Sunday, December 15, 2013

A previous post on human rights


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

Friday, December 13, 2013

The Hill of Madame Penh


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Crux of the matter


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

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

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

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

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

"So-called rights"??

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

On World Human Rights Day


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Theory of mind


I first heard the expression "theory of mind" from professor Milind Watve when I was visiting IISER Pune in the middle of last year, shortly before I joined here myself. Somehow I don't recall hearing the expression before that. It is not a theory of how the mind works. Rather, it is an ability - the ability to appreciate that other people have a different mind from one's own. Wikipedia defines it as the "ability to attribute mental states - beliefs, intents, desires, pretending, knowledge, etc. - to oneself and others and to understand that others have beliefs, desires, and intentions that are different from one's own."

It's strange that such an obvious ability should even have a name. After all, there is no "theory of body" - the ability to appreciate that other people have a body different from one's own! If I go for a walk I don't assume everyone else is going to do the same, and if I punch someone in the face (true confession: I have never ever hit anyone in my entire life, yes I know it's shameful ;-) ) I don't assume this action will injure my own face.

And yet, when it comes to the mind, this sort of clarity is not universal. On one hand it appears to be present in birds, but on the other, it's strikingly absent in a whole lot of people I know. So perhaps the term "birdbrain" is a little unfair! But let me first tell you about Milind and the birds (I am recounting last year's talk from memory, so it may not be complete accurate). With the help of undergraduate students, he set up and studied the following situation. A particular species of bird lays its eggs in a nest that's designed like a tunnel dug into a hillside. The eggs hatch inside and the bird enters regularly with food for the chicks. However, the entrance of the nest is concealed and the bird would naturally like to keep it that way, to avoid predators enjoying its offspring for dinner. So it never enters the nest when someone is looking. Instead, when it returns home with tasty worm-flavoured desserts it perches at some distance and waits. Only when it judges no one is looking does it enter the nest.

Here's where the bird's "theory of mind" comes in. If a human being hangs around in a place where she can be seen by the bird and can also see the entrance, the bird will simply wait. Only after the human being goes away will it enter the nest. But now suppose that the human stands in a place where she cannot see the entrance of the nest (e.g. her line of sight is blocked by a tree). And suppose the bird can see her, but can also see that she (the human) does not have a view of the nest. Experiments appear to show that in this situation the bird is confident that there is no danger, and will therefore go ahead and enter.

Good for birds, I have to say. But are human beings equally skilled? Experiments show that children below the age of 4 tend to fail the "false belief task" or "Sally-Anne test", a  standard probe for the presence of theory of mind. Once they cross that age they tend to pass the test. I don't deal much with children just over 4, but most of the adults I know would not do too well. At least, the people I interact with constantly assume that if they know something, you must know the same thing. They assume that if they have a certain intention then you must have the same intention. They expect that if they believe something, then you believe the same thing.

There's a good side to this: people who lack a sound "theory of mind" tend to give away their secrets easily. In my experience, those who constantly describe others as crooked and corrupt tend to be crooked and corrupt themselves. People who are always suspicious of others are often up to some mischief on their own part. They attribute bad motivations to others because they have bad motivations themselves, and lacking a "theory of mind" they do not realise that others may function differently. So, the next time you meet a suspicious person, ask them to do a better job of hiding their own motivations.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

The amazing Julian Schwinger


After a long gap, I'm back to this blog. I don't know if I have any readers left, let alone whether any of them are physicists. On this one occasion I want to point out something that physicists should find fascinating if they didn't already know it (other readers may or may not follow some details, sorry about that).

During the past year I gave a few talks on the discovery of the Higgs particle during the peak periods of public interest (i.e. just after the discovery, and just after the Nobel announcement). In the process I waded through a large number of original papers. The one that surprised me the most is Julian Schwinger's 1957 paper "A theory of the fundamental interactions" published in Annals of Physics 2 (1957), 404-434. At the time Schwinger had already done his path-breaking work on quantum electrodynamics and was, so to say, awaiting a Nobel prize that would finally be given in 1965.

In the 1957 paper Schwinger attempted to create, almost by pure thought, what today we call the Standard Model of fundamental interactions. He did not succeed, lacking many ingredients (Yang-Mills theory was around but he didn't use it  and maybe didn't know of it, concepts like spontaneous symmetry breaking and the Higgs mechanism had not been developed and the right symmetries and multiplet structure were not known). Yet the paper certainly influenced most of the subsequent work and laid down an approach that bore fruit a mere decade later. This fact is widely acknowledged, but the surprise for me was the amazing level of insight in the paper and the sense it conveys of being very far ahead of its time.

The paper starts with a quote from Einstein: "The axiomatic basis of theoretical physics cannot be extracted from experience but must be freely invented". At face value this would infuriate a lot of people. Today it even reads like a sales pitch for string theory! But examine the sentence more carefully and nuances emerge. It is not that physics itself must be freely invented, but rather that theory cannot be extracted directly from experiment, there is an "inventive" stage in between - one that Einstein superbly implemented while converting Michelson and Morley's experiment to the Special Theory of Relativity.

I don't want to summarise Schwinger's entire paper but will just highlight its opening and closing sections. Phrases in italics are direct quotes from the paper. The very first paragraph is a manifesto of sorts. Here Schwinger proposes the following principles:

(i) Spins 0, 1/2 and 1 are fundamental in nature, having exceptional simplicity and allowing for the construction of "unique" theories (the sense in which he intends "unique" is not made precise).

(ii) "If the spin values are thus limited, the origin of the diversity of known particles must be sought in internal degrees of freedom"

(iii) "The various intrinsic degrees of freedom are dynamically exhibited by specific interactions, each with its characteristic symmetry properties..."

(iv) "...the final effect of interactions with successively lower symmetry is to produce a spectrum of physically distinct particles from initially degenerate states"

(v) If you know what the Higgs mechanism is, be prepared to be amazed by this line: "Thus we attempt to relate the observed masses to the same couplings responsible for the production and interaction of these particles."

Today we know that the mass of each particle is proportional to how strongly the Higgs particle couples to it. But how on earth did Schwinger guess this, or something that sounds like it? I find this amazing.

