Sunday, September 29, 2013

Needed: A Can-Do Approach

This week, I've been faced with the daunting prospect of having far, far too much work than I have time for. From exams to a lab party to projects to term papers and of course, the omnipresent thesis, I've had to contend with everything this week. On Wednesday, I had what will perhaps be the first of many crisis-reckoning moments - times when I just could not concentrate on one thing because I had so many to worry about.

But as my attitude has been for the last few years, I tried to find something useful from that extremely situation. And I've realized that I need to get one important, American trait imbibed into me - that of getting the job done. In India, I got used to dithering, of sitting in front of a screen and pretending to work and thus taking an inordinately long time to do something. It just seemed the norm - all schedules factored this into them.

Not so in America. Time is money - time is everything. If you're studying, you need to get it done and it needs to stay in your head. That means you have to concentrate on whatever you do - whether it's a movie or a textbook of quantum physics. Or, in my case, reading papers for the next literature review. This is also important because you have significantly more work here as a student and wasting time pretending to work is only going to cost you in the future.

I don't say I'm all the way there yet - far from it, really. Just writing this post is distracting me from studying for my 512 exam this week. But then, this is just a break to get my concentration back - and I believe research has shown that such breaks are important. I do hope to achieve a level of excellence one day so that one pass of work can get the job done. That would be the real sort of brilliance America demands. For now, I'm still trying. 

Saturday, September 28, 2013

On Gun Laws in America

I attended a meeting today of some concerned American citizens who were outraged by the epidemic of gun violence that has caught American in a blinding bind and has led to hundreds of murders each year. Whether it be the sensational case of Trayvon Martin or the shocking gun attack on the US Navy Yard in DC, it is clear to me that many Americans are fed up with the NRA's circular logic that 'guns don't kill people, people kill people.'

There are two issues here - the fact that there is so little check on the backgrounds of those in possessions of not just guns but outright assault weapons and the very philosophical validity behind the Second Amendment. Before I begin, let me point out that though I am not an American citizen, I do enjoy the protection of the US Constitution in expressing my opinion, even if it is against a provision of that very Constitution.

Gun violence is a reality in the US - Chicago, which is the nearest metropolis to where I live, has a full-fledged gun mafia that makes is extremely unsafe for the (generally poor) people who stay in the city. The victims are not just so-called dangerous people, who just kill each other, but in many cases, young and innocent children, as we saw in last year's Newtown tragedy. While many have advocated that background checks be made mandatory in order to purchase a gun, I think it is pointless because it just takes a few seconds to alter a person psyche to such an extent that they can commit mass-crimes of that sort. A one-time background check, or even regular ones, just won't be effective.

Another problem is the degree to which I find the public brainwashed by the NRA. Their slogan - 'Guns don't kill people, people kill people' - is a perfect example of circular logic. It's tantamount to saying that America did not win World War 2, the nuclear bombs did! Guns are a means to commit mass murder - and a potent one at that. If we believe that rogue regimes such as the one in DPRK should not possess nuclear weapons, then by the same logic potential criminals should not be allowed to possess assault weapons. However, as I already said, there's no way to determine when a person can tip over to commit such a horrific crime and so, people should not be freely allowed to own guns.

I disagree with the Second Amendment and I certainly do not believe that it has any relevance today. This is a country whose leader once said that every generation should draft its own Constitution. Therefore, there is nothing sacrosanct about the current one - a law does not make society, societies make laws. And right now, America needs laws to stop assault weapons from reaching the wrong hands. Too many people have died over the politics of the NRA. 

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

What's with the GOP?

As October 1 nears, the US Government seems to me in absolute peril (again) as the Republicans, who control the House, refuse to raise the debt limit and prevent a government shutdown. An extremist faction of the GOP, which now seems to be in full control of it, is demanding an outright repeal of the Affordable Care Act, President Obama's signature law.

The current crisis in Congress is not unprecedented - this is the second time in Obama's presidency that he has been threatened with a Government shutdown. The last time, he created a super committee to look into expenditure cuts that got nowhere and eventually led to a sequester, which has already slowed down the pace of recovery in America. This time, the target is the healthcare law that the CBO estimates will save billions of dollars in healthcare costs while also bringing in universal coverage.

Whatever be the merits of the Act, the fact of the matter is that it would be unconstitutional for the Legislature to shut down the government. The only constitutional mechanism by which the President can be forced to stop functioning is by impeachment - anything else is simply unacceptable. What's more, the very system of the debt limit is a funny thing that borders on the unconstitutional. Every year, the President presents a budget to Congress, which usually approves it. The budget is an implicit authorization of higher debt, if it is not balanced. To approve the budget and yet hold back this approval is an unnecessary requirement. Back when politics was not so confrontational, this did not matter - today it does.

A government shut down would lead to a closure of essential services and a national emergency, not to mention a sovereign default that would haunt America forever. Already, several Republicans have recognized that the strategy is not feasible - either explicitly or by pointing out that such a measure would never cross the Democrat-controlled Senate. Divided as they may be, Democrats will still rally around the ACA. Therefore, the extremist Republicans are fighting for a lost cause - with disastrous consequences.

