Sunday, December 31, 2006


During every visit that I make, Pune increasingly gives to me the impression of being emblematic of modern India in general; a giant, enthusiastic and aspiring elephant, sprouting wings and trying to launch himself from the ground into space at warp speed. The air is thick as ever with every kind of gaseous combination- a chemist's dream. The two wheelers which comprise the city's soul keep on vying for the road's attention, while spiritedly making attempts to sometimes compete with each other in a grudgingly friendly manner. The rise of multiplexes, giant megamarts, and coporate buildings is increasingly astonishing, as is the sight of the utter contrast they have with the roads that they straddle; the one commodity (and commodity it is) that refuses to actually expand and grow. I have to admit that the contradictions raise more questions than impress. How will the city house such a bourgeoning empire of people, corporate monuments, and purchasing power-induced urban expansion without simultaneously also having space to expand the basic infrastructure such as roads, water supply, and electric lines that support these symbols of the city's 'growth'? Does it really make sense to build a spiffy
multiplex and shopping mall, and have the road in front of it in perpetual tatters so that people need an hour to neotiate the potholes and other similar species on the road simply to get to it? Potholes, people, and two wheelers in Pune; some combination of these surely must have broken some records.
Otherwise, the people are chirpy as ever, engaging in arguments on the road with alacrity, the endearing Puneite road quality of saying much and doing little continually getting rehuvenated. The food that the city offers remains variegated and sumptuous.
And, as Hirak
earlier, nothing still beats the utter joy of negotiating the traffic on a two wheeler, horn blaring, friend sitting behind arguing and joking loudly, your own head turned by roughly ninety degrees, in the fond hope that you will somehow receive the divyadrushti (miraculous vision) of understanding everything that the traffic says to you during that small, enjoyable sojourn.
More later! Happy New year!

Thursday, December 21, 2006

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Pretty much sums up my case. I said the exact same thing to my advisor.
Happy holidays! Greetings from Pune coming soon.

Sunday, December 17, 2006


I know that many people will hasten to correct me and be surprised at my reaction. But the reason I disliked Borat was not because it's disgustingly outrageous in many parts. That did not bother me. My philosophy about movies always has been that it does not matter if you see a lot of gore, violence, or sex in them, as long as there's a purpose for all that. I usually have no problems with graphic murder details, extreme rage, rivers of blood and excessive sex, if they all are essential for the thread and context of the movie. However, the more extreme notions that a writer and director include in a movie, the more responsibility they have to actually justify all of that. And Borat fails to do this. It sets an unwieldy standard for itself by all the shock value that is built up. But it fails to deliver the punchline of purpose that necessarily should accompany such an explosion of outrageousness.

Yes, there definitely are some quite hilarious moments that leave you genuinely laughing. But they are much fewer than the moments which leave you gasping with horror and looking for justification. All through the movie I was thinking, what's the point? If the point is simply to make people gasp in horror, then that purpose is served. But then what's the difference between Borat and a roadside freak show? After all, there are many American movies which are like that, but then they also don't try to disguise themselves as anything else. And they also usually don't get four stars from Roger Ebert.

Borat appears as if through all the outrageous antics, it is trying to highlight the idiosyncracies of America and Americans. But it hardly exposes them any more than they already have, and then also only a few of them, and then also limited to a few Americans and a few aspects of America. I was hoping for a movie that would bring out the most outrageous idiosyncracies of America and Americans through the most outrageous depictions and analogies. But what idiosyncracies are we talking about here? Americans' obssession with sex, religion, and high-handedness? Or their sometimes weird sense of humour? But we already knew this, and we also know that such excesses are not a global part of all of America and certainly cannot be generalized. So why do we need Borat to demonstrate this?