The paper develops the idea that an intermediate vector boson (which he calls Z, though in today's language it is really the W) should be responsible for weak interactions, and concludes modestly as follows:

"What has been presented here is an attempt to elaborate a complete dynamical theory of the elementary particles from a few general concepts. Such a connected series of speculations can be of value if it provides a convenient frame of reference in seeking a more coherent account of natural phenomena."

If by "frame of reference" he meant "a way of thinking about things" then his hope was more than fulfilled: the intermediate vector boson idea permeated the work of many including Englert-Brout and Higgs, Glashow and of course Weinberg who in 1967 essentially wrote down the correct theory.


Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Is String Theory right?


Is String Theory right? Or is it fantasy? Click here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2rjbtsX7twc

to find out.

What breathtaking talent!

The video was made by Tim Blais, a student at McGill university who just did a Master's thesis under the guidance of Alex Maloney. Tim has brilliantly morphed the original lyrics of Bohemian Rhapsody to suit the new context - though this may be lost on those who are not die-hard fans of Queen. I'm not sure such people exist, but if they do and you're one of them, you should see this video first:

 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fJ9rUzIMcZQ

Tim says he likes music too much to pursue it as a profession (or something like that)... Fascinating thought.


Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Collective responsibility


One thing I love so much about life in India is the constant upsurge of original ideas and fresh approaches to our problems. This week's creativity award goes to the Police Commissioner of Mumbai, Mr Satyapal Singh. In a thoughtful piece published in the Indian Police Journal, he has suggested that whenever a member of a village supports a left-wing extremist (Naxal/Maoist), the whole village should be held responsible. In his words:

"extremist and public movements should be regulated through the institution of collective responsibility meaning thereby that hosting the extremists by one in the village, attending the meeting of extremists, providing them food, etc., blocking the roads by felling trees should hold the entire village responsible. A collective fine for all village residents or curfew for two days may be thought of. Alternatively, the village Sarpanch, police patil and other village-elders should be punished.”

You can read a more detailed report here.

The idea is so appealing that one wonders why no one thought of it before. Like many other creative breakthroughs, it has broader applicability and can be adapted to a variety of other situations. Here are a few of my suggestions. I invite readers to suggest others.

(i) when a student cheats in an exam, the entire batch should be failed.

(ii) when a politician indulges in corruption, all politicians should be put in jail.

(iii) when an industry breaks the law, all industries should be punished. For example if Reliance does something improper (I'm not suggesting they would dream of it!) then Tatas should also pay a fine. And vice versa.

(iv) when a Bollywood actor driving an SUV runs over many people and kills them, all Bollywood actors should be punished. Or maybe all SUV drivers. Or maybe all Bollywood actors with SUV's. This one is a bit complex, really.

(v) When a policeman commits rape, the entire police force should be arrested. Or maybe just the police commissioner?

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Reforms and contradictions


One of the best things to have happened to Indian politics has happened over the last few months. I refer to the involvement of major economists, and therefore of economics, in the debate on how India should develop. Finally we can stop asking if the Prime Minister will be X or Y (where X=RG and Y=NM). How is that the point, until we know what they will do once in power? When it comes to issues where the UPA and NDA agree, it doesn't matter who forms the government, so the electorate needs to know where exactly they differ (and not what names they - or their increasingly idiotic supporters - are calling each other).

Given this situation, I welcome the ongoing debate between Amartya Sen and Jagdish Bhagwati. Two economists with a substantial research and publication record, and faculty positions at two of the world's leading universities (Harvard and Columbia), have concrete things to say about whether India is making the right economic decisions and what it should do next. It's true that they didn't just start expressing these opinions recently, both having written numerous books on economics some of which are specifically about India. As far as I can make out, Mr Bhagwati's major books on India are "India in Transition" (1993), "India's Reforms: How They Produced Inclusive Growth" (2012) and the recent "Why Growth Matters" (2013). I assume India also plays a significant role in other books of his about underdevelopment etc. Many of Bhagwati's books are co-authored with Arvind Panagariya. Amartya Sen's major books specifically on India's economy are "India: Economic Development and Social Opportunity" (1995), "Indian Development: Selected Regional Perspectives" (1997) and "An Uncertain Glory: India and Its Contradictions" (2013). Many of his books are co-authored with Jean Dreze.

It's interesting that both authors have chosen to write books about the Indian economy after a long gap of over ten years.Another symmetry is that both are linked to models based on development in a particular state. Bhagwati supports the Gujarat Model while Sen supports the Kerala Model. Only in a limited sense is this a "right vs left" conflict. Gujarat has a strong trader culture and follows a somewhat strident form of capitalism. Kerala by contrast has a strong unionist orientation and follows a rather militant form of... no, not what you think. Whatever anyone might claim, it follows capitalism like every other state in India, but puts a left-leaning emphasis on it.

It's easy enough to condemn both models: one for being focused too much on business and showing insufficient concern for the weak and underprivileged, the other for being focused too much on rights and too little on the obligation of hard work. But these criticisms are not entirely fair. In Gujarat there is an emphasis on overall development and infrastructure including schools, roads and hospitals, and these things immensely benefit poor people. In Kerala the literacy rates are enviable, medical care and education are good and a large majority is able to lead a meaningful middle-class life. Compared to some Indian states I can think of, both Gujarat and Kerala seem to be doing quite well. I would also argue that, given the culture and history of each state, the Gujarat model might not be possible to implement in Kerala and vice versa.

Both Bhagwati and Sen agree on the importance of economic growth of an inclusive kind. Their dispute is only about the relative importance of growth and inclusiveness. Sen prefers to emphasise the inclusive aspect while Bhagwati emphasises the growth aspect. Their similarities of outlook are greater than their differences: as another Indian-American economist, Pranab Bardhan, points out in today's TOI, the media "is blowing up relatively small and perfectly normal differences of opinion between two respectable economists".

