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Journalists, power and Shekhar Gupta’s memoirs December 28, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in contemplation, people, politics.
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I just read two articles from journalists that have known Benazir Bhutto personally – Shekhar Gupta during his many years of reporting and Karan Thapar from their college days. Both articles make for an engaging read and are replete with anecdotes from the yesteryears.

Reading some of these writings one wonders what must it be like to be a journalist – with close association, understanding and friendship with a country’s (and often international) ruling class. A journalist-friend of mine in the Indian Express says that is one of the main lures of the profession – the contacts you make. Understandable, but then again not all politicians are great human beings, the nice to know types. Some of them are not only miserable people themselves but are also liable for misery and bloodshed elsewhere, either willfully perpetrated or condoned or done in their name. [ More on politics ] What would it be like to have such people in your phone book and among your email contacts and vice-versa ? Also most people in power (or those that have been) have egos that need to be pandered to. Not my idea of a day job.

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Talking of Shekhar Gupta, I have admired his writings for years now. And having watched/read him interviewing people, I almost feel like I can see inside his mind. He sets the stage gradually to extract that one headline, almost like the leg spinner who bowls four consecutive balls moving away from the right hander and finally nails the batsmen with the fifth that remains straight. If a potentially controversial question is evaded, he rephrases the question and as he does so, may even add a controversial statement that elicits a reaction from the interviewee. When the interviewee decides to react, the interviewer has won.

Yet, if there is one aspect of his writing that I am ambivalent about, its how he makes it clear to the reader that he is important, that he has been there and done that and that he is aware of his place in post-1975 Indian political reporting history. Or at least that he has one. For example, a number of times he writes in his newspaper columns that what he is about to tell us is something that he had originally reserved for his memoirs but will tell us right now anyway. Look Shekhar, I am starting to find this funny, maybe even condescending. 🙂

A simple search for (“Shekhar Gupta” “my memoirs) [ Retain the quotes, remove the parenthesis if you want to do the search yourself ] revealed at least 5 columns – 1 , 2 , 3 , 4 and 5. And the other day on a TV debate when he was asked to call what will happen to the Gujrat elections (before the results came in), while everyone else on the panel took a shot, Shekhar from atop his high horse went – “From my 27 years in journalism, one thing I have learnt is to never call an election….”. When pressed he said he would prefer to “respect the voter.” Really ? Or is it because if he were proved wrong, 20 years from now Vikram Chandra (who moderated the discussion) is going to keep this story for his memoirs ? All said and done, I will continue to follow him and read everything he writes. Putting up with some of the above is a small price to pay to get some insights and read some very interesting anecdotes.

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Indian “Fox” and Public sector unbound December 22, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in india, politics.
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A friend sends me this video from IBN-live website. This is about the almost completed Golden Quadrilateral and how the changes it brings are far and wide. In his email he adds :

..in the entire program these ***kers have not mentioned whose dream project all this was !!

For those of you who don’t know, he is referring to the fact that the program was initiated during the NDA regime. In reply to this mail (it went to a bunch of other folks), one of them writes in :
when do we hear that a news channel is being run by Swapan Dasgupta or Chandan Mitra or Arun Shouri??? BJP must realize that media is very very powerful; unless they start a media house like Republicans did Fox in US, their opinion will never be heard…
Interesting, while there are newspapers such as Livemint whose editorial stance is fiscally conservatism (and socially liberal), is there any major Hindi/English channel that is to the right of center, at least on the fiscal side.
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On a related note, the Indian Express has been running a series called “Public Sector Unbound” which is tracking all that happened to privatized PSUs (mostly privatized in the pre-MMS era). Certainly not music to many ears, but (and therefore) makes for some good material for debates and discussion on the topic.
Sample this particular (erstwhile) Hindustan Zinc story. Happiness.

“I am a socialist but” December 8, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in humor, media, politics.
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Shobha Narayan in the MINT

Although my political leanings are socialist, I tend to get very bourgeois when it comes to spas.

And then the article limps from one account to another of her visit to spas at the Leela to ones at Singapore to other exotic ones elsewhere and how she stocks up on “spa products from Aromatherapy Associates, a UK firm I love, which, sadly, doesn’t retail in India.” Shoba, did you just say “sadly” ? Comrades ! there is treason in your ranks, purge !! . And then her desperate attempt to get multiple spa treatments by offering to pay more (incentives ??) because “her time is valuable”.

Finally she ends with her business plan that she thinks someone should take up, a plan that only brings about even more specialization and division of labor (remember what Chacha Marx had to say on that) where she goes on to give her Lutheresque “I have a dream speech” :

My dream is to get into a spa where each limb is taken charge of by a different person, my face by the fifth. Perhaps a sixth could do some abdominal chakra healing or whatever. The weird part is that I am happy to shell out bucks for all this. But there is nobody offering this six-in-one approach.

All the while as I read the article I wondered why that sentence claiming her socialist credentials ? Is this

a) satire (MINT has an audience sophisticated enough to get the joke, I am an exception)

b) typo (maybe she meant “capitalist” but can’t be – she said it twice !)

c) “I am a <enter your favorite political ideology here> until my interests are at stake” pattern.d) fashionable

e) intellectually endearing/satisfying

f) running for office sometime soon – you know our politicians and that ridiculous constitutional amendment. American politicians become unelectable as atheists, in India the cake (does not) go to non-socialists.

g) poking fun at her employer (MINT is partnering with the WSJ afterall).

h) I am wrong, after all why should socialists not visit spas ?

Well, this article would have been just alright without that one sentence.

More sentences for thought December 2, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in humor, politics.
2 comments

From Ian Mcewan, a British Novelist :

Atheists have as much conscience, possibly more, than people with deep religious conviction, and they still have the same problem of how they reconcile themselves to a bad deed in the past. It’s a little easier if you’ve got a god to forgive you.

That sentence later, I will be be okay even if I encounter absolutely no written irony/sarcasm for the rest of the week. 🙂 .

Come to think of it, who has died of lack of everyday irony.

By the way, if you did not know Deborah Soloman’s interviews in the NYTimes are different – kinda like the newspaper’s version of the Tim Sebastian’s Hard Talk. I linked to an interview with her before.

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From Vir Sanghvi

The truth, of course, is that only in India do we make a bizarre association between Communism, a totalitarian ideology that has little respect for human rights and whose leading lights have murdered millions of people, and liberal freedoms. But because the Left has rushed in to occupy this space, it is judged on different standards from other political parties. And so, the liberal outrage is greater when Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee behaves in a manner that we might expect from, say, Murli Manohar Joshi.

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One (and perhaps the only) brand of “feminist writing” a feminist of my brand likes – when a peeved lady writes an article, much in jest, on feeling discriminated against and eventually concludes :

I have invested an embarrassingly large fraction of my income on my wardrobe and consider it a valuable asset (or I should, considering it is worth more than my 401(k)).

I chose my dry cleaner because of the quality of their service and quick turn-around. The family that owns the cleaner have also become a surrogate mother to me: sewing on stray buttons, lecturing me on the poor care I take of my clothes, and telling me what pieces are more flattering than others. The state of my wardrobe has become so dependent on my cleaner they have a monopoly power over me. I even felt guilty questioning their pricing policy. Apparently, they have no such power over their male customers so I will continue to be exploited.

What comparable stereotype would you associate with men –  who is most likely to become a surrogate mother/father to a man ?

Can blogs be objective vis-a-vis MSM ? November 4, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in blogging, media, politics.
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Consider 2 bloggers X of left political persuasion and Y is from the right. For now lets focus not on social positions but on economic/trade related.

X regularly links to article such these from Paul Krugman :

Mr. Giuliani got his numbers from a recent article in City Journal, a publication of the conservative Manhattan Institute. The author gave no source for his numbers on five-year survival rates — the probability that someone diagnosed with prostate cancer would still be alive five years after the diagnosis. And they’re just wrong.

Y links to article B such as this from Greg Mankiw :

Our health care system is not perfect, but it has been a major source of advances in our standard of living, and it will be a large share of the economy we bequeath to our children. As we look at reform plans, we should be careful not to be fooled by statistics into thinking that the problems we face are worse than they really are.

For someone who is not really bothered with America’s healthcare problems, the summary is that Krugman thinks America’s healthcare is more screwed up than reported and Y thinks its less so.

Now both X and Y are not quantitative social scientists, to use a term broader than just ‘economists’ and as such are unable to independently and competently critique articles A and B, but they link to respective articles anyway.What do you do when you encounter Krugman’s article in X’s blog or Mankiw’s article in Y’s blog ?

In most cases, I just ignore it.

As a blogger, our defense would be that with other full-time jobs, family, community activities and errands to run, one seldom has time to come up with competent critiques of foreign subjects, so just outsource your thinking and put your faith in your favorite commentator – Krugman, Mankiw or Cowen, as the case may be. But even readers too have “full-time jobs, family, community activities and errands to run” and we don’t want to be saddled with the blogger’s long held positions and biases. Fair enough, ain’t it. 🙂

As a blogger I have no solution for this problem (other than to link to such stuff less frequently) and as a reader, I can afford to live with it I guess. But yeah, increasingly what kind of a blogger you are becomes more important than what you have to say on some issues – because your stand is predictable and credibility is at risk, even if your honesty/good intents are not in doubt.

Now note that both the articles I linked to appeared in the NYTimes within days of each other. So, mainstream media can at least make pretenses to objectivity (or some diversity in coverrage), but blogs with political content that are run by individuals or very small groups seldom should.

P.S: Closely related to “Political Philosophy as a consumer good.”

P.P.S : Just so I make it clear that I am not on some high horse, I am absolutely aware that the above discussion applies to this blog as well. If we meet up over coffee and you tell me that you ignore any content with an ideological hue when you read this blog, I will….I will just order another coffee. 🙂

Politically incorrect algorithms/’wisdom’ of the crowds October 15, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in humor, image, politics, technology.
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wisdom.JPG

 

 

Another kind of westernization that I bet you never knew about (unless you are from the pertinent profession ).

Looking forward to an impassioned Outlook article about Arundathi Roy’s agitation against ‘Epicanthoplasticians’/’Epicanthoplasti-narians’/’Epicanthoplasti-cists’.

 

Read disclaimer

Assorted Links today October 14, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in America, assorted, education, people, politics, videos.
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Most cheeky question yesterday on Mankiw Chacha’s blog :

Question to think about: If right-wingers are underrepresented in universities relative to the population and discriminated against by the left-wing majority, as Larry suggests, should there be affirmative action for right-leaning academics? It seems that, on principle, those on the left (who favor affirmative action to promote diversity and correct past injustice) should endorse such a university policy, and those on the right (who more often oppose affirmative action) would be against.

Weirdly, the comments section has been disabled for all posts on his blog.

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You are probably familiar with the “XXXX for Dummies” series. Its interesting that last week I saw a “Doing Business in India” for Dummies book. It means something.

Somewhat on similar lines, the Financial Times has a section on this now.

…FT Business School series of online executive education courses, conducted in partnership with leading business schools. Five professors from the Indian School of Business, in Hyderabad, will deliver lectures on topics such as marketing, microfinance and mobile telephony in a country such as India.

You will probably need a free registration there to view the videos. Seen on the same page, they have an entire series of videos on these and other topics conducted, what appears to be, in partnership with several top B-schools.

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Another atypical yet familiar, weird though not surprising, but a nevertheless interesting story about a 24 year old in Chicago. From Modern Love in NYTimes.

Indian Post, American marriages, history and the present September 20, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in assorted, history, india, people, politics, statistics.
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Some cool but not-so-well known (to me at least) facts about India :

With 1,55,618 post offices and over 5,66,000 employees, India has the largest postal network in the world. We can also boast of the world’s highest post office, Hikkim (pin code 172114). Located at 15,500 feet, Hikkim is part of the Lahaul and Spiti district in Himachal Pradesh. And, if you’d like to know about one more postal record, the world’s first official airmail flight took place right here in India, on February 18, 1911. It was a journey that spanned 18 kilometres and lasted 27 minutes. Henri Pequet, a French pilot, ferried around 15 kilos of mail (approximately 6,000 letters and cards) across the Ganga, from Allahabad to Naini.

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On the longevity (or the lack of it) of marriages in America.

More than half the Americans who might have celebrated their 25th wedding anniversaries since 2000 were divorced, separated or widowed before reaching that milestone, according to the latest census survey, released yesterday.

“We know that somewhere between 40 percent and 50 percent of marriages dissolve,” said Barbara Risman, executive officer of the Council on Contemporary Families, a research group. “Now, when people marry, everyone wonders, is this one of those marriages that will be around for awhile.”

That is down from 75% of marriages in the 50s lasting 25 years to about 46% for those married in the 70s.

Of course, one must remember that this has got not only with the fragility of marriage as an institution (though perhaps largely so), but also the fact that several marry very late in life, the above statistic also counts people’s second or later marriages, which more often (relative to first marriages) end with a death of one of the partners.

But yeah, think about it – when was the last time you were at a marriage in India and asking yourself about how long the marriage would last ? Or weirdly still, when was the last time you missed a marriage of one of your close friends and told yourself – “Its okay, there is always a next time.” 😀

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I wrote about the Smithsonian Museums in Washington D.C. in my previous post. And forgot to put their intriguing origins.

In 1826, James Smithson, a British scientist, drew up his last will and testament, naming his nephew as beneficiary. Smithson stipulated that, should the nephew die without heirs (as he would in 1835), the estate should go “to the United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.”

The motives behind Smithson’s bequest remain mysterious. He never traveled to the United States and seems to have had no correspondence with anyone here. Some have suggested that his bequest was motivated in part by revenge against the rigidities of British society, which had denied Smithson, who was illegitimate, the right to use his father’s name. Others have suggested it reflected his interest in the Enlightenment ideals of democracy and universal education.

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I like what this article says – on Sarkozy’s France – and the way it says it.

Krugman’s grouse with the media September 20, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in America, politics.
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Enter Paul Krugman, with a brand new blog. He points out something I have found myself amusing over too – at times, I feel the level of political discourse here is mature and high and just when I am beginning to be sure, I am treated to some rather puerile political commentary.

