Monday, April 21, 2008

More on happiness

In a previous blog ("Scientific progress goes `boink' ") I mentioned a previously held position about happiness - that poorer people could be happier than rich people - and the fact that recent research is indicating the converse to be true.

I have managed to compile a little more information on this story. The older result is attributed to, among others, Richard Easterlin, a USC professor of Economics. You can check out his own homepage. The paradox that "happiness at a national level does not increase with wealth once basic needs are fulfilled" is sometimes called the Easterlin Paradox.

A recent challenge to it, based on research done at the Brookings Institution, is discussed in the New York Times article "Maybe money does buy happiness". The article also says Easterlin remains skeptical.

My main take on this situation is that nothing is obvious. A one-line statement that money doesn't buy happiness, or that it does, is liable to be not a scientific result but a push for a certain agenda. Moreover the suggestion that one or the other result is "obvious" needs to be studiously guarded against. I think the study of happiness is still at a rather primitive stage, and hampered by (i) the need of most people to try and fit the answers into a political agenda, even before the answers are known, (ii) the belief of many people that there is nothing to be learned in this area.

I shall conclude by pointing out that though Wikipedia tells us the Brookings Institution has a "left-of-centre" reputation, I believe this location is based on the US-centric scale where the tiniest forms of dissent from capitalist dogma are considered "far left". For such a think tank (based in Washington DC!) to conclude that money doesn't buy happiness would be as likely as your local Imam recommending a pint of Guinness for spiritual advancement!

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Freedom of speech, but only if China's happy?

The subject of freedom of speech in China is making quite a crusader out of me. It's also making a crusader out of Mr N. Ram, editor of one of India's leading newspapers, The Hindu, but on the opposite side. The Hindu in its editorials has come out in favour of China's bloody crackdown on protesting Tibetans, and chosen to remain totally silent about that country's ruthless suppression of anyone who even midly supports the protest. Indeed the Reader's Editor of the same paper has expressed skepticism about the paper's bias in its Tibet coverage: "Why" he adds "was The Guardian, otherwise used extensively, ignored?".

A very reasonable letter recently sent by friends of mine to Mr N. Ram (and quoted in full on my blog "Press self-censorship on Mount Road", April 16 2008) has this to say:

"Just recently, the Chinese Government arrested Hu Jia, one of China's most prominent human rights activist and sentenced him to three and a half years in prison for criticising the Communist party in his writings (it would be amusing, if it were not so tragic, to think that a law of this kind in India would involve the imprisonment of the editors and owners of virtually all newspapers...)"

The letter goes on to suggest that the Hindu is taking "a purely partisan one sided view of the issue by aligning itself unquestioningly on the side of the Chinese Government". However, the Hindu doesn't seem to agree, and has not printed the letter so far.

Now going through some old emails, I found that Mr N. Ram, under very different circumstances, turns out to be quite a supporter of freedom of speech. In 1998, Dr T. Jayaraman of the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai (funded by India's Department of Atomic Energy) wrote some articles in the Hindu's Frontline magazine, opposing India's nuclear weapons programme. For this he was warned by his Director that disciplinary action may be forthcoming. Ultimately the Director was persuaded to back off following pressure from the scientific community, including a signature campaign signed by 170 TIFR scientists (I conducted that campaign and sent him the results).

Here are the words of a jubilant Mr N. Ram, in a posting on an internet forum, after the above story concluded:

"A quiet watch on the IMSc situation and continued vigilance in defending the right of Indian scientists to express their views freely, especially on matters of great social and moral concern like nuclear weaponisation, are necessary. However, we should be clear that the backing off itself represents an important gain for science, democracy and sensitive public action in India. The large-scale response of Indian scientists from leading research institutions in Chennai, Mumbai and Bangalore and rising support from scientific colleagues elsewhere have been the leading factor in bringing about this success.

