Thursday, October 30, 2008

This banana doesn't like fruit flies

Less than a week ago, Sarah Palin made what is now considered the stupidest comment of her life (despite all the competition from her many other stupid comments). This was in a public policy statement: "dollars go to projects that have little or nothing to do with the public good. Things like fruit fly research in Paris, France. I kid you not." And she sniggered as she said it. I must tell you that the snigger really got to me.

But much as I would like to rant about her, it's best if I point you to the eloquent blog of P.Z. Myers, a biologist (and self-confessed "godless liberal") at the University of Minnesota. There you will find a link to the video of her brilliant statement, as well Myers' well-chosen remarks about her. Enjoy!

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

And here's to you, Ms Robinson

Today I was privileged to attend a talk delivered at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton by Mary Robinson, who was President of Ireland from 1990-97. She then became the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and thereafter has remained a distinguished figure in the field of Human Rights, which was the subject of her talk. Surprising, then, that the modest-sized Wolfensohn Hall at IAS was not even half full.

Mary Robinson's talk came as a breath of fresh air to me after nearly a month of being in the US and finding the political discourse narrowed down to "hockey moms" and "Joe six-pack", apparently nowadays the only type of people who count on the planet!

Ms Robinson spoke at some length of the United Nation's Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which has earned a Guinness book citation for being translated into the largest number of languages - I just checked that this list includes virtually every Indian language I know of, including Bhojpuri, along with languages one has vaguely heard of, like Achehnese and Dzongkha, and languages I have definitely never heard of like Cashibo-Cacataibo, Minangkabao and Oromiffa! I guess when something is universal, it needs to be accessible to everyone! (You can read it here in your own favourite language.)

Sorry, I digressed. After a sketch of the history of this Declaration, which completes its 60th anniversary in December 2008, she touched on the situation post-2000. In that year there were high hopes that human rights could be pushed up on the agenda across the world. But then 9/11 happened. The UN pushed for "the perpetrators to be brought to justice" but (she phrased this more delicately than I will) the US decided to institute a "global war on terror" and with this decision, it became inevitable that human rights would be violated around the world. Soon there were accounts of torture, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, renditions to other countries etc. And moreover whole generations of young people, particularly in the Middle East, have been demonised and branded as "Islamic terrorists" and their anger is liable to worsen exactly the situation that this so-called "global war" was supposed to address.

I don't think she was trying to paint the US as the world's chief human rights violator or anything like that. And she didn't try to present a list of human rights violating countries, though there were some pointed references to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. I think her opposition to the "war on terror" was based on sadness about its counter-productive nature, and I certainly share that view. She also pointed out that 4 billion of 6.8 billion people on the planet do not have basic human rights protections, a truly sobering thought.

After this she spoke admiringly of Eleanor Roosevelt and several other Americans including contemporary ones for their contributions to the field of human rights. She also spoke more generally about women's rights, specifically health and reproductive, issues she has always cared about but on which she was often a lone voice in the Irish Parliament (as I learned from Wikipedia).

In the course of the discussion she touched upon different kinds of rights. Besides the familiar rights - political, civil, social - at some stage she encountered the novel (to her) concept of "business rights". As she explained it, poor people frequently carry out unconventional "entrepreneurial" trades and they need their rights to carry out such trades to be protected. I found this illuminating and thought about the harsh life led by the so-called "unorganised sector" in cities like Bombay - people who work in temporary jobs as vendors or casual labourers, who have no job contract or union membership, and who can be subjected to the brutality and whims of their employer, government and police. "Business rights" becomes a very relevant concept when you think of it this way.

Another section of the talk that stuck in my mind was her description of a group called the "Business and Human Rights Resource Centre", whose website is here. It's a group of large corporations that investigate the ethical implications of their business, including such aspects as child labour and poor labour conditions in countries that supply them products. She cited an interesting example of "The Gap", a US clothing company that was being supplied clothes from an Indian factory (really a "sweatshop") where the working conditions were found to be appalling. Her point here was again somewhat novel. When this company released this information they expected to come under attack by human rights groups like Amnesty, but to their surprise these groups actually commended them for being open and urged them to fix the problems they had found. "The Gap" responded by *not* closing their Indian operations, but instead trying to work with the supplying company to improve the working conditions for its employees.

A final aspect of her talk that sticks in my mind was about a law (I forget precisely in what context) that would make governments responsible when business carried on by their own corporations brings about human rights violations in other countries. This has some obvious implications - as she put it, a corporation operating in a poor country having an ineffective, corrupt or simply "bad" government might think there was no one to hold them accountable on human rights, but under this law the government of the corporation's home country would be obliged to monitor its operations.

