Monday, March 31, 2014

Interesting Narrative, Weak Execution

NAUTANKI SAALA! (2013)

Produced By: Ramesh Sippy Entertainment and T-Series
Director: Rohan Sippy
Starring: Ayushmann Khurrana, Kunal Roy Kapoor, Pooja Salvi, Gaelyn Mendonca, Evelyn Sharma and others
Pros: Good narrative style, good acting from some of the actors
Cons: Poor execution, boring gags, too long
Rating: *** of 5 (3 of 5)

A mild comedy about an actor who does much more than acting. A tragedy about a man who was never good enough for his woman. And a woman who wanted too much. Three tales, all mixed into one. Good premise yes, good execution no. You can take good stories from the French but you can't make a good movie through them.

Overall, the movie was not as bad as the box office made it out to be after it released. The first-person narrative style and the execution of a story-within-a-story is quite good and I would say that the ending, where the real story and the 'story's story' merged was beautifully executed, making good use of the names of the characters and the characters they played in their naatak. That ending itself added a point to its rating. In addition, Ayushmann Khurana puts in a good performance in a role that is suited to his natural acting style, while Kunal Roy Kapoor also does a decent job. The other actors are mostly bad, however.

However, there are a host of things that worked against it. The biggest of them would be the lackadaisical script and execution - for a comedy, there are very few good jokes in this movie. Most of the time, the gags are flat and the story just stretches on for no reason. You don't expect a very logical story in a comedy (although you should) but you don't expect it to be boring either. And for a first-person narrative, the fairly good songs (I especially liked Mera Mann) were hardly used in the narrative.

Overall, this is a movie that has been under-rated at the Box Office, but could have been much better. Not recommended though. (OTFS)

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Ode to Civil Engineering

Pompeii
By Robert Harris

It seems to be a season of Rome for me. After the thrilling Attila series, I chanced upon more historical fiction from the old empire, this time by a former BBC Correspondent who knows how to keep readers glued. This one though leans more on the side of fiction, with virtually no historical truth in it except the very premise. Nonetheless, it is the writing style that stands out here. Unlike what most writers do, Robert Harris starts Pompeii by getting right to the end and telling readers what happens in the end - the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in this case. And from there, he builds up a powerful tale around his fictitious characters. Quite a unique style of writing.

The most wonderful aspect of this book is the fact that its protagonist is a Civil Engineer, certainly a rarity in literature (the only other idea I can think of is Atlas Shrugged, although Dagny Taggart was not strictly an engineer; in The Fountainhead, the protagonist was an architect who should have been an engineer). Harris has certainly invested sometime in researching hydraulics as he rightly describes some elementary principles of channel construction. But it isn't a treatise on Civil Engineering and the technical references are meant to help readers appreciate the wonder of Roman engineering.

Overall, this was a great book, very well written, but not a companion to a historian (it even lacks a historical note). If that's OK, I highly recommend it. 

Is it a TRS wave?

With all the commotion over the Lok Sabha elections, it is easy to forget that there are also three state elections scheduled to be held simultaneously - Odisha, Sikkim and Andhra Pradesh/Telangana. For the last one, it will be the final election as a unified state before the two are divided in June.

In Telangana though, some interesting political moves have been taking place. Having bitten the bullet and partitioning Andhra Pradesh, the Congress was clearly hoping to merge with the TRS and haul the entire bag of seats from there. However, the TRS has dumped cold water on its plans by refusing to even ally with the Congress.

Clearly, Chandrashekhar Rao is looking to become the first CM of Telangana State and does not want to have anything to do with the Congress in the State Assembly, which can prove to be a fickle ally. It will of course be left to see if the TRS can really generate a wave and bag a majority in the Assembly, or whether it will prove to be a southern version of the JMM. On the ground in Hyderabad though, the TRS enjoys huge support for spearheading the Telangana movement. Even Vijayshanthi's departure to the Congress has not made much of a difference, given that she always had differences with KCR and was possibly going to lose her Medak ticket anyway.

The BJP and TDP seem to have little to do in Telangana, although the BJP will eventually become a force to reckon with because it was the only national party to support the movement on a sustained basis. However, this time, it seems that the TRS is unstoppable. The real question is whether it will join the NDA in the event of the BJP crossing 200 seats, which seems likely. KCR of course has no ideological leanings and the MIM already controls the Muslim vote in and around Hyderabad, so it would not lose anything by joining the NDA.

Clearly, Telangana will be an interesting political event to watch. 

What is a Right to Entrepreneurship?

The Congress Party released its manifesto last week, taking further Sonia Gandhi's per project of a 'rights-based approach' to freebies and entitlements. Among the multitude of entitlements promised is a unique one that really made me sit up and think: a Right to Entrepreneurship. For a country which badly needs investment and jobs, this seems like an excellent idea. However, the question still remains as what it really is.