Not only that, I am not surprised that the movie offended quite a few because of it's purpose not keeping up with its shock value. In some parts the movie seems demeaning to both Americans and Kazhaks. I read that many Americans were essentially tricked into starring in this movie under the pretext that it was a sincere documentary. I am sure that when Michael Moore filmed Fahranheit 911, even he did not tell everyone in it about his explicit purpose. But in that case, such actions seem justified, because the movie was designed to expose the weaknesses, hypocrisies, and extremes of the administration. Again, if there's a good purpose, any kind of excess can be rationalized and I can understand it. Not so in Borat

Sacha Baron Cohen sure has been bold, and I don't deny that he is a creative and talented man. People might tell me, you are going down the wrong road here; Borat is again one of those movies which you should watch, as they say about some Hindi flicks, while "leaving your brain at home". I don't mind such movies at all. But then they should not be justified as examples of great satire, irony, and philosophy, as Borat has often been made out to be.

With a purpose fleshed out distinctly, Borat would actually have been a great movie. But as you are left groping about for that purpose in the darkness, whether the movie intends it or not, you cannot help but think that Borat has insulted the intelligence of its audience.

Thursday, December 14, 2006


Emory professor Kenneth Stein has described what he thinks to be inaccuracies in Jimmy Carter's new book cited below. Honestly, I am not convinced. I don't doubt that the book might be inaccurate in certain ways. But Stein's objections seem to be related to factual accuracy, concerning dates, exact words etc. In most cases, I don't see however how this makes the book detract from its implications. For example, consider the following criticism:

"In his book, Carter writes that the resolution says, "Israel must withdraw from occupied territories" it acquired by force during the Six-Day War in 1967 between Israel and Egypt, Jordan and Syria.

But the word "must" never appears in the actual U.N. resolution text."

But here's what the actual UN resolution 242 says:

"The fulfillment of Charter principles requires the establishment of a just and lasting peace in the Middle East which should include the application of both the following principles:
Withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict;
Termination of all claims or states of belligerency and respect for and acknowledgement of the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of every State in the area and their right to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries free from threats or acts of force"

The resolution does not explicity use the word "must", but it clearly still says that a lasting peace in the Middle East requires the withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the conflict. Even if Carter used the wrong wording, how does it change the meaning of the assertion?

Another instance of Stein's criticism is more interesting:

"Carter writes that the accords called for "the dismantling of [Israeli] settlements on Egyptian land." But the accords never actually refer to the settlements. In fact, the Israeli leader at the time, Menachem Begin, was so opposed to discussing the issue that he wouldn't have signed any document mentioning them"

This clearly shows the obduracy of the Israeli administration. In exposing one of Carter's inadequacies, Stein actually alerts us to one of Israel it seems!

Later, Stein also says that Carter botched up a few dates. For example, he misplaces the date of Golda Meir's retirement by one month.

All this criticism implies at most that Carter's detailing of history has been sloppy at places. This sloppiness can be corrected in later editions. But that by itself hardly lends credence to Stein's pointed condemnation of the book as being "replete with factual errors, copied materials not cited, superficialities, glaring omissions, and simply invented segments".

Stein's interview is here. Interestingly, he outlined his criticisms in a class. That's disconcerting. If the criticism was so important, why didn't he disclose it directly in a press conference for example?

Unless I hear something more, I am disinclined to believe Stein's specific criticism of Carter's book.

P.S. How timely can things be?! A friend of mine gifted me Carter's book for Christmas yesterday

Monday, December 11, 2006


Jimmy Carter, who among other things is a visiting honorary professor at Emory University, has come under fire for his views about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in his new book, Palestine: Peace, Not Apartheid. Everything from the title of the book has become a subject of hot debate. Emory professor Kenneth Stein, a widely quoted expert on the issue and longtime associate of Carter, has dissociated himself from the book. His opinion about it is critical to say the least, when he says that is is "replete with factual errors, copied materials not cited, superficialities, glaring omissions, and simply invented segments".

I haven't read the book, but from the point of view of dissent, it is amusing and commendable that a former US president has written a book that is critical of the Israelis, charitable to the Palestinians, and condemns the lack of criticism of Israel that is a regular feature of a lot of mainstream media in the US. Chomsky and others have been saying this for a long time. The US has a very powerful Jewish community, in terms of wealth and knowledge, and I can imagine that the US would always be hesitant in general to unequivocally and regularly condemn Israel's actions. Irrespective of the factual accuracy of the book, I think Carter should be praised for firmly taking such a non party line stance.

