Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Developing World: Adolescent Children?

It's been a freakishly long hiatus for no real reason. I wasn't getting married in these two months, like I was last hiatus. Just plain busy.

Lots happened during the hiatus. Musharaff declared emergency in Pakistan. Some "sting" reports were carried out on Modi's henchmen confirming his guilt in slaughtering Muslims in Gujarat a few years ago. And Bush's (presumable) plans to bomb Iran to hell received a plausibly fatal setback: apparently, Iran does not have nukes at all (and is probably not contemplating building any, either). Yet, John Bolton went on American National Television claiming that he does not trust the above "Intelligence Estimate". And America lost its most dependable (and unbiased) source of news when Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert were forced out of Air by striking writers. [I was wondering why Lou Dobbs and Bill O'Rielly were still on, but I realized that these people probably do not allow their writers to join unions].

Despite so many interesting developments to make fun of (Isn't John Bolton just asking for it?) , I still choose to talk about a lecture that I attended a few weeks ago for a "seminar" class. A lecture which was quite illuminating in understanding international perceptions on the whole energy crisis the earth is said to be facing.

But before that, let me make a mention of Mr Al-Gore's speech yesterday when recieving the Nobel "Peace" prize (a prize, I believe he really deserves, because his movie reaches exactly the right audience). He lambasted US and China for not doing enough to fight carbon emissions. The US stands squarely incriminated in both these estimates: (total CO2, per capita CO2), whereas China is the 80th in the "per-capita" pollution ratings. To blame a bunch of people who emit 10 times less CO2 (each) than you is plain bigotry. Or plain ignorance. And I believe it is more the latter than the former.

Here's an irksome analogy that I came across during a discussion after a lecture on energy policy a few weeks ago. (I keep the identity of the speaker secret, because some of the comments I make here can be quite caustic, and I know the speaker did not mean any harm - he just suffers from a luxury delusion syndrome - like Al Gore and most of the people in the US, who have been insulated from significant economic suffering by a nation with a historically unprecedented per-capita prosperity)

"Think of Europe as the Old Man of the World, The US as the 40-something middle aged man, and the developing countries as the Adolescent kids of the World. We need to show them the way and teach them how to live the right way. We need to sensitize them of environmental issues."

The above analogy is so miserably flawed that I don't even want to start to correct it. Suffice it to say that it serves as good starting point to understand the well intentioned but far-removed-from-reality mentality of the first world inhabitant. Perhaps we should call the first world the fantasy world, instead?

It's no wonder that fear-mongerers like Lou Dobbs are immensely popular here, in the US. Lou Dobbs' entire life is dedicated to making the lives of some of the poorest people in the world (who come to the extremely prosperous US in search of an opportunity to feed their family back in Mexico, just like his Ancestors did, from, presumably, Europe) that little bit more miserable, thereby enhancing his ratings and making him a little richer. Nothing sells like patriotism, as Stephen Colbert shrewdly observes.

The whole thing is just a battle of perceptions. I am not indicating that there is any actual bigotry in the Average American (or the average inhabitant of the first world). The First world inhabitant, as a matter of fact, the least racist and the most tolerant (dare I say liberal?) person there is in the world today.

The truth is that Democracies are genetic algorithms which favor populism and narrow regionalism over globally egalitarian ideals. This is because only inhabitants of the first world vote for their leaders. And this makes me conclude that the very concept of regional democracy is deeply flawed.

It is my opinion that, for democracy to really work (and for free trade and free markets to really work), the world needs to be one large nation which free movement of capital AND labor, not just the former.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

No Homosexuals in Iran

Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmedinijad was asked a sneaky question during his lecture at Columbia. Everything about the whole speech was sneaky: the dressing down that an incensed university president tactlessly delivered frankly made me sympathise with Ahmedinijad for a little while.

When asked about how he justified persecution of homosexuals in Iran, he contended that homosexuality, as a phenomenon, does not exist in Iran. People laughed at him for that.

We must realize that the only difference between the fanatics and the west is liberal thought. But it seems that western liberal thought is not liberal enough to understand the reasons behind illiberal thought.

Liberalism is a luxury of the rich. (You might want to consider reading the previous post to understand why I make this claim with such vehemance). When you are worried about where your next meal comes from, you, more likely than not would not care about whether homosexuals (less that 1% of the population in societies where "coming out of the closet" is not an option) have rights or not.

The Iranian president, the product of a democracy (a little bit of liberalism that has seeped into an otherwise phenomenally othodox society) must be a refelection of what his people want. Otherwise, out he goes! It is electoral pressure in Iran than made him what he is. He is playing for the conservative muslim vote - the extremely illiberal school of thought that believes that Homosexuals must be stoned to death and that women must be kept under lock and key.

I don't think Ahmedinijad could have said anything else to that question. I don't think laughing at his denial or Iranian homosexuality has any point: Iran is an orthodox country right now. If you ask Pat Robertson (an American religious maniac) something similar, odds are he will give you a more venomous answer. [I would hold him more guility than Ahmedinijad as he hails from a much more liberal society and is still a fanatic].

I believe true liberalism can arise only when one understands the cause of illiberalism and accepts it. And in the case of the Liberals in the US vs Ahmedinijad, I hold both guilty. For if we turned back the clock 50 years in the US (with its instituionalized racism) - we find perhaps an equally sickening picture. There is room for optimism: the US, now, in my opinion has more or less conquered racial prejudice.

And Iranian society is more orthodox than the US was 50 years ago! Let's be reasonable, shall we? Why expect the impossible?

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Of Sleaziness and Corrupt Equillibria

Blogs are supposed to be offensive. If you want something inoffensive, then some nursery rhymes might be what you're looking for. This disclaimer is trying to preempt comments by one anonymous (or many anonymi) - who consistently opine(s) that yours truly is a pompous goof (or something to that effect). Anonymi are encouraged to comment, of course. This little disclaimer is just to put them down - a taste of their own medicine!

The disclaimer having been gone through, it seems more appropriate let the pontifications begin.


Not knowing much of something has seldom stopped me from opining about the same something. So, let me extend my speculative genius to Sociology.

The recent visit to the third world (home) has opened my eyes wide. I viewed India with a more critical eye this time: having lived in a more prosperous society for a couple of years. The same critical eye that has been viewing the U.S with for the aforementioned couple of years.

The following analysis is based on my experiences with India and the U.S - but from what people tell me - and plain common sense - I am sure this applies to any third world society contrasted with any rich society. And here I go.

In performing this analyisis, I will use two tools in plain argumentative form: thermodynamics and genetic algorithms. The former to define an equillibrium, and the latter to analyze how to get there.

Let me define a social equilibrium now. (And just like all the Ideas I've had before in my life, it's all been done before by some other nut.) Let me quote wikipedia here.

In sociology, a system is said to be social equilibrium when there is a dynamic working balance among its interdependent parts (Davis & Newstrom, 1985). Each subsystem will adjust to any change in the other subsystems and will continue to do so until an equilibrium is retained. The process of achieving equilibrium will only work if the changes happen slowly, but for rapid changes it would throw the social system into chaos, unless and until a new equilibrium can be reached.

I contend that contemporary Indian society is in a corrupt quasi-equillibrium here; a culture brought about by 45 years of Xenophobic protectionism (not to mention extreme economic exploitation prior to that). Here are some thought-allegories to help digest the point I am trying to make:

Firstly, let us consider an Idealistic police officer. Let's call him Ram. Ram turns down bribes when he catches people jumping traffic signals. He follows an American model of doing business: he writes the errant motorist chalans (Indian tickets ). Every other traffic cop accepts a crisp Rs. 50 note (I hear inflation has made it a crisp Rs 500 note) and lets the motorist go. Ram feels happier about himself. God is probably smiling at him.

He keeps up this outstanding behaviour. One fine day, his colleague calls him home. And when he goes to his colleague's home, he sees a couple of little spheres with eyes walking around the house, jumping on beds, fighting with each other - or behaving like typical children. Ram feels flabbergasted. His own kids are skinny to the core. Their ribs show. He soon finds out why.

His colleague's chidren eat a lot. A lot of fatty, expensive food. Food that Ram cannot afford himself.

Ram realizes that in order to feed his family like other people do (who are in the same position as he is) he must indulge in practices construed unethical by his God. Ram does not want to indulge in bribery of any sort: but his conscience will not allow him not to bribe. He is rational, after all. How can he watch his children starve, when a little compromise on his morals can make them live happier lives? Why should he be so selfish as to gratify himself by being moral?

And the invisible hand of the market (another of the millions of names for the second law) sees to it that he starts trading Rs 500 notes for pride and "morality". His children gradually grow more spherical. Ram will initially be miserable about his embracement of corruption. But gradually he will have begun to accept this as a part of life. He will have became bitter, cynical and, ironically, happier.

Morality, after all, is a luxury meant for the rich. The high horse that the rich ride on to "look down" upon the soul-less animals that they deem the poor to be.

Ram's story might contain elements of exaggeration: the rotund-ness of the little ones, for one. But I assure you, this dilemma is extremely common in poor India - and perhaps is only tempered by blind religious faith. (Here's another instance where I frown upon Dawkins' bellicosity toward all things religious: liberal values, like religion, seem to be a luxury only the rich can afford). Common sense would extrapolate this to any other region of the planet where penury is the predominant way of life: Africa comes to mind.

