Friday, January 30, 2009


I think this Facebook response by Barkha Dutt to someone who posted Chetan Kunte's post there verges on the absurd and the tantalizingly revealing:
Mr Saini,

Just because some random bloke can sit at a computer and make up stuff doesnt mean he or others like him need to be dignified with responding to their utter and total rubbish. rubbish is what it is. And as already mentioned. Mr. Kunte has been served a legal notice for libel by NDTV. That should give you some indication of where we and I stand. The freedom afforded by the Interent cannot be used to fling allegations at individuals or groups in the hope that they will then respond to things that arent worthy of engagement.

If you have any remaining questions my column on media coverage is available online.
Happy New Year.
But isn't the entire Internet pretty much a collection of "random blokes sitting at computers and making up stuff"? In fact isn't that the whole purpose of freedom of the Internet, that anyone can make up any stuff he or she wants to? But more importantly, isn't the Internet supposed to be the ultimate free market of ideas? If someone makes up ridiculous stuff, most of us will ignore it and it will peter out of the pool of valuable opinions. What I still fail to understand about this is why NDTV took such umbrage to the opinions of one lone blogger (who is not even some influential mover or shaker). NDTV is a big and successful organization; it's not even that Chetan Kunte's post exposed some big lie which would have brought them down. If some people are going to be misled by what Kunte wrote, let them get out on the record and correct the allegations. After all they would be guaranteed an audience much bigger than Chetan Kunte. And by pompously serving Kunte a legal notice, hasn't NDTV "dignified" him with the ultimate response? Obviously NDTV was concerned about some effect that Kunte's post would have. I am still trying to figure out what effect they considered so serious that they felt the need to muzzle this blogger.

Also, the last line quoted by Ms. Dutt (assuming it is Ms. Dutt) is in her own words, utter and total rubbish. Nobody can disallow anyone else to spout as much rubbish about someone as they want on the Internet. In response, nobody then stops the concerned party from responding as vociferously and clearly as they want. Barkha Dutt could have started a whole blog named "Lies That Chetan Kunte Told You: Setting The Record Straight" and it would have been fine and in fact very much in the spirit of the Internet. The Internet is precisely the vehicle for expressing all kinds of opinions. It's simple; if Kunte's allegations were baseless, then NDTV could have easily exposed them by providing some details. If not, then they wisely could have just kept quiet. But by serving him some ridiculous notice, they have simply done the most undiplomatic and unworthy thing that they can.

For now, some simple words for them; When in a ditch, stop digging. Better still, reach out for a hand.

Facebook link: Musefree

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Only two things are infinite; the universe, and human stupidity- Albert Einstein

A couple of weeks ago, a New York Times editorial about freedom of press in India quoted a Chinese citizen who had visited India, who was amazed by the brazen statements that journalists were allowed to make during the November terrorist attacks in Mumbai; in China such journalists would have been almost instantly muzzled, if not worse. But now it seems that for all the freedom of press in our country, at least NDTV wants to deny that same freedom to criticize to individuals. For some reason, they still seem to have trouble understanding that supporting freedom of speech precisely means supporting the freedom of those who vehemently criticize you and disagree with you.

By now the story must have become known to many. It's really simple; blogger Chetan Kunte harshly criticizes Barkha Dutt and NDTV for their reporting during the Mumbai attacks that sounded like they may have compromised the safety of those hostages still inside. At the very least they sounded highly intrusive for the people who had just gotten out; most people who have barely escaped with their life don't appreciate being bombarded with questions and having microphones being thrust into their faces.

It does not even matter whether I agree with the blogger's views. Digressing briefly though, I have to say that I at least partially do; because of the Thanksgiving holidays I was watching the coverage for almost a full day, and I do agree that many annoying journalists including Barkha Dutt were a tad too enthusiastic about getting details that would make more than a few special forces personnel uncomfortable. Freedom of speech cannot extend to publicly divulging sensitive information, although I understand the line is not easy to define or enforce.

But that does not matter. What the blogger did was express a personal opinion and linked to sources he thought were relevant. Now all that appears on his blog is a very sad-to-read apology tendered to Barkha Dutt and NDTV. His original post has disappeared, although still visible in Google Cache. To my knowledge we don't know what happened, but the most logical conclusion is that he was muzzled, bullied and threatened by NDTV's legal cell. Maybe he was asked to pay some ridiculous amount of money for "defamation". Now what; NDTV threatening Google to remove the post from their cache?

