Sunday, February 25, 2007


Image Hosted by

Emory University surely must be feeling proud of itself, as it has convinced Salman Rushdie to be a professor here for the next five years. Rushdie has accepted, and as of now, he is the Distinguished Writer in Residence at the English Department. More importantly, he has kept his entire record of writings at the library for scholars to peruse.

Today, he delivered the first of the several talks that he will deliver in the next five years, and everyone can look forward to some notable presentations indeed (not that I would like to be here for five more years because of this). As expected, we were there one hour before the talk was about to start, and yet had to stand in a mile-long line.

The talk was Rushdie the storyteller at his most effective. If Salman Rushdie can do anything exceedingly well, it is to tell a story. Today, he told the story of the multicultural and eclectic king Akbar, and his commissioning of a remarkable set of 1400 paintings called the Hamzanama based on the exploits of the legendary king Hamza, uncle of the prophet Mohammed. Today, less than 200 of the paintings survive, and some of them are part of the Domains of Wonder exhibit on Indian art in the Michael Carlos Museum here.

Like Rushdie himself does, the paintings mix reality and myth and deliver a good dose of magic realism. Rushdie presented a slide show of the paintings, narrating as he flashed the elegant prints on the screen. He is casual, soft-spoken, and witty. The most important ingredient he brought to the talk was his eclecticism. Speaking about 16th century art and Mughal culture, he alluded among other things, to dentistry, Monty Python, and the invention of the graphite pencil.

While he spoke about the exploits of Hamza and Akbar, Rushdie simultaneously contrasted them with what was happening in the rest of the world at the same time, especially the Renaissance in Europe. He said that Indian art stands apart from European art in one important respect; while European art was distinguished by the hand of the individual wherever it was showcased, Indian art was the supreme achievement of a collective effort. Michelangelo, Da Vinci and others are names that have been immortalised. In contrast, nobody except experts now knows the names of those artists who contributed to the Hamzanama, in Rushdie's opinion, as valuable an art legacy as David and the Mona Lisa. I can also think of the Taj Mahal, whose nameless artisans will forever remain anonymous.

The paintings showcase the stuff out of which bedtime stories are made; stories of spies, love, kingly conquests and celebrations. They portray much of the architecture that later went into real structures, such as Fatehpur Sikri. Most importantly, the paintings were produced by a truly multicultural brand of painters; Hindus, Muslims, even one or two Europeans. Names of the painters sound oddly modern; Mahesh, Keshav Das, Jamundas, Imran. Each specialized in a particular aspect of the paintings; figurines, architecture, attire, or natural scenery.

The styles of these multireligious artists seamlessly blended together, completely erasing borders erected by their religions.
And that was Rushdie's point which he elaborated on at the end. I remember Amartya Sen saying the same thing in his 'The Argumentative Indian'. To call India a 'Hindu nation' is to ignore this multicultural heritage which was assimilated and encouraged by Muslims, Hindus and Christians alike. History presents to all us all the facts, and while we should keep in mind all of them, we can decide which facts serve as beacons for visions for the future. Should we learn from the resplendent Akbar's tolerance and celebration of all religions, or the ruthless Auranzeb's temple-smashing bigotry? Rushdie also talked about the recent efforts of fundamentalist Hindu revisionists to marginalise and even deny these contributions of Moghul artistic inspirations, and even try to rewrite school textbooks based on these interpretations. This is completely unacceptable, and we must do well to become more aware about integral parts of our history to thwart the attempts of these fundamentalists.

But probably the most important message of Rushdie's and Akbar's Hamzanama, was that these artistic achievements go beyond religions. They really depict what the human spirit and collective human endeavor is capable of. I have always believed that there are two avenues of the human intellect and the human heart which break borders between nationalities, races, religions, and genders; science and the arts. Akbar's Hamzanama is a message for future generations to increasingly flock together in the creation and advancement of these two fundamental enterprises of human existence. To taxonomize and communalise these ventures would be to undermine human creativity itself.

Labels: , , ,

Thursday, February 22, 2007


That's it. After flying a couple of times to India and within the US on three different airlines, I have finally finished my exhaustive and diligent study of a remarkable hoax, and now deem myself fit to reach a conclusion.

Conclusion: The pretty and beatific female flight attendant does not exist.