So why are Bhagwati and Sen fighting at all? Well here the asymmetry comes in. Bhagwati may be correct or incorrect about economics, I can't be the one to judge this. But his manners and his way of handling disagreement come across as slightly dubious. The following quotes are taken from an article by Bhagwati that you can read in full here:

Sen has caught up with such issues only later and is sometimes described as the Mother Teresa of economics. But she did a lot of good at the micro level, whereas (as I discuss below) his policy prescriptions have done huge damage instead. Let us not insult Mother Teresa. 

Sen, with no evidence and with only wishful thinking to support his assertions...

Sen puts the cart before the horse; and the cart is a dilapidated jalopy!

So much, of course, from Sen who has conned foreigners into believing that Indians believe in debates that lead to an informed democracy. As it happens, Indians traditionally are more into falling at the feet of great figures like Sen and me. Alternatively, they indulge in personal attacks like musicians who describe singers from other gharanas as “dhobis”! As I once remarked jokingly, we Indians are so ingenious that we multiply by dividing!

This kind of writing does nothing to enhance the stature of an otherwise respected economist. The line "falling at the feet of great figures like Sen and me" should raise your eyebrows (it certainly did mine) and the incoherent nature of the last paragraph suggests Mr Bhagwati's own jalopy may be veering dangerously off the road.

Now I can't very well prevent Mr Bhagwati from embarassing himself. But can one hand clap on its own or did Mr Sen also say rude things to him and his friends? In the above article Bhagwati makes a specific accusation to this effect. He claims that Sen, in a panel on NDTV, said "Panagariya could not speak on NFSB issues as he lived in New York". I would be surprised if Sen really said this, since a philosopher such as himself would know the pitfalls of argumentum ad hominem. I couldn't find any evidence on the net, other than Mr Bhagwati's claim of what was said, but I'd be happy to see the evidence if it exists. Sen's own recent comments about the controversy and about the Indian economy are published here today in the form of an interview. His economic and political opinions are stated bluntly but there are no personal attacks.

To return to my original point: debates about economic policy in India are important and worthwhile. If they are conducted in a professional vein then we will all learn something and Indian democracy will be stronger for it.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Infrastructure growth but...


In a response to my last posting, vbalki pointed out that we Indians are no better than Americans when it comes to social prejudice. It wasn't hard to find a story that nicely illustrates his point. The article Developed Ahmedabad denies Muslim professor a homecoming that appeared early last year in the Ahmedabad Times, recounts how Prof. Javed Malik, originally from Baroda, found it hard to return to his native Gujarat because he is a Muslim. Having worked at IIT Kanpur for the last 11 years, he was tempted by a faculty position at the recently established IIT Gandhinagar but was turned away from every upmarket housing society solely because of his religion. In what has become a very familiar story, things would go fine until his religion was revealed and then the deal would suddenly fall through. The only open option was to reside in a Muslim ghetto 25 km away from IIT, something he rightly did not wish to do. Prof. Malik commented to the press that Ahmedabad has "excellent infrastructure growth but no mental growth".

The story is over a year old, so I thought I would do some fact-checking. What I found, just now, is that the website of IIT Kanpur still shows a Prof. Javed Malik, Civil Engineering. The website of IIT Gandhinagar not only has no mention of him, but has not a single Muslim name among its faculty. I think we can safely assume that Prof. Malik went back to Kanpur, and after his experience Muslim scientists decided they would not try to look for housing in the town named after Mahatma Gandhi. Though Prof. Malik's story appeared in the press long ago, I couldn't find any online evidence that any politician or ministry or minorities commission or court intervened. So it's still business as usual out there.

Though this story is often used for Modi-bashing, for once I don't think it's his fault (and nor is it Sonia/Rahul's fault, though so many believe them to be the root of all evil in our country!). The remarkable thing is that such blatant and ignorant discrimination is practised not by uneducated villagers, but by the upwardly mobile residents of elegant housing complexes. Even in the stylish new developments in Pune there are signs warning against "renting out to bachelors and foreigners". This is a general statement of prejudice but also comfortably covers the many Iranian students in the city. The same is true in certain areas of Malabar Hill in Bombay, where buildings are declared "vegetarian" in a bid to keep out the obvious communities. And let's not forget the time the actress Pooja Bedi Ibrahim (as she was then) was asked to drop the "Ibrahim" when applying for a credit card. "You see madam, our bank doesn't give credit cards to Muslims" she was told. It wasn't the BJP or the Congress that took this decision. It was a middle-class bank official. In other words it was you, me and our uncles and aunts.

One thing that amuses me is that the same communities which refuse to rent their flats out to bachelors and foreigners in India have sons and daughters in the USA. How would they feel if Americans refused to rent housing to them for the same reason? Here one sees the Indian trait of hypocrisy at its most exemplary: it's fine when I do it to others, but not when the same thing is done to me.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Fifty Shades of Black


I expect not too many Indians found time to follow the recent verdict in the US about the killing of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin by a "neighbourhood watch coordinator", George Zimmerman. The story runs as follows: Trayvon and his father visited his father's fiancee at a gated community in Florida. Trayvon hopped out in the evening to buy a snack. While he was walking home, Zimmerman who was in a car found his movements suspicious, recounting later that Trayvon was peering into windows while he walked. He called the police, who said they would come soon and advised him not to follow the suspect. They came within two minutes! But it was all over and Trayvon was dead. Zimmerman admitted he had followed Trayvon, who - he says - jumped on him and attacked him with his fists. At this point, Zimmerman fired his gun and killed him.

Trayvon was not armed. Whether he was peering into windows and whether he attacked Zimmerman first can never be proved, since there were no effective witnesses.

Zimmerman was recently found not guilty on the grounds that he was defending himself from a physical attack. The case is complicated by the fact that Trayvon was black and Zimmerman white. (Much has been made of the fact that Z was technically Hispanic, but in fact his father was of German origin and his mother Peruvian.) Since there were no witnesses, the story lends itself to interpretation and there have been two popular ones: (i) white man sees black man, wrongly suspects him of being up to no good (out of racism), follows him thereby provoking an altercation and shoots him dead, (ii) black man behaves in a shady manner  a responsible neighbourhood volunteer holding a licensed gun calls police and follows the suspect, who - probably up to no good - turns on him and the volunteer shoots to defend himself. Those who believe interpretation (i) inevitably point out that had the races been reversed (armed black man follows unarmed white man and shoots him dead) the shooter would surely have been condemned. Those who believe interpretation (ii) argue that race had nothing to do with it.

