Thursday, December 30, 2010

"Select a bus, burn it and make sure the media knows"

A new leak, this time from the tapped phones of Shiv Sena leaders Milind Narvekar and Neelam Gorhe, provides insight into the political strategising of this well-known political party. Planning a demonstration that took place in Pune last Monday, Narvekar told Gorhe:

“200 to 300 people should be deployed. Buses should be destroyed at Shivajinagar bus stand and Swargate bus stand. Destroy five State transport buses. That way traffic will be disturbed. Block the Mumbai Pune express way. Put two buses and two trucks on fire. In Shivajinagar, select a bus, burn it and make sure the media knows about it. But none of this should look orchestrated.”

In common with previous more publicised phone leaks, this does not qualitatively change what is generally known about the people involved, but does give a clearer picture of the callous attitude of our politicians towards public property and public welfare.

It's fairly obvious that the phone conversation was captured and leaked at the behest of the Nationalist Congress Party, which in terms of public behaviour often acts as Shiv Sena's alter ego (their friends the Sambhaji Brigade famously ransacked the Oriental Institute in Pune in 2004 and destroyed priceless manuscripts). The tussle between the Sena and the NCP, hard to follow in its minute details for anyone not clued in to Maharashtrian caste politics, has to do with the relative importance given to Brahmins and Marathas. It's perfectly possible that were the equations reversed and the Sena in power, the NCP or its friends would orchestrate the very same kind of activity described in the quote above. They would however be much more careful about getting caught -- the NCP head Sharad Pawar is a national leader of considerable clout, way ahead of his rivals in the Sena leadership.

What always baffles me is that politicians are able to get away labelling others "anti-national". What could be more anti-national than plotting the deliberate destruction of public property, inevitably involving  the lives of citizens as collateral damage? What, after all, do terrorists do?

On the other side we have Dr Binayak Sen, not accused of having harmed a fly (and widely known to have treated huge numbers of tribals in need of medical aid) sentenced to life imprisonment for carrying letters. While I'm pretty sure a higher court will reduce or eliminate the harsh penalty on Dr Sen, I'm not so sure any court will impose any significant deterrent on the anti-national bus-burners.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Ding Dong Dell

I've had a Dell laptop for a while and I really like it a lot. So when planning for a new desktop at home, I thought of going in for a Dell. They now offer an all-in-one desktop (like the one made famous by Mac) where the CPU is contained in the screen in a single unit, and from the website it seems both powerful and pretty. The 23-inch version, the Inspiron 2310, has an Intel i5 processor and seems to be just what I want.

The Dell India website lists prices for all their products except the all-in-ones, for which it advises the client to call the Dell India toll-free number. Which I did yesterday, and that's when my troubles started. First I got a gent who interrogated me sternly (name? serial number? last three years' tax returns? OK maybe I made up that last bit, but that was the tone of it). Then he asked me to hold, there was a brief spell of bad music and a sultry female voice whispered in my ear "Hello Sunil! This is Meena!!". I'm not making this up. I resisted the temptation to ask her when exactly we got on first-name terms, and got to my point. She didn't note the model number of the PC I was interested in, but simply promised to email me the price list for all Dell laptops and desktops.

When it arrived, the mail did not contain any information about the 2310. So I wrote back to gently point this out. I also gave her the link of the Dell India website where the model is described. This was her reply:

To view the desktops available in india, you need to log on to the website Also the models available with us are mentioned in the excel file.


In other words, she was claiming the machine I was trying to buy did not exist in India! I phoned her and gave her a piece of my mind: my colleague recently bought one of these from Dell India, the website I was consulting was indeed that of Dell India etc. In response to which I got this mail:

Can you please resend the mail containing the desktop details as due to some error in the system, the mail was automatically deleted.

At this point I called Dell again, to ask if I could talk to anyone except Meena. Ended up with a similar interrogation guy who patiently heard my complaint ("I'm trying to buy your product but your employee says it doesn't exist!) and said he would transfer me. Thereafter I got a recorded message saying "Extension 0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0" after which it hung up on me. Back to square one.

At the next attempt I got someone who transferred me to Reena. Who transferred me to Shruti. Shruti told me the 2310 is not marketed directly by Dell but only by Dell retailers. When I started to hyperventilate, she passed me on to Deepa. "Deepa" I shrieked on the phone "do you have brains? Because I can't deal with one more Dell Dodo today. Please." Only, I didn't say any of this out loud.

Turned out, not only does Deepa have brains but she knows everything about the Dell 2310 including the rather arcane fact that it is "same thing as Dell 123 only". And that a consignment came in yesterday from Malaysia and I absolutely must buy one as soon as possible. It will be delivered in 5 days (I still remember the last time I heard that one from Dell India).

While I was musing over this conversation, Deepa called back. "I just want to know what you will use it for". I said I use it for music and video editing, music playback, stuff like that. She was relieved. "You're not going to resell it, are you?". I assured her I would not.

But on second thoughts, maybe I should. Wouldn't you pay double the price just to avoid dealing with Meena, Reena, Shruti, Deepa and three nameless male Nazis?

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Niira Radia finds judiciary's corruption shocking

Of late I find that the mainstream press very selectively decides what the rest of us find out or notice, and most people are simply too busy or lazy to fight that. Probably this has always been the case but with the Niira Radia tapes having tainted established journalists, the press is fighting back in a big way by suppressing everything about the tapes.

So if you, like me, receive the Hindustan Times or similar mindless mainstream publication, you might not have recently heard of retired Justice Vijender Jain. His appointment as Chief Justice of the Punjab and Haryana High Court in 2006 was controversial, with the then President of India A.P.J. Abdul Kalam returning the appointment file after expressing reservations (prompted by dissenting views of other judges). He also brought this case to the attention of the Prime Minister Shri Manmohan Singh. Nevertheless the Collegium responsible for this appointment, comprising Chief Justice Y. K. Sabharwal, Justice K. G. Balakrishnan, and Justice B. N. Agrawal, returned the file reiterating their strong support for Justice Jain's appointment. The President was then constitutionally obliged to sign it.  A nice clear article (The Hindu, December 2006) on the course of events can be found here.

All that was in 2006. Cut to the present, and visit this page in the current (December 27 2010) issue of Outlook magazine. The article features a partial transcript of a conversation between Niira Radia and Sunil Arora, the latter being a former Chairman of Air India and a serving bureaucrat. There is also a link to an mp3 file of the entire conversation, that you can download and hear with your morning tea instead of wasting your time on television. The key moment of the conversation is the statement by Mr Arora " I mean this litigant had paid Rs 9 crore to that high court judge in Delhi", followed at a later point by the revelation of the judge's identity: "Vijender Jain, naam bhi bataa deta hoon" (Vijender Jain, I'll even tell you the name).

Of course this is only Mr Arora's opinion so far, and the country is yet to find out whether the shocking accusation  is true or not. But I personally find Ms Radia's own candid reactions to this revelation fascinating. To the first line she responds "Good God!". Later she says "My God!" (what a religious lady she must be..). But finally on being told the name, she lamely says "Haan, I know".

So for India's most prominent fixer, corruption in the higher judiciary is shocking even though the name of the (allegedly) corrupt judge is no surprise. For me, that says a lot.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Sorry seems to be the hardest word

For a scientist or other academician, minor ethical misconduct is as easy to stumble into as running a red light while driving (go on, pretend you never did that). If you have a collaborator, how can you ever be sure he/she hasn't plagiarised something (maybe just a figure) in the part of the paper that he/she wrote? If you summarise previously published work, as all of us need to do, are you sure you're on the right side of the guidelines on appropriate paraphrasing? And for most people, the hardest of all is to avoid copying their own words from a previous paper. I believe many people don't even try to avoid that, but since copying one's previous paper in toto is illegal, I assume there's some limit to what fraction of it you can copy verbatim.

Now in the course of a few investigations into academic ethics, I've usually found that the initial offence was indeed some form of "minor ethical misconduct". But what was true in almost every case was the response of the person when the misconduct was brought to their notice: cover-up. The end result was that a relatively small offence blew up into a huge one.

Why don't people simply say sorry when caught? Not sure, but I suspect this is a particularly Indian "virtue", and it does have an explanation of a sort. In India, if you admit to a mistake it is seen as a sign of weakness. People simply assume your misdemeanour must be the tip of an iceberg. Admit you unthinkingly ended up with a hundred rupees that someone else deserved, and you'll promptly be accused of swindling a thousand. Or ten thousand. In any case, no one will forgive you after your confession. On the other hand if you issue stout denials for long enough then people start to give up on your case, and if you additionally have a powerful backer who defends you in public then you're more than likely to get away. Except in those rare situations when a serious investigation takes place.

The above point amplifies something I blogged about earlier, in this post. And of course it is widespread far beyond the ambit of academic ethics. Look at Barkha Dutt and Vir Sanghvi. Neither said "I accept a journalist should not be a conduit for the affairs of a political party. While I'm within my rights to like a particular party, acting like a party member - as I did - amounts to conflict of interest and is journalistic malpractice. I apologise."

Either of them is free to take the above draft apology from my blog (with due attribution!) and sign it. But they've instead taken the brazen route, like the politicians and industrialists before them. As Elton John put it so well: "It's a sad, sad situation. And it's getting more and more absurd."

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Taking away my toys

When little children quarrel, things often end with one or both of them picking up their toys and going away. The friends of each little squabbler will leave along with him/her, loyalty being less of a principle than their desire to have continued access to the toys.