I have given but a very fragmented sketch of Ms Robinson's hour-long talk. Much of it I've forgotten, much of it was personal and anecdotal (including a dig at Lady Thatcher), and anyway my aim was never to give you an account of the talk but only to highlight the thoughts it set off in my mind.

I can imagine many cynical people of the Left persuasion lambasting her (and my description of her talk) for being basically pro-business and pro-capitalist (she certainly spoke of former World Bank president James Wolfensohn, who endowed the IAS lecture hall, as a "friend").

I can think of even more people of the Right persuasion saying what is needed in the world right now is not some sissy human-rights crap like this but a muscular leadership and a "universal moral clarity between good and evil" (words of the great philosopher George W. Bush).

And I can hear a third camp who see themselves being neither strongly Left nor Right, but who will simply point out that the United Nations is a tired and ineffective body that produces earnest pamphlets but little else. I admit that I have in the past occasionally sided with this camp.

Well all I can say is, we should all care about human rights, and perhaps earnest pamphlets are a good start in making us think about this subject. On behalf of Ms Robinson I'll ask you now to please read the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by clicking on the link above. She would also like you to carry around the declaration and implement it in your own company, institution, country, or whatever.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

My father and "The Loose Hinges"

I had briefly blogged about my father on his most recent death anniversary. The posting is here. At the time my friend Ananth had very kindly suggested I write more about him. Well today I was reminded of my father by a chance event - listening to old Simon and Garfunkel songs on my MP3 player as I strolled around IAS Princeton on a freezing cold autumn evening. So here goes.

To go back to the beginning - at the age of 12, I suddenly developed a passion for Indian classical music. And started taking sitar lessons. Around the same time my father (who had only ever listened to Western Classical before that) developed the identical passion. His way of enjoying music was to pick one record that he really liked and listen to it morning, noon and night until the rest of us could take it no more and there would be an official family protest. His first record in this genre was a sitar-and-shehnai duet by Vilayat Khan and Bismillah Khan. It's a true classic, indeed one of the finest recordings ever in Indian Classical music, though after being subjected to it day and night by my father I really can't listen to it any more...

Now, at age 14 I developed another passion, this time for rock music. It started harmlessly enough with Simon and Garfunkel, but within months I was listening to Led Zeppelin at full volume, and the peace and quiet of the house was shattered forever. Surprisingly this passion did not conflict with my previous one for Indian music, both interests survived and grew independently. Well actually there was one conflict I remember - my sitar teacher once entered our house at a moment when Robert Plant was screaming his lungs out... those were days when Robert Plant still had lungs... "Keep it coolin', baby, WOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO"! And I can remember the shock on my sitar teacher's face - I was very embarrassed indeed.

Back to my father. He was aghast at my interest in rock music and kept hoping it would pass. But it didn't pass, and forced itself on his attention. The first thing I remember hearing in his presence was the live album "Get Yer Ya Ya's Out" by the Rolling Stones. At some point he gave me a withering look and said "all the songs sound exactly the same" (in retrospect, he had a point). But another time I was listening to Simon and Garfunkel's epic album "Bridge Over Troubled Water" - exactly what I was also hearing today, which sparked off this reminiscence. The song playing then was "Cecilia", and the line was "I got up to wash my face, when I come back to bed someone's taken my place". At this my father laughed uproariously. "Poor fellow!!" he said with considerable feeling.

But the group that really annoyed him, probably because of Jim Morrison's drunken howling, was The Doors. One day when I had been listening to them for a while, my father stormed into the room and said angrily "Why don't they just call themselves "The Loose Hinges"??

Monday, October 20, 2008

"I hear he's an Arab"

Here is an incident, by now old-hat in the US, which readers of this blog might find interesting if they haven't heard about it already.

At a McCain rally, an elderly woman supporter refers to Obama with fear in her voice: "I hear he's a.. he's a... he's an Arab". And McCain responds "No ma'am, he's a decent family man."

Here's the video.

Now on watching this I actually felt a pang of sympathy for the poor woman - she was ignorant and afraid. I even felt a (smaller) pang of sympathy for McCain, whose innate decency prevailed and who actually believed he was defending his opponent's values.