In doing this, both NDTV and Barkha Dutt have nicely shot themselves in the foot with a Howitzer (as if Barkha Dutt wasn't getting enough criticism and craved more of it). As Gaurav says, forget about rights and wrongs; they have made a huge tactical blunder. After Chetan wrote the post, maybe a few dozen bloggers at most were aware of it and either supported it or disagreed with him. Now hundreds more are not only going to know about his post, but are going to disdain NDTV and Dutt for their scare tactics. Now their name is going to be all over the Internet(s). What better way to popularize your organization and its views! Obviously NDTV hasn't learnt from another infamous incident.

As long as people don't learn that allowing someone the freedom to vehemently and vituperatively disagree with them is the most important type of freedom, their foot is always going to keep looking like an exceedingly palatable target. Shoot away!

Original source: Gaurav and Patrix
Updates: Desipundit

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Wednesday, January 28, 2009


Now this is the kind of comment that I look forward to from a reviewer:
"Referee's report: This paper contains much that is new and much that is true. Unfortunately, that which is true is not new and that which is new is not true."

In H. Eves, Return to Mathematical Circles, Boston: Prindle, Weber, and Schmidt, 1988.
Another memorable comment was kindly passed on to me by Prof. Tony Barrett of Imperial College, London.
"This paper should be reduced by 50% and oxidised by 150%"- Anon

P.S. On another blog, someone reminded me that the former quote was plagiarized from Samuel Johnson. As they say, if you don't know where a quote came from, say Oscar Wilde or Samuel Johnson and you have a fair chance of being right.


Tuesday, January 27, 2009


I accidentally came to know about this film about Oppenheimer on American Experience on PBS yesterday. It was a 2 hour piece, a docu-drama, with David Strathairn playing Oppenheimer during his infamous trial. The trial was an opportunity for Oppenheimer to recapitulate his life, and this is what the docu-drama does. It would undoubtedly be repeated and I would strongly encourage those unfamiliar with the man and the period in this country's history to watch it. It shows the rise of a truly brilliant and iconic character, followed by his fall that was orchestrated by a vindictive and self-serving government.

Given my long interest in Oppenheimer, there wasn't much in the film that was new for me. It was highly informative, poignant and fortunately well-grounded in facts and consensus. Interviewed among others were historians Richard Rhodes, Martin Sherwin, Priscilla McMillan and veteran scientists Harold Agnew, Herbert York, Nobel Laureate Roy Glauber and Marvin Goldberger. Prudently, the film does not speculate on Gregg Herken's belief that Oppenheimer was a member of the communist party; to my knowledge only Herken holds this opinion, and to be honest it does not even matter. But as the record shows, 30 years of constant investigation by the FBI turned up nothing that indicated party membership, and that says a lot.

The disturbing thing about the trial of course is that it is a poster boy case for how disagreement and dissent are equated with disloyalty by the government, a tale for our times even as its essential unlawful scare tactics have been repeated in numerous administrations, and most recently in the Bush administration when opposition to the Iraq war was often deemed "unpatriotic". The Oppenheimer story, one of the most shameful episodes in this country's history in my opinion, is a cautionary tale that should always be remembered as an example of how we need to be constantly alert and aware in a democracy and watch out for abuse of power by the government. The film does a good job of demonstrating this.


Monday, January 26, 2009


Uncertainty: Einstein, Heisenberg, Bohr, and the Struggle for the Soul of Science
David Lindley
Anchor, 2008

One of the best informal histories of quantum physics and its makers that I have come across, and I can say I have read many. Concisely and with passionate enthusiasm, Lindley manages to weave together the essential scientific discoveries, the scores of anecdotes about the famous participants including their personal conflicts and friendships, the philosophical and social implications associated with many quantum concepts, and the political and historical turmoil and connections that accompanied these discoveries. While mainly focused on Einstein, Heisenberg and Bohr, Lindley draws vivid portraits of other pioneers such as Pauli, Dirac, Born, Kramers and Schrodinger. Quantum physics is perhaps the most paradoxical, beautiful, bizarre and important scientific paradigm ever developed. The decade from 1920-1930 was undoubtedly the golden era of physics. Lindley succinctly and engagingly tells us how and why. A must read for history of physics lovers.

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Sunday, January 25, 2009


As I have discussed with friends often, the reason why we start liking certain sitcoms so much is not just because they remain intrinsically funny, but because we gradually start to become friends with the characters and anticipate their actions and words. That certainly happened with Seinfeld. With me that also happened with F.R.I.E.N.D.S., at least till the sixth season. But for this to be so, the lines have to be genuinely creative and witty and most importantly, actors have to inhabit the characters almost perfectly, which seldom happens.