I don't have anything to add to the story but I'm powerfully struck by the extent to which skin colour determines one's opinion. See this very nice page on the Guardian where the "top 10 commentaries" on the case have been posted. The newspaper helpfully provides photos of the commentators, four of whom are black and six are white. Three of the four black commentators clearly support interpretation (i), while the fourth has a more nuanced view. Four of the six white commentators support interpretation (ii), while the other two differ. Thus there's a clear correlation between one's own race and one's view on this legal case. I find this incredibly sad, though it's not news that modern societies are still highly polarised about identities.

The four white people holding the "official white" view work for right-wing media (one of them works for the extreme-right Fox News). I find some of their comments revolting and dishonest. One says we should "not keep this particular wound open any longer". In other words, bad things do happen! Another refers to "more than one reasonable doubt about Zimmerman's guilt". The Fox News Nazi comes up with a brilliant one: "No one should be charged with a crime unless prosecutors themselves really believe that the person committed a crime." and goes on to argue that in this case they did not. In other words, it should be down to the personal opinion of the prosecutors! At least in this case.

But let's highlight the sensible folk. Alex Fraser (black) writes an open letter to Zimmerman on Facebook: "For the rest of your life you are now going to feel what its like to be a black man in America. You will feel people stare at you, judging you for what you think are unfair reasons" It's an oblique message. And Bob Seay (white), on his own Facebook page, gets right to the heart of it. "I am not Trayvon Martin" he says: "You don't have to be black, or young, or a 'troubled student' or a pot smoker to know this was murder." His point is that white people should stop blindly identifying with their own race and show more empathy with minorities, with the "other", because they are unfairly victimised all the time. I think this is an important message for all majorities in all countries.

This story also casts serious doubt on the jury system in the USA. If the correlation between one's own race and one's judgement on the case holds, then an all-white jury would find Zimmerman innocent and an all-black one would find him guilty. What was the actual composition of the jury that found him innocent? Five white and one Hispanic.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Will 2014 be 1933?


Returning to this blog after a longish time, I'd like to make a very brief comment on what is happening in Indian politics today.

I'll first point my readers to another website: http://www.johndclare.net/Weimar7.htm (thanks to my cousin Harish for the reference).

Next, please answer the following questions (but don't submit your answers to me - this is a blog, not an exam paper!): Do you see the run-up to the 2014 elections in India somewhere on this page? Do you see the Indian middle-class? Indian industry? India in general?

Finally, please focus on the boxed quote from Source C.  I find those simple words more eloquent than all the rhetoric in today's press.


Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Better start swimming or you'll sink like a stone...


I've always been fascinating with the changing times. So were my parents. My father was an enthusiast - anything futuristic would excite him. My mother tended to be the opposite. Despite her modern outlook, things like "new gadgets" and new ways of doing things annoyed her. My father would share his fantasies with us over dinner. A few of these would be genuinely inspired and on those occasions he would put on a special goofy, wistful expression and proceed to spin webs of pure speculation. My mother never failed to bring him back to reality. She would wait until his (metaphorical) balloon had inflated, and then bring out a (metaphorical) pin and puncture it. This led to explosive quarrels on a regular basis. They look funny only now, in hindsight.

One of my father's most inspired fantasies was what he called (I am not making this up) the "spectro-feelo-graph". This gadget, he said, would allow you to remotely experience sensations transmitted over a telegraph wire. A variant called the "spectro-tasto-graph" allowed you to share the taste of food with someone else in a different location. In today's language, all this is called "virtual reality" and I feel quite proud that he actually thought it up on his own.

But back to my main point. The times, they are a-changing, as Bob Dylan put it so well. There's a profound sense of justice about this song: "For the loser now will be later to win...". And an ominous warning to those in power:  "... don't speak too soon, for the wheel's still in spin, and there's no tellin' who that it's namin'".

Talking of who it's naming, I received the following mail yesterday:

Dear friends,
Observer Research Foundation Mumbai is pleased to invite you to a discussion on the contentious issue of the renewal of lease of the Royal Western India Turf Club (RWITC, popularly called Mahalaxmi Racecourse) at the office of ORF Mumbai on Satuday, 25th May 2013 

If the existence of such a hallowed institution as the RWITC is deemed contentious, one wonders what could be the next item up for discussion. The continuation of the Indian Navy on prime South Bombay land? The existence of TIFR on prime Navy land? I would love to return a hundred years from now and find out what's happened to South Bombay.


Thursday, April 18, 2013

Vintage soup


My fridge is a wondrous place. It nurtures all sorts of plant - and occasionally animal - life. Lemons turn bitter, tomatoes get squishy and garlic becomes brown and pungent. Once in a while a vegetable emerges that I'm quite sure I purchased in a previous calendar year. Or maybe in my last life. But yesterday I discovered a solution to all this and it's worked like a miracle. If you try it out be aware that I sometimes exaggerate, and that your health is your own responsibility. Equally, you should know that I didn't fall sick after eating it.

Vintage soup

Ingredients: Old things lying around in your kitchen. Specifically:

1. Part of a cauliflower (gobi), yellowing with age.
2. Some green peas, coated with frost, from the bag in your freezer.
3. A cucumber that was once green, now pale cream and slightly bitter. Preferably still firm.
4. An onion.
5. A potato. The first one I picked up was rotten and I threw it away (there are things too rotten even for me!). I used the second potato, antique but fairly respectable.
6. Two small green chillies from that little tin with holes in it that's supposed to keep chillies fresh but in fact lets them dry out and wrinkle in just over a month.
7. A little water. I used water that's been sitting in a bottle for at least two weeks. If that's not available then you can try it with new water, but your mileage may vary.
8. Salt. In Bombay you get delightfully stale, soggy salt but in Pune the weather is so good that you only find fresh salt. Tough luck.
9. A few cubic centimetres of cheese. I bought it in Dorabjee's supermarket at the other end of Pune. It smelt strong even on the day of purchase, many moons ago.
10. Milk. Boiled three days ago and unlikely to last much longer.
11. Butter. For me this is a sacred item. It really should not be  rancid.
12. Freshly ground black pepper. The peppercorns can be old but the grinding process should be new, if you get what I mean.