First, consider an example given by a Congressman in a TV 'debate.' Hawkers who sell their wares on street corners are no doubt entrepreneurs and they are routinely harassed by local policemen to keep their pushcarts. The 'Right' gives them protection from such harassment. Now, isn't law and order at such a micro-level as a street corner purely a subject of the States and if so, how can the Central Government decide how police should deal with hawkers? For a party that is accused of treating State Governments like glorified municipalities, the Congress Party sure lives up to its reputation.

Now, coming to specific questions: what does an entrepreneur need? Capital and infrastructure are the first things that come to mind. Capital is something they are certainly not going to get, given that the manifesto expressly defines an additional set of entitlement schemes that are bound to raise government expenditure on non-Plan components, while Plan expenditure has already been slashed. To meet the higher expenditure, the government will resort to borrowing and thus, squeeze our private borrowers. Moreover, the runaway inflation that more entitlements guarantees will force the RBI to raise interest rates further with the net effect that Capital will be squeezed out from the system.

As for infrastructure, the manifesto does not give much emphasis to it except for some routine promises of speeding up project clearances (presumably by abolishing the Jayanthi Tax). In 2009, the UPA promised to build 22 km of highways a day - by 2014, the average number for the entire term of the UPA was 1.5 km/day or 7% of what was promised. By any yardstick, that is a fail grade. As a student of Transportation Engineering knows, for the economy to grow at x% a year, the transportation sector needs to grow by 1.5*x% a year - that is clearly not happening. When you compare that with Narendra Modi's vision of 100 cities connected by high-speed trains by the 75th anniversary of India's Independence from the British Empire, the promises seem laughable.

Land is another important requirement for factories to be established to create jobs. That is clearly going to be next to impossible to obtain because the Land Acquisition Act has made it nearly impossible to do so. On water, electricity and other infrastructure requirements, the manifesto just makes vague promises. But the real area of concern is labor reforms, which is the single biggest bottleneck in an expansion of manufacturing that India so badly needs. On this, all parties are completely quiet, with the exception of Left parties who promise to make things even worse. Without labor reforms, private manufacturing is not going to take off.

Thus, it can be seen that this 'Right to Entrepreneurship' is a complete departure from everything else in the manifesto and it is impossible to implement both at the same time. Given Sonia Gandhi's known priorities, which presumably her son has inherited, there is no doubt which will get implemented and which will remain on paper. This 'right' would be worth a good laugh if it wasn't so sad just thinking about it.

PS: The whole 'right-based approach' is not really a Congress invention but is taken from the Soviet Union's Constitution, which guaranteed all sorts of rights which were impossible to implement. The only reason some people could get them was because of the extensive forced labor camps of the Soviet Union, which created free labor albeit temporarily. We all know where the Soviet Union went in the end. 

Saturday, March 29, 2014

The Issues: Governance

After corruption and leadership, the third issue that will shape the 2014 General Elections is the question of governance and this is where India seems to be cut down vertically between the young and the old. Indeed, never before has the generation gap been so strong as in this election.

The older generation still looks upon governance as a system of handouts and patronage. A good party is one that gives freebies - the meaning of poverty alleviation is what Indira Gandhi gave it i.e., handing out food, water, money and much more to the poor. However, for the younger generation, governance has moved on into government becoming an enabler of economic activity and not the start and end of it. To that extent, the youth demand infrastructure that enables jobs.

The sad truth is that the last ten years has seen jobless growth for India, with stellar economic growth backed by the services sector, which brings in money but not jobs. At the same time, that money was either siphoned off into the numerous scams of the UPA regime or lay stagnant simply because all files in the Central Government refused to move because of fear among bureaucrats as well as ignominies such as the Jayanthi Tax. What's worse is that excessive largess not backed by strong economic growth led to the government borrowing more and thus pushing out the private sector and killing even more jobs.

Overall, governance has been a disaster and the alternatives presented by the candidates speak to different generations. The BJP has been aggressive in promising infrastructure and further liberalization, which is what makes it so popular with the young generation. The Congress meanwhile has chosen to stick to its welfare state ideas, although it is trying to give some concessions through something called a 'right to entrepreneurship,' whatever that is. The AAP seems to be caught somewhere in between, talking about doles and enabling private enterprise at the same time.

Clearly, this election represents different, even competing ideas of governance at play and political parties are struggling to make sense of it.  

Friday, March 28, 2014

Crashing into Oblivion

With yet another accident - this time perhaps the most spectacular of all, the newly-acquired C-130J Super Hercules Transport Aircraft - the writing is as clear on the wall as it has ever been: India's armed forces are sitting ducks for the powerful forces that are growing in our near abroad. As if explosions in old submarines and cuts in supplies to troops in Siachen were not enough, we now have brand new equipment becoming scrap metal. Adding to those woes is the total failure of domestic military production to even take off, perhaps with the single exception of the BrahMos project.