Corollary: The myth of the pretty and beatific flight attendant is a myth that has been concocted by the massive aero-industrial complex to lure passengers into using flight as a dominant means of transportation. Trillions of dollars have been made by the efficient propagation of this ruse, and this travesty has only been helped by the appalling intellectual subservience of a population that has already been shown too many false dreams.
During his extensive travels, the author has come across only one concrete example which could possibly subscribe to support of the myth. Needless to say, the evidence is insufficient.

Addendum: The author of this study feels that members of the female gender will support this conclusion with respect to members of the male gender. The author would however hastily like to add that he has no expertise whatsoever in passing this judgement.

Hence, just like the myth of Santa, the Easter Bunny, and the Fairy Godmother, this myth too will go down in history as the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on an unsuspecting public. After global warming that is.

What some of the flight attendants can be said to resemble though is the real incarnation of another myth- the Piltdown Man/Woman

Labels: , , ,


One of the best documentaries I have seen is "Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media", and I had promptly bought the DVD when I first saw the film in the library. But somehow, I missed one of the special features on the disc, which I first watched a few months back- a 1969 debate between Chomsky and William F. Buckley, the star conservative pundit of American television. I want to say he is the Bill O'Reilly of yesteryears, but that would be a grave insult to him; Buckley is orders of magnitude more intelligent, charming, and smooth-talking than O'Reilly. O'Reilly is a bonafide nutcase in contrast.

The video clip is immense entertainment; notice how cleverly the smooth-talker Buckley tries to wiggle his way out of inconvenient points, how he resorts to charming sophistry to repeatedly throw Chomsky off track and tries to catch him in contradictions. In spite of these very clever efforts, in the end, Chomksy pristinely beats every one of his arguments and proves more than a match for him. As usual, Chomsky's casual and quiet sarcasm are priceless, and his arguments are spot on.

While I was thinking where I could find a link to this clip, I missed the obvious place- these days you really can find almost anything on Youtube.


Labels: , ,

Thursday, February 15, 2007


“I would not ask if conditions here would not force me to do all I can in time to be able to avoid worse...perhaps you remember that we have two girls. It is for the sake of the children mainly that we have to care for. Our own fate is of less importance.”
So begins one of the many letters that Otto Frank sent to his friend in America as his time was running out. In light of this letter, it is tragedy exemplified that in the end, it was he who alone survived, and his wife and daughters who died in the recesses of the Nazi concentration camps, wizened, nameless souls stricken with disease and helplessness.

The New York Times has written a piece about an extraordinary and heart-rending set of letters and documents unearthed, that detail Otto Frank's desperate attempts to get to America. He did all he could, and in the end, it was fate which intervened and sealed his life, and more importantly that of his daughters. In the process, fate also consigned his daughter to becoming a symbol of everlasting hope and empathy, a legend for humanity for ages to come.

However, in spite of the special nature of these letters, Otto Frank was one of hundreds of thousands of Jewish citizens in Europe who were desperately knocking on the doors of the US, as the State Department tightened the noose of its immigration laws and ended any chance of survival that most of these people had. It is only when we realize that there were a hundred thousand such Otto Franks and Anne Franks in Europe, that we realise the true magnitude of the catalysm that befell humanity during those dark ages.

In another irony, potential immigrants had to prove that they were "of benefit to the United States". In denying Otto Frank and his family a chance to emigrate, the US made sure that Otto Frank's daughter would serve as a "benefit" and reminder to all of the world in the future, albeit a tragic one.

There was nothing wrong in the US and Britain limiting the numbers of refugees, as any country must have some set of rules when it is flooded with such an exodus. But what is more disconcerting is the fact that the US did in fact have a special immigration quota for Jews, and that even though its informal policy was nowhere close to that of Germany, the US had been practicing informal anti-Semitism for a long time. During the early 1900s, Harvard had a policy of explictly discriminating against Jews to some extent through a quota. But then, most of the western world had practiced anti-Semitism through several hundred years in the past. As far as science was concerned for example, Richard Feynman could not get admitted to Columbia because of a Jewish quota, Robert Oppenheimer's Jewishness caused concern in the affluent bay area community, and he could not get his longtime friend and assistant Robert Serber- as brilliant a physicist as any- appointed to the faculty at Berkeley; according to the physics department chairman, "One Jew in the Department was enough". All through the early twentieth century, being Jewish had a manifest disadvantage to it, as far as getting any kind of job was concerned. Compounded with The Depression, Jews had a hard time indeed.