In what seems to me a new low in international diplomacy, a major Asian country whose name I won't reveal here (hint: it executes more people per year than the rest of the world combined, as per Amartya Sen) has decided to walk out of the forthcoming Nobel Peace Prize ceremony, referring to the rival gang of kids as "clowns". It has taken with itself most of its friends -- who realise clearly that if they don't go along, they may never get to play with those wonderful toys again.

The list of friends is amusing to browse: Russia, Kazakhstan, Colombia, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Serbia, Iraq, Iran, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Venezuela, the Philippines, Egypt, Sudan, Ukraine, Cuba and Morocco. How can the poor Norwegians run a credible peace prize ceremony in the absence of so many respected supporters of human rights, freedom and dignity!

For once I felt a patriotic thrill on reading Nobel Committee secretary Mr Lundestad's statement that " `important' countries such as India, South Africa, Brazil and Indonesia" would attend. All of these countries do have their own human rights issues, but given their constitutions, history and present leaders they can play a key constructive role in the struggle for human rights, a defining struggle of the 21st century.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

I wish I had written that

Once in a while one reads an article and feels "Oh, I wish I had written that". Well here's a nice example. Browsing the blogosphere for articles by/about P. Sainath, the very respected commentator on India's social problems, I found:

"P Sainath and Arundhati Roy – Why Is One The Nation’s Conscience, The Other The Bane?"

This article answers the question to my satisfaction. I'm glad that's out of the way, for me at least.

P.S.  Rahul Siddharthan has written about Ms Roy on similar lines in this posting.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

NDTV Bad Times

For the last couple of weeks I've been rather busy finishing a longish review article on String Theory. Anyway I don't watch much TV, but when I do it's usually NDTV 24x7. And I read a newspaper, but only the one that gets delivered to my house which, thanks to some coupon scheme that I accepted without thinking, is the Hindustan Times.

Given that these were my main news sources it's no wonder that I recently ended up on Mars, sort of. The Wikileaks revelations went on day and night, as I learned from NDTV, HT and occasional glances at Yahoo! News, and I even found a few minutes to surf the net and blog about this topic over the last couple of days. But NDTV and HT simply did not do a complete story on the ongoing Indian Leak Mela.

I kept coming across mentions of a certain Niira Radia, but I didn't find time to sit down and figure out what exactly was going on with her. Then I learned that Ratan Tata had filed a case against the release of some tapes, which made me realise there must be some tapes. Next, I read Vir Sanghvi in last Sunday's HT ineptly defending himself against something. But what? Then yesterday Barkha Dutt on NDTV, while talking about Wikileaks, kept grinning foolishly and saying "ask me what it's like!!" What on earth did she mean?

Silly me. Yesterday I finished writing my article and this evening landed back from Mars and went on the internet to find out what was going on. In the process I snooped on several conversations that were intended to be private. You can snoop too, and I think you actually should. If you are worried about journalistic ethics, there's this article by Manu Joseph and this article by Hartosh Singh Bal, both on the website of Open Magazine, that argue eloquently why (i) these conversations deserve to be heard, and (ii) the Indian press has shamed itself by mostly suppressing the story. If you're convinced you have the moral right, and the bandwidth, then click on the audio links, or better move to Outlook Magazine's page on the 2G tapes which seems faster to me and offers mp3 files to download.

What emerges, for me, are two main points: (i) there was intense negotiation and lobbying between the Congress and the DMK after the 2009 elections, mostly about the latter party's desire for cabinet posts and ministerships, one of which involved a certain A. Raja becoming (again) the minister for telecommunications, (ii) some of the negotiations were conducted through Barkha Dutt (NDTV) and Vir Sanghvi (Hindustan Times). Point (ii) seems to explain why my main media outlets censored the whole story and I effectively remained on Mars all these days.

Now point (i) emerges as slightly unremarkable. Obviously there were negotiations, but what do we learn from snooping on them? To paraphrase something I quoted in my recent blog posting Leak Soup:

Karunanidhi is deaf! Alagiri is domineering! Kanimozhi is soft-spoken but persuasive! A. Raja was desperate to get telecom! The powerful lobbyist Niira Radia, employed by Tatas, Ambanis and DMK alike, is well-connected, pushy and slightly crude!

Big deal. No news here, I believe.

On the other hand two people whom I feel I know, Barkha Dutt and Vir Sanghvi, stand exposed. I don't feel very sorry for Sanghvi, whose writing I always found quite superficial and self-gratifying. But I was an admirer of Barkha and I'm frankly shocked by what I heard. For me hearing is believing -- and it's reasonably apparent to me that the tapes are not doctored, that Barkha and Vir said everything they said and did everything they said they did.

The two journalists come out with some very damning quotes. Barkha to Niira Radia: "Oh God. So now what? What should I tell them? Tell me what should I tell them?" (referring to what the DMK, through Radia, wants Barkha to tell the Congress party leadership). Later Barkha says "everybody I know in the Congress was at the swearing in, so I haven’t been able to speak with the top guys, and now I just finished and I am going to make my set of calls.". So despite appearing to be an objective, unbiased journalist whom we all see on TV, she was actually behaving like a Congress party member. If the Hindutva brigade is after her now, she has only herself to blame.

Vir Sanghvi comes off worse. He appears in two sets of conversations, one about the tussle between Mukesh and Anil Ambani over natural gas, and the other inevitably about A. Raja. About Mukesh Ambani, Sanghvi says to Radia: "What kind of story do you want? Because this will go as Counterpoint, so it will be like most-most read, but it can’t seem too slanted, yet it is an ideal opportunity to get all the points across." About an interview that Ms Radia wants him to do of Mr Ambani, Sanghvi agrees that "it has to be fully scripted. I have to come in and do a run through with him before." And at some point Ms Radia tells him "I mean you’ll have to attack the judge here because the judge has, what he’s done, he’s given preference to an MoU." On the Congress-DMK matter Sanghvi indicates he "was supposed to meet Sonia today, but I’ve been stuck here. So, now it’s becoming tomorrow."

Mr Sanghvi's claim that he was saying all this just to extract information and that he never intended to write about the Ambani issue as he was being told to, or pass on requests from the DMK to the Congress leadership, is hogwash. To be convinced of that you do need to listen to the audio and not just read the transcript. You can also read Hartosh Singh Bal's article to which I linked above. It carefully analyses Sanghvi's Counterpoint column that appeared just after he promised Ms Radia what he would write, and correlates the two things. The final nail in the coffin is a taped conversation between Ms Radia and her colleague where they celebrate that Mr Sanghvi wrote exactly what they had told him to.

The mighty have fallen. Barkha Dutt and Vir Sanghvi will never be the same again for me. On the other hand, as I indicated above, the Congress and even the DMK don't come out particularly damaged. They are doing what political parties always do, it's not pretty and in fact it's quite squalid, but the main point is we always knew that.

Surely you're joking, Mr Flanagan

Tom Flanagan, a senior advisor and strategist to the Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, said yesterday of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange: "I think Assange should be assassinated actually". He went on to say: "we should put out a contract and maybe use a drone or something". You can, and should, watch this on YouTube.

Of course he smiled when he said it, so it was probably a joke. But he refused to retract when offered a chance, saying instead "I'm feeling very manly today". Good to know that assassination threats come naturally to men.

I may not be the only one to notice the comparison, but a certain Vikram Buddhi is in a U.S. jail for the last four years for having allegedly issued death threats to George W. Bush (and others) on a website. Because it was a posting and not an interview, we don't know if Buddhi smiled (pun unintended) while writing it. But it's no one's case that he had any intention to cause harm, and the charges appear to be only about the threats.

The question is whether the state of Canada will offer Flanagan accommodation similar to that which the US has provided to Buddhi. Or will Flanagan be pardoned because it was only a joke and he's just a regular (manly) guy....?

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Leak soup

Recently I began to wonder why I've so drastically reduced my blogging. There seem to be two reasons. One is that many of the events on my mind are related to committees and other activities in which I'm required to observe confidentiality. The second is that a lot of my blogs express frustration about the way society is, but of late I've started to realise that frustration is harmful to one's own peace of mind. This is an issue I want to analyse for a while (why does one feel frustration or anger? what is anger really??).

But back to confidentiality. These are not the best of times for people who want their communications to be kept a secret. Wikileaks has published an extensive collection of cables sent by the US to various countries. According to the website, "Publishing improves transparency, and this transparency creates a better society for all people. Better scrutiny leads to reduced corruption and stronger democracies in all society's institutions, including government, corporations and other organisations." Sounds good to me! But not, evidently, to Sen. Joseph Lieberman (Conn.) who wants to shut down the website, nor to Rep. Peter King (N.Y.) who wants it declared a terrorist organization.

Mikkel Fishman writing in The Moderate Voice observes that there hasn't really been any earthshaking revelation from the recent spate of leaked cables, which have merely confirmed what we already know:

"President Sarkozy is thin skinned! PM Berlusconi is vain! The US is worried about Islamism rising in Turkey! Pakistan has a poor handling on its nuclear technology! Iran has been working with North Korea on missile technology! The US actually pressured Canada not to make a fuss about kidnapping and torturing one of its citizens that wasn’t actually a terrorist, and tried to get its CIA agents in another case to be let go! Did you know that the Queen is more respected than Prince Charles?"

This suggests the leaks will not have the claimed effect of damaging diplomatic relations between countries. BTW it is reported that Berlusconi laughed when he read them (but I'm sure Sarkozy didn't!!).

