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.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Crux of the matter

While people were busy singing the praises of human rights on World Human Rights Day yesterday, Justices Singhvi and Mukhopadhyay of the Supreme Court of India were preparing quite a surprise. Today they struck down the 2009 ruling of the Delhi High Court which in turn struck down part of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code. Popularly known as the anti-gay law, Section 377 is not quite that at all. Its specific provision reads as follows:

Whoever voluntarily has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal, shall be punished with imprisonment for life, or with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to ten years, and shall also be liable to fine. 
Explanation.-Penetration is sufficient to constitute the carnal intercourse necessary to the offence described in this section.

This law is entirely silent about the gay issue and entirely vague about what is meant by "against the order of nature". It is the latter, and not the former, that is the crux of the matter. If interpreted unfavourably, it would criminalise not just gay sex but also many things that men and women do together in private, even within marriage. In 2009 the Delhi High Court, in a lengthy judgement that can almost be read as a treatise on human rights for the modern world, argued that this section violated several aspects of the Indian Constitution, which incidentally came into existence nearly a century later. The vagueness of the law was one of the key criteria for their decision.

Today the Supreme Court has produced an equally lengthy judgement (can't these judges just say what they think in a few comprehensible words? It gets to be really heavy going when "impugned" and "injunction" and "counter-affidavit" keep looming at every turn). Their judgement deconstructs the Delhi High Court judgement in great detail and refers to a number of past court cases related to 377, some of them nearly a hundred years old. All of these are full of embarrassing (even to me!) details about sex, usually involving A's "injunction" going into B's "counter-affidavit", if you know what I mean. It gets even more embarrassing as unintended puns like "thrust of Section 377" start to appear (page 4).

But jokes apart, where all this is going starts to become clear on page 78, when their lordships sarcastically tell us that the Naz Foundation (which filed the original case in the Delhi High Court) was "singularly laconic" about something and "miserably failed" at something else. No, clearly this is not going well for the Naz folks. The learned justices add that a "miniscule fraction of the country’s population constitute lesbians, gays, bisexuals or transgenders" (at last count, that miniscule fraction was more than the entire population of most countries). They castigate the Delhi High Court for "its anxiety to protect the so-called rights of LGBT persons".

"So-called rights"??

And now to the crux of the matter - the vagueness of Section 377. On page 83 their lordships tell us that "vagaries of language must be borne in mind and prior application of the law must be considered". In other words, vagueness is something we just have to live with. In support of this view, they dig out a 1970 judgement which says:

"...if a law is vague or appears to be so, the court must try to construe it, as far as may be, and language permitting, the construction sought to be placed on it, must be in accordance with the intention of the legislature..."

In the present case, this suggests that any vagueness in Section 377 must be resolved by finding out what the British had in mind when they framed the law in 1860. Fascinating idea.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

On World Human Rights Day

Today is the 65th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) by the United Nations.  It's a beautiful document and you should take a break right away to read it here. Given its age, it's natural that it should appear a little dated - for example it freely uses "his" and "him" instead of trying harder to be gender-neutral, it makes no specific mention of gender harrassment, let alone LGBT issues, and its first seven paragraphs open with "Whereas" until in the eighth one we are finally rewarded with a "Now therefore...". But the spirit shines right through it and some of the lines still give me the chills. More below.

Somewhat to my own surprise, as I grow older I find myself more and more motivated to support human rights and more and more concerned when they are violated. From an ethical standpoint, the statement of universal rights is obviously correct - but from a practical view it is just as obviously unpopular, embodying as it does the rather quaint notion that all human beings are equal. Personally, I've never met anyone who truly believes this! It seems to be an essential part of human nature to look up with awe and respect at the rich and powerful, and in the same breath look down with contempt at the poor and unfortunate, so "equal" is not the most familiar way of thinking. While equality appeals powerfully to me, even I can't claim to have always been sincere or committed about implementing it. Human fallibility, after all.

I love the opening paragraph of the UDHR despite the fact that it dangles without a resolution (and continues to dangle for six more paragraphs!):

Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,

"Inherent dignity" and "inalienable rights" are two of the most musical phrases I've ever heard.

The lack of appreciation of human rights in India is widespread. Most Indians would be baffled to learn that:

Everyone charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law in a public trial at which he has had all the guarantees necessary for his defence.

This runs strictly counter to the traditional approach when dealing with suspected criminals, viz: "Let's beat him till he confesses". Education does not always help. The socially conservative middle-class, by whom one is so often surrounded within academia, may express a vague sympathy with the concept of human rights until you get to specifics. Then the gloves come off and it's back to "why don't we beat him till he confesses?". On two separate occasions, Directors of different Institutes have told me in a scolding tone: "You always talk about human rights", as if I was praising a particularly smelly variety of fish. Those were proud moments for me.