By all accounts, AK Antony is set to go down in history as the worst Defense Minister India has ever had, beating even VK Krishna Menon, which itself is a grand feat. The fact that he held the position for ten long years makes no difference because he takes ten times as long as anyone else to take decisions. The Armed Forces faced several setbacks in his tenure during the illegal occupation of the Daulat Beg Oldi sector as well as the beheading of an Indian soldier by Pakistani soldiers. But none of that compares to the slow pace of modernization, the undue delays in procurement, continued suspicion of the Indian private sector in defense manufacturing (coupled with a general recession in manufacturing itself) and the dangerous spat the MOD had with Gen. VK Singh.

All this stems from Mr. Antony's failure to provide leadership. It is good to be honest and upright but if that comes at the cost of refusing to move a single file or taking some bold steps, then it is counterproductive. In many ways, Mr. Antony has been like the Manmohan Singh of the MOD: an honest politician who allowed institutions around him to crumble. Only in his case, the collapse of the Indian Armed Forces bodes very bad days ahead for India's security. In the face of an increasingly militarized Asia, with countries arming themselves to defend against an expansionist and extremely powerful China, that spells doom for India.

What is even more disappointing is that in the larger rhetoric of the elections, military strength is the last thing on people's minds. Indians are still wed to the romantic idea that the Himalayas are out great, impenetrable fortress and that there is no civilization beyond the Indian Ocean. Thus, when Narendra Modi talks about the collapse of the Armed Forces, people say he is not discussing 'the real issues' (read: so-called secularism)! If India has an unstable government in May, whether a UPA-III or some ragtag coalition, then it will be the death-knell for Indian Armed Forces; the time will not be far when China will come and seize what it perceives to be its territory. 

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Something Missing

Superstitious
By RL Stine

The master of child horror stories finally made the big splash into the world of adult fiction with Superstitious, a tale that takes you back and forth across a college campus with Stine's typical suspense and style of writing.

Having read his other work of adult fiction, Red Rain, before, it seems that this one was a test case to see whether Stine could make it into this area. And, although the book is fairly good, it is certainly not as good as its successor. This one did come with the necessary twists and turns and red herrings, but it lacked something - perhaps a connect with the audience, or perhaps focus. For, the novel seemed to aimlessly veer off into various directions that were neither necessary to the plot nor were they red herrings. In that respect, it was boring.

However, the ending was quintessential Stine, far more radical than what he would do in his next novel. A trial run, I would say, on how far you can fool an adult's rationality. 

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Walking with Abe

Grad students don't get a Spring Break, it's not a paid holiday. The best they can get is a Spring Break weekend. With that in mind, we drove down to Springfield for a quick day at the political center of the great State of Illinois, of which, for tax purposes only, I have become a resident. For most International students at the U of I, the de facto tourist destination is Chicago, with all its glitzy buildings, deep dish pizza, jazz and alcohol. It takes a particularly geeky bunch to travel southwards instead, to the City of Lincoln, to re-live the American Civil War.

Springfield, in popular folklore, is characterized as a city of politicians and bureaucrats. In reality, it is a city of history - a strategic garrison during the Civil War, which served Command-in-Chief and local hero Abraham Lincoln well. But more than war, the city continues to represent what Abe stood for: the freedom of all of mankind, irrespective of color. It was not the Civil War itself that was discussed - although the famous Battle of Gettysburg was given its due place - but why it was fought and how that remains relevant today: so that Government by the people, of the people and for the people does not perish from the face of the earth (The Gettysburg Address).

But it's not the Lincoln Museum alone that attracts visitors: the beautiful State Capitol as well as its predecessor, the Old State Capitol, are a marvel for architects and Civil Engineers alike. And talking of Civil Engineers, a quick visit to the HQ of the Illinois DOT was a necessary visit, making us possibly the first 'tourists' to the attractive building! Combined with some delicious and reasonably-priced Italian food and a map to help navigate the myriad of one-ways in the city and you have a perfect day with a bunch of great people.

Quite appropriately, in line with weather model solutions, the evening brought with it cold southerly winds from Lake Michigan, signaling the coming cold front in response to Spring Break! And so, just as the good weather, so ends my break. Tomorrow, it's back to work as usual. 

Friday, March 21, 2014

The Issues: Leadership

Continuing with our series on the issues that will decide the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, after corruption, the next thing on the electorate's mind is leadership. Unequivocally, the verdict is clear that Manmohan Singh has been a complete failure as Prime Minister, despite having the longest continuous tenure since Nehru and thus ample opportunity to correct his own mistakes. He is seen as a non-leader who allowed everyone around him to make merry, who is guilty by omission, whose fault lies in not using his authority to stop wrong.

Much has been said about India's parliamentary system, which believes in collective responsibility. It was this very idea that prompted our founding fathers to reject a Presidential form of government. However, the truth is that, steadily and under the able guidance of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, the power of an individual MP has eroded and the executive has become stronger. The Indian PM is possibly the most powerful PM in the Westminster-system democratic world because he has total control over the legislature - what bills can be introduced, what amendments can be accepted, even which motions may be put before the Speaker - as well as the executive, bringing two of three wings of Government under one individual. It is precisely because of this power than Manmohan Singh has been a failure, because in the absence of a strong leader to exercise those powers, there is simply no accountability and policy paralysis is but a natural result.

