Wednesday, October 26, 2005


Peter Schweizer's interesting article about the 'real' Noam Chomsky (referenced by Yazad and quoted by Gaurav) prompted me to make some comments. I am not a Chomsky expert and also not a Chomsky apologist. I don't also think that he is perfect (is any one?). But in general, I love the man and his ideas, and think that many of the things which he says are logical and conform to 'elementary common sense and morality' in his own words. I cannot really comment on Chomsky's stock fund investment and related details because this is the first time I am hearing about them. But let me pen some of my comments regarding some other statements that Schweizer makes. However, before that, I want to make a few general statements.

An implicit assumption in the above kind of analysis seems to be that a man who criticizes a system should completely renounce everything to do with the system. This is simply not possible in most circumstances. In fact, today if you want to criticize any system of reasonable size, you have to be in a position to do so yourself, both in terms of status and money. For example, if you want to help the poor, you yourself have to first become rich enough to help them. This is not hypocrisy. It’s simply the means that are necessary these days to achieve that objective. These days, people listen to you in the first place only if you have prestige or money, or both. I don’t think Chomsky is seeking monetary gains for himself that are in any way out of line or extravagant. To ask him to give up being part of the capitalist system before criticizing it is a little childish; one may as well ask him not to wear Levi’s jeans and Calvin Klein shirts before he writes a critique of textile corporations. Going to an even bigger extreme, one may as well demand that he not consume life saving medicines, if he wants to criticize the pharmaceutical industry. Gone are the days when one could live in a forest and preach about iniquity and goodness, expecting social and political revolutions. In fact it can be argued that those among Chomsky’s critics who demand that he completely forgo capitalism want him to do exactly that: to leave the US and be in a place where he will be unable to criticize and expose them, so that they can now enjoy a nice, Chomsky-free, blissfully ignorant life themselves.

Now, for some specific comments (following paragraphs from the article in italics):

"Indeed, Chomsky is rich precisely because he has been such an enormously successful capitalist. Despite the anti-profit rhetoric, like any other corporate capitalist he has turned himself into a brand name. As John Lloyd puts it, writing critically in the lefty New Statesman, Chomsky is among those "open to being 'commodified' -- that is, to being simply one of the many wares of a capitalist media market place, in a way that the badly paid and overworked writers and journalists for the revolutionary parties could rarely be."

This is an important point. Chomsky has used phrases in his works which have become classics, phrases like 'commodification of desire' and of course, 'manufacture of consent'. However, if commodification refers to his drive to make his ideas known through constant reiteration and by providing massive amounts of references about them, then any writer who assertively makes a point is guilty of trying to 'commodify himself'. The more important question concerns the image which people have of him. It can be argued that it's the people who are commodifying Chomsky through idolatry. He is merely presenting his ideas in a forceful manner, in a way that he deems fit. If people are taking his word as dogma and attaching a brand value to them, it's really their problem, not his. In fact, this would be a part of the general hero-worship of him that people indulge in. In his works that I have read, I have not come across Chomsky saying something to the effect of 'This is important because I say it'. In fact, that is precisely what drew me to his writings. A lot of the things which he says are 'elementary' (although the kind of elusive elementary concepts that we find elementary only in retrospect). Much of what he says can be gleaned through common sense, and by keeping your eyes open and your mind alert. Much of what he says can be understood if we read the everyday news intelligently and critically. You can hate Chomsky and still check up on his references objectively and agree with many things that he says. You certainly don't have to believe in something because Chomsky says it. A lot of his references are accessible, especially in today's Internet age, and so can be verified quite independently of him. So I believe that Chomsky does not try to 'commodify' himself. If any one, it's the people who worship him that do so. Hero-worship is largely the people's fault, not the hero's. In fact, given the critical and objective thinking that Chomsky encourages his readers to do, he would never approve of any hero-worship. In a Berkeley talk a few years ago, he said (in rough paraphrase), "People come to hear me talk and would believe me because I am a Professor from MIT. That is nonsense. They should hear me speak and then think about what I have said, making up their own mind quite independently of who I am". In fact, Chomsky's attitudes are exactly those that are supposed to prevail in scientific and unbiased thinking.