In short, the leaks may be embarrassing but hardly the stuff to bring the world as we know it down. Reading some of them, I feel I'm watching a reality show with Hilary Clinton, the Saudi royal family and Pakistan's ISI in the same house. Which actually brings me to my point: while I don't see much potential for harm in these leaks, I don't see much good coming out of them either. Are they going to make us question our prejudices, or our selfishness, or our futile quests for power (where by "us" I mean the human race)? Not really. Seeing the participants of a reality show clawing at each other physically and verbally hasn't made anyone less prone to similar violence against those who challenge them, as far as I know. The press and free-speech advocates (I count myself among the latter) are, for different reasons, having quite a ball. But just because it's fun doesn't really make it the major social change the world so desperately needs.

All this reminds me of Bertrand Russell's observation:

If we were all given by magic the power to read each other's thoughts, I suppose the first effect would be to dissolve all friendships.

I can't find on the web what Russell went on to say, but I remember reading it in his book long ago. His point is that after the "first effect" of dissolving friendships, the transparency of our thoughts to each other would re-make friendships in a better mould. We could not hide secrets, therefore there would be no mutual suspicion or doubt. Everything would be out there in the open. It would create a different and, he thought, better society.

If as it seems the Wikileaks cables have not damaged diplomatic relations then Russell is already wrong on point one. I would have hoped for him to be right, because then we could have looked forward to his second prediction coming true.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Crime and punishment

The last month on India's political front has been dominated by scams: the Commonwealth Games, the Adarsh building scam and the telecommunications scam. These have brought about the short-term political demise of Messrs Kalmadi, Ashok Chavan and A. Raja respectively.

For a variety of reasons, I've spent some time recently reflecting on (and discussing with friends) the nature of wrongdoing and the purpose of punishment. The more I learn about the subject, the less comfortable I feel with the way we as a nation pursue allegations like the ones above. Let me try to list my reasons for discomfort.

(i) The press and public are pre-convinced of the guilt of the concerned parties in each of the cases. But, while there are specific and serious allegations in all the cases, there hasn't yet been a complete investigation of any of them. By the time this happens, a lot of people (and the media) will have lost interest.

(ii) In each case the concerned persons are out of office pending investigation. This would be a good thing if it conveyed the principle that a tainted official should voluntarily step aside till their name can be cleared, or otherwise. But none of the persons here were dismissed voluntarily. And even if their guilt is totally established in the future, it's possible - quite likely, in fact - that they will simply be kept out of the limelight for a while and then slowly rehabilitated.

(iii) In each of the cases, not only is guilt apparently "established" by the press and the public, but the presumed degree of guilt appears to be infinite, and therefore essentially on the same footing for all three persons. The slogan of the middle-class is that all politicians are utterly and irredeemably corrupt without limit.

The third point is my greatest source of discomfort. It is childish and ultimately self-defeating for us to clamber on the bandwagon of "all politicians are corrupt". There always have been some who are honest and upright, shouldn't we actually be highlighting them? As for the corrupt ones, this is a democracy and we have elected our politicians - so how did they get to be the way they are? It wouldn't have anything to do with us being the way we are, by any chance?

Some people will tell you it is the poor and uneducated who elect corrupt politicians, so the middle-class isn't to blame. Others will tell you corruption is really a politician-businessman nexus. Yet others will insist the blame devolves on the bureaucrats or "babus". In all these views, whoever is responsible for corruption, it isn't the middle class (which makes me suspect we could have found the culprit).

Now suppose M/s Kalmadi, Chavan and Raja in fact turn out to be guilty as charged. How effective will the current handling of their cases be in deterring others? Ashok Chavan may be no genius and seems totally lacking in the kind of imagination required to run a major state like Maharashtra. But his reputation has consistently been that of a reasonably honest and sincere Chief Minister, in a similar category as Sushil Kumar Shinde and in a totally different league from other predecessors like A.R. Antulay or Narayan Rane. If Chavan is guilty in the Adarsh scandal, all he's probably done is put in a word for a couple of his relatives to get a flat they don't deserve (something most middle-class Indians believe is the right thing to do). Admittedly this is far far below the standards required of a Chief Minister or indeed any politician. But it's not on par with having murder charges against you or being convicted of extortion. People with the latter charges pending or proven against them were, like Chavan, once shunted out of the way for a while but today they are still around as members in good standing of the ruling party.

So this is what really happens if you treat all politicians as equally (infinitely) corrupt: someone who commits murder or extortion and someone who puts in a word for their relatives is in the same boat. The action taken against them ends up being exactly the same, and over the person's life-time its impact is more symbolic than real.

This is not, I feel, a good message. It's up to us to find a more effective approach if we are to recover a lost moral compass. Such an approach will require us to believe there are both corrupt and non-corrupt politicians. Then we can try to define the degree of political punishment appropriate for the former class in proportion to the actual crime. It's not as easy as screaming for someone to be dismissed as soon as NDTV decides they should be, but it would be more correct and useful.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Karma Yoga

Yesterday's newspapers carried the news that religious leaders in Ayodhya were planning to felicitate Justice Dharam Veer Sharma, retired judge of the Allahabad High Court, for his "historic verdict in favour of the Ram temple".

This led me to wonder. Hypothetically, if a judge on his last day of office were to deliver a resounding verdict in favour of a large corporation such as Vedanta or Monsanto, and if this corporation were to honour him for his historic verdict in their favour, I don't think it would look very nice. To be fair the corporation could do what it wanted but it would be the judge's responsibility to at least decline the invitation. He may also want to play down the very unpleasant suggestion that the verdict was correlated with pleasing one of the parties.

But of course religion is not business. Well... actually the Vatican has been involved in its share of financial scandals, so I probably meant to say that the Hindu religion is not business. And yet... this too leaves me with nagging doubts. As I write, I'm in the historic temple town of Puri, known for its legendary Jagannath temple. As a good Hindu I visited it some years ago and derived great spiritual joy and inspiration by viewing the idol of Lord Jagannath. But for me to get far enough to see the idol, a friend from this state who was accompanying me had to fight off a bunch of rapacious priests who had their eyes firmly on my money. Their aggression was quite frightening and I had briefly wondered if they would beat me up for making an unpaid visit.

So on this visit to Puri I decided to skip the temple. But wouldn't you know it, it's just landed squarely in the news. Today's newspaper carries the headline: "Priests fight at Jagannath Temple over donations". Apparently they ended up in a scuffle over who had rights to the money contributed by devotees. Thereafter, one of them gave the other one a bloody nose. Of course the spilt blood was promptly washed off and the temple ritually purified thereafter. So all is now well, or shall we say it's "business as usual"?

Friday, October 1, 2010

My father's voice

One dark night in 1975, Indira Gandhi imposed a state of Emergency in India, arrested opposition leaders and censored the press. The next morning I awoke to find my father, censored newspaper in hand, telling my mother: "this is a very bad thing to have happened". My father was not given to understatement nor lacking in eloquence, so he must have been very upset at that moment to say so little and in such weak tones.

The events that unfolded, however, soon gave him back his booming voice. He was then a judge of the High Court at Bombay and he began to discover with a sinking feeling that his brother judges were taking rather divergent stances on the Emergency. An entire faction slowly began to describe themselves as "committed judges" -- committed to Mrs Gandhi and willing to adapt their judicial views to her mercurial whims. Another group, not so much a faction as a bunch of stubborn individuals (including my father naturally) dissociated itself from "commitment" and believed it was their duty to uphold the rule of law. A turning point came when one of my father's closest friends in the judiciary told him in sibilant tones "you must learn to bend with the times". My father was the kind who might break but would not bend. In the end he passed away just over a year later from a series of heart attacks. The betrayal of his best friend may have been a critical blow.

While it's a pity that he thereby missed the lifting of the Emergency and the restoration of democracy and the rule of law, he also missed some of our more egregious lurches as a nation later on. I missed his thoughtful and logical presence in 1992 when a huge fraction of "committed" middle-class people flirted with theocracy in the aftermath of the Babri Masjid demolition. And today I feel sorry that he isn't sitting here, newspaper in hand, to opine about yesterday's judgement on the civil aspects of the land dispute in this case.

My father believed strictly in the rule of law, but always tried to apply it with a human face. On more than one occasion he strongly defended powerless individuals against mighty faceless giants, notably the government, but would make sure that his judgements were consistent with the letter and spirit of the law. He also detested obscurantism in any form. Yesterday's judgement might therefore have induced his razor-sharp mind to ask the following questions. Should an aggressive action lead to benefit for the aggressor in the form of a compromise? Are religious groupings the appropriate beneficiaries of a title suit when public interest is involved? And can the law opine on the birthplace of a god?

I'm not going to guess his answers on the first two questions, where complex legal issues might be involved (and a criminal case is still pending). But on the last question, I have a hunch about his reaction. The opinion of one of the judges yesterday (his last judicial action before retiring) was stated in these timeless words:

“the disputed site is the birthplace of Lord Ram. Place of birth is a juristic person and is a deity. It is personified as the spirit of divine worshipped as [the] birthplace of Lord Rama as a child. Spirit of divine ever remains present everywhere at all times for any one to invoke in any shape or form in accordance with his own aspirations and it can be shapeless and formless also.”

Even though poor grammar depressed him terribly, my guess is that my father would not have wept into his morning tea. It was poor logic that invariably infuriated him, so I believe he would have thumped his own head and shouted "Oh my God!".