One feels less sympathy though, for the endemic, institutionalised bigotry in this country. Barack Obama has not even been able to respond to comments about his middle name "Husein" in the only way that would be civilised - yes, that's my middle name, and it's a Muslim name, and I'm not ashamed of it. To say this in America would, alas, be the end of his election campaign.

So what else is new, and why am I bothering to state the obvious? I really don't know.

P.S. Yesterday in this speech Colin Powell delivered a ringing endorsement of Obama that is being called the "Nail in the Coffin" for the Republican campaign. Interestingly in the opening minutes of this excerpt he addresses head-on the issue of Republicans implying there's something wrong with being an Arab or a Muslim in America.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Finally, a research institute in a university campus

For those who care about Indian science and who haven't already heard the news, I must share with you this link from the Times of India, Hyderabad. It informs us that TIFR is to set up a second campus in Hyderabad, within the campus of Hyderabad Central University. (Thanks to Raju Bathija for sending me the link while I'm away in Obama-McCain-land).

In general I feel constrained not to blog about anything that I know only by virtue of being a TIFR faculty member, and certainly about faculty meetings, but as this information is now in the papers I can freely point you to it.

In the course of previous discussions on this blog, the idea had come up that a good way to integrate high-level research with teaching in India was to connect research institutes and university departments. A detailed form of this idea can be found on the blog of Rahul Basu. While there can be some variations on the theme, one key factor is physical proximity - with the research institute ideally being placed within or adjacent to the campus of the University. This seems like the right way to get researchers to interact more with university students and be involved in teaching them, while retaining the structures that are essential to a high-quality research programme.

So here it is. I personally think the TIFR second campus idea is a fantastic one and I very much hope it will fulfil this ideal and set a new trend.

How different are Obama and McCain?

Though Barack Obama and John McCain are projected as polar opposites, I sometimes wonder. It's pretty astonishing on how many issues they actually agree. In some, Obama has taken a traditionally Republican position while in others, McCain has taken a traditionally Democrat position. Here are some examples:

(i) Capital punishment. Both candidates favour the death penalty.
(ii) Foreign affairs. Both candidates are suspicious about the impact of China's economic rise.
(iii) Environment. Both believe global warming is a problem.
(iv) Same-sex issues. Both support same-sex civil unions and both oppose gay marriage.
(v) Foreign affairs again. Both believe in imposing sanctions on Iran.
(vi) Science. Both support embryonic stem cell research.
(vii) Guantanamo. Both support closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay.

Then again, they differ sharply on some issues. McCain opposes universal health care while Obama feels health care is a "right". They differ on gun control, on various aspects of the economy, and on the Iraq war which McCain supports and Obama has consistently opposed. Also Obama supports increasing the minimum wage.

But for me the most striking was not a political but a personal piece of data: their heroes. John McCain lists as his hero Theodore Roosevelt, who may have been a great U.S. President but was also an unabashed racist. To him is due the following quote about Native Americans: "I don't go so far as to think that the only good Indians are dead Indians, but I believe nine out of every ten are, and I shouldn't like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth." Charming person, this Teddy! (and by the way, teddy bears are named after him, not because he was cute, but because he supposedly refused to shoot a captive bear on a hunting trip).

And who are Obama's heroes? Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi and Cesar Chavez.

Case closed.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Decline and Fall

There is a feeling among a small number of intellectual types in the US that the country as a whole is in a state of decline. The arguments advanced are on these lines: the country is no longer a producer of goods, its economy is a wreck (this one is hard to dispute!), its deficit is gigantic, its people have become apathetic and lack a minimum awareness, and it is over-reaching itself by fighting numerous pointless or at least "end-less" wars around the planet. This article by New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd makes explicit the comparison to ancient Rome. I should warn you, though, that part of the article is in Latin (well, a sort of Latin!).

A lot of people around the world might see a kind of justice in this downfall, but before rejoicing breaks out, I would like to sound a cautionary note. The USA that will decline, if it does decline, is not only the USA of global oil (and other) wars, of non-cooperation with the United Nations, and of awesome levels of consumption and consequent environmental damage. It is also the USA with a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic makeup where foreigners could settle down and participate (think of Indians in Silicon Valley) at levels unheard of in the rest of the world. It is the USA that harnessed phenomenal levels of creativity through the twentieth century and conceived most of the gadgets that make up our lives today. Just about everything we recognise as modern, from the light bulb to the laptop computer, was first made there (it's a different matter that the inventor of the laptop, Adam Osborne, actually spent his childhood in Tiruvannamalai and died in Kodaikanal!). Even when innovations originated in different countries like Japan, France and UK, the mass-marketed version would be realised in the USA and this is perhaps the reason why the laptop computer today costs not 20,000 dollars but 500 dollars.