As Krugman says :

To a remarkable extent, punditry has taken a pass on whether Gen. Petraeus’s picture of the situation in Iraq is accurate. Instead, it was all about the theatrics – about how impressive he looked, how well or poorly his Congressional inquisitors performed. …

But here’s the thing: new polls by CBS and Gallup show that the Petraeus testimony had basically no effect on public opinion: Americans continue to hate the war, and want out. The whole story about how the hearing had changed everything was a pure figment of the inside-the-Beltway [the Washington D.C. area] imagination.

If you don’t know what I mean, recall how the media analyses the State of the Union address and the hidden messages behind it or how it compared to previous addresses and when was the last time the president used the word “x” within the first 10 minutes of the address. Or wait until next elections and see how the media dissects the the presidential debates ( who wore what, who was sweating more, and who appeared more presidential etc. )

A sample here from the Seattle Times.

Kerry seems a little high on himself. Kerry is shaking his head (when there’s a cutaway while Bush is speaking), writing something down. It bugs me. He also keeps looking at somebody in the audience. He’s not connecting with me. He’s not telling us how to he’s going to go from ‘O’ to ‘X.’ Bush does make a kind of scrunch on his face when he doesn’t agree with Kerry. But he seems more personable.

Reflects very poorly indeed on the world’s oldest democracy.

Assorted links September 13, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in assorted, politics.
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I like Arnold Kling’s very personal thoughts on 9/11, almost every single thing he says and hence worth reading in full. The last sentence of his post – “My guess is that if the United States becomes less nationalistic and less assertive, then the world as a whole will take a turn for the worse rather than for the better.” – might be too controversial, but people on either side of the divide have the advantage of never being able to know and demonstrate what if it were not so.

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Fighting Black poverty : This is very interesting.

It’s the first day of school, and Victoria is considering potential investments. In particular: How Mattel’s toy recall is impacting the company’s stock price. It’s hardly a typical 13-year-old’s concern. But then, Ariel Community Academy is unusual. Its 420 students, nearly all black and about 81% from low-income families, are testing an intriguing proposition: Can teaching urban black kids finance and economics help some of them escape poverty — and shake African-American skepticism about Wall Street?

A relevant reading would be this article that shows that poorest regions of Africa today are those regions from where the most slaves were ‘exported’ to the Americas. Not of course to say these are the sole reasons for Africa’s backwardness, but impossible to deny it was one of the major factors.

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Tyler Cowen’s views on Philanthropy.

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Amusing thing day-before-yesterday : Seeing a billboard ad in the New York City Times Square that says : “Welcome to the center of the Universe”.

Security and Cyber-security August 31, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in india, politics, technology.
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This is both bizarre and scary :

Taking a dig at cyber security preparedness levels, a hacker, who claims to be based in Sweden, posted online this evening the passwords of 100 email accounts of embassies and government offices across the world, including 13 Indian accounts, containing classified information and correspondence.

Top on the list of passwords that have been posted on http://derangedsecurity.com give access to email accounts of Indian Ambassadors to China, US, Sweden, Germany, Italy, Oman, Finland besides officials of the National Defence Academy (NDA) and Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO).

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Two articles on consecutive days in the Express about how political correctness is likely to cost India dear. From former IB director :

The worst reaction of a government to such a serious national challenge would be to underplay it, divert the discourse from core issues to the peripherals. Asserting that all is well and nothing needs to be changed, emphasising maintenance of social harmony as the core concern, complimenting people for bravely suffering losses and returning to normal lives, talking about human rights and protection of minorities — these are all laudable objectives. No one disputes them, but they do not address the core issues.

In the face of a threat as serious as this, the national focus should be on: how serious is the threat; its long and short-term implications; our capacities to counter the threat, both in policy formulation and policy execution; and how to address the deficiencies. This would involve considering ways to leverage civil society, media, the scientific community, religious leaders to the best national advantage; ways to neutralise the fast-growing domestic base of terrorism, including availability of hardware and human resource, collaborative linkages of the terrorists with organised crime, gun runners, drug syndicates, hawala operators, subversive radical groups, and how to break the nexus. Debate on the adequacy of the country’s laws, judicial administration, security systems and doctrines, etc, in the light of assessed threats is also important. The right discourse should also centre on our policy options vis-à-vis countries and groups involved in terrorist incidents in India. This is not happening, and that’s the tragedy.

And from Bibek Debroy. Before you head to his article, take a challenge and try to name the location and approximate month of the terror attacks in India since 2000. Once you are done, match your list with Bibek’s list in the first paragraph of the article.

There is some cross-country literature on the link between political freedom and terrorism. In autocratic and dictatorial countries, political freedoms are low, but terrorist acts are also difficult. And in advanced democracies where political freedoms are high, terrorist acts are rare as the political process provides a vent. Terrorist incidents are highest in intermediate democracies. India ought to be in the advanced zone, but seems to be in the intermediate category.

Malthus in Africa August 30, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in economics, history, politics.
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Clark’s recent is getting many people debating his hypothesis that lower life expectancy of poor and higher of the rich caused downward mobility in pre-Industrial England and these genetic transmission of middle-class values laid ground for the industrial revolution. See some reviews/notes here (Dani Rodrik).

Now Clark has something to say about Africa in a rather presumptuously titled post :

Before the Industrial Revolution all societies were caught in the same Malthusian Trap that imprisons Africa today. Living standards stagnated because any improvement caused births to exceed deaths. The resulting population growth, pressing on fixed land resources, inevitably pushed incomes back down to subsistence.

But living conditions did vary across pre-industrial societies. Perversely, rich societies were those where nature or man created high death rates. In such settings living conditions could be good as long as the population did not grow. In the Malthusian era, what is now vice in economic policy — violence, poor public health, war, inequality — was virtue in terms of living standards. And what is now virtue, vice.

If this were true, what moral quandary it would be. Clark then elaborates with the Ugandan example. Now, I have read quite a few criticisms of Jeffrey sachs’ Africa plan but this has not been one of them.

If Mr. Sachs’ Millennium Project succeeds where most of its effort is concentrated, in reducing mortality, then it will further erode living standards. In Uganda, for example, at incomes that are the equivalent of $3 a person a day, the population is still growing at 3.5% per year. Given the heavy dependence of Uganda on agriculture and natural resources, population pressure has ensured that even with improved crop yields, incomes have stagnated over the past 40 years.

Fourteen percent of children born in Uganda die before the age of five. If the Millennium Project reduces such deaths to American levels, that alone will increase the population growth to 4.2% a year. Without sustained economic growth, this is just a recipe for more miserable living conditions.

Of course, lest Clark be misunderstood thanks to my selective quotations here, he does not advocate that we let people die. Instead he argues for more growth via services and industrialization. Of course, how do we achieve that is question that is still not certain.

Update : Here is an interesting finding attributed Clark.

I will add that Clark’s point that the typical humans of 1800 were poorer and less well off than those of 10,000 BCE is an important insight, and it is born out by decades of analysis of remains which show that farmers are on average underfed and nutrient deprived vis-a-vis hunter-gatherers.

And thats from here. Ten questions for Clark here.

Back to the gender debate July 30, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in india, politics.
10 comments

Some interesting perspectives have emerged on the Kiran Bedi case. For many she is a role model and while I don’t consider her one, from the little I was exposed to from the electronic media over the years, I at least don’t have any negative vibes about her. But now this controversy about her being overlooked and a junior officer being appointed as the Delhi Police Commisioner. Read more on that here.

When I watched that video, I was more sympathetic to her cause and remember telling myself the usual middle-class rant about our corrupt systems and such. But I am beginning to wonder if I have jumped the gun by not listening to both sides of the story.

Here is an article that talks about Bedi’s not-so-great poor record as an officer and how she has exploited the gender aspect and the fact that she is India’s first IPS officer to her benefit. Not quite directly, but its quite likely that some of her actions may have motivated from the fact that she can get away with it because she is a woman. ( To be fair to Bedi, she has not alleged gender discrimination and we must wait to hear her response to media attacks on her track record). Another article here.

I will not be surprised if much of what the article says is true. For example, person A who belongs to a group that is generally discriminated by person B’s group can take advantage of the situation and do things assuming he/she can get away with it. This is because should he/she be criticized/censured, one can always suggest that he/she is being discriminated against. This is much like a politician always claims that the cases and charges against him are politically motivated. This works and is credible because it is sometimes true, but only sometimes.

A lady IIM student once said that the success rate of women in group discussions/personal interviews was much higher for women than men. This could partly be because the pool of women who clear the first stage of CAT exam is actually more qualified. This could also be that institutes are under pressure to have more balanced classes and hence they are forced to ‘clear’ more women than they would if they followed a gender-blind objective criteria. The same is true it is said when its time for placements where corporates have similar goals of gender-balanced workplaces.

I think this is a complex issue, there cannot necessarily be a correct answer to whether this kind of a sort reverse discrimination is justified or whether it can even be alleged as the undesirable kind of discrimination. It is a public policy issue and as with many others, it really depends on what is that ‘societal function’ you are trying to optimize, your definition of ‘fairness’, all of which finally boils down to personal preferences. But the purpose of writing this post is to point out that in India and most certainly elsewhere, being a woman either sets you back from the start line or gives you a head start.

And that it is politically incorrect to point out the latter. ( and every way expedient to pay lip service to the former. )

Related link : Here is another one on discrimination, but this time of the kind where apparently using credit history in determining insurance claims is a ‘bad’ idea because minorities such as Hispanics and African-Americans have lower scores and thus end up paying more insurance.

Randomized algorithms for Vice-President July 25, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in india, politics, rant.
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When political processes throw up candidates like Pratibha Patil and now Mr. Rasheed Masood who has the CBI already investigating him, I wonder if the following strategy can be more effective in choosing largely inconsequential positions such as that of President and Vice-President.

Lets us have 4 steps ( not necessarily in this order )

  • Choosing a person (any adult Indian citizen) in random
  • Voting via internet poll (almost limits to tax paying citizens )
  • Voting via SMS poll ( Laymen, homemaker women etc.)
  • Voting by MPs and MLAs

What would be the best way to order these 4 steps ? Each of these steps have their own biases in the kind of candidates they throw up – but a proper ordering can go a long way in avoiding a poor choice.

Should we let the politicians have the final say ? Probably not. Should they have it first ? Well, then they would put up all questionable candidates and rest would have to choose among them – so not advisable. Ideally then the politicians should come in somewhere in between. Where would the random step come in ? Ofcourse, there is the question of where do the first set of candidates come in from ?

Interesting analysis, ain’t it ?

I think getting a reasonable ordering of the above 4 steps has a good chance of bettering our politicians’ choices which are often driven by compulsions such as like Mr. Prakash Karat’s ego. Maybe a Computer Science PhD student working on randomized algorithms and/or the mathematics of political science can write a thesis on this problem. 😀

What ordering would you choose and why ? If you want to add a step or remove one what would that be and why ?

More balance in fighting terror July 23, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in America, geo-politics, politics.
9 comments

This post is about this whole business of terror and fighting it and will only tangentially refer to Mr. Haneef’s case. therandomizer has raised some interesting points and the commenter on his post has taken the time to educate readers. If you have time, consider reading them before going ahead with this post – sort of sets the background for what I write here.

In late 1999 the Indian Airline plane was hijacked and a demand was made for the release of the terrorists. Those were troubled times, soon after Kargil. While this demand was being considered, thousands of family members of the over 200 passengers were on the streets in Delhi demanding that the terrorists be released and whatever ransom was demanded be paid. The government gave in and since then the then foreign minister Jaswant Singh is often made fun of for having ‘escorted’ terrorists to Qandahar to secure the release of the hostages.

What if the government had not given in ? Its hard to say what would have happened. There were suggestions that we do an Israeli type operation and send in commandos. And there were suggestions saying don’t give in, lets see what will happen. The commando operations don’t always work ( see what happened in Beslan, Russia) and even if they do, rarely do we avoid at least some casualties. How will governments cope with the aftermath ? Let us sit and watch policy is of course not practical because we have no idea what is the worst case scenario. Given that the Taliban knows that India is not in a position to do any hot pursuit/invade Afghanistan, they could have afforded to blow up the plane. Or maybe they wouldn’t, but we did not know then. (nor do we know now)

Why am I raking up a seemingly unrelated incident as we talk of racial profiling and the non-battleground aspect of the War on terror ? This is to illustrate that this war is heavily loaded against nation-states and their law enforcement agencies. As the popular cliche goes, the terrorists have to be successful just once while the law enforcement has to be correct every single time.

Take another example of 9/11.

One of the attackers involved in 9/11 apparently took flying lessons at a Florida training school. Apparently FBI had him on the suspect list for some reason and was aware of his activities in Florida, but they did not take action. Now imagine –

He was apprehended and his activities investigated. the media is informed and the left-wingers in the media step in and defend his right to learn to fly a plane and accuse the FBI and the Bushies of racial profiling and the like. The right-wingers demand tough action.

What actually did happen – nothing. He managed to get his lessons and be a party to the events of 9-11. Now the left-wingers accused the FBI of sleeping in the face of evidence or worse, of deliberately letting this through because Bush wanted to attack Iraq anyway. The right-wingers, as always, think the one can never be tough enough. They accuse the government of protecting the rights of the accused and in the process compromise the right of the general public to a safe society.

