Saturday, December 31, 2016

Note: The Future of OTFS

I know that typically, the New Year's Resolutions are the last post of the year, but I had to address the drastic fall in posts on this blog this year. October had a measly 4 posts - just one a week, and about half the year has seen less than 10 a month. That is not acceptable. However, it is also a fact that it has been a busy year, and I now have very serious responsibilities of the kind I did not have 10 years ago when I started OTFS.

However, my experience has been that the blog helps me focus. I've recently learned a little about cognitive sciences and how spacing big tasks in between little ones can help. And of course, as always, writing is the ultimate stress-buster. And so I intend to continue writing, at whatever pace possible. This year had no series, and I am aware that I left the Doc on PVNR unfinished. I just don't have the time, and I doubt I'll have it next year. Changes will have to be made, the blog will have to be reinvented to meet the needs of the time.

And reinvented it shall be. The first 10 years have been great and memorable. Why should the next 10 be any less?

New Year's Resolutions, 2017

Yes, yes, it's that time of the year again, when pointless promises to nobody in particular will be made, and we can then move on. I went back to what I said on Dec. 31, 2015, and I had mixed feelings. I met maybe half my resolutions - which isn't all that bad. But then, I realized that I just push some resolutions forward. Should I stop doing that? Or is perseverance a virtue here?

Well, at this point of time, I don't really care anymore. It's been a good year - not only did I have my first journal paper, I also had my second (both first author). I passed my qualifying exam, and ran several CFD simulations, simplistic as they might be. I TAed my first class, and retrained my mint-condition 4.0 GPA (why am I still proud of that?). I won an award at a conference, I made new contacts and started to establish myself beyond my adviser's shadow. I designed two new websites, learned Linux, Python, and LaTeX, significantly increased my knowledge of computational mechanics. And as if all that was not enough, I lost 25 lbs, dropped 4 inches in waist size, reinvented my diet. and finally, finally got my drivers license. And the cherry on top of the icing: I won a bet and saw Donald Trump win the election!

Could it get better? No, really. If winter comes, can spring be far behind, as Frost once asked? However, if spring is here, can winter be far behind? After such a spectacular year, is 2017 going to be a horrible one? Murphy's Law? Well... maybe. That's true for every year, and every day in fact. I am happy that this past week, I have probably been more productive than ever before. There are still some big-ticket items to get through, but a lot of ground has been covered. I'm not sure if 2017 will be bad, but it will be challenging, that is certain.

So let's add to the challenge and get it over with. Next year, as CEE Transportation Instructional Fellow (the first and maybe only?), I will teach my first class, the culmination of years of patience and steadfastness to be what I imagined. Will it be as wonderful as I had hoped, or will I, like so many of my peers, become disillusioned by the idea of having to teach a bunch of ungrateful undergraduates? Again, I have no idea, but I do intend to give it my very best - if for nothing else, because the kids are spending money, and deserve it. A simple transaction.

But there's more I intend to do next year. Yes, I finally hope to buy that car, and move into a studio. I hope to take my prelim next year, which will be crucial to meet expected timelines. That means I will have to finally master ANSYS and AWS, and maybe even write my own CFD code, all of which will be challenging, as a PhD should be. Of course, I hope to publish at least one more journal paper (I'm already guaranteed two more conference papers). I may finally stop taking courses to that end, but I am always open to taking any good, useful courses (which means almost none of those left in CEE). I hope to continue losing weight and reach my goal of 150 lbs - although that will be very challenging indeed. I would like to finally move to real strength training and build muscle, and maybe move cardio back to the park.

Well, that's quite a lot to do, and it will keep me busy. If I do it, that is. But hey, in predicting the future, anything goes, so why not aim that high up?

Kafkaesque, as they say

Amerika
By Franz Kafka

In the high tables of the intellectual world, being Kafkaesque can be a double-edged sword: while certainly it is difficult to write in that peculiar style perfected (?) by Kafka himself, and to imagine such a bizarre world without blinking an eye, it would be an overstatement to say that it was somehow good (whatever that means) literature. In Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand suggested that a good writer of fiction is deliberate and meticulous. Kafka's Amerika betrays neither of those qualities - indeed, if the intention was to write a novel that would be 'good' today, it would fail badly. To be fair of course, he didn't really want to publish this work (as we are told in the preface), but I am told that this is a mere sampling of a trend.

Intent is the key here, really. I suppose if the intent was to present this very style, then yes, there was both deliberation and a meticulous dedication to meeting the end goals, even if a few details were left out in between (Oklahama?). Perhaps that's why Kafka has generated so much chatter. If only we could travel back in time and see how he wrote his work in Prague - or maybe we can check if he had a supply of weed?

Marvelously Brilliant

A Review of The Man in the High Castle

Historical fiction (together with science fiction) forms the majority of my literary interests. I have often said however, that most historical fiction is quite crude, based on just a handful of facts and a large dollop of anachronistic fiction - some authors prefer to mix American slang with ancient Rome! On top of that, when a book is adapted into a movie or TV show, it often undergoes enhanced degradation, having to reimagine the setting to suit modern audiences with little patience for nuance. Indeed, when it comes to predicting how good a work of historical fiction - whether a book or the adaptation - is, it is usually safe to err on the side of pessimism.

The Man in the High Castle, the award-winning series from Amazon, beat the odds. I don't even remember another instance of the adaptation being better researched and presented than the original material itself! Having seen Season 2 and the expansive usage of accurate Nazi history to reconstruct an entirely different scenario was wonderful to say the least. It was well-researched, no doubt, and it in fact went against the grain of the original novel by focusing on the Nazis as opposed to he Japanese, no doubt a challenge for he team building it. In the end, it came out marvelously, and I look forward to Season 3!

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Deep Insights

The Art of Teaching
By Jay Parini

Next semester, I will be teaching my first-ever class of Civil Engineering undergraduates and graduate students, marking (finally) my entry into college teaching, a professions I have coveted for years. However, the closer the first day of the new semester comes, the more anxious I feel: what exactly is going on the students' minds? Are students listening to me? Am I trying too hard?

And so I picked up this little book, the thoughts of a now-senior professor of English literature, containing his views based on his many years of teaching. Some of it I could well-relate to: how having classes can help you to organize your day, making such days far more productive than those without. His views on teaching as an art rather surprised me, for I always thought that teachers are just good by themselves, but Parini says that they become good through deliberate practice. Thus, a professor must not only prepare for a class in terms of content, but also in terms of how that content is delivered.

Some parts of the book, particularly on discussing politics in class, I could not relate to because it is irrelevant to engineering education. Moreover, I strongly disagree with it, although it was insightful nonetheless. In the end however, you can only read so much - the time to teach is less than a month away, and practice makes perfect!

Monday, December 19, 2016

The days of hell?

A photo posted by Sushobhan Sen (@icecoolsushobhan) on

The past weekend here in Central Illinois was perhaps one of the worst since I came here. On Friday, when the temperatures had already been below freezing for days, a pocket of warm air aloft swept by, melting the snow that was forecast to come in from a system from the Pacific coast. and leading to what is called freezing rain i.e., rain that instantly freezes upon contact with a surface. And so on Friday night, roads were closed and the police were in full action as chaos reigned, similar to previous years.

Except that in recent years, such icy episodes have hardly lasted a few hours. In this case, it has been going on for three days now, with Sunday even bringing on a blast of arctic air that led to the coldest air temperatures this year (including the last winter season), combined with strong northwesterly winds that saw wind chills dip dangerously low. For the first time in my 3.5 years here, I had to take a day off and avoid going out. This morning, that trend continued with icy sidewalks forcing me to walk on the (frozen) grass in order to get to work. Many schools in the area are closed as well, and the University of Illinois has fortunately finished the Fall semester.

A big warm up (by Illinois standards, anyway) is expected in the next few days, bringing this horrendous episode to an end, for now. Not a day too soon.

On to Stage II

 This month, I passed my PhD qualifying exam, the first of three exams needed to obtain a PhD from Illinois. The exam, having already been delayed by about nine-months, was in the new format for the Transportation Engineering Group, and I was the first (and only) person to take it this year. Now, given  that my research is in computational mechanics (solving PDEs numerically), the exam really tested my creativity because the problem was in computational statistics (using big data to gain insights). My months of independent study and MOOCs actually came to my rescue here!