The time has come for the senior leadership, including Spreaker Joe Boehner, to assert their authority and bring this faction of the party to heel before it ends up subsuming everything else. By trying to win them over, the danger of appeasement is only rising. 

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Slow Down with the Ordinances

The UPA Government cleared an ordinance today to negate the Supreme Court's judgment over disqualifying convicted elected officials from office. Since the right to vote and run for office is given by the Representation of People Act, this move requires a simple bill and not a Constitutional Amendment. However, because the BJP and some other parties, fearing a middle class backlash, refused to back the move, the UPA could not bring it to Parliament.

Merits of the judgment aside, the very usage of an ordinance to push something like this through, barely a few months away from crucial Assembly elections, is an attack on Constitutional propriety. Under usual circumstances, Parliament alone has the power to legislate federally - the Government cannot take over this power. In history, whenever the executive has usurped the power of the legislature, havoc has followed. A case in point being Nazi Germany, where the Nazi-controlled Bundestag ceded legislative power to Chancellor Hitler, with all the consequences that followed.

Now, the operative term here is 'under usual circumstances.' An ordinance is meant to be an emergency provision - a situation when Parliament is not in session but a law must be enacted without which our Union faces severe consequences. How severe? Severe enough to warrant a break from the rules-based, Constitutional separation of power that our founding fathers envisaged as the bedrock of our democracy. Severe enough to warrant the use of what is essentially an extra-judicial power and thus, pass the Constitution by for a short period of time. In our democracy, neither Parliament not the Government is supreme - the Constitution is.

The UPA Government though, has made a mockery of this exceptional provision. First it was the Food Security Bill and now this - important pieces of legislation, possibly, but not so crucial as to merit bypassing the usual Constitutional mechanism. The truth is that the Manmohan Singh-led government is in a minority in Parliament and cannot get anything passes - even the budget required support from the Opposition benches. This is a dangerous situation for India for, as the 2014 General Elections near, the Congress is absolutely desperate to grasp victory from the gaping jaws of defeat and is prepared to destroy every institution that comes in its way - be that Parliament or the Supreme Court.

Civil Society must strongly oppose this move because it represents a threat to our democracy, without which the idea of India is nullified. The President must counsel his government not to do this - after all, he is the custodian of the Constitution. Our democracy is in danger of the Congress today - we must save it. 

Thoughts on Missing my Convocation

So I missed my undergraduate convocation - the day it was all supposed to come to an end. I still remember those days - taking a taxi from Saharanpur Junction to "IPT"; that seminal semester, "The Golden Semester," which facilitated my branch change; the turbulent second year; the amazing third year; and of course, the final year. Home, Ruins, Conquest and Empire. And the day it was all supposed to end - the 2013 Annual Convocation - I was sitting in Champaign, IL, working on my literature review.

Let me be blunt - I wish I could have attended the event. Yes, I know, when I was in Roorkee, I abhorred the idea of coming back. Of course, I did say that I would come for the Convocation if I got the Institute Medal, which I did, by the way. But a few months out of the IIT, and a little over a month in the US, and I have concluded that your undergrad is really your best experience in life. I miss those days - the highs and the lows. And I miss Roorkee. There are few cities, and I have lived in many, that I can associate myself with emotionally and Roorkee is one of them (the others are Saharanpur and Mumbai). It would have been nice to have been able to go there one more time.

But as I discussed this with a dear friend, I realized that I can't have everything. Sure, I could've just joined ITC and done a standard job, gotten married in two years and done what everyone else does. But I chose to do a PhD. How many people do that? in Civil Engineering, I'd guesstimate 1% of all students who get a bachelor's degree. And it's not all about high dedication to research (although that is a necessity): it makes for a great career choice, especially in India, where there is always a shortage of good faculty.


So, as a friend said, to gain something, one has to make sacrifices. My UG convocation was my sacrifice. But I did not sit and brood over my loss - I did what I should have done two years ago. I used Simulink - learned by myself using the documentation - to model the behaviour of a car. Now, this might seem geeky (what else do you expect from me?) but I have yearned to understand how you can 'see' a car moving using just a bunch of equations - and then to see all the cars on a road moving. I've wanted to make a real mathematical model since I learned calculus, but I've never really done it. Till today. It was time well-spent in modeling a simple Car-Following Model with pretty decent results. 

That's the way I've been for many years now - when I lose something, I try to make the best of it. So I missed my UG Convocation and my MS Commencement will not be nearly as special. But if this is what it takes for the ultimate prize - being called upon to collect the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy as Dr. Sen - then it was a loss well worth it. 

Friday, September 20, 2013

Is Apple Dying?

Apple Inc. unveiled its new versions of the iPhone last week and left audiences stunned - for all the wrong reasons. While every iPhone launch is a pretty grand event, it is usually accompanied by some other technological innovation as well. Apple has always been a product-oriented company and users have come to expect it to lead in the technology front, not the pricing.

However, both versions of the iPhone 5 were huge disappointments. For one, the 5C is an absurd idea - the colorful plastic on the back is the antithesis of the chic look that the iPhone has been associated with and brings it closer to the Nokia Lumia. The very idea of a cheaper iPhone diminishes its brand value - after all, in developing countries, it is a status symbol and that is the only reason people buy it over a Nokia or even a Samsung. In these countries, Siri does not really work and in the absence of a good 3G network or even a 4G network entirely, so the cost is actually the USP without which it does not have much of a future there.