Thirdly, how many people in the days following 7/7 paused to remind yourselves of the unfortunate but immense naivete of that Brazilian man running away when challenged in the subway station only to be shot by nervous officers ?

~~~

In both the above cases, I am not really talking of the facts. We have no evidence either way about FBI’s attitude or the plans that the hijackers in the Indian Airlines plane had just in case the Indian government called their bluff. All we know is the attitude that we, as people completely unaware of the complexities of anti-terrorist investigation, demonstrate.

It is no secret that the human brain contains within it numerous biases of different kinds ( read this document please ! ). These biases are well on display in the attitude of the public to make judgments. Here we have some examples –

a) Hindsight bias – evaluating past decisions made using evidence not available at the time of making decisions.

b) Selection bias – blaming the government for that rare terrorist event, while not taking into account the fact that for several years there were not any. Surely it was not because the terrorists did not try. You thus pick the evidence that support your hypothesis.

c) Just as often that you find white Westerners alarmed by innocuous events such as the brown man with the camera, you also find brown people overplaying the race card and at every available opportunity. I don’t know what kind of bias this is, but it is one anyway.

d) Profiling is a part of life. We all do it, all the time especially in the absence of complete information. Institutional mechanisms such as law enforcement, insurance and credit card companies (age), self-defense (Indian women don’t undertake night journeys sitting alongside male strangers – remember that male stranger has a human rights too ), street-side bargaining (if you are in good clothes, you are quoted a higher price), that must make such decisions involving incomplete information must engage in some kind of profiling.

As for this whole hullabaloo about Islam and terrorism, another case of confusing conditional probabilities ! Probability of A being a terrorist given A is a Muslim versus Probability of A being a Muslim given A is a terrorist are two different things. The general public’s lack of understanding of ‘simple’ probabilistic reasoning and its relevance to decision-making is further evidence for the need to compulsorily teach probability and statistics in high school.

In the light of all this, why are we expecting a system that is crime free, terror-free, has no profiling of any kind in its institutions, that is rich, healthy, that has no disadvantaged minorities and no aggrieved citizens of any kind, that is not the subject of envy and jealousy? The presence of these humanrights-wallahs and Jhola-wallahs of course helps check the excesses of the state, but taken to an extreme degree is perhaps the biggest impediment to fighting terror – be it Islamist/Marxist or counter-insurgency operations.

It helps to remember that of the millions of brown folks traveling through US and European airports everyday – and once perhaps in 6 months you hear a case of unfair treatment which makes some of you go on and on about racial discrimination. Personally, I think they are doing an incredible job.

It helps to remember that the law enforcement has a tougher job than most of us do – technology and special laws make their job slightly easier. On the other hand, terrorists have an easier job than many of us do and our technology and public vigilance go some way towards making their job harder. The number of terror incidents is a delicate equilibrium between how tough it is to catch them and how easy it is for them to get us. Mighty hard to have that equilibrium around zero.

P.S : On Haneef’s case, my position is that from the facts coming in Aussies have indeed majorly screwed it up – whether that is simply paranoia about security in a country that is yet to see its first terrorist attack (they lost several in Bali a few years ago) or religious profiling of the invidious nature is something I am not sure of.

Assorted stuff July 10, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in assorted, geo-politics, humor, politics, weird.
5 comments

Here again now – with every passing day my ability to discern Onion-kinda news from real news is being lost. I don’t know if its Onion that is gotten that good or the world thats gotten that weird.

Consider these 2 gems :

Looks like the dogs, my last hope so far, have lost it 🙂

US military proposals over the decades. Incredibly funny, innovative.

I can’t imagine the once scientific advisor to the Vajpayee and now President and soon to be a former president Dr. Kalam presenting such suggestions. ( or his reactions on being presented such suggestions by his sub-ordinates )

 

 

~~~

This article underlines the now familiar theory that terrorism is a mostly educated/ruling class enterprise. The following part stands out :

There is also an argument that Asians who go in for a technical degree often don’t get oriented to any history or social science and so are more vulnerable to odd explanations of the world they may encounter later. Then the information explosion exposes young sharp minds to all kinds of propaganda…

‘Modernity’ in our societies is now limited to acquiring degrees and is just a way of enslaving one to the fruits of technology without imbibing the spirit that is central to ‘modernity’ — acknowledging the right of all citizens on this planet to co-exist as equals.

Of course this is just a theory, there is no data to support this yet. But if at some point some such relation is established, we will come back to rue our education system. Liberal arts education is a marathon, a long term investment – its hard to point out at the end of a history/sociology/psychology course and pin point at the end of it about the value added. It accrues over a period of time that few policy makers have a vision to comprehend or care enough to act on.

~~~

My understanding of politics ( which may be cast as naive given my claim ) is that almost every vote should be a conscience vote. I think the (faulty but for want of a better alternative) premise of democracy is that MPs are representatives of the people first, the party only later. I find it amusing that  politicians are criticizing the call for ‘conscience vote’ as being inappropriate. Does it imply that when MPs vote they are supposed to suppress their ideas and just toe the party line ? I know there is a problem with indiscriminate voting but so is the idea that someone can belong to a particular party – how can you find a handful of smart guys that agree ( not appear to agree) on every major issue ?

Meanwhile, I continue to think that Abhishek Manu Sanghvi has the worst job in the world. More BS from him from here :

Congress spokesperson, Abhishek Singhvi joined issue with Shekhawat and dismissed as “misapplied and inapposite” NDA’s plans to seek a conscience vote in favour of Vice-President Shekhawat in the presidential election as had happened in 1969. According to him, “1969 was a case when the ruling party was itself divided and conscience vote was sought because of the division.” To buttress his argument Singhvi claimed that this time the ruling UPA “was completely united and all constituents had signed the nomination papers for Pratibha Patil”.

Uh, so ? That argument is about as valid as saying :

1969 presidential election is different from 2007. That was the 20th century, we are now in a completely new century. So …

The problem is that either he has to be really stupid or has to make statements that make him look stupid anyway.

Education in political philosophy July 3, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in America, intellectual, politics.
1 comment so far

Every sentence in this article looks worth reading to me, if you like the topic that is. Infact, its more of a book review than an opinion piece ( well, actually book review is one kind of opinion piece … okay, whatever ! ). I will paste some interesting bits :

In polls taken since 1945, a majority of Americans have been unable to name a single branch of government, define the terms “liberal” and “conservative,” and explain what the Bill of Rights is. More than two-thirds have reported that they do not know the substance of Roe v. Wade and what the Food and Drug Administration does. Nearly half do not know that states have two senators and three-quarters do not know the length of a Senate term. More than fifty per cent of Americans cannot name their congressman; forty per cent cannot name either of their senators. Voters’ notions of government spending are wildly distorted: the public believes that foreign aid consumes twenty-four per cent of the federal budget, for example, though it actually consumes about one per cent.

Gets more interesting.

Even apart from ignorance of the basic facts, most people simply do not think politically. They cannot see, for example, that the opinion that taxes should be lower is incompatible with the opinion that there should be more government programs. Their grasp of terms such as “affirmative action” and “welfare” is perilously uncertain: if you ask people whether they favor spending more on welfare, most say no; if you ask whether they favor spending more on assistance to the poor, most say yes. And, over time, individuals give different answers to the same questions about their political opinions. People simply do not spend much time learning about political issues or thinking through their own positions. They may have opinions—if asked whether they are in favor of capital punishment or free-trade agreements, most people will give an answer—but the opinions are not based on information or derived from a coherent political philosophy. They are largely attitudinal and ad hoc.

I find this amusing – the level of political discourse in a matured democracy like the United States is rather poor for all the above reasons. Think about countries with high illiteracy rates, no history of democracy, multi-ethnic composition, poor, almost landlocked.

I have said this before and say it again – I find it hard to understand that here we have this great question of our times and of the last 200 years perhaps – that of the relation between the citizen and the state, one that encompasses political rights and freedoms, allocation of economic resources and one that has a huge bearing on the nature and quality of our lives. Yet, not one minute of my secondary education was spent pondering this question. And it is questions like these and the exposure to such ideas that ensure that a democracy can function meaningfully. It may sound over-rated at a stage when billions don’t have the most basic of skills, but I feel that in the long run for an advanced society to be able to make optimal public policy choices such an education is necessary.

~~~

Alex asks a rather provocative question. And folks in the comments section match the provocation with their uuh…provocative thoughts.

Assorted Links today June 23, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in assorted, ideas, india, politics, statistics.
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Most hilarious article this week.

~~~

After yet another happiness survey, can’t help but be a skeptic of such surveys. ( Link from Mankiw Chacha )

~~~

One of the more interesting articles in a while. Counter-intuitive too. I have been in both situations and now that I read this article, I want to log my own comparative experiences in the coming days.

In the meanwhile, people breaking into lines continue to be on the top of my most-hated-people list. A close second is folks who don’t know how loud they are as they talk into their cell-phones.

~~~

This topic doesn’t cease to be interesting. At the same, more material on it does not cease to come.

~~~

The most important sentence in this article is probably this :

Raghuram’s report doesn’t mention this sponsorship.

I don’t expect the Railways themselves to come out on this, but as an academic I think Mr. Raghuram should have had a disclaimer in there. As he says :

A study sponsored by a subject does not necessarily compromise its objectivity.

Well, its also true that having an unambiguous disclaimer that states the sponsored nature of the study “does not necessarily compromise its objectivity.”

~~~

 

Dec 10th, 1975, Pratibha Patil in Maharastra Assembly :

We are also thinking of forcible sterilization for people with anuvaunshik ajar (hereditary diseases).

I love how things start tumbling out of the closet when you start running for a public post. I have therefore decided not to run for the post of President of India. 😀

~~~

UPA round up ! June 16, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in geo-politics, image, media, politics, weird.
2 comments

The Indian Express does it twice in a row – either someone out there has a great sense of humor or just plain poor web design skills/presence of mind. What is the purpose of this picture ?

express1.png

Look you guys at the Express – you are still my favorite newspaper, but don’t work hard to erode that goodwill. Also its not like you have to have some picture there. Its okay if your photographer ( Anil Sharma in this case ) just had a bad day, we all do every once a while.On second thoughts, in the light of what Ms. Patil has to say, this picture seems only naughty.

~~~

And then ofcourse there is the Indian Government’s statement in the story alongside :

He said he had made it clear to his Chinese counterpart that ‘it is extremely difficult for any Indian government adhering to the Constitution’ to ‘give up any part of the country which is regularly sending its elected representatives to the state Assemblies and the sovereign Parliament’.

[ Emphasis mine. ]

Pray ! Is it supposed to be read thus :

He said he had made it clear to his Chinese counterpart that (unfortunately) ‘it is extremely difficult (even though we would love to) for any Indian government adhering to the Constitution’ to ‘give up any part of the country…..

Again emphasis mine.

Some self-respecting government this !

~~~

I came upon this old article written by Mani Shankar Aiyer back in Nov 1997. Its mostly about Chidambaram. After all that written, they are now colleagues – Chidambaram, one of the senior most ministers and Mani in a ministry that most blog readers will not recall. Some thick skin there, Mani. That last line of the article alone is ordinarily sufficient to see the irony. ( Not to speak of the article title itself )

Remember Yogi Berra’s – Its not over until its over ?

Assorted links now June 15, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in America, assorted, image, india, media, politics.
4 comments

Picture of the day. From the Hindustan Times :

rain.png

~~~

Okay, Madam Patil for President. India’s political class (certainly no pun there ) have revealed the quality of their thought processes and decision making. Let us set aside maybe the 50 odd people from the various parties in the UPA and left who were engaged in coming up with a nominee. Baring these, what is the probability that atleast 1 among the remaining millions considered Ms. Pratibha Patil a presidential candidate. What then is the idea behind calling these leaders our representatives ?

Beats me. And when its happened, selling the idea then as being one of women empowerment is only patronizing to women.

Pratap Bhanu Mehta on the topic, brilliant as usual :

But perhaps the only answer is to genuinely democratise the system. Let there be an open contest in the electoral college. Let parties declare that their members are free to vote for the candidate they wish. Let candidates, rather than parties, make the case for their constitutional credibility. There can be two ways of getting a ‘non partisan’ choice. One is consensus. Since this is not possible, encourage individual legislators to vote with their conscience. Formally, with secret ballots and unenforceable whips, this is the procedure. But it would have been nice if all parties for once did not treat their legislators as mere fodder that comes in neat bundles that party leaders can simply deliver to someone of their choice. This is the premise of the current bargaining game. We need to shift from a focus on arithmetic which allows party leaders to act with hubris. Instead we need space for a more basic question: which candidate, in a free contest, would appeal to legislators nationally?

A fine Barkha Dutt article on the topic.

~~~

There is an article from yesterday’s Indian Express that is about Tiger conservation. It has nothing whatsoever to do with Sonia Gandhi. But the page though looks like this :

Sonia

Some pun somewhere ?

~~~

IT recruiting in India – is someone finally calling a spade a spade ?

~~~

State of the my blogroll :

Deepak is an angry young man, never seen him use words like that. Shiv, Shiv, Shiv !

Aswin, stop living in denial. Blog more !

Kudos, madam Chief Minister June 7, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in ideas, india, politics.
1 comment so far

And finally some politician of note, authority and consequence has the guts to bell the cat.

“Today, the government’s role has narrowed down. There is an increase in public partnership (with the government),” she remarked, insisting reservations had a greater importance when employment opportunities ‘solely’ existed in government. It’s not the case today. Therefore the rows over reservations are becoming untimely. We all need to understand it. We will have to change our mindset over the reservation issue,” she said.

The Chief Minister, whose state was hit by weeklong violent clashes over her pre-election quota promise to Gurjjars, said it was time to ponder afresh over reservations and the government’s role in society.

Is that the closest an Indian politician will come to echoing libertarian ideas. But this is not the first time. Here is an exchange :

Karan Thapar: What about the allegation that you walked the ramp. Are you modelling clothes or once again are you claiming that the press misunderstood your intention.

Vasundhara Raje: Look I have been small industries minister at the centre for four years and in that four year I worked very closely with small industries and also with Khadi and village industries. I know that this is the backbone of the economy of Rajasthan. Handicrafts, textiles and artefacts – these are something for which people come all the way to Rajasthan Jaipur to buy. And as far I am concerned, I have a very vibrant industry but a lot of these people are actually drifted away from this because there was nothing to be gained from the industry.

Karan Thapar: So you are promoting handicrafts.

Vasundhara Raje: Now we have revived these. Each of these we have revived. We have brought them out shown them off and the story that actually took place over here, and that’s the important story, is what happen to the lives of the weavers and that, I am afraid, was missed. As far as I am concerned, if like Mrs Thatcher, I was able to well promote my textile, I would do it with great pleasure because you remember, she actually wore all these, British clothes, only to show them off. British fashion became a thing, only because of her.