This election season, the Indian masses are tired and even disgusted with having a weak leader at the helm. Clearly, the diarchy of the UPA has proven to be a failure: the Indian PM is a political position and must enjoy political supremacy; it is not the realm of technocrats. And that is why the Indian masses are moving so strongly in favor of Narendra Modi, who is seen as a leader, no matter how tainted, who can deliver and who commands the loyalty of the his party. This is not just an asset but a requisite for Indian democracy, which is completely beholden to the party system, even though it is not mandated by the Constitution.

Perhaps the worst fear is for some half-baked Third Front to come to power with the support of the Congress, effectively creating another diarchy (which is actually just a system of power without accountability). That could explain why the Congress is not just losing but looking at its worst defeat since the days of the Muslim League - voters want to make sure that the Congress is not even in a position to lend any outside support to any formation. It must be said that it takes a particular form of incompetence for a government to perform so badly that the election is effectively being fought among the opposition parties. 

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Mistakes on Crimea

Russia yesterday effectively annexed the now former Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea in the Black Sea, with a mere formality of ratification by the Duma left. The move marks the first expansion of Russia since the Soviet Days and, in a way, turns the clock back, since it was Khrushchev who transferred Crimea from Russia to Ukraine in 1960.

While the West - Germany and the US in particular - play the revolving door of sanctions, Russia President Putin, in his joint address, thanked India and China for their support, active or passive. In China's case, it abstained from a vote in the UNSC (although it should really have vetoed it if not for matters discussed shortly); for India, it was its (usual) silence on the issue, at best a word from the MEA that Russia has legitimate concerns. However, for India, even slight support to Russia here is akin to suicide and even for China, it is a misstep.

First, China. It is no secret that China faces an insurgency in Xinjiang as well as strong separatist sentiments in Tibet. And, like ever country, China is not willing to accept any loss in territory. By not unequivocally condemning Russia for this act of annexation of Crimea, it is implicitly fanning sub-nationalism and accepting that a referendum at a local level can be the basis of secession. While International law is silent on this issue, any indication that such a route is trouble for China.

For India, which cannot resort to the undemocratic means that China can, and which does not have a voice at the UNSC, the challenges are even greater. A similar unilateral referendum in Kashmir would certainly bring nuclear war to South Asia, as Pakistan moves to militarily enforce the referendum and India moves to defend its territory. Of course, it is also important not to damage the strategic partnership with Russia, but on the issue of territorial integrity hard decisions need to be taken. If India goes further and recognized this secession, which is illegal by Ukrainian law, then it would set a dangerous precedent for Kashmiri separatists to use.

As always, the Manmohan Singh-led UPA Government has fumbled up on foreign policy and done yet more harm on the country. It's just as good that the general elections are nearly upon us: a few more months of this would have been unbearable. 

Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Shock of MH370

The ongoing saga of missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 poses deep questions for aviation and indeed, the entire transportation sector. The mysterious and hitherto unexplained disappearance of the Boeing 777 is now being investigated by 25 countries led by Malaysia, with China in particular exerting pressure for faster results, given that the bulk of passengers were Chinese.

By modern aviation standards, what has happened in next to impossible. A plane can certainly encounter an accident during landing or takeoff, but to just disappear into thin air while in flight is quite difficult. Modern airplanes come with sophisticated equipment that can modify everything from altitude to wing angle in order to keep the system flying. Even an autopilot program can ensure that the plane stays airborne at least till it runs out of fuel.

Moreover, planes are continuously tracked by its home country and also by any country whose airspace it crosses. Since no other country reported it to be flying over it, it is highly unlikely that it disappeared over land, except perhaps one of the uninhabited islands in the Andaman and Nicobar territory, but even there, the Indian Armed Forces have not found anything. Therefore, it seems likely that it crashed somewhere in the huge southern Indian Ocean, which would be an extremely challenging search for investigators.

How did this happen? By now, investigators have concluded that the pilots were certainly involved, because only they would know how to systematically disable the communications systems and change the trajectory so sharply. Now, whether they were coerced into it or did it for some other reason will probably be impossible to answer until the black box is discovered.

It would be particularly alarming if it was indeed hijacked, because it would mark the most significant incident of a plane hijack since 9/11 and would bring in a far more difficult question: Why? Already, there is a theory of a planned 9/11-style attack on India, the most significant country on the modified trajectory. Although it would have been impossible to execute given the strong air defense the Indian mainland enjoys, it would nonetheless be a daring attempt that would make the world take notice.

As the search continues and Malaysia calls upon countries for more technical assistance, it is important for engineers to consider more sophisticated ways to track planes and re-focus on safety. Every accident is one too many in aviation. 