The worst part of the exam was the 10 min wait between the end of the exam and the result - the sort of thoughts that crossed my mind then were the stuff of nightmares, and am I glad it ended well. Now, as a PhD Candidate, it's time to get ready for the second exam - the Prelim. 

2017 Assembly Elections


Next year will see seven assembly elections in India, including the biggest of prize of them all - Uttar Pradesh. In addition, President Pranab Mukherjee's term will also end, setting the stage for Prime Minister Narendra Modi's BJP to anoint a new President. 

In UP, it looks like a close fight between Mayawati's BSP and an energized BJP, with incumbent SP and CM Akhilesh Yadav busy with party and family infighting that is taking a serious toll on the government. In the event of a four-way contest, the BJP seems set to form its first government in the state in over two decades. However, there are rumors of a Congress-SP alliance that has the potential to up end equations and return a shaky coalition government - although going by the experience of Congress alliances in 2016, that might not quite translate to reality. All eyes remain on the most crucial factor - the CM candidates of each party, particularly the BJP. 

In Uttarakhand, the incumbent Congress government that has a wafer-thin majority seems set to be voted out, with voter disenchantment growing due to a sense of directionless and a government accused of nepotism. In Manipur, CM Okram Ibobi Singh faces a challenge from the Iron Lady Irom Shamila Chanu, whose electoral debut will be clearly watched, even as both the BJP and the TMC look to make significant inroads at the cost of the Congress. The story is similar in Himachal, with the incumbent CM facing a volley of corruption and nepotism charges, and voters looking to the BJP for change. 

In Goa, the ruling BJP looks dominant as the leading Opposition Congress continues its meltdown. While more and more leaders leave the Congress, the loss of Manohar Parrikar to the Narendra Modi Cabinet has spelled trouble for the incumbent CM, with resistance coming from within as well as from the highly-charged mother language issue. The black horse is the AAP, which has not made the same mistakes as in Punjab, and which may replace the Congress as the chief opposition party. 

In Punjab, the controversy-laden SAD-BJP alliance government of Prakash Singh Badal and his family seems ready to be booted out after it won an unprecedented second consecutive term five years ago. Congress VP Rahul Gandhi has virtually stayed out of Punjab and allowed the popular Capt. Amrinder Singh to lead the charge, and it seems set to reap the dividends of having a popular, local leader. A few months ago, Punjab looked set to be the first full state that the AAP would form a government in, but Arvind Kejriwal's theatrics and brazen corruption by the local party has tilted the scales back in the Congress' favor. 

And finally, in Gujarat, while the ruling BJP looks shaky going into its first election in the state after Chief Minister Narendra Modi's historic 2014 Lok Sabha victory, the Opposition continues to be hopelessly disarrayed, clinging on to the hope that the Patidar agitation would weaken the BJP enough for it to lose a majority and thus enable some sort of horse trading. Whether BJP President Amit Shah will give Gujarat enough personal attention is left to be seen, but the scars of Anandiben Patel's failed term as CM will haunt the BJP going into the election. 

As for the Presidency, in 2014, it was speculated that LK Advani may be elevated to that position as one of the founders of the BJP. However, his hobnobbing with the Lutyens elite and outbursts against the Modi government have made him far less likely to be considered for that post. And given Modi's style, his choice for the Head of State will surely surprise a lot of us. 

IOTY16: A Pillar of Stability

It's been 10 years! 

That's right - February 7, 2007, marked my first blog post on Opinions 24x7, a simple post announcing my entry into opinions writing on the blogosphere. Since then, while the Internet itself has changed drastically, I've continued to post, having crossed 2,900 posts this year. And, despite my busy schedule significantly slowing me down this year, I will continue to keep posting.

Indian of the Year has been the signature end-of-year event at OTFS. For IOTY16, I've decided to celebrate the 10th edition with a unique format (more on that later). And of course, a unique format called for a unique logo - breaking with the aerodynamic look of previous logos, this time's logo is more solid, with clear lines and forms. Representing a Pillar of Stability, the logo serves as a beacon of past achievements holding up the promise of the future. On top if a stylized 10 with the Ashok chakra, which has featured in every IOTY logo.

Look out for more announcements next year!

Opinions 24x7 Presents
Indian of the Year 2016
Coming in March 2017

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Some advice for Theresa May

The government of Theresa May, which was put in place following the historic #Brexit vote and is now tasked with charting the future of the UK outside of the EU, has already faced several challenges. The #Remain camp, although defeated at the hustings, has continued its opposition to leaving the EU, using both the media and the courts to try to block it. Meanwhile, May is under increasing pressure to spell out what the UK's actual plan is (and also to reign in her rather gaffe-prone Foreign Secretary). However, if actions are anything to go by, May's hopes seem to lie in trade - with the British Empire.

And it was with that hope that May came to India last month - the crown jewel of the Empire - to negotiate a lucrative trade deal that would make Britain rich again, just as India had done two centuries ago. Unfortunately for her, she rudely realized that the British Empire was gone, and Britain was a little island again. And Indian industry and the government rejected her idea of enhanced trade without freedom of movement of people - "they want our trade, but not our children" as one industrialist put it. That simply will not work. And yet, having supported Brexit and opposed the monstrosity of the EU, I hope that May, and the UK, survives this. For, despite all the hard feelings of a 200 year long occupation, in fact because of it, India and Britain have a lot in common today, and can truly help each other out.

But for that, the UK is going to have to pay its end of the bargain. To go anywhere for a trade deal while still part of the EU and without even explaining to anyone what the relationship between the UK and the EU would be post-Article 50, is quite silly. And to do so with the domineering attitude of a colonial empress is much worse. From India's perspective, Britain has always been the gateway to the EU, despite a lot of German mollycoddling, and the Indian diaspora there represents an integral and valued part of our civilization. However, economic dynamics are changing, and India is set to be the first former British colony after the US to have surpassed its economy. Therefore, a little respect and understanding can go a long way - this has to be a negotiation between equals.

For India, whose most prized resource are its people, freedom of movement of people is essential. If #Brexit was about keeping all immigrants out, then Britain has little future in this world. However, if it was about creating a rules-based system for immigration, that is quite acceptable. However, the rules have to be the same for everyone - that is costs more for an Indian to get a UK visa than a Chinese citizen is a source of great resentment, and May could've had a more successful visit had she dropped that rule before she came. A racist system that values one race over another regardless of the worth of the individual is simply not acceptable.

May can certainly fall back on India - the country is large, and has learned (the hard way) to welcome trade and globalization. The #Brexit camp was not wrong in that India could be a source of strength for the UK for, despite not being in the Commonwealth Realm, it is a leading member of the Commonwealth, and, as Nigel Farage rightly says, has more in common with the UK than many EU nations, including the Common Law. However, to make any of that word, Britain needs to accept that it is going to be hard, and it needs help from a friend - there are no debts to call here. 

Saturday, December 10, 2016

A Tribute to Amma

Last week, a giant in politics died. J Jayalalitha, five-time Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, proud Hindu and a nationalist, fought for three months in Chennai, until she finally lost after a cardiac arrest. Her death, understandably, brought much grief to the state - indeed, to the entire country. Perhaps the most striking picture from the funeral was Prime Minister Narendra Modi consoling Chief Minister O. Paneerselvam and Jayalalitha's longtime friend, Sasikala.

Of course, Modiji's friendship with Jayalalitha was always well-known, but her death came as a shock to the entire country. Jayalalitha, Tamil Nadu's Amma, was always a difficult figure to place. Her relentless, even reckless, socialism and self-aggrandizement are the stuff of legend. Indeed, no state government in India has gone to the level of subsidizing private goods as much as she has, both during and after elections. And at the same time, she kept the state's finances strong, protecting manufacturing jobs in the state. Her opposition to GST was in the same light.

In Tamil Nadu, being a Hindu in public can be a very bad thing. And yet, she had no hesitation. She famously donated an elephant to a Hindu temple in 2001, and her opposition to the destruction of the Ramsetu in the Palk Strait was far more vociferous than what has now become the old guard of the BJP. And of course, her strident anti-conversion law, for which she was willing to take on even Pope John Paul II, made her the stuff of legend. And yet, Tamil Nadu's control over temples and plundering of its wealth to fund crony socialism went on unabated. In a state where publicly being a Hindu was a risk for any politician, she clearly had to measure her deeds.