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Sarod parity

Yesterday my friend Viplav came over to, as usual, exchange recordings of Hindustani music and chat about music. At some point he pulled out my copy of Raghu Rai's awesome photo collection "India's Great Masters" (you can -- and certainly should -- buy this book at your nearest bookshop or order it here). Flipping through it we came across a picture of the sarod maestro Allauddin Khan, father of the more widely known sarod player Ali Akbar Khan and teacher of (among others) the even more widely known sitarist Ravi Shankar. Viplav pointed out that Allauddin Khan was left-handed and therefore held his sarod with the gourd on his left side, which looks rather unusual once you notice it. I found this mildly amusing.

Now today I took a longish local train journey to the suburb of Vasai and carried with me a fascinating book called "The Lost World of Hindustani Music" by Kumar Prasad Mukherji, which deserves a blog article all on its own. While reading it on the train I came across a photo of Allauddin Khan and he was holding his sarod in the standard right-handed orientation! Quite a surprise. A closer look revealed that the disciples he was teaching (Ali Akbar and Ravi Shankar) appeared, instead, to be left-handed. Then the light dawned: the printer of the book had obviously inverted the negative! One imagines the late Kumar Prasad Mukherji, a fussy Bengali if ever there was one, would have been furious.

Now while all this was going on, a passenger boarded this train and sat down facing me. I was engrossed in my book but noticed that this person's fingers were playing "air tabla" on his knees, and quite professionally. I guessed he was a tabalchi (tabla player) though he looked more like a businessman. Evidently he in turn noticed my book because he soon leaned forward, pointed to the photo and asked "do you know what's special about this person?" I looked at him with cool confidence and said "he's left-handed". A rare pleasure when life actually hands you the answer just before it asks you the question!

My fellow passenger survived this tragic deflation and entertained me with conversation about tabla-playing all the way to my destination. By the way he turned out to be both a tabalchi and a businessman.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Bloodgate and other kinds of self-injury

Recently a news item about a British doctor called Wendy Chapman came to my attention. This led me to discover the full story of "Bloodgate", a sports scandal in the UK. I'll briefly repeat it here because most people I've talked to in India have never heard about it (and nor had I). The full story is here.

The English rugby team Harlequins was playing against the Irish team Leinster in April 2009. A Harlequins player, Tom Williams, came off the field with blood streaming down his face in the last ten minutes of the game. Due to his injury, he was substituted by a fresh player. Only, it later turned out he wasn't injured at all. He had deliberately bitten a blood capsule (which he pulled out from his stocking where it was concealed, and put in his mouth) so that he could be sent off and a substitute put in his place, who might have a better chance of scoring in the last few minutes by virtue of not being exhausted.

On investigation, a number of skeletons tumbled out. This wasn't the first time Williams was doing this, only the first time he got caught. He had previously managed to get away with it four times. It then turned out that the Director of Rugby of the club, Dean Richards, had orchestrated the subterfuge and the club's physiotherapist Steph Brennan supplied the blood capsule to the player. Charles Jillings has had to resign as chairman of the Harlequins over accusations that he tried to cover up what happened, and Mark Evans, its chief executive, has also been accused of a part in the cover-up. Finally, and perhaps most shocking of all, Wendy Chapman, the team's doctor, was recently found guilty of having actually cut the lip of the player after he went off the field, to sustain his deception.

You'd think that after all this there would be punishments and recriminations all round, but no. Dr Chapman has been let off with a warning (remarkably her recent history of depression was upheld as a valid excuse for her action). The player Williams received a 12-month ban on playing which was later reduced to 4 months because he came clean. And Mark Evans came out with this astonishing piece of spin: "You would be incredibly naive to think (the Bloodgate stigma) will ever disappear completely. Things like that don't. They become part of history and, like good or bad seasons, are woven into the fabric of any club." In other words, things like this just happen.

Now I'll ask all my readers from the subcontinent the following question. Which one of Williams, Richards, Brennan, Jillings, Evans and Chapman is Pakistani? Or Indian? Or Bangladeshi? Hint: a very small number of them, namely zero. These are all true-blue Brits. They attempted to deceive in the ugliest way and most of them continue to spin the matter in every way except to admit it was a shame and a disgrace. (Wendy Chapman says she was "horrified" that she lied about the incident to the European Rugby Cup which carried out an earlier investigation. Horrified? We are horrified at what others do. Ashamed would be a somewhat better word for what we ourselves do).

And here's my point. From the above story we see that appalling scandals do take place in the British sports world, not necessarily involving a single subcontinental darkie, and the people concerned both get off lightly and spin the events by suggesting that they "just happen". But when it comes to the subcontinent, we indulge in a different kind of self-injury altogether. Three Pakistani players and a Croydon-born bookie of Pakistani origin indulge in spot-fixing and suddenly it's in our culture, our DNA even! Both Pakistanis and Indians (in a rare show of unity) seem almost delighted and falling over themselves to enjoy being tainted by this scandal.

An outpouring of incredible silliness by Sagarika Ghose in today's Hindustan Times, which you can read here, tells us breathlessly that "several cricketers have expressed the belief that dishonesty exists not just in Pakistan cricket, but in the very DNA of the subcontinent" and goes on to add "Ricky Ponting believes that the values of cricket are simply not upheld in certain cultures". She then goes on to extend the evidence of our tainted culture by appealing to the Commonwealth Games etc etc and having established a grand unified theory of subcontinental corruption, appeals to our worthy Prime Minister to slam the most corrupt people of our nation in a theatrical public event that will go down in history.

In case anyone is planning to misunderstand my point, it isn't that we should be soft on ourselves or complacent about any form of corruption. And it certainly isn't that we should try to put a positive spin on our scandals as the British rugby people did with theirs. My point is just that we need to respond to scandals with less of a propensity to self-hatred and self-injury. We should show more self-confidence and a far far better sense of balance and proportion. Corruption is bad wherever it happens, and it should be dealt with firmly, but please don't reach out and paint your own face and mine and that of entire countries and cultures with it. We need not accept the kind of rubbish that Ricky Ponting is supposed to have said (assuming he did say it), and still less should we, like Ms Ghose, get carried away with the delicious feeling of how bad we all are.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010


I wonder if the monsoon particularly brings out the confused state of English in our land. This morning's Hindustan Times (or yesterday's DNA, I forget which) carried a picture of a lake that "overflew"!

But the prize goes to the Indian Meteorology Department, whose Monsoon Watch page informs us that "Significant amounts of rainfall (1 cm or more) during past 24 hours ending at 0830 hours IST are enclosed".

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Great Mathematics Bazaar II: Music lectures

It came as an enormous (and pleasant) surprise when Prof. Raghunathan asked me, nearly a year ago, whether I would be willing to give a lecture or two on Indian classical music appreciation at the ICM. The idea would be to present some aspects of Indian culture to the participants, specially those from outside India, and to prepare them to some extent for the planned live concert. Accordingly I gave two lectures, one on Sunday August 22 and the second on Tuesday August 24. The vocal concert by Ustad Rashid Khan took place on August 25.

During my first lecture the sound and video (files embedded in my powerpoint presentation) worked well, and speaking in Hall 2 was a thrill since it was there that Vishwanathan Anand, a couple of days later, played simultaneous chess against 40 participants (apparently unmoved by the gratuitous questions about his Indian-ness or lack thereof).

The second lecture was held in the infinitely larger Hall 4, and like everything conducted there, was videotaped. Hall 4 was even more of a thrill given that I was on the stage where the President of India and the Fields medallists had stood a few days earlier, but for me the thrill quickly evaporated when the sound failed to work and some time was wasted getting things in order. The video of this session can be viewed by going to this page and selecting Part 3 under "24th Aug 10 Time 15:00 – 18:00 /Hall4" or you can download this flv file. Unfortunately due to the sound problem, by the end of an hour I was only 45 minutes into the talk. Since the video was programmed for an hour, it failed to capture the last 20 minutes (in which incidentally Pandit Kumar Gandharva features twice).

Now about the content of the talks. I was asked by the press unit there (= R. Ramachandran, better known as "Bajji") to send a writeup for the ICM daily newsletter, so I might as well reproduce that here.

Titled "A Mathematician's Guide to Hindustani Classical Music", this pair of talks on the musical tradition of North India has been put together specially for the ICM. The first talk presented a brief history of Indian music, which has its roots in religious chanting from Vedic times around 5000 BCE. The textbook "Natya Shastra " by Bharata, the basis for the Bharata Natyam dance form presented at the ICM on Friday, has some reference to this music, and more details including an embryonic concept of raga appear in Matanga's Brihaddeshi in the 8th century. By around the 11th century Persian and Arabic influences started to enrich the music and around this time the North and South Indian streams of music began to diverge. The present lectures focus exclusively on the North Indian or "Hindustani" tradition, which will be presented at the ICM in a live concert by Ustad Rashid Khan on Wednesday.

The nature of Hindustani music evolved during the 12th to 18th centuries, partly in response to the Bhakti movement in Hinduism, in which participatory and devotional love for the divine being (rather than formal worship of God as an idealised entity) became the principal theme. Another contributing factor was the patronage of the Mughal emperors. By the 18th century the "khayal" form of music was established. It remains an oral tradition even today, despite many books and treatises on the subject, some of which have established a rudimentary notation.