Karan Thapar: So you are saying that as a Chief Minister it is your duty to promote handicrafts and if need be, you will wear Rajasthan handicrafts, if the need be you will walk the ramp because that’s your job to promote weavers and handicrafts.

Vasundhara Raje: You can say that absolutely because that is my job and it is also a great sense of pride that I wear what they give me.

Think about it – how many people must have heard of Rajastani garment industry for the first time through this controversy ?

Hats off, Madam Chief Minister.

Costs of public ignorance May 27, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in economics, intellectual, politics, science.
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Steve Pinker on the costs of scientific ignorance :

The costs of an ignorance of science are not just practical ones like misbegotten policies, forgone cures and a unilateral disarmament in national competitiveness. There is a moral cost as well. It is an astonishing fact about our species that we understand so much about the history of the universe, the forces that make it tick, the stuff it’s made of, the origin of living things and the machinery of life. A failure to nurture this knowledge shows a philistine indifference to the magnificent achievements humanity is capable of, like allowing a great work of art to molder in a warehouse.

And Bryan Caplan on economic ignorance :

But Caplan argues that in the real world, voters make systematic mistakes about economic policy — and probably other policy issues too. Caplan’s own evidence for the systematic folly of voters comes from a 1996 survey comparing the views of Ph.D. economists and the general public. To the exasperation of the libertarian-minded Caplan, most Americans do not think like economists. They are biased against free markets and against trade with foreigners. Absurdly, they think that the American economy is being hurt by too much spending on foreign aid; they also exaggerate the potential economic harms of immigration. In a similar vein, Scott L. Althaus, a University of Illinois political scientist, finds that if the public were better informed, it would overcome its ingrained biases and make different political decisions.

And why are biased against trade with foreigners ? Well, some guys ( Sadiq, for instance 🙂 ) don’t like evolutionary biology/psychology motivated explanations of human follies, but they sure do exist.

MMS and the PDS May 25, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in America, economics, india, politics.
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Okay, so Mr. MMS has something to lecture the corporates about – conspicuous consumption, CEO pay and the like. How about starting by putting your own house in order, Prime Minister ? Here is an example :

The Planning Commission study shows that less than half (42 per cent) of subsidised food grains issued from the central pool reaches the poor. The leakage through ration shops constitutes the bulk of the leakage. In Bihar, while the intended subsidy was Rs 4.52 per kg, if we take into account the total subsidy to what actually reached the poor, the subsidy ended up being Rs 50.98 per kg due to leakages and diversions. In Punjab, while the intended subsidy was Rs 4.22 per kg, it ended up being Rs 40.15 per kg of foodgrain.

 

 

So Prime Minister, when you are already robbing the middle-class and the rich, why go after them all over again. Instead. clean up the political system first and then the corporates will have an example to follow.

 

Its a classic case of violating the PCB theory I linked to. In the Public distribution system :

Payer : Tax-payer ( middle-class+upper class)

Chooser : Government Bureaucrats

Beneficiary : The poor, presumably

A solution as suggested by Ila Patnaik in the same article :

If the government decides that it wants the poor to consume dal and oil at subsidised rates then it needs to find more efficient ways of targeting and delivering the subsidy. One proposal is to provide them with smart cards with the required amount of money credited to them and which can be used at certain retail outlets who will get reimbursement from the government. The expenditure will be limited largely to Rs 10 per kg or litre of the dal and oil actually bought by BPL households instead of more than double of that amount lining the pockets of traders on the way. No procurement for the PDS or supply chains will have to be set up as would need to be done for delivery of the PDS.

More comments on this.

Ofcourse, why should stupidity be the monopoly of the Indian Government alone, how can the Americans be far behind. Okay, without reading the previous link, a response sent by a GMU economics professor says it all. It about an act that “requires Federal employees and their dependents, consultants, contractors, grantees, and others performing United States Government financed foreign air travel to travel by U.S. flag air carriers.”

Update: My previous post on CEO pay and wage differentials.

Caste and Indian politics May 12, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in history, india, media, politics.
2 comments

How ironic that on the very same day in two of India’s leading newspapers, two of India’s distinguished journalists of roughly very similar political persuasions ( slightly left of centre or liberal in the American sense) have almost diametrically things to say on the same topic !

Here is Vir Sanghvi of the Hindustan Times lamenting why we have almost never got our Presidents for the right reasons, that even when we got the ‘right’ people ( Kalam/KRN ), we got them entirely for the wrong reasons.

My concern, however, is that when it comes to the crunch, political parties will ignore the merit of individual candidates. Once again, we will look for vote-banks. We will dredge up backward and minority candidates from the mists of time. And as soon as the regional parties get involved, negotiation and wheeling and dealing will take over — specially now that Mayawati has emerged victorious in UP. In the process, the world’s largest democracy will end up with some politically correct monument to caste and communal tokenism at Rashtrapati Bhavan. And we will once again not have a President we can be proud of.

And then there is Shekhar Gupta of the Express about why caste is slowly ceasing to matter in Indian politics.

All three missed a central point, the pivot around which the new politics of India is being built. That the days of narrow, vote-bank politics are now over. You can no longer secure 25-27 per cent vote in a fractured polity and rule a state. You now need to broaden your agenda, invite, entice, and include others too. Because it is logical that a fast-developing, fast-urbanising society should also evolve a more cosmopolitan outlook. It is tired of divisive agendas, of being taken for granted.

Well, are we generalizing from very few cases here. Do people think in sync ? I don’t understand elections because I have never voted. While I can think of arguments now, I haven’t really had an opportunity to follow an election as a voter, weighing candidates and parties and issues. Its just been as an observer and an interested citizen. So maybe I am not never the right person to speak on this issue.

But when I see things being written, I am skeptical. When BJP lost in 2004, it was reasoned that their arrogance and ‘divise’ agendas lead to their loss. But then they came back in Punjab/Himachal, it was attributed to anti-incumbency rather than a vote for Hindutva. When non-congress, non-BJP parties lost in the states, it was explained as people being fed up of smaller parties with unclear agendas. When BSP and SP dominated the UP results, it is explained that India’s federal structure makes it harder to parties and leaders with national appeal. ( I wish I could provide references for these allegations I make, but if you have followed Indian politics and commentators, you know what I am talking about. )

In a country as diverse as India, it might require something dramatic ( war, emergency etc. ) to get voters to think in sync, to vote on the basis of limited set of issues. Just think of the past few general elections and ask yourself what the issues were. Its always something vague, anti-incumbent rhetoric, secular/communal bullshit or its about personalities. Its not about specific economic policies or foreign policy and even a larger vision for the country.

Its unfortunate but true – for a young democracy with a large illiterate socially, economically disempowered electorate in a land that is still trying define its identity as a nation, it might be decades before such a thing as caste ceases to matter in elections. Let us not forget that caste has been around much longer than India did, it ain’t going away any soon.

And if Bryan Caplan is right about such a thing as the rational voter myth, we might never get there. And those we think have gotten there, haven’t either.

P.S: But having said that I will any day live with this system than go down the way of some of our sub-continental neighbors.

The nation and the national festivals May 12, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in history, india, politics.
5 comments

Ram Guha talks about his latest book :

If there is a defining feature it is this: that Indian democracy, the Indian state, has gone from crisis to crisis and somehow we have been able to contain these crises. Since the 1950s there’s a kind of insurgency in Kashmir and then it stops. Then you have the whole linguistic movement, which is contained through the creation of linguistic states. Then you have the Dravidian movement but then the Tamils decide that they want to be a part of India. There is Naxalism, which gets contained. And then there is Punjab. It is a nation that lurches from crisis to crisis, but unlike any other nation in the Asian, African or ex-colonial world, it is not enough to (destroy) the democratic fabric of society except for that brief period of Emergency.

So, a sick man who refuses to die or an warrior who is always at war and each time just manages to scrape through ? But the British in 1947 must have thought ( like Bush does now ( and rightly so perhaps )) that if they leave the sub-continent, India will break up in pieces. Well, we did and we didn’t. Mostly latter. I wrote about this before.

Post-independence history hence is indeed interesting. I recently bought a book “Nehru” by Vincent Sheehan, an American journalist who knew Nehru personally. The first chapter of the book is ironically mostly about Gandhi. (Vincent was covering Gandhi’s prayer function when he ( Gandhi ) was assassinated.) If I get to the second chapter which I often don’t these days, I will write more.

Meanwhile, the Indian Express has something compelling on a related topic.

Without a doubt, 1857 is an important milestone in the evolution of modern India. But the lacklustre character of the celebrations surrounding the one hundred and fiftieth year of India’s First War of Independence raises some profound questions about the relationship between the nation and the important events that made it. The first is the striking contrast we still see between India’s religious celebrations and its civic ones. The former are colourful, spontaneous, diversely imagined and organised by the people. The latter remain for the most part dull, solemn, doled out in standardised formats and manufactured by state.

The question is: why aren’t citizens taking charge of their own history, commemorating them in their own way? The reasons are complex. Part of it has to do with the state constructing 1857 as an icon, rather than lively history. 1857 is also a touchy subject, because there many competing narratives about these events. And for all our talk about unity in diversity, these competing narratives can expose our faultlines. There is also something to the claim that the character of our patriotism may be changing: rousing narratives of sacrifice do not move us in the same way they used to.

True, isn’t it. I can through arguments perhaps talk about how 1857 meant a big deal, but I am not sure that would be too sincere in terms of what I feel. As for state sponsored celebrations like the Oct 2/Jan 26, somehow it feels distant compared to say, Holi.

Sadness in San Francisco March 21, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in CMU, india, politics, sport.
2 comments

…and therein lies the irony.

San Francisco, pretty much the heart of Silicon Valley, the place that is the home to much and most of technology that touches our lives – Microprocessors, Yahoo and Google – to name but few. I got here 24 hours ago in connection with the DARPA project meeting ( like the kind I attended in Oct 2006 at NYC ) and will be here for another 5 days. And unless something life-changing happens in these 5 days (the probability of which is not necessarily more than any other 5 days anywhere), the memory I am going to take away from here, with some exaggeration, will be that thing called “awful internet access”. And this in a hotel that charges over $150 per day.

stuff.PNG

Actually, its not all bad and I have a sense of perspective 🙂 .  Located on the bayside and overlooking one of the runways of the 21st most busiest airport in the world which itself has a line of hills overlooking it,  the room has a view that is more of a treat.

For above and many reasons, blogging will be light over the next week or so.

Update 1 : Meanwhile at the other side of the world, some continue to buy somebody’s disingenuous, deliberate, untruth.
Update 2 : And somebody else has some sense of humor :

Before the game we said ‘Let’s make history today.’ Well, we made history.”
Luke van Troost, the Dutch captain, manages to keep a sense of perspective after Herschelle Gibbs’s six-hitting record

Too many things today March 18, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in india, politics, sport.
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From today’s newspapers :

This ( “while coach Bob Woolmer walked aimlessly through an army of Irish supporters….Hours later, he was dead.”)

and

that ( ““Every player doesn’t get a grand farewell. As for my future, I am in no position right now to think about it.”)

and

this ( “About 40 per cent of the Rs 12,000 crore that rides on the Indian cricket team in the World Cup … could get wiped out if the team does not reach the final rounds.” )

and

that. ( ” As President Pervez Musharraf deftly distanced himself from the move to suspend the Chief Justice …… speculation is rife that the axe may fall on Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz” )

It all reminds me of Henry Kissinger’s legendary quip several decades ago

Next week there can’t be any crisis. My schedule is already full.