As for the tech specs, there is nothing innovative in the iPhone 5S. The biometric lock has been around in Dell Laptops for years and it can be a rather irritating input between friends. And while the better camera is appreciated, it is hardly enough for the iPhone, such are the expectations from it. Additions like photo burst are not new to the world of smartphones Even the upgrades to iOS are little more than superficial and we've heard all about the company's push towards redesigning the icons and interface, although from a technical perspective it's nothing big. The simple thumbnail view to close apps is a direct copy from Google Android.

Overall, the new versions of the iPhone reveal a post-Jobs Apple that is increasingly falling behind the curve, even as rivals like Samsung, Google and now Microsoft-Nokia look to give it a run for its money. Mark my words - nothing short of out-of-the-box innovation and a first-mover advantage can help Apple in the future. Hopefully, the 5S and 5C were outliers. 

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Welcome Ideas from Anywhere

It's election season in Delhi again and not just the Assembly. Last week, the DU Students Union saw its election giving a sweeping mandate to the BJP-backed ABVP, which took 3 out of 4 posts in the direct-election mode, with the Congress-backed NSUI picking up the single post of Secretary. This is exceptional because it is a full circle from last year, when the former won just one post and the latter three.

But now it's time for another big election, at Delhi's other high-profile university, JNU. Of course, DU and JNU are entirely different in virtually every respect and the open debate and intellectual climate in JNU has contributed greatly in creating leaders for India and the world. JNU can rightly pride itself for being open to all sections of society and encouraging discussion on issues that would be heresy outside of its hallowed portals. However, as this blogpost mentioned and discussed, the issues this year are about, well, bringing JNU to another dimension: WiFi around the campus and opening a Placement Cell.

Lets discuss the first one - WiFi. The blogger argues against the proposal on two grounds. Firstly, he says that JNU has always been a place of open discussion and people-to-people interaction and allowing unabashed use of the Internet would destroy that as everyone would simply depend on Whatsapp. And secondly, he says that poor students would be forced to buy expensive gadgets to run this, creating a rich-poor divide. Now, the first point is completely counter-intuitive: in this day and age, where dictatorships have collapsed because of sustained and organized movements via social media, to say that the medium discourages ideas is incorrect; rather, if used correctly, it can increase the scope and scale of debate, which would benefit everyone. Yes, 'if used correctly' is a subjective condition, but the point of university education is to create people who behave responsibly in all situations and not just highly-controlled ones. Ignoring social media on campus will not make it go away, especially after students leave campus, and allowing them to figure our how to use it responsibly is the better alternative.

The second point does carry some weight. DU is perhaps the most glaring example of how pervasive money can ruin people's lives, creating an insurmountable social mountain. However, JNU is different - unlike DU, where ideas are mostly discouraged, it encourages new thoughts. And that means coming out of your comfort zone. Yes, poorer students will face peer pressure and they will have to learn to deal with it - just as they will have to learn to deal with it when they enter the real world, which is starkly unequal in a country like India. Richer students will see that not everyone can afford what they can. These things are probably apparent already, because there are many more ways to blow money than iPhones, but this is just another dimension. What is important is to not ignore these differences by forcefully eliminating them, but encourage everyone to see, understand and discuss these differences. JNU cannot and should not, as the blogger suggested, live in a shell. You cannot create leaders for the country by boxing them into an artificially-controlled environment.

Students at JNU are not children - many, if not all, of them have seen the world and yearn to think with an open mind. A WiFi-enabled campus would be one way of bringing in more ideas and debate. It is important to treat everyone there as an adult, just as the world will expect of them in the future, and let them find their way, instead of telling everyone how to live and force-feed judgments.

As for the second issue of a Placement Cell, this is a debate that even I am divided on. While it is true that JNU was never supposed to be a corporate-style placements factory like the IITs and IIMs have become, and what DU is fast approaching towards, it is not necessarily a bad thing. A corporate culture would instill a greater sense of discipline and responsibility in students; it would teach them to value time and money, things that all of us badly lack in India. Then again, the big money involved would certainly sway students towards placements and away from the larger goal of creating leaders, which would be disastrous for India. I'm not sure what's right and wrong, but I am happy that, in true JNU style, this is being debated and put to vote in an election.

While I broadly disagree with most of the points raised by the worthy blogger I have been quoting, I must agree with the idea that JNU must always remain open to every section of society, a place where ideas matter more than looks and money. Scientific socialism however, does not have to mean living in the past - after all, the very term 'science' implies being open to all new ideas. 

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Miles to go for Equality

Miss New York Nina Davuluri, an American citizen whose parents came from India, became the first American of Indian origin to be crowned Miss USA today is a gala pageant that has been known, year after year, to produce some of the dumbest answers to fairly simple questions. Well, they say Indians are quite smart so maybe this year was an exception.