IOTY13: Ad of the Year


The nominees are:

  • The Remarriage Ad, for Tanishq, for a calculated risk through breaking social norms
  • Tea Stall Spill-resistant Ad, for Lenovo Thinkpad, for an earthy tone that connects with the product's main users
  • Celebrate Awesomeness Ad, for Tata Nano, for its catchy tune and strong appeal to middle-class success
  • Reunion Ad, for Google India, for its clever blend of emotions and technology 
Opinions 24x7 Presents
Indian of the Year 2013
Coming Soon...

IOTY13: Troublemaker of the Year



One of our most popular categories is back this year, an award for the dumbest things politicians have said in 2013. The nominees are:


  • Sushil Kumar Shinde: For his directive to all states, asking them to ensure that innocent Muslim youth are not arrested. If they are innocent, they certainly should not be arrested, whether Hindu, Muslim or otherwise. 
  • K Rahman Khan: For asking for special courts to be set up for Muslims. Decades ago, Jinnah asked for separate electorates for Muslims (and got it). And now, this. 
  • Rahul Gandhi: For coolly disclosing that intelligence agencies report to him, and that victims of riots are joining the ISI. Two birds with one stone? 
  • Meenakshi Lekhi: For he now-famous line, accusing Arnab Goswami of taking money from lobbyists and leading to a rather popular rap song.
Opinions 24x7 Presents
Indian of the Year 2013
Coming Soon

Friday, March 14, 2014

Eat Your Morals

Of late, social media has been flooded with what I would call 'the last resort.' Having failed to counter the BJP or their PM-candidate Narendra Modi, and with the courts having given him a clean chit on the 2002 riots, the time has now come to make moralistic arguments - how India will cross the 'moral line of no return' if Modi comes to power. Of course, the fact that the alternative is to cross the 'line of starvation' seems to make no difference. After all, we can die, but we must die with our morals. 

I say - eat your morals. Try it and see how long you will last. Get a job with your morals and raise a family with it. See how long it takes for your loved ones to starve on morals. The funny thing is that everyone who talks about morals does not have to worry about finding a job or finding a meal: most of them are foreigners or NRIs who coolly condemn private-sector led growth while sitting in the lap of capitalism. Or, they are from talk-shops, where you can criticize the world and remain firmly disconnected from it. Or, of course, they are the children of rich inheritances for whom a job is rather demeaning thing to do. 

Let's check the facts here: every political party has ruled over riots, the most spectacular example of which was in 1982 Delhi, when for the first time, the state actively sponsored those riots. Nobody is free of this tarnish, least of all the Congress and the BJP. Secondly, secularism is a complete joke in India and has become a euphemism for minority appeasement. The Congress, which is supposedly the great messiah of secularism, is allied with a party (the Indian Union Muslim League) whose constitution forbids a non-Muslim from becoming a member; or a party (the MIM) which quite openly declares that it is concerned only with the interests of Muslims. In fact, forget the allies, Manmohan Singh himself said that minorities have the first right - not an equal right, but the very first right - to India's resources. The BJP never even says that it is concerned with only the interests of Hindus and even if it is, that is somehow morally wrong, while being concerned with only the interests of Muslims is secularism at its best. The absolute hypocrisy of moralists who hold up secularism as some sort of shining beacon is hard to miss. 

The issue is jobs. Under the UPA Governments (both of them), India has seen ten years of jobless growth and the population of unemployed youth holding degrees and diplomas not worth the paper they are printed on continues to swell. And the answer to this was handouts, economic stagnation and, most importantly, a sense of hopelessness. The issue is not morals: an unemployed person who has to feed a family gives a rat's ass about morals and gives an even bigger rat's ass to moralists who themselves never have to worry about their next meal.

The issue is governance. Under both the UPA Governments, corruption reached unimaginable heights even as promises of lowering inflation were made and broken with glee. Policy implementation reached such a slow pace that one began to wonder whether India even had a government. States were partitioned and institutions were destroyed for political gain. The woman who has to beg for money to bribe the 'fair-price shop' owner for her monthly ration gives a rat's ass about morals and gives an even bigger rat's ass to moralists who can buy their way out of ever needing a government. 

The issue is infrastructure. Under both the UPA Governments, particularly when Kamal Nath controlled MORTH, almost no roads were constructed, although plenty were constructed on paper. A fabled nuclear energy agreement that would make sure that a child in Punjab did not have to study under a kerosene lamp's light, as Manmohan Singh himself said he had to, has not generated a microwatt of energy. Manufacturing policies came and went even as manufacturing fell into a steep recession. The businessman who has to shut shop and fire all his employees because he can no longer afford to use a generator in the absence of regular electricity gives a rat's ass about morals and an even bigger rat's ass to moralists who can type away in their air-conditioned villas. 

The issue is leadership. The issue is hope for a better future. The issue is India. And moralists who believe that all these issues are trivial in front of the greater issue of imagined secularism and concocted facts can eat their morals, digest them and leave them where they belong. 

