Tuesday, December 22, 2009

A Montaigne essay

Of repentance

OTHERS form man; I only report him: and represent a particular one, ill fashioned enough, and whom, if I had to model him anew, I should certainly make something else than what he is: but that's past recalling. Now, though the features of my picture alter and change, 'tis not, however, unlike: the world eternally turns round; all things therein are incessantly moving, the earth, the rocks of Caucasus, and the pyramids of Egypt, both by the public motion and their own. Even constancy itself is no other but a slower and more languishing motion. I cannot fix my object; 'tis always tottering and reeling by a natural giddiness: I take it as it is at the instant I consider it; I do not paint its being, I paint its passage; not a passing from one age to another, or, as the people say, from seven to seven years, but from day to day, from minute to minute. I must accommodate my history to the hour: I may presently change, not only by fortune, but also by intention. 'Tis a counterpart of various and changeable accidents, and of irresolute imaginations, and, as it falls out, sometimes contrary: whether it be that I am then another self, or that I take subjects by other circumstances and considerations: so it is, that I may peradventure contradict myself, but, as Demades said, I never contradict the truth. Could my soul once take footing, I would not essay but resolve: but it is always learning and making trial.
I propose a life ordinary and without lustre: 'tis all one; all moral philosophy may as well be applied to a common and private life, as to one of richer composition: every man carries the entire form of human condition. Authors communicate themselves to the people by some especial and extrinsic mark; I, the first of any, by my universal being; as Michel de Montaigne, not as a grammarian, a poet, or a lawyer. If the world find fault that I speak too much of myself, I find fault that they do not so much as think of themselves. But is it reason, that being so particular in my way of living, I should pretend to recommend myself to the public knowledge? And is it also reason that I should produce to the world, where art and handling have so much credit and authority, crude and simple effects of nature, and of a weak nature to boot? Is it not to build a wall without stone or brick, or some such thing, to write books without learning and without art? The fancies of music are carried on by art; mine by chance. I have this, at least, according to discipline, that never any man treated of a subject he better understood and knew, than I what I have undertaken, and that in this I am the most understanding man alive: secondly, that never any man penetrated farther into his matter, nor better and more distinctly sifted the parts and sequences of it, nor ever more exactly and fully arrived at the end he proposed to himself. To perfect it, I need bring nothing but fidelity to the work; and that is there, and the most pure and sincere that is anywhere to be found. I speak truth, not so much as I would, but as much as I dare; and I dare a little the more, as I grow older; for, methinks, custom allows to age more liberty of prating, and more indiscretion of talking of a man's self. That cannot fall out here, which I often see elsewhere, that the work and the artificer contradict one another: "Can a man of such sober conversation have written so foolish a book?" Or "Do so learned writings proceed from a man of so weak conversation?" He who talks at a very ordinary rate, and writes rare matter, 'tis to say that his capacity is borrowed and not his own. A learned man is not learned in all things: but a sufficient man is sufficient throughout, even to ignorance itself; here my book and I go hand in hand together. Elsewhere men may commend or censure the work, without reference to the workman; here they cannot: who touches the one, touches the other. He who shall judge of it without knowing him, will more wrong himself than me; he who does know him, gives me all the satisfaction I desire. I shall be happy beyond my desert, if I can obtain only thus much from the public approbation, as to make men of understanding perceive that I was capable of profiting by knowledge, had I had it; and that I deserved to have been assisted by a better memory.
(This is part of an essay by Michel de Montaigne, a 16th Century French philosopher)

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Let the climate change if it must