Unlike the DMK, whose anti-India stand is well-known, Jayalalitha never faltered from standing up for the unity and integrity of the nation. She often spoke of national issues, even as she was mostly fixed on her own state's affairs. In the heydays of the Third Front in 2009, she surprised everyone by addressing a rally in Hindi, which she may have picked up during her film career, or perhaps even earlier. And yet, she tried to free the killers of former Prime Minster Rajiv Gandhi for cold, political gains, until she was stopped by the Supreme Court. Certainly, she was not bound by ideology.

In the campaign of 2014, it was often speculated that the AIADMK would join the NDA to support Narendra Modi's ascension to the PM's chair. But when the BJP shocked the world by winning a majority of its own, her party maintained stoic silence, choosing to support the Central Government on some issues, and attacking it on others. She always made it clear though, that her focus was on Tamil Nadu, presumably having forgotten her short-lived national ambitions.

But perhaps the greatest legacy of Amma was in that she was a self-made leader, having first defeated MGR's wife at the hustings, and then fighting the DMK for power over the state. Her surprise victory in 2016, making her the first incumbent to win an election in decades, marked the pinnacle of her popularity, even as her sins from the past through her association with Sasikala caught up with her. It is said that Subramanain Swamy's achievement of getting her locked up behind bars is what started the downfall in her health, and she never did recover. What an irony - the same Swamy who she once allied with to bring down the first NDA government.

Was Jayalalitha a nationalist or an anti-India force? Was she pro-business or a crony socialist? Was she a Hindu or one of the many opportunistic anti-Hindus? Was she a political friend or foe to Narendra Modi? Did she truly trust Sasikala, or was there more to it? These questions will be debated for eons by historians. But one thing is for certain - there never was someone quite like the Amma of Tamil Nadu. In her death is India's loss.

Why did Clinton lose?

That's the golden question. The media had long-declared her the winner of the race - indeed, their polls and focus groups said that she had won all three debates. Her challenger in the primaries was supposed to be well-meaning but out of touch, her competitor at the hustings was supposed to be the worst candidate in modern American history. The party was firmly by her side, the big donors and Super PACs were continuously shoring up her resources (despite her claims to tax them to oblivion), comedians and millennials were hailing her... it should have been the easiest election for the Democrats. Indeed, going by some self-declared experts, demographic changes over the last generation would ensure that not only would Clinton won, but her party was destined to rule in perpetuity.

And then she lost. In what was the biggest upset in living memory, Donald Trump defeated everybody railed up against him, purely on the back of the support of the American people and the Electoral College system. And now that the election is over and President-elect Donald Trump is busy cobbling together a team to translate his agenda into reality, the time is ripe for a serious dissection of the failed Clinton campaign. And while there will be many stories on this in the future, I'd like to focus on two bad actors: the media, and young people (the so-called millennials).

That the media is the most discredited institution of democracy today is a no-brainer. You trust the media at your own risk, and most likely, you will lose your bet. Having totally taken over college campuses, the Left has now cemented its control over the media. The reason the media gets its wrong so often is that it is no longer interested in hearing both sides - the owners and editors decide their point of view, and that is what will be told, vox populi be damned. And if you happen to disagree, you will be labeled with all manner of insults, shunned away into silence until you reach the ballot box, where you are still free to express your views (for now). This is why the media came up with the unusual phrase 'unfit to be president' without so much as revealing what they believe makes someone 'fit' to be president, and why their anointed winner (Clinton) was 'fit'. The fact is, the very idea that the media gets to decide what makes someone 'fit' to be president is arrogant and elitist, and wholly undemocratic, but who cares about objectivity now?

And that brings me to young people, or millennials as they're called. I suppose I fall into that group by age, but I would quickly be shunned and labeled, so why even try? Most young people are living on the proverbial 'Mt. Stupid' today - they hardly understand the world and how it works, but are pretty sure that they know everything there is to know. They are very idealistic, as young people have always been, but this particular generation is also immensely arrogant and believes that they are always right just because they feel so, and anybody who disagrees with them is evil, or some other such label. Millennials have closed themselves off and created a bubble, and their reaction when they realize they are wrong ranges from comical to alarming. A generation that has grown up falsely believing that everybody always wins, unsurprisingly, does not know how to manage defeat. And in the case of Clinton (and Sanders before her), they were just so sure that they were right that did not even try to check.

Clinton visited fewer places than her rival; she clocked fewer rallies; she gave no press conferences or interviews; her leaked emails revealed a crony relationship with the media, the DNC, and Super PACs; she was not a good speaker; she did not pay heed to inputs from those outside her inner circle. And yet, none of this registered with the two bad hombres I just discussed. For them, she would've won even if she sat at home the whole year! And of course - she lost. Go figure. 

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Scientists & Criminals

The Hammer of Eden
By Ken Follett

After a long bout of history, it was a pleasure to read something simpler, though no less exciting, from my latest-favorite author, Ken Follett. Compared to his Century Trilogy and other works though, The Hammer of Eden was more like a quick pop - an interesting story based on some science, with the right dose of drama and suspense. It made for light reading, and could be read pretty easily in parts. While the story is written in two parallel tracks, it is really quite simple to follow. Light-reading for the weekend.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

A personal history

Roots: The Saga of an American Family
By Alex Haley

I have always enjoyed historical fiction. In fact, to me, historical fiction has been even more fascinating than history itself, because of the way creativity melds with reality to produce something extraordinary. But I have never read something that I couldn't readily place into either bin - Roots, a classic work from the last century that I recently rediscovered, is my first experience with what may be called a personal history, based in large measure on fact but interceded with fiction and personal claims.

Centuries after it happened, the African slave trade is largely forgotten today, and the history of America that we read and know is largely written, as the book rightly says, by the victors, the perpetrators of a commercial enterprise that put an actual value on human life (although they considered it to be non-human). This book was unique in that stories from American history - the American Revolution, the War of 1812, the Civil War - were told through the eyes of slaves, a story you never hear.

If the book can be faulted on anything, it is that it ended rather quickly after the Civil War episode, thus making it more about the initial generations of the Kinte clan than the entire eight. To be fair though, this was also the best-researcher part, putting this book more in the history section than historical fiction. Strongly-recommended for all Americans. 

Saturday, November 19, 2016

What a mess!

I have consciously been avoiding talking about the Narendra Modi government's radical move to demonetize high-denomination notes to fight the menace of black money and terrorist funding. In light of all the rumors and misinformation being willfully spread by the media and the Opposition alike, I thought it better to wait (arguably, I had the privilege of doing so in a far away land) and listen to both sides. And while there are a variety of opinions going around, most based largely on political leanings in absence of any real data (it's only been about two weeks, give or take, since the PM made the historic announcement), one fact is certain: the inconvenience is real, as is the suffering inflicted on the entire country.

From a philosophical perspective, what does one make of this move and the thinking behind it, as exemplified by the PM's announcement and subsequent speeches? It is clearly a leaf out of a Communist textbook: a massive invasion of the private property rights of citizens (on the fruits of their labor, as represented by money) by the state. The initial justification - of weeding out black money and ending terrorist funding - are laudable in a society that wants to be fair and safe. And, if reports from Kashmir are to be believed, the latter objective has been met almost instantly. However, the way new rules have subsequently been created to enable farmers to pay for implements, and families to pay for weddings, is reminiscent of a command economy where bureaucrats dictate every economic activity of the individual. If the country feels under siege, it is because the only situation where such a command economy would be permissible in a democratic society is in time of war.