Or maybe not. For, what we missed at the pageant, we saw all over social media. According to some Americans, an American must be white and anybody who is not white is a terrorist. That simple, yes. After all, it was just the anniversary of 9/11 a few days back, so how could someone who looks like a terrorist become Miss America. Well, at least these people had some new biases; one tweet I read simply said that Miss America must be white. Too bad Martin Luther King Jr. Day does not enjoy the same recall as 9/11.

Fortunately, it is only a small minority that talks like this. Unfortunately, it is the same minority that said that the Muslim Brotherhood was behind 9/11. The first problem is the absolute Islamophobia that many Americans have put into their psyche. Politicians use this quite effectively; in fact, many tweets actually said that a 'terrorist' can become Miss USA only in 'Obama's America' and some even went back to questioning Obama's citizenship (which I though was a dead horse seeing that he won a second term).

The second is a lack of awareness about the rest of the world. To many Americans, especially here in the Midwest, non-white is synonymous with terrorist, filthy, sacrilegious and other such adjectives. They just do not know that people around the world lead rather similar lives, with just the background being different. And they do not even want to know!

So, as another Miss America pageant ends with all the usual pomp, this silly controversy over her descent will also die down, I hope. It is meaningless, because the only prerequisite to being crowned Miss America is being American - and that she is. 

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Putin's Masterstroke

Russian President Vladimir V Putin took centerstage in world affairs this week by effectively taming the American war machine and finding a potential diplomatic solution to the use of chemical weapons in Syria and perhaps the larger Civil War as well. His move certainly caught the whole world off-guard, as the US Congress was divided over attacking the Assad regime for using chemical weapons.

But the truly potent part of the diplomatic coup was Putin's Op-Ed in The New York Times, where he spoke directly to the American people and leadership, reminding them that, for a country that claims to espouse peace, America has continuously used strong-arm tactics and military might to protect its interests. He took the veil off Obama's war-mongering, reminding the US President what he himself said to Sarah Palin in the first election campaign: that you cannot declare yourself to be exceptional, that is a title that the world must give you.

Of course, a lot of this will depend on Putin walking the talk, ensuring that Syria's chemical weapons are eliminated in an orderly and time-bound fashion. But his Op-Ed did make a wonderful case of why the US was making it so much harder for the regime to do just that - to paraphrase, anyone with WMDs feels safe because nobody can tough them. And when you have the world's most powerful military breathing fire down your neck, all the better reason to stay put.

The last week was certainly riveting, starting with a desperate Obama administration trying to convince Congress not to reject his proposal and ending with John Kerry and Sergei Lavrov holding a tense press conference in Geneva even as Obama put the Congresional vote on hold. The next few weeks promise to be even more so - with experts and diplomats putting their heads together to solve this mess. At stake is the stability of the Middle East and in turn, the world. 

In Memory: Aparajita Roy Paul

Aparajita Roy Paul
1992-2013
Remembered by her countless MUN friends from around the country

That amazing smile - when I think of Aparajita, that's what comes to my mind first. She could be loving and sweet or sharp and stinging, but she would always wear a smile. It makes you wonder why it's always the happiest of people who seem to go first. Sure, death is inevitable, but there must be some order to it, right?

The first time I met Aparajita was in IITR MUN 2011, the inaugural edition. Both our entries were a result of luck - in my case, an untimely cancellation from a delegate that made me join in their place; and in hers, some very difficult shenanigans with the central server that ensured that her entry could be secured. She was a pro - that much was apparent right in the first session. And she also had a way with people - Aparajita knew what she wanted and she knew how to get it. No wonder she was a law student! After MUN'11, I thought I would never meet her, but fate chose otherwise.

We were lucky to have her in MUN'12 again, when I was co-Secretary General. It was a difficult time for the organizing team, with a number of members cancelling without informing us and even two members of the EB backing out. Aparajita was a source of strength because we always knew that she would come. And she performed brilliantly. Different people have different ways of working when they are Chair and hers was absolutely business-like: when she saw that the Council was not getting anywhere (as is very common in MUNs), she cancelled lunch and enforced a deadline with finesse!

In the Delhi MUN circuit, she was a very well-known face. From UPES to DU, she loved her MUNs and went far and wide, including Bangalore and Hyderabad. No wonder then that she had so many friends from across the country. Then again, she was a person who loved to travel - and that was a blessing for her friends on Facebook. Some of the finest pictures of Shillong, where she was an intern, were uploaded by her - and now I yearn more than ever to visit that city. Her immortal picture, sitting by a tree in Shillong, enjoying the cool day... that is how I will remember Aparajita.

After MUN'12, I refused to go to Haridwar with the group because I had to distribute certificates. I sorely regret that decision now - you never really know when you lose people. Last month, it was Prateek. And now, her. It is profound in a way - the two were such good friends, they are probably sitting together somewhere up there right now, enjoying a hearty meal after so long. The thought actually mitigates some of the pain.

Aparajita died this morning of dengue that caused a brain hemorrhage. It was just a few weeks ago when I was speaking to her about Prateek and she was so pained by his death. Now, she has left us but her memories remain. I am one of those who can raise my hand and say that I knew that wonderful, extremely smart and exceptional woman - Aparajita Roy Paul. And I will always remember. 