Now it seems to be happening again. The Big Bang Theory has enormously entertained me since it kicked off last year. While it may seem that it would appeal only to science-type nerds, it has potential to get a much more general audience hooked. The premise is not entirely novel but is beautifully packaged. Two brilliant physicists at Caltech, Sheldon Cooper and Leonard Hofstadter, are living a life of total nerdiness; speaking in nerd-speak all the time, analyzing every statement literally, playing Halo every Thursday, collecting tons of actions figures, and attending role-playing medieval games. Needlessly to say, their social ineptness figures in the nth power of ten. Leonard (an experimentalist) is a little more normal, while Sheldon (a theoretician) who is the most brilliant of them all is infinitely annoying and exasperating, being unable to understand simple linguistic devices like sarcasm and metaphor in spite of (or because of) his incandescent brilliance.

Their total lack of social tact and immersion in science is only helped by their two best friends also from Caltech, Howard Wolowitz, an obsessive womanizer and total loser who in spite of his repeated failures will never stop trying to get every attractive woman in bed with him, and an Indian named Raj Koothrapalli who is so scared of attractive women that he can't talk in front of them...unless he is drunk. Between Howard trying to fend off his mother with whom he lives and Raj trying to fend off his parents who are hell-bent on getting him into an arranged marriage, the four friends usually hang out at Sheldon and Howard's apartment, stay away from most human beings, have lunch everyday at the university cafeteria and in general exemplify the epitome of nerdiness.

But things change dramatically when an attractive, not-so-bright (but often having more common sense than the geniuses) blonde named Penny moves in next door to Sheldon and Leonard. How their state of equilibrium is suddenly disturbed by this violent perturbation and how the event has several manifestations of various kinds is the general subject of the episodes. Throw in ample science-speak, the typical lives of awkward geniuses, fun at physics quizzes and desperate dates gone embarrassingly bad, and you have one entertaining sitcom.

It's been a while since I was this entertained. As I noted before, the series works because of clever lines and the actors' ability to almost perfectly inhabit their characters, so that they gradually form a distinct identity in your mind that allows you to start appreciating and anticipating their tics and lines. Hopefully the series will find a large enough fan following to continue playing for a long time.

The Big Bang Theory plays at 8:00 p.m. on Mondays on CBS.

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Social networking is the great time sink of our times:
VATICAN CITY — Pope Benedict XVI says social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace can foster friendships and understanding, but warns they also can isolate people and marginalize others.

Benedict urged a culture of online respect in his annual message Friday for the World Day of Communications.

Benedict welcomes as a "gift" new technologies such as social networking sites, saying they respond to the "fundamental desire" of people to communicate.

But he also warns that "obsessive" virtual socializing can isolate people from real interaction and deepen the digital divide by excluding those already marginalized.

He urges producers to ensure that the content respects human dignity and the "goodness and intimacy of human sexuality."
Ignore the last part though. It's hokum.

Link: Chris

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Thursday, January 22, 2009


The Viki Weisskopf way

From Jeremy Bernstein's review of noted physicist Victor Weisskopf's 1991 memoir. Bernstein first took a class from the utterly brilliant and impenetrable Nobel laureate Julian Schwinger at Harvard. After a couple of days of withstanding the barrage, Bernstein decided to attend Victor Weisskopf's class at MIT. The result is endearingly described:
My visits to Viki's class in quantum mechanics at MIT were, in every way, a culture shock. The class and the classroom were both huge—at least a hundred students. Weisskopf was also huge, at least he was tall compared to the diminutive Schwinger. I do not think he wore a jacket, or if he did, it must have been rumpled. Schwinger was what we used to call a spiffy dresser.

Weisskopf's first remark on entering the classroom, was "Boys [there were no women in the class], I just had a wonderful night!" There were raucous catcalls of "Yeah Viki!" along with assorted outbursts of applause. When things had quieted down Weisskopf said, "No, no it's not what you think. Last night, for the first time, I really understood the Born approximation." This was a reference to an important approximation method in quantum mechanics that had been invented in the late 1920s by the German physicist Max Born, with whom Weisskopf studied in Göttingen. Weisskopf then proceeded to derive the principal formulas of the Born approximation, using notes that looked as if they had been written on the back of an envelope. Along the way, he got nearly every factor of two and pi wrong. At each of these mistakes there would be a general outcry from the class; at the end of the process, a correct formula emerged, along with the sense, perhaps illusory, that we were participating in a scientific discovery rather than an intellectual entertainment. Weisskopf also had wonderful insights into what each term in the formula meant for understanding physics. We were, in short, in the hands of a master teacher
The trick in any class is not to let the students know how much you know (the Schwinger technique) but to let them know how much you, and indeed everyone else, do not know.

