Friday, July 04, 2008


When Pervez Musharraf put nuclear pirate A Q Khan under house arrest, Khan asked an associate, "Why is this boy doing this to me?". Now it looks like that "boy" had indeed been naughty too. Khan has made allegations that Musharraf was fully aware about nuclear exports to N. Korea. Khan is contending what has been openly suspected since the beginning; no one could have pulled off operations of such magnitude for such a long time without at least the top brass's knowledge, if not explicit permission. It could be fun to watch now how Musharraf plays the game of plausible deniability.

To me it clearly seems like Khan is playing his political cards well; with Musharraf likely to be weaned away from his power teat and possibly a new government in Islamabad, Khan now feels confident about exposing him without facing censure or threats to his life. There's perhaps an entire truckload of worms buried somewhere.

The cracks were pretty obvious from the beginning. Now the plaster covering them seems to be getting scraped off.

Labels: , ,

Thursday, July 03, 2008


Or so the Blog Cuss-o-Meter says. Only 0.2% of pages on my blog have "cuss words", less than the average of 10%. I wonder how they are defining these though. Does "creationist" count?...

The Blog-O-Cuss Meter - Do you cuss a lot in your blog or website?
OnePlusYou Quizzes and Widgets


I was quite unaware of a rather well-sculpted and articulate movie which I got to watch yesterday- The Passion of Ayn Rand. The movie focuses on Rand's affair with Nathaniel Branden, a psychologist 25 years her junior who was ardently wedded to her philosophy of objectivism. Rand is played by Helen Mirren who again demonstrates that she can play virtually any strong female character from history. Eric Stolz gives a nuanced and excellent performance as Branden. The movie actually does an even better job of indicating why exactly her philosophy became cultish and why there is so much disdain for both her writings and her personality

It begins when Rand meets the 20 year old Branden as part of a study group dissecting her favourite philosophical ruminations. There Branden meets an attractive and intelligent woman named Barbara, and it's Rand who brings the two together. The two get married and seem to have a happy married life, in spite of Barbara's increasing discomfort with the closeness between Rand and Branden.

At one point both Barbara and Rand's husband discover the affinity of the two for each other. What happens next is rather bizarre and in my opinion emblematic of Rand's dogmatic view of things. Rand and Branden decide to ask the "permission" of their spouses for having an affair. At first bitter and heartbroken, the two spouses somehow delude themselves in thinking that by giving their permission they are ascribing to a "higher" ideal. But it is Rand who has sowed the seeds of such thinking in their minds. She tells them that by giving her and Branden "permission" to have an affair, they would wean themselves away from being "lesser" human beings. This all sounds rather ridiculous, but somehow the two spouses fall for it.

In the next several years, Rand and Branden carry on a torrid affair, often meeting at her apartment for both intellectual and erotic explorations, with Rand clearly putting much emphasis on the latter. The relationship serves as another kind of aphrodisiac for Rand; she derives inspiration for Atlas Shrugged from her and Branden's lives and finishes the book in record time. One wonders at this point how much her own life and thinking has influenced the depiction of her cardboard cutout characters who seem to lack nuance and depth. Through all of this, both Barbara and Rand's husband display a herculean tolerance; I don't know whether to worship them for their open-mindedness or scorn them for their utter stupidity in being suckers for Rand and Branden's world-view. A simpler interpretation would portray them simply as good people who were too much in love to endure breaking up with their lovers, even if their lovers had no problem sharing themselves with other people.

In any case, Branden's convictions clearly are not as steadfast as Rand's, and he starts having an affair with yet another woman. When Barbara finds out about this, she quite fairly now asks Branden for "permission" to have an affair with a musician that she has just met. But hypocrisy being an essential quality of most dogmatic thinking, he thinks that doing so would betray his "principles". However, Branden clearly now has started seeing cracks in his long-cherished objectivism. He has started realizing that compassion, understanding and sacrifice are perhaps as important as individualism, something which Rand herself seems quite incapable of realizing. More simply the strain of his various relationships is starting to be too much for him.

The end is inevitable. Rand finds out about Branden's affair and in another display of hypocrisy, cannot stand it when he displays the self-interest and the selfishness which she has coveted so much all his life. They have a falling out, with Branden forever being persona non grata in Rand's life. Barbara marries the musician, Rand's husband says he has reached a point where he is incapable of understanding anything at all, and Rand retreats into her own dark world of ideology.

The movie exposes problems with Rand pretty well. These problems have of course been well-documented by scores of writers, analysts and philosophers. Libertarians for example, including libertarianism's founder Murray Rothbard, have soundly blasted her philosophy. Michael Shermer has an articulate denunciation of Rand's cult in his book.