Another mild irony becomes clear from the article; the US feared the breakout of a rash of Nazi-supported spy cells among the immigrants, and that was one of the reasons there was such restriction on immigration. The paradox in the situation is that this was at a time when Russian spies were thronging the country in the hundreds, passing every secret from car manufacturing to chemical plant design to the Soviet Union, not to mention the most sensitive secrets of the atomic bomb.

Nor was the German persecution of Jews an unknown factor in the US. As Joel Bakan in The Corporation notes, IBM and other companies regularly did business with the Germans before the war, supplying them the then-primitive "computers". That some of these machines were used to keep track of listings of Jews in concentration camps was a tacitly known fact. The US did not know the grotesque extent and the exact nature of these camps, but the very fact that influential businessmen in the US could dismiss their existence at least makes it clear that condemning anti-Semitism was not yet a gut-reaction, when it should have been so. Later in the war, the existence of Auschwitz was a known fact, and some military officials suggested bombing the train routes that led to the camp, a move that would have saved thousand of lives. Franklin Roosevelt and his advisors rejected the possibility, as they thought that it would divert much needed air-force resources from other campiagns. Again, FDR was not an anti-Semite, but several facts make it clear that the rescue and liberation of European Jewry was not the most expedient priority in the minds of many.

And so it was that Otto Frank's fate, among others, was sealed. Perhaps the US would not have been able to save Otto Frank even if its immigration policies were lax; the spread of Nazi tyranny was too fast and there were simply too many Jews wanting to leave Europe. But history is a curious phenomenon, and one incident can tell you about the state of the world, for better or worse. That we must learn from it is the only thing that then matters. Anne Frank surely taught us that.

Labels: , , , , ,

Wednesday, February 14, 2007


From explicit threats of bodily harm and shop breakage, the dreaded thought-police have finally turned to wimpy exhortations. Valentinos...beware!!

From the BBC:
Another Hindu hard-line organization, the Shiv Sena, has said it will photograph couples caught expressing their love in cinemas, cafes and shopping malls and hand the pictures to their parents...

It's good to read something refreshing after a long time.

Labels: ,

Tuesday, February 13, 2007


Every evening when I watch CNN, usually the news is entertaining, if a little biased and unnecessarily flashy. Paula Zahn and Wolf Blitzer, among others provide a fast paced narrative of issues, whether you agree with them or not. But at least most of the times, it's reasonably sane, focusing on pertinent political, social and economic issues. Sometimes the issues are overanalyzed, and you wonder why they are spending so much time on them. But it's usually bearable.

Not so yesterday, when I was floored by two hours of the most mindless debates possible. Mindless not because of their content which was obviously important, but because of the constant quibbling and bickering about matters which really are not important in the context of the problems that were being discussed. I think it was a great example of how you can talk about important matters and yet spend so much time on inconsequential details...but I would be wrong if I say this; the disturbing point is that it's precisely these inconsequential details that people want to spend all their precious time on. A sad state of affairs indeed.

First, there was a long discussion on whether Barack Obama as a presidential candidate is "black enough". What??

Second, there was an entertaining if ridiculous debate between the president of American Atheists and a preacher whose affiliation I have forgot; again, ridiculous because both were flogging the same dead horse. I am of course on the side of the atheist, but what was fatuous was the incessant bickering that the two were engaged in at super-fast speed, given the (always) limited time they had to voice their opinions. However, I do sympathize with the atheist woman; she was just not given enough time to say anything. I also may have bickered in a "Your 30 seconds start now" scenario.
I have to say that the topic was serious and pertinent; are America's atheists being discriminated against? Of course they are, we don't need a debate for that! A two minute clip of an interview with Richard Dawkins made the point, but what new could he too add? After all, the same arguments against blind faith can only be repeated again and again. Then there was a story about two ordinary Americans who detailed how they have been marginalised by society because they are atheists. You think that only left-wingish intellectuals are atheists? Then take a look at this fact atheism can manifest itself as much in simple, forward thinking, middle class people, as it can in university professors, scientists, and intellectual liberals. I was utterly appalled when the couple said that their children could not find playmates because of their parents' "faith" (mind you; atheism is a lack of faith), people stopped being friendly with them, and they even suspect that their landlord gave them a notice because of their atheism. My advice to them? You are good folks and you are really living in the wrong place. One plea; get out! Go to England.