Friday, September 13, 2013

Let the Battle Begin

The BJP today took a decisive step towards the 2014 General Elections by naming Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi as its candidate for Prime Minister. Unlike the Congress, the BJP has had a tradition of being open to the electorate and telling them who the leader of the Government will be if they come to power. Sadly, NaMo's rise has not been greeted well within segments of the BJP.

Media reports say that patriarch LK Advani refused to attend the crucial meeting that made the decision and he is entirely against NaMo's candidature. This seems odd, given that Advani was, till recently, seen as NaMo's guide and mentor, someone whose political career he had saved after the events of 2002. Of course, social media is all guns ablaze against Advani, who is being described as a stubborn old man who refuses to read the writing on the wall. And, given how Rajnath Singh seems to have bulldozed him, it is also what the more powerful faction of the BJP and RSS seem to think.

Narendra Modi's elevation was the best bet for the BJP. As an opposition party, it has done a rather pathetic job this last decade, losing the momentum to regional satraps and so-called civil society when it should have been at the forefront of fighting this Government that has brought India to its knees. The shear scale of mismanagement and corruption under the Manmohan Singh administration is like an invitation for the BJP to come and take control but the party faltered. NaMo is a figure  who has managed to build a name around himself based on development and has probably come out of the shadow of 2002.

Why do I support NaMo for PM? I am right-centrist, so the BJP is an inevitable choice, but I am also a young Indian and I can see what really ails the country: underemployment. The acute lack of job opportunities not commensurate with qualification. There are millions of Indian engineers who do work that requires no more than a Class 12 certificate. Unskilled jobs and free food will not solve this. The massive underemployment in India is the root cause of our problems - it is why our people are do undisciplined, it is why crime is so rampant, it is why we are not progressing socially. A large, frustrated population that sees no future for itself does not augur well for any society. All the Chief Ministers are guilty of using populism to hide the acute lack of opportunities for the youth of the country, but only NaMo is encouraging the manufacturing sector. The Congress hypes up Gujarat's poor social indices but the truth is that most of the country is much worse than Gujarat and only Gujarat has a real chance of rising because of the large manufacturing base there.

Political ideology is important, but jobs and livelihood are much more important. I will vote for anyone who can speak in concrete words - and NaMo does just that. He has rightly said that mere certificates do not make youth employable and that the utter collapse of Indian manufacturing under the Congress is the greatest ailment our country faces. He hit the nail right on the head, unlike Rahul Gandhi, who last week lamented that his 'burden' of 'leading India' had made him ignore his own dreams and aspirations. It was a callous comment coming from someone drunk with power and pride, surrounded by sycophants and completely detached from the reality of the country. And his lackey Manmohan Singh is no better when he declares that despite his high qualifications and vast experience, he thinks Rahul is a better choice for PM without giving any logic.

The 2014 General Elections are not a referendum on 2002 or NaMo. They are a referendum on what kind of development we want for our country - one based on creating jobs and spurring manufacturing, or one that holds back youth and uses damaging subsidies to cling to power, while allowing the economy to tank. Every vote will count. 

Monday, September 9, 2013

The Legacy of Asif Ali Zardari

Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari completed his tenure today and stepped down from the position to make way for his elected successor. Like the election that preceded this, it was a momentous occasion in Pakistan's troubled history, as one democratically-elected President gave way, peacefully, to another, with the whole nation backing the transition. But in more ways that one, it was Zardari who made history.

Elected a little after his party came to power following a massive wave after the assassination of his wife, Benazir Bhutto, Zardari was always seen as a political survivor - he made his fortunes when his wife was in power, bore the brunt of oppressive imprisonment and military rule when she was gone, and spirited through the PPP's political quagmire to become the party president and eventually the Nation's President. But politics is like that and innumerable politicians in Pakistan have done such acts before, albeit few on that sort of scale. No, he will not be remembered just for his shenanigans in the PPP.

What he will be remembered will be his unyielding efforts to uphold his beliefs for the nation and the historic measures enacted during his tenure. To begin with, Zardari put himself firmly against any further military intervention in the affairs of the state. He, along with his Prime Minister, stood up against Rawalpindi, though they had limited success. He was brave enough to espouse normalized ties with India, which has only now become a catchphrase among politicians on both sides of the (disputed) border, giving what remains the most appealing vision for the sub-continent: people moving freely across the border, with Pakistan's cement factories working in full-swing to supply to India's construction boom, a win-win situation for both sides. While his vision failed to materialize, you have to give him credit for at least imagining it.

But more important are the amendments made to the Constitution under his watch. In a country that has seen dictators usurping power and abrogating the Constitution, he was the first to sign a law that dribbled down his powers to the bare minimum, put the Prime Minister and Chief Ministers squarely in the driver's seat and strengthened the judiciary, going as far as declaring abrogation of the Constitution an act of treason. Ironically, it was the same empowered judiciary that hounded him, trying to find every legal loophole to his Presidential immunity and even claiming one Prime Minister's seat in the process.

No, Zardari was no saint. He certainly has some serious charges against him and he used every trick in the book to evade investigation. He was not all that popular outside of his party but did get the official respect the President is entitled to. Possibly, Zardari was just a very lucky (and cunning) man who managed to put himself at the right place and time. But as the first democratically-elected President of Pakistan, he has made history. 