But then, perhaps it is a war. Isn't that what we elected Modi to do - launch a war against black money and corruption? Isn't that what was promised by the anti-corruption movement that decimated UPA2, the most corrupt government in the history of the Republic? Did we really expect that a war would not take a toll on everyone (I am not referring to the dubious and at times laughable exaggerations about deaths during this episode)? The problem is, in a war, you know if you won, lost, or reached stalemate. In this situation, there is simply no reliable way to tell if black money has really been weeded out of the system - and the government and RBI have certainly not been forthcoming to explain such a system if they happen to have one in mind. And so, the only justification being given is of envy - the rich are suffering, which must be good for the poor. The closest equivalent to this that I can think of is Indira Gandhi's bank nationalization, which was celebrated by the poor despite them still having no access to formal banking for half a century afterwards, purely because it was packaged as the rich being put in their place. Mr. Modi's rather dramatic speech in Goa gave teeth to this justification, and it is a testimony to his massive popularity that so many people have bought it and support his move, despite the lack of even an indication that there is evidence that the goals may be met.

That the implementation was shoddy is a no-brainer that even the BJP cannot deny, and some conspiracy theorists blame it on the Finance Minister, who is anyway seen as a fifth column. Even if we believe that secrecy was necessary to meet the stated objectives (which, I repeat, the government and RBI have offered no way to demonstrate), why the new Rs. 2000 notes could not be made of the same size and shape as the old notes so as to not require recalibration seems to find no answer. That is the singular reason for massive queues outsides ATMs, even as banks have actually pulled up their socks and done a good job. And if, for some reason, that was not possible, why did the government not know that Indians inherently like to hoard things (an outcome of decades of state-imposed poverty, also called socialism) and thus not expect these long lines? Or did they - why do they not want to even talk about it?

And speaking of the new notes - why are they being issued? According to the original stated purpose, the old notes that constituted a huge 86% of the currency base were not used heavily in day to day transactions (which may be true), but were being hoarded as either black money or purely because people liked to keep money at home. What stops the new notes from meeting the same fate, short of some miraculous change in mindset? The only answer seems to be a vague promise of 'regulating' the circulation of the new notes, which I do not for a moment believe is possible. And even though this entire episode has woken up people to the existence of electronic money, will it last? I doubt it, but I hope to be wrong.

In summary, despite the good intentions and my continued admiration for PM Modi, he has proven to be a true socialist at heart (and a much better administrator of socialism than his predecessors). This was indicated before by many of his moves, but there was always some lingering doubt because of a few excellent, pro-market economic reforms as well as the generally poor state of the private sector globally after the Great Recession. With demonitization, there is no doubt left. Modi is no Thatcher or Reagan - he is pretty close to Nixon though. This will cause much heartburn to my fellow BJP supporters, but supporting free markets and free societies cannot be conditional or malleable to the wishes of a leader. And while we certainly believe that Modi will win another term in 2019 (in whatever manner), we can no longer believe that he has faith in free markets. May, 2014 is dead, long live May, 2014.  

Sunday, November 13, 2016

A New World

President-Elect Donald J Trump, who won a majority of electoral college votes and is all set to be elected the 45th President of the United States, will be much more that. As the old moniker goes, he will be the Leader of the Free World. A different world - a new world. For, by defeating the Democratic challenger and her massive war chest of hundreds of millions of dollars, a pliant media that refused to be fair and balanced, a Republican party that was dead-set against a change in the status quo, an army of data analysts who insisted that they were right, and anarchists in cities like Chicago who refused to let him so much as say anything, Trump has taken over the mantle of the wave of anti-establishment movements that have democratically toppled established politicians across the world - in India, in Indonesia, in Europe, and now in America.

From the perspective of those who supported and continue to support PM Modi in India, events following Trump's election are a throwback to the way the global socialist movement acts - violent protests, rumor mongering, and boycott or even outright lynching of pro-Trump members of the public. 'Manufactured intolerance' that was perfected in India has been successfully imported into America - for once, we seem to have taught the older democracy something!
The irony is that the anti-Trump protesters with their colorful slogans were the same people who were lecturing Trump (and indeed, the entire world) about the need to accept a democratic process. They forgot to read out their terms and conditions - 'as long as our candidate wins'. The hypocrisy of the Left is now out in the open - in the months after President Trump is sworn in next year, expect these rats to come out in the open, and for the media to go, as they say, 'full retard' in their highly biased reporting.

The problem with the Left is that they have so monopolized institutions, particularly academia and the media, that they have converted them into echo chambers, where they hear whatever they want from their fellow comrades, while being totally cut off from the vast masses outside. Not only did the Left miss the mood of America, they continue to do so, trying to rationalize the loss in the same template of racism and bigotry that they used to earlier assure themselves that they would win - with an 85% chance, according to the now-discredited New York Times forecast. They learned nothing before and seem determined to learn nothing now.

Which is just fine for Mr. Trump, who has made a long list of difficult promises that he will have to begin tackling from Day 1. There is not going to be any honeymoon period, and even the fact that his party (which largely hates him) has a majority in the both Houses will not help too much, except for probably the few common points (repealing Obamacare being on top). But Mr. Trump has now joined a select group of leaders - hitherto led by Narendra Modi of India and Theresa May of the UK - who will lead their countries away from the elite-controlled system of the last two decades towards a more organic of democracy, with all its shortcomings and failures. We wish him luck. 

Saturday, November 5, 2016

The Self-Regulation Hoax


In light of the one day token ban on NDTV India for violating broadcasting norms and possibly enabling terrorists to kill our soldiers, the old media is once again busy conjuring up a fantasy of the entire institution being under siege by the government. We wrote about this before, but here we focus on one aspect of the argument: self-regulation. Even in the highly elitist media, there are few who are willing to say (publicly) that there should be no rules and accountability for journalists. Instead, the they point to self-regulation as the solution, through the Editors' Guild and the NBSA. Well, how did that go?
 The experience of self-regulation with the media has only taught us that it is a hoax: self-regulation is a euphemism for a quid pro quo - in exchange for favors, any transgression can be ignored, no matter how blatant. What else explains the way NDTV India merrily reported the location of armaments and residential areas in Pathankhot while it was under siege? The NBSA was there, the rules were there, and yet there was not even an indication of hesitation in violating them.

And consider NDTV's reply to the I&B Ministry: far from regretting their actions, they pointed out how newspapers did the same, which was rightly rebutted by the Ministry by stating that newspapers don't have the trans-national, 24x7 reach of a TV channel. If this were the NBSA, what would NDTV have said? The same reply would've essentially been a warning of letting skeletons out of the closet of the comfy gymkhana of Lutyen's journalists - and the matter would've been buried right there. This is what self-regulation amounts to. If you still don't believe me, remember what the supposed messiah of civil society - Arvind Kejriwal - did to his party's internal Lokpal.

What India needs is an independent media regulator for the already-existing rules and guidelines which, while not interfering with the free media, certainly reads the law out to the them. The UK has a media regulator, and so should we.

Friday, November 4, 2016

The Shenanigans of Ravish Kumar

With the I&B Ministry deciding to ban broadcast of NDTV India for a day, the old establishment is back to their hollow calls of 'Emergency' and 'Fascism,' clearly hoping to corner Prime Minister Narendra Modi once again. Obviously, the issue is being painted as a dictatorial ban without procedure, and freedom of expression is being brought up again. I am reminded of Dr. BR Ambedkar's speech in the Constituent Assembly, wherein he attacked the Communists, who wanted absolute freedom so that they could, unhindered, attack the state and destroy it from within.

In all the noise and false outrage, the primary issue is being forgotten - that NDTV India, in violation of broadcasting rules, provided live coverage of an anti-terrorist operation, and gave out operational details that could have helped the terrorists (and indeed, it may have). That was in Pathankhot, a major attack that took the nation by surprise. Back in 2008, during the siege on 26/11 in Mumbai, NDTV once again was giving out operational details, which were lapped up by handlers in Karachi. Knowingly or otherwise, NDTV has acted as an accomplice for terrorism - something for which its editors would deserve to be prosecuted, and not meekly banned for a single day. Indeed, the rules prescribe a ban of 30 days, but because it was the first transgression under the new rules, it was brought down to a token one day.

And yet, Ravish Kumar, the most pretentious anchor in the channel (beating even the likes of Barkha Dutt in the English language sister network), is trying his best to spin it as an attack on NDTV due to ideology. He has asked whether the media has no right to question, forgetting both that NDTV alone was found guilty of this violation among TV channels, and that the rules were already in place and well-known. More importantly, the token ban is not for any questions, views, or debates, but for the far more serious crime of aiding terrorists to kill our soldiers. The I&B Ministry has followed due process in the case (and has even shown mercy in the end), and in any democracy, punishment through due process is fully justified as long as the laws apply to everybody (and they do, in this case).

