Monday, August 31, 2015

Surprising Bedfellows

As the US Presidential election hots up, with both parties looking to field the candidate who they think can win the White House next year, a rather odd phenomenon seems to be taking place, a rare event in politics wherein there are two candidates on opposing sides who seem to be saying the absolute truth, to the best of their knowledge. It is no secret that honestly is a huge liability in politics - why let a little matter like the truth get in the way of a grand election victory? - but it is for the same reason that now, honesty has become such a novelty that it is attracting unlikely crowds.

And the strangest thing of all is the fact that each party seems to have exactly one candidate who is trying to be 100% honest, to the best of their abilities. On the Republican side is billionaire Donald Trump, who has made it his signature style to be politically incorrect and speak his mind forcefully - even if that entails antagonizing Latino voters as well as people in his own party. His ideas, however asinine they may seem, are what he honestly believes to be the solution to America's problems. He genuinely believes that China and Mexico are the leaders of the anti-American front and promises to take them on squarely. And in terms of jobs, he does have a point, albeit a very limited one.

For the Democrats, there is Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who has made his rather left wing ideas be known to the country at large, with surprising favor. At Quad Day in UIUC, I was surprised to find a spirited group of people raising support for him - rather his idea of free public college education. However fiscally difficult this may be, he genuinely believes in it. Moreover, he has repeatedly ticked off the media for focusing on non-issues such as whose head Marco Rubio hit with a football and has spoken with vigor about issues that really do matter to people. This is something that has caught everybody off guard because who talks about issues these days?

Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders seem strange bedfellows, but in fact, they are very similar in that they speak their mind freely and openly and do not conform to the centrist vision of politics that essentially involves trying to make everyone happy with hurting everyone in the process. Short of a major political earthquake however, it is highly unlikely that either of them (and much less both) will be squaring off against an opponent after the primaries. What a pity.  

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Sham Privatization

The recent disinvestment of the government's shares in Indian Oil Corp. (IOC) to the tune of $1.4 billion was a complete sham, with state-run LIC buying up about 86% of the shares, according to a regulatory filing accessed by Reuters. The biggest irony was that this transaction was made on the day that was called Black Monday, when the stock markets in India and across the world crashed as a result of a massive crash in the Chinese stock markets and a slowdown in the Chinese economy that the Communist Party has been unable to control. Not only does this belie thoroughly incompetent execution, it also shows that Finance Minister Arun Jaitley's team is absolutely clueless about what to do about disinvestment and privatization, a state not dissimilar to his predecessor, P Chidambaram (PC).

One arm of the government signing a check to another arm is not called disinvestment. The idea of disinvestment is to break companies from government control and allow direct control by the people of the country in the form of shareholders. This brings in competition and increases opportunities for all. In the case of this IOC disinvestment, the government continues to control the company using life insurance money from the general public, which is a complete sham for everyone. This move is a mere accounting measure to show an artificial increase in government revenue in order to meet deficit targets without actually indulging in any reforms.

This is not the first government to play this game and it won't be the last. However, the manner by which it was elected gave a great deal of hope that people would not get a raw deal. There is a huge, winning constituency that favors real economic change, privatization and a general curtailment of the powers of the government. Jaitley, who lost an election in a wave that should've been in his favor, clearly doesn't see this constituency. He is merely a saffron PC.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Futile Exercise

The recent charade of 'talks about terrorism' (which used to be called 'talks about talks') between the NSAs of India and Pakistan that eventually broke down acrimoniously over the question of Kashmir is just another example of the futility of even trying to engage with the civilian administration of Pakistan, which is entirely subservient to the Army, now more than ever before. Consider the most recent events there: the massive blowback that PM Nawaz Sharif faced over the Ufa joint-statement, the way the Pakistan Rangers has virtually taken over the administration of swathes of Karachi, and how the 19th Amendment created a parallel military-judicial system. If not that, then the unseating of the NA Speaker by Imran Khan, who enjoys the support of the Army, is the surest sign yet of the silent coup that has happened there.

Amid this situation, the idea that Pakistan would talk to India about anything other than Kashmir - the very raison d'etre of the Pakistani Army - is laughable. And yet PM Modi cannot be blamed for trying, because he is quite serious about regional integration among SAARC nations and he has gone to great lengths to bring that to fruition. But this is a very old game that every PM has played to no avail - Manmohan Singh, Vajpayee, IK Gujral and everybody before. A sign of insanity is trying to achieve different outcomes by doing the same thing over and over again - perhaps only Indira Gandhi knew how to break out of that. Talks with Pakistan are a futile exercise that serve nobody. While on one side India has never gained anything from it, in Pakistan it gives meaningless legitimacy to the civilian government, which should be able to do so on its own, or step aside if it cannot (as is apparent).

