Sunday, May 18, 2014

The great Indian rock opera


Not content with outsized newpaper headlines and celebrations in the streets, the Indian public apparently now wants to know what's going to happen next! Patience was never our virtue, was it!!

I can tell you with complete confidence that I don't know what's going to happen next, and nor do you. We have a new government and its job is to govern. Some opinionated individuals are completely certain that it's going to be a huge success, others are equally certain it's going to be a gigantic failure. Again, I can tell you with complete confidence (where do I get all that stuff from?) that it's going to be somewhere in between.

India is very much a nation of conflicting demands. For many decisions the government has to make, there will be some group that benefits and is pleased, and another that loses out, and is unhappy. There is, however, one kind of person who's in for a severe disappointment. From the tone of some of the blogs/emails/tweets going around these days, a number of people believe our new PM is going to solve their personal problems ("Dear Modi-ji, my neighbours are renovating their flat and the drilling noise keeps me awake on Sunday afternoons, so could you please...."). These people are not likely to get their wish. For obvious reasons the following lines from a wonderful rock opera, Jesus Christ Superstar, have been rattling around in my head:

Christ you know I love you
Did you see I waved?
I believe in you and God
So tell me that I'm saved

Jesus, I am with you
Touch me, touch me Jesus
Jesus, I am on your side
Kiss me, kiss me Jesus


It may not please Mr M to be so closely identified with a leading figure of a different religion, but the feeling is certainly in the air. And the analogy actually gets more interesting. The above song continues with the apostle Simon the Zealot persuading Jesus to incite the masses against the Romans:

What more do you need to convince you
That you have made it and you're easily as strong
As the filth from Rome who raped our country
And who've terrorized our people for so long?


There are all too many candidates for the role of Simon in today's India! My own favourite choice would naturally be journalist Tavleen Singh. How surprising that she didn't dig up these lyrics when there was still time to fling them at the family she hates so much - especially given some uncanny resonances...

What seems most unlikely though, is that Mr M will respond the way Jesus (in the rock opera) did to Simon:

Neither you Simon, nor the fifty thousand
Nor the Romans, nor the Jews
Nor Judas, nor the twelve
Nor the priests, nor the scribes
Nor doomed Jerusalem itself
Understand what power is
Understand what glory is
Understand at all


No, if there's a person of Jesus-like modesty in our government then he is presently vacating an office, not moving into one.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Right-turn coming up


I must start by complimenting myself on my admirable restraint - having not written a single blog post during the run-up to the elections. So whichever way my country goes next, it cannot possibly be my fault! Moreover I've cleverly chosen what might be the most uninteresting moment in which to blog: after voting is complete, but just before the results are declared.

More seriously, though, the world is seeing a significant shift towards the right-wing and it's no surprise that this is also happening in India. As an example, the UK Independence Party is poised to win the European Parliament election in the UK a week from today. UKIP is described on Wikipedia as a "Eurosceptic, right-wing populist" party and it is particularly opposed to immigration to the UK by Poles, Romanians and Bulgarians. Right-wing politicians like Geert Wilders and his Party for Freedom (PVV) are doing well in Europe. In India it's reasonable to expect that the BJP is going to perform well in the present elections as the exit polls predict, though the details are far from clear.

The right-wing outlook is, broadly speaking, hostile to "outsiders" (however they may be defined), positive about the role of majority religion, and friendly to business. In very rough terms I suppose both supporters and opponents of the BJP would agree with the above description of its philosophy, though they might list the three attributes in different orders. Similar descriptions can be applied to UKIP, PVV and other European parties like the Front National (France), Lega Nord (Italy), the Danish People's Party, and Golden Dawn (Greece). And yet, for many reasons these parties don't generally see eye to eye with each other. Partly this is because one person's fellow-citizen is another's dreaded immigrant: right-wing Greeks don't want Pakistanis at their borders, but right-wing Britishers don't want Greeks at their borders. And this is only a small part of the enormous differences of outlook. Politics is a complex thing and it is rare for any group to fit a mould. For example Marine Le Pen's Front National is not particularly friendly to business. Golden Dawn is fascist to an extent that would cause other right-wing parties to cringe. Geert Wilders is pro-gay but denies climate change, while the BJP - I imagine - would have precisely the opposite view on these two issues.

It is worth trying to understand the right-wing point of view better, especially if one does not share it. As Spinoza nicely put it: “I have striven not to laugh at human actions, not to weep at them, nor to hate them, but to understand them”. But a more particular reason, specially in India and specially today, is that this outlook is gaining dominance and one has to live and work with it in the foreseeable future (and perhaps also struggle against some aspects of it). So it's best to be mentally prepared.