In the first of these talks, the notion of raga is introduced by playing short clips of pairs of performances, by different musicians, of the same raga. The common features between the members of a pair serve to illuminate the concept of the raga, even to a complete novice. A definition can then be built up through a series of successive approximations. In its barest form, a raga is a set of notes selected from the 12 notes of the musical scale. But then these notes must be combined into patterns following certain rules. One can emulate the definition of a topological space in mathematics by saying that a raga R={S,U,T} is a subset S of notes from the musical scale together with a collection U of subsets of S and a set T of rules for combining elements of U! But art is not mathematics, so we need to add an aesthetics clause: the rules for combination must give rise to desirable results and create an appropriate mood. It is this mood that lies at the heart of a raga, which some authors consider to be a "living entity" rather than a mere combination of proportions and form. Parallel to raga, the concept of tala (rhythm) is briefly developed.

In the second talk the notion of "gharanas" or schools of music is briefly introduced (parallels with mathematics are quite strong!) and video clips used to illustrate some of the instruments and show how they are played. This is followed by a description of the structure of a typical performance, the different types of movements (introductory, slow and fast) and the complementary role of compositions and variations. The bulk of the talk consists of audio and video clips of performances by some of the leading musicians of India (many of them sadly no more) illustrating different segments and features of a performance. In selected cases the lyrics and their significance are highlighted. The association of ragas with times of day and seasons is also briefly discussed. The talk closes with a short outline of the "lighter" forms: thumri, tappa and bhajan that are usually performed towards the end of a concert.

Monday, August 30, 2010

The Great Mathematics Bazaar

I haven't blogged in exactly two months, the longest hiatus since I started. Not sure why. Now (under pressure from my brother!) I'm giving it another shot.

I just got back from the International Congress of Mathematicians at Hyderabad. That should give me plenty to write about! It's a long conference, all of 4+4 days with a day's break in between. And it's an enormous conference -- somewhere between 3000-4000 participants. It takes place once in four years and covers "all" areas of mathematics.

First the academics. Four young (under-40 is the rule) mathematicians received the prestigious Fields Medal. It was quite a thrill to be present as the medals were announced, and the awardees came on stage to receive them from the diminutive President of India, Her Excellency Smt. Pratibha Patil, shimmering in an exquisite silk sari. With each medal, a tug-of-war ensued as the recipient tried to take it from her hands, but she grimly held on to it and gestured with her head that they should face the camera! Only after the photo-op did she allow herself an impish smile and relinquish the medal to the winner.

There were other awards including the Chern, Gauss and Nevanlinna prizes.

The awards ceremony was followed by laudatory talks, by (who else) laudators, specially chosen, each of whom lectured on the work of an awardee. Unfortunately for the most part they were marred by (i) poor transparencies in microscopic fonts, (ii) halting and uncertain accounts of the work, (iii) super-technical accounts lacking in the big picture, (iv) all of the above. Later, however, the medallists themselves gave talks on their own work (every day after lunch) and these were by and large superb. Vietnamese Ngo Bau-Chau (I'm missing half a dozen accent marks that belong to his name) and Israeli Elon Lindenstrauss won the award for work that was "purely mathematical" in nature. But the work of the other two: Stas Smirnov, a Russian working in France, and Frenchman Cedric Villani -- the latter wearing fashionably long hair and what appeared to be a bouquet of red silk ribbons on the front of his shirt -- was motivated by rather straightforward problems in physics.

To get to the latter first: Villani studied the rate of increase of entropy and the approach to equilibrium predicted by the Boltzmann equation. He also illuminated the phenomenon of Landau damping and studied optimal transport theory. The last one is described as follows in the nicely written work profile that you can find here: "Suppose you have a bunch of mines and a bunch of factories, in different locations, with varying costs to move the ore from each particular mine to each particular factory. What is the cheapest way to transport the ore?" I find it wonderful that the highest level of mathematics today still deals with problems that are relatively simple to state.

Stas Smirnov proved the existence of the continuum limit of certain lattice models (models of systems like magnets where microscopic spins sit at each site of a discrete lattice and interact with their neighbours). Physicists of course use such a limit all the time without having any proof that it is rigorously defined. Smirnov spoke very engagingly about it and I felt I understood very clearly (at the time) what it was he had done, though not in any detail how exactly he had done it.

The work of Lindenstrauss too seemed fairly accessible at least in its motivations. Ergodic theory, the study of how dynamical systems do - or don't - go everywhere eventually, originates in celestial mechanics. Number theory deals, among other things, with how many integer solutions there are to a given polynomial equation or inequality. In finding a connection between the two branches of mathematics, he made major progress on Littlewood's conjecture: on how a pair of irrational numbers can be approximated by fractions in a correlated way.

That leaves only Ngo, whose work on the Fundamental Lemma of Langlands remained rather obscure to me despite his valiant attempts. I can only say here that the Langlands programme attempts to relate automorphic forms and number theory among a wide canvas of interconnections, and that Ngo proved what Langlands had thought would be a simple result (hence the name "Lemma") that turned out to defy attempts for decades.

Since this is getting rather long I shall end this instalment here. To make the next one interesting let me mention that I gave two invited talks at the ICM (and I have an "Invited Speaker" badge to prove it!). But they were not about mathematics, nor even physics. More on that soon.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Waka Waka

The comedian Dave Barry once wrote about the difference between men and women in the following terms (I'm recalling this from memory so it's not an exact quote). When two men bump into each other by accident on the street, the result is this:

Man A: Watch where you're going!
Man B: No, YOU watch where you're going!
Man A: Oh yeah?
Man B: Oh yeah. I'll teach you.
(they fight)

In contrast when two women bump into each other, it goes like this:

Woman A: I'm sorry!
Woman B: No, I'm sorry, it was my fault.
Woman A: What nice shoes!
Woman B: I got them on sale.
(they go shopping together)

As a paradigm of competitive vs cooperative behaviour this is unbeatable. Somehow it came to my mind yesterday when I happened to see the amazing video of Shakira and the South African band Freshlyground performing the FIFA theme song "Waka Waka". It opens with a goalie gearing up and facing a penalty shot, then cutting to Shakira in a grass skirt, looking fresh and vivacious and singing the song with four African women dancing alongside. Then it goes back and forth between scenes of men colliding, stressing, shouting and weeping over football, and women joyously dancing together to this delicious rhythm.

I wondered why they didn't just drop the football scenes and have everybody dance instead. So much more cooperative! Imagine if instead of football championships they had huge festivals (in places like South Africa) where everyone would dance and sing together. I'm sure a lot of people would love the idea -- but of course, men wouldn't settle for it.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The worst of American and Indian cultures

The recent judgement on the Bhopal gas disaster saddened many people including myself greatly. This disaster occurred during my first year in TIFR so its tragic aftermath has been a sort of constant through my entire career. Like so many other people, and mostly following the lead of the press, I've given it some attention in brief spurts but it's dropped off the radar for the rest of the time. Now the judgement has brought the issue back to centre-stage. Unfortunately it will fade again from the press and then from the lives of the rest of us who are not directly affected nor courageous enough to be activists.

Still I feel a few points are worth commenting on. First of all the judgement three days ago is merely the foregone conclusion of a trial for criminal negligence whose maximum sentence was two years. So the judgement can hardly be termed a "disappointment", given that this maximum sentence was handed out to all the accused. Now the reason for this low maximum sentence appears to be a 1996 decision of the Supreme Court that this case involved criminal negligence and not culpable homicide. This decision was based on their understanding of the law and without being a legal expert, I don't know how I can question it. Note that they did not "reduce the sentence" as is implied in current discussions, but merely stated what are -- and are not -- the valid charges.

The key question in this case, which no one seems to be asking, is why is two years the maximum sentence for criminal negligence? (when 7 years is the maximum penalty for eve-teasing!). It seems that the courts may be taking the rap for a failure by the law-makers. Other failures by the law-makers are of course quite visible in this case. Warren Anderson's quick repatriation in 1984 seems an obvious case of collusion and strongly suggests the Indian government at that time was anxious not to displease the US government, while the latter was anxious not to have its corporate honcho in a foreign (or domestic) jail whatever he might have done. The recent judgement eloquently blames "the synergy of the very worst of American and Indian cultures" and I couldn't agree more.

But all the talk today is about punishment. Despite its valuable role as a deterrent for the future, what possible benefit can punishment bring to victims who have lost their dear ones and their own health? Focusing excessively on this, it seems to me, results in a loss of focus on the one thing that even at this stage can help the sufferers: compensation. This issue was fundamentally lost over a decade ago when in 1989 the Indian government settled for a mere 470 million dollars in compensation from Union Carbide (compared with 350 million that Union Carbide offered on their own, and 3 billion that the Indian government claimed in its lawsuit). Why did they accept such a compromise? I don't know, but one can hardly blame the courts for it. What can be done today? Again I don't know, but baying for the offenders heads seems to be a distraction from this key issue.

There's one more relevant matter that's getting a minor fraction of the press coverage: cleaning up the site, from which contaminants are still leaking into the soil of Bhopal. Let's hope today's governments in both countries are stung by the judge's remark about "the worst of American and Indian cultures" and will effectively rehabilitate the site.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Boat attacks helicopters

A newspaper magnate once said that "dog bites man" isn't newsworthy, but "man bites dog" -- that is news. We now have a similar situation in the brutal world of peace activism.