Now I can see people raising eyebrows and saying that by this token, Chomsky's own models of how corporations bring about the manufacture of consent through propaganda should be treated the same way. I can hear them saying that by the logic I applied above, Chomsky's claim that corporations control people's thinking is unjustified. From what I said above, then, it is the people's fault that they allow themselves to be manipulated, not the corporations.
But there are a couple of things to remember here. First of all, yes, we do allow ourselves to get manipulated by corporations, and in fact, people like Chomsky actually make us aware of this fact. So irrespective of what they say, they are doing us a service by alerting us to the problem in the first place. Secondly, the kind of control exercised by corporations and by Chomsky (if any) differs substantially in quantity and character. Corporations have been shown to have overtly insidious motives for biasing the opinions of people and tempting them. They do so many times by forming dishonest political connections, and act in a very obvious way to profit themselves, irrespective of the costs that people would have to pay. They control political parties and try to consolidate power as much as possible, many times at the expense of the people. In sheer quantity, they completely try to overwhelm our minds and decisions, and try to tempt our consumer psyche to an extent bordering on brainwashing. They are among the subtlest Orwellian agents of our age. They try to turn us into zombies by the systematic and studied use of advertising and propaganda. Whether and to what degree all of them act this way, and whether this is 'good' or 'bad' in the first place is a different question. The point is that none of these attributes apply to Chomsky's works and writings. He is quite open about his ideas, and tries to reference every one of them. As noted above, Chomsky has never tried to claim that something is right or that we should believe him because HE says so. He never seems to have any hidden personal agendas aimed at selling us his thoughts. At most, we can accuse him of taking one-sided views of situations sometimes. But again, we can check up on the other side of the view and decide the veracity of the opinion ourselves (Not to mention that the we are constantly exposed to the 'other' side through the mainstream media anyway) Most of his references can be objectively studied, and then we can make up our mind for ourselves. So the kind of self-marketing and propaganda that corporations indulge in cannot be compared to anything that Chomsky does.

"Chomsky's business works something like this. He gives speeches on college campuses around the country at $12,000 a pop, often dozens of times a year.

Can't go and hear him in person? No problem: you can go online and download clips from earlier speeches-for a fee. You can hear Chomsky talk for one minute about "Property Rights"; it will cost you seventy-nine cents. You can also by a CD with clips from previous speeches for $12.99.

But books are Chomsky's mainstay, and on the international market he has become a publishing phenomenon. The Chomsky brand means instant sales.

As publicist Dana O'Hare of Pluto Press explains: "All we have to do is put Chomsky's name on a book and it sells out immediately!"

Well, first of all, the statements about getting his articles and speeches for a fee look one-sided. Do a Google search and see how many of his important articles and audio interviews you can get for free. There are also many video clips which you can see for free. So there is actually more of a case that you can make here for the number of articles and clips of his that are freely available. Again, as far as his name is concerned, it would only be a servile and easily swayed reader who will assume that a book is great only because it has Chomsky’s name on it. So again, I think the burden of answerability is more on the readers. Also, I can see that this is a good example of how the publishers are manufacturing the consent of readers by using Chomsky’s name, something that Chomsky has constantly written about. Regarding the high fee for his public speeches, first of all, there are many professional speakers who charge that kind of fee for speeches. I don’t know the exact nature of the fee structure for professional speakers, but one can think of reasons why he charges a high fee. The simple goal may be to filter the number of requests for speeches that he gets. I am sure that someone like Chomsky must be getting hundreds of requests for speeches and interviews almost every day. If the usual systems of filtering based on priority don’t work and if he is still getting deluged with requests, I would not be surprised if monetary filters are the only ones that can be used to restrict the number of talks that he gives. And again, all this argument is only assuming that there is something inherently wrong or 'capitalist' in charging a high fee for giving a public speech. Also as before, the analysis seems to be neglecting the number of free talks he has given.

"Chomsky's marketing efforts shortly after September 11 give new meaning to the term "war profiteer." In the days after the tragedy, he raised his speaking fee from $9,000 to $12,000 because he was suddenly in greater demand. He also cashed in by producing another instant book. Seven Stories Press, a small publisher, pulled together interviews conducted via email that Chomsky gave in the three weeks following the attack on the Twin Towers and rushed the book to press. His controversial views were hot, particularly overseas. By early December 2001, they had sold the foreign rights in nineteen different languages."

If Chomsky did all this, at most, it would be all right to call him an opportunist. Firstly, how does that make him an ardent capitalist by default? Secondly, by that token, all of us are opportunists. Wouldn’t all of us like to do something at the right place and the right time to maximize the impact of our opinions and thoughts? Chomsky seems to have simply done that. Again, as for the fee, he could have done that precisely because he was in greater demand and wanted to limit the number of speeches that he would need to give.

In the end, I would again like to question the implicit assumption that someone is a hypocrite simply because he enjoys some of the fruits of the system he criticizes. By that token, many of us are hypocrites. I don’t think Chomsky is benefiting from the capitalist system in a much more extravagant way than a normal capitalist citizen would. Let me emphasize that I am not saying that the opinions or statements of Peter Schweizer are false. I only think that they cannot provide a conclusive picture of Chomsky being a closet capitalist, and they lay too much emphasis on the man himself rather than his deeds. Men live and die, but it's their ideas which endure. If Chomsky's models endure, after a hundred years, his personal life's activities as such would be a footnote to a footnote, compared to the discussion of his ideas. Even if he does do the things noted above, the motivations could be very different from what have been assumed. Quibbling over the above-mentioned traits of Noam Chomsky, would be, I think, doing a great disservice to his work and the body of knowledge he has erected, on which we should really be spending our time. Irrespective of what Chomsky does, it would be a good idea to consult his references and read his words. The proof of the pudding is in its eating, not in the private life of the cook.