Ofcourse I am not required to fire-fight any of this as Kissinger was in his days as the NSA and/or Sec. of State. But then, how can so many such things happen in a single day ? Why do things worth writing about keep happening ? The newspaper business is evergreen I guess – even if there is a depression, they will have that depression to write about 😦

~~~

And if you ever had any doubt about Kissinger being the modern day Chanakya, watch this video.Other Kissinger quotes. My fav :

Ninety percent of the politicians give the other ten percent a bad reputation. 😀

“No minister”, Indianness etc. March 11, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in image, india, politics, sport.
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Few years ago – in  Jan 2005 – Sandeep Shetty, my littlerocker friend sent me this funny article on what it means to be an Indian – “We are like this only“. Long, long article, but worth a read. Captures it all, although there is now some psychoanalytic perspective on this.

For all those doubt that there is such a thing as free press in India, watch this video. Imagine doing this in your favorite Middle-eastern country or military/communist/right-wing dictatorship. Link via Gaurav.

Width of the Panama Canal – just this much.  !!

Hindustan times has changed their format, online atleast. It will take a while to change, but looks much much better. [ Last summer, the Indian Express changed theirs, actually they are coming to resemble the NYTimes page ]

Why Inzamam is one of my favorite cricketers – it is not really a joy to watch him bat, but taking questions from media and/or former cricketers.

With Pakistan answering the hackneyed query about missing the pacers with a superlative show on field, all that Inzamam needed to do was repeat those usual lines that are regularly repeated by mimics posing as the burly batsman. He praised his team by saying “ladke mehnat kar rahe hain”, thanked Allah that “sare batsmen runs kar rahe hain aur bowlers wicket le rahe hain” and finally about his form he said that the “ball balle pe lag rahi hai”.

Cricket is a gentleman’s game with umpires almost dressed as if for an evening ball and players  with their trousers on waiting for the ball to hit ( or come on to ) the bat rather than the other way around. Some laziness 😀 .

The “Where your taxes go” series March 10, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in America, india, politics.
5 comments

from Amit Varma. ( I will come to that later )

Meanwhile on the topic from my previous post:

Swapan Dasgupta who has been a favorite ( and since somewhat forgotten ( by myself) ) columnist from my high school days and his India Today days rips apart the Indian political class :

Take the presentation of the Union Budget as an example. Those who have been monitoring the speeches of successive Finance Ministers may have noticed an odd ritual: The mandatory thumping of desks in the Treasury benches whenever the Minister announced an increase in the allotment for either a Ministry or a so-called development scheme. The intensity of the approval is invariably linked to the quantum of budgetary increase. Curiously, this ritual is not party or ideology specific. During the NDA years the champions of the Right behaved in exactly the same way as Congress MPs 10 days ago.

The criticism of the profligate Rs 18,000 crore National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) is, therefore, not that the state is incapable of alleviating rural poverty effectively but that more money hasn’t been allotted to digging more useless holes and building more mud roads which will be washed away during the monsoons.

On a slightly paranoid note, one thing about earning no income in India and my meager income here not taxed in India is that it doesn’t find itself in expenditure like the NREG. In fact, Amit Varma maintains an excellent series called “Where your taxes go“. [ I am surprised that he has managed only 17 items since July 2006 🙂 . ] Oh yeah, think now of that collective guilt of American millionaires ( there are more than 7 million of them ) whose taxes ( in millions ) go into meaningless misadventures abroad.

Update : Here is a recommendation that says we need a new Ministry of Implementation. Last thing, I would say.

Small government, good government March 10, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in india, politics.
2 comments

….yeah, just like a small family is a happy family.

My friend and littlerocker batchmate writes to Gurcharan Das, former Vice-president and Managing Director of Procter and Gamble worldwide.

Respected Sir,

Greetings. I recently read your book “India Unbound” and must say am very much enlightened about economic history of India. I have a relevant experience my life, that I would like to share with you, which has similar context as mentioned in the your book

I am an MBA aspirant working in United States. I decided to apply to top Indian b-schools via the Overseas/NRI quota. I hope its fine to mention the names of those colleges. Particularly I would like to explain my experiences with 2 such colleges – XLRI Jamshedpur and Shailesh J Mehta School of Mgmt IIT Bombay. (IIT-SOM)

IIT-SOM shares its name with the elite parent education body-IIT Bombay. Being one the finest in the world, it is still a state run organization. Recently the list of candidates who made it to the Group Discussion this year was published. Since I am not applying thru the general category, my name was not listed on the website. I had to call the admissions cell to find out my results. Here is what happens

Day 1) Anxious to know the results and not realizing its evening in India, I call up the admissions cell at 6:30 pm IST. Someone picks up the phone and tells me to call during office hours – 10 am to 5:30 pm IST
Day 2) I stay awake late in the night and call up the admissions cell again. Its 1:00 pm IST – lunch time. I am asked to call back at 3:00
Day 3) I call early today, at about 11:00 am IST. A lady picked up the phone and told me that the admissions officer is out of station and will return on Monday. (I was calling on a Thursday.) I told her my situation. She said the servers are down and she is not able to verify my results. She asked me to call back in a day or two.

4) I call again at 11:00 am IST. The same lady from the previous day answers the phone and she tells me that she does not see my name in the list. However she tells me that the admissions officer may have another list with him. He would be back on Monday and I am to contact him then.

Day 5) Monday – I call up the admissions office again. Luckily I am able to reach the right person. Mr. Admissions Officer tells me that I am not short listed. He gives me a briefing about their selection procedure. I thank him and hang up.

It took me almost a week to find out that I was not short listed. And I thought bad news traveled fast.

Now here is another college – XLRI. It has set up nation wide toll free numbers and hotline numbers in 26 cities in India. Aspirants can call up these numbers for any admissions related query. This service is available Monday thru Friday, 8:00 am to 10:30 pm IST!!! I was so delighted that XLRI is providing customer service like the American companies. I make an international call to the hotline number in Bangalore. Since mine was a special case (NRI/Overseas Candidate), the representative did not have sufficient information. He directed me to the Admissions office in Jamshedpur. I made a call to Jamshedpur immediately. The admissions officer told me that I am short listed for an interview round!!! Good news traveled so fast.

At one side, is the State run elite institute and on the other is a high ranking private college. Is India really Unbound?

Thanks and Regards,
Supreeth”

Reply from Gurcharan Das :

Supreeth,

You are right–India is unbound, but the government is not unbound. It will be a slow process, and they will be kicked and dragged into doing it.

Warmly,
Gurcharan

We in India know that the pathetic quality of government services vis-a-vis private is a rule, not an exception. My colleague and a native of Srilanka, Sanjika is quick to remind me that the opposite holds for his country. I am quick(er) to remind him that worldwide, Srilanka might be an exception rather than the rule. He is not sure – our debates go on 🙂 .

By the way, Mr. Das’s India Unbound is a nice read.

Random things today March 8, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in contemplation, humor, india, movies, politics.
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Consider this account of this author’s meeting with Rajiv Gandhi.

Rajiv seemed to like that idea too, and said he tried to follow a maxim of Indira Gandhi’s that every policy should be seen in terms of how it affected the common man. I wryly said the common man often spent away his money on alcohol, to which he said at once it might be better to think of the common woman instead. 

Without taking ideological positions on the international women’s day, don’t you think the Congress’ slogan of “Aaam aadmi” is a sexist expression 😉 . 

~~~ 

 Not so random thoughts yesterday.

….I believe that of all the problems we face, many are of the type that merely demand a break. Not to say that sleep solves problems, but when you return, it gives you a different perspective, you are forced to start thinking afresh rather than remain latched to a specific train of thought that dominated your thought process the previous night. Some demand a month’s break, others demand a week; but by far a large number of them require just a good night’s sleep. Maybe many a historical war would have been averted if the king had fallen asleep to avoid listening to the querulous queen instead of staying awake thinking about what his commander told him.

….that was last night, before I went to bed. ( not that I need a reason to sleep 🙂 )

~~~

An insightful sentence I read today :

“I think people should have a right to be stupid and, if they have that right, the market’s going to respond by supplying as much stupidity as can be sold.”

Pretty much the reason why I don’t support bans on Times of India because of their yellow journalism or such. Let us not underestimate the market for stupidity. But you will also observe that I have almost never linked to the paper and that is because I seldom visit the site.  

~~~

Mira Nair’s “The Namesake” releasing tomorrow. I haven’t ever waited for a movie before.

Worst job in the world March 4, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in india, politics.
2 comments

Could there be a less honorable job than being the spokesman of the party in power ?

Congress president Sonia Gandhi is under no obligation of any kind to ‘justify or explain’ the sensitive Ottavio Quattrocchi issue, the party said. All such speculation is futile and sensational. What she says, when she says and how she says is for her to decide. But no one should assume that she is under any obligation of any kind to justify or explain the issue,” party spokesman Abhishek Singhvi said.

Defending the indefensible like post-election behavior in Jharkhand and Goa, Bihar dismissal, attempted UP dismissal, Mr. Q, loss in elections, minister convicted of murder, minister absconding, minister charged of UN scandal dismissed/forced to resign, friends like the CPM, and foes like the SP.

<>Its hard to bullshit when you know you are bullshitting, the other person knows that too, you know that the other person knows it, the other person knows that you know that you are bullshitting. You have to be a really really good lawyer or given to disingenuousness, sophistry and plain shameless. Of course, some would contend he is in the former category. I don’t think it is impossible to be in both of the above.

“Ask not what the budget can do for you” March 2, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in America, india, politics, reminisces-1990s, reminisces-2000.
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[ Arjun, my LittleRock buddy who inconspicuously hangs around on this blog once a while wrote in asking what I thought about the Budget 2007; what started off that way ended up like this. Although I am almost as good as a layperson and not anywhere like being an expert of budget matters, I hope to atleast reveal my ignorance in a later post. What embarrassment ! Sorry man Arjun, but I am glad you at least made me write a long post on something ]

….and ofcourse, don’t even ask what you can do for the budget !

I remember sitting down before the TV every last week of February for several years in the late 90s and early this decade. For several years since independence it used to happen in the evenings but suddenly earlier this decade it was shifted to the early afternoon. There was a certain excitement about the budget at home partly because my dad and mom have been avid investors and then because every middle-class tax paying family hopes that the taxes are coming down (or at least not going up)

 

I think I just summarized it – the main concern was just that – are the taxes coming down at least this time? Are any new taxes going to be introduced? How will the market react to this tomorrow? Should I be prepared to sell/buy something? The questions that interested my mom would again be similar to the above in addition to whether LPG prices are going to rise/fall ( they almost always never fell). Once a while if a major purchase ( PC/TV etc. ) was due there would some interest as to which way consumer goods prices went (they almost always never fell).

 

These were the questions that interested my father and after this part of the budget he would generally walk off much to my surprise while I would sit there trying to absorb that piece of text with large numbers and complicated jargon. This is no urban legend but I think India’s economic situation must be assessed by the number of digits one gets when one expands every large number in that humongous document. I don’t obviously think I got much of what I read and my understanding today is improved, the budget is still a document which very few people understand (or are even interested ) in the whole.

 

Every person has a limited interest in the budget – limited both in time and space. That is, after a while people adjust their spending patterns such that they are back to square one ; thus the budget having lesser impact over time. And most are interested in a part of the document that concerns them. For example, my dad couldn’t care less about how much is allocated to fighting HIV in the north-east (which certain NGOs might) or some tax relief to the steel industry to start a plant in a backward district of Orissa. This of course is true of the corporates as well though to a lesser extent since they might be interested in overall growth of the economy.

 

Looking back, the middle class had a point and their point was that people in the middle class don’t get SOPs that others do (like “Govt to provide 1 lakh jobs for physically disabled with a salary limit of Rs 25,000 a month” or “Backward Regions Grant Fund to be raised to Rs 5800 crore” ) and so there is not a whole lot that budget can do. The least they could ask is that if you don’t give me anything (through SOPs), at least don’t take away (through tax). Overall macroeconomic growth figures were less of a concern although they do realize that these have a bearing on the stock market and certainly on the overall quality of life. I hope I am not generalizing from just one example of my household but I remember discussions at home with visitors etc. where the talk of budget would be restricted to the taxes and excise/customs duties (which have an impact on the prices) It would help if you have gotten reading till here to relate (in the comments section) how things have been at your home to see if my observations extend beyond the biases sample of middle-class bankers I am talking about.

 

Well, atleast people knew such a thing as the budget exists, when its presented and followed selective sections. What about here in the US ? I don’t know – in the past 2.5 years I haven’t come across anything like a day when the budget being presented in the congress and a few million people switch on their TV sets, get their popcorn (!), watch it, call friends to talk about it, follow it in the newspaper the next day and call friends again ! There is obviously a budget but not eagerly anticipated by the middle-class or so. They would rather watch something of no economic consequence and essentially political like the “State of the Union Address” delivered end of every January and count the number of times the speech was interrupted by applause (!) or contained the word “Iraq” compared to last year.

 

I don’t want to speculate but a possible reason for the above might be just this – Americans hate government. Republicans hate government because they think the government is doing too much – collecting too much taxes and engaging in income redistribution (generally helping minorities ) ; and democrats hate it because they think the government is not doing enough – not taxing the ( generally richer ) republicans enough and in the process increasing equality. On one hand, there is an inherent belief especially among the middle class that the government can’t really do anything for them – it’s just got to be done by ourselves. On the other, there is a deep suspicion of the government that runs in their blood – the idea that government takes “their” money so that it can give it to “others”.

 

People argue that the Indian middle class is going this way too – perhaps not for reasons of individual freedoms that form the basis in America – at least for cynical reasons – that the Indian government/bureaucracy is no good because it is essentially corrupt. Either way, I am glad if this is true. In fact, the government is corrupt because we have given it way too much power. I agree with Amit Varma when he says :

The mistake some of us made when we talk about the budget is in assuming that government spending can solve all our problems. The government may spend more on education, but that doesn’t mean that Indian kids will get anywhere near the education they should, or that the education system will become better. Our mai-baap sarkar may announce a safety net for workers, but that doesn’t mean that workers will benefit. It may extend the REGB, but that doesn’t mean that it is doing anything to enable the growth of employment in this country. In some cases, it might actually be harming the cause of those it claims to benefit, by spending money inefficiently that, had it never been taxed in the first place, would have done more good for the economy.

Its high time we realize that the government (with the bureaucracy) is not the panacea, not an entity that is magically endowed with powers ( and intentions ) of upliftment. Think about it. It is merely a bunch of people who spend others’ (read yours) money for sometimes dubious ends of their political masters as a part of their full-time day job.

Its likely your dad had figured it all long ago without watching this or reading this.

Just thinking… February 28, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in contemplation, india, politics.
2 comments

Random thought ( which means no link follows )

– In India when politicians say that they lost because of the so-called anti-incumbency factor, they are half-admitting that they did a shitty job.

– When politicians come into the studio for a 10-30 min debate, I want to know first what is it that they agree on, if at all there is something. I really don’t care what you disagree on ( which is generally everything ). That will probably make them less exciting and TV channels have a stake there.  But then this is not a school competition where you debate to improve your debating skills;  these debates hopefully should be used to let viewers know where the representatives stand on some issues.

I think I am expecting too much.

~~~

More random thoughts :

What makes you feel richer ?

a) A friend who owed you Rs. 5000 ( $100 ) returns the amount after constant reminders.

b) You unexpectedly find a  Rs. 500 note ($10) in one of the pockets of a trouser you no longer use.

Obviously this depends on the relative amounts. What else does that depend on ?

The Italian connection February 21, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in humor, image, india, politics.
2 comments

What are the shared aspects of Indian and Italian politics ? ( Ofcourse apart from the fact that India has an italian born prime minister leader of largest political party ? ).

Here is one more.

If you thought that India has elections too often and a list of unforgettable ( and unworthy of memory ) prime ministers, wait till you see this. Since 1946, Italy has had 16 elections and hold your breath, 37 governments and 25 prime ministers. ( because 6 people became PM twice, 1 person thrice and another one person ( Amintore Fanfani ) 5 times !!! ) Mr. Fanfani was PM for some time in the 1950s, 1960s and 80s as well. ( I would have died of nostalgia ! ) There were 12 PMs between the first and the last time he became PM ! How many Italians do you think can name all the PMs in the last 50 years ? ( By the way, how many Indians can name all Indian PMs in order ? No that might be too much, at least get the name right ? )

Looking at this picture of the Italian opposition when the current minister Mr. Romano Prodi ( who just visited India ) was to resign, I wonder what would have to happen to make me half as happy as they look in the picture 😀 . That picture is priceless !!

Inspite of everything, Italy is the 5th largest economy in the world.

Assorted links February 16, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in assorted, economics, india, movies, politics, sport.
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If after this match, one must have this to say : “The last time that Australia had a run rate below 3 in a completed first innings of an ODI was in the 1979 world cup”, it goes on to show how dominating the team has been in the first place.

~~

Amit Varma has a new blog layout.

~~

Misfortune awaits. Deepak Krishnan says :

Its been a long time since I felt for any cause after I left college. Dealing with work pressures, adjusting to life in Bombay and a general indoctrination into hi-fi fundas of commercialisation, I had almost forgotten my socialist leanings of the past two years. Time to unleash them!!

Deepak, we must talk. Heard about the Truman doctrine, haven’t you 🙂

~~

Stupid politicians everywhere. We will check back in due course to see how much of this nonsense will be accomplished without rendering solutions worse than the problems.

In a two-hour speech to about 10,000 supporters north of Paris, she laid out a 100-proposal platform, pledging to raise pensions, to increase the minimum wage to €1,500, or about $2,000, a month and to guarantee a job or further training for every youth within six months of graduating from university.

Did I read that right ? 100-proposals ? I am beginning to have an itch that no emoticon can satisfy.

~~

Commonsensical ( and therefore non-obvious ) notes on how blogging is so much like the free market.
~~~

Ripping Amitabh Bachchan. Somebody out there would call a spade nothing but. Another spade-caller ripping the Congress/UPA government.