I expect this will be a long discussion and it would be pointless to put down all my thoughts in one go. So I'll just make a single important point. Voting in an election involves serious levels of compromise. It's not possible to have a candidate made-to-order, and still less a party that you completely agree with. So, what exactly do you do if - say - you favour big business but would like religion kept out of the public sphere? On the other hand, what if you oppose the majority religion but are even more opposed to minority religions?  Or, if corruption is a huge issue for you but so is governance, and you worry that a small newly-arrived party simply lacks the experience to provide the latter? In all these cases, you may end up voting for a party despite feeling discomfort about some of its stated policies. And I think that's likely to have happened on a large scale in this election. This is important because what the future government does is still subject to checks and balances (through the opposition, the courts, the press etc). Through these agencies citizens must assert the specific values for which they voted, rather than quietly accept the full package we will be getting.

(Disclosure: I personally voted for the excellent Mr Subhash Ware despite some discomfort about his party, on which I blogged here. Regardless of what I said at the time, I believe AAP has an important role to play in Indian politics and hope it gets the chance to do so.)

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Academia and the equations of power


When I joined academia there was something I considered obvious: that at least in an academic environment, questions of fairness would be settled by taking the facts (and only the facts) into consideration. After all this is supposed to be how we do science. If a scientist argued that his papers were correct and those of his rivals wrong just because he was a Head of Department and the rival was merely a postdoctoral fellow, we would all have a good laugh. At least in any institution of a decent standing.

My illusions were challenged during my term as a postdoctoral fellow. A senior faculty member (call him F1) in my department tried to convince me of his new theory about a very old question of basic physics: if you cover a glass full of water with a card and turn it upside down, why does the card not fall? His theory, which didn't sound right to me (because it wasn't), even had an experimental prediction: he claimed that the card only stays in place if the glass is cylindrical or has a narrower base and wider top. If the glass has a wide base and narrow top, he claimed, the card would fall. Then with an impish grin he said "let me put you up to date with the experimental situation. A colleague (faculty member F2) has done the experiment at home and it confirms my theory". I tried to explain my approach and why I disagreed, but could not exactly put my finger on the error in F1's explanation because he was doing things a different way (i.e. trying to balance forces instead of pressures) which I found more complicated and less intuitive. I should mention here that F1 was an academically honest person and his attitude during the debate with me was respectful and courteous throughout.

Just then, F2 walked in along with a very senior colleague, F3. F1 looked at them and said "Sunil here disagrees with us". Their attitude was quite different from that of F1. With a visible sneer, one of them said, as if I wasn't even there: "Oh, he disagrees?" and the other looked at me patronisingly and said "ha ha, you're wrong, I've already done the experiment". They then proceeded to try and intimidate me with all kinds of irrelevant questions. I was the only one in the room without a permanent job and F2 and F3 were using this fact, rather than science, to win the argument. But then a funny thing happened. F1, who had been staring at the blackboard, had an illumination. He suddenly started making changes to his original diagram to incorporate some force arrows he had left out, and concluded that I was right! This left F2 and F3 in a rather embarrasing position and they left the room with ill grace. For what it's worth, I repeated the experiment later on at home and got the obvious result (the effect doesn't depend on the shape of the glass).

Years later, by which time I was a senior faculty member, an issue came up involving the unfair negative grading of a junior administrative staff member by his immediate superior, resulting in a memo being issued. A meeting was called involving the Director, Deans and a few senior faculty wherein I explained the facts and argued that the negative grading should be reversed and the memo withdrawn. No one disputed the facts I had presented, but apparently they all found it less clear what to do. The Registrar, a person who managed to be obtuse about everything except power equations, had the cheek to say "it will send the wrong signal, that any administrative staff member can get a memo against him cancelled if he is friends with Sunil Mukhi". I spluttered but was asked by my faculty colleagues to be patient. Then, without actually saying so, they quietly did the calculation: in terms of power and authority I was outdone by the others in the room, both in numbers and seniority. So there was no need to change anything. However as I was angry and showing signs of getting more so, and also happened to be correct (none of these distinguished scientists expressed any disagreement about the facts of the case) it was decided to withdraw the memo on a pure technicality. To my knowledge it still sits in the file of this person, marked "cancelled" for a technical reason, but still full of venom about a completely innocent person penned by his incompetent superior out of spite. He never got any letter saying the memo stood withdrawn (had he asked for one, he would have got another memo for being cheeky). The spiteful superior was never disciplined.