Pretentious Ravish Kumar is of course going to use this as an opportunity to become an even greater messiah for his JNU fans, even as his channel continues to report losses every quarter. In the market, where everyone has a vote through their remote control, he has no support and no popularity, and yet he is going to paint himself as some mass leader to cover up for his crime. It seems that for the Leftist media, freedom of expression is the ultimate fallback of a scoundrel. So great is the hate of Ravish Kumar for Narendra Modi that he is willing to destroy the country for it - willing to join hands with terrorists to gun down our soldiers for it.

And the tragedy is that those who take their security for granted are going to line up behind him. Fortunately, it is a very, very small number.

The other elections

The US Presidential elections are just a few days away - although early-voting has effectively started the process already - and all eyes are on the neck-and-neck competition between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. However, that race only constitutes the top of the ballot, and every voter will have a veritable laundry list of candidates to select for a variety of positions - including the all-important control of the US Senate that is crucial for any party to implement their agenda.

In Illinois, there are several races and referendums to look forward to. The most publicized of these is the US Senate race between Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D) and incumbent Sen. Mark Kirk (R), in what appears to be one of the weakest races for the Republican Party. The two have been attacking each other for some time, although Kirk's jab at Duckworth's Thai mother seems to have cost him support. Nonetheless, given the huge stakes over the Supreme Court in the next four years, control of the Senate is absolutely crucial for either party, and every elected official will count.

Separately, Illinois also has a rather bizarre constitutional amendment on the ballot, making it mandatory for funds obtained through taxation on transportation are pushed back into the transportation sector and not elsewhere. While this move seems perfectly logical at first sight, it is hugely counter-productive to put it into the state's constitution. Budgets need to be flexible - especially in times of crisis (of which the state has had no shortage). If necessary, funds need to be rerouted for more pressing purposes, even if they should not ordinarily be. Putting it into the constitution will be hugely counterproductive in such a situation - it may be better to just put it into a law of some sort that can be amended under exceptional circumstances without having to wait for a referendum.

Finally, the Champaign schools are holding a referendum (again) for expanding the local public schools through a bond issue and increase in property taxes. Now, ordinarily, I'd be against any raising of taxes, but secular, free public education is one of the most important functions of government, and if it needs funds for that, it should get it. The plans seem to work out, give or take, and I hope this referendum question passes. Quality education is important enough to be taxed for.

I may not be able to vote here, but watching the American democratic process from the front seat has been quite an enriching process. Despite the terrible candidates on the top of the ticket, it is still a vibrant, democratic country that stands as a model for the world. 

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

A gruesome drama

186 DOLLARS TO FREEDOM (2012)

Produced By: Four Fish Films and others
Director: Camilo Vila
Starring: John Robinson, Michael DeLorenzo, Alex Meraz, Johnny Lewis, and others
Pros: Good story, strong acting
Cons: Peters out in the end, slow
Rating: *** of 5 (3 of 5)

Far away from the usual tales of coming-of-age or giant robots that are my staple, here was one movie that packed in a huge dollop of suspense and drama, ending most unfortunately as a dud. 186 Dollars of Freedom, supposedly based on a true story, explores the story of an American trapped in the corrupt and brutal Peruvian 'justice' system. Our main character, in turn, oscillated between naive white American and resourceful, street-smart man.

True or not, the story is indeed good, and is reminiscent of other top prison movies. And despite the taciturn nature of the characters (intended or otherwise), the acting was quite good. However, like most movies, the story wanes towards the end, with a series of coincidences working in favor of the protagonist, leaving much to be desired. Moreover, the ending and the rest of the story had very little in common, so it could've ended much sooner and yet stretched out far too long. A movie that could've been so much better, but just imploded. (OTFS)

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Of Our Times

The Road to Serfdom
By Friedrich Hayek

The 'art' of predicting the future has certainly grown in popularity of late. You now have experts on virtually everything, who are more than willing to tell you what to do (whether you asked for it or not). Of course, most of these self-declared experts would not know reality if it hit them in the face. In such a world that we live in, to be able to go back in time and read the predictions of what a socialist England would be, and to be able to relate it to the spread of socialism in the rest of the world and its horrid effects to this day, is quite a surprise. Of course, when the author is as authoritative as Dr. Hayek, and when his arguments justly flow from history rather than rhetoric, you start to understand why.

The Road to Serfdom is a book about socialism, set around World War II, but its message remains relevant for the whole world to this day. Its explanation of why socialism is still so attractive despite its massive failures, and how it has an uncanny resemblance to Nazism, is perhaps the best I have read so far. Certainly, an excellent reading for those interested in the humanities. 

Sunday, October 9, 2016

On the #SurgicalStrikes

After the Uri terrorist attacks that killed 19 Indian soldiers, there was an odd sense of familiarity. After all, India had seen 26/11, the worst terrorist attack on Indian soil, and had moved on (somehow). And Uri is in Kashmir - on the periphery, a trouble place that is best known for such things, and little else. And yet, there was this hope - nay, desire, that this time, it would be different. That this time our martyrs would not have made the ultimate sacrifice in vain. Why? Because this time, unlike before, we had hoped that India had finally elected a PM who cared about the country.

And initially, it seemed like all the pundits had been right, and we had been wrong - we had another PM who was all talk. Worse, while the previous Congress administration had a clear strategy of not playing cricket with Pakistan, this one seemed to gyrate from one position to another. And then came the #SurgicalStrikes, a term that has permanently gone into the lexicon of every Indian. Just listening to the substance of Mayawati's speech today says a lot about how much it has shocked PM Modi's opponents who tried to ridicule him, and how it has fired the BJP's base.

Who deserves the credit for the retaliation and change in India's posture vis-a-vis Pakistan? Of course, first and foremost, our armed forces that meticulously planned and executed the operation, in conjunction form some excellent intelligence from both the IB/RAW and ISRO. The civilian bureaucracy in the MEA as well as the Minister for EA and her team deserve credit for creating all the right atmospherics to prepare the world - as evidenced by the fact that, for once, it is Pakistan which is being told to exercise restraint, and its cries on Kashmir have been ignored in every country that counts.

And finally, the credit goes to PM Modi and the Defense Minister, for taking the call to change a policy of appeasing Pakistan that has been in place for decades. Make no mistake - Modi is the only politician today who would have had the courage and conviction to make the final decision and be sure that he could handle it politically. The way the whole affair was managed, militarily, domestically, and internationally, makes for textbook reading of how statesmen should be. Indeed, if Indira Gandhi was Goddess Durga for partitioning Pakistan in the midst of the Cold War, Modi is nothing less than Lord Ram in the nuclear age.

And for this courage and conviction, and above all, for his understanding of the Indian people, Modi and his party deserve all the political gains that accrue. If politicians don't get re-elected for their good work, why would they do any good work (unless they believe they have a birthright on the institutions of this country, of course)? The opposition today is very, very afraid, for they know now that Modi is not an ordinary politician. His popularity today is sky-high, and people trust him. And that is something very few others can claim.

Har Har Modi, Ghar Ghar Modi!

Saturday, October 1, 2016

War and Peace Lecture: Power Through Strength

In strategic circles, there is often a dilemma as to how a country can becomes powerful. On one side, there are those who believe that to be powerful, it is necessary to openly demonstrate strength, almost always at those who are weaker, or at least perceived to be so. This doctrine may be called the 'strength through power' doctrine, that a country is powerful if can demonstrate its strength, often dramatically. On the other side is the 'power through strength' doctrine, one that believes that in order to be powerful, it is necessary to develop internal strength that does not have to be demonstrated outwardly. Where does the truth lie, if it exists?

Consider what power and strength are. Power is the ability to change something to one's liking, whole strength is an inward trait - the power to change one self, or a country. Can the two exist separate from each other? Can a person, or a country, that is not strong internally, influence others, or even conquer them as a demonstration of power? Or conversely, if a country is strong internally, can it necessarily project power externally?

But does it need to?