Congratulations to them and to all those emailers who took the initiative in spreading the word on Dr Jayaraman and the IMSc, thereby helping achieve an inspiring outcome at least for this stage. Let me also compliment Professor Ramachandran for backing off just in time to avoid major controversy, although not for his understanding of what freedom of expression and criticism means for scientists."

While it was a perfectly valid democratic option to oppose the Pokhran II tests, this also happened to be a line that would have pleased the Chinese government at the time. So for some people, freedom of speech appears to be OK when it makes China happy, and not OK otherwise!

Friday, April 18, 2008

Sachin in the right place

Here is an excerpt - without comment - from last night's beer-infused dinner table discussion with colleagues from a scientific institution in Pune:

Me: "I hear Sachin has pulled out of the Olympic torch relay in Delhi citing a groin injury".
Arnab: "Well, it shows his groin is in the right place!"

Politics and Indian languages

Today I saw a poster put up by the BJP with the usual sycophantic messages about some politician or other. What struck me was that in the list of signatories there was a certain "Gajanand (गजानंद) Mehta". Now, "Gajanan" (गजानन) - literally meaning "elephant face" - is a name for the Hindu god better known as Ganesh. Indeed the various Hindi names for Ganesh are quite charming and carry a very positive connotation for me, much as they may sound jarring in English ("big belly" and "twisted tusk" for example). I'm really quite fond of Lord Ganesh.

But "Gajanand" means nothing as far as I know. At best, it translates to "elephant happiness", but I'm quite sure that's not a genuine Indian name. In short, Mr BJP signatory is probably Gajanan, but either he or his admirers are unaware of the meaning of his name and therefore got it wrong. My point? That political parties professing to defend Indian culture are woefully short on the most basic appreciation of the same culture they claim to defend.

A related issue is that the members of parties which propagate (with violence) a particular language often lack a basic understanding of the selfsame language. I'm referring of course to Marathi, the language that has long been used in a Mumbai as a weapon. To the point that many people, who don't habitually speak it, now refuse to take it seriously and try to stay away from it to the extent possible.

The official argument of the Marathi propagating parties is that all residents of Mumbai are guilty of ignoring this language and must be taught to to "respect" it - by being slapped around if necessary. Honestly, their first point might be true. Marathi occupies a fairly marginal position in the discourse of Mumbai and most non-Maharashtrians have not bothered much with it (I am in a peculiar middle ground, as I understand it well but have not become fluent in speaking it, for reasons I may return to another time). But how much enthusiasm can you generate for a language by slapping people around? Indeed, what image do you give to the language by this behaviour? And what actually have the political parties in question managed to achieve on behalf of the language that they profess to support?

Some years ago I noticed a poster that said in Devanagari script, "Shiv Sena Shakha, South Mumbai" (शिव सेना शाखा, साउथ मुम्बई). The jarring note was the "South" - simply rendered in the Devanagari script without translation. Were the members of this party not aware that there is a perfectly good Marathi word for "South"? Or did they not care? One suspects that most Marathi political posters put up in Mumbai today have such mistakes and exhibit a mediocre understanding of the language (to be fair, things are not too different for most other Indian languages, though Bengali is probably in better shape. A Bengali poster with poor syntax would surely attract attention in Kolkata and would end up being corrected, though possibly after a fist fight between rival groups with different opinions about the correct version!).

There are clear signs that Marathi is in trouble even among Maharashtrians. I recently heard that in an interview, a leading Maharashtrian novelist was asked why he writes in English rather than his native Marathi. His answer: "my first novel was in Marathi and it took 10 years to sell 1000 copies!". On the same lines, my cousin alerts me to a recent news report saying Marathi libraries are closing down for a lack of customers. One of them is located in the Marathi heartland of Dadar!