Readers of this blog, if any, will argue that none of these cases is surprising in the Indian context. They are, if anything, rather mild (the postdoc got a faculty job, the memo got cancelled). Which is why I decided to put down the above reminiscences only today after reading a fascinating new story, published in Science. A postdoctoral researcher at Yale called Magdalena Koziol, working in the lab of Antonio Giraldez, had her zebrafish poisoned by a fellow postdoc. Koziol, suspecting sabotage, started leaving two batches of zebrafish in the lab - one labeled with her name and the other unlabeled. Only the batch bearing her name died. Thereafter hidden cameras were installed that caught the culprit, who confessed and obviously was sacked. But Koziol claims that her adviser Giraldez told her not to talk about it to anyone, and declined to give her a letter explaining what had happened, or help her make up for the research time she lost while all this was happening - which can be critical for the career of a postdoctoral scientist. He then turned increasingly hostile to her. Now she has filed a lawsuit against Giraldez and Yale University. You can read more about this case on this blog (or on Science if you have a subscription).

The issue is in court, but there is something more to the case that, in my opinion, will play a major role in deciding the outcome. Koziol has left Yale and returned to the lab of Nobel Laureate John Gurdon where she originally did her Ph.D. He has helped secure a small grant for her to carry on her research, and even contributed some personal money. Perhaps more important, he supports her case against Giraldez and Yale University, and has come out with this remarkable quote:  “They wrote her a letter promising her circumstances in which she could conduct her research, and they quite clearly did not provide even remotely adequate circumstances.”

I don't personally know the full facts of the case, which I'm sure will be put before the court. But I believe I have enough training by now to guess the relevant equations:

1. Giraldez + Yale University + Yale's lawyers  >>  Koziol + Koziol's lawyer
2. Giraldez + Yale University + Yale's lawyers  <  Koziol + Koziol's lawyer + a Nobel Laureate (Gurdon).

So my prediction is they will settle out of court, or else she will win in court. But we can't test what would have happened if there were no Nobel Laureate in the equation.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Mango pickle


Recently I've had a bit of a debate with friends on Facebook about the Aam Aadmi Party and would like to use this space to think out my views and share them.

Arguably the most important new phenomenon in Indian politics, the AAP is a party whose philosophy (or perhaps, lack thereof) has left me in grave doubt and discomfort. This discomfort dates from their earlier incarnation as a protest movement against corruption, but has intensified since they came to power in Delhi.

It has become an axiom that India's leaders wallow in an evil stew of dishonesty, corruption and criminality. This axiomatic view is one of the roots of my discomfort. Axioms do not require justification, they are just taken to be true. As a scientist, I would instead like to investigate rationally and argue step by step. That allows for a little more perspective and also for correcting errors in the argument if any.

Now, even with my best debating skills I can hardly argue that India's elected leaders are particularly admirable. It appears that a significant number of them habitually commit  crimes, both social (such as rape and murder) and economic (such as corruption and theft). The question I want to raise is whether these persons are, in this criminal aspect, worse than the rest of us Indians, or in any specific way different from us. Or are they just the same as the rest of us on average? This is the central question whose answer determines how we should respond to the criminality of the political class.

Naturally politicians cannot be exactly like the "rest of us" due to the crucial difference that they have power (whatever the AAP might say, politics is power). So the question above has to be rephrased thus: are India's politicians just the same as the rest of us on average except that they are able to more easily indulge their criminality due to their power?

My answer is a clear "yes". Politicians have no unique claim on murder and rape - these days it seems everyone from mighty judges and magazine editors to humble security guards and bus drivers is involved in the business of sexual molestation. Politicians have no unique claim on corruption either. Their own corruption is usually in conjunction with powerful business interests. But plenty goes on without any help from politicians. Match-fixing is corruption on the part of bookmakers and sportspersons. Corruption and sexual molestation in Bollywood are nothing new. Businesses routinely pay TV and newspapers to propagate their case - a good example where both industry and media are corrupt without any help from politicians. So why do politicians get singled out for blame? How can we expect better from them when our society and culture are no better? How can we reform them before reforming our culture?