You might be wondering about quantities. The answer, in all cases, is "a little, not too much". Now please be quiet while I tell you how it's prepared.

Mix ingredients 1-8 (chop into large chunks first if necessary) and place in a pressure cooker. Cook for 15 minutes. Allow to cool slowly. Put contents in a blender and puree into a thick slush. If you get a thin slush, give up and go out for dinner. It happened because you used too much water to start with. Coming back to the thick slush: place it in a large strainer and stir vigorously with the back of a spoon till most of it goes through. Add some milk to thin it down to the consistency of soup, a pat of butter when no one is looking, some black pepper and the grated smelly cheese. Warm slowly, or else the milk may curdle. Or the cheese could explode. Eat with crisp toast made from those end-slices of bread that you haven't thrown away for ages.

This is the most delicious soup in the world. If you don't believe me, just collect all the ingredients, leave them in your fridge for a month or two (or a year or two) and then try it yourself.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Legacy of bitterness


Former British PM Margaret Thatcher died a couple of days ago. The response to her death has been fascinating and instructive. Anticipating there would be widespread joy in some sections of society and the press over her demise, the Tories and even some Labour leaders publicly asked people to "show respect" for the deceased and permit the family to grieve in privacy and dignity. This is the kind of request that sounds reasonable when you first hear it, but in a few seconds you realise its flaws, and left-liberal media in the UK were quick to take it apart. Columnist after columnist argued that while the family of a private figure has a right to grieve in private, the death of a major politician who has had a powerful impact on her country and the world does not qualify for the imposition of reticence. One article pointed out that no such courtesy was extended to the family of Hugo Chavez when he died, with conservative newspapers all over the US and UK criticising his career and political impact in the most scathing terms. British writer David Wearing put the boot on the other foot by saying "People praising Thatcher's legacy should show some respect for her victims."

The Guardian featured an editorial about Thatcher last Monday. The first part is a survey of her influence on politics, but the second half is blunt and forthright in its criticism. Some sample quotes from the article:

"the harmony she sought in the long term was one whose terms were set overwhelmingly in the interests of the British business class as she perceived them."

A "good society", for her, was "a low-tax, home-owning, privatised, high-carbon, possessive, individualist, winner-takes-all financial model whose failure haunts the choices still facing this country today".

And here is the concluding sentence of the editorial:

"Her legacy is of public division, private selfishness and a cult of greed, which together shackle far more of the human spirit than they ever set free."

That was two days ago. Today's Guardian has a dozen or so articles about her, with titles like: "Clearing up the mess that Thatcher left", "Thatcher's dark legacy has still not disappeared", and "A legacy of bitterness and division".

Of course these opinions are hardly uncontested. Today's London Times is full of stuff like "Royal respect as Queen leads mourners", "great Prime Minister but awful mother", and an attack on The Guardian via an opinion piece titled: "the selfish Left, not Thatcher, divided us". The Telegraph describes her as "kindly and careful". All this is no great surprise to me. Once a respected publication, the London Times is today a Rupert Murdoch-owned right-wing rag, at least that's how I perceive it. About The Telegraph, the less said the better.

The Times of India too has an admiring piece about Ms Thatcher by US journalist David Ignatius (who writes for another right-wing publication, the Washington Post). The basic thrust of this piece is that Ms Thatcher was great because she destroyed the ultra-rich and ultra-poor and gave everything to the middle class. Nice, if you're a middle class person with no ethical sensibilities.

On the other hand the poor did not appreciate being destroyed, and protested vigorously. One of their slogans was "Thatcher, Thatcher, milk snatcher". This came about because, according to Wikipedia, she "imposed public expenditure cuts on the state education system, resulting in the abolition of free milk for schoolchildren aged seven to eleven". (The right-wing newspapers dispute her role in abolishing free milk, so you see that almost any issue concerning this lady ends up being divisive.)

It's natural that this whole discussion makes me think about India. Here, when important figures die we aren't even allowed to question whether they should have a state funeral (note that Ms Thatcher is getting a "ceremonial funeral" which is one step below a "state funeral" even though she was a former Prime Minister!). And in India there are no polite appeals to withhold negative opinions - if any such opinions were expressed, however mildly, there would be violent people and a vindictive, politicised police force ready to attack.

But it gets easier to say what you think and survive it when the politician in question has been dead a long time. Ms Indira Gandhi has been gone nearly thirty years, and like Ms Thatcher (and scores of other politicians around the world) she was a powerful figure who caused lasting damage to society in her country. Positioning herself on the Left rather than the Right (which shows that damaging leaders can be of any political persuasion) she was a divisive figure and her legacy, like that of Ms Thatcher, is that of "public division". She systematically undermined India's democratic institutions and personalised politics by implanting in it her personal prejudices, her sycophants and her children - notably the uneducated, spoilt and brutal Sanjay Gandhi. She bullied and threatened the highest courts in India. Fortunately she was not successful in destroying their integrity, though some High Court and Supreme Court judges were not above being her sycophants as my late father complained on many occasions. While it was sad for India to have a prime minister assassinated in 1984, and I have no sympathy for the politics of her assassins nor for the concept of assassination itself, I certainly wasn't sorry when she was no more.

Sanjay Gandhi's demise was quite simply a joyful occasion. He unauthorisedly piloted an airplane belonging to the Delhi Flying Club, and literally drove it nose-first into the ground. Poetic justice had never been more poetic. A man who had bulldozed people's homes causing several deaths, and presided over a forcible sterilisation campaign, was destroyed by his own arrogance (and by his mother, who allowed him to pilot a plane without the requisite qualifications). It's hard to imagine the level of damage he could have caused this country, but at the least his death saved countless lives. On the fateful day I was in a train from Delhi to Bombay. Somewhere around Surat we got the news and passengers erupted in joy, myself included.