Considering also the great American painters, writers, scientists and musicians that we all know and love, such a decline and fall would be a huge wrench for any cultured person around the world.

But, as I'm sure people will point out, the results may not be altogether tragic. In the event of such a decline and fall (IF it happens), the "centre of the world" will merely migrate elsewhere. There are already jokes about young Americans learning Mandarin Chinese so they can seek jobs in one of the rising economies! And there is some sort of precedent - it was after World War II that many Europeans migrated to the US, some because of persecution but many more simply because their countries were wrecked. At that time the leading language of science, for example, switched from German to English. And science did very well after the change - the great European discoveries of the early twentieth century were built upon to make up the great American discoveries of the late twentieth century. So the moral would be: countries come and go, but humanity - and creativity - survive.

And yet there is something that makes me uneasy. According to the critics, the fundamental reasons for the USA's possible decline are: ignorance, apathy, greed and an overreaching sense of self-importance stemming from being the world's only superpower. This is certainly what happened to ancient Rome. So if and when China and India become superpowers, will we also go through the same cycle? Will it start out with exuberance, abundance, a rise in the standard of living, and then end within a century in greed and unbridled aggression? If so, is there something we can do to change this prophesy of doom? The answer, it seems to me, is to make everyone study history - for as the philosopher Santayana put it, "those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it".

So I think that, at least in India, everyone who is cheering for us to become a superpower has the solemn patriotic duty to inculcate the study of history in every single citizen.

Throughout this article I've left it open whether I personally think the US is declining. Maybe it isn't, and then this article would be pointless. But then if you watch this video on You Tube, I promise you will really really start to worry!

Friday, October 10, 2008

Good and evil, the battle continues

Here in America I am struck on a daily basis by the clear, objective distinction between "good" and "evil" that appears to exist in everyone's mind. I myself am a wicked unbeliever in this distinction. I could be considered guilty of "moral relativism", which as Wikipedia helpfully tells us, is "the position that moral or ethical propositions do not reflect objective and/or universal moral truths, but instead make claims relative to social, cultural, historical or personal circumstances".

I don't want to go on about this at length today, being slightly obsessed with a research problem in string theory that I'm working on. But let me give an example that confuses me. There are two contenders to be the next President of the US. Each is good according to his supporters and evil according to the supporters of the other one. On Tuesday night I watched with some bemusement as they debated each other on TV. There were many differences of opinion between them and these will presumably be important in determining the result of the election. But they also had some views in common and these are the ones I'd like to focus on here.

To quote Senator McCain:

"America is the greatest force for good in the history of the world. ... we have gone to all four corners of the Earth and shed American blood in defense, usually, of somebody else's freedom and our own. So we are peacemakers and we're peacekeepers."

To quote Senator Obama:

"Now, Sen. McCain and I do agree, this is the greatest nation on earth. We are a force of good in the world."

Now you can click on this link to the New York Times website to view a video of Mr Ahmadinejad, President of Iran, talking to New York Times reporters. The reporters described him as "soft-spoken but insistent, and often evasive specially on domestic issues such as .. the Iranian economy".

Digression: With appropriate substitutions the above could be a description of McCain! And there are other similarities. Mr Ahmadinejad once said "this regime occupying Jerusalem (een rezhim-e eshghalgar-e qods) must [vanish from] the page of time (bayad az safheh-ye ruzgar mahv shavad)" (this is again from Wikipedia, the English translation being credited to a professor at the University of Michigan). The interpretation popular in the US is that he said Israel should be wiped off the face of the earth, which he denies (the above translation supports his denial). Mr McCain once sang "Bomb bomb bomb Iran", to the tune of a Beach Boys song. The interpretation popular in the US is that he was joking. In an interview McCain was asked if he was proud of what he did and he said "yes".

Back to my main point. Surprisingly, Mr Ahmadinejad does not agree with either McCain's or Obama's world view, and fails to see the point that "America is the greatest force for good"! Indeed he points out that "the U.S. government has good relations with countries that have the atomic bomb, and bad relations with countries like us who are simply pursuing peaceful nuclear energy". He also accuses America of "creating an unstable world", by attacking the countries on either side of Iran.