Carter's views about the book and about the allegations can be found in this interview recorded by the Emory paper, The Emory Wheel. Carter is of course famous for being a claimant to the title of "Best Ex-President of the USA".

One of my friend's college professors once told her, "Between Carter and Clinton, I would trust Clinton with the government, but Carter with my daughter". Now which one is more important?

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Thursday, December 07, 2006


An enormously fun debate is going on in the pages of Nature (subscriber link), initiated after the magazine published the 'Creationism in Europe' article which prompted me to write this post a couple of days ago. After that article was published, a Polish gentleman named Maciej Giertych of the Institute of Dendrology of the Polish Academy of Sciences sent a letter to Nature, in which he questioned the validity of evolution, apparently without citing a single reference, although he did cite his seemingly impressive credentials from the universities of Oxford and Toronto. Giertych said:

"I believe that, as a result of media bias, there seems to be total ignorance of new scientific evidence against the theory of evolution. Such evidence includes race formation (microevolution), which is not a small step in macroevolution because it is a step towards a reduction of genetic information and not towards its increase. It also includes formation of geological strata sideways rather than vertically, archaeological and palaeontological evidence that dinosaurs coexisted with humans, a major worldwide catastrophe in historical times, and so on."

What on earth (pun intended)?! First of all, assuming that what he means by "microevolution" is evolution on the scale of genes and biomolecules, such microevolution has been demonstrated thousands of times, in fact thus enormously supporting and widening the purview of evolution. Secondly, he actually has the audacity to suggest that humans and dinosaurs may have walked together on the earth!

Quite appropriately, this rash letter invoked a series of no less than eight rebuttals in the latest correspondence section of Nature. Here is a snapshot of all the letters

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(Copyright: Nature Publishing Group, 2006)

There are those who have also criticised Nature for publishing such a hack letter, but most have directly condemned Giertych's views. There is the correspondent from the Institute of Dendrology who is prompt to dissociate his institute's views from Giertych's views, and then there are those who lambast him directly for his opinions and deplore his lack of reference citing. But there are also two correspondents who say

"The very fact that his letter was published shows that Nature has no bias against critics of evolution."

This is an interesting point. Should scientific journals publish letters and so-called articles from people like Giertych? On one hand, we may think that this is necessary to prove that scientific journals have no bias in publication. Thus, creationists cannot accuse them of actively suppressing evidence. On the other hand, it is not the responsibility of scientific journals to refute every hack creationist unscientific assertion.

I don't know whether Nature published Giertych's letter to allow dissent (no matter how misguided and unsubstantiated) or to actually publish a serious opposing point of view. It surely cannot be the latter, and I am convinced it is the former reason. But as a matter of principle, I completely agree that scientific journals have absolutely no obligation to publish any pseudoscientific cricticism of sound scientific facts, let alone dissenting correpondence. If pseudoscientists cry foul, it's quite clear they are really crying sour grapes. It's one thing to be a valid scientific critic of evolution, but it's quite another to be a pseudoscientific opponent of evolution who cites not one scientific reference. Since it's really the creationists who assert that the earth was created six thousand years ago, the onus of proof has always been on them to prove their assertions, and no journal needs to pander to their dissenting views that don't have an iota of scientific basis to support them.

The other point is related to Dawkins's stance that we can never disprove the existence of god and creation. Naturally, the creationists tout that as proof of their contentions. Scientific journals also don't have any duty whatsoever to publish assertions that are not disproved. Because in science and the reality seeking world, innocent until proven guilty is a non-existent principle.

On a different note, Poland is a staunchly Catholic country, and I won't be surprised if they start teaching creationism in schools as an "alternative theory". The only condition should be that they should teach all "theories" of creation, including that of the Flying Spaghetti Monster and the Dozing Fatty Spinster.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006


Reading about the lesbian marriage of two tribal women from Orissa is encouraging. Encouraging because hopefully, incidents like these may help to dispel the misguided thought about homosexuality being a "Western" phenomenon from the minds of our people and leaders. Surely these tribal women in their upbringing were relatively exempt from "Western" influences. Such incidents, along with the recent observations of homosexuality in animals may hammer home the point about it being a biological phenomenon, and not an 'abnormal' one.