Now let's move on to Sarkar, a Bengali farmer. He farms rice in the sweltering 40 degree heat and infinite humidity. He is initially ethical, refuses to accompany the Basmati with little stones that lie about here and there. And then he sees his neigbour's fat children standing beside his skinny ones. Enough has been said.

Let's call this invisible-hand-emotional-blackmail the "thin children effect" (T.C.E) - and let this depict other implicit coercive effects that force people to compromise morality (such as the "let-me-steal-to-eat" effect, for one) too. Corruption is imperative because everyone else is doing it. With corruption the demand for higher legitimate wages goes down - there is no incentive to bargain for more pay when lots of the green stuff makes it to your pocket through the back-door.

Now let us try to construct a genetic algorithm that starts out away from equillibrium - and ends up in equillibirum. This, again is a thought experiment - inspired by the likes of Einstien et.al.

Start out with lots of rational average "honest" agents (people) - put them in large corrupt society. A corrupt society would penalize ethical behaviour (the T.C.E) and would reward corrupt behaviour more often than the legal forces would penalize corrupt behaviour. (And often corruption would get so institutionalized that the enforcement mechanisms would lose integrity too). If the people are rational (i.e. they realize that feeding their children is more important than the "luxury" of being ethical), then it can be seen that the "honest" agents will be forced into corruption. It can happen vice-versa only if the number of agents is much larger - perhaps of the order of the dishonest agents. Sleaziness and corruption shall prevail. You don't need a computer to tell you this. Just common sense.

On the other hand, take a handful of "corrupt" agents and put them in a large "honest" society. A honest society, I am convinced, can only be well to do. (More on this in shortly). Since enforcement is much better in an honest society, it is quite easy to see that the dishonest will be penalized - and rationality will convert them into honest citizens.

In my opinion, the developed world is more of an "honest" society - where dishonesty and petty corruption is more of a mutation than mainstream. And the poorer countries are "corrupt". But hold on! There's more to it than meets the eye. Since social hierarchies are quite difficult to breach, it is possible for many equilibria to coexist in the same society. While the lower middle class in India probably is in a corrupt equilibrium, the upper middle class is probably in an honest equilibrium.

Suppose, in the aforementioned GA, you don't introduce people into a large society, but you consider a large poor society instead, living in an "honest" equilibrium. Suppose, by some mutation, one "corrupt" person comes about. His children grow fat. Subsequently, he converts his neighbour to corruptionism (sic) so to speak. And so on, ad infinitum. An honest poor society is therefore unstable.

A dishonest rich society, on the other hand need not be deemed unstable - for there is greed in everyone. But, an overtly religious or "liberal" society will spontaneously become an honest one - because for such a society, dishonesty isn't even an equilibrium.

Futher, I expect rich societies to be much more susceptible to the luxury of patriotic blind faith - as is abundantly demonstrated by the U.S. The evidence of a growing Jingoism in India could perhaps be interpreted as a sign of the country's shifting economic fortunes? Of course, one must bear in mind that an overwhelming number of Indians are poor beyond imagination.

How does one break the corrupt Indian quasi-equillibrium? More on that soon.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Introducing Entropism

As far as religions go, there's plenty of religions out there - all brimming with messages of love - and beating the living daylights out of each other. To add another religion to this abundance of hate in the name of love would be unwise, to say the least. But nobody told me that. Here I go, starting a religion of my own.

Nothing makes sense right now. Christianity's most sacred assertion of virgin birth is improbable to say the least. And Judaism (and other faiths derived from Judaism) believe in a male God who created the world in seven days. Hinduism and other associated faiths believe in life after death , Nirvana - all equally irrational and improbable as virgin birth. (Please note that I dare not criticize Islam in this blog, as I might be imposed a fatwa upon by some Cleric and be prohibited from entering India - a fate similar to the one that has befallen one Salman Rushdie - so let me say for the record - Islam is a great religion and a religion of peace. That sound you're hearing is my knees shaking in fear of getting a fatwa issued in my name.)

Here are the basic tenets of Entropism:

Entropism is the belief that shit happens. Especially when you are careless. In order to limit the amount of shit that happens, one must be quite careful.

The intelligentsia amongst my readers would surely have realized that this is little else than the second law of thermodynamics ("the entropy of a closed system never decreases"). Yes, this is INDEED a cop out of mammoth proportions. The fundamental premise of this faith is just a statistical reality. No chance of that going wrong, eh? (Unless they make a Maxwell Daemon for real this time).

What is the central message of entropism? Is it one of love?

No. It is one of utter self centeredness (sic). And love, incidentally is a mere consequence of selfishness. (For an elaborate discussion of the same, the reader is refferred to Prof. Dawkins' "The Selfish Gene". Though I think Prof. Dawkins' emphatic confrontations with theists are counter-productive from a practical point of view - his book is still very powerful philosophically). The basic message is "Do unto others what others do unto you - keeping in mind, of course, legal constraints - for if what others do unto you is illegal, turning them over to the police might produce more satisfying results". A sort of order in the society shall then result - something not unlike the Evolutionary steady state that Prof. Dawkins discusses in his book.

The central message of entropism is one of faith. In oneself. Libertarianism comes close. But that's a political ideology. This is a religion. So, let's keep them separate - shall we? Separation of lack-of-church and state. (If I had my way, we'd do away with international borders and we would be worried about the separation of lack-of-church and planet but that's an altogether different story).

And what about prophets? Does entropism believe in prophets?

Yes it does. There's one and only one prophet. That is me. Possibly because there is only one entropist. Me. If you wish to convert to entropism then you could also become a prophet. Shit happens.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Prognostication: Cricket Tomorrow

The 20-20 world cup has concluded - and has revealed an entirely new and much more exciting game of cricket. An entirely new business model of the game seems to be on the verge of taking root - despite what a few snobs (the so-called "purists") say.

With this further shortened version of the game, it is quite likely that second rung tournaments will get more interesting. This has already happened in England and South Africa - where first class cricket has more or less undergone a revolution. Cricket can now compete with the likes of football in Europe - because the shorter version keeps intact Cricket's inherent reliance on strategy and intellect - and just adds a lot more entertainment.

England, South Africa, New Zealand, Australia. Small countries. Where Cricket is more of an after-thought than a religion. Now let's scoot over to the commercial hub of the game. The Sub-Continent. 1.5 billion cricket crazy people. A place which gets full stadiums for boring rain threatened ODIs. A place which is serious about its entertainment.

Here's what I see happen to cricket in the near future: (5 years?).

A local cricket league that makes lots of money takes root in the Sub-Continent. Perhaps the ICL or perhaps BCCI. This League also includes teams from Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Pakistan is also invited by the business concern - but political concerns (some overzealously "partiotic" delsional nut like Bal Thakeray's goondagiri (sic)) might make that a little difficult. And it makes money. Matches are played by cities and states- just like they are right now. Only they make a lot more money.

Since there aren't so many Australians around (their entire population is slightly more than that of the Mumbai Metropolitan area) - I expect that they either materialize in this league as a couple of clubs from Australia or they distribute themselves into local Indian teams like Indians currently do in British county cricket. That's because there's not much money in playing for local leagues in Australia - unlike there will be in India. Economics, after all, conquers all.

The Australians, the south Africans the British, the West Indies - initially will be star players. The will play a lot better than the Biharis, the Andhras - and the Mumbaikars. But in time, as India's economy grows - and as getting into local cricket becomes more lucrative - with more opportunities and all - I expect cricket to become a serious career option for young Indian boys. I expect more Indian cricketers to emerge who are as disciplined as the Aussies are right now.

And ten years down the line, I expect that the ICC will more or less dissolve - except for a few ceremonial games. I expect economics to shift criket to India.

Unless, the Chinese and the Americans start liking cricket. And that's unlikely to happen.

What I have claimed here is just based on common sense, little else. The only thing that could make this not happen is massive political instability in India slowing down the country - again, unlikely - the communists notwithstanding. Or an inherent genetic inability to perfrom in sports among Indians - a theory that seems untenable, judging by the occasional spurts competence shown by our current "selected" cricket team - and by the sheer talent of the occasional cricketer. Let's players select themselves, not some "selectors".The current system reeks of authoritarianism.

As far as cricket is concerned, the future belongs to the sub-continent. Because there is no incentive like money. And there is no engine of growth like the free market. And ironically, money there is (for cricket) in the subcontinent (though it is still one of the poorest regions in the world otherwise).

Monday, September 24, 2007

Awaiting Ahmedinijad's Speech

The president of Iran will speak today in Columbia university. It isn't everyday when a so-called "enemy of state" speaks in Public - and is perhaps an opportunity that is unique to truly liberal societies. Here's my two cents on the whole US-Iran standoff.

Firstly, let me condemn Iran for its obvious lack of civil liberties. It is disgusting that a nation, in this day and age, adopts sexism as a national policy. It is disgusting that leaders attempt to deny (more out of convenience than anything else) perhaps the most shameful and horrendous acts ever perpetrated on western society (viz. the Holocaust). Let me also condemn other transgressions of civil liberties in Iran - the enforcement of a maniacal dress code, the extreme censoring of the press and intolerance of dissent.