Sunday, September 8, 2013

How America is becoming a joke

This week, the US Congress is expected to finally take a stand on President Barack Obama's move to strike Syria as punishment for allegedly using chemical weapons against its citizens in a suburb of Damascus. The Syrian Civil War, which has already claimed over 100,000 lives, could change dramatically depending on what Senators and Representatives finally decide. Opinion polls are clear that a vast majority of the American public is against any US involvement in Syria, obviously badly bruised after two damaging wars, one of which is still underway.

However, the rhetoric from Capitol Hill, or at least what the media chooses to report as being from there, sounds quite different. If you asked John McCain, for example, borrowing even more money from China to fuel an endless war and wreck an already hurt economy is somehow better than 'looking weak' in the world by not recklessly entering a war with no goals, strategy or obvious benefits. Indeed, by some of the conservative Republicans' logic, American loses face every moment it is not engaged in some war or the other for any reason under the sun (which has actually not been too many years since the end of the American Civil War).

The sad truth is that the world can only be fooled so many times. We've heard the rhetoric before - the moral high ground, the world's policeman, the most powerful military in the world - and we are no longer fooled. Lets say it straight - America is doing this because it needs to break the 'Shia crescent' and weaken Iran, which it simply cannot attack openly. With Syria gone, Iran's link to Hezbollah will be terminated and that will make life much easier for Israel. While it will also make oil prices shoot up, the US is banking on Saudi Arabia (which also wants to end the Shia alliance) to make up the difference while also working to tap into domestic reserves.

But of course, the US cannot say all this openly. What would it sound like? 'We are attacking a country to further our interests, the world be damned'? Is that how a responsible power, the world'd oldest democracy, is supposed to behave? And from there comes all the rhetoric, not backed by any credible evidence, of the Syrian Government using chemical weapons. What proof is there that the FSA did not do it? After all, it is in their interests to give America an excuse to attack. If the proof is really that good, why not bring it before the UN? Americans argue that Russia will block any move at the UN, but in that case, the 'moral responsibility' would fall on Russia and they would have to deal with the world (if the evidence is real). The world is not really that naive - if someone can prove that the Syrian Government did it, there will be a wave of support for Obama. That is clearly not happening.

The way America has chosen to paint this, a sort of ego game for Obama as he enters the second half of his last term, is childish to say the least and the whole world is laughing at America for the way it is ready to jump into any and every war without weighing in on the costs. 

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Tokyo!

And the results are finally out - Tokyo will be the official host city of the 2020 Summer Olympics, bringing the crown jewel of International sport back to Asia's most advanced nation and further underscoring the fact that the economic momentum of the world has indeed shifted to Asia. The city successfully defeated Istanbul and Madrid to clinch the honour.

Tokyo, probably Asia's most modern city, is not new to hosting the games, having hosted a few editions of both the Summer and Winter Olympics. But those were at least a generation ago. Since then, Japan has changed greatly and a whole new generation years to see their country once again show the world why it is an Asian powerhouse.

When I was in Tokyo in the early part of this year, there was a clear air of excitement over the bid. People were determined - from the Emperor down to even those badly scarred by the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake - to lift their country back to its glory and there was nothing better than the Olympics to do that. All of Tokyo, including the imposing Metro stations, were decked with the Olympic rings to show that the bid had the broadest possible support.

Istanbul was, of course, a major contender, offering the first intercontinental Olympics. But domestic concerns as well as massive public debt sunk its sake. A weak economy also did Madrid in, leaving Tokyo as the top choice for the IOC. Come 2020, it will be a proud moment once again for the Japanese and indeed, all of Asia. 

Yearning for Kashmir

Zubin Mehta's performance at the historic Shalimar Gardens in Srinagar with the Bavarian State Orchestra was certainly a difficult task for every agency and individual involved in it - from the German Ambassador, who spear-headed the event, to the last plainclothes policeman who protected the area from a terrorist attack. As with most good things, the Ehsaas-e-Kashmir Concert was vociferously opposed by separatists who saw it, like elections, infrastructure and security, as signs of Indian domination and control.

On a more realistic note though, the concert was an excellent initiative. The Kashmir Valley, right from the days of the Silk Route, has been dependent on tourism and trade for its prosperity. The sad set of events following partition of the subcontinent and also of Kashmir itself did see this floundering slightly, but after the violence of 1990 broke out, the valley has been shunned by tourists and businessmen who saw it as a hotbed of extremism. That led to a severe decline in the local economy that has really hurt ordinary people. However, in the last few years, peace has begin to return to the valley, although not many know about it. The concert was a perfect way to spread the word that Kashmir was open to tourists and businessmen once again.

Chief Minister Omar Abdullah clearly understood this fact and without his strong backing, the event could have have taken place. He rightly questioned why separatists did not object when a Pakistani band performed in Kashmir. It is clear that the separatists, frustrated by the loss of support for them in the Valley, have become desperate to keep the water boiling. Despite this, the event went off well and it is sure to help the region.