For the longest time, I didn't know what to think on this whole climate change business. It seemed very important and exciting but it was also rather hard to tell where the truth lay. As a concerned citizen, someone who cares for trees and animals and the planet, I was inclined to side with the environmentalists. I had seen the beautiful hills of Northeast India being decimated. I knew that the song of the pines could no longer be heard in the towns there. We had mosquitoes, and traffic jams, and it was warmer, so people had fans in shops and even houses. All this was new, and definitely not nice.
The thinking got a little complicated because I also figured that the things causing the pollution are things I, for one, am not prepared to live without. I need my electricity. If it comes from polluting thermal plants, which 70 per cent of it in India does, well, too bad. I'm not giving up on bijli because of pollution far away.
I also need my car and plane. I've done my time in buses and traveled the breadth of the country unreserved on trains. I can afford a flight now, so I will take it.
If this is how I feel, it seems rather mean to deny others like me the right to a better life. The half a billion or so people in this country who live without electricity can't be faulted if they too want it. The morality on cars and planes may be a little more complicated, but surely, if someone gets an education, finds a job, and buys a car or planet ticket from his own hard earned money, there's nothing wrong with it?
So let the climate change if it has to. Technology will hopefully find a way, like it always has, to keep us ahead of doomsday scenarios like Malthus'. It's a risk we really can't avoid.
We can, however, ponder two statements. Gandhi once said the earth has enough for every man's need, but not every man's greed. Some years ago, I asked Amartya Sen about his thought on this, and he said, no one can curb the desire of people for a better life.

Friday, December 04, 2009

No terror without safe havens

Do you remember the pictures of Saddam Hussein when he was caught? The dictator who had caused three major wars and sent more than a million people to their deaths looked like a beggar. He lay on the ground, with a bloody mouth, disheveled. It was possible suddenly to feel pity even for him.

V Prabhakaran’s end was worse. The ‘tiger’ who had killed so many lay in the mud with half his head blown off.

The point of invoking those memories is to say that in the end, they were both ordinary mortals. Without the protection of their soldiers and their states – a temporary de facto one in Prabhakaran’s case - they were nothing.

That is the fact which leaders of some of the major insurgencies in India’s northeast are probably coming to terms with now. The United Liberation Front of Asom and the National Democratic Front of Bodoland have been feared forces in Assam. They derived a large part of their power from the fact that their leaders enjoyed safe haven in Bangladesh, out of reach of Indian forces.

Now that haven is gone, and suddenly, the leaders of both these groups find themselves in captivity. They are powerless and their groups are in disarray.

It only took a change in government policy in Dhaka to bring about the sudden change in conditions. The capture of ULFA chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa, which could not be achieved since 1979, was finally done in days, without military action.

There is now a window of opportunity for the Indian government to bring lasting peace to the northeast. The extremists who will never give up their delusions of grand homelands can be sidelined. The corrupt, who make a living out of terrorism, can be safely jailed. The moderates can be talked to, and heard.

A similar chance of peace might have emerged across South Asia if the government of Pakistan were to do what the Bangladesh government did. It is known and acknowledged by pretty much every government in the world that the leaderships of the Taliban, al Qaeda and Lashkar e Toiba are in Pakistan. Dawood Ibrahim has been known to live there for years.

Yet the United States is forced to send 30,000 more troops into Afghanistan and spend 30 billion more dollars because the Pakistanis won’t deliver five or six gents to them. India loses less; it is forced into a silly and pointless exercise of sending dossiers, and a much more useful and necessary exercise of getting its police and intelligence agencies in order.

The al Qaeda is in disarray. The Taliban is divided and on the run. Yet Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar remain sources of power, because they are protected by powerful interests in Pakistan. Their protectors retain them as bargaining chips and pawns, despite the risks to their own country.

President Obama’s Afghan strategy is likely to achieve little without real cooperation from Pakistan. Merely holding Afghanistan’s population centres will ensure status quo at best. Any lasting improvement will come only if the real powers in this game – those who protect Osama and his ilk – stop doing so. That would be real cooperation, and it would help stabilize all of South Asia.

This is not to say that all political violence in the region would end if Pakistan’s military changed its policy. The Maoists in India and Nepal, for example, would still be around. The desire of many Kashmiris for independence or more autonomy would still live on. Governments would still need to address legitimate political and social grievances.

But the random bomb blasts that kill innocent civilians might hopefully become a thing of the past.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Thief! Or, How the Net Stole my Time

It’s going to be a tearaway fast busy day at work. I look at the clock as I sit down before my computer, and log in to my mail to check for important messages. Must hurry, I’v got to get to work early. Oh, the first five messages are from Facebook! Nothing terribly important, of course, but it’ll only take a moment to see what they are about. Great, a friend request from a guy I haven’t met since college! That’s so wonderful. And an invitation to a friend’s book launch. Darn, I won’t be able to make it. I must let him know.