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Wednesday, January 21, 2009


"Voting analysis shows Obama won because of his support among blacks"
This was the conclusion of a recent MIT study that analyzed Obama's win. In other news, pandas have shown a willingness to eat bamboo shoots.

Does anyone else get the feeling that supposedly high-profile research sometimes reveals facets of life that are intuitively obvious?

But jokes aside, the research has a point. Many people behaved as if racial barriers were finally shattered and that race relations were now officially over. While people's joy and hope was palpable and understandable and while this has indeed been a very important election, history does not really care for exaggeration. I personally never believed that Obama truly transcended race in the minds of many. In fact, as accomplished as he is, I think that he won as much because of the utter incompetence of the other side as because of anything else. Would he have won if he had been running against Ronald Reagan? I don't think so. We are not old enough yet for that to have happened.

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As a recent tragic accident demonstrates, lab safety should still be the number one priority for scientists...

...Read the rest of the entry on the Desipundit blog

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Tuesday, January 20, 2009


I just finished listening to Obama's inaugural speech (text). I didn't think that the speech was particularly more inspiring than some of his other speeches, but given the fact that the average Obama speech is already very inspiring and eloquent, it does not really matter. It was excellent and was definitely one of his best. And I have to say I have heard very few speeches which encompassed so many issues comprehensively and succinctly in 15 minutes. He talked about everything; science, reaching out to poor and hostile countries, shoring up the economy, sustaining both freedom and security without having to sacrifice one for another, fighting climate change and nuclear proliferation, becoming independent in energy, getting the minimal necessary aid provided by government, and welcoming outsiders wanting to live the American dream.

And even though Obama has been inspired by Abraham Lincoln and has alluded to him several times, he deemed it fit to quote the firebrand of the American Revolution Thomas Paine in the end:

"Let it be told to the future world ... that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive...that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet it"


Friday, January 16, 2009


Why the N.S.A. could ask the Tatas for a room in their hotel

In his latest book, "The Shadow Factory", James Bamford uncovers some rather interesting information about the importance of Mumbai to the N.S.A. From the NYT review of the book:
“Probably the best place within the entire region to install a listening post is the Indian city of Mumbai,” James Bamford writes in “The Shadow Factory: The Ultra-Secret NSA from 9/11 to the Eavesdropping on America,” his latest book about the all-seeing, all-hearing National Security Agency. Without question, he says, Mumbai, India, “represents the kind of location where the N.S.A. would seek to establish a secret presence.” And such a place, he notes elsewhere in his book, “presents an extremely tempting target for terrorists"...

...Why would Mumbai be such a valuable listening post for the N.S.A.? To understand the answer, and indeed to follow the central argument of the book about just why and how United States government eavesdropping has become so pervasive and invasive, one has to know that a vast majority of the world’s communications are now transmitted over fiber-optic cables. In 1988 they carried only 2 percent of international traffic, but by 2000 they carried 80 percent. When micro wave transmissions and communications satellites were the medium, messages were relatively easy for the N.S.A. to intercept, en masse and through the open air. But to catch the ever-growing flood of digital data in the bundled strands of fiber that crisscross the planet — voice calls, e-mail, faxes, videos and so much more — you have to tap into the cables directly. Or, better still, you can set up a monitoring operation at the switch, where many different cables come together. Once you have a facility to split off the signals without interrupting them, you’re plugged in to a mother lode of megabytes — millions going by every few seconds. Mumbai, as it happens, has the central switch for much of Asia and virtually all the cables of the Middle East...

...have the laws promulgated since the (domestic surveillance) program was exposed, including the one voted for by Senator Barack Obama last summer, ended the nightmare of pervasive surveillance? Bamford thinks not. Presidential power remains abundant, he says, and “it is the political courage that is in short supply.” Loopholes are easy to maneuver in an atmosphere of hypersecrecy, and what the N.S.A. does not do itself, it may well ask of partner agencies with similar abilities. That was why Bamford was writing about India. It could be one of those partners. Bamford’s sources from India’s intelligence service suggest that the last major obstacle to bugging the switch in Mumbai actually was the state-owned company that ran it But it was privatized earlier this decade, sold to the enormous Indian holding company called the Tata Group, which also owns, among other properties, the Taj Mahal hotel. Probably just a coincidence, but yet another interesting detail."
Seems the Borders 30% discount coupon came in the mail at the right time...