The Need
That a country needs to be strong internally is hard to question - without internal cohesion, a country is hardly anything more than a piece of geography. Iraq today, for example, is so divided along several lines - Shia, Sunni, Kurds, ISIS, the 'legitimate' government - that is barely exists as a country in its entire territory. But does a country that is strong need to project power? America, the world's superpower, projects its power (with varying degrees of success) to every corner of the globe, and internally, despite a lot of problems, it is very strong. But Switzerland, another country that is very strong, has been known historically to avoid any and all involvement in power projection on what has historically been a warring continent.

And yet, there is a different between the two, a difference that matters: utility to the world. For, it is a fact that the world is not a 'nice' or peaceful place, it is a place where hard power works. And that is not because people are necessarily 'bad' - rather, it is because they are realistic in life, because they have to lead a real life far detached from the one presented to them by romanticists. And in real life, resources are finite, and any group that can capture more resources will rise. That is the essence of 'realpolitik'. Therefore, in the world, a country's need to project power or not essentially comes from its utility.

Consider Switzerland itself, a land-locked country that is a geographical fortress, one that would be exceedingly hard (but not impossible) to dominate, and yet would provide very little resources to the conqueror. Such a country does not need to project power, because as long as it is strong, it need not fear conquest. But consider America: arguably the best piece of real estate in the world (at least its Eastern half), with a natural barrier of two vast oceans. If any power would take America, they would have a natural spring board to project power on to the rest of the world, not to mention the vast resources that would capture. For such a country, power projection is essential, something its leaders realized early on through the Monroe Doctrine.

The purpose of power
This brings us to another question - what is the purpose of power projection? Is it for realpolitik, to amass more resources for the people of the country, as was the logic behind colonialism? If that were the case, it would have little justification, because it would ultimately be self-defeating: today's conqueror would become tomorrow's conquered, sparking off a cycle of retribution. For, if there is any truth in the world, it is that change is constant, and no power is eternal.

But what if power is channeled to precisely that cause - self-preservation, or more specifically, preservation of strength? Certainly, that would be moral, for self-preservation is the most natural instinct of all sentient beings, and what has arguably been the main cause of progress. But consider the important corollary - power projection for self-preservation (or the preservation of strength) assumes that a country is strong in the first place. If not, eventually, the focus on external power projection would be defeated by internal fissures.

Thus, for a strong nation to become a great power to protect its strength is morally justified and necessary to ensure progress. On this anniversary of both Mahatma Gandhi and Lab Bahadur Shastri, let us not forget this important lesson. 

Saturday, September 24, 2016

A lesson for the PDP

The ongoing Islamist violence in Kashmir after the defeat and death of terrorist commander Burhan Wani has received a great deal of attention in India as well as Pakistan. The subsequent attack on the Army base in Uri has further angered India. However, there is also another victim here: the PDP, now led by Chief Minister Mufti after the death of her father. Many PDP MLAs have been speaking out about how helpless the state government has been during the whole episode. Some of them with separatist leanings have been itching to join the protests and are presumably quite shocked that they can't do that as they would end up protesting against themselves!

All this serves a good lesson for the PDP, a party that has typically used separatist rhetoric against its chief rival, the NC, and has made repeated (and hollow) statements about 'healing touches' to a state that has essentially been engulfed by the global Islamic jihad that has literally torn through cities across the world. Burhan Wani, it may be remembered, was not fighting for freedom from India, or for merger with Pakistan, but for the first step towards establishing a global Caliphate, no doubt inspired by al-Baghdadi's own Caliphate in the Islamic State. The PDP never really saw him as a terrorist, and it has been alleged that the party even made good use of him to win the last elections in the valley. Now his ghost continues to haunt Mufti.

This is an important lesson for the PDP as well as the political parties in Kashmir (both the mainstream and separatist variety): the constant rhetoric has now gone beyond your control, and you will eventually be drowned in the new wave of Islamist violence there. Don't become another Pakistan. And as for the BJP, it may want to consider whether it actually wants a government there, or whether it should use its power in the rest of India to at least keep Jammu and Ladakh sane. 

For Sale: The White House

As we head into the final stretch of the race for the 2016 US Presidential Election between candidates Hillary Clinton of the Democrats and Donald Trump of the Republicans, the race appears to be very close, especially in key battleground states. In the last few days, according to polls, Trump appears to be moving ahead in those states, which has obviously set off alarm bells in the liberal media. The reason for this is two-fold: Trump seems to have sobered up a bit and decided to stop making off-the-cuff remarks that lead to much headache for his team, and Hillary Clinton's own dubious lies over the Clinton Foundation and her time in the State Department, not to mention her emails, have come into sharp focus.

The case appears to be that Clinton user her position as SecState to funnel money to her husband's Foundation, despite swearing to keep away from it once she took oath. Well, oaths have never meant much to her, so this wasn't really very surprising. It was scandalous however because, had she never decided to run, chances are that nobody would've found out about her dubious dealings and blatant misuse of official power.

This makes one seriously wonder what she would do as President. Would the White House virtually be for sale to the highest bidder? How much Saudi money would it take to get President Clinton to invade Iran? How much money from televangelists would it take for Clinton to support overturning Roe v Wade? We all know that she has no opinions of her own (or at least doesn't show them) and does whatever is popular at the time. What would such a person do with such great powers?

A scary thought indeed. 

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Totally Worth it?


For those of you who read this blog, you'd have noticed the big decline in posts in the past few weeks. The reason was all the work I was doing for the 11th International Conference on Concrete Pavements, one of the most prestigious conferences in the area. By virtue of my advisor's position, I was saddled - progressively - in making the flash drive, the proceedings, and generally all the little stuff that grows to gargantuan proportions in organizing a conference. That was a good experience and I suppose I could add that to my CV, but it did come at the cost of virtually washing out the last few weeks before the conference. 

But not without some reward, for my adviser clearly appreciated what I did, and thus invited me to the very exclusive President's dinner, easily the fanciest dinner I've ever attended in my whole life. I wonder how people get used to such stuff - it was very nice, but there was the perpetual pressure of not doing anything wrong! And as much as I enjoyed myself, I was glad to leave. 

However, it turned out that the conference didn't really end for me there. For, sleep-deprived and very full, I was trying to stay awake at the closing gala and awards night to find out that I had one my first award - Best Paper by a Young Author! I must say, my adviser did a deceptively good job of hinting that someone else had won it for a month! Having worked for the last few years on a topic that very few people seemed interested in, with Mechanical Engineers being able to understand it more than Civil Engineers, I must say, it was quite a big boost to get an award for a paper that could've gone in so many different ways, when I look back on how I wrote it! 

The biggest positive I took away from the conference and award was that the two previous recipients of the award from my research group both ended up as assistant professors, and are now trudging through the academic life that I still dream of. Over the summer, I had a sudden scare that my adviser had lost interest in the topic and was going to terminate it (and me) just after the conference. Partly, it was driven by the fact that I was doing rather mundane tasks for the conference (although in hindsight, they were quite crucial and needed a dependable hand). Now that's its over, and with an award that will stay with me forever, I can set those trouble aside. 

I've learned an important lesson, and I suppose I should spell it out for whoever is interested - getting a PhD is about persisting with what seems impossible, and keeping at it no matter what. Now, more than ever, I feel I have the wind under my wings. I just need to jump. 

A Touching Story

GOOD KIDS (2016)

Produced By: Next Exit Productions
Director: Douglas Rowland II
Starring: Michael Ridley, Jason Orlee, Kari White and others
Pros: Good story, touching plot
Cons: Bad acting, poor cinematography, poor pace
Rating: ** of 5 (2 of 5) - I wish I could've given it higher

I usually avoid family dramas as they tend to be too melodramatic. However, I've found that Indie movie centered around families tend to have a bit more realism than their mainstream counterparts. And that is certainly true for Good Kids, an Indie film that caught my attention even though it was, for the most part, very badly made. Most of my American friends come from separated families, so I've become curious of late as to how the dynamics of that work - perhaps, in a strange way, that was why I decided to watch the film in the first place.

