Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The Doval Doctrine

With yet more saber-rattling in Pakistan in an attempt to neutralize the aftermath of the Ufa agreement between Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi, Kashmir is clearly back on the agenda, or at least the Pakistani agenda. If the mainstream media in India and their tribe of #AdarshLiberals were to be believed, this is a terrible thing. Actually, this is a good thing and reflects the thinking of NSA Ajit Doval, who has been managing Pakistan.

The strategy seems to be two-pronged: one, to sideline the separatists and only allow the elected representatives to represent Kashmir, as was the spirit of the Shimla agreement; and two, to isolate Pakistan internationally as an intransigent state run by its military, incapable of civilized behavior. Moreover, an even more subtle change is the talk of Kashmir as a whole being a part of India, thus putting AJK ad Gilgit-Baltistan back on the discussion board as Indian territory under Pakistani control.

This is certainly a high-stakes game that Doval is playing, but the rewards are great. If Modi can keep the Indian economy strong, the world is almost guaranteed to see Pakistan as nothing more than a nuclear-armed menace (as Donald Trump hinted recently), a factory of terrorists. With the vast market it offers, India will have much more leverage (foreign policy today is, after all, an extension of economic policy). By putting GB and AJK back on board, India would be able to highlight how Pakistan has failed to live up to its side of the UNSC resolutions that it continues to harp on about.

Clearly, Ajit Doval is playing a game much too great for the Indian media to fathom. Only time will tell whether it will pay off.

Fix your house first

As Nepal begins to ration petrol on account of the massive line-up of trucks at the border with India, some serious questions need to be asked over what led to this and what is being done about it. Firstly, there is no blockade by India as being claimed by the usual elites in Katmandu - trucks with supplies are lining up, and the only blockade is by the Madhesi and Janjati citizens of Nepal who have been effectively turned into second class citizens by the Hill elites in the new Constitution, and whose protests have been met with violent police repression. Indeed, some of the after effects could very well spill into poll-bound Bihar, which is the only thing that the Indian government is really concerned about.

The fact is that Nepal has to clean up its own house, and blaming India as usual won't do it. Despite all the measures Prime Minister Narendra Modi has taken to cooperate with Nepal while respecting its independence and values, the pro-China elites in Nepal turned a blind eye to the plea to take the concerns of the Madhesis into account before promulgating the new Constitution. What that has led to is the current state of violence and self-imposed blockade that is wrongly being blamed on India. The current Constitution is a recipe for disaster unless the political class renders some assurances to the aggrieved. The federal gerrymandering and  politics of citizenship that it imposes will tear Nepal apart, pushing the people of the Hills further away from those of the planes. This is the worst possible way to start a new era.

If anything, Nepal should take a leaf out of India's own process of writing the Constitution, where all views were taken into account and even those that were rejected, were given assurance to allay their fears. Moreover, the Indian Constitution guaranteed universal adult franchise and political participation by all, with representation representing population, both of which the Nepali Constitution fails to do. The disaster of the proportional representation system on the Constituent Assembly did not seem to have sunk in, and the same disaster has now been made permanent till amendment.

From the views of the Madhesis, not only have they been virtually stripped of electoral power, they have been denied political office and even citizenship, which is why protest is their only resort. For all the hope India had on it, Nepal has proven to be a disaster and playing the same India-versus-China card will not solve anything.

Maybe a mistake?

It's just about a month into the new semester and it's already agonizing. While it is true that I had taken three courses plus research before, this time it seems to be much worse than I remember it. One reason if of course my ME 404 course, the first in a long line of courses that I hope to take in the Mechanical Engineering Department. This is an extremely interesting but difficult course, taking 15-20 hours a week for homework and lectures, which obviously puts the rest of my schedule under severe strain (as is evident by the decline in the number of blogposts!).