In the bonobo monkey, not only is sex itself an activity that is as commonly and casually practised as lice picking, but homosexual relations and especially female-female sex are in fact routine. Some researchers think that this is a social device, helping to mollify tensions when a food source is found for example. I can easily think of homosexual conduct and sex in general as tension-releasing phenomena that could help to keep animals from killing each other over territory or mates in certain situations. In fact, human beings certainly engage in sex for relaxation, so why can't monkeys do it? After all, living in the wild could not be any less taxing that working a nine to six job and supporting a family.

However, I don't see laws about homsexuality in India changing soon. As usual, the homosexuality prohibiting law is 145 years old and enforced by British authorities. The hypocrisy of laws against homosexuality in Britain itself is not subtle. Many famous British intellectuals in the 19th and early 20th century were homosexuals, some in and others out of the closet, but mostly in. E M Forster, Christopher Isherwood, W H Auden, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Alan Turing are prominent examples. The infamous British 1930s communist spy ring that smuggled atomic secrets consisted of brilliant men, most of whom were homosexuals. There are doubt thats G H Hardy may have had homosexual inclinations, but this contention has never been validated. Even with such a distinguished sampling, British laws against homosexuality were both unsparingly strict and exceedingly embarrassing to the accused. Even in the late 1950s, Alan Turing was asked to undertake an embarrassing regimen of hormones- treatment that led to the growth of breasts- to "correct" his sexual inclination. The despondent Turing took his own life partly as a result of this. If the British could not take a second look at their shameful laws even so late and even when it came to such distinguished and important citizens, I wouldn't be surprised if Indian laws remain rigid for a long time. In fact, I am waiting for an Indian intellectual or public figure to come out of the closet; perhaps then the government will be shocked in realising the 'normal' nature of the phenomenon.

In hindsight, it should not be very surprising. Based on extraordinarily detailed sexual histories of men and women, Alfred Kinsey constructed his scale, where the distinction between homosexuality and heterosexuality was continuous and not discrete. 'Pure' heterosexuality was assigned a value of 0, 'pure' homosexuality a value of 5. Upon detailed statistical surveying Kinsey found that a substantial number of people fell midway on 3 or even on 4. The number may be higher because people may have lied about their homosexual experiences. A surprisingly high number of people recalled at least one homosexual experience, perceptible and subtle if not explicit.

The point is that if one looks at sex from the point of view of establishing bonding and not just reproduction, then the occasional development of homosexuality may not be that surprising. In the bonobo, sex seems to be a common reconciliatory stance. I agree that it may take a few more generations before we emotionally come to terms with homosexuality, but condemning homosexuality as 'abnormal' or 'Western' is no different than the treatment of slaves a long time ago with the contention that they are 'only one fourth human'. Just as that presumption was an insult to basic human dignity, so is the draconian and undignified treatment of homosexual men and women. As we gain more knowledge about the evolutionary biology of homosexuality, perhaps science can again help to restore social dignity and tolerance.

Saturday, December 02, 2006


A couple of days ago, Ramchandra Guha wrote an article in The Telegraph about the traditional disdain of Indian intellectuals for free markets. Quite aside from the other specific points he makes, one paragraph of his turned out to be more provocative.

The market does have its imperfections. One is that left to itself, it tends to pollute and degrade the environment. A second is that employers generally do not pay attention to the health and safety of the worker. A third is that without consumer vigilance and action, industrialists do not always deliver on quality. A fourth is that the market disregards those without purchasing power. A fifth is that one cannot rely on the market to deliver on goods and services whose value cannot be reduced to monetary terms, such as primary education and basic healthcare.

Not suprisingly, pro free market bloggers immediately took objection to these points, and Gautam Bastion wrote a rebuke criticising each one of these contentions specificially. However, my take on these matters is different. Let's say tomorrow if someone listed a set of similar grievances about democracy. Rather than vigorously trying to justify democracy as the best system that could possibly exist, I would shrug and say, "Yes, democracy does have its own evils. But it's the least evil of all the systems that we have seen". More accurately, I would paraphrase Bertrand Russell's even more cautious viewpoint- "Democracy is not a very good social and political system. But what it does is prevent certain evils".