Meanwhile back in England, yesterday there were parties to celebrate Ms Thatcher's death. I know it sounds tasteless. But the late Ms Thatcher is no one to complain about bad taste. In 1987 she famously referred to Nelson Mandela's African National Congress in the following terms: "ANC is a typical terrorist organisation ... Anyone who thinks it is going to run the government in South Africa is living in cloud-cuckoo land". Today the cuckoo seems to be on the other foot. Pallo Jordan, a former ANC minister, said of her death: “I say good riddance. She was a staunch supporter of the apartheid regime. She was part of the right-wing alliance with Ronald Reagan that led to a lot of avoidable deaths.”

There's so much more to say about this awful person and her instinct to ally with other awful people, for example General Pinochet. But I'm done here and will refer you to this very moving article in The Nation: "Why would anyone celebrate the death of Margaret Thatcher? Ask a Chilean".

Footnote added on April 11: I've now come across the following speech about Pinochet on Margaret Thatcher's own website. Reading it has somewhat modified the opinion I had of her at the time I wrote the piece above. I should apologise for using words like "awful" and "evil" -  she was much, much worse than that! If there is no hell, let's hope someone is busy constructing one for her.


Friday, April 5, 2013

The unbearable rightness of being


It looks likely that either Narendra Modi or Rahul Gandhi is going to be the next Prime Minister of India. Both are getting a lot of press coverage. Of late the English-language press is working hard to rehabilitate the first and trash the second (along with his mother, family, party, government etc) so it's quite clear who they think is going to win.

The key point is that there are going to be two distinct models on offer next year. Both have their positive and negative features. Most people I know would like to stay within their comfort zone and keep repeating one of the following statements: (i) I detest Mr Modi because he is a fascist, (ii) I can't stand the Sonia Gandhi family, and the UPA government has been a failure. A few people say both, but most will agree that one of these two sentences resonates more with them than the other.

I've long been in the category for whom (i) resonates more than (ii). In fact I don't have any negative feelings about this particular Ms Gandhi: it's clear to me that she had a popular mandate to be Prime Minister of India in 2004 and was hounded out of the post by middle-class bigots crying "Foreigner! White person! Woman! Christian!". For me that remains one of the more ugly events in the history of Indian democracy. She handled it very gracefully, and grace has continued to be her hallmark. And look at the rest of her family. They don't preen and posture in public. When they do say something it may not be brilliant or insightful but it is usually quite accurate. And they maintain their grace in the face of venomous abuse from a right-wing that despises both their liberal agenda and their good manners which make other Indian political families look even cruder than they already are.

Of course you can't run a country on grace and good manners alone. The Gandhi family and the Congress government don't come across as dynamic, a label that sticks better to Mr Modi. He is seen as pro-industry, pro-infrastructure and, as a bonus, non-corrupt. Responding to the fascist label, his supporters point out that he has not actually been found guilty of masterminding the 2002 anti-Muslim riots, and they add in the same breath that the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, conducted by Congress supporters, killed more people and the guilty were never punished. On both these points I don't disagree with them.

And yet, by his own admission Mr Modi is no liberal. His vision is a muscular and majoritarian one in which concern for the underprivileged is a convenient showpiece rather than a deeply felt principle. One doesn't have to read too far between the lines to see that in his world the poor, weak and marginalised are expected to understand their place in society and stay within its confines. He and his party would like religion to play a more powerful role in our lives and will pressurise us to cede our individual preferences to a common, majority-determined agenda. It is this composite package, rather than a single period of bloody riots, that really typifies the right-wing universe. And the pressure to surrender individuality is indeed the seed of fascism.

Is this what one wants India to become? That depends on who one is. I suspect that under right-wing governments the rich tend to benefit, while the poor tend to do worse (the poor can nevertheless be induced to vote for such governments, as both US Republicans and UK Conservatives are well aware). So it's quite likely that under Mr Modi the rich will get richer. In itself, this is no bad thing. I don't share the popular Indian middle-class view that people richer than us are evil just because they are richer than us. But how the poor will fare is important too, and far less clear. What are their relative prospects under the "dynamic" rightwingers as against the more sluggish dispensation presently in power? Among industrialists -- and the journalists who are so often their proxies -- it's taken for granted that if the government unconditionally supports the generators of wealth then everyone will be better off, and therefore Modi is the right choice. But history tells us this claim is sometimes true and sometimes false, so I would say it remains an open question. It's quite possible that in today's India the sluggish dispensation will, like the proverbial tortoise, actually get there faster for the people who need it most.

Still, I'm betting on Mr Modi to win the top position next year.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Food for the mind: the Fundamental Physics Prize ceremony


This is as close to a live blog as I've ever got: the Fundamental Physics Prize ceremony took place this evening at the International Conference Centre in Geneva, ending about 15 minutes ago with Morgan Freeman wishing us a good night. [Note: I wrote these words last night but was too sleepy, and hungry, to complete the blog...]

When I realised I would be able to attend this ceremony by astutely timing a CERN visit (which had a different motivation), the first thing that struck me was the glamour. I would wear my tuxedo, sip champagne, consume caviar and smoked salmon and mingle with colleagues and friends. In the end some of this came true, but not all. Details at the end.

For those who don't know, this prize is Russian billionaire Yuri Milner's way of "glamourising" physics. As Morgan Freeman, the charismatic anchor for the event, put it: every profession has its way of publicly recognising those who reach "the apex of their sphere": actors, business people, politicians... Scientists should receive the same type of acclaim.

Having said this he frowned, pretending to be listening on his earphones and announced: "I've just been told a sphere does not have an apex".  His wit and humour was backed by a good deal of homework. Early in the evening he told us that European politics was a mirror of physics: the anti-immigrant policy was the "exclusion principle", the fiscal policy was the "uncertainty principle" etc.

After a brief piano recital by Denis Fursaev, the nine original winners of the FPP were called on stage: Arkani-Hamed, Linde, Guth, Kontsevich, Maldacena, Seiberg, Witten, Kitaev and Sen. Ashoke seemed to be relaxed and quite enjoying himself. I took a video of Morgan Freeman announcing Ashoke's prize:

video

My colleague and friend Rohini Godbole and I applauded vigorously for Ashoke. Among other things, we were all in Stony Brook together during the late 1970's. (We also attended the ceremony as his guests.)