It might still be possible to do something that would charm and attract people to learn Marathi and appreciate its depth and beauty, its literature, its poetry and most of all (for me) the wonderful Indian-classical-music-based Marathi songs in the Natya Sangeet tradition. And there must be groups of people - academics, literary figures, historians and the like - who are doing their best to further this goal. But anyone who expects the supposedly pro-Marathi political parties to spread love and respect for the language will end up disappointed.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Press self-censorship on Mount Road

The following was posted yesterday as a comment on my blog "Aunts, Uncles and Tibet". Since I find it very important and most people won't find it there, am reproducing it verbatim here. The author of the post is my friend and colleague Rahul Basu, and the letter reproduced at the end is signed by three other friends/colleagues, all of whom I greatly respect for their sanity on political issues.

Well, Sunil, since the Tibet issue has been exercising your mind lately, rest assured some of us in conservative Chennai are with you on this. As much as the Tibet issue, its the attitude of the Mahavishnu of Mount Road (aka The Hindu) towards the Tibet issue that has many of us seeing red (no pun intended).

A perfectly reasonable letter to the Hindu by Ramachandra Guha, Shashi Tharoor, Mukul Kesavan et al. on Tibet

evoked a storm of protest from Jayaraman and numerous others all saying the same thing in almost the same words! It almost sounded as if it was solicited by the Hindu, considering there were almost no letters supporting the Guha letter!

The other interesting fact is that the Reader's Editor of this newspaper seems to be on the side of the angels.

Notice that I have been singled out as one of the disruptive elements (dating from the Nandigram letter) though I suspect his sympathies lie more in our direction.

And finally, today Rajesh Gopakumar, Gautam Menon, Rukmini Dey and I sent off a letter to the Hindu -- but don't hold your breath to see it in print.

I am attaching it below in case someone is dying to read it - and since it has approximately zero probability of appearing in print!

(And here is the good news - we now have the TOI in Chennai so I can catch up on Aishwarya Rai's Karva Chauth and Britney Spears' latest marriage (or lack of it) and not bother with those pesky monks in Lhasa).


The recent exchange of letters on the Hindu's Tibet policy seem to focus on the issue of definitions of Tibet and TAR. Regardless of the merits of this argument, it essentially clouds what is really the main issue behind the protests and demonstrations. And that is China's abysmal human rights record in dealing with dissident activity - a subject the Hindu has seen fit to pass over lightly.

China has over the years, arrested dissidents, spread lies about the Dalai Lama, suppressed cultural and religious freedom for the Tibetans (even today it is illegal in China to possess a picture of the Dalai Lama), to say nothing of not choosing to exert its influence with the Sudanese government to stem the civil war in Darfur. Despite the promises made by China to the International Olympic Committee, freedom of assembly and freedom of expression remain distant dreams for all Chinese. Just recently, the Chinese Government arrested Hu Jia, one of China's most prominent human rights activist and sentenced him to three and a half years in prison for criticising the Communist party in his writings (it would be amusing, if it were not so tragic, to think that a law of this kind in India would involve the imprisonment of the editors and owners of virtually all newspapers, magazines and television news channels, political bloggers, to say nothing of most of the letters writers to these newspapers).

The Dalai Lama has, on more than one occasion, condemned the violence by pro-Tibet demonstrators, has expressed his support for the Olympics in China and for a long time now (since 1987), given up demands of independence for Tibet, in exchange for genuine autonomy and the promise to preserve the cultural and religious ethos of Tibet.

Decades of attempting to snuff out all forms of protest, whether
peaceful or otherwise merely results in a sudden explosion of violence, as has been witnessed recently, accompanied by even harsher crackdown by the Government - witness Tiananmen Square and now the Chinese reaction to Tibetan protests all over the world. A Government with the brutal suppression of Tiananmen Square on its record can scarcely object when protests turn desperately violent. Democratic India's ability to absorb a 'million mutinies now' releases the pressure valve that prevents such activity from spinning out of control.