Of course, the concert was not the success that Mehta had in mind, a fact that he made very clear. It would have been better if it were held in a stadium, with tickets being sold to the general public. There is the point that there are not many takers for Western Classical Music in India, and particularly not in Kashmir, so the crowd might not really have been as large as would be hoped. Still, the gesture would have meant a lot. But perhaps that is asking for too much so soon. 

Friday, September 6, 2013

The Seen and Unseen

This is the latest ad from Incredible India, the flagship program of the Tourism and Culture Ministry that has worked wonder across the world. Well, by some standards anyway. Now, like every tourism ad, this one also shows the various sights and sounds of India - and India is a country where you can essentially never stop showing that given the variety.

What I liked about this ad what the subtle attempt to counter all the negative publicity behind women's safety in the country. Previous ads have had women, but always doing calm and serene things or moving with family. This one goes bold by having a woman throughout doing everything that she should be entitled to do as a person, without fear. And, when she needs help, she gets it readily. Good work! 

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Where's the Common Man Now?

Last weekend, PNG Minister V. Moily kicked off a storm by suggesting that petrol pumps should be closed from 8 PM to 8 AM to save on fuel and thus save foreign exchange in these hard times. Predictably, after he was hounded by the Opposition, the media and even his own fellow Cabinet Ministers, he backed off and denied that there was any such plan. Eventually, pinned the blame on an unknown entity in the PNG Ministry as part of a massive fuel-saving exercise planned later this month.

This entire exercise reeks of hypocrisy and shortsightedness. The truth is that the so-called common man, who cannot afford too much fuel in any case, does not use that much fuel altogether. The poorest use firewood and cannot afford tractors or motor vehicles, forget flying. The people who can afford those do not really need to use a lot, but go ahead and do it anyway because fuel is just so cheap. Why? Because the government has been encouraging them to do just that. In the heydays of economic mismanagement, a little before the 2009 General Elections, the Congress refused to 'allow' OMCs to raise fuel prices (despite petrol being decontrolled) because of the 'Common Man.'

It was a sad sight indeed - everyone down from the PM was insisting that petrol prices would be held firm through a massive subsidy until the situation became so bad that it had to be freed up and even then, the government tried its best to derive political mileage by informally ordering OMCs when not to raise prices, until the situation became so bad again that they were finally given a free run. What nonsense is this? Who is the government trying to protect? In the name of protecting the common man, the UPA has brought the economy to its knees. They peddle the argument that raising fuel costs will have a cascading effect on food items but do not have the guts to take on the middlemen who eat away most of the money anyway.

Two statements ring true here. The first is that of Ratan Tata, the OTFS Indian of the Year 2013, who said that the country is suffering from an acute lack of leadership. This is quite true - on one side, we have a PM who has failed completely and on the other, his handler, whose narrow economic views and opportunism have turned India into an investor's nightmare. The second is that of Shri Arun Jaitley who, in the Rajya Sabha, described how the UPA had turned one of the world's fastest growing economies into one of the worst-performing. Where is the common man now? Where are those high platitudes and assertions?

The only strategy that the Congress seems to have now is to blame everything on the President, because he cannot be touched by anybody. So this is what the 'Common Man' has been reduced to. 

Monday, September 2, 2013

Currency 101 for Facebook Intellectuals

Recently, a particularly long post on Facebook has gone viral, asking Indians to purchase more desi products and shun foreign-manufactured goods in order to rescue the beleaguered currency and economy. While it is very true that buying Indian products will certainly boost the rupee by creating a stronger domestic economy, the problem is with the way the whole idea has been presented and which so-called 'Facebook intellectuals' dish out with aplomb.

The first idea is the concept of legal tender. The Indian currency states that the RBI Governor 'promises to pay the barer the sum of XYZ rupees,' while the American dollar states that the Treasury Secretary deems it to be 'legal tender for all... debt.' Both these statements are equivalent because they simply mean that, in the eyes of the law, that piece of paper guarantees a value as printed on it. Both are debt because all printed currency is inherently debt (See: Modern Money Mechanics). This is called Fiat Currency - money that has value because a government said so ('by fiat').

Now, the post on Facebook asserts that the US Dollar is linked to oil prices and the Indian Rupee to gold. Both of these are untrue. While it is true that, once upon a time, currencies were linked to commodities (referred to as the Gold Standard and the Silver Standard; the colonial British Indian Rupee was on the Silver Standard), today, they are based on market forces and their relative values are determined through trading at the Interbank Foreign Exchange Market. This is not a physical market like the stock markets but are based on electronic platforms; most large banks in the world participate in this market, as do some mercantile traders who need foreign currency. Just like the price of an ordinary onion, exchange rates are determined by a Bid-Ask mechanism in this market. So, if Bank A wants to sell dollars to Bank B, the former quotes a price that they would like to have ($1 = 70) called the Ask price and the latter, along with other banks, bids for an obviously lower price ($1 = 68.87). The result of this exchange is the exchange rate and it changes with every transaction.