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The Bomb: A New History
Stephen Younger
Ecco, 2009

Stephen Younger's book on the bomb is a very good primer on nuclear weapons, but somewhat limited by its length. Mr. Younger who is a veteran weapons designer and defense official begins with a succinct history of nuclear weapons and then goes on to review the major weapons and delivery systems in the United States and other countries. He talks about the deterrence triad in the United States; bombers, ballistic missiles and especially submarine-based nuclear missiles that can pack the biggest punch most efficiently. Also included are short discussions of developing and already developed arsenals in other countries including Russia, China, Southeast Asia, France and Britain. Younger writes about the modern weaponization of Russia which is in progress and discusses the status of development in other countries. The discussion also includes a general overview of nuclear weapons effects including thermal, blast, radiation and electromagnetic effects and a chapter on ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ targets and their targeting. Younger contends that a weapon of about 10kT yield would be sufficient to destroy or seriously damage most major cities and installations in the world, except extremely hardened underground facilities. Compare this with the W series of warheads in the US arsenal, many of which pack an explosive force equivalent to several hundred kilotons of TNT.

Younger also discusses nuclear proliferation and the problems inherent in terrorists constructing a bomb. His list of measures for combating such terrorism include a discussion of not just technical measures like missile defense and more efficient border security, but an insightful paragraph on the valuable role of intelligence and especially human intelligence in thwarting terrorists’ attempts to secure a weapon or material in the first place. He also narrates the efforts expended by the Cooperative Threat Reduction Initiative in securing nuclear weapons and reactors in the former Soviet Union. These efforts also involve the dismantling of conventional weapons. While people constantly warn that terrorists might end up constructing a crude nuclear device and while there is some merit in this suggestion, it’s not as easy as it sounds. As Younger says, the devil is in the details, and while much of the general information on nuclear weapons is publicly available, it is far from trivial for any terrorist outfit to actually surmount the many intricate scientific and engineering problems encountered in actual weapons construction. The construction of a plutonium implosion weapon is especially daunting given the excessively exacting conditions that the weapon’s core and outer explosives have to satisfy. A more detailed discussion of dirty bombs is missing from this narrative. Also, while Younger’s analysis of anti-nuclear weapons measures is clear, what is missing is a crucial discussion of countermeasures that can be easily developed against missile defense. These countermeasures have been convincingly demonstrated time and time again to be able to thwart even sophisticated missile defenses. In addition, new missiles such as the Russian SS 27 have been apparently designed to manuever and baffle such defenses.

One of the most informative chapters in the book talks about replacing nuclear weapons with conventional weapons. With better targeting and accuracy, the need for megaton weapons is virtually non-existent. Pinpoint targeting can take out the most crucial command and control centers for nuclear weapons without causing high numbers of casualties. Many new conventional weapons can do the tasks previously reserved for nuclear weapons and and thus lower the spectre of the nuclear threat. In fact, some tasks like hitting biological weapons facilities can be safely accomplished only with conventional weapons, since nuclear weapons might well disperse dangerous biological or chemical material into the surroundings. Even hardened bunkers can be destroyed by especially hardened warheads. In addition, replacing nuclear weapons by conventional weapons can go a long way in nuclear disarmament.

Further on, Younger has a valuable analysis of the security of the US nuclear arsenal. This analysis made me realise that the problem is more complicated than it seems at first sight. The issue is simple. The US has declared a moratorium on nuclear testing in 1992. Congress cut funding for new nuclear weapons research. However, many of the weapons in the US arsenal have extended their shelf lives and it’s not certain whether they would work as designed, an ability that is crucial for deterrence. Doubts have especially been raised about the plutonium ‘pits’ at the center of implosion weapons. Computer simulations can aid in such predictions, but the only sure criterion for judging the workability of a design would be a test, an act that would have deep repurcussions for non-proliferation. In addition, many of the production and manufacturing units that built these weapons have been shut down since 1992. Perhaps most importantly, talented personnel who were competent in nuclear weapons design are gradually fading away with very few new recruits to replace them. Sometimes it is easy to forget that even if they are terribly destructive, nuclear weapons provide an immense and exciting scientific and engineering challenge for technical minds. To partly counter this, the US government has poured billions of dollars into the three national laboratories that still work on nuclear weapons- Los Alamos, Lawrence Livermore and Sandia. Massive basic science facilities have been developed at these three laboratories to retain personnel and attract new blood. Nonetheless, nobody really knows whether the nation would be able to gear up for producing new weapons if it becomes necessary, and nobody has been really able to say when and why it would become necessary in the first place. The problem is quite a pressing one and the solution is not clear.