The Hindu would do well to flesh out different viewpoints in this debate and encourage debate and discussion between the Dalai Lama and the Chinese Government, exactly what it has always advocated between the Indian Government, Kashmiri separatists and Pakistani leaders, rather than take a purely partisan one sided view of the issue by aligning itself unquestioningly on the side of the Chinese Government. Surely it cannot be the Hindu's case that it is alright for the Indian Government to talk to the likes of Syed Ali Shah Geelani but not so for the Chinese Government to talk to His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

Yours sincerely

Rahul Basu (Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai)
Gautam Menon (Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai)
Rajesh Gopakumar (Harish-Chandra Research Institute, Allahabad)
Rukmini Dey (Harish Chandra Research Institute, Allahabad)

April 15, 2008 6:15 PM

Monday, April 14, 2008

Buena Vista Social Club

Someone, I think my cousin Cheeta, demanded I write about cinema. So here it is. Many years after it was made, I stumbled on the extraordinary movie "Buena Vista Social Club" made by legendary German film director Wim Wenders. The movie features well-known slide guitarist Ry Cooder, who I remember as the source of that weird buzzing, quivering, tingling slide guitar sound on the Rolling Stones song "Sister Morphine" from the Sticky Fingers album. If you don't remember that album, you might not have been alive in 1970, or perhaps you were busy taking morphine! Cooder also shared a Grammy in 1993 with Hindustani Classical guitarist Vishwamohan Bhatt for an album called "A meeting by the river".

Back to the movie: Cooder goes to Cuba and ends up searching for long-forgotten Cuban musicians, re-assembles them and gets them to record their music (in the style called "son"). This recording, together with the film I'm describing, makes the said musicians famous and sparks off a craze in the West for Latin American music.

The film is a documentary of the "re-discovery" of these musicians by Cooder, most of them living in obscurity even within Cuba. I found it masterfully made (what else would one expect of Wenders?) and was especially struck by the lovingly filmed scenes of Havana. The opening sequence on the sea-front drive will remind any Bombay-ite who was around in the 1960's (and not taking morphine) of our own Marine Drive. And in fact the film reminds me of Mumbai in a hundred different ways.

The songs are spectacular. One risk of watching this movie (and listening to the CD) is that the first song, Chan Chan, is addictive. I haven't been able to get it out of my head for a month now. The remaining songs are addictive too. My father loved this kind of music. If he hadn't been dead the last 32 years, this music would have gripped him right away.

The movie has been criticised for having too much of Cooder in the frame, and Cooder has been criticised for using this platform to promote himself. Both criticisms are sort of valid and sort of irrelevant. Those of us who haven't spent the last decade travelling to Cuba to seek out forgotten musicians ought to be grateful for this opportunity to see and hear them. If Cooder's guitar is occasionally a bit intrusive, he certainly does his best to highlight the musicians, and Wenders manages to put together a story about Cuba without commenting either way on the thorny political issues in which this island has been entangled for decades.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Scientific progress goes "boink"

Apologies for the title, which I borrowed from a well-known Calvin and Hobbes volume.

The theme for today is a set of three "scientific" discoveries that have in the last few weeks been apparently reversed. Here are the original discoveries:

(i) Drinking lots of water is good for you.
(ii) Stretching is an important part of exercise.
(iii) Poor people are happier than rich people.

And here is current wisdom, according to recent press reports:

(i) Drinking water is not good for you.
(ii) Stretching is bad for your muscles.
(iii) Poor people are (you guessed it) less happy than rich people.

So, what happened? Is this on par with saying one day that the electron is a fermion, and the next day that it is a boson? Not at all. The point here is, I suspect, the pathetic level of press reporting, coupled with the lazy reader's desire to have a one-line answer to everything.

Let's consider drinking water. If you drink only water, or water all the time, you are not likely to be in good shape. If you drink no water, you will die. So, whether it is good for you or not is a matter of quantity. If you drink too little, you need more. If you drink too much, you need less.

Am I sounding vacuous here? Of course. But no more so than the press reports, which abound in idiotic statements like "X drank no water for the last 37 years and she is fit as a fiddle" (no information about the rest of her diet.)