So I log in to Facebook. There’s a funny status message from a pal asking who among us would make the best private detective. Everyone is nominating himself or herself, so I nominate myself as well. A couple of other status messages also demand action. There’s one saying “zeitgeist: raat bhar, aapki tweet aati rahi”. Haha. Zeitgeist: All night, your tweets kept coming. Wonder who that could be. Shashi Tharoor?

Reminds me, I must log in to Twitter and see what Twitter Minister has updated now. His tweets are often interesting. Today it’s about him speaking his first words in Parliament. “Alas, they were formulaic: I beg to lay papers on the table of the House”, the writer-diplomat-minister laments. Would have been more fun if he’d started with a quote from… Michael Jackson. For that matter, the Budget speech would have been more fun if Pranab da had quoted Michael Jackson.

There’s a tweet from New Scientist magazine as well. Monkeys have a memory for grammar, it says, but like the rest of us, they occasionally misuse apostrophes.

I guess that proves Darwin was right, finally. Now enough of creationism.

I quickly scan the rest of the Facebook and Twitter updates to see who’s doing what. Lucky sod, she’s in Scotland. Oh, that bastard is gloating about the Bangalore climate. And what’s that nincompoop doing with a hot babe in Manali? Life is so unfair.

Ah, a bit of useful info, finally. A geek friend has put up a link to how you can remote control your PC using email, Twitter or SMS. Wow. It seems you can actually turn your computer off or on, or log out from pretty much anywhere in the world, with just a tweet or SMS! All it takes is one free app.

Would I want to remote control my PC? What if something goes wrong and someone else takes over my PC via remote control? Hm. Let me think. Actually, let me Google. And Digg.

Oh, here it is. Some guy who calls himself Johan Marcus Guy has written that he got the instructions wrong, and now his PC is controlling him via Twitter and SMS.

“Just moments ago, my Windows sent me an SMS request to attack my dog with a golf club. I think he'll be fine, but he did sustain traumatic injuries.

This is not the main problem however, the emails are.

In the past three hours I've been made to buy 25 shipments of Viagra, and to look for hot grannies in my neighborhood. This has hurt my self-esteem, but it seems that Windows is a cruel mistress with no calculations for caring or the basic principles of love,” he writes.

Maybe I should stay away from this free remote control download. I don’t want my PC controlling me. Heck, no.

Oh no! What time is it? Damn, I’m late!

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Zen and the art of Charlie Wilson's war

I'm not much of a TV fan, but once in a while it is quite pleasant to watch. A few days ago, finding myself at home with nothing much to do, I switched on the TV and flipped channels past Rakhi's swayamvar and suchlikes, stopping finally at the film Charlie Wilson's War on, I think, HBO.
It's a terrific film, and claims to be based on facts. It shows how one US Congressman may have influenced the course of history.
Congressman Charlie Wilson happened to spot on TV that the Afghan mujahideen were getting smashed by the Soviet Union because the Soviets had far better weapons. The mujahideen were fighting using a few WW II rifles while the Soviets had tanks and aircraft. So Wilson decides to lobby for more money and weapons for the mujahideen.
The rest is known. The mujahideen get their Stingers and their AKs and RPGs and eventually bleed the Soviet Union pretty much to death.
When the Soviets leave, the Congressman has a huge party. He asks CIA's station chief in Afghanistan why he doesn't look overjoyed. The guy narrates a Zen story. It goes something like this:

An old farmer had worked his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit.

"Such bad luck," they said sympathetically.

"We'll see," the farmer replied.

The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses.

"How wonderful," the neighbors exclaimed.

"We'll see," replied the old man.

The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune.

"We'll see," answered the farmer.

The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son's leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out.