The enforcement of a ruthless interpretation of the sharia law might be barbaric, but I am of the firm belief that when western states go to war on other states because they are deemed "barbaric" - then there's a hidden agenda somewhere. (read O.I.L).

Firstly, Shia Iran hates Sunni Al-Qaeda. If Iran ever made a nuclear bomb, it would surely never fall into UBL's hands. Their main incentive to develop the bomb is to keep the Israeli/US forces at bay to make sure they do not attack. They are not surely stupid enough to use it on the US or Israel first. The subsequent nuclear blitz will vapourise their nation instantly. A nuclear Iran, frankly isn't such a big deal.

Let's face it. Iran has a loud-mouthed hard-liner for president. Someone whose electoral future depends on how much "testosterone" he shows on international grounds (as long as he does not make a huge mess out of his internal affairs). Because, he is Iran's Bush. Iran's right wing cow-boy. The people who vote for him are those religious patriotic zealots.

Why all the vitriol? He knows the US won't attack Iran. He's calling the US bluff. Look at the population of Iraq. 25 million under a dictator they hated. Now, in Iran, it's 65 million - in a more democratic society. The entire US army will not be able to handle Iran and Iraq together.

And if Bush attacks Iran, crude prices go north. Iran won't sell crude. Petrol (gas) hits $10 a gallon. US economy gets hit. Corporations lose. Republicans lose. There's never going to be a war with Iran. Ahmedinijad is trying to derive as much political mileage as he can from that bluff. And it's working. But he does need all the mileage he can get - considering the economic mess that his policies have got the proud Persians into.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

That Pesky Inconvenience Called Reality

Just today, for a reason similar to the one I watch Fox News for, I was reading the Indian "news-paper" (and I use the term loosely), Times of India. And the very first article (this link will die soon) on the paper was a survey from a Swedish Firm - some Karios Future or something - which seemed to Imply that the young Indians are the happiest in the world.

It figures. Last time I was in India (in Hyderabad) - the young beggars requesting for the rupee seemed to have a smile on their faces. They walked about with a spring in their step. Oh, and the auto-wallas were ecstatic to have me in their auto. They talked as the drove me all around the Ahmedabad city and charged me Rs 200 for what should have been Rs 70. There was a certain joy in their eye when I paid them Rs 200. The same stroke of opportunistic happiness that one might experience when one watches a generous rich uncle step into a room.

The journey to Surat from Hyderabad was fun too. The boy who cleaned the coach for money seemed to me much happier than the average boy-who-cleaned-the-coach before I left for the US two years ago. The heavy rains in Gujarat left many low lying houses (adjacent to the railway track) inundated. There were people who had no place to go to but the roof. Though the elderly people on the roof were markedly grumpy, there was a certain mirth in the grins of the younger ones on the roof.

Young women forced to commit sati do so more happily than they did before. Once can hear them laugh in glee as they are burnt to death in the funeral pyre. Young Indians deprived of a seat in the college of their choice (due to some confused reservation policy) laugh all the time as they settle for something less exciting.

And the downtrodden lower castes - they're happier than ever before. They laugh as they are kicked out of temples and enjoy explict bigotry here there and everywhere. Young couples marrying outside their caste and religion enjoy every moment of their lynching by angry mobs.

And all this makes the Indian youth the happiest in the world.

If you could not smell the sarcasm in the above post, then you're stupider than I imagined.

Actually, I feel vindicated. It looks as if the nomenclature touted by yours truly in an older post is being taken seriously. The survey said "Indians", that 5% of the sub-continental nation - not the Bharatwasis! It is quite easy to see why the Indians would be doing well. They know how lucky they are - and they are therefore happy. Little reason else.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Mr Karat Needs an Education

Wheras one does not doubt the US' imperialist tendencies (40% of the rants on this blog lament the same), one cannot help but notice a marked illiteracy in Mr. Karat's recent statement. (The Karat in question is a so-called "Indian Communist" - he has all the right intentions - but seems intellectually misguided - and blinded by Karl Marx).

For those who came in late, here's what he said (I quote a report from the Hindu).

Karat said India's foreign policy has been governed by consensus and non-alignment for the last 50 years. "But if the nuclear deal is through, it will break the 60 years of our foreign policy. "We are not against the people of America or against America as a country. We are against the imperialistic America and the most hated Bush adminstration", he said.

Karat should take a few courses in Economics. An in the first good course he will find what Adam Smith said quite interesting. "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we can expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest"

To expect America to "help India" out of pure benevolence is ridiculous - but then again, if you blindly believe in Marxism - how smart can you be? Of course, they have their own axe to grind! Everybody has their own axe to grind. The world is just a lot of little people with their own little axes to grind.

If you try to suppress selfish agendas ( like the communists tried to do) - you get long, long queues for potatoes, rampant poverty, omniscient corruption, a disgruntled and demoralized proletariat and a significant unregulated unofficial free market economy - the black market. If you think I am wrong: just look at India - which seems to be in a sort of corrupt social equilibrium*.

Mr Karat is a shrewd man. It seems quite ironic that he would be blind to such obvious facts. Unless, unless, he knows it all - but is trying to tell his vote bank what it wants to hear. He is trying to capitalize on what he perceives as a global Islamic disenchantment with Bushco, perhaps. Another of those morally bankrupt politicians that we keep ranting about?

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Vegitarianism: Am I a Hypocrite?

I've always had this "holier-than-thou" attitude: I don't do meat because I reckon killing an animal causes it pain. And since, in general, the average living thing tends to avoid pain as much as possible - pain must be, well, painful to say the least. So, I don't do beef, I don't do chicken - or any other meat for that matter.

But the average roach that encounters me gets the under-side of my shoe, inevitably. I have an obsession with killing ants and other insects that bite. I would kill a bed-bug if I ever saw another (something I seriously wish I won't). In other words, if insects were human (which they, thankfully, are not) then most of humanity would be in my firing line.

Does one sense a certain double standard somewhere? Well, I did - so I did some reading up.

Causing a living thing a sensation of pain is what I want to avoid - and it turns out that in order to experience pain (pain as we know it), one needs a central nervous system - something that insects apparently do not possess. (A rather dumbed down explanation of the same can be found here.).

Which gets me thinking on a tangent: an insect is little but a robot: it does what it is programmed to (by evolution, so to speak).

Which eerily corroborates what I had been thinking all along: even humans are little but over-rated robots - after all, consciousness is an illusion that the conscious mind creates to "explain" itself.

At this point I see a roach crawl on the floor. I am taking a shoe out of the closet right now. I have the shoe on my hand. The shoe is being used to crush the roach with lethal force right now. After hearing a convincing "crunch" sound, one is sure that the roach is no more. But I am not a sinner. Killing the roach was as much an ethical crime as, well, breaking a pen.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Quarter A Century

I am twenty five years old now. Turned 25 around the "ides of July". Turning twenty five had a sort-of -sobering effect on yours truly. It got me into thinking about Human timescales. Our lives are not mere drops in the ocean. Here is why.

Twenty of me and you have the Mughal Empire. Forty of me and you have the Christian Dark Ages - full with plagues and little ice ages and everything. Sixty of me, you have Prophet Muhammed (peace be upon him) fighting his wars. Eighty of me, and you have Jesus Christ - allegedly perishing for the sins of one and all. Hundred of me and you have the glorious kingdoms of ancient India and China. You have Buddha sitting under a tree in what is now Laloo-land. You have Asterix and Obelix plundering the Romans. You have Aristote and Plato commiting blunders. You have Pythagoras talking about hypotenuses. Two Hundred of me and you have the Egyptians and Chinese starting out and the Indians (some contend) on song.

As a matter of fact, just a hundred and twenty of my lives could have fit into the entire Egyptian empire. A hundred and twenty is not much - why, I see a hundred and twenty people all the time. There were classes in IIT which had 250 students. (Ah, the lovely farce that is IIT education!).

Half a billion of me, and you have the big bang. Considering that the world has SIX billion people, it is intriguing (though absolutely useless) to note that the cumulative age of all humans on the planet right now exceeds the age of the universe. On a more somber note, the cumulative age of all Indians right now exceeds that of the universe by a factor of roughly two. Now, that is scary.

I am just 25 right now. Current longevity estimates would put my life at around 75 years at least - assuming something is done to control sphericity of my own self. Utterly sobering to think that only forty of me would be sufficient to fill the entire 3000 years of the Egyptian empire.

Considering that the median age of India is 24 right now, I must also realize that I am one of the older Indians on the planet right now. It's all downhill from here, eh?

If you're not mesmerized by these statistics, all that means is that you grasp human timescales much better than I do right now. Kudos to you.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Sixty Two Years Ago

Something wonderful happened sixty two years ago.

It was a miserable war which killed millions. And then a monster with a mustache killed himself. But the war was not over yet.

There was a nation which was trying to throw its weight around. A nation with imperial ambitions. A nation which wanted to colonize a significant part of the world. Japan.

And the allies (the British, the Russians and the Americans, basically) knew that colonization was unethical. It was something that they wanted to protect the world from.