P.S: Just an observation- Tech Central Station, the website which has excerpted Schweizer's article, has not provided a single reference for any statement about Chomsky. The only general reference is Schweizer's own book, and as can be seen from the Amazon description, the book has received a critical review from Publisher's Weekly that ends with the statement, "For all its revelations, in the end, this volume reads less like a critique of liberal philosophy than a catalogue of ammunition for ad hominem bloggers."

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Fifty years ago, a simple woman who was tired after a long day, refused to give up her seat to a young white man simply because she was supposed to. This mundane sounding incident fomented the civil rights movement and led to its culmination in a country divided by racial hate: Rosa Parks dies at age 92

"I am leaving this legacy to all of you, to bring peace, justice, equality, love and a fulfilment of what our lives should be. Without vision, the people will perish, and without courage and inspiration, dreams will die - the dream of freedom and peace."

Yes, the 'ordinary' ones among us can make a difference.

Monday, October 24, 2005


I always miss Diwali around this time of the year. The transitions in the weather and the arrival of the cold always signal unique feelings and thoughts in us, that remind us of special times at home. I really missed Diwali the last two years, and for some reason, I am missing it even more this year. In fact, I am missing it so much that sometimes I get the illusion that my PhD. advisor is in a 'Diwali mood' and the atmosphere in my department is a 'Diwali atmosphere'! I am not much of a 'festivous' guy, but still, the little things that matter do keep on coming to mind and heart: the new clothes (ok...the new 'cloth'...I would rather spend that money on books!), the firecrackers of course, the sweets and the faral, the lazing around in the afternoons and evenings, the efforts to painfully listen to the dialogues in those Diwali TV shows amidst the noise made by the brats playing outside, and the foray to my mama's place on the last day, to participate in eating a windfall of sweets, and to burst a windfall of firecrackers.

The firecrackers, especially, were always special. We always used to get up as early as possible, mainly in an effort to one-up an intrepid old woman living in the flat opposite to ours, who used to be fanatically intent on bursting the first firecracker at something like 4 a.m. in 'honour' of her little grandson. Needless to say, she always used to beat us to it. The anars (fire fountains?), the bhuichakras (fire wheels...ah, yes!), the rockets (rockets..) and 'atom bombs' (ha!) and 'lakshmi bars' (simply explosive sticks which for some reason became inseparably associated with the photo of goddess lakshmi on them), all had a unique 'explosive' personality of their own. The most memorable incidents (although callous and irresponsible- thank god we were immature at that age!) involved tying lit agarbattis to 'atom bombs' or 'lakshmi bars', thereby converting them to 'time bombs', and leaving them outside the closed front doors of neighbours. They never figured out exactly who did it, and we never stayed around to watch their faces of course. Another exciting memory is of surreptitiously running to the huge water tanks on the tekdi very early in the morning, and firing 'rockets' there; shimmering trails of light and swoosh in the midst of the dawn silence. Do you know about this, mom??...Never mind.
Then of course there were the perpetual dangerous experiments of trying to do the same thing within the crowded boundaries of our society. More than once a 'rocket' went into a neighbour's balcony, and more than once my parents had to censor our rocket launching exercises...temporarily of course. As a very small kid, my sister used to light fulbajya (fire sticks) outside while I was having my bath. The bath always used to be associated with some special soap specially opened for Diwali- for some reason, it was inevitably Pears or some Chandan soap.
The firecrackers turned into amateur chemistry experiments over time. My favourite was lighting 'gunpowder' with a mixture of potassium permanganate and glycerin, which was a potent and highly exothermic reaction. The sparks flew ample and bright, both then, and later from the scolding that my parents gave me. But all this was part of the fun, and my parents always allowed me to perform much more dangerous experiments than prudence would permit. I was never really in the Diwali fort making business, but I used to enjoy those built by other kids, and used to plant seeds on them and watch them grow, and also used to love making secret tunnels that would unexpectedly lead from one part of the fort to another.

In the evening, our society used to be lit with bright lanterns (kandil), a sight unique and heartwartming, seen only once every year. Since it was a relatively small society, one could take in the sight of the whole society standing at the main entrance. The selection of lanterns at the store was an adventure of its own. Holding each one to the light, imagining how it would look, and thinking of which one would be the best one in the whole society; all were tasks that we looked forward to.