Linde made a short and fairly humorous speech on behalf of the nine laureates. Then it was time for Stephen Hawking, who showed up looking a little older than I last remember him (not surprising since 12 years have elapsed...). Here's a picture of him at the cocktail party preceding the event, in attractive company:


The Special Prize was personally given to him by Yuri Milner. Actually Milner gave it to Lucy Hawking, Stephen's daughter. In fact, like many people when they first meet SWH, Milner nervously avoided Hawking himself and ran off the stage at the first opportunity. Hawking gave a nice little speech about his scientific contributions, which are of course very impressive.

I may be mixing up the order of things, but at some point there was a brief speech by the designer - Olafur Eliasson - of the "trophy", a wiry metallic sphere the size of a football that looks like this:


For me, the most moving part of the ceremony was what followed: seven experimental physicists, all associated with CERN and the LHC: Lyn Evans, Michel Della Negra, Tejinder Virdee, Guido Tonelli, Peter Jenni, Joe Incandela and Fabiola Gianotti, came up on stage to receive a Special Prize. Unlike the original gang of nine, who didn't get to address us (other than Linde), these people all gave short acknowledgement speeches. All referred to the collective nature of the LHC, the decades of hard work, the globalised nature of the research, the people who could not be here but had made important contributions, and most of all the student and postdocs. A very beautiful tribute to what is surely among the greatest achievements in the history of science. Fabiola's talk was particularly personal and touching, she is a really great communicator. And far and away the best dressed:


This was followed by the appearance of an unimpressive human being on the screen ("live from New York") called Charlie Rose. I knew the name only vaguely but it soon became clear I hadn't missed anything. In that simpering manner of American TV hosts, he asked a question to each of the seven awardees on stage. The questions were banal and his face while receiving the answers was expressively vacuous. Here's a sample: "I've been, uh, hearing words today like "gravity" and "dark matter", so could you tell us, uh, where all this is heading?". To another person he asked "What were the challenges?" An avoidable part of the event, and a waste of time.

After this Denis Fursaev reappeared and played four piano pieces. He really is a very fine and expressive pianist and I would like to hear more of him in the future. I didn't recognise the first two pieces, but they sounded vaguely romantic and Russian or East European. The third was Grieg's "Hall of the Mountain King" and the fourth, a Duke Ellington medley in which "Take the A train" and "Caravan" were briefly recognisable.

Then it was time to move on to the New Horizons in Physics prizes: these were for young physicists who had made a significant impact on the field. The prize went to Niklas Beisert, Davide Gaiotto and Zohar Komargodski, of whom I met the last two at the cocktail party before the event and completely forgot to congratulate them. All these awards are richly deserved. The prize to Beisert was announced by Ashoke Sen, this was the only time we got to hear his voice.

Next came the Frontiers of Physics prize - awarded to Joe Polchinski, Alexander Polyakov and a jazz trio called the Topological Insulators (Kane, Molenkamp and Zhang). Polyakov looked bemused but thanked his wife for putting up with his research, which he described as a "form of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder". He has long been a hero of mine: his contributions in Quantum Field Theory are nothing short of stunning (strings, instantons, monopoles, confinement... and the roots of AdS/CFT) and all this except the last one happened when he was working in difficult circumstances in the Soviet Union. In those days he would sometimes visit Scandinavian countries (because the Soviet authorities allowed that) and everyone would flock there to hear him, as I once did in 1988. In those days he also once had to give a seminar on the French side of CERN since he didn't have a Swiss visa!

We were told that one of these three people (counting the Insulators as one person) would be the winner of the next FPP, to be announced at the end of the ceremony. I was rooting for Polyakov. True, I had just sat through a seminar by him at CERN earlier in the day that was simultaneously incomprehensible and controversial - but so what. I've never really followed anything he's said, but his written work - particularly from the early days - is brilliant.

After this came the most boring part of the event - after Charlie Rose - namely, an appearance by an "English classical crossover soprano" called Sarah Brightman. The stage was turned into a glittering, pulsating mess and she walked on flapping her hands vaguely in slow-motion like a little bird trying in vain to fly. After an operatic piece that featured "la luna" multiple times (pictures of the moon were projected for those who had missed the point), she lost all pretence of good taste and sang three songs at earsplitting volume. One of them had a vaguely Arabic-disco sound. The lady sitting on my left had her fingers in her ears. The fourth song, "Con te partiro/Time to say goodbye", had been a hit for her and Andrea Bocelli in 1996. I knew the song well, since in 1997 I spent three months in Amsterdam with a transistor radio tuned to a station that, apparently, owned only this record and played it all day long. It was the least intolerable of her performances, particularly as she had promised to say goodbye after it. But she did not keep her promise, discovering an "urgent request" from someone she could not name that led to yet another song from her.

By now it was nearing 11 and most of us were starving. The only remaining event was the announcement of the single winner from among the three Frontiers awardees. Alan Guth came on stage and was handed an envelope containing the winner's name, Oscar style. Morgan Freeman requested him to "collapse the wave function" by opening it. Guth gamely responded that not every physicist believes in the collapse of the wave function. Some, like himself, prefer the idea of branching into parallel universes. He assured us that in one of those universes the people whose names were not in that envelope would be winners. (Sure, and in one of them Charlie Rose would be a winner too!!). For the first time that evening I held my breath. When the name of Alexander Polyakov was read out I shouted "YES!" much to the surprise of people sitting around me. I'm second to none in my admiration of Polchinski and also the Topological Insulators, but Polyakov rocks.

Now I have to review the pre-event cocktail party. I was hoping for glamour and champagne and it was there in abundance. I got to dress up:


and chatted with Sumathi Rao, Ashoke Sen, Ed Witten, Chiara Nappi and several others. In fact in terms of meeting the winners, the whole week has been great: I've already attended talks at CERN by Arkani-Hamed, Witten and Polyakov, and lunched with Joe Incandela and with Nati Seiberg and Juan Maldacena.