But ME 404 is not the only problem. CEE 508 is proving to be a thoroughly mismanaged course, as a result of which it oscillates between virtually being non-existent to almost breaking my schedule. The only silver lining must be CEE 408 which, though boring, is pretty straightforward and extremely well-managed. Well, hopefully it stays that way. Research is the double whammy, as I worry about how I would master CFD and complete my PhD with barely enough time to write and read papers. Add to the fact that I have to give time to an undergraduate every week, and the stress is apparent.

Perhaps it was a mistake to have taken three courses then. Foolhardiness would be the right term. The real question is - what should I do now? Quit while I'm ahead, or soldier on? 

Sunday, September 27, 2015

The Enviable Charlie Puth

Yes, this is the same skinny guy who made those covers on YouTube with the monkey cap on. He's soon to release his new album Nine Track Mind after his song with Wiz Khalifa, See You Again, for the Furious 7 movie, unseated Uptown Funk from the top of the charts and remains in the Top 20. Charlie Puth, in many ways, represents the American dream for many people: he kept doing what he loved to (no doubt with little remuneration aside from some cheering fans in Boston) until he finally made it. And this album is coming out while he's still in his mid-20s, a great feat for someone so very young.

The nice thing about the songs he's released so far is that they largely remain true to his style - thoughtful, calm music with his signature crescendos. One hope he doesn't go the way of Taylor Swift and change his style, but that is his (and his producers') choice. Till then, we can enjoy his latest One Call Away, which is sure to be received well.

Will he disappear after this album? Most likely - most do. But we hope not - he's really very good! 

Monday, September 21, 2015

Who won the #GOPDebate?

As the dust settles over the second debate between the Republican Presidential candidates at the Reagan Library, conducted by CNN, the question looms as to who won the debate. For some reason, the Conservative media seems to think Trump won the debate; I disagree. I think the winner was Carly Fiorina. While the purpose of a debate is to inform voters about the candidates, it is also a tool to magnify your message. And in that respect, Fiorina did well while Trump did just about nothing (possibly because he didn't need to). In particular, her emotional appeal against recreational marijuana was impressive.

The clear loser was apparent though - Jeb Bush. The former forerunner and establishment favorite was absolutely boring and further cemented his position as a lackluster candidate that DC politicians are trying to stuff down the throats of others. If Bush is serious, he needs to ramp up his act. If the CNN debate was anything to go by, his future seems bleak. 

Thursday, September 17, 2015

A Happy Day

Today is the 65th birth anniversary of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and for those who have reposed faith in his leadership, it is truly a great day. I don't really believe in fate or destiny, but if I did, I would say that the day he was born, after Independence and the bloody partition of the Indian nation, was a day when destiny planted the seed of change, a seed that would not sprout to its fullest till 2014, when Modi won a spectacular election victory and emerged with the first one-party majority in 30 years. More importantly, he emerged as a beacon of hope for the young of the nation who want to make their lives better, and their country greater.

It has been a long journey from May 16, 2014 to today, and there is still much distance to traverse. Ancient Indian wisdom teaches us to be patient, as long as the path is right, the destination will be reached, however slowly, but surely. With that, we wait for acche din, still sure that we have elected the right leader.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

'What does it all mean?'


Produced by: Several, including a kickstarter campaign that this reviewer contributed to
Director: Iram Bilal
Starring: A lot of students, and a Nobel Laureate
Pros: For those in the loop, a very real story, funny
Cons: A little preachy, predictable ending
Rating: Just watch it!

Well, this isn't a traditional movie that's going to show in all theaters in town. While I'm a little skeptical of the title of 'Independent cinema,' I'd prefer to call it 'niche cinema,' because it is for a very narrow audience (college students, especially graduate students). And for that audience, this movie certainly clicks! Picking up from the first edition PHD Movie, this sequel picks up from where the last one left off, although it doesn't say as much in the beginning.

There are major differences between this movie and the last one, chief among them being the higher quality of direction, which had to come with the arrival of a professional director. You now have much nicer shots of Caltech as well as the lead stars (one of whom actually has a PhD!), as well as more subtlety. In that respect, I have to give it to the director for Cecilia's defense, wherein backer David Sell puts on a parallel show without saying anything - I wish I had a third eye for that one!