"We'll see" said the farmer.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Armchair activists and the struggle in Iran

I feel sorry for all the good natured armchair activist types. They rarely know what fight they are really fighting. Take the recent protests in Iran, for example. A lot of armchair activists around the world joined in support. They wrote Twitter messages and Facebook status updates, and some even went so far as to send forwards! They probably had the best of intentions, mostly, but it is quite likely that they were actually supporting one bunch of radical Shia against another.

In a report released today, the US think tank Stratfor has analysed the causes of the present unrest in Iran. Their analysis is that it is primarily a fight between the class of clergy that came to power after the Iranian revolution of 1979 and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who wants his own appointees in the ruling clergy. George Friedman writes that the focus of the current power struggle was not Mir Mousavi, a founding member of the Islamic Republican Party who was prime minister of Iran during its disastrous war with Iraq, but Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

Here is part of what Startfor wrote:

Rafsanjani represents the class of clergy that came to power in 1979. He served as president from 1989-1997, but Ahmadinejad defeated him in 2005. Rafsanjani carries enormous clout within the system as head of the regime’s two most powerful institutions — the Expediency Council, which arbitrates between the Guardian Council and parliament, and the Assembly of Experts, whose powers include oversight of the supreme leader. Forbes has called him one of the wealthiest men in the world. Rafsanjani, in other words, remains at the heart of the post-1979 Iranian establishment.

Ahmadinejad expressly ran his recent presidential campaign against Rafsanjani, using the latter’s family’s vast wealth to discredit Rafsanjani along with many of the senior clerics who dominate the Iranian political scene. It was not the regime as such that he opposed, but the individuals who currently dominate it. Ahmadinejad wants to retain the regime, but he wants to repopulate the leadership councils with clerics who share his populist values and want to revive the ascetic foundations of the regime. The Iranian president constantly contrasts his own modest lifestyle with the opulence of the current religious leadership.

Recognizing the threat Ahmadinejad represented to him personally and to the clerical class he belongs to, Rafsanjani fired back at Ahmadinejad, accusing him of having wrecked the economy. At his side were other powerful members of the regime, including Majlis Speaker Ali Larijani, who has made no secret of his antipathy toward Ahmadinejad and whose family links to the Shiite holy city of Qom give him substantial leverage. The underlying issue was about the kind of people who ought to be leading the clerical establishment. The battlefield was economic: Ahmadinejad’s charges of financial corruption versus charges of economic mismanagement leveled by Rafsanjani and others.

When Ahmadinejad defeated Mir Hossein Mousavi on the night of the election, the clerical elite saw themselves in serious danger. The margin of victory Ahmadinejad claimed might have given him the political clout to challenge their position. Mousavi immediately claimed fraud, and Rafsanjani backed him up. Whatever the motives of those in the streets, the real action was a knife fight between Ahmadinejad and Rafsanjani.

This may not be the whole truth either, but since Startfor (www.stratfor.com) is not known as the ‘shadow CIA’ for nothing, presumably they know a little more than the rest of us.

So next time before you jump on to a bandwagon, look before you leap.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Let's move the capital of India!

Mothers smeared their children with mud, and men swathed themselves in wet towels. Tar oozed in the streets…In India last week not even mad dogs or Englishmen went out in the midday sun.”

This could have been written last week. In fact, it was a report on the Indian summer in Time magazine in the first week of July, 1958.

The monsoon is late. Everyone from the prime minister to the marginal farmer is waiting anxiously for news of rain that hasn’t come. So far, the weatherman has only this to say: that it’s not going to be a good monsoon, and that temperatures are even higher than they always are at this time of the year.

It didn’t take thermometers or experts to tell. We’ve felt it in Delhi. It has been about five degrees above the normal, hitting 44 degrees Celsius on Wednesday. With rain clouds nowhere on the city’s horizon yet, both water and power supplies are beginning to falter.

To be stuck in this searing heat without electricity or water is rather uncomfortable. Add a fire and it could be a version of life in hell. There is no shortage of devils here; that deficiency won’t be felt.

This is when a Raj-era practice begins to make sense. From 1864, every summer, the British began moving the administration to a summer capital up in the Himachal hills in Shimla. It was quite an effort — the national capital then was in Calcutta, 1,700 km away.