My opinion is that most of the objections listed about the free market by Guha are in fact true. But they neither serve any anti-free market point nor in my opinion, justify a blanket defence of free markets. In fact, I believe that by trying to justify free markets as being free of all evils, pro free marketeers open themselves up to criticism, because they simply cannot tout free markets as being perfect. Let me try to judge some of the points raised by Guha as well as replies to those points penned by Bastion. I am no expert and I want to focus on just two points, but I can see that one can very much be pro free markets even with all the criticism about them.

* Left to itself, the free market tends to pollute and degrade the environment:
In fact, I could not agree with this point more. Polluting the environment is one of the most efficient ways in which corporations can exercise externalities. Gautam criticises this point by saying that this is possible only because the rights on the property which corporations pollute are not clear. If people had property rights on the environment, they could have a say in the corporations' environmental practices and put pressure on the corporations to change their practices.

But can such rights really be practically implemented? I quoted the example of global warming, which affects people way beyond local populations. So can the islanders of say Pacific islands exercise their property rights over all the environment that Exxon Mobile pollutes? In the first place, it would be diabolically difficult, if not impossible, to actually quantify and capture the exact contribution of global pollution by Exxon. Or consider the amplification of pesticide residues through food chains, something that affects multiple ecosystems and their denizens. Who should be entitled to property rights? And how would you actually exercise such rights? Also, since corporations always find it more profitable to pollute the environment, I can imagine powerful lobbyists along each step trying to thwart the efforts of anyone who tries to implement property rights. Only if shareholders are themselves directly affected by pollution, can realistic pressure be put on corporations. But how often is that going to happen? Rather than a theoretical dilemma, this solution strikes me as being logistically impossible because of the global effect, and that too not easily quantified, of pollution and environmental damage. It would be almost impossible to take into account all populations, communities, and ecological systems affected by pollution from any particular corporation, and even all of the market. Many of the people affected by this pollution may be too illiterate and weak to actually fight against it. Can we realistically think of forming a cooperative and making all these millions of affected people stakeholders in that cooperative? Such a venture for all corporations may take longer than the next ice age to actually evolve.

In such a case, the real question is, should we do nothing unless such property rights can possibly be implemented? So right now, the only solution, no matter if it is seen as flawed, is to have government intervention in corporate environmental practices. In fact, even in a cauldron of capitalism such as the US, there have been umpteen cases of corporations not complying with FDA or EPA laws. The only intervention that worked to some extent was government taxation and fines. As a matter of philosophy, I don't disagree with Guha at all; corporations, if left to themselves will almost always find it profitable to pollute and externalise costs. But even as a matter of policy, I don't see the free market regulating itself, at least not until catastrophic levels of pollution have been surpassed. When it comes to pollution or climate change, time is of the essence, and anything that saves time is of value, even if in theory there can be a possible better solution after a hundred years. Even if there is a possible solution which can be generated by the free market itself, it is is foolish to wait until it actually is generated. And in the present scenario, and also based on history, I don't see how the free market will keep itself from polluting in a realistic frame of time.
Interestingly, even government fines and taxation don't always work well. In the US, corporations have many times found it much more profitable to pay hundreds of millions of dollars in taxes and keep up with their practices than comply with environmental laws. This is one of the reasons why all that government regulation did not keep the US from becoming any less free than what it was. Outsourcing was a golden solution to simply shift the focus of pollution. But increasingly, it is going to be paramount for every government to implement such fines for pollution, at least if we want to have a sane chance of preserving the world as we know it.