The greatest strength of the movie is its simple and yet touching story - especially of the protective relationship between the two brothers, and their love for baseball. Indeed, the simplicity of it all was most endearing, something rare in today's film making. And yet, just about everything else worked against the movie - there was a full spectrum of bad acting, from the decent acting by the younger sibling to the absolutely pathetic performance by the parents. The cinematography was very poor, with the director presumably having no thought at all for how to translate his idea into a movie. And the idea was quite nebulous anyway - the story keeps jumping from plot to plot with little connection between them.

Overall, this movie was a huge disappointment. The idea was good but it wasn't translated properly, and the acting was downright deplorable. I wish it could've been better - I would certainly have watched. (OTFS)

PS: Not to be confused with the mainstream film, Good Kids, coming out later this year.

Thoughts on the Burkini

As usual, some strange problem on liberty has risen in France, a country that seems obsessed with legislating what it means to be free. The problem this time is a ban on a French beach of the 'burkini' - a burkha that you can swim in, yet keep yourself fully covered. This rather odd contraption comes from an innovator in Australia, and it certainly has a market. That is not the problem.

Now, it is easy to dismiss the ban as typical Islamophobia, but that would not just be lazy, but also dismiss the very real ISIS-inspired and -sponsored terrorist attacks that France has faced recently. And then, there is the issue of women in countless Islamic nations being forced to cover up... or else. Recently, some men in Iran donned burkhas as a mark of protest against the morality police there. Therefore, even as Islamic socialists in the West insist that the burkha is somehow a sign of freedom (using the most twisted logic that only Marxists that conjure), it should be remembered that for hundreds of millions of women across the world, it is a sign of repression.

And yet, there is the question of whether, in principle, banning the burkha isn't just as bad as making it mandatory. Of course, this has been solved previously on the issue of security and safety (old Hindi movies do have plenty of instances of the 'bad guy' getting away in a burkha), but the burkini is not a full-face covering veil - you can identify the person. It could even be construed as a nice way to keep your hair from getting wet!

This is not going to be an easy question. Without safety and security, there really is no justification for a woman being forced to not wear a burkini, even if it seems totally illogical, even stupid, to willingly participate in a ritual that treats women as a commodity. Perhaps, the proper way would be for the State to stay away from legislating on it, and for people to make it very clear that they do not believe that women need to cover up to be safe. While there is no fair legislative answer to the problem of the burkini, there is and must be a social response to the burkha itself. 

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Independence Day Lecture: The burden of Azaadi

'Azaadi' has become a rather fashionable word these days among the Left-Liberals, who have welded their cause to that of Islamic fascism. The term, an Urdu one, directly implies the call for the Two-Nation Theory to take root again in the Indian subcontinent and further balkanize the wounded civilization. Back in those days of August 1947, when the subcontinent was torn apart, the term could be heard too - albeit with different meanings. For some, it was azaadi from the English colonists and their exploitation, for others, it was azaadi from the Hindu civilization that has existed in this land for thousands of years. And therein lies a lesson.

The day after
But what is this azaadi for? To what end? Consider the children of 1947: one has reached Mars, the other is the global center of terrorism (and the grandchild is actually doing well, despite its own problems). Of course, this is only today: a few decades back, things were quite the other way round. For many years, Pakistan did much better than India, and it is only in the last few decades that it has descended into the abyss. But that is not the point. What is azaadi for?

There are two theories to this. One is that azaadi has a value of its own, that freedom is not obtained for the sake of economic growth, but for freedom itself. This was an argument made for #Brexit to oppose all the doom-and-gloom scenarios that were predicted. On the other hand, there is the opinion that azaadi must be for the larger cause of improving the lives of people, both economically and socially. This is the argument used to further the causes of smaller states in India, most recently seen with Telangana.

So what is azaadi for? Is it both? But what if the two contradict each other. Take the case of the many smaller islands that are tied to former European colonial powers. If freedom had a value there and was achieved, it is hard to imagine those countries doing well on their own, without joining some sort of confederacy. Indeed, looking at the situation today, it is questionable as to what Pakistan and Bangladesh have gained from their azaadi (from India). In another case, look at Australia and New Zealand, which had progressed significantly well before they cut most of their ties with the British Parliament. What was the point there, if not for the sheer value of freedom?

The real question
The answer to this apparent contradiction lies in the related question: azaadi from what? From exploitation? Or merely from a benevolent but foreign ruler? In a post-ideological world, does the notion of 'foreign' even mean anything anymore? On the last question, there is actually a bit of a red herring, for we are told by academics that we are indeed in a post-ideological world, but Indian knowledge tells us that even that does not negate the existence of a common nation among various peoples. Thus, even in a post-ideological world, the idea of a nation remains, for no other reason that it being a part of human nature.

Therefore, we seem to have a test for the value of azaadi: the azaadi of a nation from another, and that of people within a nation for the sake of prosperity. The latter has an explicit reason, and a burden on the children of the new country. But what of the former? Is the freedom of a nation an end in itself, or can nations collapse after achieving freedom? The history of the modern nation-state is so short that the answer is difficult to guess, although if the term 'nation' can be expanded into 'civilization,' it does appear that the civilization can be destroyed by itself (with notable exceptions).

We then have an answer: the burden of azaadi of a nation is to survive, and for its people to survive. And while survival is possible without prosperity, it becomes very difficult. Indeed, the only nations that survive with little prosperity are those that force themselves to be in a constant state of war (real or otherwise) - North Korea, Eritrea, and Pakistan come to mind there. And if the nation cannot survive, then there was no point of azaadi itself.

Therefore, those who scream azaadi without knowing what it entails must be careful what they wish for. For to win a Pyrrhic victory is to win the present and lose the future. And without a future, what is the present really worth?

On the 70th Indian Independence Day, Opinions 24x7 greets the nation in celebration of 69 years of continuing our ancient civilization.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

#Summering2016

The summer of 2016, my third in the US and first as a PhD student, is a little under two weeks away from ending, with the Fall Semester set to begin on Aug 22. As always, I started out with a plan, a list of things that I wanted to finish doing by the end of the summer. From previous experience, this is a rather futile exercise, as things can change a lot over the three months of summer. Nonetheless, it is an old habit that is hard to break. And looking at all the work lined up (both expected and unexpected), I decided to avoid taking any courses.

To my surprise, I've finished all but one of the things I planned to do, and have done a lot of things I was not planning on too! And with two weeks to go, I hope to finish the last item on the list as well. This is quite surprising as I have never been able to finish everything on the list before, and is possibly an encouraging sign that, just one year into the PhD, I am able to make a realistic work plan and execute it. Or I just got lucky, but I'd like to think the former, for my own pleasure.

This summer, I got my second journal paper published, submitted two papers at a conference, had two abstracts approved, completed an extensive online course on Scientific Computing, learned to use Linux, learned to use ANSYS, figured out how to use a brand new piece of hardware, used an API for the first time... and some more stuff that I can't even remember! Of course, most of these are incremental, but a PhD is a series of incremental steps leading up to the final dissertation, and I hope these steps will go a long way as my second year into the program begins.

But that's the professional stuff. The summer also saw two stellar personal achievements that remain unrivaled - I finally got my US drivers license, that too on my first attempt, and my weight dropped to the lowest since 8th grade, effectively setting the clock back by a decade! In my opinion, these two are as important as, if not more than, the professional achievements. Of course, it hasn't been a smooth ride: a paper of mine got rejected (again), and it's been hard to keep my weight in check without constant vigil over what I eat. And at one point, I was gripped with a sudden fear that I was going to be kicked out from my research group - something that seems laughable now, but was based on some plausible reasons then.

So that's been Summer 2016. Incidentally, this was the hottest summer in 2 years, with a heat wave and extreme humidity, not to mention all the bugs. Certainly, plenty to remember for.

Why I stopped following Newslaundry

That the English news media is compromised and partisan is no surprise to anyone. In fact, an actual word - presstitute - has been coined to describe the sort of work that alleged journalists these days are up to. In such a world, the true capitalist's answer would be to have a media house dedicated to keeping tabs on the media itself - and that was what Newslaundry was supposed to be. I remember the time when it did some excellent interviews of journalists - Karan Thapar, Rajdeep Sardesai, Barkha Dutt, and their ilk - and asked some really tough questions, so much so that Mr. Thapar could be seen trying his best to keep his cool when confronted with his own style of journalism.