So, one brave man who lived in a big house in Washington had an idea. He had hired some scientists to work for him to help annihilate an entire city of 100,000. They came up with a bomb which could do so.

The war was more or less over. It looked as if the salaries of those scientists would go to waste. Oh, what a waste.

So, president Harry Truman had a brain-wave. Why not kill 200,000 Japanese and curse their descendants with gamma rays? That would end the war, he would be a hero.

And two bombs were dropped on densely populated cities to kill people. They were not dropped on an ocean to demonstrate their awesome power and scare the Japanese into surrendering. No. That would never do. They bombed two cities instead.

This master-stroke of genius stopped the war. This is the way that god wanted it.

And now, this very responsible nation that stopped the war (after making that extremely difficult decision to kill 200,000 people in order to obtain peace) realized that nuclear weapons were too dangerous in the wrong hands - like those of Iran and North Korea and India (for 1998 + a few years) and Pakistan. (Israel, however, is responsible) So, it now acts as a champion of nuclear non proliferation - and maintains enough weapons to blow up the world many times over as collateral. That's what I call responsibility.

And that's why I will think of August 6th and 9th as wonderful occasions - not as occasions of utter shame. Occasions that make me proud to be human, not occasions that make me sorry that I am living. Not occasions that show me how deep and stupid this obsession with nationality is.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

The Trip Home.

Why the Hiatus?

The avid reader of this blog would have observed an uncharacteristic hiatus in recent times - and would probably have guessed that the reason for the same was the matrimony that the author was undergoing. And (s)he would not entirely be in error. The author, to use a Wodehouseism (that's a neologism) has become rather superfatted and lazy after getting married. All the author does is sleep and eat and surf and sleep, while the little woman does all the dirty work.

The Trip.

A mention must be made of the recent trip to India. The trip to India was a pleasant affair - the ubiquitous rudeness notwithstanding. There were absolutely no surprises in the trip- save, perhaps the Mumbai Airport. I expected a mess, frankly, when I landed in Mumbai. But the airport was probably cleaner and more impressive than all the other airports (besides DFW) I had been in ... Frankfurt and Bahrain. And the immigration and customs were a cinch. I did not have to stand in those fabled kilometer-long lines awaiting my turn.

The Traffic

The traffic was terrible (on expected lines). To say that I was scared when I saw Indian roads for the first time after coming back would be an understatement. I was petrified. I had no clue how people could survive with such traffic. A five hour drive to Surat on the day I landed was affected. Though most of the road was wonderful (the golden quadrilateral) the stints on the two-laned portions really scared me. My heart was racing faster as the driver overtook slower vehicles. (Mum and Dad didn't even flinch when this happened, to top it all).

Here's how an over-take is performed in India. Let's say you have to overtake a truck (henceforth referred to as the victim) on a two lane road in India. Let's say there's a car coming in the opposite direction. You first speed up, such that your speed is at least double the speed of the victim. Then you perfrom a cursory check to see whether a vehicle is coming the other direction in the right lane. If a vehicle is indeed approaching - then the overtake is not abandoned. In such a case the accelerator is depressed all the more and a headlight is flashed. Flashing this headlight momentarily (this is still mid-day, mind you) lulls the you into a sense of security. It is almost as if all responsibility is passed on to the driver of the approaching vehicle. The overtake is completed. The approaching vehicle might be forced into the shoulder - that's just routine. These delicate maneuvers are performed at speeds approaching 100kmph on those roads. Needless to say, safety is an eternal issue. Indian roads are among the most dangerous on the planet.

Surat turned out to be a singularly interesting town. Absolutely no garbage on the streets - spic and span - without any city buses - with newborns (virtually) driving two-wheelers - and absolutely no place to go to.

Congestion is normal on Indian roads. Surat is congested. Mumbai is congested. But Hyderabad is something else. It is saturated with a prosperous middle class. Though clean, it is static. Honestly, there are times when you feel it is a miracle that things actually move. Let me talk about one specific road. The Hubsiguda main road. And let me tell you how we cross Indian roads.

Just walk across. Don't care what is coming. Vehicles are usually so static that stopping is not a big deal for them. Just act as if you are blind-folded and cross. Unless some Salman Khan is driving along on his BMW, you are as safe as you can possibly be.

The monsoons came (albeit a little late) to India. Rain wreaked havoc over Mumbai (on expected lines) - and even over Hyderabad and Surat. Since the internet is more or less saturated with stories about the rain - let's let that go, shall we?

The Wedding

I would like to firstly talk about the status of atheists in India. There is no respect for atheists in India at all. When you say you're an atheist, people just assume you're a Hindu of sorts. I managed to bear this soft bigotry( yeah right, bigotry!) with a smile of my face - primarily because I am not a Dawkinsian crackpot.

The wedding, firstly, was as traditional an affair as a wedding can be - with the exception of a gazillion camera men fighting with each other giving both the bride and the groom an Angelina Jolie complex. I kid you not. If you were at the wedding, you would also get the feeling that most of India's 1.1 billion turned up as cameramen (armed with Nikon D-somethings).

The food, it must be metioned, was incredible - and even as the groom, I managed to get a fair fill (sneaking to the catering room every now and then). I have a gut feeling that it was frowned upon by a few powers that thought that they were - not that I cared a hoot.

Perhaps the most important aspect of the wedding ceremony was the number of reunions it facilitated. I met cousins, aunts, uncles and grandmothers after a cruel hiatus of two years. I met friends after an equally long hiatus. It was incredible in that I met almost everyone that mattered in my life at one point - and in that lay a regret - viz. there was just not enough time to do justice to everyone who turned up. Lots of people I did want to spend time with - but I just could not make it.

Lots and lots of relatives were met - regardless of whether they were known or unknown. I would like to add that I am almost positive that there were some impostors and some gatecrashers in the mix. But one never knows, does one? Lots of gifts were handed over. Usually idols of Ganesha - a hindu God destroyed and then re-created by Lord Shiva (the destroyer). The fact that Ganesha is a fan of the edible and is characterized by rotundity could be an ominous sign of the role that obesity might play in one's life - but, if that were true, then almost all Hindus would be fat.

Moral of the Story

One of the most important players in the wedding was rice. Rice coated with turmeric was thrown at the us by one and all. The rice crashed into the our heads like a Japanese Kamikaze airplane. It was all out war. And let's not forget the long rituals. The whole wedding was a blind ritualistic orgy. But within these rituals I could see genuine devotion among the people - and often genuine happiness. A certain joy that only religion can bring to the believer. A placebo that does more good than bad.

If there is one thing this whole experience in India taught me, it is the following:

Religion and rituals make people happy.
Being happy is the point of life.
Trying to spread atheism (like Dawkins and others do) is incredibly stupid, ignorant, arrogant and counter-productive.

I am an atheist who likes to see others happy. I don't care about the logical consistency of what others believe in. As long as they're happy. For happiness, often, is much more than a warm gun. It seems to be approximated quite well by devotion.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Doggerel: Impending Doom

These "poems" are dedicated to my little cosine, Kavi.

And there I was in the sea
As deep as I could be
I saw a little hook, it looked nice
And now I'm being served with fried rice.

"Bark, bark, bark!" I said
As I snuggled into my master's bed.
He got up; "Don't disturb me" he said
And kicked me till I was dead.

I can carry fifty times my weight, you see;
No cube of sugar is a match for me.
But I am very scared of the shoe -
For, when it crushes me - there's only formic acid and goo.

I saw a lamb tethered under a tree
My mouth watered"That's a meal for me"!
After a very sumptuous feast,
In the Hunter's cabin, I am now a stuffed beast.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

The End of a HDD

They say pride comes before a fall.

A couple of weeks ago, I was laughing at a certain "low-life" that was backing up data on an external hard drive. I called her paranoid. Look who's laughing now.

For, just a couple of days ago, I came to turn on the computer for the good ol' evening surf. And when I turned it on, I was greeted by the following words "Boot sector not found on internal hard drive". For a moment, I thought Wowbagger was pulling a fast one on me. (Wowbagger is an insult generating program which curses you every half hour. I wanted to get insulted every half hour, so I installed it). A cursory investigation exonerated wowbagger, thankfully - because a future without insults every half hour is just, well, unimaginably dreary.

Rather than panic for more than a couple of hours, I decided to see if I could recover data using Linux. The Tux has been always been there for me when windows dies. And believe me, windows has died on me on numerous occasions. I did hear a friend use something called Knoppix, which is essentially a Linux which runs off a CD-ROM drive. I downloaded it in the lab (the XP in the lab did not die yet) - and after the necessary combustion onto a CD, ran it on my Dell.

I was intrigued to see that Knoppix DID actually work! I did manage to boot up (in German, but something is better than nothing - even if that something is in German). After some forumming, I managed to get onto the wireless internet and read everything in English. But the Knoppix experience was wholly unstatisfying. I was unable to listen to music on Pandora; I was unable to watch videos on youtube.