If there is one quality that Rand embodies throughout the movie, it is of utter intolerance and dogma. Rand might have been brilliant, but she was quite one dimensional. There is not one moment when she admits she made a mistake, admits that others could be right, commiserates with their point of view or believes that her philosophy has limitations that need to be understood. When facts fit her world-view, they are praised and exalted sometimes beyond their significance. When they don't, clearly it's the facts that must be wrong, and not her world-view. The same principles apply to human beings; if they share different or opposing world-views they are wrong and need to "rise above themselves". She loves uttering words like a prophet or an oracle, convinced that they are destined to be true. And for all her constant emphasis on "reason", Rand forgets an essential signature of reasonable thinking- the ability to understand that the world is not black and white but shades of gray. In addition she is incapable of applying the same rigorous standards to herself as she does to her "heroes", both fictional and real.

These are the classic hallmarks of dogmatic religious thinking; an inability to see the world through anything else but your private monochromatic lens, a rock-hard stubbornness that renders you wholly incapable of admitting to flaws or mistakes in yourself and your philosophy, an unwillingness bordering on cruelty to show sympathy to other people and their views, and lastly and sadly, a remarkable hypocrisy that keeps you from applying the same standards to yourself as you so eloquently apply to others.

Rand's work is probably summed up best by a simple line from the movie. The musician who loves Barbara, a simple and friendly guy says, "I have read her books. They are good stories". And that's what they should be taken as, not much more than good stories.

Since we were talking about comparisons yesterday, how about this one; Ayn Rand and Edward Teller. Even if it might sound strange, I noticed some interesting similarities. Both Rand and Teller were emigres from fascist and communist systems which they deeply and utterly hated all their life; in fact it would be fair to argue that this visceral hatred often clouded their thinking later. Both were exceptionally brilliant individuals welcomed by America and immensely treasured the gifts that the capitalist system provides. And yet both were so taken by the system that in their own way they became dogmatic and convinced of one worldview or another. With Rand it was objectivism. With Teller it was nuclear weapons. Both were so wedded to their ideas that they refused to accept the limitations of those ideas in spite of evidence to the contrary. Rand believed that individualism could make man achieve a mythical ideal. Teller believed that nuclear weapons actually held the panacea to all our evils. Both refused to accept that their ideas could be utterly unrealistic. What Enrico Fermi once said about Teller can well apply to Rand- "She was a monomaniac who had several manias". Both had scant patience if any for even entertaining alternative points of view. In the process both lost many good friends and made countless enemies who looked down upon them. In fact they seemed to end up having no qualms in being extremely cruel and indifferent to people close to them. However both of them also spanned cults that became obsessed with their philosophy. And both went to their grave convinced their ideas were the right ones to make the world a better place.

In the end, Rand and Teller cannot help but appear as nothing more than personalities who fervently espoused and disseminated ideas essentially to indulge their private thoughts, insecurities and paranoias. The tragedy was that both of them were brilliant and had enormous influence. I think Rand and Teller both are model embodiments of what can happen when immense intelligence, creativity and dogma are manifested in minds that are in a position to make a difference. Ultimately they emerge as dark and tragic figures, personifying only the failed ruins of the glorious edifices they strived to create.

Labels: , ,

Wednesday, July 02, 2008


Comparing which historical figure was "greater" than another one is a titillating, entertaining and often ultimately futile exercise. Yet we love to indulge in it. I myself have done it before. Sometimes such a comparison can actually give us insights into history or personality; more often it essentially boils down to demonstrating personal preferences and likings.

With such a frequently flimsy rationale for comparing personalities, one had better come up with valid cases. Comparing Churchill and FDR is fine in this context, Newton and Einstein is probably a little unwarranted (considering that they lived in vastly different times). As Silvan Schweber has demonstrated in his recent beautiful book, Oppenheimer and Einstein is a worthy comparison.

But Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln?? Even an amateur would have a hard time thinking of such a pointless and disparate comparison. And yet we can always trust the mainstream media for a steady supply of sub-amateurish dilettantes who get paid for entertaining their own personal quirks and musings. In this case it's Newsweek which actually has managed to turn this comparison into a cover story. The reason for the comparison? A very serious one; it turns out that both Darwin and Lincoln were born on the same day...