Then of course, there are the sweets. I am not a very big fan of faral, but still I could never stop eating especially the karanjis, and the pohyacha chiwda specially made for the occasion. These then inadvertently spilled over into non-Diwali days of the year too. And of course, whatever the occasion and time of the year, I used to just wait for an excuse to ask my aai to make shrikhand, something that I can exclusively survive on and which I consider literally the food of the gods. What better excuse than Diwali to indulge yourself! The sweets filled the jars, the bright lantern light seeped through the windows, and the minds, thoroughly enjoying a break from school, reveled in unique and unadulterated joy.

Those memories are strong, and bind us to a time and place that does not exist anymore, and yet one which is much more real in a way than the present. There is nothing like that here. The 'Diwali' celebrated by the Indian Students Associations and the Maharashtra Mandals may be nice in its own way, but it is but an imitation of the happenings at home, conjured up to make the heart feel content. However, most importantly, even though the time and place are gone, their place in our heart always endures, and it always will. I will always miss Diwali...

Monday, October 17, 2005

Graduate students here live in apartments, share rooms in cottages, and live in other fanciful named abodes, such as studio apartments and condos. However, very few of them live in a home. I don't. There is nothing like the warmth and the natural reassurance and concern, that a home, any home, radiates. You can always recognise a home when you step into one. And this time of the year, when the trees cast dark shadows that highlight your path in the evening, and when the air starts to bristle with the cold smell of the crisp inevitability of fall, more than ever, you start missing that special place called home, and all things possibly associated with it...

The Dictionary & Thesaurus on the Tiger OS version of Mac OSX is a veritable godsend for me. Before, my need to look up the exact meaning or pronunciation of a phrase used to be completely defeated by the much overwhelming need to get up and engage in the excruciating physical action of taking Websters off the shelf. Now, at the click of a button, I suddenly find myself in the delights of vocabularyland. Surely one of the best computer aids I have ever used.

Friday, October 14, 2005


Orkut is a large community of Indians, with many based both in India as well as the US. Incidentally Gaurav, Rashmi and Varna are members of it. Thousands of other young Indians are members. I realized that Orkut also might be a good forum for debates regarding IIPM. After noting that there is no group on Orkut created to do this, I have created a group called 'Bloggers against IIPM', for debates and updates about the institute. This should take the issue to people who are still unaware of it and who don't blog.

Here is the group description and a snip from the topic of discussion:

"In October 2005, Indian Institute of Planning and Management (IIPM) sent a legal summons (by email) to a blogger, who had done nothing more than post an article criticizing IIPM's overselling of credentials and facilities that they had published in newspaper advertisements. This article was based on another blogger's article that questioned the institute's credentials after doing a survey. When the blogsphere united against this attack on freedom of speech, people claiming to be affiliated with IIPM posted slanderous comments and vacuous replies on blogs, without presenting objective evidence of the above credentials. They then proceeded to threaten the company which one of the bloggers was working for, an event that led to the blogger quitting his job of his own accord, to protect his right to freedom of speech. IIPM has responded in a very unprofessional and undemocratic manner. They have infringed upon our basic right to voice our opinions. This is a general group for updates and debates about IIPM."

"To kick off the topic, let me say first and foremost that the title of this group, 'Bloggers against IIPM', does not reflect anything personal per se against IIPM officials, students or alumni. This group is really about guarding freedom of speech, which IIPM has infringed upon, irrespective of the claims of their credentials. It is not an attempt, at least on purpose, to debunk any of IIPM's claims. Mainly, it is only a group for criticizing the bullying that IIPM indulged in. However, there are now blogs which ARE seriously questioning their credentials, and so even if this group is about the violation of freedom, anybody is free to discuss anything about IIPM that he/she chances upon. In fact, this group can also be seen as a platform for informing erstwhile IIPM students to consider their decision to join the institute from a critical and questioning perspective, and to try to make sure that they make an informed decision about an important career choice of their life.
Let me add that every opinion on this group will be a personal opinion, that is emphatically NOT an act of defamation against the institute or its officials. This group is for voicing individual opinions based on common knowledge and thought. That's where it stands. Anyone is free to voice any opinion here. However, let us make sure that we engage in civilized and non-abusive discussion, whether it is pitted on the same side or opposite sides of a debate.

For starters, for those who are unaware of the controversy, visit Gaurav's blog, and Rashmi's blog
Desipundit has a summary and exhaustive updates about the unfolding of the event, as does India Uncut

The only downside? A server which even now sometimes really sucks! (Although it has improved somewhat by now, and they say they are working on it, as always)

Thursday, October 13, 2005


The media is undoubtedly biased. It has the interests of the government and massive corporations to protect. We don't need Noam Chomsky to tell us this basic truth, although he has succeeded better and more exhaustively in articulating this facet of the information universe than perhaps anybody else. The basic ideas are simple to understand. Take IIPM for example. If they are printing their full page advertisements on a Times of India page (just a random example of a widely read paper), they obviously would not want to have anything, any article or comment on the opposite page, that would remotely criticize their credentials and sources. The newspaper also knows this. Thus, The Corporation and The Media have a tacit agreement of watching out for each other, a boy-scout kind of pact to not turn their back on their buddy. Even though the media tries to make valiant efforts to give us an unbiased view of the world, this view is inherently constrained by the partnerships and the brotherhood that they need to foster in the natural heirarchy of society.