Engaging the Public

Engineering Open House (EOH) began today at the U of I, with families and school kids dropping by North-of-Green to learn about the wonderful world of engineering and even gain some hands-on experience. I was happy to be a volunteer for ITE this year, showing kids (and even some adults) how we measure perception time and answering questions about phase plans in highly simplified terms.

Initiatives like EOH are important to engineering for two reasons. One, engineering, and Civil Engineering in particular, needs public investment. For example, most transit systems in the US are publicly-owned because they are economically unfeasible otherwise. The public good that comes from them however, enables other economic activities without which society would not be able to prosper. However, these are not facts borne of common sense, they are facts that must be told and shared. When public money is used, the public has every right to know where and why it is used. If a democratically elected government forces citizens to pay taxes without letting them know where that money is going, then that democracy is a farce. Engineers therefore, have a duty to engage with the public to let them know every aspect of where their money is going and how it benefits them.

Secondly, it is important to let young children know about engineering. I was pleasantly surprised to meet a middle-school student who asked good questions about actuated signals; when I was his age, I never gave it a thought. That boy should, in my opinion, be a Transportation Engineer in the future. I was also lucky to be able to tell a Sophomore a little about Traffic Engineering and Logistics and he seemed extremely excited. It is important for engineers to tell younger people about their field in order to attract the best talent to it. Without the best talent, we are not going to find solutions to the problems of tomorrow.

Overall, I enjoyed my time at EOH and was glad to volunteer for it. It's an excellent initiative that should be adopted elsewhere as well. 

Thursday, March 13, 2014

The International Dinner




Sunday was the 31st International Student Dinner & Performance Night hosted by the University YMCA and ISSS, with food from around 30 different countries for an audience of over 200 people. I had the proud privilege to be co-MC at the event together with a sophomore. For us, the event began with a very quick and delicious dinner with great food from around the world. I was surprised to find an African country that has a chicken stew that is exactly the same as an Indian chicken curry. In addition, the desert from Ukraine was smashing.

The performances were great, covering India, Japan, Latin America, the Caucasus and other regions. My personal favorite was Jew Kids of the Block's Nachamu Ami. The video above is not the same performance, but it is the same song and I have been hooked to it, particularly after I got hold of a translation.

I'm really impressed by how much America values International diversity on campus. It doesn't just talk about it, or ask International students to 'assimilate' (i.e., act like they're domestic students) as in Europe: it really does value diversity. For the first time in my life, I really felt like I was part of a big, diverse world. A wonderful night to remember. 

For Glory's Sake

300: RISE OF AN EMPIRE (2014)

Produced By: Warner Bros and Legendary Pictures
Director: Noam Murro
Starring: Eva Green, Sullivan Stapleton, Lena Headey, David Wenham, Rodgrigo Santoro and others
Pros: Nail-biting plot, excellent graphics
Cons: Clumsy start
Rating: **** of 5 (4 of 5)

Making a sequel to a great movie is always hard, just ask the guys over at The Hangover. And that's probably why Murro decided not to make a sequel, or even a prequel. Indeed, 300: Rise of an Empire is both connected to and disconnected from the original 300: if you haven't seen the latter, it doesn't matter but it does help. Such is the brilliance with which the story was conceived.

Eva Green steals the show here with a grand performance as Persian Fleet Commander Artemisia. Clearly, she put her mind and body into the performance. Sullivan Stapleton follows, albeit with a more mellow role. The graphics aptly supplement the great performances, with scenes of naval battle shown vividly. However, the 3D option is just a gimmick with the same old trick of things-flying-in-your-face. Indeed, since Avatar made 3D movies popular, directors seems to have been unable to discover any other use of the medium, which is a disappointment.

The real reason why you should watch this movie is for the plot and the way it all comes together. I just love it when a movie is good for the story: that's the ultimate point of the medium. However, it does start rather clumsily and is difficult to follow for the first fifteen minutes or so, but eventually picks up steam. Certainly a movie you don't want to miss. (OTFS)

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

On Those Kashmiri Students

Two weeks back, a row broke out at a private university hostel in Meerut, UP over some Kashmiri students who cheered on the Pakistani cricket team as it defeated the Indian team in the Asia Cup. The incident created a tense situation among students and the Kashmiri students were asked to pack up and go home. In addition, the police slapped charges of sedition on them, which were later dropped (which is not really a big deal because any court would have tossed those charges out anyway).

There are two issues involved here. First, the legal perspective. Slapping charges of sedition on these students was absolutely stupid - there was no attempt to somehow show disrespect to the government here, which is what sedition is. Furthermore, the very concept of sedition is an anathema to democracy. Everyone is free to say what they like: the moment we start creating legal exceptions to this, we open a Pandora's box. And lets not forget that it was just a cricket match, a game at the end of the day. It is not supposed to be taken so seriously and it is quite natural to support the winning team. To make sports affiliations a legal issue is mindless. Legally, if there was a mob that wanted to kill those Kashmiri students, the state is mandated to protect them.