Most importantly, for grad students, the movie is both funny as well as serious, as it raises some important questions about the nature of competitive research from the lens of the students doing the bidding of their advisers. Much has been said about the need to break free from the trap of impact factors and h-indices, but humor is typically the best way to emphasize it. Funding agencies and donors need to understand the basic nature of research, in that failure is as useful as success, so that the people who find the eventual solution actually did it on the back of countless others who didn't.

One last thing - he has a name, that unnamed grad student. Winston. We knew this right at the very end of the first movie, but for some reason Nature missed it (yes, they reviewed the movie; why wouldn't they?) and so it was re-emphasized. Overall, a delightful movie for grad students and maybe also undergraduates, if they take it in the right spirit. As for the rest of the big world, this is your periscope into the high world of academia! (OTFS)

A Page-Turner

A Sentimental Traitor
By Michael Dobbs

Yes, another one by Michael Dobbs. Yes, I've said before that his style is very British i.e., loquacious. But I still read his books, because behind the very British requirement to explain a simple thing in the most complicated way possible, lies an excellent writer who has a real story to tell. A Sentimental Traitor is a typical Dobbs novel with too many characters doing too many things at the same time, but at its heart is a thrilling, Orwellian story. In some respects, it warns of the dangers of giving up civil freedoms for the sake of fighting terrorists, and the repugnant role that intelligence agencies play in that.

Although it takes time for the reader to get a hold of all the characters, the book does pick up in the middle and turns into a real page-turner towards the end, when the protagonists finally seem to find their antagonist, who doesn't really try very hard to hide herself, possibly due to her supremely misplace confidence in her safety. Enough said! 

Friday, September 4, 2015

Harsh Payback

The image of a Syrian toddler washing up, drowned, on the shores of a Turkish beach as a result of a failed attempt by his parents to smuggle the family to Greece and further on to Canada, fleeing from the devastating pincer of ISIS and Syrian President Bashar al-Asad's relentless strikes, has brought into sharp focus the world's worst refugee crisis since the Jews fleeing from Hitler, or Indians migrating during Partition. The tale of over 15 million refugees desperately seeking to leave that part of the world cannot but bring into question the entire post-World War II world order.

On one side, the United Nations has proved to be an utter failure. While it has prevented war between rich and powerful countries (although that is more on account of nuclear weapons than successful diplomacy), it has done nothing beyond freezing the post-1945 global hegemony, with smaller, non-nuclear states constantly fighting among themselves. There has never been a barbaric killing machine as potent and powerful as ISIS since Nazi Germany, not even the brutal Kim dictatorship in North Korea, or Pol Pot in Cambodia, or perhaps Zia ul-Haq in Pakistan, and yet in each of those cases the UN has watched on without lifting a finger. The Syrian crisis, festering for years now, is just one more nail in the UN's coffin.

The majority of blame for this situation lies with NATO and their covert support to the so-called Free Syrian Army during the 'Arab Spring,' with particular blame on Turkey for hosting a secret base from where the FSA received support. Most of the members of the FSA are now allied with ISIS, which is at war with the Asad regime. Caught in the crisis are the Syrians who are fleeing the bloodshed. Indeed, President Barack Obama needs to be held responsible for his failed attempt at regime change that has now led to this tragedy. His deals with Iran or Cuba will not bring back either the dead child or his conscience.

And finally, a good share of the blame lies with Syria's Arab neighbors who have decided to sit back and let people die despite having the resources to support them. We have the absurd situation today where Greece, a bankrupt country, is hosting far more refugees than the UAE or Saudi Arabia, two oil-rich Arab states. That is not to say that they are being treated well in Europe - the NYT yesterday reported how Syrian refugees in Hungary are being mistreated by the local police, including with the use of pepper spray on minors - but at least they are away from imminent death.

The Syrian crisis is a test for the post-World War II order that the world has stood on for 70 years now. And the sight of a dead child on a beach is a sign of failure.