This makes the media coloured. Through this colour, some brave souls in the world of news who are underdoggers in the business, make attempts to show us the light, or to scatter clues here and there in the form of rhetoric, allusions and understatements, to try to tell us that there is more to reality than the literal presumptions of the words which glaze our eyes every morning. Of course, these underdoggers themselves are restricted by the need to preserve their own job and stay in the profession. Their actions are limited by their need to do a liitle good at the expense of conforming to the party line. This creates a fundamental void in the reporting of news which ebbs and tides with its own vital forces- the relative inattention to individual episodes of injustice. For decades, we have one common complaint against the media, namely that it only reports events which are considered 'unjust' by common consensus and sensibilities, and even by popular vote. The tribulations of minorities and non-conformists are frequently either never heard by the media barons, or are cast aside into the morass of miscellaneous grievances of the world. To be fair, over the past few decades, information technology has given the world a powerful tool to make the voice of the lonely sufferer heard, and news corporations have been trying to use it to try to give us a more objective view of the world. But still, we keep on asking, is it enough?

The case of IIPM has brought to light the remarkable contributions which all of us, ordinary citizens of the world, can make to the possible democratization of the media through our voices in cyberspace. It has showed us how, once and for all, we can resurrect all those issues which the mainstream media was bound to regard as mundane and cleverly dodged happenings until now. For one thing, we are not dependent on the media for biasing our views about news and individuals. We don't need the media to tell us that Gaurav Sabnis maintains an excellent blog. We can read it consistently and make up our own mind. Under other circumstances, in another age, the case of Gaurav being dished out a legal summons by some corporation would probably have never made it over the seven seas, and probably would at most have created a minor stir among people who knew him. Freedom of speech would have been yet again casually stifled, and the case would have been drowned in thousands of other cases.

But not today. Today, we care, and we can show that we care, and make others care...and make others pay at least in some way. We can rise up as one, and drive home the real point. We can make it clear in a week that the issue is not about Gaurav or the legal summons, but that it is about freedom of speech. We can lay open the underhanded and purely rhetoric and slander filled, or innocently ignorant, statements that IIPM associated officials and students (or at least those who claim to be these) are making as replies to criticism, that don't have any objective, fact based refutations in them. In a week, we can largely lift the drapes of smooth talk and flashy advertising and try to uncover IIPM's true existence from beneath them. For the first time, as a collective community, we can actually reiterate what freedom of speech is. We can burn the cobwebs of triviality and cliche from this much abused phrase, and unearth the raw and unchanging diamond beneath, that has always engendered and exhorted the simple right to voice our opinions, which has been remarkably shackled until now.
Freedom of speech actually is a simple concept, involving the right of anyone to say anything he or she wants, and to be criticized in any way by any other person, in any way that that other person wants. The reason it is has become such an exalted notion is precisely because it has been trampled beneath the feet of totalitarians and bigots through the ages. This suppression has been official as well as informal and casual. In so called free countries like the US (which are exceptionally free to a large extent), it has taken the form of 'manufacture of consent'. In other countries, it has disguised itself as servile flattery and magic mumbo-jumbo, or downright bullying, imprisonment, arrests, and even mass killings. In any case, the media has not always been completely transparent in citing such acts of suppression. Their excuse, sometimes real and many times concocted, frequently has been the lack of 'credible' sources, and the protection of 'national and/or corporate interests'.

I believe that this new phenomenon of 'bloggertarianism- blogger libertarianism' may ultimately lead to a paradigm shift in the way that the mainstream media reports news, and finally bring about its democratization that was supposed to be 'self-evident' in its original establishment in the constitution of every progressive country in the world. A whole new genre of information dissemination may finally end the hegemony of biased media. The reason looks simple. The sheer number of voices calling out about the matter should force the media to take cognizance. Not that sheer numbers have caused anybody to take cognizance about anything until now, otherwise many of the world's problems would have been solved. But at no other time did an act of bullying by a goverment or corporation on a microscale, no matter how small, hold the potential to spread to such a diverse community, in such a short period of time, and to elicit such a varied smattering of strong opinions from every corner of the world. After such a comprehensive and obviously concerned reaction, newspapers and other forms of media will have to take notice, or else at the very least be ready to be severely criticized for not keeping up with the times and being unprofessional. It is simply physically impossible for anyone to subdue each and every source mirroring the issue. When the issue is bursting out through its seams from so many corners of the world, forcefully argued and emphasized by such a diverse community of hundreds of citizens, it would be foolhardy for the media to not give it attention. Even if they don't pay any attention, that lack of attention itself will be touted as indifference and rapidly relayed around the globe; this call for arms, this time against the lack of attention by the apathetic mediamen, will again spread through blogs and the internet. The point is, one way or the other, there is going to be tremendous pressure, and almost an obligation, on the media to publish events that the blogsphere is buzzing with. If they do, the cause is served. If they don't, that action will still be noticed and will be castigated by the blogging community. In the end, it would not matter what the source of the piece of news is. If it is around on such a scale, it needs to be heard. Period. In fact, that is simply and precisely what the word 'news' is; things that are happening around you.