This very civilised practice was discontinued after Independence.

Perhaps India should think of  reviving it. If the British empire at its zenith could rule its Asian territories from Shimla long before there was telephone or Internet or air travel, surely it is not impossible to do so now.

Another alternative might be to take the capital to a city with a more salubrious climate, like Bangalore. There, the summer maximum temperature rarely rises above 33 degrees Celsius, or the winter minimum falls below 15 degrees.

Making it the capital would do Bangalore — and India — a world of good. The city’s identity crisis would be resolved for good. It would stop being conflicted between its laid back small town self and its identity as a global city. Its infrastructure problems would be addressed seriously, like Delhi’s have been.

The sense that south India is like a whole other country would also evaporate. At present, the general impression among most people in other parts of India is that all of south India is one homogeneous mass, where everyone speaks either Tamil or Malayalam, and eats dosas and idlis. Nothing like transplanting an army of these ignoramuses to the southern heartland and exposing them to Andhra, Chettinad and Mangalorean meat and fish dishes.

There would be other benefits as well. The capital would be 2,000 km further away from the borders with Pakistan and China, for one.

Of course Bangalore and Shimla are not the only options. Capital cities can and have been built from green field up — Brazil did that with Brasilia. It deliberately located the new capital in an underdeveloped region to take development to that part of the country.

So, on third thoughts, maybe India can build a new capital in the hills of Northeast India somewhere near Shillong. Moving the centre is really the best way to make the periphery feel it belongs.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

There is reincarnation, at least for bureaucracies

The US standard railroad gauge (distance between the rails) is 4 feet, 8.5 inches. That's an exceedingly odd number. Why was that gauge used? Because that's the way they built them in England, and English expatriates built the US Railroads.

Why did the English build them like that? Because the first rail lines were built by the same people who built the pre-railroad tramways, and that's the gauge they used.
Why did "they" use that gauge then? Because the people who built the tramways used the same jigs and tools that they used for building wagons, which used that wheel spacing.

Okay! Why did the wagons have that particular odd wheel spacing? Well, if they tried to use any other spacing, the wagon wheels would break on some of the old, long distance roads in England, because that's the spacing of the wheel ruts.

So who built those old rutted roads?

Imperial Rome built the first long distance roads in Europe (and England) for their legions. The roads have been used ever since.

And the ruts in the roads?

Roman war chariots formed the initial ruts, which everyone else had to match for fear of destroying their wagon wheels. Since the chariots were made for Imperial Rome, they were all alike in the matter of wheel spacing.
The United States standard railroad gauge of 4 feet, 8.5 inches is derived from the original specifications for an Imperial Roman war chariot. And bureaucracies live forever.
So the next time you are handed a specification and wonder what horse's ass came up with it, you may be exactly right, because the Imperial Roman army chariots were made just wide enough to accommodate the back ends of two war horses!

Now, the twist to the story

When you see a Space Shuttle sitting on its launch pad, there are two big booster rockets attached to the sides of the main fuel tank. These are solid rocket boosters, or SRBs.
The SRBs are made by Thiokol at their factory at Utah. The engineers who designed the SRBs would have preferred to make them a bit fatter, but the SRBs had to be shipped by train from the factory to the launch site.
The railroad line from the factory happens to run through a tunnel in the mountains.
The SRBs had to fit through that tunnel.

The tunnel is slightly wider than the railroad track, and the railroad track, as you now know, is about as wide as two horses' behinds.

So, a major Space Shuttle design feature of what is arguably the world's most advanced transportation system was determined over two thousand years ago by the width of a horse's ass.

And you thought being a HORSE'S ASS wasn't important!