Third: an NBA basketball star reveals that he is gay, sparking national outrage. Yes, that's right, doesn't his being gay suddenly make all his basketball achievements void? Also, the CNN interviewer asked him an extremely unfair and wrong question; did you get attracted to your fellow basketball players in the locker room?...Consider what a completely unfair question this is. No matter what answer the poor guy gives to this question, he is going to be called either a disgusting homosexual, or a liar and hypocrite after that. But the man was quite a match for the interviewer, declaring that the question was narcissism exemplified.

Fourth (and thankfully the last one): A high school newspaper somewhere published a "satire" on rape, saying that "Rape only hurts if you resist it". Needless to say, the editor instantly achived the status of Martin Bormann at a bar mitzvah.

At the end of two hours, I really felt like I was watching some reality or comedy show. Unfortunately, the laughter cannot extinguish the deep anguish. Unfortunately, these issues are the ones which occupy the serious time of many Americans and their mainstream news sources. What is debated are passion-ridden opinions and side-issues, which are forcibly turned into main issues.

What matters more? Whether a person is an atheist or whether he or she is a good person? Whether an NBA player is gay, or whether he plays terrific basketball? Whether Barack Obama is "black enough", or whether he has admirable individual qualities that would make him into a fine President?

What's more important? The sane among us would say; personal righteousness, basketball, and presidential abilities. CNN and many Americans say; atheism, homosexual nature, and shades of black.

Hard to sometimes believe that this is the most "progressive", "modern", and "developed" nation in the world. That's why I stick to BBC.

Labels: , , , ,

Monday, February 12, 2007


Drew Faust just became the first president of Harvard in the 371 years old history of its hallowed corridors. Ironic, and surely gratifying to many, after the last president put a permanent blemish on his tenure by making comments that were widely interpreted as sexist. He said infamously that "innate differences between the sexes" might be responsible for women being underrepresented in academics.

Ah, the old nature versus nurture show them what you can do, Dr. Faust.

I have a different question though; tomorrow, what if science actually proves that yes, innate and irrevocable differences between men and women are responsible for women being relatively weak at academic careers? What, then? If that happens, then at least science should also simultaneously and objectively "prove that men are jerks". Call it even then? Personally, I don't believe for a moment that science could ever provide a definitive answer to any such complex issues. But the question strikes at the heart of the conflict between science, and public and social policy.

The conflict was probably on Jim "Honest" Watson's mind, when he apparently contended that thin women are unhappy.

Hat tip: Chembark

Labels: , , , ,

Sunday, February 11, 2007


As many must now know, there is an acrimonious debate going on in the blogosphere about alleged racism from the administrator of Desipundit. This debate is hardly always a civilised one, and the comments I have seen may contain the most comprehensive set of profane phrases penned in the desi blogosphere.

I don't want to analyze what Vulturo said about 'Madrasi' girls. But while he is certainly entitled to his opinion, I definitely think that what he said was very unwise, rather than 'right' or 'wrong'. I think that was so especially because he is the administrator of Desipundit, a site which most of us regularly subscribe to and enjoy. This is not a question of being politically correct or incorrect, but is also about maintaining a certain accountability for an organisation that you are managing. When Lawrence Summers makes sexist-sounding comments, it reflects on Harvard. Similarly, when Vulturo makes provocative comments, it reflects on Desipundit, irrespective or whether this is right or wrong. Also, there is a nuanced manner in which one can make even the most provocative statements. Unfortunately, Vulturo did not leave room for any ambiguity and equivocation in his opinions. The words he used immediately consigned themselves to the bin of racist flotsam. After that, I don't think any amount of explanation will make people's opinions change at least about the specific words used.