Finally, Younger talks about the future of nuclear weapons. He examines the three positions that have been taken on nuclear weapons. The abolitionist position was recently made popular by a panel of four non-partisan experienced political leaders (Nunn, Perry, Kissinger and Schultz). While this position may be tenable in principle, in practice it would need constant and complete verification which may be difficult. Then there are the minimalist and moderate positions. Younger himself adopts the moderate position which calls for about 1000-2000 relatively low yield non-strategic weapons on missiles and submarines. It is not easy to decide what number is efficient for deterrence, partly because deterrence dictates that analyses of this number should not be publicly disclosed in the first place! But whatever the number, Younger does not see nuclear weapons disappearing from the face of the earth anytime soon. As he concludes in this primer, hopefully the world can enter a state of security in which rogue states don’t have weapons, bombs and material are secured, and deterrence works as planned. While this succinct primer does not provide the answer to whether such a state will actually be achieved, it certainly provides a slim and good introduction to all basic nuclear issues to the layman that should make him or her think and decide for themselves.


Thursday, January 15, 2009


Others should embrace them in their own self-interests

I sincerely believe that because of its utterly devastating and game-changing implications, nuclear terrorism is one of the greatest threats the world faces. Even a crude nuclear weapon detonated in Mumbai, London, Tokyo or Los Angeles will cause the kind of destruction and havoc that would be every citizen's worst nightmare. Such an event will significantly change the political and social landscape of a country for a long time to come, and probably for the worse. That's all everybody would talk about. In case of nuclear terrorism, the adage about us having to succeed every single time while them having to succeed just once rings resoundingly true.

A recent Nature article emphasizes the steps that President-elect (for only 5 more days) Obama should take to keep nuclear weapons from falling into the hands of terrorists. Political leaders all over the world especially in sensitive countries should join him in this endeavor, because their cities might be the first casualties of nuclear terrorism. According to the article, something like only 0.2% of US defence spending is devoted to practical non-proliferation, an amount that has remained virtually unchanged for a decade. The new President's chief science advisor John Holdren has worked on these issues, having already alerted the non-proliferation community to them back in 2002.

What needs to be paid very close attention to is highly-enriched uranium (HEU) and not plutonium. Building a plutonium implosion weapon involves many intricate steps and would likely be beyond the reach of a terrorist outfit. Plutonium is a hideous element that is extremely difficult to work with. The explosives arrangement around it needs to be machined to the finest dimensions in order to work as expected. By contrast, simple firing mechanisms can be used to detonate a uranium bomb (although I don't share the article's predilection for calling it "child's play"). One of the topics of discussion between Pakistani scientists and Osama Bin Laden in August 2001 apparently involved such firing mechanisms. As the article correctly notes, even a uranium weapon fizzle that delivers 1-5 kT in a place like Manhattan would be devastating.

Given this scenario, it is more than disconcerting that some 272 HEU reactors in 56 countries remain unsecured. Feedstock balances for many of these reactors are not meticulously accounted for. Some uranium can even be scraped from the insides of centrifuges or gaseous diffusion tubes and declared as wasted or not produced. Quiet and gradual extraction of tiny amounts could lead to the accumulation of tens of kilograms, a quantity sufficient for a crude explosive device.

Clearly the focus of the new administration should be to try to secure such reactors in hot spots; in Pakistan, Iran and the former Soviet Union among other countries. Leaders all over the world should join in the effort; to provide secure technology, sensors, anti-terrorist safeguards. They should make sure their own reactors are sufficiently guarded. Fortunately, one of the foremost policy actions that Barack Obama was involved in as a Senator was non-proliferation. He worked with Senator Richard Lugar to continue securing nuclear material from the former Soviet Union. Non-proliferation was always one of Senator Obama's special concerns. Let's hope it stays that way and gets bolstered by international support.

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Sunday, January 11, 2009


And what woe it could breed

The New York Times has a very interesting, lengthy article by David Sanger on problems with Pakistan's nuclear arsenal. Although Pakistani officials repeatedly suggest that their weapons are safely secured, they would not allow American or other officials to verify this; thus we are basically left with their reassurances, and unfortunately there's not much in the past that would help us accept their reassurances. On the other hand, it's not just the safety of the arsenal that's the only matter of concern.

Among other things, the article profiles Khalid Kidwai, a general who is in charge of the Pakistani arsenal. Kidwai is a man who knows a lot but will not say much. He was essentially put in charge of the security of the complex after the 1998 nuclear tests. Although Pakistan's nuclear secrets were supposed to be secure after this, it was just one month before 9/11 in August 2001 that one of Pakistan's most prominent and eccentric nuclear scientists, Sultan Mahmood, had a meeting with Osama Bin Laden. Mahmood was a chilling emblem of the conflation of advanced technology and religious fundamentalism. Even more than A Q Khan he wanted to build an "Islamic bomb" and was more than glad to await the day of reckoning. Nuclear weapons were undoubtedly discussed in his meeting with the Al Qaeda leader, although the details remain vague. The fact that such a meeting even took place calls into question how safe Pakistan's nuclear secrets are. Plus, nobody is going to allow American authorities to directly inspect the nuclear complex. Mahmood and A Q Khan have long since been kept incommunicado. We have to take the Pakistanis' word for accounting of nuclear material and personnel checks.