NOTE: This is a forward I got, and I don't know who wrote it. I loved it so here it is.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

A win beyond their dreams

Even Priyanka Gandhi thought it was going to be 'touch and go', but in the end, it's turned out to be the biggest victory for the Congress since 1991. Who would have thought, 24 hours ago, that this was coming? Not the Congress itself, because its leaders were still in touch with potential allies of all shades and shapes. Not the President, who was consulting constitutional experts on her options in the event of a hung parliament. Not the pollsters who again got it wrong - every single one of them. They predicted that UPA would be ahead, but were off target by about 50 seats on averge. And yes, not the media, or even the wise bloggers, who all thought it was going to be a close call.
In the end, it was a wave no one saw coming. The nightmare scenarios didn't come to pass. There will be no loonies ruling us in the next few years.
Much punditry is on already about why the Congress won the victory it did. It's all speculation, none of it based on fact.
But here's what we do know: the Congress fought this election on the slogan, "Aam aadmi ke badhtey kadam, har kadam par Bharat buland". Translated, that means, "The advancing footsteps of the common man, a stronger India at every step". In other words, the Congress targeted the common man in these elections, and did so suggesting this would lead to a stronger India. Its campaign song, set to the tune of "Jai ho" from Slumdog Millionaire, was similarly an aspirational tune addressed to the common man. Even its advertising was about empowering the masses, empowering rural India and empowering youth.
The party has evidently won support from all these sections. To some extent, it would have done so because of the work the government did, especially through generous acts like the NREGA and the Rs 65,000 crore dole to farmers. That has paid off.
Rahul Gandhi's campaigning has also doubtless played a part, especially the image of him in contrast to the octogenarian Advani. The poor old man lifting weights to try and prove a youth he no longer had will remain among the sad images of these elections.
A lot of the credit for the Congress win in Uttar Pradesh must also be given to its regional rivals in the state. They have so thoroughly discredited themselves that the only party left for anyone to vote was Congress. Something similar happened in Telengana in Andhra Pradesh, where TRS was decimated, and even in Bengal, where the Left had become the party of hubris.
The internal divides in its opponents helped the Congress in states like Rajasthan. The same factor hindered it in Karnataka.
The takeaway message from this win for ALL political parties in India should be that the common man is no fool and cannot be taken for granted. Good work and a measure of honesty are becoming important for winning elections. That's why Nitish Kumar won in Bihar, and Lalu and Paswan lost. That's why Naveen Patnaik won in Orissa. And even Modi in Gujarat.
Politicians must now earn their votes. They can't merely buy them.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

The attack on Lanka's team

The question is: Que bono. Who benefits?
Not India, who gain nothing from strengthening hardliners opposed to it in Pakistan or Sri Lanka. Nor the Pakistan or Lanka governments.
Sometimes the most likely suspects are really the ones whodunit. In this case, that would be Lashkar+Taliban. If intelligence agencies can cooperate, so can terrorists and insurgents.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

After Mumbai

As suspected, it has turned out to be LeT terrorists with backing from the ISI and al Qaeda who carried out the Mumbai Nov 26 attacks. As expected, Pakistan's military has prevented all attempts at cooperation in bringing to justice the perpetrators of these attacks.
The arrests of these terrorists and their detention in Pakistan can be expected to yield no benefits for India. This is just a sham, and meaningless. Criminals run operations from their jail cells even here, without state patronage. Surely they can do so from jail there, with a little help from their friends.
The US and UK will not help India any more than they are. Like true romantics, they are unable to give up hoping against hope that the Pakistan ISI will somehow have a change of heart, someday, and really start fighting against terrorists instead of training and arming them.
India must therefore learn once again to help itself.
A first step in this regard would be the launch of a trade contest versus Pakistan. The products they mainly export - garments, textiles, yarn, petroleum products - are items India also does business in. The areas they export to are also our markets.
We must therefore suspend trade with Pakistan immediately and attempt to replace their goods with ours everywhere.
Pakistan government officials have already admitted that the attackers were Pakistani and said they had camps inside Pakistan. International economic sanctions against the key individuals and organisations named for involvement in the attack must be pushed through.
If UN sanctions could be imposed against Col Gadaffi's Libya (over handing over of two terror suspects), why can't they be imposed against at least the individuals and organisations in Pakistan who are known supporters of terror?
All this eventually is also in the world's, and Pakistan's, interest. A Talibanised Pakistan wouldn't be very good to Sherry Rehman, for example - or to anyone who prefers the 21st Century to the 16th.