There is a simple Chinese proverb; you are masters of the words you hold inside you, and slaves of those which you speak. Most of the times, we don't follow this, but this adage couldn't have been truer than it is in the age of the internet. I believe that our generation, being the first one to have such unfettered access to penning our opinions on the web, still has to come to terms with the permanance of those words. We still have to fathom the fact that twenty years down the line, a spouse, friend, or employer can dig up those words and form an opinion of us. Whether an opinion can be formed based on words written twenty years ago is itself a different question; sometimes it could be credible and sometimes not. But we cannot stop it from materialising. Even though we understand this, I don't think we have internalised the concept. So we need to be careful, more restrained than before. Again, it's not a question of whether it is right or wrong, only whether it can or cannot happen.

I have myself made this mistake before, not to an extent that would damage my career or impressions, but made it nonetheless. Most of the times, I have jokingly said something about a scientist in the comments section of a blog, who could be my prospective employer. I won't be surprised if googling the names of prospective employees is now standard pracctice in organisations. In any case, if he sees the joke I made about him, he may or may not be irked. Again, it does not matter if his outrage is warranted or not. All that matters for me is whether his opinion of me as a student or employee is tainted by these words, quite irrespective of anything else. If his opinions are tainted by my words, I am the one who loses.

Unfortunately in case of Vulturo, his statements were about beauty, a characteristic that is always subjective, and also one that has a long social history of causing offense. Let's accept it; all through the world and in history, fair skin always has been called more beautiful, there is no secret in that. There are several complex reasons for this (European dominance and European-inspired modern civilization being a major one in my opinion). But first of all, there is a good number of the world's population who disagree with such an assertion, and secondly, it is one of those things which may be a fact, but which is not appreciated. So after he made those statements, there was no way Vulturo could logically or objectively wriggle out of their consequences, whether intended or not.

Perhaps our children's generation will have a code of their own, an interesting evolved internet culture in which they are either more responsible or more cautious. I am not implying that one should always be politically correct; otherwise there is no sense to the freedom of speech that this marvelous invention has provided is. The blogworld is essentially a forum to voice your personal opinions. However, freedom of speech is one thing, and its consequences are another. The problem is, even a rational person would find it hard to judge what would be the consequences of his comments suddenly being read by millions of people in the world. What wave of common consciousness would his opinions create in the fluid and vast blogosphere?

In the absence of a defined sense of consequences, one should be doubly sure about his words. This freedom of expression we have inevitably carried the burden of responsibility. We all are crass and say things that we are then forced to either retract or defend. The least we can do is be aware of this. We need to try to be more of masters of our words.

Labels: , ,

Saturday, February 10, 2007


Gaurav writes about the US hand in giving rise to fundamentalist Iran. A joint British-American effort restored the Shah of Iran back in power. After the coup that achieved this, it is not without interest to note that America controlled about 40 percent of Iranian oil. I think back with bitter amusement in my mind, about the number of fundamentalist countries and dictators the US directly or indirectly gave rise to. Whenever there was a democratically elected left-wing people's government, the US government and the CIA has tried almost every tactic possible to suppress it and house a government of its choice in its place. I would take this involvement even further back, right from the end of World War 2, beginning with the Truman Doctrine, which supported and almost replaced British interference in Greece. The British had already accepted their role as "junior partner" in the US-British alliance.

Basically every President since Truman has suppressed political and social uprisings abroad that were unfavourable to US interests. In fact, it was even before WW2 that Secretary of State Henry Stimson spoke about America as a great equalizing and humanizing force in the world. Even that has many precedents in British rule. I will always remember the incident about a famous essay that John Stuart Mill penned in 1858, expounding the value of British style freedom, humanist ideals and democracy. Consider; this was 1858, one year after the British brutally suppressed a revolt for freedom in their most coveted colony.

To be honest, this is hardly surprising. Every country tries to use many means to ensure its influence in the world's geopolitical landscape, especially a superpower like the US. By this token, almost every powerful contry's leaders are to blame. But what's always been amusing, and probably not amusing anymore, is how the US has always tried to justify all these actions under the garb of 'spreading democracy and freedom'. There is no doubt that some of the countries like Iran which the US is carping against constitute troubling governments, but the US never exactly had the authority to take an exclusive high ground against them.

For an excellent model of how the media always tries to spin these government actions around and put them in a context that is favourable to the administration, Noam Chomsky's Manufacturing Consent still rings very much true.