And then I came across something they call PCLinuxOS. I was not put off by the obscure name. I downloaded it, and here I am, listening to some nut called "John Eddie" on Pandora (apparently he sounds a little like Knopfler) having watched a cat play the piano on youtube. A few fdisks off the command prompt give me the dire warning that the partition table on my hdd if as corrupt as the average Indian policeman. (This analogy breaks down when I try to offer my hdd Rs 50 or $1.10 to let me through. Maybe it is because I don't know where to stuff in the money. I could buy one of those vending machine type financial transaction thingamajigs - and somehow fit it onto my computer.)

It seems quite likely that all my data has reached the land of no return. Fortunately, there was nothing of importance on the computer (which I cannot find elsewhere). My programs are all on CDs - so is my thesis. No office work is done on my home computer - or whatever there is of it is already backed up in the office. And almost everything important is backed up on Gmail.

I did lose all my firefox bookmarks - which Included lots of interesting sites that I had encountered over two years. But that's not such a big deal. It just points the importance of using internet based bookmarks.

Right now, all hopes of data recovery lie in some talented Indian in some Surat computer shop. Failing which, I will give into this temptation of just formatting my hard drive and installing a robust version of Linux (perhaps Ubuntu?) on it and using LaTeX instead of word.

And, yes, I am off to India tomorrow FINALLY. Looking forward to those amazing restaurants in India.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Do we really need a president?

Every few years or so, India fights within itself to elect a new president. A president who is just a "head of state", little else. A president who, for all practial purposes, has no hands, no legs, no eyes (fuguratively speaking of course) - and certainly no purpose except being an inspirational figure. (who lives in luxury that the Indian can scarcely dream about).

So, let me say this out loud - let us consider abolishing the presidency. A president does nothing - just eats resources - which, frankly could feed an army. Let us not fall prey to blind faith in our constitution - let us Amend it and get rid of the president. And while we're at it, let's get rid of the governers too. After all, these people do not govern!

Dr. Abdul Kalam is a visionary. An outstanding intellectual, who would have been equally important had he never been the president of India. As a matter of fact, he would have been better used as a professor in Anna university, inspiring the students (yada, yada, yada).

Because sooner or later, you run into some idealist (like the most recent female nominee, Mrs. Patil) who decides to make her opinion heard. Her ideas of "not being a rubber stamp president" are antithetic to the very foundations of democracy. She has not been elected by the people: she should realize that and keep her opinions to herself.

That havnig been said, neither is the prime minister in our country elected by the people. He is usually elected (and often just "nominated") by the people who are from the party elected by the people of the nation.

So really, even the prime minister is not elected by the people! Some might argue (debatably so) that the president is a more direct representative of the people than the prime minister.

You have no idea how confused I am regarding what to think.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Why not Libertariansim.

There's many interesting political ideologies in the west, not the least of which is libertarianism. A libertarian is an individual who believes that (s)he is the owner of his/her own life. Libertarians hold that the state should not interfere with what they do with their property unless they are violating another person's liberty.

Libertarianism values free will and common sense - but frowns upon the welfare state and compulsory charity.

One can see why this is a very seductive ideology to lots of those who think. It basically boils down to this: I do whatever I want, as long as I don't harm anyone. This is surely what the people who founded most modern nations would have been thinking when they founded the nations!

And yet, I don't think this is the way to go for me. I am not a libertarian, and let me tell you why.

Firstly, let me come clean. I find the idea of libertarianism very comforting. Since people can do what they want to - there is very little reason to feel dissatisfied. And since there's very little reason not to be satisfied, there's no worry of a revolution waiting in the wings. This is almost as stable as I have ever seen a society be.

The main issue with this is that the world lives in Nations. The division among people into nations is a very bigoted and aritificial division. This division causes all the wars in the world. (What are wars about but land, now-a-days?) And there are usually lots of economic and immigration barriers between nations.

I hail from the third world. India. A more libertarian America would be an even more selfish America than it already is. A recent case in point: consider those Prophet Muhammed cartoons - and the subsequent riots in the Muslim world. Freedom of speech is a libertarian notion - perhaps as libertarian as a notion can be. A notion which is absolutely incompatible with the Islamic world's reverence for its founder. When people in a nation (or a culture ) do as they want to, they are bound to be insensitive to another culture - because they just did not know better. And this ferments hatred.

In a multi cultural world - it is very unlikey that this ideology will ever work (unless people everywhere are okay with eternal hatred). For libertarianism to really work, I feel the world needs compatible cultures - which is just not going to happen.

One might view this is as a failure of the system of nations more than that of libertariansim. One might be right in doing so. But it is unlikely that these ridiculous, unnatural political barriers will ever be lifted. So, that being a given - libertarianism is very unlikey to enlist me as a adherent - though I find it quite seductive otherwise.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

American Politics

Until now, I have deemed it below my dignity to talk about American politics in this blog. I still do find it demeaning to talk about American Politics - considering that they don't let me vote for their president (and why should they?). But I will make an exception this time.

Firstly, why do I consider it below my dignity to talk about American Politics? Because, (and this is true) - America is the land of plenty. American politics are the politics of plenty. I don't know about you, but I do hail from a land of over-whelming poverty. A land where it would be an insult to discuss obesity or abortion on a national stage. There, accroding to me are more pressing issues than the above. And that's why I manitain (from a third world perspective) that American Politics is a sad joke.

But I will discuss it here, because these trivial concerns (abortion, gay marriage and obesity) govern the world today. That's because the American people elect someone based (mainly) on these concerns. And the elected individuals have the capacity to destroy the world many times over. They are demonstrating this power in Iraq right now. I do believe I have a stake in this: this is my planet too!

I was watching the Republican and the Democratic debates on TV. They don't have a shortage of candidates, both the sides. The canditates range from the sincere to the pretentious - and the, well, deluded.

Among all the Republicans that talked, I thought there was one person who made a lot of sense. And he was from Texas (the irony is palpable). He is a republican that even Noam Chomsky (uttering whose name is a taboo on American Media) would be proud of. A conservative that convices you that conservativism need not be chauvansim. An American politician who is not ashamed of admitting to a series of foreign policy gaffes that Chomsky has been crying himself hoarse about since god knows when. I am talking about Dr. Ron Paul, perhaps the only reasonable, non hypocritical person running the race.

The tragedy is (and he knows it as well) that he will never win - not even the nomination. That's democracies for you! The sensible person seldom does win. It is usually the blow-hard. Take his argument with Guiliani in the aforementioned debate. He beat Guiliani hollow in the debate - and the latter managed to salvage some pride by taking a cheap shot at invoking patriotism.

Even the media, it seems, has lost its capacity to make independent judgements - though some will argue it never had any. I would guess the risk of being branded "unpatriotic" is too much for the media in this country - or any country for that matter. For the immeditate result would be an en-masse withdrawal of sponsors - which is the life line of the media. How unbiased can reporting be if there is a strong financial disincentive from making calls that one deems rational? And thus, you get a "mainstream" line: a line toed by everyone - except by the often courageous jesters such as Stewart, Maher and Colbert - and ostracized rationalists like Chomsky (and international students like yours truly).

To me, this is the ultimate failure of democracy and capitalism. A system that elects jingoists and kills rationalists - that's what democracy is. Back in India, Look at Modi. How on earth do you think the BJP is holding on to the reins in Gujarat? Good governance? Perhaps only partially so. Nationalism thrives on fanaticism, something that people earlier reserved for religion.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Going Home

In a week, I will be on the familiar shores of Motherland. Perhaps that's where all the familiarity ends, for I will be staying with my parents who have just moved to a coastal town in India's most fanatically right wing state from a confused, electric power deficient, "quasi-industrialised" state. I will refer to my trip as "home-going" rather than home-coming. For I am going to an unfamiliar place (home) from a familiar place (apartment in College Station). Ironic. Further details regarding the location of home are with-held - in case some fanatic nut tries to beat up yours truly in the airport.

To say that Motherland has been missed would not be an exaggeration. Of course, when one thinks of home one cannot but help think of the stray dogs, the stray cows, the filthy roads, the honking horns, the unhygienic roadside food, the omniscient Auto-Rickshaws, the corrupt policemen, the utter lack of infrastructure, the slums beside the railway track to name a few. But there is something strangely peaceful and therapeutic about the chaotic streets brimming with life. There is never a lonely moment in India.

The frequent reader will testify to the fact that I have devoted almost all my posts to India in the two years that I have been beyond its borders. Going to India after two years (in both of which the 8% growth rate has been breached) - one does expect a few significant changes. I will tabulate some significant changes expected in this blog.

What I expect to see in Urban India is a much larger upper middle class - a more significantly prosperous section of society. I see more shopping malls, more multi-plexes to cater to this huge new market. I see lots of Walmart Clones.

And yet, I see lots of poor destitutes. I see lots of abused children, I see barking dogs everywhere. There's so many poor people in India that lifting some out of poverty is like emptying an ocean with a small tumbler. I don't see their number reduce in the near future, 8% growth or not.

I expect to see child laborers working for rich people, I expect to see vast stretches of lovely highways flanked by the occasional slum. I expect to see that familiar disdain for traffic rules on city streets, I expect to see a civic infrastructure absolutely incapable of handling the generous monsoon rainfall.

And before all that I expect a grumpy immigration clerk be rude to one and all. The first rude person I would have encountered in two years. I expect to see an Airport with too many people. I expect to see traffic that cannot even move.