India's real sphere is in the East - including Eastern South Asia as well as ASEAN, and further on to the Far East and our dance partner in the New Great Game, China. It is in the East that India will find its economic miracle, which is the one and only thing that can change our destiny forever. Pakistan is nothing more than a prick, an irritant that seeks the impossible task of parity with a country multiples its size in every respect, while doing nothing to that effect except renting itself out to the next superpower. Pakistan's NSA, while talking to the Indian media, accused the Indian government of behaving like a regional superpower. India is a regional superpower whether Pakistan likes it or not, but that is not saying much for one of the most poverty-stricken and economically backward regions of the world.

India's red lines were clear and correct. EAM Sushma Swaraj spelled them out unequivocally. We do not need fake talks with Pakistan - let tensions escalate and let China, Saudi Arabia and the US - the three countries that are solely responsible for the country staying afloat - try to solve it, nuclear apocalypse and all. The burden of a stable Pakistan is not on us. The only burden we have is to ourselves. 

Another Semester/New Semester?

It's that time of the year again, when a new semester begins. For the thousands of freshman roaming the streets of campus and filling up the gym, it is truly the beginning of a new phase in life, a moment that I myself remember quite well from six years ago, when I too was a freshman, and thought I was the coolest guy in the world. Oh, how the tides have turned! For me, this semester marks the beginning of my seventh year as a college student. Yes, I'm that old.

But is this just another semester? While it seems so, there is also a sense of finality to it. This is my first semester as a doctoral student, the ultimate stage in one's education, since a PhD is a terminal degree. In that sense, this is a very new semester - for it is the last I will have a 'first semester' for an academic program (as a student, anyway). Now, some would say that this is just nitpicking, and they would be write, but what have I to lose by doing that? After all, a PhD is about critical thinking, and that should not stop in the lab.

So here begins (in about fifteen minutes), the first class of my first semester as a freshman PhD student (I know there's no such thing). One last time. 

Saturday, August 22, 2015

A New Feat

Yesterday, I finally finished my summer project - ILLI-THERM GUI, a graphical user interface for the ILLI-THERM simulation engine that I had developed last year. While programming is not a big deal, this GUI was different because it boasted of several firsts. Through it, I became proficient in C#, Microsoft's answer to Java that really changed the way I looked at object-oriented programming; where objects were not just part of a program, but a program itself was an object. In addition, I also mastered the WPF technology, which was a big upgrade over Windows Forms, although Microsoft appears to be slowly letting it go in favor of WinRT, which I will also get down to learning eventually.

Writing programs is one thing, but learning a completely new technology that designs interfaces rather than just console applications is quite another. True credit really goes to my middle school computer science teacher who took pains to teach us about algorithms and flow charts before jumping into actual programming (Q-BASIC). Most people I've seen today cannot differentiate between syntax and programming, which is why they find learning a new language an arduous task. In my case, I started learning C#/WPF in March and this project was finished in August - learning, practice and execution all done in six months. This is not hard to do - you just need to do it in the right way.

The GUI was a major deliverable for the project and I'm happy to have done it soon. With new features like the Ribbon, contextual Ribbon Tabs as well as modified listboxes and a partial application of the MVVM pattern, this project really threw open my future. A major achievement indeed. 

Friday, August 14, 2015

Independence Day Lecture: Economic Freedom

Freedom means different things to different people. In one respect, the meaning of freedom is inherently tied to what we truly value. For the sentimental, the freedom to love is the ultimate freedom; for the utilitarian, the freedom of choice is paramount; and yet for the dictator, freedom lies in denying the very same to others. Despite the differences however, freedom is fundamental - all people are inherently born free, yet that freedom is quickly lost.

The Only Freedom
With so many ideas of freedom, one is tempted to ask whether there is even such a thing as freedom. After all, while we may be born free, we are not born as islands. Our freedoms inherently affect that of those around us and even beyond. The freedom of a parent affects their children; the freedom of a breadwinner affects their family. What then is freedom?

Indian civilization is marked by many gods and goddesses - but the truth is, there is only one god, the Supreme Being, the Brahman. In much the same manner, while we may talk of several ideas of freedom, they are all mere manifestations of the one true freedom - economic freedom. A narrow viewing of this would be the freedom to spend money, but that would not just be narrow, but also false; for, money is not an instrument to spend. Money is merely a form of work - the value of money is derived from what work one associates with it. In that respect, freedom is also money - it's value depends on what responsibilities are attached to it, and how much we work for it.

Perhaps that explains why we value our freedom so little today - because we never really had to earn it. It just came to us by itself, the sweat and blood of generations before who took on the mighty British Empire. And yet, even that generation was so quick to give it up, for the British Raj metamorphosed within a few years into the license-permit-quota raj. Some would say that this was different, for while we had political freedom, economic freedom was not guaranteed or even necessary. They are wrong.

Path to Freedom
Freedom does not come in pieces, just as spiritualism does not come by being selectively spiritual. At the heart of freedom is economic freedom - the freedom of the market to choose and work according to one's abilities, irrespective of needs. While we won so-called political freedom in 1947, the fact remains that the shackling of our economy in the chains of socialism, where the work of many went to enrich so few undeserving, stripped us of their very freedoms. And while the great Prime Minister Narasimha Rao did unlock some of those chains, many still remain.