Now I can articulate my unease about AAP. Instead of trying to lay bare the root of corruption and exorcise it, it has become a nodal agency for shifting the blame outside ourselves. Its appeal to the urban middle-class voter is to basically pretend that corruption is something "out there", that we are merely its hapless victims and that the government refuses permission for anything only to extract a bribe. This makes AAP - as presently functioning - a part of the problem, not the solution.

To this day, most Indians will cheerfully give a bribe if doing so provides them an edge over someone else (who among you has not bribed for a railway ticket? did you ever think about the poor soul on the waiting list from whom that ticket was wrongfully snatched?). By turning the camera away from ourselves and onto someone else, the AAP has propped up the favourite construct of guilty persons: blaming the "other". From this perspective, the recent raid on Africans in Khirki village was no aberration. Prostitution and drug abuse are widespread in Indian cities and the law must be used to redress this problem. But the raid on the Africans was intended to convey a different message: that prostitution and drug use are not "Indian" habits and have come to us via dark and perverse foreigners. The AAP's website continues to defend the raid, by the way, and a thought-provoking attack on their defence appears in this article. So I'm afraid we can expect more moralising and distancing behaviour from this party.

Gandhi tried to teach us that true reform is reform from within, and he was completely right about that. All that is good about India (and there is a lot) has its roots in our cultural selves. All that is bad (and there is a lot) also has its roots in the self-same culture. Good or bad, we are all implicated. I don't know which political party will dare to tell us this and risk its vote base, but that's what we need to hear in order to make progress.


Sunday, January 5, 2014

If you're with us, you're also against us


Scientists such as myself were delighted to learn that the National Security Agency (NSA) of the United States plans to build a quantum computer. The news first appeared in the Washington Post, you can read it here. Previous attempts at snooping on civilians have tended to use physics mainly in the form of electronics, a subject that was exciting many decades ago but is no longer considered to be a part of physics at all. Quantum computing, by contrast, is a major buzzword these days. With the NSA's move in this direction, everyone living outside the US (the "snooped-upon") has a chance to be involved with the deepest questions in science, or at least to be the victim of people engaged in studying these questions.

For the benefit of readers who do not understand how quantum mechanical spying will enrich their lives, let me  imagine a system where it is possible to be in one of two states: "with us" and "against us". The classical dynamics of this two-state system was famously analysed by one George W. Bush, who correctly observed that it was possible to be in only one of these states. But in quantum mechanics things are different: one can be in a quantum superposition of the two. A simple example would be a person who is "with us" with an amplitude of one over the square root of 2, and also "against us" with the same amplitude. Importantly, the phase of "against us" can be arbitrary relative to "with us", leading to the possibility of "quantum interference".

Imagine a person in the quantum state just described. As long as the NSA does not spy on her, she will simply remain in that state (for which reason it's called a "stationary state"). But suppose they measure whether she is "with us", as the NSA will surely want to do. This leads to a disastrous phenomenon called "collapse of the wave function". The poor soul will instantly find herself to be either "with us", or "against us", and the probability of collapsing into each of these states will be exactly a half. Moreover, and I can hardly stress this enough, all subsequent measurements will return the same state as the first one. We physicists like to say that the person went into an eigenstate.

It is not clear, at the time of writing, whether collapsing a person's wave function and forcing them into an eigenstate is as serious a violation of human rights as collapsing their humanity and forcing them into Guantanamo prison. As usual, the NSA is way ahead of the United Nations on this matter. Even physicians can't be certain: is forcing you into an eigenstate as painful as forcing water up your nose? Today this is a known unknown, but once the NSA unveils its powerful quantum computer we will be sure. Or perhaps we will only know with a definite probability?

As a human-rights supporter, I look forward with interest to the first quantum trial in a court of law. The dialogue might run like this:

Judge: Is the defendant with us or against us?
NSA: Yes, your honour.
Judge: You mean she is the sum of both?
NSA: Not necessarily, your honour. She could be the difference of both. Or a complex combination.
Judge: You mean you couldn't detect the phase?
NSA (looks at shoes): No, your honour. Our quantum computer programmer isn't good with complex numbers.
Judge: Case dismissed!

Sunday, December 15, 2013

A previous post on human rights


Thanks to my friend Vishwanath for pointing out that I have blogged about Human Rights before - this had completely slipped my mind! In 2008, I attended a talk at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton by Mary Robinson. On its 60th anniversary she touched on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights repeatedly and I was greatly impressed by her talk. You can read my 2008 blog post about it here.