As for rich and poor, dare I state the obvious? If you are dirt poor, you are probably dead. No happiness in that. If you are very rich, it can go both ways. Maybe you have a private plane and take flying lessons. Nice, that would make most of us happy. Or maybe you have a private drug supplier and take intravenous heroin. Also nice, perhaps, but not for very long - you'd likely end up as dead as the dirt poor person. So both extremes have their risks.

Now suppose one is trying to gauge average levels of happiness. The answers are bound to depend on the nature of the questions. If one evaluates peoples' delight at the thought that their country is a superpower that can bomb any other country to shreds, then citizens of the USA will come out happy while those of Belgium or Vanuatu would have little chance. If one evaluates peoples spontaneous smiles as evidence of their happiness then Thailand and India will do well while Russia and Sweden would fare badly. If one evaluates people's belief in the goodness of their nation's foreign policy then Canada will win. In other words, it depends.

Now for some reason (and I'll be rude enough to hazard a guess), journalists hate the phrase "it depends". It simply robs newspapers of their headlines. Try replacing "hamburgers cause cancer" with "a diet mainly consisting of hamburgers may, depending on what else you eat, increase your risk of cancer. However there is also evidence that many hamburger-eaters are phenomenally healthy and a number of them have climbed Mount Everest without oxygen". It just doesn't sell.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Marxism and intelligence

Further to Cheeta's comment on my previous blog "Communists and freedom", about the distinction between communists and Communists, I was reminded of the late D.D. Kosambi (a colourful personality who was a TIFR mathematics professor as well as a historian). He is said to have opened a book review with the eloquent phrase: "Marxism is not a substitute for intelligence". Indeed he was a remarkably intelligent man and also a Marxist - and I didn't find anything in his writings that suggested he supports tyranny. So presumably he was a good example of a lower-case "communist".

It's depressing when people pervert the spirit and sense of the teachings they claim to follow, but Communists would hardly be the first ones to do so. Hindutva-vadis, Christian fundamentalists and Islamists frequently pervert the meaning of their religions. As a Hindu myself, I'm happy to say that I admire many of the concepts of my religion but would not like to be associated in any way with the bunch of loonies who currently claim to follow or interpret it.

This leads me to a direction that I've wanted to write (and think) about for a long time. Why are we so centred on people and their statements instead of going directly to issues? Journalists will keep writing about what this or that preacher says, but will rarely bother to ask what is the essence of the corresponding religion. As a much better example, consider how much has been written about Einstein and how few people have made the tiniest effort to understand anything at all about the special theory of relativity!

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Communists and freedom

Everyone I know is either a Communist or despises communists. Would some middle ground not be possible? I am appreciative when Communists bring up important and inconvenient topics - such as whether capitalism and globalisation are really providing the promised benefits to all Indians, whether health care and primary education in India are adequate, whether specific international deals are in the country's interest. One may agree or disagree with them, but when there is a conspiracy to sweep certain issues under the carpet - and I use the word "conspiracy" advisedly - one must support the persons who bring them back out.

As an example, in the make-believe South Bombay world that I live in, people would have you think that caste and class discrimination have ceased to exist in India. Or (this is a spectacular one that I hear all too often) that their own success in life is due purely to merit and not to any extraneous considerations like having been born in Malabar Hill. Yes, capitalism, like bad wine, can induce strange delusions.

The problem is that the communists (at least the ones I know of) are more than capable of siding against the very person they claim to support - the human being. Herewith the esteemed Prakash Karat as quoted in The Telegraph on the subject of Tibet (which as you can see from my blog, has been somewhat obsessing me lately):

`The CPM general secretary said there was a tendency to violate the sovereignty of nations in the “name of human rights” and “ethnic minorities”.'

Good show, Mr Karat. Suggest you take a quick look at Wikipedia (the peoples' encyclopaedia, after all!) which tells us that "fascism is an authoritarian ideology ... that considers the individual subordinate to the interests of the state, party or society as a whole." Next time, don't complain when Communists get lumped with Fascists. In discussions I've often tried to explain the distinction between the two, but today I don't fully understand if there is one.