And the biggest of them all.

To dr. or not to dr. February 15, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in CMU, geo-politics, humor, india, politics.
1 comment so far

“We thought everybody in their right mind ought to get a Ph.D.”

That’s google-mom, I mean, Sergey Brin’s mom. As I enter into the millionth phase of the battle within – trying to answer the question about whether I should go for a Ph.D. or quit and seek out a corporate position, I see obviously unsolicited suggestions 🙂 coming from everywhere – people in the media first and now celebrity moms :D.

Its a bit like the Iraq insurgency – a few months ago I thought that the question was settled – no Ph.D. for me – I thought that the daily battle between the Shias and Sunnis within was nearing the end, that the “insurgency was in its last throes“, until I shot the lawyer…..uuh….. hmm…I mean that metaphor just spun itself out of control.

In the end though, I hope I have a reason for what I decide to do, for I can’t get away by just saying that “the ball was not coming on to the bat and the odd ball kept low.” As I despondently look forward to confidence building measures, peaceful settlement through bilateral talks, my right to self-determination, early resolution of this vexed dispute, issue, matter, idea, theme, thought, CNN-IBN reminds me that there are more important things in life.

Until then I agree to disagree with myself. Sooner or later, when the ice melts I expect a thaw in my relations. With myself. And then I hope all outstanding issues, including the core issue that of Ph.D, will be amicably resolved. Ofcourse, without re-drawing the map.

Worst article today February 8, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in india, politics, rant.
2 comments

and in a long time

Perhaps the BJP, which is bankrupt of issues, may pick up this thread from the Shiv Sena and use the 82 year-old Atal Bihari Vajpayee for the next Lok Sabha elections, sitting on a chair and begging for votes. You can well imagine how the voters are going to react. How are we going to counter this emotional threat that shall be before us in the next Lok Sabha elections? Because elections are not about simple arithmetic. As recent events suggest, they may hinge on emotional chemistry.

The author, Mr. Sanjay Nirupam, fought the last Lok Sabha elections ( May 2004 ) on the Shiv Sena ticket as a part of the NDA alliance headed by Vajpayee. ( I think he lost to Sunil Dutt ). He is now a Congress member. He can do with a little courtesy when he writes in a national daily.

P.S : What is the probability that at 82 Mr. Nirupam will be our former PM ?

Game theoritic approaches to the Cauvery dispute February 8, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in economics, life, politics.
3 comments

Correction appended.

Lets see how it works.

Say Karnataka said they would give Tamil Nadu 200 units of water. Tamil Nadu says they want 250 units. I don’t know if X and Y are influenced by one another because each of them know what the other’s preference is. So even tomorrow TN agree that they are okay with 200 units. Then Karnataka will say they can give only 175 units. Or say Karnataka says they are willing to give 250 units, and then TN says no, we want 300 units. One solution is to give the arithmetic average. 225 units.

So what you ask for is not what you really need ( which may never be known ) but what the other side is willing is just concede. Note just, not happily concede. Each side’s thinking process is that if the other side is willing to agree to something, we can fight and get a little more. Just like when you go shopping, you quote a bargain price and if the seller readily agrees, you feel bad for having asked for lesser. If he quotes the price and you readily agree, he feels like an idiot for not having quoted more !

What if we had removed this knowledge? Both Karnataka and TN should go to the Tribunal and specify their preferences secretly ( practically hard but imagine so ) – X units from Karnataka and Y from Tamil Nadu.

What would happen next ? Thomas Schelling whose work on game theory and conflict resolution earned him the Economics Nobel will have more to say on this.

~~

Correction : In para 2, the sentence should read “Just like when you go shopping, you quote a bargain price and if the seller readily agrees, you feel bad for not having asked for a lower price.” Thanks Achala for pointing out the mistake.

Pencil is mighter than the sword etc. February 4, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in politics.
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Some (lack of) freedom statistics for my country – India, the 104th most freest country in the world.

The autiobiography of a pencil – exciting and okay, lets ever say – cute.

Here is an astounding fact: Neither the worker in the oil field nor the chemist nor the digger of graphite or clay nor any who mans or makes the ships or trains or trucks nor the one who runs the machine that does the knurling on my bit of metal nor the president of the company performs his singular task because he wants me. Each one wants me less, perhaps, than does a child in the first grade. Indeed, there are some among this vast multitude who never saw a pencil nor would they know how to use one. Their motivation is other than me. Perhaps it is something like this: Each of these millions sees that he can thus exchange his tiny know-how for the goods and services he needs or wants. I may or may not be among these items.

State ‘conspiracy’ against education January 30, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in india, politics.
1 comment so far

Thinking about the previous post and the comments from Abhinav, I just thought about all those unrecognized private schools in India. What worries me is that government forces unrecognized schools to close down. There is no need to do that – all that is required is to make sure that people don’t enroll their children into these schools thinking they are recognized. To avoid this :

– Make it mandatory that they inform everyone that they are not recognized.

– One may argue why will the schools do this. So, in addition to the above, let the government release a list of recognized schools in every locality every 4 months.

Recognized schools matter if the student is planning to pursue higher studies. But for now, there are millions who would be happy to get low, good quality education even upto class XII. That itself can open up so many jobs. That way those who want to have education ( perhaps at a lower price ) will go anyway. Moreover, colleges may conduct entrance examinations and if a child from an unrecognized school is really smart, he will make it anyway. May the college have no rules that in addition to having a good rank, the child must be from a recognized school – the fact that she/he has cleared a exam administered by the college itself means she/he is upto the mark.

In addition to the purely utilitarian reasons above, forcing schools to close down

a) is against the right of the individual to expression.

b) deprives many of education, who need it but can’t pay for good private schools or the government schools are far way.

c) puts the teachers who are just happy with their (lower) pay and (lack of) status that comes with teaching at a unrecognized schoo out of jobs.

Who does closing schools help – only the education department inspectors who can make money by taking bribes to recognize schools or from one school to keep a rival school unrecognized !! This is yet another classic example of how the government bureaucracy ( even if inadvertently) conspires to keep millions uneducated.

Update: In the comments section Abhinav alleges that the politicians intentionally ensure that uneducated remain so. Perhaps to a certain extent but something else may be more likely. I would assert that a) there appears to be more indifference rather than direct opposition on the part of the politicians i.e. they do not really care, while they may not go all out to ensure widespread illiteracy and b) in collusion with the bureaucracy, the government brings in excessive regulations in the name of ensuring quality.

Profound sentences today January 29, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in life, politics, sport, weird.
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Profound for the embedded warning therein :

It took some time for us to see the situation as it really had been. I didn’t know what was at the root of Anna’s rebellion, and perhaps I’ll never know. But I do recognize that we failed in how we were only able to see the part of her that was reacting to us, not the child who was growing up much too quickly and was still terribly afraid. I could not admit until much later that no matter how understanding I claimed to be, I had behaved as though Anna were my surrogate, her behavior a reflection of my parenting skills, her beliefs a mirror of my ideals, her goals a product of my ambition.

I may have said that I wished to set her free, but it was always my agenda that I hoped she would follow, my efforts as a father she would eventually acknowledge and admire. I had avoided repeating the mistakes of my father, but I had made different ones.

Profound for the ‘wow’ness it inspires, in me at the least :).

Perhaps the difference that most fundamentally separates true liberals and libertarians from others is that, to one degree or another, true liberals and libertarians are, unlike non-liberals and libertarians, dutiful sons and daughters of the Scottish Enlightenment. And one of the great lessons of that remarkable intellectual movement is the refinement of the understanding that state and society are not the same thing. Society is not created by the state, and the state’s activities not only do not define those of society but often diminish society’s activities.

Profound for the absurdly funny nature of the exchange

Anuradha SenGupta: Hershelle Gibbs’s comments about the Pakistanis which could have been racist; Dean Jones’ inadvertent, off-the-cuff remark which is again not very pleasant—do you think we are being too politically correct, all of us. I mean what’s wrong if I say ‘You bloody Aussie’ once in a while, is that okay to say?

Greg Chappell: Absolutely, it’s not true, you can say that.

Profound for how wrong things can go, inspite of best intentions

Robinson left England more than a year ago to trace the ancient Tea Caravan trail with a group of Tibetans from the Chinese mainland to Lhasa in Tibet. He began his journey with a pair of horses through the oxygen-sapped, often icy terrain, his family said. He strayed into Indian territory when one of his horses fell ill and another became pregnant.

The Indo-Tibetan Border Police spotted the bedraggled Robinson — physically-drained and hungry — with his horses near Mana in October last year and took him into custody.

Assorted links January 28, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in assorted, movies, politics, rant.
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Quick links :

1. Having been a regular donor at AID/ASHA, this is worrying.

Thats the communist manifesto from Mr. Pandey.

In the name of infrastructure development more highways are being built so that automobile and petroleum companies can profit out of them. Do the benefits percolate down? Maybe not. These roads can’t be used by more than the 5 per cent of the population who travel in four-wheelers. Instead of strengthening the public transportation system, the thrust is on increasing private vehicles. Quality education and healthcare services are only available to those who can afford them. The rules of the game favour the rich and privileged and goes against the poor.What is most threatening about this kind of development is that it is not our governments and people’s representatives who are taking decisions regarding our lives. We are being dictated to by the international monetary agencies, multinational corporations and sometimes directly by the US. This implies that we remain a democracy only in name.The parliamentary process of decision-making has been sabotaged by vested economic interests.

2. World Leaders in their younger days. From Marginal revolution.

3. Nayyar is gone, the last man standing from the greats of yesteryear Hindi cinema.

4. After it all, Shilpa wins. Congratulations to her and she deserves it. Although I cant bear to read countless interviews, reports for a while to come. So I shouldn’t. Well, the British Public voted her to victory isn’t it. So what now of all the allegations against “racist Britain” – a country of 60 million racist people isn’t it ! Duh.

5. In some societies, primarily the eastern and middle-eastern, if you are in bad shape, its always someone else (that is held) responsible. Its never because of your own lack of qualification, incompetence or lack of initiative – its always the other person, or the weather, or bad luck. Why talk of political accountability when there is no individual accountability. Read this for just another example of the same.

The Sachar Committee says the total area under wakf properties in India is about six lakh acres and its book value is Rs 6,000 crore. However, the market value of these lands is much higher. For example, the current value of wakf properties in Delhi alone is estimated to be in excess of Rs 6000 crore and that of wakf properties in the country could be a staggering Rs 1,20,000 crore. If properly managed, these properties could give an annual return of anywhere between Rs 12,000 and Rs 24,000 crore (approximately $2.5 to five billion). This is more than enough to meet the basic health and educational needs of poor Muslims but wakf properties are mismanaged and, therefore, do not give this kind of return. But the Sachar Committee does not see this as the failure of the Muslim community to prudently manage its internal affairs. The committee thinks that “blaming others” is part of its terms of reference and so blames the Union Government, the State Governments, local bodies and every body else including the Department of Archaeology.

Ofcourse, one good thing about this “other guy is responsible” attitude is that average depression rates are probably lower in countries in the east compared to the west. An almost essential component of getting depressed is the feeling of being hurt ego, of having played a part in one’s own downfall.

6. In times of war, one doesn’t expect moral conduct from the adversary inspite of the Geneva convention and such. I remember being shocked several years ago when I heard that rapes are widely seen ( and accepted ) as the collateral damage of war. [ How many soldiers have you heard court-marshaled for committed these crimes in the times of war ? ]. But Bryan has an interesting argument for treating the other side especially the soldiers well :

There is however a reason for treating prisoners well that should appeal to any rational tribalist. Even if you only care about the lives of the people on your side, there is a good reason to treat prisoners well. Namely: Treating prisoners well encourages enemy soldiers to surrender, and treating prisoners badly encourages enemy soldiers to fight to the death.

..which in turn will hopefully bring the war to an quicker end. I don’t know about the counter-arguments to this, but I thought it was interesting anyway.

Economics of misinformation January 26, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in india, media, politics, rant.
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I am not surprised by the results of this survey.

The surveys says :

Instead of asking people about actual economic policies, the survey gave them two fairly worded policy options and asked the people to choose one.

And then it appears that in order to find out whether people support foreign investment or not, they are given these options.

Support: Govt. should allow, foreign companies to come into our country since they bring more capital and technology..

Oppose: Govt. should not allow foreign companies to come in our country because they exploit us and take profits away

If that is how you word your survey, it would require a fool to support foreign investment. What, may I ask, is fairly worded about it ?

When 26% of the entire population believe that reforms have benefitted only the rich as one of the tables suggest, the headline is that “Everyone agrees that reforms have benefited only the rich”. 26 is not equal to 0.