The point is, if one expects the worst, then one can only be pleasantly surprised.

And I would also like to announce to the casual reader of this blog - that the motive of this visit is not mere tourism. There is a more significant reason for this trip, the reason being that the author is getting hitched, taking the plunge, tying the knot - basically indulging in matrimony. The little woman is halfway to India as I write this blog. Probably asleep flying over the Atlantic ocean somewhere.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

India Guilty for G.W.?

Politicians never cease to surprise me - in their shamelessness and utter stupidity. And the latest Bushism, holding India among those "responsible" for global warming is just worth a good laugh - little else. I'm laughing so much that I'm not able to focus on work. So, I will rant and rave and get it out of my system.

It is a cynical laugh, a resigned laugh. A sad laugh which concedes that the world is run by individuals with negligible IQs and big mouths. And what scares me is that such people are in charge of weapons that can destroy the planet many times over - and history has shown - are not afraid to use them.

Picture someone, say Bill Gates (for want of a richer guy) walking down the street - nay - driving down the street in a Hummer (for want of a more polluting vehicle). Picture a grad student (for want of a poorer person) driving her bike innocuously on that "bike lane". And picture Bill Gates stopping beside the bike and exclaiming "You are so shameless, you {female dog}! Do you have any idea how much pollution making those tires of your bike causes? How much CO2 do you think the manufacture of that thing pumps into the atmosphere? You'll kill my planet."

A tad exaggerated, of course - but I trust you get my point.

A math course perhaps would have done these people a whole world of good. I idea of comparing nations as a whole (as opposed to per-capita comparisons) is incredibly stupid. It is incredibly stupid while comparing economies - and even stupider while comparing environmental effects.

I do believe that there is very little that outraged rhetoric can achieve, so let me change gears into full- blown satire. (Not that satire will achieve anything either - but it is much more fun!)

So, let me quote a report from an international Journal. Let's say, Science.

India IS Responsible For Global Warming

By Lunatic, Some.

Recent Studies by Exxon Mobil have shown that the Over-Indulgence of the Americans (OIA) is not a significant factor in increasing greenhouse gas levels in the world. The study further states that the carbon dioxide combines with oxygen and water under sunlight to produce acetone and sugar. Acetone has a low boling point - and actually cools the atmosphere.

The main reason for global warming, the study then goes on to say, is bovine flatulence in India. The report quotes "A cow in India is fed grass - which makes the flatulence contain a significantly high portion of methane. Methane is a global warming gas. It is anticipated that god lights methane up to keep himself warm - and some of that heat inevitably leaks back to earth. Even though, at a given time, the US has a billion live cows, they are not harmful to the planet - as they are fed a diet rich in meat made from other cows. This creates a sort of endless cannibalistic loop that would be extremely freakish if the species in question was Human Beings. American Bovine flatulence does not consist of mehane. And most of these cows are killed young for their meat. Studies have shown that only old cows can warm the globe"

The study has the following recommendations:

1. Abolish Hinduism as a religion since God created cows so that humans could eat them. People praying cows (as opposed to preying on them) are infidels. India can subsequently be colonized and the Indians (whatever we leave of them) will be forced to kill and eat cows.

2. More automobiles should be used. The use of cycles should be banned as the amount of CO2 emitted by their manufacture is inadequate. Hummers should replace SUVs and SUVs should replace sedans.

3. Hybrid vehicles should be illegal. This can be achieved by stipulating certain maximum mileage standards. Every car should achieve less than 11 miles to the gallon - failing which there will be a significant tax disincentive.

4. Anybody Driving A Hybrid Should be: given lethal injection.

More recommendations will be aired on Fox soon.


I hope I did not overdo it this time.


Thursday, May 31, 2007


Are birds really that stupid? My previous article would seem to say so, but the reality is far, far different. Birds are actually very intelligent. Empirical Evidence suggests that they do indeed solve non-linear partial differential equations while they fly; they do have a reasonably philosophical insight into quantum mechanics. I regret the stand taken in my previous post and I retract the same in all humility.

Their genius lies in looking aloof. The are great at looking like they're stupid, when in reality, they are little Einstiens flying around deriving E = m * c^2 in their heads. It is birds, not us who run this planet. We spent millenia trying to imitate them (by flying) - and we still need airports with huge conrtrete run-ways. How smart can we be?

How do I know this? Ah, that's because of N'kisi, the parrot.

Birds, in general, are quite good at keeping secrets. They have not let us know that they are incredibly intelligent. (When I say "all birds are intellegent", I mean "all" with the exception of dodos. Only idiots would go extinct before taking over the world. Evolve better or die.)

Just like every dam has a leak and every rose has its thorn, every species has its lunatic. Someone who would love to let the proverbial cat out of the bag. And that someone is N'kisi, the parrot.

N'kisi is a foolish bird. It pays no attention in school when the teachers are discussing the commandment of secrecy. It is busy eating some worms. So when the teacher goes onto "we shall never let any other species even suspect....", N'kisi is eating the aforementioned worm with great relish. It licks the slimy scales of the worm and ingests it like a grad student would ingest a Ramen Noodle. To N'kisi, the teacher is as good as inexistent.

In a few days after "graduation", N'kisi lured a human into captivity - a moved "frowned upon" by the feathered elders, but not strictly taboo. N'kisi made the human pamper it with milk - and loads and loads of sumptuous maggots. In return, N'kisi derived the grand unification theory of quantum mechanics and general relativity on a peice of paper, but the human thought it was some illegible garbage and threw that paper away.

N'kisi then realised that the average human would not know opportunity if it bit them in the bottom. So, N'kisi decided on a slightly more devious course of action. It would excite the humans by uttering some "cute words" every now and then. It could laugh its head off by looking at the interest generated amongst people.

So, next time someone showed it a picture of a guy popping his head out of a car, N'kisi bellowed "Uh-oh, you put your head out!". On smelling some nice oils, it exclaimed "Pretty smell medicine". You can see how much excitement it would have generated (and it did).

Feathered Elder the Esteemed Kiki was not a very happy parrot. It was a learned bird with greying feathers and a flowing white beard to boot. It was in the twilight of its life, but it was a passionate philosopher, nevertheless. It had written down the grand unification theory in a poem form which went:

Water bird eat pig
I buy you new wig.

Brick cat eat mat.
Happy bubble is cat.

Big fat man is meat
When he dies we will eat.

We will become big fat bird,
Big fat man will eat us then.

This poem was considered a gem. That the last two lines did not rhyme added to the mystery, the intrigue of the poem. This poem was Kiki's highest point in life. But I digress. This is N'kisi's story. Kiki's story will be told. Not today, though.

Kiki had never seen anything like this before. No bird had ever been stupid enough to spill the beans to the humans. If the humans ever got to know the secret, there would be hell to pay fo all the birds. It was okay that dogs knew : they never could harm anyone except each other. But man was a particularly stupid yet malicious animal. An animal that should have been pecked into extinction by those negligent vultures millions of years ago.

Kiki was apalled that N'kisi was so insensitive. It decided to have N'kisi killed. Brutally snuffed.

Moral of Story:

Independent thought is a dangerous thing, even if you are a parrot. You must always conform to society, or else someone will kill you. Brutally snuff you.

(I would also like to tell you that I did not think of this story myself.)

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Three Stupid Birds

Birds are not known for their intelligence. As a matter of fact, most of them are just plain stupid. They don't solve partial differential equations in their free time; all they do is make those irritating chirping noises. They don't ponder over the meaning on life while sailing the silken blue sky; they chase worms instead.

Three instances demonstrating the intellectual negligibility of birds are documented herewith, lest some people succumb to the temptation of conceding that birds are actually intelligent. After reading this article, the reader will never look at a bird and go "If only I could understand what that little guy is thinking!". Because that bird is probably thinking of worms to eat, little else.

Let us go back to July 2004, a time when lots of people I knew were graduating from IIT Madras. I was not, but a lot of my colleagues were. And we were sitting in that jam-packed auditorium in that miserable Chennai Heat (it was 38+ outside). And guess what was flying inside the auditorium? A bird. Damn thing was trying its best to get out. But all it would do is try to fly out, bang into a transparent window, fall down and repeat the aforementioned procedure ad nauseam. Rather than watch my friends graduate, I watched the bird confuse itself. It made me wonder: how did the damn thing ever eat? How did it grow so old?

Say whatever you might want to about the average bird, but you would never expect to see a bird make mistakes while flying. The bird might not have a philosophical understanding of Quantum Mechanics, but it surely knows where it is flying. No chance of it banging into a tree or something. No chance of it hitting a gradual cyclist, you might say. But you're wrong. A clueless crow actually banged (beak first) into yours truly - when I was biking near the hostel. I had a scratch for a couple of days on my person as evidence for the vicious attack.

This stupidity is certainly not just limited to avians in the sub-continent. The lack of intellect is universal - as evidenced by a recent incident in College Station. Here's what happened. I was walking down the street and I heard a mild "thud". I thought it was a meteor or something and was shocked for a moment. I looked around to investigate and there was a pigeon which appeared shaken. It was stumbling on the ground. What happened was that the stupid bird forgot to flap its wings and hit the ground. (It probably was thinking: "I know I'm supposed to be doing something now. What could it be?").