The tragedy is that on the issue of Tibet I happen to agree with the BJP, whose divisive ideology I utterly despise (I should qualify - I agree broadly with their publicly stated views on Tibet today, keeping in mind that such views differ from their privately held ones and from their actions when they are in power). At the same time the Communists, whom I would love to admire for their principled defense of humanity, have just come across as scoundrels who would cheerfully condone death and torture as long as the nation remains sovereign. For what?

If further reading about India's CPM party is desired, you could start with the Wikipedia entry on Nandigram violence.

Aunts, Uncles and Tibet

Living in Mumbai, one forgets the extent to which Delhi is a hotbed of intellectual discussion. The Mumbai intellectual, by contrast, must be grateful for complex discourses like "dat fried fish was damn good men!" which, though clearly conceptualised and well-expressed, does not quite compete in the world of ideas.

One also forgets (in my case) that half my relatives live in Delhi. I was reminded of this when I opened an issue of The Week magazine a few days ago and read the following:

"There were divisions within the non-resident Tibetan population. The group opposed to the Dalai Lama has been more militant than the spiritual leader," said Mira Sinha Bhattacharjea of Institute of Chinese Studies, New Delhi.

Well the venerable Ms Bhattacharjea is none other than my dear Mira Masi, youngest sister of my late mother. Doubtless she had more to say on the topic (she usually does, on any topic and specially when it concerns China!). I should talk to her about it.

Now in the same week my cousin sent me this link: that points to the article "Genocide in Tibet, What The World Should Do?" which is described as "J.M. Mukhi's presentation at the Symposium organised by "Federation of Human Rights organisations in India" at a conference hall in Supreme Court, New Delhi on March 28th."

Mr J.M. Mukhi is my very own uncle Jai, younger brother of my late father. He is a very respected Delhi lawyer and I am always impressed by his erudition. While I don't always agree with his political views, here is one occasion when I do, quite strongly. So I am happy to recommend this article (to the few pathetic souls who, having no life worth living, end up reading my blog!).

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Thoughts on food

Back on this blog after about 10 days. I suspect I have no readers, and never had. But so what! At worst this is like keeping a diary.

Today's blog is inspired by a comment by my nephew Karun. He had been to Himachal Pradesh some years ago and passed through Narkanda, near Shimla. I plan on going there myself next month so asked him what it was like. Awesome, he said. The views? I asked. No, the food, he replied. I didn't get around to asking him what kind of food it was, but I can guess. The tastiest dal or rajma, mildly spiced and perfumed with fried onions. Hot chapatis, freshly made. A vegetable on the side, possibly (knowing Karun's tastes) crisp potatoes.

Here was a place that had not heard of "Partridge and butterfly souffle with a sauce of tortured shiitake mushrooms garnished with truffle shavings and embellished with a wild-flower and red wine reduction". (Yes I made that up, but it reads like the menu in many upmarket Mumbai restaurants today.) Nor had they, hopefully, heard of more common Mumbai atrocities like "chicken bharta" (last week's chicken shredded and mixed into a featureless glop with onions, tomatoes, a lifetime supply of oil, ghee and butter, as well as sugar, salt and every spice on the planet.)

So what is it about food? Simplicity, for one thing. We imagine that more is better, but it isn't. Freshness, for another. We think freezing food for a week or a month is OK. It isn't. And finally - integrity. When food means something to the person cooking it, it tastes that much better.

One huge shock to me is that a lot of people don't recognise freshness, or its absence. On more than a dozen occasions I have been at a party where everyone is going "Mmmm! This fried fish is divine!". I've wanted to shout "no it isn't, it's merely ancient, and heavily salted and spiced to conceal the fact!". This does not mean I'm a cynic. There are places (including occasionally my own home) where the fish IS actually fresh and divine.

As for the food having to mean something - more on that next time. It's a theme I'm rather fond of.