Mr. Yogendra Yadav, don’t tell us to opine what you think and what you we should opine.15 years back if you had asked the general public whether the government should run telecom and ban private cell phone companies, a huge majority would have said yes. What else do you expect when generation after generation is brought up to believe that to have a secure government job is everything. I want to visit your house and see what consumer appliances you use – Kelvinator/LG ? A BSNL net connection or Airtel/Sify.

And all this when barely 3% understand what reforms really mean ? What percentage of the population understands the meaning of “downsizing the government”. I would think that would be less than 3%. Did you explain it to them ? If so, in what words ? Reading stuff like this, I am sometimes inclined to stretch so far as to say that we should consider teaching economic history of the world and free-market economics in our high schools even at the cost of some Trignometry/ calculus/English. While each and every individual who consumes goods and/or has purchasing power is a cog in the machine that the economy is, barely a handful have an idea how economies work even in the most elementary terms.

Some of those in the Indian media should just shut shop. Or not handle subjects when you can’t do it competently. Just stick to Abhishek-Aishwaraya, the item girls and SRK-BigB- in a country of a billion, you will (unfortunately) find at least a few million underemployed who will keep your shop. running.

Bollywood, Bush and Nitihari January 24, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in America, economics, india, politics.
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Amit Varma has well-written post slams Bollywood for its historical potrayal of businesses as unethical, of never having celebrated human enterprise and expresses glee that Bollywood might finally be going capitalist ! While I am tempted to say – “Too little too late, I change my mind” (to Bollywood, not Amit ! ) , I will make a departure and instead say this.

In Bollywood, over the ages, one of the template villains has been the businessman. He will look suitably sinister, will alienate his own children, and will either deal in drugs or arms on the side, or spend his time evicting slum dwellers. Anything for profit, especially murder and rape. Most Bollywood businessman villains were classic caricatures of “the evil capitalist,” exploiting the workers and growing rich on their blood and toil. They often freelanced as mafia dons or were crony capitalists, but when the hero raged against their greed, this distinction was lost: business—and the profit motive—were itself painted as twisted, and the rare benevolent businessman stood out starkly as an exception to the rule.

Amar Singh meanwhile thinks Nitihari is not a law and order problem. He says don’t politicize it – its a problem with the system he says – and proceeds to do exactly that in his next sentence. Well, what if it happened in a Congress/BJP ruled state ?

Karan Thapar: Both, how they handled it before the killings were discovered, when they were avoiding registering FIRs, and afterwards?

Amar Singh: I am fully agreed with you that nobody should be spared. But my only thing is politicisation of this entire issue is wrong.

Karan Thapar:I agree with you. I am not politicising, I am trying to establish the truth and your opposition.

Amar Singh: I am using your forum for a noble message. I am not attacking anybody. Whether it is Nithari; where it is Gurgaon serial killings, where for Rs 100, 28 people were killed; or it is Mukhtsar where the same kind of crime was discovered in the premises of a Congress leader; or it is the Hyderabad skeletons…

Statistical analysis of the State of the Union address. Hmm..statistics catching on in the mainstream media :p. Type in a word to see how often its been occurring over the years.

Mathematics and Government ! January 20, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in economics, humor, india, politics.
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1. Some tips on how to pass the Class X Maths exam !! I know most of us here dont need it but just saw this and reminded myself that its been 10 years since I wrote ( and passed ) the Class X maths exam. Most amusing of these tips –

List some simple topics, which can ensure you marks as they contain mechanical or direct formula based question.

Do not leave any question unattended in the paper. Write at least the formula and the information hidden in question. This will give you some marks.

Dont expect this in grad school.

2. Sanjika, my colleague and I have regular discussions on myraid topics and several of them turn into a left-right debate. His experience of his country Sri Lanka motivates a different point of view with respect to how much government can do. I obviously see the government as a major force for distortion. Here is now an article from the Times that reviews a book on India and maybe the Author Edward Luce puts it best when he says :

Mr. Luce encounters a woman in Sunder Nagri, a New Delhi slum, whose quest for a ration card entitling her to subsidized wheat and other staples involved bribing an official to get an application form. The form was in English, which she could not read, so she had to pay a second official to fill it out. When she turned up to claim her wheat, it was moldy and crawling with insects. The store owner had evidently sold his good government wheat on the black market.

In the northern state of Bihar, Mr. Luce writes, more than 80 percent of subsidized government food is stolen. Most ration cards are obtained through bribery, by Indians who are not poor. It’s the same story in nearly every area of an economy touched by the groping tentacles of a government that “is never absent from your life, except when you actually need it.”

"We care for your life" January 14, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in humor, life, politics, reminisces-2000.
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This picture shot by Rajaram on June 21st, 2004 at the Biwi ka Makbara at Aurangabad in the middle of one of the best trips/vacations I ever took has an interesting inspiration. (An extremely short description of the vacation ( June 19-June 30th) is as below from a mail I wrote to my school buddies soon after the trip. ). If you have been into Indian photography or into a certain Indian politicians you would likely know. [ You will have to notice this picture rather carefully – I mean, read what the notice says. ]

Several years ago I had seen a picture that had a similar message, except that it was Jawaharlal Nehru posing. I in fact remember telling Rajaram about this justifying the need for such insolence and the pictorial evidence of it. I couldn’t recall what exactly Nehru’s picture was. I first thought he was standing next to a board called “Not drinking water” while drinking it. Several google searches for that failed. I then thought he was for picking a flower in a park while standing by a board that carries a prohibition notice. Failed to find that picture either.

Finally, I found it ! A rather poor resolution, but should you expand it, you get the message.

This picture was shot by one of India’s best known photographers and certainly best known lady photographer – Homai Vyarawalla. In an interview, Homai says that this is her favorite picture. I havent ofcourse seen all her pictures, but yes, this is certainly a lovely one. ( even if it makes Nehru look blind 🙂 ).

As an aside I am impressed to see what the board in the first picture says – “We care for your life. Please do not sit on the stone railing”. For it were somewhere here, it would read more like – “Under no circumstances shall the XXXX be responsible for any loss including but not limited to life, property – material or immaterial, past or present. All consequences of the act of maintaining direct contact shall rest with the individual(s) concerned.”

That photograph wouldn’t be as exciting to pose for, or shoot :).

India in 1947 and Iraq in 2007 January 7, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in geo-politics, history, india, politics.
3 comments

To say I am not impressed by the TOI would be an understatement after having started an Orkut community that goes by the name TOI sucks. But lets give credit where its due. This is quite a cool collection. [ although their choice of Sushmita Sen, Jessica Lal case etc. is debatable ]

This collection infact is better.

India in 1947 reminds me of Iraq of today – centuries of being ruled by minority rulers ( Muslims ) that were intermittently despotic and reasonable, when India finally won independence, the only reasonable solution seemed to be the partition. Over 1 million died and another million went missing and a short war ensued in 1947. Iraq faces the same situation, only this time the minorities are the Sunni sect within Islam.

Carry this comparison a little farther, the prospects that you see for Iraq today – violence, bloodshed, civil war – are exactly what was predicted for India then. [ Read this excellent article about how even in 1967 the West didn’t give India a chance for survival ] Considering it all, India hasnt done all that bad a job maybe. **Unsure**. There is already a talk to ‘India-Pakistan-Bangladesh’ style partition of Iraq into Shia, Sunni and Kurdish Iraq.

Here is what I wrote on this topic on Jan 30th, 2005.

Was reading this blog by an Iraqi about the elections. Am sometimes wondering how it might have been in India around 1947. The partition brought so much of pain, blood, chaos and it really wasnt unthinkable that we get into some real mess that has since befallen colonies that suddenly found themselves having to manage and learn democratic norms and institution building.

What prevented India from slipping into the abyss ? That too an India whose political unity came only as an inadvertent consequence of British consolidation and the independence movement that ensued, even though cultural and economic unity had always existed. Is it due to the political class of those years which was largely virtuous and incorruptible ? Is it that they were really careful about how they should handle things in the light of new found independence compared to those of today who have made democracy their greatest weapon ? Is it that the nationalism that the Independence movement generated hadnt yet become more of a token as it seems today ? Infact why didnt the death of Mahatma Gandhi in 1948 ( infact 57 years to this very day ! ) barely months after Independence further lead us into chaos ?

Our first elections were in 1952. How would things have changed if we had elections soon after the partition in 1947 or the British insisted on conducting elections before packing off – this is something that seems to be happening in Iraq at the moment. If the US forces walked out today, a civil war is only a formality. But we managed to have a smooth transition from 1948-1952 ( ofcourse noting that the partition was in 1947 ). I am ofcourse NOT at all a supporter of US occupation but now that they made the mess, they own it !

How could India – a country of 250 million with diversity larger than anything that Iraq comes close to keep itself together as a pseudo democracy until 1952 without a constitution until 1950 ( ofcourse we did have an interim constitution I guess ) ? And how did we imbibe democracy in what was essentially a feudal society even after 1952 ? Was it Nehru and his charisma and his incontestible integrity ? When you look at the Iraq today with its fledgling democracy, that or perhaps something much more complicated India was around 1947.

Before we get too involved in similarities between Iraq of today and India of the yesteryears, we must realize the big difference here. Iraq wasnt liberated by an indegenous independence movement unlike India – the process of liberation didnt unite the country, only divided it. It didnt even throw up any leaders with a nation-wide appeal.

All said and done, in retrospect you feel good about India and how it handled it all. We owe a lot to our political class of that age – Nehru, Patel, Rajagopalchari, Maulana Azad, Shastri, Rajendra Prasad.

Ofcourse today, we live inspite of our political class, not because of them.

Deaths in War January 7, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in America, politics.
2 comments

Forget about the politics of it for a moment and take it just for a fact. This is quite astonishing – stuff I didnt know.

a) 618,000 Americans died in the American Civil War.

b) 118,000 Americans died in WW I. I thought they entered the war rather late, compared to say WW II where they lost 450,000 people.

Ofcourse, 118,000 is only slightly more than the 90,000 India lost fighting on the British side.

Some Media January 1, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in economics, politics, science.
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The Time Magazine has a series of 10 best political cartoons of the year here. This one is my favorite.

I recently sat through and watched the first 8 of the 10 videos from “Free to Choose” by Nobel Laureate Economist Late Milton Friedman. Each video has a 30 minute documentary followed by a 30 minute debate on that. Highly recommended. In particular, watch the 2nd one – the panelists include a young Jagdish Bhagwati and even younger Donald Rumsfeld. [ Recorded in 1980 ].

Yet another series of videos can be found here. This time its physics, sport, astronomy, religion, philosophy etc. I watched this one from Richard Feynman – The pleasure of finding things out. It starts off with an interesting video segment – a transcript of which I found here.

I have a friend who’s an artist and he’s some times taken a view which I don’t agree with very well. He’ll hold up a flower and say, “look how beautiful it is,” and I’ll agree, I think. And he says, “you see, I as an artist can see how beautiful this is, but you as a scientist, oh, take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing.” And I think he’s kind of nutty.

First of all, the beauty that he sees is available to other people and to me, too, I believe, although I might not be quite as refined aesthetically as he is. But I can appreciate the beauty of a flower. At the same time, I see much more about the flower that he sees. I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside which also have a beauty. I mean, it’s not just beauty at this dimension of one centimeter: there is also beauty at a smaller dimension, the inner structure…also the processes.

The fact that the colors in the flower are evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate it is interesting – it means that insects can see the color. It adds a question – does this aesthetic sense also exist in the lower forms that are…why is it aesthetic, all kinds of interesting questions which a science knowledge only adds to the excitement and mystery and the awe of a flower. It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts.

I dont either :).

Exit economist, Welcome politician December 10, 2006

Posted by Sharath Rao in india, politics, rant.
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Here is nominating Dr. Manmohan Singh for the Foot in the mouth award.

Assorted links December 10, 2006

Posted by Sharath Rao in assorted, movies, politics, science, sport.
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1. Now and then these few unbelievable things hit you and make you think the unthinkable.

He is able to tell the kind of shot from the sound made by the ball on the bat. He can also tell the bowler by the way he lands his feet on the deck. The technique applies to the batsmen, too: “When a batsman hits through the off side, the ball makes a sharp cracking sound. When he plays leg it’s a bit muffled because he is playing off his pads. I can tell when a bowler bowls a yorker from the way the batsman jams down the wicket.”

Yes, that is a man born blind, a Cricket commentator on TV.

2. Quite a frequent occurence perhaps.

“Is that Dr. Nene?”

“Yes.”

“Are you the same Dr Shriram Nene who married Madhuri Dixit last month?”

“Yes.”

But when he was told that the call was a request for an interview, his tone suddenly changed. He seemed uncomfortable.

“Can we talk later?” he said, sounding unsure. “The hospital is beeping me. Can I call you back later.”

He took the phone number down and seemed in real rush.

“Look, I really have to go. The hospital is beeping me again.”

3. Have you heard of the Godwin’s Law.

4. Photographs of an execution whose anonymous cameraman’s identity is only now revealed.

5. Everybody is basically overrated !

For the researchers showed 123 men and 159 women photographs of students of the opposite sex and asked them to rate the students as prospective sexual or long-term partners. They then showed the same photographs to members of the same sex and asked them to assess how attractive those people would be to members of the opposite sex.

On average, men rated other men a third higher than women did. Women rated other women a quarter higher than men did.

Again, this is just a study, so I am skeptical about it. ( not necessarily because of the content of the study on which I have no informed opinion. )

Women in power ( and powerful women ) November 18, 2006

Posted by Sharath Rao in humor, india, politics, sport.
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1)

This is about women in power. In some good news, France might get a woman president, which would be great ! ( except she is representing the socialist party ). Good times for women politicians nevertheless.

I must quickly add that if anyone and especially women believe that in general their lot will improve merely by having one of their own on the top, you just have to turn to India/Pakistan/Bangaldesh/Sri Lanka for examples or even some of the Indian states. Politicians will do whatever it takes to be re-elected and in most cases, whatever the politicians do, it will be in order to retain power. Though I think they are much less likely to be corrupt. ( That issues such as status of women is not as much of a problem in places like France anymore is ofcourse another thing. )

2)

And here is something about powerful women. Zinedine Zindane has no doubt been an inspiration to millons of aspiring footballers all over the world. And atleast one model as well.

