K. Advani very pleased and encouraging him to express saffron solidarity with Modi in his latest blog entry has also frothed trouble for a little known CPI(M) MP in Kerala who talked a little too much by praising Modi's economic policies. The thought of Advani as PM sends shivers down my spine as such (being not so inconceivable a possibility); I fear a slip disk if the Modi speculation draws close to reality.

My trepidation reached highest levels when I saw a video that had Anil Ambani speak the following salutary words for Modi in front of an audience primarily comprising the hotshots of India Inc. It almost sounded as a call to arms:

"If one Dhirubhai can do so much for India, imagine what a thousand Dhirubhais can do. If one Narendrabhai can do so much for Gujarat, imagine what Narendrabhai can do as a leader for India."

A thousand Dhirubhais can ensure that India Inc. evades every possible taxation and can buy out every spoke in the central government with unprecedented impunity. As far as what a thousand Narendrabhais can accomplish for Gujarat or one Narendrabhai for India is concerned, I don't even want to indulge in speculation.