Frankly speaking, I still would consider the Americans and British among the most gentlemanly and fair rulers and superpowers in history, compared to others. Even now, I respect the relatively free dialogue and freedom of the press that is encouraged in both these nations. But there is always another side to every issue, and the problem is that both these nations, and especially the US, still try to act as if they are morally perfect and completely free of blame, and that they are the ones who have the greatest claim to teaching the world, and indeed imposing upon it, moral rectitude. That's what bugs people.

Just because America interefered in the past affairs of the countries it is despising does not mean it 'deserves' retribution from them, and any one who thinks this way is a bonafide kook. But in my opinion, this is really a question of attitude. If someone makes a totally unprovoked attack on you, someone with whom you had absolutely nothing to do in the past, then your attitude is rightly one of extreme moral indignation and aggression. However, if you know that directly or indirectly, in some way you contributed to this state of his, you might naturally empathize a little more with him and adopt a more conciliatory stance. As has been made clear by conflicts such as the Vietnman war, one of the most important reasons for the US disaster in South Vietnam was a lack of empathy, a lack of understanding Vietnamese culture and their ambitions (unlike what the US thought, the Vietnamese were not fighting as pawns of the Russians or Chinese, but were fighting for their independence). In any case, as the above example shows, if Americans know something about US interests and past actions in Iran, it is much more likely that they will empathize with their enemy. The mindset of a man who thinks Iran sprang from nowehere and is committing aggression against the US, is much different from a man who knows something about US-Iran historical relations. He would be far more empathetic towards the situation, and empathy is neessary for solving such problems.

Labels: , , , ,

Thursday, February 08, 2007


Image Hosted by

Finally, all our Chopras and Johars and all the other weres and wannabes can consider their efforts validated. Laila and Majnu (Romeo and Juliet in this case, very literally speaking...the location is pervasive to say the least) at last have a real precedent.

Labels: , ,

Tuesday, February 06, 2007


If you think the most important and key invention to come out of the war was the atomic bomb, think again.

Rudolf Peierls was an outstanding German physicist then living as an "enemy alien" emigre in England. He wanted to work on physics, but most of the physicists were then engaged in war work, and being an alien, he was barred from participating in this work. However, insiders knew his special abilities all too well, and Marc Oliphant, an Australian born British scientist, decided to invite Peierls to the University of Birmingham to work on 'pure' physics- microwaves. What possible war use could a discussion on microwaves have? But, as the war made clear, and as mathematician Stanislaw Ulam said later, it is revealing to say the least, what influence a group of people sitting at a table and scribbling on a piece of paper or a blackboard can have on world history. So it was with the men and women who discovered atomic energy, and so it was with Peierls and his microwaves.

The seemingly 'pure' discussion about microwaves that Peierls had with Oliphant resulted in possibly the most important secret of the war- Radar. For Peierls, a man who is not known outside select physics and history circles, this was a double crowning achievement. Because it was Peierls who worked on radar, and more importantly, supplied the first concrete proof of the feasibility of an atomic bomb.

This BBC article nicely and concisely documents the secret that saved England and possibly the world. The atomic bomb might have ended the war, but radar has the greatest claim to have shaped the war in a way that it could actually end in favour of the Allies. It was the everyday use of radar that dealt the decisive blow to the Luftwaffe. This remarkable invention, along with the German Enigma code-breaking efforts at Bletchley Park, was one of the best kept secrets of all time.

There is one more invention which was equally important in winning the war; penicllin. Its efficacy can be speculated from the fact that, because of it, half of the ten million soldiers who died in World War 2 could have been saved (all of them died from infection and not directly from wounds). Penicillin too, was a closely guarded secret, and the world can but be thankful to the unknown souls who toiled in secrecy on its production. Penicillin, code-breaking, radar, and the atomic bomb- four secrets that saved civilisation as we know it.

Labels: , , ,

Friday, February 02, 2007


Image Hosted by

If you don't know that bullets can actually kill you, you can nonchalantly walk into a swarm of gunfire. Of course, you may be killed, just grazed, or damaged in some permanent manner, but that's another issue.