The article has other troubling details. While the warheads and missiles are apparently kept separate by the authorities, specs on Permissive Action Locks (PALs) are not known. PALs essentially disable a warhead if someone tries too hard to tamper with it. The Pakistanis would not allow American personnel to inspect their weapons and installs PALs. Apparently there was some exchange of design information between the two countries, but nobody would say how effective that exchange was and whether its recommendations were put into effect. More exchange has been thwarted by one of those ironically absurd and ridiculous policies where the US cannot divulge details of PALs to Pakistan because then it would be ostensibly selling nuclear technology to a failed state. Muddle-headed bureaucracy does not get any better than this.

The principal problem as always is that it's just difficult to trust anything that the Pakistanis say for two reasons. Firstly nothing that they say can be actually verified. But more importantly, Pakistan's past pronouncements have turned out to be false so many times either because of inside complicity or ignorance that it's hard to believe them when they say they are a responsible nuclear power. Consider the A Q Khan and the Mahmood debacles. Consider the radicalization of the universities from where the nuclear programs draws its talent. There are 2000 Pakistani personnel with advanced nuclear knowledge and even 1 percent of these wiling to offer their expertise to terrorists is a huge liability. The article also talks about Prime Minister Yousef Gilani's 2008 trip to Washington where he wanted to assure Bush that he had ordered a raid on a radical Madrassa school in tribal areas where Islamic radicalization was part of the daily curriculum. Apparently the NSA had already intercepted messages from insider elements which warned the school about the raid before it took place so that targeted personnel could possibly leave. Bush knew about this, and yet Gilani tried to assure Bush that it was evidence of how the Pakistani government is trying to weed out radical elements.

As long as there is a total lack of control from Islamabad over fundamentalists in the ISI, in the general populace and in the defence forces, no assurances that the Pakistani government gives the US or the world can be taken too seriously. There are just too many non-state players sometimes in collusion with state players who run amok in the country. Neither the president nor the prime minister nor any single authority controls them; even the more authoritarian Musharraf could not keep them in check. Official promises are not going to stop unofficial actions. And as long as these anarchic elements continue to be part of the unofficial and official outfits of Pakistan, the threat of its nuclear arsenal falling into the wrong hands will always have to be taken seriously. Even if directly pilfering a nuclear weapon may be hard, there are many other ways in which the love of Pakistan's nuclear weapons can be spread around. When it comes to assessing Pakistan's nuclear weapons, it is important to err on the safer side.

But an even more important lesson to be learnt is that US policy towards Pakistan needs to be significantly changed. For 50 years the US has supported the country in hopes of first fighting communists and then of fighting terrorists. Both these objectives have bred severe unwanted repercussions. During this process the government has also turned a blind eye toward Pakistan's nuclear activities in the hope that their neglect will be compensated for by a greater victory. But there has been scant success in this endeavor. In addition, instead of the US dangling carrots in front of Pakistan, it's been Pakistan who has inevitably dangled carrots in front of the US. Pakistan's carrots have been simple and very effective; give us money otherwise we will descend into chaos. Perhaps now the mantra of the US should be- give us the terrorists or we will replace the carrot with a stick. The buck needs to stop here.

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Wednesday, January 07, 2009


I stopped watching CNN when they called on Dr. Phil for proffering his deep insights on student psychology after the Virginia Tech shootings. Since then the quality of the channel has just kept on sliding in my opinion. Where Fox News brings you the best of cherry-picking and biased right-wing propaganda under the guise of being fair and balanced, CNN smothers you either with sensationalist news items, unqualified "experts" (Dr. Phil, Deepak Chopra and a horde of others) or mostly completely irrelevant entertainment covering the likes of Anna Nicole Smith. The Onion might be the only decent news source to follow now.

In spite of this I respect some of CNN's correspondents, especially Anderson Cooper who I think tries his best to do an objective and fair job. Another correspondent who I respect is Sanjay Gupta, and that's not just because he is a professor at my school. I have always been impressed with his sheer stamina and wide knowledge of issues, his capacity to traverse the globe and country and report on diverse stories, and his (generally) sincere and unbiased efforts to report accurately and present all the relevant sides. While he did have his bad moments (like the one with Michael Moore), Gupta usually does a good job. Most of his shortcomings I attribute to CNN, whose lazy buffoons like their correspondents to focus on sensationalist or unimportant news items.