As I was contemplating this matter, a timely editorial appeared in this week's issue of Science. The editor has argued that the 'cap-and-trade' practices that worked well for sulfur dioxide in the US simply cannot be seen to work for CO2 emissions. In the end, he thinks that government taxation really would be the best way to reduce emissions for now, without making harsh demands on consumers. He says,

"Many environmental economists recognize that a tax or fee on CO2 emission from fossil fuel sources is the most efficient system to reduce emissions and spread the burden equitably across all sources: industrial and personal. A tax on emissions of fossil fuel carbon could replace the equivalent revenue from income taxes, so the total tax bill of consumers would be unchanged. A higher tax on gasoline would preserve the personal right to drive a larger car or drive long
distances, but it would also motivate decisions to do otherwise. A tax on emissions from coal-fired power plants, manifest in monthly electric bills, would motivate the use of alternative energies and energy-use efficiencies at home and in industry."

The unique feature of pollution that is different from many other corporate practices is that especially now, it has started affecting the entire globe. Any solution to the problem needs to be more timely than anything else. And I think it would be a dream at this stage to think of the free market regulating its pollution in the near future without government intervention.

* The market disregards those without purchasing power:
Gautam calls this the "most brutal misrepresentation" of free markets. I would call it the most brutal truth about free markets. Again, I would have no objection accepting this point. In fact, of course free markets disregard many people who don't have purchasing power. But what system on earth could possibly not do that?? What distinguishes free markets is that they give incentives to every person in their purview to gain that purchasing power. That is really the nature of the free market soul. So this objection, while true, does not really say anything dramatic. One might as well criticise free markets for saying that they don't make sure that every victim of AIDS in Africa does not get access to the best anti-HIV drugs. Of course he or she does not. But find me a system which would make those drugs available to all those people, and which simultaneoulsy has incentives for self-advancement and progress that are built in Adam Smith's grand ball game. In fact, find me a system which satisfies even the first condition. Except in very limited circumstances, I cannot envisage free markets duly regarding every person and his brother who doesn't have purchasing power. So this critcism by Guha, while warranted, is a trite truism. We knew that for many years; in fact, wasn't that what the communists and leftists have been saying for time immemorial? To say that free markets don't regard people with purchasing power is to enunciate a bitter truth of humanity; all humans are simply not born equal, and in fact most humans won't ever become equal. But what free markets do is to give every man a realistic chance to become equal. In this respect, they are remarkably humanising structures which promise decency to every individual. Again, they may not do this in the best way, but they do this better than any other system we have dared to imagine and implement. So this trite truism will in the end elicit a trite response from me- "True, so what?"

Even in the most capitalist country that we know of, or at least aspire to, so many projects and systems are still controlled by the government. Drinking water, much large-scale construction, implementation of food and environmental laws by the FDA and EPA, all these frameworks are implemented by the government. There is still a large share of the government budget which is dedicated to such infrastructures. And consider the tricky question of health care. The question has not been to choose government over corporations in implementing health care, but to choose the right combination of both that would lead to a palatable recipe. I don't see the US becoming any less free in its market economy than other countries even with this above cited government intervention and participation. There will always be cribs and complaints. But it's only a healthy combination of free markets and government that can sustain a healthy economy. Each one of these has its Dr. Hydes, and it's upto the other to keep him from trampling on consumers and the environment. Maybe the government even has more, but the free market cannot have none.

The pursuit of self-interest can lead to enlightenment, but the government has to set some rules, and commensurately has to exact some penalties then. I don't think pro free market bloggers should worry about criticisms such as the above being heaped on free markets. In fact, I fear that in trying to employ unconditional defences of free markets, they are opening themselves to criticism, but still criticism that they should not have to answer to. But if that criticism is not warranted in the first place, then why is an unmitigated defence of free markets warranted? That also does not mean one should blithely ignore any and all critiques. As in the case of the first point above, government always will have to keep a watch over polluting practices of corporations, at least until due pressure from shareholders can let them pass the baton of policing.

In many ways, the free market is its own defence as well as its own bugaboo.. But the important point is to distinguish criticism that questions the nature of free markets from criticism that questions the rules of the game. As far as the former is concerned, like I said, hey, so what??

Update: Girish reminds me of a very important point that I have missed. It is the non-economic institutions, political and others (including even the tiniest units like family), that really contribute the essential soul-lending framework to the free market. They foster values which mitigate some of the harsher aspects of the market.