This is an expression of libertarianism on a scale and in a style like no other. People are concerned about why the IIPM case is not being given the attention in the media it deserves. My guess is, in a few days it will be, because it will be impossible for the media to neglect the profusion of opinion about it (hoping that the opinion increases at the rate at which it has until now), and it is very likely that it will be news in at least a few major papers (The trend has alread started, with Hindustan Times and the Indian Express publishing small snippets on it). Ignoring such a widespread and widely talked about issue will very easily be seen as blatant indifference, or at the least, extremely bad reporting by the newspapers. Blogging may be the engine that finally puts the rampant media into a moral straitjacket. Ironically, bloggers may finally restrict the media to report news- the same media that until now has been 'free' to bully, to embellish, to ignore, and to get away with things.

Of course, turning this issue on its head, blogging may also encourage the spread of rumours and purposeful attempts to vilify individuals and organizations. But then, that is the nature of every powerful medium of change, and it's upto us to use it responsibly. Happily, in this particularly case, we have a clear instance of a corporation threatening an individual who voiced his opinions. It's not important who the individual is, who the corporation is, or whether their or his views are impeccably justified, or baseless. No amount of debate about the details can fudge the fact that a transgression of the freedom of speech of a citizen of a free, democratic country has been committed. Given the ideals which we always talk about, see and hear everyday, this is a more than sufficient reason, irrespective of the details of the case, for this event to be highlighted. GIven the fact that millions of such transgressions happen and are quietly subdued everyday by the media, this small victory is nevertheless a major triumph of our basic rights. I believe that not only have IIPM shattered their public image and have possibly dug a grave for themselves, but have also dug graves for future erstwhile slanderers and suppressors of basic freedoms. Let us hope that the ghosts of repressive government, media, and corporations are also finally laid to rest in these graves. Let us hope that this also is part of a change, no matter if gradual, that signals a march towards the democratization of the media, turning a manufactured necessary illusion into the palpable reality of our times, and those of our future generations.

More than two hundred hundred years ago, Thomas Jefferson wrote from France in a time of turmoil on the American continent, that "The tree of liberty must be constantly watered by the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure". Today and tomorrow, I see the quote being read as, "The tree of liberty must be constantly watered by the bloodless contributions of bloggers and corporations"!

Tuesday, October 11, 2005


I am a scientist. In science, freedom of speech and constant inquiry is of paramount importance, the bedrock on which progress stands. At the dawn of the atomic age, the father of the atomic bomb had said:

"There must be no barriers for freedom of inquiry. There is no place for dogma in science. The scientist is free, and must be free to ask any question, to doubt any assertion, to seek for any evidence, to correct any errors."
J. Robert Oppenheimer

One of the great things about science is that it is the great equalizer. Unlike human affairs, in science, rank or title does not ultimately matter. What matters are the facts, the foolproof experiments, and only those theories that agree with experiment. If a theory does not agree with experiment, it’s wrong. Period. As Richard Feynman said, it does not matter who developed the theory, what his name is, or whether he is a Nobel Prize winner or not. What matters is only whether his idea is consistent with experiment. Sometimes, somebody may embellish data and try to get away with it, using the privileges of his rank. But sooner or later, the facts make themselves known, and he is exposed. Because of the almost perfect test of experiment, the truth can never remain hidden for long in science. That is why science constitutes the great sobering and moderating sphere of human activity. The agreement with experiment is what allows, enables, and indeed, forces, scientists to stay honest.