However, everything cannot be defined in laws. There are affairs that are above and beyond laws. In this respect, what these students did deserves condemnation. To study on Indian soil and to insult that very soil is disgraceful. Let's not play around with words: the students were making a clearly political statement. They were bringing their separatist ideas to the Hindi heartland. What sort of reaction did they expect? Did they expect people to keep quiet? They talk about political alienation in India and yet they are welcomed to universities in every corner of India, welcomed to build a better life for themselves (and other Indian citizens cannot do the same in Kashmir, I might add). The only political alienation in Kashmir is a result of the Kashmiri people's own actions and their own thinking. After all, what is politics? It is the art of distributing resources. Are Kashmiris being denied education? It's not like India has a large number of seats: for every Kashmiri in an Indian university, there was a non-Kashmiri who could not get in. And they call this political alienation?

It might sound antithetical to the idea of free speech, but Kashmiri students are not welcome to show their ingratitude in the rest of India. Given the history, they are at least expected not to stoke more tensions. In their valley, they are very welcome to. But in the rest of India, if they espouse their separatism, they should not expect a warm welcome. 

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Selective Perspective

Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything 
By Steven D Levitt and Stephen J Dubner

Data is at the heart of everything. But, when subjected to sufficient statistical torture, data can be made to anything. Therefore, everything is possible. That just about sums up Freakonomics: an interesting though questionable treatise on how economics, rather econometrics, can be applied to answer everyday events. After all, all humans act on incentives and economics is essentially a study of incentives. Well, at a macro-level anyway.

The problem with this book is that it seems to merrily cherry pick data and distract the discerning gaze of readers through interesting - sometimes excessively long - anecdotes. This is OK for sometime, given that every author would like to sell his book, but with far too many instances of it, it becomes monotonous and even irrelevant. Furthermore, although the book does underlines that it does not have one unifying theme, this is hardly an incentive for readers. It just feels like a long, unending maze: which might be good for economists, but not for everyone else.

Overall, a somewhat over-hyped book. 

The Issues: Corruption

With the Election Commission having announced the schedule for the Lok Sabha elections and three state assembly elections, and the model code of conduct having kicked in, we begin a new series discussing the issues that are in the mind of voters as India heads towards its 16th General Elections.

The first issue that of corruption: something that has been a defining feature of Independent India and indeed, even under colonial rule. But as a political factor, corruption today has reached its very zenith. The UPA Government has been the hallmark of corruption - the scams that it has overseen have broken every record and each one continues to get worse. Indeed, many have called it the most corrupt regime in post-Independence India.

However, it is not just limited to the Central Government. Virtually all state governments, with the possible exception of Tripura, Gujarat and Sikkim, are hopelessly corrupt. Any why just governments? People themselves are corrupt: the desire to get things done quickly by paying a bribe is quite strong. Now, the question of whether people are corrupt because they don't get services in a reasonable period of time, or whether they simply want to jump to the front of the queue and are therefore corrupt, remains open. But corruption has reached such great levels in India today that nobody can ignore it: the level of civil society unrest against it has never been greater, not even in JP's time.

It is precisely this absolute anger at public corruption that has fueled the AAP, and the IAC before it, although the party itself seems to be drifting from that line and making this exclusively a fight against Narendra Modi. The Congress party, despite Rahul Gandhi's attempts at painting himself as an outsider, suffers greatly on this count and is possibly staring at its greatest defeat in history, perhaps only less than the defeat it felt under the Muslim League before Partition. However, the BJP too faces harsh scrutiny on this, particularly after BSY from Karnataka returned to the fold.

Corruption at all levels will be a fundamental issue in this general election. As Indian society moves to a post-feudal setup, society is beginning to question the way governance works: this is inevitable and even necessary. 

Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Govt in Marriage

A few days back, an interesting question came to my mind about the limits of government. The question is quite simple:

Why should the government decide who can and who cannot be married? If democracy stands for personal freedom and the right to freedom of expression, then why should the government be required to accept a union between any two people who love each other? Is the entire idea of registering a marriage undemocratic?

The first idea that comes to my mind is that, if marriages were not registered, couples would be able to break up at will and leave one of the two members in dire straits unfairly. For example, a married couple might accumulate assets over time and if they break up, those assets will have to be divided fairly. And that is the government's job: to prevent anything unfair from happening. The role of the government, after all, lies in ensuring fairness, in the absence of which society itself break down.

However, the government has clearly expanded its mandate beyond these reasonable limits. A clear example is the fact that you need legislation to allow homosexuals to marry. What is the logic behind this? Why should the majority have to give its consent to what is entirely a personal choice? Why should the majority be able to hoist its moral leanings on the minority? That is not democracy - it is majoritarianism. This is not something like regulating driving licenses: it is possibly the most personal of all matters: marriage.