Alas, those days are long gone. I recently stopped following Newslaundry, for two reasons. One, they were simply not doing what they were supposed to do i.e., keeping a tab on the media. Instead, it had become another media house in itself (more on that), and others like OpIndia.com actually did a much better job than Newslaundry at holding the media up to the high standards of truth and equanimity. Two, having become a media house itself, its quality degraded precipitously, for which I squarely blame Abhinandan Sekhri.

It's not that I disagree with Mr. Sekhri's political views (I do) - I don't mind listening to a logical argument that I disagree with. The problem is quality. Consider the tweet I posted on top, part of the #NLprimetime initiative of live-tweeting a running commentary of prime time news (English language news, to be precise). While it might seem like a good idea to some, to me it looks like low-quality, illogical trolling. Not just the specific tweet itself, but the entire idea. Far from holding up journalists to a standard, this initiative is akin to wallowing in mud with a pig. And that's not all - from the choice of topics in NL Hafta podcasts to the tone and tenor of interviews, Mr. Sekhri comes across as a very poor journalist who wears his bias on his sleeve.

Add to that the newest troll on the Newslaundry block, Akash Banerjee, who did a 'Why so Serious?' series that was just plain trolling passing off as an op-ed, and you can only cringe at every new thing that they did. Of course, they did have some good journalists like Madhu Trehan and the redoubtable Anand Ranganathan (who I was fortunate to have a discussion with over Twitter about scientific temperament). But one bad apple spoils the basket, and Sekhri and Banerjee are as bad as they get.

I'll let Rahul Roushan have the last word, and express my sorrow at seeing a good forum like Newslaundry degrade into garbage.


Wednesday, August 3, 2016

History made, much to follow


The Rajya Sabha just passed the historic Constitutional Amendment Bill to enable the introduction of a nation-wide Goods and Services Tax (GST) that will transform India into a unified market by establishing a customs union, thus allowing for governments across the country to make the most substantial changes to the tax framework in the country since the Constitution of India was adopted. The Bill, over a decade in the making, finally cleared the last hurdle with the BJP government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi making an unprecedented push to bring in the states as well as the Opposition, including the Congress, whose isolation on the issue finally made them see reason.

Of course, it was still a nail-biting finish, with the Congress bringing in a new demand for an assurance that the subsequent GST bill(s) would not be moved as Money Bills (in which case the Rajya Sabha is reduced to an advisory role). It kept with this demand right to the very end till the Dy. Chairman called for a vote, and after the AIADMK walked out, there was a fear that the Congress would do the same. Of course, as Finance Minister Arun Jaitley rightly said, it is an unreasonable demand and the Constitution - which clearly defines Money and Finance Bills - should be followed. But of course, the Congress is no stranger to flouting the Constitution, so it was always going to be close, until LOP Ghulam Azad finally backtracked on behalf of his party.

Right now, the Prime Minister and his team deserve full praise for steering through this important reform unanimously. Former PMs Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh also deserve praise for their contribution. And last but not the least, state FMs that worked overtime to bring this to fruition deserve commendation. India has made history as a single political union. Of course, there is still much to be done. Half the states will have to ratify the amendment, and then the actual GST bills will have to be taken up in Parliament and each and every state. And all this hopefully before Jaitley's deadline of April next year.

However, all those bills will require simple majorities and some complicated technology to back up the system. It will not be easy, but the biggest hurdle of all has been passed. The future is now in our hands.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

A Spectacular Self-Goal

Republic Presidential Nominee Donald Trump's outburst over the last few days of Khizr Khan, father of late Capt. Humayun Khan, who died fighting in Iraq, is perhaps the most spectacular self-goal so far by the candidate in a race that is already packed against him by virtue of the liberal stranglehold over the media. Indeed, this goes beyond anything that Mr. Trump has done so far to induce outrage from his own party ranks, including that forgettable time when he attacked John McCain. The tragedy of it all is that this should've been a cakewalk for Mr. Trump.

Consider this: Hillary Clinton voted in favor of the Iraq war, something that has kept the US in the region to this day. Capt. Khan died in a war authorized by her, on spurious intelligence that didn't match up to the facts later. Like so many others, Mrs. Clinton's trigger-happy foreign policy led to an unnecessary and sad death of a proud soldier. But somehow, all this escaped Trump's attention, and instead he chose to attack the late soldier's faith and his mother. While it is commendable that Mr. Trump is looking to break away from the political correctness that stifles logic, there is no need to sacrifice decency at the altar of a campaign. And not only is it unnecessary - it is potentially damaging as well.

What Mr. Trump needs immediately are two things: a good, political adviser to guide his campaign strategy, and the willingness to listen to such an adviser. Arguably, his running mate Gov. Mike Pence could be that adviser, but Mr. Trump has to listen to him. Basically, he has to learn to listen to other people and not just act on instinct. It might have worked in the primaries, but this is a different ball game. Mr. Trump has rightly called out the dangers of an HRC Presidency. If he wants to avoid it, he needs to take this seriously and stop gifting the Democrats victories. On Capt. Khan and his family, Donald Trump is unequivocally wrong. 

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Here comes Rio!

Next week, the 2016 Rio Olympics kicks off in Brazil, after much controversy. The Russian team came ever so close to being banned for a rather vast doping scandal, Pakistan failed to get a single athlete to qualify and is now represented entirely by wildcard entries, several top athletes (including favorite Roger Federer) have pulled out for various reasons, the entire event is being conducted under the shadow of the Zika virus and the political and economic crises that Brazil faces, and the preparations for the games seems to be a little off.

No matter, a little controversy never hurt anyone! While it is true that the games could've been better, the host Brazil has clearly tried. The fact is that the Olympic games have become so expensive and difficult to host that very few countries can afford to do it, and even fewer can afford to do it without the gentle (!) hand of dictatorship to divert resources to it. Therefore, instead of constantly calling out Brazil for a sub-optimal job, the world must encourage it and help it. Of course, the economic and political mismanagement of the country is another matter.

For India, the largest contingent yet is being sent to the Olympics this year, and the country is obviously hopeful for a bigger haul of medals than last time. Yes, we are the superpower of South Asia, but that is hardly something to be proud of, given the other candidates. The country has worked hard since the last edition, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi carried the message of the people to the athletes, who come from every corner of the vast country to perform under one flag. Here's wishing them a good show!

Behold: Liberal Hypocrisy

Last week, the new Kerala CM Pinarayi Vijayan appointed Harvard economist Dr. Gita Gopinath as economic adviser to the CM, an honorary position that came as quite a surprise given the Communists' utter disdain for fact-based economics... and facts, in general. Predictably, the ruling CPM got into a tizzy, with Vijayan's perpetual frenemy and former CM VS Achuthanandan supposedly castigating the CM for inviting an economist with so-called neo-liberal views to advise the CM. This, at a time when Vijayan seems to have realized that the collapse of the Arab gulf oil economies will severely harm the state, which depends on remittances from the region to bankroll itself. Vijayan has been talking about the need to bring in more investment and jobs to the state and has supported the GST Bill at the state level.

If ever you wondered why the word 'liberal' has become an insult, look no further than how the CPM is treating Dr. Gopinath, and how the Prime Minister treated another US-based economist, RBI Governor Raghuram Rajan, and the difference in the level of outrage that the liberal brigade has generated for each. For Rajan, his exit was supposed to be some sort of intellectual intolerance, never mind that it is a fact that he did not get along with the government and was appointed by the last one. In the case of Dr. Gopinath, there is staunch silence, perhaps ever a level of agreement. After all, fancy degrees and academic positions in the US are the holy grail of Indian intellectuals, until of course it comes to Marx, in which case the US is Satan!

Let's call a spade a spade: the entire fracas with Raghuram Rajan was orchestrated as a political tool by the liberals, who could not have cared less for his actual job. In Dr. Gopinath's case, the aggressor (the CPM) is one of their own, and hence the utter lack of outrage at how an academic is being politicized. Why is 'liberal' and insult? Because it is synonymous with 'hypocrite' - clearly, the Communists of yesterday, scattered by the dissolution of the Soviet Union, have regrouped under the umbrella of liberals. Old wine in a new bottle.