So I personally feel satisfied upon hearing that Gupta has been tapped for US Surgeon General. The Surgeon General may not be the Secretary of State, but he has the power to do a significant amount of good...and bad. Remember this lady? (although I think her dismissal was completely unjustified). In an age where bug-resistant infectious diseases, poison from abroad, controversies about AIDS and abortion and stem cell research riddle the front pages, I would think that the Surgeon General's post is one of the more important posts in the country.

That does not mean I am in complete agreement with Gupta's appointment; for instance I don't know how qualified he would be to make decisions at the highest level or fend off bureaucracy. But if not for any other reason, I feel gratified that the administration would at least pick an intelligent, young, knowledgeable and driven person who would ask the right questions and draw on his extensive background. Gupta knows about the important issues and because of his reporting knows the right sources to plumb regarding them. At least in principle he should be able to make some informed decisions.

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Monday, January 05, 2009


Nuclear fusion leaves a wake of shattered careers and dreams on its beaten path...

Read the rest of the entry on my Desipundit blog...


Friday, January 02, 2009


In an interesting NYT Op-Ed, Gurcharan Das talks about the contrast between the Chinese and Indian models of growth and progress. His opinion is that in China, progress is intimately tied to the State whereas in India progress will take place in spite of the state. He contends that:
Both the Chinese and the Indians are convinced that their prosperity will only increase in the 21st century. In China it will be induced by the state; in India’s case, it may well happen despite the state. Indians expect to continue their relentless march toward a modern, democratic, market-based future. In this, terrorist attacks are a noisy, tragic, but ultimately futile sideshow.

However, Indians are painfully aware that they must reform their government bureaucracy, police and judiciary — institutions, paradoxically, they were so proud of a generation ago. When that happens, India may become formidable, a thought that undoubtedly worries China’s leaders.
I find cause for both pessimism and optimism in the article. The recent terrorist attacks have brought forth a massive sense of resentment against the government. However, where will this resentment translate into? Will it translate into more people of the kinds that read this blog for instance going into politics? I see a slim chance of that happening yet. Most of us are still too loathe to mire ourselves into the world of shady and corrupt characters. Who among us would relish taking a pangaa with Laloo Yadav or get entrenched in a protracted debate with Comrade Yechury for the sake of pushing some reform? The fact is that we still see the political world as being too different from the world we inhabit to want to be a part of it. Naturally, as long as that keeps on happening our criticism will be well-placed but ineffective.

However, one possible positive effect of the past year's events that I do foresee is an increase in voter turnout which may keep on increasing in the coming years. This should be strongly encouraged and can be accomplished the way it was during the 2008 US election, by mobilizing the speed and widespread accessibility of the Internet. Drives such as Vote Yatra 2009 seem to be the right step in this direction. On the other hand consider the fact that the Internet is still non-existent for millions of our countrymen. In fact, as pressing as the issue of national security is, one wonders whether it would drive people in rural areas to vote. Getting these people to vote is a different kettle of fish and won't be accomplished just by better accessibility. Unless we can mobilize all these people to worry about the issues that are really important, Das's reform won't happen. It's interesting though that they already do worry about these issues. It's just that they don't always appreciate the fact that voting for the right person may actually make a dent in their problems. Sometimes they don't even appreciate that it's the government that's responsible for their problems, that their issues are really part of an overarching problem with the government, and that they therefore should make it a point to vote (For example, how many people even in the US voted for Bush or McCain in spite of being concerned about their healthcare plans, their jobs or their children in Iraq?). These people are as stricken by complacence and confusion as are all of us. But until they get on board, people like us, educated, middle-class people who are fortunate to be better informed could be the catalyst for at least a little change.

As for Das's quips about China, it seems to me that the Chinese may increasingly view their consistent and age-old support of Pakistan as a liability, as world opinion becomes more and more intolerant of Pakistan's lack of control and tacit participation in terrorism. How this will affect their policies is uncertain, but it seems quite likely that the pressure will become concerning for them.

Das's contention that India will progress in spite of the state seems like a tribute to the cacophony of opinion that characterizes our unruly democracy. It is indeed a point of pride that our reporters are free to basically say what they want without fear of censure. But at the same time we also strongly rebuke them for sensationalism, not to mention irresponsible reporting where they divulge sensitive information. One can only hope that this unorganized mess of public opinion will sometime mesh into a more or less smooth flow that will lead us to progress.

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