This Independence Day, as we mark 68 years since the end of the British Empire in India, let us remember that we have yet to achieve the ultimate freedom - the freedom to own the fruits of our labor. For in that freedom lies the freedom of the individual, and the final, true freedom that every person is entitled to. The freedom to choose your own life, and live with the consequences.

Jai Hind! 

Third Year Lucky?

Another year, another apartment, another set of roommates. Counting the horror story that was Munich (and not counting the better times that were Tokyo), I've been very bad at keeping roommates. Granted, the last year actually good and ended due to a strange combination of circumstances, the fact is that this is my third trial. I am so tired with this that I don't even have any hopes us - I'd just rather live in my office all day (which I already do for the most part). But I also strongly dislike moving so often, and I hope this one works out.

But who am I kidding? I often tell people that a roommate is just someone you split your bills with. I can't believe that without implementing it myself, can I? 

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Repeal the First Amendment

Another week, another ban. A week that should've been a great one for the Modi sarkaar with the suspension of Congress MPs from the Lok Sabha as well as the historic Naga Peace Accord turned into a nightmare that reduced the government to a laughing stock and showed the sheer inability of our archaic bureaucracy to logically regulate the Internet. The ban on 857 websites that supposedly hosted pornographic material (although many of them actually didn't), popularly dubbed the #PornBan, was a knee-jerk reaction to obvious goading by the Supreme Court, on the back of a PIL filed by a lawyer by the name Mr. Vaswani, who clearly has a moral opinion about porn, which he backs up with some cherry-picked data.

The more opportunistic would simply jump at this chance to blame the BJP, but the fact is that the Congress is also infamous for banning Facebook pages, Twitter handles, books and websites. Lest anyone forget how section 69 of the IT Act, as amended, got there in the first place. And while the Supreme Court was presumably against the idea of the state telling people what to do with themselves in the privacy of their homes, it did not simply toss out this case for the frivolity that it oozed. But why should it? Even the Supreme Court is not above basing judgments on moralistic grounds, shrouded in vaguely-defined laws.

The fundamental problem here is that the Constitution of India was amended for the very first time, way back in 1951, to give the state the power to make such laws and the judiciary the power to use them to cover up for judgments based on morality. The First Amendment snatched away our rights to free speech and expression (including, retrospectively, through online content) for vaguely defined terms. It put the burden of proving necessity on the individual and not the state. In effect, it put the state above the individual. And for what? To stop the press from criticizing the Nehru Government's socialist policies!

There is no point discussing the pros and cons of the #PornBan, neither is there any use in appropriating blame to anybody, because the real villain (Nehru) is long dead, with his progeny left to make fools of themselves and the country. The fact is that the #PornBan is not even enforceable because:

  1. The government just doesn't have the capability to know what sites host child porn and what don't, and it would be ridiculous to ask ISPs to find out;
  2. There are so many millions of such sites and so many more keep popping up that the government would be tying itself up in knots to even manage a fraction of it; and
  3. There are many loopholes around any ban, including something called Browsec (a plug-in revealed to us Indians by some Pakistanis who needed a way around their own ban on YouTube). 
The only thing to discuss is that the state cannot be allowed to take away our natural rights to free speech and expression. The original sin is in the First Amendment - only repealing that can provide a permanent solution to the question of whether India is the People of India or the Government of India, because it is clearly not both. 

Sunday, August 2, 2015

The beauty of Aug 2

Today is August 2. Over the last two years, this day has held special significance for me and hundreds of thousands of other researchers across the US and indeed, the world. The reason is summed up in three words - Transportation Research Board. For, Aug. 1 (anywhere in the world) is the deadline for paper submissions to the Annual Meeting of TRB, the largest transportation conference in the world. And unlike just about every other conference, that is a very hard deadline. If you miss it, try next year.

Now, the papers submitted to TRB are not all that great - that's a fact. The problem lies in the low impact factor of the associated journal TRR, but they have been working on improving it. But as a networking opportunity, nothing beats TRB, and it helps to present over there, thus giving you a ready audience without having to go out and make an elevator pitch. From industry to academia, everybody is there, everybody wants to listen, but you need to have something worth listening to. It's a healthy tradition for everyone to stay up late before the deadline, and to work extremely hard the week before it. And thus it was with me.

A tip for first-timers: make your profile several months before, when the system is up. Put in a some dummy text and files. Towards the end, when there is a mad rush to submit, the server can take a beating, so finish the clerical stuff early on, so that you just need to change the title, abstract and upload the PDF file in end. And then, just wait for the review. TRB rejects about 40% of papers submitted (and over 60% for TRR), but the reviewers are some of the best you can get, so it is a good experience, whatever be the result.

And the next day, Aug. 2, is a day to relax. Because the mad rush is finally over. Well, at least for a few months!