The New York Times (ever the beacon of responsible journalism) has raised a subtle point about the recent struggle on board the Mavi Marmara, a ship carrying humanitarian aid for the besieged people of the Gaza strip. In a recent article a certain Brian Stelter suggests that it is difficult to determine who was the aggressor in this conflict. The article in question starts "When Israeli commandos attacked the so-called Freedom Flotilla...", which appears to resolve the issue, but spin-doctoring must be hard work and evidently Mr Stelter forgot this line while writing the rest of the article. Instead he went on to say:

"But what is missing so far from the flotilla clips on both sides is context: it is difficult to establish the sequence of events or, more simply, to determine who attacked first."

How true. Without having been on the spot, how can we know whether Israeli helicopters attacked the boat, or the boat attacked the helicopters? It all boils down to plain conjecture. Of course we do know that peace activists are aggressive by nature and their boats are equipped James-Bond-like to make gigantic leaps into the air. So my guess is it was the latter that happened - the Israeli helicopters were snatched out of the air and slammed down on the boat, caught totally unawares while they thought they were safe in "international airspace".

One feels a pang of sympathy for the Israeli government, which despite being the victim has received criticisms ranging from "deeply concerned" to "terrible". Knowing how sensitive they and their army can be, is it fair or responsible to denounce them thus? What if they get depressed and discouraged as a result?

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Research scholars and Dr Bhabha

One realises one's age when every new occurrence brings back a memory. In this case, the occurrence was the Foundation Day lecture at TIFR this morning by His Excellency A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, former President of India. Dr Kalam started his talk by recalling how he had gone through a file at Rashtrapati Bhavan which documented an invitation from Dr Rajendra Prasad, first President of India, to Sir C.V. Raman to receive the Bharat Ratna award. In his reply Raman regretted he could not attend the award ceremony because he was guiding a Research Scholar whose thesis was due for submission. With this story Dr Kalam emphasised the importance of Research Scholars in the scheme of things, and deservedly won the hearts of those who were in the audience today (the rest of his talk was a fairly generic utopian vision of the future).

Now for the memory this brought back to me. A mere fourteen years ago, in the same auditorium, TIFR celebrated its Golden Jubilee with a glittering function that included the then chief minister, Manohar Joshi of the Shiv Sena, and the then union telecommunications minister Sukh Ram who released a postage stamp of TIFR. There were also speeches by TIFR Council Chairman J.J. Bhabha, younger brother of TIFR's late founder, and some other major figures. When about to enter the hall, I discovered that three entire batches of Research Scholars at TIFR were not allowed into the auditorium for the function, supposedly because of a lack of space. In protest I did not enter either, and watched the proceedings on closed-circuit TV in a lecture room.

Thereafter I penned a somewhat melodramatic missive to our late founder Dr Homi Bhabha and put it up on a notice board in the TIFR lobby. It was removed by the chief security officer who scolded me and warned me not to put it up again. Today he is retired (and moreover Manohar Joshi is in the political wilderness and Sukh Ram has been sentenced to three years in jail for corruption!!) so this may be a reasonable time to exhume the letter. I reproduce it below.

Dear Dr Bhabha

February 9, 1996

Dr Homi J. Bhabha
c/o God

Dear Dr Bhabha

I am writing to tell you about the Golden Jubilee celebration that took place at TIFR this evening. I did not enter the Auditorium, but watched the function from outside on closed-circuit TV. If they have closed-circuit TV in Heaven then you might have seen it yourself, but somehow I think you were not watching.

Dr Bhabha, this was a function on a grand scale. The elaborate arrangements would have impressed you. The dignitaries all looked suitably important and spoke with seriousness (except the Chief Minister, who looked bored but spoke with humour). And the audience contained all the important people in this Institute, in their finest clothes.

Some people were turned away at the door. They had invitation cards, so they thought that they were invited. Not so. There was a complex and subtle system to make sure that only the right people got through.

The cards came in three colours of envelope: white, blue and pink. This meant: big shot, medium shot and small shot. Then the white and pink envelopes were further divided into those with the Stamp and those without. (No, not the postage stamp, that was only worth 2 rupees! The Registrar's Rubber Stamp was priceless.) A foreign visitor to TIFR remarked that this looked like an elaborate caste system.

On a white envelope, the Stamp meant: Big Shot Plus Spouse. That went to Senior Professors, Heads of Sections and Chairmen of Committees, plus some people who did not fit in this list, but were known to be important just by virtue of their importance. It also went to hundreds of non-TIFR people, including army and navy top brass, who came with their spouses.

On the pink envelope, No Stamp meant: "You are invited, but you can't come in." It was actually a non-invitation. So these were the people who got turned away. I was standing near the door and watching their faces.

Who were these people, you might ask. The pink non-invitations were issued to second- and third-year Research Scholars, and later also to Visiting Fellows, after a protest on their behalf. They were also issued to some categories of non-academic staff. (There was still one lower category --- the first-year Research Scholars received NO invitations. They shared this privilege only with the daily-wage workers.)

In particular, Research Scholars and Visiting Fellows who have research publications at TIFR were turned away from the Auditorium. What made the Institute famous in the first place, Dr Bhabha? Sorry if I forget sometimes.

Of course, those who couldn't get in had the option to watch the ceremony outside on closed-circuit TV. But many Research Scholars chose to play cricket instead. Maybe they didn't care enough about the Institute, or maybe they were hiding hurt feelings. Who knows.

I chose not to enter the Auditorium, in sympathy with the non-invited persons. But I was very interested in the programme, and watched every detail on TV. Many of the speakers talked of the bright future of TIFR. They all said very kind words about you, Dr Bhabha. They showered generic praise on your achievements as a scientist, administrator, and man of culture. Your brother said something more precise: that you used to identify talented young persons, and give them the freedom and encouragement to become successful and eminent scientists. He asked a question: What would Dr Homi Bhabha have done if he had been here today?

At that moment a strange idea entered my head. I thought: maybe Dr Homi Bhabha, had he been here today, would have pointed out that the Research Scholars and Visiting Fellows are the future of the Institute. He might have suggested that their pink non-invitations were inappropriate. He might have insisted that the priorities be revised so that the Auditorium could accommodate the future leaders of Indian science. Perhaps he would even have politely asked senior members of the Institute to desist from bringing their families?

Maybe I am wrong, Dr Bhabha. Maybe you would have done something different. But your spirit was definitely not here today, even though most of the talk was about you. Frankly, I feel that the more we talk about you, the less we think for ourselves.

Yours sincerely,
Sunil Mukhi


Sunday, May 30, 2010


A tragic news item today brought back some memories. A girl studying in an engineering college in Kelambakkam near Chennai was spotted by the college chairman (who happened to also be her relative) sitting next to a boy and - horrors - talking to him. He scolded her, whereupon she went to her hostel room and committed suicide by hanging herself.

The memory this brought back was of attending a summer school at IIT Madras in 1976. In those days, IIT's were nasty, forbidding places (at least the ones in Madras and Delhi). The organiser of our National Science Talent summer school, whom I'll call Prof. R, was a rude, obnoxious and overbearing person. Beyond all this, he had an obsession -- that boys and girls should not mingle under any circumstances. We were ordered to sit in separate halves of the class. This was unexpected and quite bizarre at least for those of us who had come from Bombay. We already knew our batchmates and since we had never received any warning about the dangers of opposite-sex fraternisation, we simply treated them as fellow students with a reckless disregard for gender.

Now what I remember particularly about Prof. R. is that his obsession for gender separation appeared to coincide with an obsession for one of the girls in the class. He would constantly try to talk to her, alone, and warn her about the dangers of fraternising with boys.

Cut to about six or seven years ago and a similar incident took place in Bombay. At this time no one (certainly in Bombay) would dare suggest that students be physically separated by gender in class. This is what happened instead: I was informed by a senior institute administrator that a certain girl was illegally staying in a boy's room in the hostel, that he (the administrator) had information that her modesty was in danger, and that in his view the authorities should raid the hostel room and "rescue" her. The entire story sounded to me quite fabricated. How did he have advance information about what was to happen to her? Apparently from a friend of the girl's parents. I then met this "family friend" who told me he had known the girl since she was a child, that she had fallen into "bad company", and that we needed to save her before something terrible happened. But to me, his tone betrayed a very questionable obsession about the girl.

The next step turned out pretty simple - I located the girl, gave her a very abbreviated version of the story and asked her if she was in any sort of trouble. She smiled brightly and said she wasn't, and that the boy she was visiting (not staying with) was her fiancé. They were soon to get married, their parents had met each other etc etc. She couldn't imagine what the problem was. Wishing I didn't have to do this, I had her call her father on my mobile and he confirmed her story. So what was this family friend getting all worked up about? (remember he had nearly brought about a raid to "rescue" her!) The young lady revealed a plausible reason. On her arrival in Bombay she had initially stayed with him (he lived alone) and had soon begun to feel uncomfortable with the way he looked at her and questioned her closely about her activities. So she moved out to her own lodgings. The "family friend" did not take this well and the above story was the result.

Back to the story I started with. Apparently the chairman of this engineering college in Kelambakkam discovered the girl was hanging out with boys when he surveyed CCTV footage of the students. I don't want to speculate on why he was surveying this footage and beyond the newspaper report I know nothing about this case, which presumably will be investigated. Let's hope it bears no analogy with the two cases I've described above.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Be stupid

Finally, an ad campaign that I can enthusiastically endorse.

Yesterday, for reasons I can't quickly make up (possibly the heat and some wine I had at a lunch party) I ended up in a Bombay mall called "Palladium". Its highlight, if you can call it that, is the Diesel store, and this company's highlight, in turn, is an ad campaign called "Be Stupid". My boundless curiosity later led me to the online Diesel catalogue (by catalogue they don't mean something listing their products, but rather a 15 page advertising booklet) and I've helpfully extracted the basic principles of their campaign for my readers. The following are all verbatim quotes.