Friday, December 13, 2013

The Hill of Madame Penh


Just before I left on vacation, a well-meaning colleague asked: “Cambodia? I mean, is that a place where people go?” Good question. Here’s my list of properties for a desirable tourist destination:

(i) culturally interesting and also beautiful – so one has a reason to go in the first place,
(ii) not on the map of mass tourism, like Phuket or Majorca – because then it's crowded with foreigners and doesn't feel authentic,
(iii) not totally devoid of tourists either, like Pyongyang or  Bishkek – because then you are lonely and feel you've ended up in the wrong place.

So yes, it has to be a place “where people go” but not too many, and I can testify that on these counts Cambodia qualifies perfectly. But don’t count on (ii) remaining true forever, as Phnom Penh, Battambang and Sihanoukville are destined to become huge tourist destinations  and Siem Reap is pretty much there already. In short, the best time to go to Cambodia is right now. Then again, if you do go in large numbers it will no longer remain as nice...

There are many similarities between Thailand and Cambodia – the predominantly Buddhist culture of self-discipline, the lemongrass and fish-paste-scented food, the script of their languages and the appearance of temples and palaces. The kings of both countries are highly educated, liberal, artistically inclined figures. Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej is an accomplished saxophonist and composer, nicknamed “The King of Jazz” (below you can see his picture on the side of a Bangkok building). Meanwhile, Cambodian King Norodom Sihamoni is a ballet dancer by training. (As an aside, Wikipedia tells us: Sihamoni remains a bachelor. His father Norodom Sihanouk has stated that Sihamoni "loves women as his sisters". Although Wikipedia does not develop the subject further, it's fairly clear what we are expected to conclude.)

 Both kings seem to be extremely popular, while the governments are much less so – Thai PM Yingluck Shinawatra is heartily disliked by the urban populace, some of whom are currently trying to topple her government. And in Cambodia, a tour operator startled us by narrating over the PA system his frank opinions of controversial Prime Minister Hun Sen and his “2000 uneducated bodyguards” who he said were “responsible for the death of many of my fellow Khmer people”.

The similarities pretty much end here. Cambodia is far poorer than Thailand and is still recovering from the depredations of the Khmer Rouge in the mid-1970’s when a couple of million people (a quarter of the population!) were tortured, maimed and killed. The Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh presents this history in the place where much of it happened (the building was first a school and then a Khmer Rouge prison). It's a chilling and depressing reminder of how barbarous human beings can be. (As a technical point, I don't think "genocide" is the correct word to describe the killings by the Khmer Rouge, but this hardly seems worth arguing over.)

Today Cambodians are averagely dressed and noticeably slimmer than the Thais, who – at least in Bangkok – have started manifesting very un-Asian signs of plumpness in consequence of their prosperity. Still, Phnom Penh is a charming and generally cheerful city. The endless green fields and occasional farmhouses that I saw from the plane when coming in to land made a perfect antidote to Bangkok, a city of office blocks, shopping malls, hotels, restaurants and brothels - sometimes all in the same building. Phnom Penh is predominantly low-rise, though an ugly mega-hotel is coming up right across the river from the Royal Palace. On the 6-hour drive from there to Siem Reap I observed that villages were very clean, and villagers though modest were far from dirt poor. The houses were all very neat and propped up on stilts, some with beautiful exteriors of painted wood inlaid with blue windows and decorative curtains, and set among paddy fields or wetlands. Very picturesque indeed.

Cambodian food is wonderful. Phnom Penh has been steadily acquiring a reputation for trendy bars and restaurants. For me the high point there was Malis, an elegant establishment with open-air seating around an ornamental pool. Here I got to sample the national dish, Amok, consisting of fresh fish steamed in a coconut sauce perfumed with lemongrass and other spices. It was divine. The staff would smile at us in a genuine, friendly way each time they passed our table. This kind of charm used to be present in Thailand but is fading rapidly there.

Phnom Penh literally means "The Hill of Penh". According to legend, Madame Penh discovered  five Buddha statues inside a tree floating on the river. She had a small hill ("phnom") made from piles of earth and built a temple on it to house the statues. While she immodestly named the temple after herself, today the whole city is named after her. But that's only the informal name. The formal name of the city is Krong Chaktomuk Mongkol Sakal Kampuchea Thipadei Sereythor Inthabot Borei Roth Reach Seima Maha Nokor. Hindi speakers will be amused to realise that the last two words are really महानगर , and I'm also guessing that "Chaktomuk" is चतुर्मुख (four-faced, referring to four rivers) and "Mongkol" is मंगल or bliss. I can confirm that the name is appropriate.