So it was when I took my copy of a pirated edition of 'Freakonomics' for Steven Levitt to sign. I bought it from a roadside seller on Moledina Road for 40 rupees. It was only much later, when several people said to me "You have some guts doing that", that I realised the foolish audacity which I had demonstrated. The author of the famed book had come to Emory University for a book signing and talk. He spoke to a jampacked, standing-room-only audience in Glenn Memorial Auditorium, which is basically a huge church used for hosting events like these. His talk, as expected, was witty and informative. Much of what he talked about was borrowed from the book, but even then the personal touch made it sound more interesting. Levitt has a friendly, nerdy look. He was dressed in casual business attire and spoke on the floor and not on the dias. When he describes his dismal performance in school and college math (he actually claims that he did not know the difference between the two 'd's in regular and partial derivatives, even in graduate school!), it's hard to believe that this is the same guy who was educated at Harvard and then got his PhD. at MIT.

The high-point was his story about how he is researching the economics of prostitution, and how he convinced a top-tier call girl to come and give a lecture in his undergraduate class at the University of Chicago. It was only after he told her that he would pay her by the hour at her standard professional rate (an enviable 400$ an hour) that she agreed to come and give a lecture, which many of the students later claimed was the best lecture they had ever heard during their time in college. So much for prostitutes...and college professors (This call girl by the way was a former computer programmer, who realised that this alternative business is far more financially lucrative)

In any case, there was a book signing following the talk, and I actually took my pirated version of 'Freakonomics' along.

Consider what I was doing; asking a best-selling author to sign an illegal copy of his book, a copy whose sale undermines and violates his copyright and is plain illegal, and whose sales constantly keep eating into his profits. There was a policewoman stationed near him. Why?, I asked myself. Then I remembered the abortion-crime rate drop correlation study he has famously documented in his book. That study had sparked some outrage, among conservatives as well as African-Americans, and it seemed fair to have an escort stand by his side in an Atlanta book signing. I convinced myself I would not have anything to do with the policewoman.

As I stepped forward after a wait of 45 minutes, everyone else had had their 'official' copy of the book signed by Levitt. When I thrust my pirated copy in front of him, a suspicious look immediately crossed his face. "What's this?!" he exclaimed, and I was ready to run away. "It's a fake! It's a fake!", he started saying loudly. Although I did not judge the gravity of the situation before, I had sort of anticipated this situation, and had already decided how to put a positive spin on it. "Yes" I said. "I got it from India, where we call that a pirated version. Thanks to its extremely low price, many more people who could previously not afford the book can now read it". In fact, this is my whole philosophy about pirated books. Even though I agree that it is illegal, I personally think that the great common good in this case outweighs the drawbacks. But try telling that to an author who is trying to make money from his book. I also think that in some ways, any honest author will admit that making money from the book is less important than having as many people as possible read it and learn. But who knows how much money they actually want from it?

In any case, Levitt quickly signed the book and I managed to talk to him for a few seconds. I asked him how easy is it to get funding for such kinds of studies in academic settings. He said that usually they don't cost a lot, so money is not a problem.

To be honest, I don't know whether he was angry about the book or not. At least he did not seem to be; after all, consider how much money he has already made from official sales of the volume. But as he himself says, economics is all about incentives, and piracy is not exactly an incentive for authors...

But it was only later when I stepped out of the building, that I saw what he had written:

"To Ashutosh
Enjoy this fake!"- Steven Levitt

This is going to be one memorable book on my shelf, no matter how much the content predictably fades over time! Maybe time for a Freakonomics 2 that includes a study on piracy economics, anyone??

CLARIFICATION: I want to make a few clarifications regarding the post. I am emphatically not touting the fact that I took a pirated copy along for getting it signed. What happened was that I learnt about Levitt's talk one day earlier. I had bought this copy in India only because I happened to be at Moledina Road and a friend of mine was also buying a copy. When I heard about Levitt's talk, this was the only copy I had, and it was too late to buy a new one. So the main driving force for going to the book signing was simply to get my copy of the book signed, as I would not have had this opportunity again. There was no motive at the time to specifically get a pirated copy signed. It was only later that I realised that the incident had been amusing. I want to make it clear that I am not especially proud of it, and no such feeling was in my mind when I was getting it signed. The primary motive of the whole enterprise was to get whatever copy of the book I had signed, because I admire the man and his writings. The signing was what was in mind, not the signing of a pirated copy.

Labels: , ,