There are other reasons many of which are trivial; the fact that both men were riddled with depression often in their life, were workaholics, harbored doubts about their religious convictions, and were compulsive scribblers. I am pretty sure that Newsweek would have found a hundred pairs of "great" people who share such events and qualities. With such a trite and pointless comparison, I myself don't want to spend more than a paragraph on it. But what I found curious was the article's conclusions. If "greatness" were defined in terms of impact and influence of ideas, Darwin is of course the hands down winner. Or so you would think. In fact the title of the article is "Who was greater?" and that should be an easy one. But this is America, and it's that fact that makes the article more interesting. To be fair, it is well-written. That's not the criticism. The criticism is that it seems to be written by someone who on a whim thought of writing about Darwin, and then because of no particular reason thought of writing about Lincoln, and then wanted to combine the two together in some ad hoc way. And the last line makes it clear what the author's goal was all the way along- "Answer- Lincoln"

Clearly Lincoln is enormously important for Americans, with polls regularly putting him at the top of the "greatest presidents" list (although the lists are always to be taken with more than a pinch of salt, especially considering that Ronald Reagan also usually makes it into the top 5). Lincoln abolished slavery and definitely belongs on the great Americans list. But Lincoln was not a complete slavery-hater all life, as weren't many of his predecessors and contemporaries. Although this might reflect the very different outlook on this practice during those times, it does call into question Lincoln's "greatness". However, it's worth giving him the benefit of doubt and noting that at least on a relative basis he was one of the most outspoken opponents of slavery during those times. But other facts also need to be considered. It has been argued by many humanists and historians that the Civil War was unnecessary for abolishing slavery. Many diverse figures including Freeman Dyson and Ron Paul have said for example, that England got rid of slavery by buying the slaves. Perhaps this attitude would not have worked with slave-happy Southerners in white America. But did Lincoln try? Did others try hard enough?

I am not trying to put a blemish on Lincoln's stature, but considering him great begs answers to these questions. He was definitely a wise, honorable and astute man. But that does not mean his achievements go down in history unquestioned.

Now Darwin. His theory had a great impact on the whole world. It answered perhaps the single most important question that we as human beings can ask ourselves; Who are we? Where do we come from? Darwin not only discovered the answer to this question but in the process also discovered an overriding theory of unparalleled elegance and all encompassing generality that explained our origins and our journey into the past and the future. What I personally find really astonishing about Darwin is how many of his predictions came to be true. Some of his ideas were discounted, but so many of them have stood the test of time and are in fact being corroborated every single day. That he could make these predictions in spite of the absence of any knowledge of genetics, hereditary mechanisms and intact human fossils is really extraordinary.

Newsweek dug itself into a ditch by trying to compare two very different and completely unrelated people. That should have made the answer to the question "Who was greater?" very simple. In terms of influence, Lincoln changed a country but Darwin changed the whole world and our future.

But emblematic of modern day America, the magazine in fact leans towards saying that Lincoln was greater. The main point here, not entirely unreasonable, is that Darwin's theory is greater than the man, while Lincoln's ideas could have come only from himself. However, "Darwin's theory" involved a truly enormous amount of field work, rumination, classification and ratiocination that Darwin individually did. Evolution and natural selection may have been discovered by others, but it would have taken long efforts by many to reach such a stage. Exceptional credit belongs to Darwin simply for thinking of so many things and weaving them coherently together.

On the other hand, slavery and mistreatment of minorities did not go away in America for another hundred years after the Civil War. Lincoln made a substantial difference in the short-term, but even he could not instantly eradicate perhaps the greatest evil this country has seen. On a practical basis Lincoln did not change the face of slavery in the United States. His importance seems more symbolic than substantial; a President who put his foot down and officially declared that one of the oldest human institutions which had been taken for granted for years had always been a great moral travesty.

But far and away, what is more telling for me is that if you take a poll and ask the general public "Who was greater?", they would side even more with Lincoln. And not just because he was their president, but because in no other developed country today are there as many public opponents of "Darwinism" as in the United States. The reasons are many; religious, political and in many cases, plain ignorance of the beauty and applicability of natural selection. But whatever the reasons are, this is what it is.

And that is the real tragedy of this comparison. Not the fact that the comparison is trite and superficial. Not the fact that you are comparing apples and oranges. But the fact that the magazine's conclusions will be mirrored in a greatly amplified manner by the general population of this country.

P.S. For all the complexities of comparison, ask me who I think was the greatest American president and I will say "F.D.R." without batting an eyelid. And before that, I think we will have to go back to Jefferson to find a truly great and important president.

Labels: , , ,

Tuesday, July 01, 2008


The commies are finally thinking about pulling out from the government. At last...shoo, go away commies. Long-term energy security for the country is much more important than temporary appeasement of commie clowns. I think we should be fine with early elections. At least we will have some mechanism in place for energy reliance. India has already blazed the way in utilizing thorium technology, for example in the Advanced Heavy Water Reactor. Analysts over the world have praised India's efforts in pursuing thorium technology. We have had among the world's best nuclear scientists and engineers. Giving them the freedom and resources to pursue valuable nuclear technology for the nation is orders of magnitude more important than any short-term political agenda. As usual, it's only our politicians who can completely jeopardize our long-term future. Let's hope that they have a temporary fit of sanity.

Labels: , , ,