(i) Stupid, you see, is the relentless pursuit of a regret-free life.
(ii) Smart may have the brains, stupid has the balls.
(iii) Smart may have the authority, but stupid has one hell of a hangover.
(iv) To be stupid is to be brave. The stupid aren't afraid to fail.
(v) Stupid is the first guy who realised you could extract and synthesize the humble coca leaf into a fine, white powder.
(vi) Stupid means listening to your heart versus listening to your head.

As an indication of where the world is going, I think this is truly impressive. Of course some of this campaign isn't freely distributed in India, for example point (v) about cocaine, or the pictures in the catalogue of a girl trying to copulate with a phallic pillar.

So maybe we in India aren't completely ready to "be stupid"? Or maybe we are. I really did enter the Diesel store yesterday and here's what happened. A "chick" flounced over to me and smiled winningly. Considering the vile manners of mall employees in Bombay this was a bit of a plus. I smiled and asked her "what do you sell here?". Without a pause she replied "just about everything, except ourselves". I tottered like a leaf in a breeze and then tried the line I had prepared. "My friend and I aren't stupid, so is this store really for us?". Again there was no pause. "Well if you buy everything we want you to buy, by the end of it you'll feel pretty stupid."

Pausing only to read the price tag on a pair of cargo shorts (Rs 8,245/-), I left. But I can't help feeling I had met Diesel's only truly honest - and non-stupid - employee.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Flounder in the labyrinth

Of late I have come to admire a columnist called Santosh Desai who writes for the Times of India. His column on Mondays is a general "social commentary" and shows a rare gift of perceptive analysis. He successfully avoids the trap of being too negative and trashing everyone, but occasionally circumstances cry out for widespread trashing and then he doesn't shy away from that either.

Now last Monday, writing on the IPL scandal (there must be more vulgar expansions of IPL than specks of ash in Europe's air these days) Desai had this to say about Member of Parliament Shashi Tharoor, a key player in the story. If you haven't heard of this gentleman (and/or you don't know what IPL is) then I suggest you skip to my previous blog posting about cucumber soup.

Here's Desai on Tharoor:

"He uses his words as he does his hair; his locks dance and glide sinuously at every camera lens, the charm of hair just that wee bit out of place. Like a too-skilled driver, his words often take him to the wrong places, so fond is he of his own driving. For someone to whom things always came easily, he has got it wrong astonishingly often. Tharoor represents the power of education that resolutely stays skin deep; if it went any deeper, the words would cease to flow so fluidly for they would be tempered with some self-doubt. As it stands, there is no stemming the flow, and he continues to flounder in the labyrinth of his own vocabulary."

In addition to being by far the best prose I've read in a newspaper in recent times, it's a devastatingly accurate depiction of its subject (the rest of the article is equally elegant and devastating). As if on cue, today's TOI reports Netaji Tharoor's latest flounderings in the labyrinth, in a statement to Parliament:

"Madam Speaker, my heart swells with pride for India, and Keralite blood throbs in my veins."

Surely these appalling lines would justify the withdrawal of any literary award he's ever received? But he needn't despair. All that swelling and throbbing could qualify him for the "Bad Sex in Fiction Award" of the Literary Review...

Monday, April 19, 2010

Cold cream of cucumber soup

If it's hot where you are (and if you're in India this is very likely), here's a rather effective, if temporary, solution.

(i) Two or three cucumbers, peeled and grated.
(ii) A cup or two of chicken broth (dissolve chicken stock in water, boil, cool). If you're one of... "those", use vegetable stock.
(iii) Two cloves garlic, sprinkled with salt, chopped and then finely mashed with a knife. This is really good fun though it takes time. Salt is the key here.
(iv) A tablespoon of fresh coriander leaves, finely chopped.
(v) 50-100 g. cream, depending on your latest blood-test report.
(vi) A tablespoon of beaten yoghurt.

Mix in a bowl. Add salt and crushed black pepper. Do not add chillies and masala. I don't care if you're Indian, control yourself OK? This is a subtle dish.

Place in fridge for 3-4 hours. Depending on your fridge and the ambient temperature, consider placing in freezer for half an hour before serving. Serve with crunchy toast or crackers. Don't eat anything else. Divine!

Thursday, April 8, 2010

New York Times explains it as "psychology"

The NYT is often touted as an example of a "liberal" newspaper. Indeed it is supposedly hated by American right-wingers for its liberal views. Of course the paper has many different journalists and for this reason speaks in many different voices, which is generally a good thing. But on issues where "patriotism" is involved, it has a tendency to put subtle and dangerous spins on the news. An example I recall from the start of the war in Afghanistan (I was in Princeton at the time) was how the accidental bombing of a wedding party by American troops was presented: (i) on the day it happened the news was on the front page, presented as the bombing of dangerous insurgents, with a brief mention at the end - and almost in a tone of ridicule - that local Afghans claimed it was a wedding party, (ii) a week later it was revealed that it had indeed been a wedding party, but this revelation was concealed deep inside the newspaper in small print. And there was no "humanising" of the news, such as presenting names of the deceased or discussing their lives, such as is routinely done when things are the other way.

Today this newspaper has put a shocking and disgraceful spin on the "dead bastards" story about which I blogged a couple of days ago. In an article titled "Psychologists Explain Iraq Airstrike Video", the paper has attempted to "explain" the awful incident in psychological terms. The idea is that this is the way combat training is done, that it's natural for troops in a helicopter to mentally distance themselves and see people as potential threats (and cameras as assault weapons). And that the helicopter crew believed themselves to be in danger of being shot down. You keep reading the article and wait for some line like "of course all this does not justify the awful thing we saw in the video" and then you realise that this line is simply not there. A very dangerous piece of spin has been spun.

Interestingly the spin hasn't fooled a number of readers, including many Americans whom I would like to compliment. I'll quote a few of my favourite comments, the remaining (167 in all) you can read for yourself, and please feel free to add a few.

(i) Well, now that this behavior has been "explained", I'm sure everyone will feel much better about it now. Thank you NYT.

(ii) I am sure when devil goes to see a psychologist, he will get a logically sounding explanation of his mentality. It does not make the devil any less evil though.

(iii) We've been psychoanalyzed to death. Give it a rest. Sometimes a cigar - is just a cigar.

And spin is spin. Shame on NYT.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

"Look at those dead bastards"

I don't often blog about global politics, not because I'm uninterested or free of opinions but because I don't know what I can add to the discourse already out there. I do care about injustice, but the global scale and systematic nature of it has, at least in recent years, left me staggered and therefore virtually silent. Seven years ago I felt pressed to post an article on my website about the criminal invasion of Iraq by the United States. Although I was right about everything I wrote (you can read it here), the article is little more than an emotional outburst and I don't particularly recommend it. I haven't written anything on the subject since then.

But today I am chilled to the bone by something I just saw on the net and I would like all readers of this blog to see it. Maybe some already have and I hope the major news media in India pick it up (but it's not certain they will). I'm referring to a video taken in 2007 from a US helicopter gunship over a suburb of Baghdad. The crew of the helicopter opened fire, completely unprovoked, on a group of men that included two Reuters employees: a photographer Namir Noor-Eldeen, 22, and a driver, Saeed Chmagh, 40. They killed everyone except Saeed who was badly wounded. When a van pulled up and two men got out to save Saeed, the helicopter opened fire again, wiping out the men as well as Saeed and injuring two terrified children in the van.

The classified US military video was leaked and released yesterday on the website An article in today's Guardian describes the video. To quote a few lines: "The lead helicopter, using the moniker Crazyhorse, opens fire. `Hahaha. I hit 'em," shouts one of the American crew. Another responds a little later: "Oh yeah, look at those dead bastards." The article goes on to say "The behaviour of the pilots is like a computer game." and that's absolutely true, as you'll see.

I suggest you start by reading the Guardian article, then go straight to and spend a deeply disturbing 17 minutes and 47 seconds watching the video.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Sorry for asking

An experience at an Irani restaurant next to Churchgate station recalled an amusing and somewhat negative side of this city. I wanted a cup of tea, but I dislike the sweet milky concoction one usually gets so I ordered the promising "Black tea (tea bag)" listed on the menu at 10 rupees. Then I asked if I could have a tiny amount of milk on the side, and was told very sternly: "It's black tea. If you want milk, you have to buy a full cup of milk". I decided to enjoy it black, with a twist of the lemon they supplied, but I did feel a teaspoon of milk would hardly have bankrupted them any more than the lemon.

On thinking about it, my first reaction is that this mean-spirited behaviour could not be connected with the Irani roots of the restaurant. I've spent time in Iran and it's hard to imagine a more gracious and hospitable society. So where does it come from? My guess is that this is a British legacy.

A memory begins to surface in support of this hypothesis. The scene: one morning in 1984 at a charming bed-and-breakfast in Brighton, where I was attending a particle physics conference. An American physicist sitting with me was only half-attentive as the suave owner recited the breakfast menu: "Orange juice or cereal and milk, and bacon and fried eggs or poached eggs, sir?". He responded "Yeah, I'll take the juice, cereal, poached eggs and bacon". The owner froze (or as P.G. Wodehouse memorably wrote in a different context: "Ice formed on the butler's upper slopes"). He bowed coldly and repeated "Orange juice OR cereal and milk, and bacon and fried eggs OR poached eggs, sir", his emphasis placing brackets and converting the menu into a well-formed Boolean expression.