Unfortunately, in the field of human affairs, things are not so simple. Rank frequently correlates with erudition, irrespective of past and present achievements. In many cases, achievements themselves can be embellished. Knowledge is judged by age and the time spent on government committees. Fame and success are frequently engendered by clever advertising, smooth talk, and sophistry. It would seem that the arena of human affairs is much too fickle to weed out the charlatans from the genuine achievers. However it’s also not all that difficult. Even in the fluid world of human fame and folly, facts are still of paramount importance. Reality still counts for a lot, and those who embellish reality and are caught doing it, suddenly became pariahs and usually stay so. After that, no matter how much their patrons might try to glorify their status, the facts have spoken, and for most of us who know the truth when they see it, these quacks will always remain ignoble and fallen from our good books. In science, falsification of data is regarded as a scientific crime of the highest degree. The case of Jan Hendrik Schon is well known and documented. Schon, a top scientist at Bell Labs, and a contender for the Nobel Prize in the eyes of many, published almost a hundred spectacular papers in three years, in the most prestigious scientific journals in the world. The papers were supposed to advance the cutting edge field of organic electronics in a path-breaking manner. It was when a diligent researcher suspected that something was eerie about his results that Schon was exposed; apparently, he had reproduced almost the exact same graph in sixteen of his papers and claimed every time that the results were new. Schon was instantly suspended, his papers were withdrawn from the journals, and from what I read, his PhD. was actually revoked. He probably won’t find a respectable job anywhere in the world during his lifetime after this. I feel somewhat sorry for him, because by many accounts, he did have a great talent for research and would have had a promising career ahead. But such are the draconian consequences of disguising the facts in science- permanent expulsion from the community for life.

Such attitudes are not lost to the stage of human affairs. And that is why the name of IIPM (Indian Institute of Planning and Management) will always be looked down upon after the fracas in which they almost intentionally embroiled themselves. By now, the IIPM story is probably known to every blogger and his sister. But in a nutshell, it is becoming apparent that IIPM embellished facts about their institute, if not actually falsified them, in newspaper advertisements. Gaurav and Rashmi, among others, wrote posts on their blogs, trying to set the record straight and expose IIPM's exalted depictions of their faculty credentials and facilities, among other things. The interesting thing is not that IIPM embellished facts, but how they responded to these posts; by threats in the form of legal summons and vulgar comments, which reflects unprofessional behaviour at the very least. If the facts had been true, then just as in science, they would have calmly submitted proof of their and their staff’s credentials to those people who they thought defamed them. In fact, going a step further, they probably wouldn’t have even done that. If their credentials were really true, why would erstwhile sensible students trust the rants of some debunkers writing posts on blogs? Why would IIPM even bother to bring their detractors to task? Do, say the IIMs, routinely send out legal summons to people who criticize them or even brazenly vilify them on their blogs? IIPM could have sat back and relaxed because if the reputation of their institute were really as solid as they claimed, a few blogs could never have destroyed it. Even if they had decided to take note, they could easily have flicked their critics aside by supplying them with the correct data, if they were really concerned about their institute's status.
But the fact is that, they did not do any of this. It seems that they simply sent out dubious (and hilarious at the time at least) summons to Gaurav, and some affiliated with the institute proceeded to write obscenities on Rashmi’s blog, among others. Especially in human affairs, it is well known that rhetoric is always a stand-in for hard facts. Brazen polemic is always rigged at winning people’s hearts and minds, precisely because the facts are absent. If facts are present, there is little need for such rhetoric. The fact (and this one surely seems to be one) that students of IIPM had to resort to so much rhetoric, speaks volumes for their lack of objective evidence. It seems clear by now that the facts about the institute were clearly embellished. In fact, even by reading the credentials printed in the advertisements, any thinking layman would probably have suspected that their sales pitch was an exalted piece of advertising, perhaps based on fragmentary information, half truths, and dubious facts.

Unfortunately, the episode roped in quite a few ugly incidents, including Gaurav resigning from his post at IBM, because of the litigations and threats carried out by IIPM against IBM. Gaurav resigned completely of his own accord, in large part to protect his right to freedom of speech, so that he would never take the post off from his blog. IIPM may think that have scored a minor victory. But I believe that they have been caught flagrante delicto, in the act. The correct thing to say is that they have largely exposed themselves without anybody having done so, and probably underestimated the power of Internet age liberal freedom of speech. Ironically, even if they had simply kept quiet, I think the damage done to them would have been far less. But by speaking out in overtones which themselves are largely unoriginal and which clearly look like excuses, they have given themselves away. It’s a real pity for them. They made a big mistake in vehemently, and quite unintelligently, participating in the debate. By now, their act has been described and condemned on hundreds of web sites and blogs. Ironically, they themselves created a virus which spread through the ultra thin but immensely wide medium of the Internet, and finally through an entire landscape which today calls itself the ‘blogsphere’, before finally infecting their own being. Whatever they do, I think that their standing has been seriously and perhaps permanently damaged now, and thanks to the Internet, has been condemned the world over. I think this may be one of the future textbook examples of the libertarian nature of the Internet, and blogging in particular. This is a fine instance of how the body and soul of the blogsphere reacts as a whole against what it sees as a threat to its cardinal right to freedom of speech. We kept on reading for many years that 'The Internet has connected people as never before'. Nowhere is this illustrated in a more deep and subtle way, than in such an outpouring of opinion to support a common and basic human right. Because of the Internet, we may take heart that the future Jan Schons of society will be quickly and definitively exposed.