Of course there are stupider birds in the world. There's the sparrow which hit the fan in my bed room once, but I don't want to document it as stupid as the poor soul is no more. There's the parrot which bit me when I was two years old - but I don't want this post to look like personal vendetta, so I won't mention that either.

For once I feel thankful that I am a human and not a bird. But lots of people will contend that I am as stupid as one of the birds for writing this post. I can't say that they are entirely wrong.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Why the IITs are Dying

It really breaks my heart to launch this vicious tirade "against" my alma-mater. I hope this assault is not viewed as ingratitude or malice. Because I had five of the best years of my life at IIT Madras, where I met the best people in the world and worked with some of the finest brains in Indian Academia.

There is a virus infecting the IIT system in India. And this virus is not Ramiah, everybody's punching bag. Neither is it Bansal nor Fiitjee. The whole thing goes much deeper. IITs are actually a very unique institution. They are Nehru's brainchilds, relics of a socialist era that India has left behind.

In a land with almost no quality educational options, IITs are a guarantee of a six figure salary - a guarantee of a life filled with relative prosperity. And it is this natural quest for money (and often, sadly, an American Job) that makes parents coerce their children into studying for a horrendously difficult exam. Crammeries such as the aforementioned Ramiah and Bansals abound - and with their draconian regulations, they "coach" the average student to "crack" the J.E.E.

In a land with over-whelming poverty, the very idea of "interest" is a luxury. It is often very likely that a certain student's major holds no passion for the student. Whilst a student might love finance, he might find himself working on Civil Engineering.

I am a Mechanical Engineer. I was in a batch of 75 students, most of whom are very intelligent. The top few in the batch were excellent mechanical engineers. They made their way into MIT, Illiois-Urbana and the like for a Masters Degree - and look! It now disgusts me to say that they have currently prostituted themselves into working for companies such as Capital One and Standard Chartered as business consultants. Why did the Indian taxpayers spend 5 lakhs per head on each of them? So that they can go to a foreign land and work on a foreign field? Return on investment, I don't think so.

But one must not blame the students entirely. Passion is a difficult emotion to cultivate - especially in the dog-eat-dog world of many, many Indians battling for the same scarce resources. In the U.S. even a waiter at McDonalds gets enough to live well. And since ample educational opportunities are available (albeit at a price) - a person interested in finance actually can pursue finance in the undergraduate years (change branches, if necessary). Not so, in India. It is either an engineer or a doctor - unless you are some sort of a nut.

And let's not let the teachers off the hook, either. I had a few miserable experiences back there at IIT (and I won't name names right now). [Though more than 60% were fantastic!]. I have issues with the kind of research they do there: philosophical and profound:yes, but realistic? That is debatable. In most good US universities, the industry funding model is quite robust - forcing a degree of realism. India will get there soon, one hopes.

I reallty don't see any hope for the undergraduates at IIT. Though there are a few students who do pursue PhDs in the long run, (and make a difference to society in the field they were trained to work on at IIT) - that percentage is dwindling - thanks to seductive offers made by those "investment bankers" in India itself! I think India should also upgrade its other colleges to IIT level. Nothing could be better than making all local colleges as good as IIT at the U.G level. (But where will be get the teachers from?).

The only hope for IITs is to reinvent themselves as good graduate schools. And the IITs have started work in that direction with the introduction of "dual degrees" (like yours truly). I wish them all the best in the future. And I also hope that they get some competition from the scary monopoly they have on talent.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

The Rise of Fundamentalist Atheism

All faith systems, alas, even the much hyped "scientific method" are prey to the disease of intolerance and fanaticism. This extends to nationalism (who can explain the blind reverence that some Americans have for their Second Amendment despite numerous shocking and crippling shooting incidents?), to religion (of course) and even to research - but that is a different story, altogether.

And I shall join hands with those irksome pop-culture "philosophers" , Trey Parker and Matt Stone in assaulting one Richard Dawkins - the closest Atheists have come to a suicide bomber. And in critiquing Dawkins, I must say that I am not in the best place: I have not read even one of his books. But I have heard him speak on youtube, which, people will certify is the next best thing to reading his books. And for smug loudmouths like yours truly, those speeches provide ample fodder to judge him.

I am not debating Prof. Dawkins' beliefs. I am an atheist myself and I do appreciate why he thinks the way he does. I do get irked when I see irrational blind faith, but I have the good sense to keep it to myself. Prof Dawkins does not.

Being an evolutionary biologist, Prof. Dawkins must realize that this "susceptibility" to believe in a supernatural being has evolved alongside humanity. Every culture in the world demonstrates this susceptibility- from the Pagans in the days of old to the Scientologists of today. The Egyptians had their Gods and Godesses as did the Greeks, as did the Indians (and they still do!). They might have been delusional - but this delusion kept them organized. And organization kept them resilient. Organization let them live long enough (by defeating and killing other not-so-organized tribes) to pass on their "delusion-susceptible" DNA.

And in the days of old where record was kept primarily by word of mouth, it is easy to see how an individual deemed exemplary and inspiring by his/her contemporaries (or even evil and ruthless, for that matter) gets deified in time. Grandparents would be telling their grandchildren "I knew this man who laid down his life for saving the whole town from the pack of wolves". The grandchildren would then tell their grandchildren "There was a great man with two heads who was eaten by savage beasts". And so on, until the "great man" becomes a deity. Because people like inspiring / horrifying stories.

People like inspiration. People like to know that there is someone out there who is better. And this whole thing ultimately formalizes into organized religion. Usually, the diktats issued by "holy books" are usually compassionate and constructive to society. And the stories help define, to the average clueless human being, the difference between good bad. Prof. Dawkins ignores the fact that most human beings have better things to do in their lives than decide what is good and what is bad using their own common sense. What religion does is that it serves it on a platter for them. It makes sure that people do not reinvent the wheel.

What prof. Dawkins' must do is focus on the real virus. The very concept of nationality.

Prof. Dawkins' views on how the world ought to be are impractical, that is a given. If he is prepared to have impractical views, why not have anti-border views? Borders create all the wars in the world. Not religion. The differences based of nationality are more bigoted and dangerous than religion.

Or is he uncomfortable with the idea of a Bangladeshi farmers (say) settling down in Oxford (or Cambridge or wherever he is)?

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Design of Religion: A Case for Universal Scaling

A lot has been said about evolution by notable scientific minds, right from Darwin to Dawkins, throwing in the odd Gregor Mendel and the odder Khorana. Engineers have exploited this too: the use of genetic algorithms to in optimization problems has gained mainstream acceptance. Even if it has not gained "mainstream acceptance", it is quite a nice tool to obfuscate and obscure paper titles and give them an aura of erudite sophistication. “Fin Heat Transfer Enhancement: The Genetic Algorithm- Aritifical Neural Network Approach”

Evolution is a philosophy which explains why things are they way they are. Of course, it explains why manta rays are shaped they way they are; why elephants are so large and humans are so (allegedly) intelligent. But it also applies to the laptop that I am typing on right now, the car which is giving me such a hard time of late (but that's a different story). It applies to the chair that I am sitting on, the music I am listening to. Everything. And also to the religion that some people, alas, believe in and kill in the name of. Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Judaism and anything else that I might have left behind.

Let me elaborate on what I mean by the evolution of the chair I am sitting on. The first chairs, in the world were, presumably tree stumps (or something similar) that people sat on. Then, some enterprising guy (or gal) decided that having something portable that could be sat on made a lot of sense. So they probably chopped a block off a tree and sat on it at home. And in time with commerce arose a "breed" of people (if I may use that therm inoffensively) who were adept at fashioning tree stumps into stools that other people could use. And these people used tools, which had, in a similar process evolved to make the task of creating a rudimentary stool easy. Chairs made of banana tree trunks would not have worked at all, while chairs working out of teak stems would have worked very well. So, no chair would be made of banana - and more would be made of teak in the future.

Human selection.

And in a few thousand years - presto - we have leather swivel chairs, plastic molded chairs, fold-able outdoor chairs, massage chairs in the airport, those extremely uncomfortable university chairs .. all made to be as comfortable and durable as they can be made for the price they are sold at. Future innovations on chair design, just like the innovations in the past will continue to be market-determined - evolution will move in a direction dictated by overall profits of the chair manufacturing concern.

This brings us to a paradox of sorts.

The chair designers are indeed intelligent. And there have been a large number of intelligent designers working on chairs. This could mean that creationism and evolution can both exist. Or this could also push us into greater irrelevance.

For creationism to be compatible with Human Evolution, one must allow for the possibility of a designer fiddling with the DNA of any living thing and shaping every little variation of weather, every little earthquake, every little green man from mars .. you name it. To do all this, one must envisage a perfect being that does all these things – or an army of less than perfect beings, who design everything in the universe. To them the human being is like a chair. Humans use chairs to sit on. What does this army of omnipotent beings use humans for? Presumably not for sitting on. Maybe we’re just a toy for their children (assuming they do have children). Or maybe we’re reality show (Universal Idol?).

