Thursday, January 30, 2014

Mango pickle

Recently I've had a bit of a debate with friends on Facebook about the Aam Aadmi Party and would like to use this space to think out my views and share them.

Arguably the most important new phenomenon in Indian politics, the AAP is a party whose philosophy (or perhaps, lack thereof) has left me in grave doubt and discomfort. This discomfort dates from their earlier incarnation as a protest movement against corruption, but has intensified since they came to power in Delhi.

It has become an axiom that India's leaders wallow in an evil stew of dishonesty, corruption and criminality. This axiomatic view is one of the roots of my discomfort. Axioms do not require justification, they are just taken to be true. As a scientist, I would instead like to investigate rationally and argue step by step. That allows for a little more perspective and also for correcting errors in the argument if any.

Now, even with my best debating skills I can hardly argue that India's elected leaders are particularly admirable. It appears that a significant number of them habitually commit  crimes, both social (such as rape and murder) and economic (such as corruption and theft). The question I want to raise is whether these persons are, in this criminal aspect, worse than the rest of us Indians, or in any specific way different from us. Or are they just the same as the rest of us on average? This is the central question whose answer determines how we should respond to the criminality of the political class.

Naturally politicians cannot be exactly like the "rest of us" due to the crucial difference that they have power (whatever the AAP might say, politics is power). So the question above has to be rephrased thus: are India's politicians just the same as the rest of us on average except that they are able to more easily indulge their criminality due to their power?

My answer is a clear "yes". Politicians have no unique claim on murder and rape - these days it seems everyone from mighty judges and magazine editors to humble security guards and bus drivers is involved in the business of sexual molestation. Politicians have no unique claim on corruption either. Their own corruption is usually in conjunction with powerful business interests. But plenty goes on without any help from politicians. Match-fixing is corruption on the part of bookmakers and sportspersons. Corruption and sexual molestation in Bollywood are nothing new. Businesses routinely pay TV and newspapers to propagate their case - a good example where both industry and media are corrupt without any help from politicians. So why do politicians get singled out for blame? How can we expect better from them when our society and culture are no better? How can we reform them before reforming our culture?

Now I can articulate my unease about AAP. Instead of trying to lay bare the root of corruption and exorcise it, it has become a nodal agency for shifting the blame outside ourselves. Its appeal to the urban middle-class voter is to basically pretend that corruption is something "out there", that we are merely its hapless victims and that the government refuses permission for anything only to extract a bribe. This makes AAP - as presently functioning - a part of the problem, not the solution.

To this day, most Indians will cheerfully give a bribe if doing so provides them an edge over someone else (who among you has not bribed for a railway ticket? did you ever think about the poor soul on the waiting list from whom that ticket was wrongfully snatched?). By turning the camera away from ourselves and onto someone else, the AAP has propped up the favourite construct of guilty persons: blaming the "other". From this perspective, the recent raid on Africans in Khirki village was no aberration. Prostitution and drug abuse are widespread in Indian cities and the law must be used to redress this problem. But the raid on the Africans was intended to convey a different message: that prostitution and drug use are not "Indian" habits and have come to us via dark and perverse foreigners. The AAP's website continues to defend the raid, by the way, and a thought-provoking attack on their defence appears in this article. So I'm afraid we can expect more moralising and distancing behaviour from this party.

Gandhi tried to teach us that true reform is reform from within, and he was completely right about that. All that is good about India (and there is a lot) has its roots in our cultural selves. All that is bad (and there is a lot) also has its roots in the self-same culture. Good or bad, we are all implicated. I don't know which political party will dare to tell us this and risk its vote base, but that's what we need to hear in order to make progress.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

If you're with us, you're also against us

Scientists such as myself were delighted to learn that the National Security Agency (NSA) of the United States plans to build a quantum computer. The news first appeared in the Washington Post, you can read it here. Previous attempts at snooping on civilians have tended to use physics mainly in the form of electronics, a subject that was exciting many decades ago but is no longer considered to be a part of physics at all. Quantum computing, by contrast, is a major buzzword these days. With the NSA's move in this direction, everyone living outside the US (the "snooped-upon") has a chance to be involved with the deepest questions in science, or at least to be the victim of people engaged in studying these questions.

For the benefit of readers who do not understand how quantum mechanical spying will enrich their lives, let me  imagine a system where it is possible to be in one of two states: "with us" and "against us". The classical dynamics of this two-state system was famously analysed by one George W. Bush, who correctly observed that it was possible to be in only one of these states. But in quantum mechanics things are different: one can be in a quantum superposition of the two. A simple example would be a person who is "with us" with an amplitude of one over the square root of 2, and also "against us" with the same amplitude. Importantly, the phase of "against us" can be arbitrary relative to "with us", leading to the possibility of "quantum interference".

Imagine a person in the quantum state just described. As long as the NSA does not spy on her, she will simply remain in that state (for which reason it's called a "stationary state"). But suppose they measure whether she is "with us", as the NSA will surely want to do. This leads to a disastrous phenomenon called "collapse of the wave function". The poor soul will instantly find herself to be either "with us", or "against us", and the probability of collapsing into each of these states will be exactly a half. Moreover, and I can hardly stress this enough, all subsequent measurements will return the same state as the first one. We physicists like to say that the person went into an eigenstate.

It is not clear, at the time of writing, whether collapsing a person's wave function and forcing them into an eigenstate is as serious a violation of human rights as collapsing their humanity and forcing them into Guantanamo prison. As usual, the NSA is way ahead of the United Nations on this matter. Even physicians can't be certain: is forcing you into an eigenstate as painful as forcing water up your nose? Today this is a known unknown, but once the NSA unveils its powerful quantum computer we will be sure. Or perhaps we will only know with a definite probability?

As a human-rights supporter, I look forward with interest to the first quantum trial in a court of law. The dialogue might run like this:

Judge: Is the defendant with us or against us?
NSA: Yes, your honour.
Judge: You mean she is the sum of both?
NSA: Not necessarily, your honour. She could be the difference of both. Or a complex combination.
Judge: You mean you couldn't detect the phase?
NSA (looks at shoes): No, your honour. Our quantum computer programmer isn't good with complex numbers.
Judge: Case dismissed!