Friday, October 07, 2005

Mohamed El Baradei and the International Atomic Energy Agency have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. From what I have read and heard about him, it seems to be a worthy choice. El Baradei always has made sober and insightful assesments of nuclear proliferation. People ranging from Graham Allison (Former Secretary of Defense) to Noam Chomsky have favourably quoted him many times in books and interviews. This will be his third term at the IAEA. He opposed American entry into Iraq; predictably, the US administration was quite reluctant to support his renomination for a third term. I thing it's good that the IAEA got the prize. There's an important roadmap to be built to enforce the so-called three 'nos': No loose nukes, No new nuclear states, No new nukes. Provided the US and other countries comply and fund these activities in an honest manner, let's hope that in a few decades, even if we can't completely get rid of nuclear weapons, as Nobel Laureate Hans Bethe said, we will have a world with 'a few in the east, a few in the west, and a few in the middle'.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005


Richard Schrock, Robert Grubbs and Yves Chauvin have won this year's Nobel Prize for Chemistry for discovering new ways and catalysts to make novel organic materials, including drugs. This prize was a giveaway. My professor had talked about it two years ago and had said that these chemists are expected to win the prize any year now. Grubbs and Schrock winning the Nobel has been the talk of the town for many years because of the significance of their research. The reaction that they investigated, called metathesis, and the catalysts they perfected, are part of textbook folklore. They are some of the most important reactions and catalysts used in both academic laboratories and industries around the world for making organic compounds. I read about them a couple of years back, and my professor talked about them in class two years ago; more than once I read about them and heard about them in class and in seminars, and more than once the descriptions and mechanisms of the reactions and catalysts have popped up as questions in exams. The ubiquity of these reactions in most of the organic chemistry textbooks I have seen is testament to their importance.
From the Supporting Information from the Nobel Prize site:

"Considering the relatively short time Schrock’s and Grubbs’ catalysts have been available it is remarkable to note the breadth of applications they have found. These include the synthesis of insect pheromones, herbicides, additives for polymers and fuels, polymers with special properties and various substances of interest in pharmaceuticals development. The development of molecules that attack various bodily illnesses merits further mention, since researchers
are now devoting themselves to the creation of pharmaceuticals candidates for treating such widely differing conditions as bacterial infections, hepatitis C, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, Down’s syndrome, osteoporosis, arthritis, inflammation, fibrosis, HIV/AIDS, migraine, etc. Metathesis is thus an important weapon in the hunt for new pharmaceuticals for treating
many of the world’s major diseases."

Incidentally, Robert Grubbs is long since scheduled to come as a speaker to Emory University in May. He will be hosted by one of the members of my PhD. committee, who was a postdoctoral student with him at Caltech. Yesterday, I mentioned to my friend that it would be great if he wins the Nobel (after all it was if anything, overdue) and he did. His visit in May is going to be fun! We just hope that this recent development does not necessitate any change in his plans!

Monday, October 03, 2005

Should Turkey be allowed to join the EU? I think so. Turkey is probably the most progressive Islamic nation in the world. By allowing Turkish entry into the EU, Turkey would set an example to other Islamic countries. It would also put the focus of the world on Turkey itself to strive for further modernisation in the future. At the same time, the negotiations are also starting to smell of elitism, with some people protesting that Turkey does not live upto 'European ideals'. It is clear that there need to be considerable social reforms based on religion in many economic, social, and political spheres in Turkey. But that does not mean that European nations, or for that matter, the US, are immune from religious biases. Maybe they are not as pronounced, and maybe they are not so blatant, but they still do exist. One only needs to take a look at the last US election, or the current structure of the US polity, to see the informal influence that conservative Christians have in the nation. I don't think the situation is much different in Europe or even in 'secular' countries. Compared to many other Islamic countries, Turkey seems to want genuine modernisation. I remember reading that among Islamic countries, it has the highest output of scientific publications in the world. And I think the point about being a role model for other Islamic countries is a very important one, especially in these ages when most Islamic countries are fundamentalist models to others.
On a different note, as someone fiercely egalitarian asked, "What's the big deal about the EU anyway?"


The Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology has been awarded to Barry Marshall and J. Robin Warren. I believe that a Nobel for hard core medical research has been awarded after a long time. Marshall and Warren discovered the bacterium Helicobacter pylori that causes stomach ulcers, one of the most widespread ailments in the world.
I remember reading about Marshall many many years back in Reader's Digest. I was quite impressed by his story, in which he ingested a vial of the bacteria to prove the medical skeptics wrong; before that, nobody thought that bacteria could survive in the highly acidic lining of the stomach, and everyone was convinced that stress could be the only cause for ulcers (Since then, in general, scientists have discovered dozens of microorganisms that live in the most extreme environments on earth imaginable). Marshall drank the vile concoction and developed all the classic and extremely painful symptoms of ulcers. He is among the line of famous medical pioneers who infected themselves to prove a controversial theory about a disease, but as in this case, actually lived to tell the tale!