Now, a valid question is why the US Dollar is the currency used for International trade. The answer does not lie in some secret arrangement between Arab States and America, as asserted, but in Europe after the Second World War, which devastated the continent and left them in dire need of money for reconstruction. It was then that a conference was held in Bretton Woods in the US and a series of financial institutions were created (today they are the IMF and the World Bank Group) to facilitate the transfer of money from America to Europe for reconstruction. Obviously, since the money was coming from America, it was in US Dollars and that is when the currency became an International currency. Eventually, particularly as the Soviet Union declined, the whole world came on board to accepting the US Dollar, because most trade eventually went through the US, which was and is the world's largest economy. As for Arab States, it is true that there is an element of geopolitics in it, but the main reason they deal in dollars is because the US is the world's largest importer of oil and it makes it easier for them to deal with one currency. Arab States do not pay any 'rent' to the US, as asserted (if anything, it is the US that gives 'aid' to back-up dictatorships there).

But can trade be conducted in any other currency? Yes, it can, and it depends on the exporter and the importer in question. Trade with Europe is done in euros and many countries do have some euros (and also British Pounds and Japanese Yen) in their reserves. Trade between India and Nepal and Bhutan is settled in Indian Rupees. But why is the Indian Rupee (or the Chinese Renminbi/Yuan) not used as International currencies? Apart from the fact that until recently, neither of the countries had much economic clout, the two currencies are only partially convertible. That means that around the world, institutions and individuals cannot freely trade in these currencies but require permission from the respective Central Bank (the RBI and the Bank of China respectively). In contrast, those four currencies referred to above are fully convertible and their trade is not regulated by the Fed/ECB/BoE/BoJ (which however, still control the monetary base; but ignore that for this discussion). Therefore, the Indian Rupee is not used for International trade because legally, it cannot be (and this is for a variety of good reasons). There is the case of Indo-Iranian oil trade, which is Rupee denominated through a complex arrangement, and some towns in Britain assuming a local currency, but these are exceptions.

So, will buying Indian goods help the exchange rate? Yes, but not because we no longer need to give our precious gold to America to buy their dollars. Rather, by increasing domestic consumption, we would be reinforcing our domestic economy. This still means that there would be a lot of debt around, because all paper currency is debt, but it would be Rupee-denominated debt. That would have two effects - it would reduce the demand for dollars and would encourage foreigners to invest in our economy. When foreigners invest, they can only do so in rupees, because only the Rupee is legal tender in India. So, they will need to purchase rupees for dollars (or euros, yen, pounds or anything someone with rupees is willing to accept). The combined effect of lower demand for the Dollar and higher demand for the Rupee will cause the latter to appreciate. This not not just true for India but even for the US - stores here proudly advertise American produce and products and proclaim that they are supporting the local economy.

PS: I wanted to leave one complex part for further reading. The Facebook post says that the price of petrol is linked to dollars and this is called derivative trading. This is false. A derivative is anything (and I mean anything - a piece of toilet paper or even thin air) who value is based on ('derived from') some underlying asset. A prime example is Gold ETFs (Exchange-Traded Funds), which is nothing but thin air whose value is based on the actual price of gold. So, if you buy a Gold ETF (a piece of paper, which acts as a receipt), you are buying the value of gold without actually buying any real gold. Why would anyone do that? Because they can - it's easier to buy one tonne of Gold ETFs than buying one tonne of gold (where would you keep it?). Virtually anything can be a derivative and it is a huge market that is based on some underlying asset but as such does not produce anything. Nobel Laureate Prof. Joseph Stiglitz even called for a ban on derivative trading because of this - but that is a matter of debate for now. Petrol, on the other hand, is not a derivative because it is a real commodity (though there are some Oil ETFs) and its value is pinned to the dollar because the Dollar is a currency used to buy something, not a commodity. In fact, the dollar's purchasing power can be measured with how much oil it can purchase, but that is because it is a currency and not a derivative. 

Sunday, September 1, 2013

The New Portfolio

With one week over at UIUC, my subjects are finalized and it looks to be a mixture of simple courses and downright difficult ones. The problem with changing schools from bachelors to masters is that many of the courses contain some components that were already taught at a lower level, and some components that are new. Therefore, it is a little difficult to get a completely new subject particularly in those subjects shared between senior and grad students.

At the outset, I decided to drop CEE 405: Asphalt Materials - I because I had already studied virtually all of it including the extensive laboratory work involved and did not want to do it again for the mere sake of studying the same thing is USCS units. Of course, even in CEE 416: Traffic Capacity Analysis, I had studied most of the course before, but the practical component involved would be new and beneficial. In addition, it is the prerequisite for two major 500-level courses and should not be given a miss.

CEE 406: Pavement Design - I is my adviser's course and was recommended for me to take and indeed, the course content is quite refreshing as compared to the purely empirical designs that I had been exposed to previously. While my BTP did have a Mechanistic-Empirical design of a concrete pavement, a chance to understand it was well worth the four credits. And finally, CEE 512: Logistics System Analysis is probably going to be a very difficult course, as the first homework assignment seems to indicate. It could be because I am doing the assignment without the relevant class having been taught, but deadlines are deadlines after all.

Aside from all this, there is also the thesis. I did not take any thesis credits this semester, nor do I intend to take them next time, but next year certainly I will bank on those eight credits as well as some simple Railways Engineering courses that I skipped this time. All this as I hope to apply to the PhD program come next year.