Or maybe, the very concept life is overrated. Maybe in the larger scheme of things, we’re just as significantly insignificant as DNA is to us macroscopically. Maybe we’re all just the DNA for the monsters that we create -viz. Religions, Nations, Sects, Cricket Teams... Maybe the evolution of religion (or Nationalism) is just like the evolution of man; with the DNA strands and RNA strands replaced by men and women – just information carriers. All “intelligent” choices that man makes could be analogous to the randomness and mutation that human evolution survives on.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Walmart Comes to India

Five hundred years or so after the British East India Company came by to India and dropped anchor for a good four hundred years, another global Goliath, Walmart is deciding to set sail for India - to sell extremely inexpensive goods to India's more-than-a-billion Davids, sourced presumably from China and India. This article is an attempt at prognostication: it will try to put a human face to lives ruined by this capitalist foray.

Turn front the clock six years (in the spirit of turning back the clock). The year is 2013. Walmart has completed its foray into India - having set up in excess of four hundred stores - almost at least one per each and every economically significant community in India.

The Singhs

Mr. Balbir Singh Jr. was a eleven year old child in Luknow. His father (Balbir Singh Sr.) was what was called a "procurer - seller", and individual who would buy foodgrains from farmers for Rs 0.50 per kilo and sell them to retailers in the same town for Rs. 4 per kilo. The grain would be brought to a government constructed godown by the farmers on their trusty bullock carts, and would be picked up by truckers operating on behalf of city-based
kirana stores from the same godown. Balbir Singh Sr. would pocket this Rs. 3.50 per kilo as profit and educate Balbir Singh Jr. in an expensive English Medium School. Mr. Singh Sr. was what academicians considered "a middle man". He was so much a middle man that if middle men ever formed a political party, it would be quite probable that Mr. Sing Sr. would be their poster man. The party would probably be called CPI (M), with the "M" standing for Middlemen.

Mr. Singh's business model was quite robust. He was exploiting the illiteracy of his suppliers by paying them only Rs. 0.50 per kilo. And by paying them only Rs 0.50 per kilo, he would ensure that none of their children could ever afford to go to school. So, they would never learn how they were being ripped off.

Yet Walmart put a big question mark on Mr. Singh Jr's future and Mr. Singh Sr.'s livelihood. Here's how.

  • Walmart was cheap: Much cheaper than local Kirana stores. Despite the fact that the shops were 30km away, the villagers sent their wives to Walmart to buy food every week. They would go walking and come back walking with a cardboard carton on their heads - just like they carried water from the well 40km away on other days. They started doing this as soon as Walmart opened. On looking at their Walmart bill, they realized that they saved Rs. 50 ($1.10) on average every month. They used this to educate their children in the local school. And somewhere in 2011, their children realized that Mr. Singh was ripping them off.
  • Walmart Started Buying Direct: An enterprising walmart manager, in 2009, realized that they could buy the groceries directly from farmers. This was a breakthrough as they paid the farmers Rs. 3 per kilo of rice (and sold it at Rs. 3.50 per kilo). Soon, word started to spread that the farmers were getting a good deal from Walmart. More started to sell to walmart.
  • The great middle man strike: Some idiot in the local faction of the CPI came up with the brainwave of crippling the society by making the middle men go on strike to protest the "unfair business practices" adopted by Walmart. Needless to say, society flourished like never before. This was the end of the middle men.
The Venkataappans

little Liela Venkataappan was asked what her father did for a life, she would stand embarassed for a little while, and then say what she was taught to say: her father was a "political operator." And that, of course was a euphemism for "goonda". Her father was one of Tal Bhakeray's minions in Mumbai. He had taken pride in digging up the pitch in the match against Pakistan in Mumbai long ago - as a matter of fact, he held that as the pinnacle of his career. He was also instrumental in burning theaters that screened Mira Nair's movie about lesbianism, "fire". (We will let the fact that he was in actuality a closet homosexual be for now.)

When Tal Bhakeray learned that Walmart was giving the middle men (one of his most important constituencies) a tough time, he decided to end Walmart. So, he sent Mr. Venkatappan to a walmart with an army of people to create entropy. After Venkatappan went to Walmart to strart wrecking the asiles, be came to the television asile. There, he saw a 29" flat screen color T.V for Rs. 2500. ($60)

He bought it. This great deal ensured that he did not have the heart to destroy walmart. He called off the attack. This enraged Tal, and Venkatappan was fired. And Ms. Leila's future was in the same trouble that Mr. Singh Jr's was.

Mr. Robson Walton

Mr. Walton was Mr. Walton's son, the latter being the founder of Wat-Mart. He had had high hopes for India. A billion customers made his mouth drool and his eyes open wide in 2007. So, he set up more than 400 stores in India, just like he would have set up in the U.S.

He set them up with massive parking lots in sub-urban areas.

Any Indian would tell you that this was a recipe for disaster. Not many people have cars in India. They have scooters and cycles and they use public transport. His business model was benefiting only 5% of the population. This kept the registers ringing, profits were modest - but not astronomical. The poorest of the poor would seldom use Wal-mart, save the odd woman from a nearby village who would carry the food back at home in a cardboard carton.

These were not happy days for Mr. Walton. He saw his business margins decrease over time, when other Indian retailers started delivering goods for "free" at home. Mr Walton had reformed retail in India - but had not got a big slice of the initial pie. Much like Kelloggs revolutionized corn-flakes in India - pushing up drastically the sales of their competitors by their advertising. Mr. Waton got together a team to do some further brainstorming. He had some serious food for thought.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Obtituaries of a Car and a Team

Death of Car

My car (an antiquated Eagle Talon) has passed away. This post is being written in its memory. There shall be no funeral and cremation. It will be unceremoniously trashed in some junkyard. You see, a couple of days prior to D( Death ) -Day, the car was doing fine, save a mildly disconcerting low frequency noise when the steering wheel was operated. So, the vehicle was driven to Houston and back at speeds around the speed limit. The car held up. In hindsight, that was a miracle.

And then next day, it's drizzling a bit : and we're at that benign parking lot at H-E-B where the car is moving. And all of a sudden, I realize that it is no longer on four wheels but is actually on three. Further investigations showed that one of the wheels, in a brazen display of gross insubordination to the engine of the vehicle, decided to go its on way - separating from the axle after breaking some critical components.

After a rather panicky call to the AAA guys, the car was towed to a Firestone (a grossly overpriced automotive repair chain in the U.S.) . The next morning, the price of the repair was quoted to be of the order of the price one would get on selling the god-forsaken vehicle (after repairs). Futile attempts to get the repair done were quashed by wiser counsels, who did not seem forgive the car for almost killing one and all.

The car, at this moment in time has been pulled from Firestone and is currently languishing in the parking lot of my apartment complex. Attempts to resurrect the same using other mechanics (for half the cost) have come under attack too - for the aforementioned wiser counsels contend that the resurrected vehicle might physically ascend to heaven (along with all passengers carried within) in around 40 days from the date of resurrection.

The death of the vehicle forced one to rent another to do some mandatory travel. We used a Jeep Liberty, as all the smaller vehicles were out of stock. This "other" vehicle, in my opinion, is one of the causes of all the problems in the world today. It is causing the Iraq war by demanding and guzzling oil. It is spitting out lethal amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere heating up the world. I am trying to make up for all the pollution caused by the vehicle by riding my cycle to work - even to Turbolab, which is 4 miles away.

Death of a Team

More startling than the perishment (sic.) of my car was the recent perishment (sick.) of the Indian team in the West Indies - first against Bangladesh and then against Sri Lanka. As a matter of fact, the two most populous cricketing nations, India and Pakistan crashed out of the world cup. This is, in my opinion, a farce of astronomical proportions perpetrated on the general populace of both the nations by monopolistic cricket boards. Because, if you choose the best from a billion people, then you ought to produce a better team than choosing from 20 million people (Australia).

Only an absolute idiot or an absolute optimist would ever want their children to play professional (first class) cricket in India, because of probability of success is almost zero. Being good at sport will not get you anywhere. Engineers and Doctors can be relied on to put food on the table, not first class cricketers.

A business model that respects the talented and pays then enough to take the game seriously is the most important need of the hour. And it's not as if this model is unheard of. Consider this. This is a shameful Statistic. Since we all agree that regional cricket matches in India are not really a crowd magnet,

Number of ODI tickets sold in India per year = 15 * 30,000 = 4.5 lakh
Number of "Football" tickets sold by Texas A&M Univiersity in College Station = 6 * 82,000 ~ 4.5 lakh again!

The number of ODI tickets sold by India (which by far exceed any other sport in India) ~ Number of Tickets sold by a large American University for its team for its most popular sports. And consider this. There's a lot of other universities in this country. There's a lot of other sports (basketball comes to Mind). And this is just "college athletics" There's also professional athletics, which is much more popular than college athletics in the US.

India is a MASSIVELY UNDERTAPPED MARKET when it comes to cricket - or sport in general. There's a lot of big bucks to be made if some entrepreneur comes up with a more effective business model - maybe of a more compact model of cricket (20-20, perhaps?). The BCCI monopoly should be challenged. And this should be done by revoking the BCCI's exclusive license to represent India.