But back to the cocktail party: the only food of any quality was food for the mind. The snacks were terrible: bruschetta on cheap bread, mediocre cheese and olives... and leathery kababs on skewers. As the evening wore on, Rohini and I (and I suppose everyone else) became more and more hungry. But by the time we were out of there it was 11:30 PM and there isn't any food to be had in Geneva at that time. I don't know what Rohini did (she was staying at the CERN hostel) but I went back to my hotel room and this was my dinner:


I suppose going to bed hungry provided a sort of spiritual conclusion to the whole evening...

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Armed and dangerous


A huge Indian oil tanker is traveling past Italy. On board it has several naval guards from Kerala, two of whom are keeping guard on deck with automatic rifles in their hands. Just off the coast they spot a tiny Italian boat and quite naturally assume it's filled with pirates. In fact it's a couple of pescatori looking for something to grill with lemon and garlic. The Keralites proceed to shoot dead these two Italian fishermen. Later, they say it was a "mistake". The Indian government and populace rallies round them, saying anyone could have made the same mistake, and that the Italians are taking it all too personally. What happened was an "unfortunate incident which everyone regrets. Our marines never wanted this to happen, but unfortunately it took place". That should be the end of that, no? Apparently not. The Italians arrest the Malayali naval guards and absurdly insist on trying them in their own courts.

Cut to South Africa. Fashion model Reeva Steenkamp is visited regularly at her home by her suitor, athlete Oscar Pistorius. Reeva lives in a gated community and keeps a gun (or several) under her bed. Pistorius often stays over at her place and shares her bed. On one such night, she awakens and hears a noise in the bathroom. Assuming this to be a burglar, she walks over and fires several shots through a locked door. Turns out it was just Pistorius who had got up to take a leak, and now the poor guy is history. Oops, she says, I'm so sorry, it was just a mistake. She never wanted this to happen, but unfortunately etc.

For those who live on a different planet, the above two summaries are role-reversed versions of true stories. In one case Italian guards mistakenly shot Indian fishermen off the Kerala coast. In the other, athlete Pistorius mistakenly shot his girlfriend. I'm neither a lawyer nor a witness, so I can't comment on what really happened or how one has to proceed. But the fact that a defence like "they made a mistake"  appears to carry any credibility at all, is only because the killers - in both cases - were white males. Apparently this allows you to say "I'm heavily armed, I shoot when I feel like, and I apologise when I kill the wrong person. Get used to me, people".

I can't imagine what would have happened if the Pistorius story really happened in reverse, the way I described it above. "Dumb blonde shoots athlete boyfriend"? And how would the world react to unprovoked firing on fishermen in designer clothing by natives from the land of lungi? One can only wonder.

Yesterday the Italian killers (I call them this because they admit to having killed) have jumped bail despite a solemn assurance to the Indian Government by the Italian Ambassador that they would return to face trial. And recently the South African killer (again, he admits to being one) has been granted bail. We'll see whether he stands trial, scheduled for June. Whichever way the legalities turn out, it seems that even today all you need is the right race, the right gender and the right guns, and you can get away with murder -- or at least attract a lot of sympathy.
 

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Polymath amma


Life at IISER is clearly so busy that I haven't found time to blog in over a month! Trying to start again. The occasion this time is the 11th death anniversary of my mother, last Monday. I've blogged several times about my father (here, here, here, here and here) but only once about my mother (here). That is not for any lack of interesting things to say about her, though.

Since Monday I've been recalling how many diverse subjects she knew something about, and how little she advertised the fact. Some anecdotes come to mind that are quite revealing. My mother was a graduate in the humanities and had an education degree as well. Her specialisation was history and child psychology. So I usually enlisted her help with my history lessons, and this was always forthcoming. What she didn't know about Parthians, Corinthians, Bactrians, Mauryas and Guptas wasn't worth knowing. She was also helpful with other humanities subjects like Geography and Literature. But it never struck me that her knowledge went beyond that.

Now when I was in the 4th standard (age 9) our teacher tried to explain how to carry out multiplications where one number was expressed in hours, minutes and seconds. But this teacher was not very bright and got it all wrong. With her method she would have got ordinary multiplication wrong too (she would add the "carry-over" to the digit in the next column before, rather than after, multiplying that digit - if you don't follow, just trust me that it doesn't work). I complained about it to my mother, who immediately understood and solved the problem diplomatically. She contacted another teacher in our school with a request to gently explain the fine points of multiplication to my teacher. This worked very well. Of course the problem in question was rather simple and it didn't occur to me that my mother had any great mathematical ability.

But this changed four years later. For various reasons I had switched schools abruptly and missed half a term in the process. During this term we were supposed to learn "long division" where you divide, say, an 11-digit number by a 5-digit number. I had missed the classes in which the method was explained, and one night I got panicky when attempting  a homework problem since I had no clue how to approach it. This time, unusually, my mother suggested I go to bed and think about it the next day. When I awoke, I found her sitting in the living room with sheets of paper covered with scribbles in front of her. She had actually figured out how to do long-division on her own in the early morning and was now ready to teach it to me. When I looked surprised she said something like: "didn't you know I once came first in my class in mathematics and got a special prize?". She was usually modest about her abilities but enjoyed a little victory once in a while.

The other incident that comes to mind started with a couple of Jehovah's Witnesses knocking on our door. They wanted to convince us that the end of the world was near or some such thing. Instead of turning them away (my father would have done that and flung something at them too!) she called them in and offered them tea. I was doing something else but an hour later when I peeked into the living room they were still there, and my mother was patiently telling them something. Presently they left, looking rather disappointed, and my mother revealed that she had challenged their understanding of the Bible. Beyond teaching at a college attached to the Convent of Jesus and Mary, I had no idea my mother knew or cared anything about the Bible. Again I looked surprised and again she gave me a "didn't you know" response. It turned out she had studied Scripture as an optional subject in college and was mighty confident about her detailed knowledge of Christianity.

Years later, she became the first Principal of her college who was not a nun, and not even a Catholic.