A limited government that respects individuals should not have any power to regulate marriage between individuals. It can ensure fairness in asset distribution, or protection from domestic violence, or anything that transgresses on individual freedoms. But to decide who is to be free and who is not is most undemocratic indeed. 

The Crimean Question

Last week, Europe was on the edge after decades with a Russian 'invasion' of the Crimean peninsula of Ukraine in the Black Sea. The move is a dramatic escalation of already strained ties between Moscow and Washington and leaves Europe hanging in the air, wanting to take strong action against Russia but handcuffed by its dependency on Russia fossil fuels. Now, the semi-autonomous Crimean Parliament plans to hold a referendum on joining the Russian Federation.

All these are clear signs that NATO's expansion into the former Soviet bloc is not going to go unchecked. To be sure, Russia is no Soviet Union: its economy today is almost entirely dependent on fossil fuel exports, its democracy is effectively dead and its media gagged. The chaos and fear within is what Putin should be wary of the most. And yet, Russia has managed to trump the West, daring it to take action. In its moves, it has found a surprising ally in China. All this seems like a scary return to the Cold War.

However, it must be understood that Crimea is rightfully a part of Ukraine. It was actually a part of Russia until Khrushchev transferred it to Ukraine, all under the Soviet Union, and hence, has deep Russian cultural roots. But Crimea's autonomy is by virtue of the Ukrainian constitution and it cannot be allowed to secede against it. The United States should not turn Crimea into another Kosovo and should recall its own actions when its Southern states attempted to secede, sparking off the American Civil War.

The truth is that, after the end of colonization and the universal adoption of the Nation state, secession is simply not an option anymore. Countries are no longer open to any loss of territory, people do wish to see a truncated country. Perhaps a notable exception is South Sudan, but that was a result acceptable to both sides. In the case of Ukraine and Crimea, the secession would be entirely antithetic to the Ukrainian constitution and would be simply playing into the hands of the larger pseudo-Cold War. For the sake of peace and the integrity of the nation state system, Russia must be stopped from allowing Crimea to secede. 

Monday, March 3, 2014

Where did the music die?


Psycho (1960)

Often considered Alfred Hitchcock's greatest movie, yet having failed to make a mark initially, Psycho was one of the earliest psychological thrillers, making a mark for itself with its suspense and surprising ending. Hitchcock, of course, is today considering a leader in the area of psychological thrillers, but it wasn't always like that.

In Psycho, we meet Norman Bates, a strange man who runs a motel, with little success, and lives with his nagging mother, who has a constant presence throughout the movie right up to the end, although she is never actually seen except for a few seconds.

In terms of form, Psycho made excellent use of music to build up tension. This seems to be a forgotten technique today, with directors focusing more on the visual and the audio. The sounds of the movie are eternal and have inspired hundreds of spin-offs. As an experience, it also built up suspense as nothing else good. For a modern audience that is not enthusiastic about a movie in black-and-white, this factor makes up for that dimension. On its own though, it was a huge boost. 

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Not his best

The Last Juror
By John Grisham

Well, you can't win 'em all! John Grisham is an amazing writer of legal thrillers, but even he can trip at times - and unfortunately, he tripped over The Last Juror. The story does come with an exciting set of court room scenes of the kind that Grisham is known to conjure up, and the background was such was pretty good too. Here too he chooses his home state of Mississippi in all its glorious chaos of segregation and lawlessness.

One of Grisham's signature techniques is introducing long-winding characters that slowly build up the suspense and the tension before it all comes together nicely. On that count, he does not disappoint, with several characters and scenes, seemingly at a tangent to the principal story. Sadly, they remain tangential and have virtually no role to play - a marked letdown.

This won't be the last Grisham novel that I'll be reading. But I hope it was the worst. 

The Theseus Paradox: An Existential View

In continuation of my experience of watching Ship of Theseus, I wanted to present my own views on the paradox. I don't claim that there views are novel in any way: I'm quite sure that philosophers before me have discussed and dissected it. This is just my own reaction to it.

So, to restate the Theseus Paradox: If the planks of a ship are replaced one by one over the course of its service, until a point is reached where none of the planks are the same as the original anymore, then does the ship remain the same ship?

In my opinion, the ship never existed to start off with. Does that sound surprising? Consider this: what differentiates the Ship of Theseus from any other ship? At the dry dock, they're one and the same - just a ship. What makes it the Ship of Theseus is the fact that it was actually used by Theseus: the journeys and adventures that the two had together made it what it was. If the ship just stayed in the dry dock, it would never have become anything more: every moment is spent out in the seas made it what it was. Therefore, in itself, the Ship of Theseus does not exist: it is the experiences of the Ship that exist. Therefore, none of the planks were ever the Ship, they were just that - planks. And hence, when you change all the planks, you do not have the same ship simply because there was no ship to begin with.

In many ways, people are just the same. When they are born, they are just the same. It is our experiences that differentiate us. Truly, we don't even exist: it is just our experiences that do.