That thing the blogosphere does November 11, 2006

Posted by Sharath Rao in America, blogging, ideas, politics.
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I dont know. I dont know anything. Sometimes, I just dont have an opinion, or I hold several views that seldom reconcile – either because I consider myself insufficiently informed or because thats very much the nature of the problem.

One of the consequences of being a blogosphere freak is being reminded of the above again and again. Mainstream media is elitist, there is nothing you can do about that. But with the blogosohere, people who would otherwise never be relaying their views do so, creating such a diversity of views that you actually get to see democracy in action. ( okay, that was some exaggeration there :)). Anyway, let me get to the point.

Consider this post from Mankiw Chacha, my very Indian way of referring to one of my favorite bloggers !

Sometimes the most responsible thing a person can do on election day is stay at home.

…So the next time a friend of yours tells you he’s not voting, don’t try to change his mind. It’s a good bet that if he’s not voting, he’s not been following the election closely anyway. Maybe he watched a baseball game instead of the debates. Maybe he is bored silly with all the talk of targeted tax cuts, privatized social security, and campaign finance reform. Maybe he’s as ignorant about public policy as those focus groups of undecided voters that are the media’s latest darling.

So rather than pushing your friend to the polls, perhaps you should thank him for staying at home. He’s making your vote count just a little bit more.

Yeah, its that last bit there – you already see this is getting controversial since what is implied is that some votes are actually more important than others. Blasphemous, isnt it ? No wonder, this article he wrote in 2000 US presidential election eve wasn’t approved for publication by his editors at Fortune.

Setting aside all political correctness, (of which I have been accused of having little) , my first impression was maybe he is more right than wrong. But lets come to that later, for now head to the comments section.

Commenter 1 explains it as ‘Crowd-think’, or a sense of belonging.

I suspect a lot of people vote for the same reason I do – they want to “cheer on” policies and politicians they support and feel like they belong to something larger.

Commenter 2 thinks like an economist

You’ve made my point: the “feeling” you write of is based on fallacy. If you really go to the polls to enjoy the fruits of camaraderie and groupthink, then the actual process of casting the ballot would be irrelevant. You could simply go to campaign rallies and prance about like a good little cheerleader. Alternatively, you could go to the polling station to take in the atmosphere, then leave when the marginal cost of staying equals the marginal benefit. The casting of the ballot would be irrelevant at best and a time-consuming diversion at worst.

Commenter 3 treads the middle-path between symbolism and pragmatism

The reason they want more people to vote is because that lends legitimacy to the elected government, meaning that the state is free-er to do whatever the hell it wants. The majority of people just want to get on with their lives, without having a bunch of politicians running around changing stuff for the sake of it. There is no way of voting for this in a democracy, especially in the media age, as democratic politicians have to sell themselves as proactive and exciting in order to get the people out and voting.

Commenter 4 flames Mankiw Chacha

Why is it that whenever I hear someone advocating that some people shouldn’t vote (or worse be allowed to vote) they are always concerned with the intelligence of the other guy? This idea that people don’t vote because they aren’t well enough informed just sounds wrong. I’m an advocate of voting. There are two reasons I’ve heard from people who don’t vote: 1) My vote doesn’t count — this is the mistaken notion that their 1 vote out of millions doesn’t mean anything; 2) Politicians are crooks and I’m not going to legitimize a corrupt system. To be sure, those are paraphrases of answers that might be very involved. But, oddly enough, no one answered the way Mankiw’s article suggests.

Commenter 5 is the politician’s worst enemy – a fresh perspective

You should vote, and encourage your friends and neighbors to vote, regardless of how many issues they in fact vote on or which side they vote for. The reason is that politicians appeal to large groups of likely voters with policy proposals and legislation. The elderly vote; therefore, there are many laws and proposals to benefit the elderly. Twenty-somethings do not vote, so politicians ignore them. You as an individual will benefit by getting lots of people like you to go to the polls — doesn’t matter who they vote for. Once you get people to the polls, politicians will bid for their votes.

Coming back to the original point of the article, I think it makes sense. My uninformed vote would dilute and distort election results. But unless it is impressed upon the citizen that voting is his duty, he will unlikely ever take up upon him the task of informing himself so that vote can count. The line of reasoning would be something like this – “Well, my uninformed vote is a danger to democracy. Therefore, I will not vote.” – instead of – “My uninformed vote is unhealthy to democracy but voting is my duty. Therefore, I will keep myself informed so that the next time I can vote.”

Yes, hanging around these topical and intellectually stimulating blogs, and the comments section that are high on intellectual exchanges laced with humor/tongue-in-cheek likely improves your analytical and debating skills and might even increase your knowledge. There is however a risk of turning you into an intellectual snob. Now lets get really tongue-in-cheek here – the only people that the blogosphere does no harm are those who are intellectual snobs already, others beware !

Logical inconsistencies and American democracy November 5, 2006

Posted by Sharath Rao in America, politics.
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More than once in discussions with friends I make it to caution against confusing democracy with majoritarianism or with elections. In an article here about the flaws in American democracy ( and perhaps many others), Michael Kinsey lays it out well. Its a long article and am saving it for a later reading, but here it is anyway. [ All bold emphasis mine. ]

Democracy is about more than just counting votes. It is about democratic institutions — legislatures, courts — and a culture of respect for them. It is about political egalitarianism: we may not be equal in any other way, but we are all supposed to be equal as citizens. In the American tradition, democracy is also about individual rights, even though protecting these rights can mean thwarting the will of a democratic majority.

From the above ‘definition’ of democracy, will Iraq ever really get there anytime soon or will the Middle-East. And for that matter, how often does the Indian State surrender to the majority (religious, economic, creed, education) before the judiciary steps in to call such action unconstitutional.

He then mentions something that strikes me as being true ( even in my limited understanding of the American electoral process. )

In my view, the worst form of cheating in American democracy today is intellectual dishonesty. The conversation in our democracy is dominated by disingenuousness. Candidates and partisan commentators strike poses of outrage that they don’t really feel, take positions that they would not take if the shoe was on the other foot (e.g., criticizing Bush when you gave Clinton a pass, or vice versa), feel no obligation toward logical consistency. Our democracy occasionally punishes outright lies but not brazen insincerity. When we vote after a modern political campaign run by expensive professionals, we have almost no idea what the victor really believes or what he or she might do in office. It seems to me there is more than enough of this to explain all distressing election results without condemning either yourself or democracy.

People feeling no obligation towards logical consistency is, in my opinion, not just the privilege of politicians – each of us is guilty of this some of the time.

And yeah, I wrote about intellectual dishonesty in a post here last month.

Draconian again August 8, 2006

Posted by Sharath Rao in india, politics, rant.
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Disbelief.

I dont think the current Indian government is stupid – I am sure there are a few smart men for everyone to see. But I do think they are an obnoxious bunch – one draconian law after another. This bill – proposing that only women judges try rape cases – is completely insane ! What is the rationale behind this and why is there no reason to believe its bound to be counter-productive ? Why are we continuously bandying about that the ICS officers are some of the smartest there are – when there is so much evidence to the contrary !

Soma Wadhwa at the Indian Express has provided an excellent critique and I have nothing to add to that other than that what is being proposed is discriminatory by any standards. She meant to state it maybe but not perhaps in as many words. What next – only muslim judges judge cases involving muslim defendants/accused because they maybe discriminated against by non-muslim judges ? Not funny at all. This cabinet is capable of it.

A reluctant "I told you so" post July 20, 2006

Posted by Sharath Rao in india, politics, rant.
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Its amazing. On June 22nd, I authored this post here on how the Mumbaikar spirit is bit of an overdone thing. Among many other things, I said :

What is this indomitable spirit all about – is it the spirit that makes you guys tolerate anything, everything and go about your life living in desolate conditions ? What use is this spirit of afterall ? Each time there is a major tragedy in Bombay, the legislator/MP comes in and makes a speech about Mumbaikars are resilient and go about their life the very day after floods, after bomb blast, after building collapse etc. as if nothing happened. The media too joins in and sings the same song. All Mumbaikars are not only convinced but they are also happy and proud that their city’s resilience is being bandied about. End of story.

This was a whole 3 weeks before the blasts on July 11th. When the blasts happened, I knew the media would again go gaga over the ‘spirit’ and they did –

Vinod Mehta at Outlook wrote an utterly idiotic and worse still untimely politically motivated post here. TOI had their usual stuff here.

Now slowly some in the mainstream media and the blogosphere are also waking up to why that post was not quite off the mark. There are a few angry people there too. Here, here, here and Aswin here.

In any case, you must read this post by Tony on Vantage Point.

How romantic ! July 20, 2006

Posted by Sharath Rao in humor, india, politics.
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Linked from here.

Soon after he took over as Minister for Overseas Indian Affairs, an English newspaper in India wrote that Vayalar Ravi once kidnapped a woman, and that AK Antony and Oommen Chandy, both of whom went on to become chief ministers of Kerala state, had abetted the crime.

‘It was true,’ Ravi, who turned 70 recently, said while referring to his marriage to Mercy Ravi, who till recently was a member of the state Assembly.

The two met when he was a student leader and she was a student at a women’s college. Antonty and Chandy were students in the college, and officials of the Kerala Students Union, at the time. Ravi was the senior leader, and the others helped him get the girl he was in love with, in the face of parental objection.

Very very interesting. One thing it shows is that we do so many things as children, teens and young adults without ever most often expecting that these would :

1. pass off as party time anecdotes if you grow up to be not so famous.

2. become skeletons in the cupboard giving rise to media reports and blogosphere humor/censure if you become a celebrity.

That shouldnt mean anything. As kids and teens, we must have a good time anyway. ( But try hard not to kidnap your girlfriend – that should be nothing less than the last resort 🙂 ).

India’s most wanted – Arjun Singh ! May 26, 2006

Posted by Sharath Rao in image, india, politics, statistics, technology.
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[ Picture courtesy Google Trends ]

Search statistics for Arjun Singh ( BLUE ) and “OBC reservation” (RED) since Jan 2006 – look at the spike in early April and the correlation in the two statistics. Better view here.

Meanwhile, our Prime minister can either do this –

“I am pained to see the agonising experience the youth of the country are undergoing. They should call off their strike and I assure that the government will find a viable and credible way to protect the interest of all sections of the society”

i.e. mouth platitudes like any politician would.

Or do this

I think the matter is already settled”.

i.e. make strong statements unilaterally, like any politician would.

Who says he is technocrat and not a politician. Does he believe in what he is doing ? Or is it just another political expdiency ?

If he doesnt believe in the proposal for OBC quotas but goes ahead anyway because the parliament can pass the bill while maintaining that he supports it, does that make him a liar. Can a Prime minister possibly ever say something like – “I dont personally believe in this but its a political necessity” ? If he could, then Manmohan Singh would have spent most of the last two years saying just that ! Its a crown of thorns, sure is.

Its ironic that people like Arjun Singh who will unlikely live another 10 years have been given ministries such as HRD which are essentially far-looking – what HRD does and doesnt do has far-reaching consequences – to witness Arjun Singh will not ever live. ( Nor will Manmohan Singh himself ). I am probably being harsh, but true it is. So why is Arjun Singh who doesnt have a stake in the system given the reins for controlling it.

HRD and such ministries which dont require specific expertise ( like for. eg. Finance, Commerce) should be handed over to someone who is essentially below 50 years age ( and sane ) – who has a proved track record in policy making not 75 year old derelicts like Arjun Singh. If you call this age discrimination, then what do you which is going on right now ? Isnt dynastic rule some form of discrimination as well ?

an immigrant’s life May 24, 2006

Posted by Sharath Rao in America, contemplation, india, politics.
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Jeff Jacoby has an interesting post on the immigration problem in the Boston Globe….especially his starting is quite riveting ….

Amid the din over illegal immigration, I have been thinking about two immigrants I happen to know rather well.

One is a 3-year-old boy from southern Guatemala. He was brought to the United States in March 2004, one of 11,170 adopted orphans to immigrate that year. The other, who will turn 81 in August, comes from a small village in what is now Slovakia. He entered the United States in the spring of 1948, a few months before his 23d birthday.

Born an ocean and 78 years apart, these two immigrants might seem on the surface to have little in common. But as naturalized US citizens, they in fact have a great deal in common. English, to mention the most obvious example, is the primary language for both. Neither retains the customs of his native land. Both have a share in the American constitutional patrimony.

The little boy from Guatemala is my younger son. The older man from Slovakia is my father.”

Read complete article here. This was linked from an equally interesting, but more about the political debate on immigration, post here.

We guys who come from places where our parents’ native places are barely miles away or sometimes walking distances and often settle a few 100 kms from our ancestral homes – we will never know what it is to be in such a position. I particularly have in mind European and East Asian settlers in the United States. Cynics might speak of a identity crisis that it causes but if that were true, this nation should have been one of 200 million inferiority complexes.

Yes, such a thing as an identity crisis does exist – but in a majority of the cases, over time it disappears and if you not, people leave for home – because afterall, you leave or stay because you want to or otherwise. This ofcourse is the case of recent immigrants – people who immigrated from Europe or East Asian in the pre-war and post war years have decidedly made the United States their home.

At this point, I must refer to one particularly touching article that Jhumpa Lahiri, an engaging writer and a charming woman, wrote – I should link it again. Brilliant ones both articles !

Rest in Peace, Mahajan May 3, 2006

Posted by Sharath Rao in politics.
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Pramod Mahajan, I dont remember the last time I actually ever mourned the death of a politician.

For you though, I make an exception. For that is what you were – simply exceptional.

Indian political discourse will never be the same without you.

R.I.P

Bunch of Eunuchs – the Indian Government ! April 30, 2006

Posted by Sharath Rao in india, politics, rant.
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And all the “mighty Indian State” can do is this.

I dont say nuke Afghanistan – but atleast some mechanisms internally should be put in place to prevent repeated occurences This post goes some distance in providing an alternative.