Now I don't think Mr Ahmadinejad or Mr McCain (or Mr Obama if it comes to that) completely shares my personal values and I doubt I would vote for any of them if they were standing for election in my country (unless the alternative was Mr Advani, only joking ha ha!!). So I bring them up here only to point out how moral issues can be seen so differently by different people. All this leaves me so confused that I remain trapped in my moral relativism.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Heavenly outsourcing

As we know, much of the USA is extremely religious - and not just in a contemplative, spiritual sense but in a very aggressive, God-and-bible-are-the-literal-truth sense. One would be hard put to distinguish an American religious fundamentalist from his or her counterpart in other countries that are more commonly considered fundamentalist.

But the US is also a liberal democracy and there's a small but accepted tradition of taking potshots at God. The latest in this trend appears to be a movie called "Religulous" (=Religion+Ridiculous) that releases in the US today, to mixed reviews (but no mob violence, please note).

In the meanwhile I wanted to share with you something quite hilarious that I got off the website "" which is linked from the Religulous website. It's a take-off on an opinion poll, with the question:

"What if God is busy, and your prayers are being answered by some guy in Bombay?"

The allowed answers are:

(i) Then you should be prepared to wait a very long time before your prayer is answered.

(ii) Hope that the guy in Bombay has a good working knowledge of currency exchange rates before you make the big ask.

(iii) If America can outsource, so can Heaven.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

This rule is enforced

Last night I hopped on a flight to Newark (variously pronounced by the staff in Mumbai as "Nay-vark" and even "Nee-vark"). I have to say that a 15-hour nonstop flight is a remarkably good way to get here, even if the airline is Continental and the food ghastly (those who are curious to know how an omelette tastes after it has been cooked for 12 hours will find an opportunity here).

What struck me on arriving in the US, was the fact that this is a country where the law reigns supreme. The post-landing announcement stated "you may use your mobile phones at this time. However once you exit the plane, the use of mobiles is forbidden in the immigration and baggage areas." And then came a chilling coda: "This rule is enforced".

So here's a quiz question: how does a bunch of Indians who have just come over from India and moreover have been denied mobile usage for 16 long hours, react when told not to use their mobile phones AND ALSO told that the rule is enforced? Well, like perfectly rational people. Not a single person was seen using their mobile after exiting the plane.

Now a flash back, if you permit, to the day before yesterday. I'm at my gym in Bombay. As I start my workout, a young woman (possessing a nose like a medieval dagger, but that's not essential to the story) gets on to a treadmill and proceeds to talk. She talks on her mobile phone (it's a rule of the gym that clients must not use their mobile phones or disturb others). Then she talks to her trainer. Then she talks to the person on the next treadmill. Then she wanders around the gym looking for people to talk to. Her voice is piercing and she talks nonstop. She has seen me glaring at her, but she doesn't give a flying f**k.

But were Ms Dagger-nose placed in the baggage area of Newark Liberty airport, she would miraculously shed her inconsideration and button her lip. It's so simple! When rules are enforced, people don't break them. In fact people start to respect them.

Another flashback, to the streets of now-faraway Bombay. The city has rules about how one is (and is not) supposed to drive one's car, how pedestrians may (and may not) cross the street, where one can (and cannot) park one's car, where one should (and should not) spit. But alas, there's a huge metaphorical banner hanging over the city saying "This rule is not enforced". And that's that.

None of these rules needs to be enforced in a draconian way, but enforcing them firmly yet mildly would make life in the city better for everyone. It might become possible to stroll around without being honked at and spat upon. It might become possible to drive and not have to dodge a pedestrian running straight into your path. The imagination boggles.

It's commonly asserted that it is simply not in the character of Indians to be disciplined, but it's clear now that this isn't where the the fault lies. The authorities simply need to demonstrate (without any show of aggression) that they mean business. Just say in a convincing manner "this rule is enforced", and people will fall into line.

It's true that drunk drivers in Bombay are being regularly put away in jail, a good - though rare - example of a rule that's being enforced. But the campaign against drunk driving started only after the situation turned critical - drunk drivers had started to kill people by the dozen. For the rest, the Bombay police periodically start campaigns that are either short-lived - like "no-honking day" which was a great success but was promptly forgotten from the next day onwards - or plain stupid like the threat to stop people listening to their car radio, which was, fortunately, withdrawn before it could be implemented!

I bring all this up in order to suggest that enforcement in a mild but consistent way, of mild but consistent laws, would be a great leap forward for our country. I realise that corruption of our police force is a major obstacle, but at least I'm sure now that the indiscipline allegedly built in to our culture is not the problem.