From my position I could observe the kitchen. The wife cooked breakfast while the husband took orders (more accurately, gave orders). She would fry bacon and then eggs in the same pan. But if the order was for poached eggs then a different saucepan came into the picture and bacon could not - would not - be fried. What of the juice? Perhaps they thought it was not good for you to have citrus juice and milk with the same meal. Or they simply wanted to save money. Either way, observe the sheer rigidity of the owner's decisions and his refusal to entertain a customer's request. That's Britain for you, or it was in 1984.

Also in Oliver Twist's time. And presumably at all times in between? Remember Pink Floyd's famous line: "If you don't eat yer meat you can't have any pudding! How can you have any pudding if you don't eat yer meat!".

Indeed. Sorry I asked for a teaspoon of milk.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Bread, Aristotle and local savouries

What I like most about Bombay is its ability to charm you when you're least expecting it. After a brief and predictably annoying Sunday-morning visit to Croma, the electronics chain run by the Tatas (company motto: "We will be rude AND charge higher prices, if you don't like it you can just get lost") I wandered over to my favourite bakery, Yazdani, nestled in a lane off Flora Fountain. I had always assumed it was closed on Sundays but this was the first time I thought to check -- and it was very much open. While buying my favourite seven-grain bread I overheard this fascinating conversation between three Parsis standing outside the shop. They were wearing traditional hats suggestive of a recent visit to the fire temple next door.

P1: Now tell me, when winter comes, why does it come all of a sudden on one particular day?
P2: Because that's when the sun, moon and earth are all in a straight line.
P3: No it's something else, I don't remember. But it was Aristotle who figured this out. Him, and all the ancient Greeks.
P2: Yes and he travelled all over the world to find out these things.
P1: I can bet you it wasn't Aristotle who travelled. He must have paid some poor mathematician to do the work for him.

Smiling to myself I wandered home with my precious beret-shaped seven-grain loaf. On reaching home I had the additional pleasing thought that I could (if I wished) buy a sextant, or astrolabe, or ancient wind-up gramophone, on the very road where I live. I don't expect to ever buy these things, but could I possibly adjust to living in a town (or area) where they aren't sold on every other street? I wonder.

My nephew Karun told me another story about a Parsi this morning. This one, let's call him P4, went to a movie theatre and demanded tickets for a recent Bollywood film called "Love, Sex aur Dhokha". Except that the confused Mr P4 thought the title was "Love, Sex aur Dhokla"! The staff at the ticket counter tried to explain his error but soon gave up and collapsed in splits.

I love this city.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Welcome to the MBA

The recent headline "MNS to start Marathi Academy" will have drawn a few gasps of surprise. This political party, more widely known for its antipathy to non-Maharashtrians than for any great fondness for Marathi culture, has in the words of this press report "decided to set up a Marathi Bhasha Academy in Pune to promote the use of Marathi language and culture. Among other things, the academy will translate English literature into Marathi and Marathi writings into English." You should read the full report , but I'll quote a noteworthy comment from a party member who "wants Marathi to be a language of information like English. The party wants books on engineering, medical, architecture to be published in Marathi and encourage students to use them."

There will be cynics who will read bad intentions into this, but my take is positive. After all, the stated goals are entirely laudable. I think I'm not the only one who cringes when the software I'm installing offers me a choice of languages like Catalan, Hebrew or Norwegian (whose speakers taken together would barely fill Mumbai) but no Indian languages. So if Marathi actually becomes a language of information and is used routinely in computers, mobiles etc by Marathi speakers, it will set a welcome trend not just for the state but for all of India.

Admittedly, achieving such a status is a tall order. As an example, I assume a lot of Andhra-ites (prominent in the international software community) have been trying to make Telugu an information language but the impact of this has not yet been too visible. Still someone has to try, and we should hope they succeed.

The above development is also welcome for a political reason. What the various Senas have been doing since their inception is to cleverly tap into veins of negativity within segments of the Maharashtrian community. Talking to their sympathisers over the years I've detected a combination of frustration together with a sense of inferiority that easily converts into blind and typically self-defeating anger. But at the rate at which India is changing, I expect the inferiority is fading away and more confident generations are starting to emerge -- how could it be otherwise when our youth hear that we will be a leading economy in a mere twenty years?

I wonder whether the Maharashtrian echo of this growing national confidence is a growing distaste for the tokenism and petty violence that's made the Senas famous, and a desire to see some meaningful action on the ground. If there is such a trend then the Senas will be obliged to react and, having sacked their hired goons, recruit a new breed of young and motivated academics to set up organisations like the MBA and otherwise propagate the local language and culture (and, I very much hope, music).

Yes I realise the above is a utopian view. It's hard to believe the tigers will stop roaring and sit in front of their keyboards and terminals from now on. But even if there's a tiny trend, and the above news article suggests there is, it's very welcome indeed.

Tailpiece: Another political party, the NCP, which used to spend its time getting "objectionable" books banned and asking Interpol to arrest authors (see this article) has recently organised a cycle race to spread awareness about climate change (see this article).

Thursday, February 25, 2010

In defence of mastery

When something newsworthy happens, I often find myself reflecting on which of my favourite opinions it justifies. I suppose that's only human.

In the present case I have in mind Sachin Tendulkar's record-breaking double century in one-day cricket. The first thing it goes to prove, which hardly needed proving, is that Sachin is one amazing Manoos. Certain political parties may want to give up trying to teach him about Marathi asmita and try learning it from him instead. But this point is so trivial that I needn't have bothered to make it.

What interests me more is that Sachin's performance is a blow in favour of mastery in a particular field. As a scientist, I've been disturbed for some years by the growing obsession about breaking barriers between subjects, being inter-disciplinary, being a well-rounded individual and all that. These ideas are surely important. But I feel things can get out of hand if we ignore the other side of the coin -- that serious achievement requires concentration, knowledge, technique and depth.

Imagine, if Sachin's trainers had taken the view that in addition to cricket it was essential for him to know football, tennis, golf and chess. He simply wouldn't have been what he is - a person who single-mindedly focuses on what he does best. And that would have been humanity's loss.

Now in discussing academic curricula, syllabi, student intake etc in various institutes, I keep hearing that one has to focus on breadth of knowledge when selecting students, and then instil further breadth when training them. I'm not against this as long as it's feasible and helpful, but sometimes it seems to become a goal unto itself.

Recently a colleague, talking about his institution's undergrad admissions process, observed that "with the kind of breadth requirements we have, one wonders if Ramanujan, who only knew mathematics, would even get admission". That's basically my point, and I think Sachin's achievement validates it.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010


Nearly two weeks ago the first research paper was published by the CMS (Compact Muon Solenoid) collaboration at the LHC (Large Hadron Collider). The paper has the sort of snappy, headline-grabbing title we have all come to associate with high-energy physics experiments: "Transverse-momentum and pseudorapidity distributions of charged hadrons in pp collisions at sqrt(s) = 0.9 and 2.36 TeV". It was submitted to the Journal of High Energy Physics and published by them here on February 10.

While the results of this paper are not earth-shaking (and still less earth-swallowing!), it's a landmark of sorts and has occasioned me a great deal of satisfaction for various reasons, which, this being my blog, I can share with you.

First a summary of the contents: the LHC scattered protons against protons (as will be its habit for many years to come) during its commissioning in December 2009. The CMS detector, a "cylindrical onion" in the eloquent words of its publicity team, measured charged particles emerging from the collisions during two 2-hour periods at this time. The beam had an energy of 0.9 TeV in the first part of the run and 2.36 TeV in the second part. The former measurements provided a useful confirmation of previous results while the latter represent the highest energy measurements at a collider to date. The paper says nothing about finding new particles, nor was this expected since the LHC will take a while to reach its planned energy of 14 TeV and more importantly its planned luminosity.

Here's one tiny reason why I'm gratified. Of the 2400 or so authors on this paper, I've taught three or four in the TIFR graduate school and elsewhere. This is perhaps no great achievement on my part but I'm entitled to feel mildly pleased. After all they might one day co-author a Nobel prize-winning paper (and the prize itself may go to the collaboration rather than just its boss?? Who knows, the world is a changing place.)

And yes, you read the number of authors right. The first 15 pages of this 35-page paper are a list of the authors' names and affiliations! So much for the days when we thought high-energy physics had gone too far by inflicting as many as 100 authors on us...

Here's a second and more serious reason to be happy. Publication of a paper indicates that the LHC is seriously back on track and working well, and so is the CMS detector. There's a long road ahead and I'm glad they finally seem to be on it.

On to the third reason. I'm delighted that they chose to publish in JHEP. I've been on the editorial board of JHEP since it started in 1997 and it's survived a number of critics: those who claimed an electronic journal was an un-refereed journal (these people were either deeply confused or lying, but they sat on major committees either way), those who said it was "just a string theory journal" and those who simply said an online journal wouldn't work. JHEP is short of perfect, and I hear complaints about it a lot, but in terms of impact factor it's become the leading journal in High Energy Physics and the decision by CMS to publish there is an affirmation of this role.

My fourth and last reason to be happy: the concluding lines of the paper are as follows: "Open Access. This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial License which permits any noncommercial use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author(s) and source are credited." JHEP's policy is that papers from subscribing institutions are Open Access and CERN is a subscribing institution. So from my point of view, the best things in life are still free.

Here's hoping this paper is the start of a history-making career for CMS and the LHC.