Wednesday, June 30, 2004

Move over, Popeye

Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have created a solar cell that uses photosynthetic proteins from spinach to convert light into energy. A team of biologists and engineers led by Marc Baldo of MIT extracted proteins from the chloroplasts of spinach leaves and the bacterium Rhodobacter sphaeroides. Molecular biologist Shuguang Zhang developed a new material consisting of synthetic peptides that self-assemble into a cell membrane-like structure. The synthetic membrane stabilises the extracted proteins and allows them to retain their function. The solar cell also contains an organic semiconductor and two electrodes, one of silver and and the other of Indium Tin Oxide (IN2O3:SnO2). The photosynthetic proteins absorb photons of certain frequencies and send excited electrons through the semiconductor to the silver electrode, creating the current that powers the device.

What's so great about this invention? The efficiency is far lower than that of currently available solar cells, though the inventors are working on improving that. Professor Baldo believes that the cell can be made cheap and easy to manufacture, and eventually power laptops and similar electronic devices. Unlike conventional solar cells which degrade over time, the protein-based cell could be self-repairing. Also, research along these lines is expected to provide scientists with a greater understanding of the mechanisms of natural photosynthesis.

Tuesday, June 29, 2004

Saddam to be handed over tomorrow

Iraqi interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi announced today that "Saddam Hussein along with up to 11 other high value detainees will be transferred into the legal custody of Iraq tomorrow. They will be afforded rights that were denied by the former regime." This apparently includes the right to defend themselves. However, he will physically remain in a US-run jail until Iraqi security is ready to take custody. In any case, he will not face trial for several months.

I also read an unconfirmed report that Dr. Allawi had said that elections would be held by January 2nd, well ahead of the January 31st deadline specified in the interim constitution.

U.S. Supreme Court rulings

The big news of the day is that the Supreme Court has ruled on three cases regarding detainees from the war on terror. The verdicts appear to be a setback for the administration.

In Rumsfeld v. Padilla, the courts ruled on a technical issue, that the defendant Jose Padilla filed his petition in the wrong court. He is being detained in Charleston, South Carolina, but he filed suit in the Southern District of New York, where a warrant was first issued. The court seemed to feel that he was 'forum shopping.'

In Hamdi v. Rumsfeld and Rasul v. Bush, the court said that all prisoners, citizens or not, retain rights to at least a legal hearing if they are held in an area controlled by American forces. (The administration contended that Guantanamo Bay was technically under Cuban Sovereignty, even though America has jurisdiction and control there.) Justice Sandra Day O'Connor (bless her!) wrote "We have long since made clear that a state of war is not a blank check for the President when it comes to the rights of the nation's citizens." The difference between the two cases was that Yaser Esam Hamdi is a United States citizen, while Shafiq Rasul and his fifteen co-petitioners are foreign citizens.

There's lots of coverage of the cases: The rulings are available here, here, and here. The New York Times and Washington Post also have detailed reports.

Monday, June 28, 2004

Health Ministry has appointed Brand Ambassador

Via rediff:
The Union Health Ministry has appointed Aruna Kesavan, who topped the CBSE Class 12 examinations this year, as the brand ambassador for its 'Women Empowerment' and 'Save The Girl Child' campaigns.

A science stream student, she had secured 97.4% marks scoring a perfect 100 in Mathematics.

As brand ambassador, she will endorse advertisements, posters and other multimedia messages, themes, concepts and concerns related to the campaigns, an official release said in Delhi on Friday.

She would work towards strengthening the social status of women in society and create awareness about marriage, dowry and immunisation of the girl child.

The student from Kerala would be given a token amount of Rs 500,000 at the end of her one-year tenure.

That's a token amount? Why didn't anybody pay us for board exam marks? :-)

U.S. hands over sovereignty in Iraq

Sovereignty has been transferred to an interim Iraqi government today, two days ahead of schedule. Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari said that the formal handover of power was advanced to thwart possible attacks aimed at disrupting the ceremony. "I believe that we will challenge these terrorists, criminals, Saddamists and anti-democratic forces by bringing even the date of the handover forward," he told reporters in Istanbul. The ceremony was attended by Iraqi government officials, and Paul Bremer, the top U.S. administrator in the country.

Although the government, led by interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi will nominally have "full" sovereignty, it may not make long-term policy decisions and will not have control over the foreign troops in Iraq. Prime Minister Allawi also announced yesterday that Saddam Hussein will be transferred to Iraqi custody "very, very soon." In an interview, he said, "We have the forces, we have the judicial system, and he is going to go to court. It's going to be a just trial, unlike the trials that he gave to the Iraqi people."

Let's hope that the installation of the new government has a significant effect on the widespread violence.

Sunday, June 27, 2004

The middle-class Indian

About a year ago, Aditi and I were having an argument about what it means to be a member of the middle class. She insisted that she was from a middle-class family; I claimed that she was too rich. I, on the other hand was obviously the middle-class one; upper middle-class perhaps (what a phrase!) but definitely not more than that.

It looks like we were both equally naive. Adu, if you're reading this, I apologise. Rediff has a lovely column by Ashwin Mahesh, Floundering on founding myths.
Before we can say that someone is middle class or not, we must first make a separate determination of what we mean by the term. I use the median income for a family (depending on sources, anywhere between Rs 3,600 and Rs 5,000 a month) as a guide, and contend that those whose incomes are within some range (say 20%) of this median are middle class.

This spread of incomes that can be justifiably regarded as middle class means that you and I don't belong in that category. A lot of urban families, when they refer to themselves as middle class, are plainly mis-stating the truth. There are good reasons for this. The tendency to compare one's economic standing to that of those who are better off than oneself is common. If we're not as rich as identifiable magnates (Tatas, Ambanis, Khaitans, etc.) or even rich enough to build large houses in fancy neighbourhoods, then we must not be affluent, right? Wrong. In comparison with the great majority of Indians, anyone who can read this column is probably in the 85th percentile of income or higher.

The dissonant sense of what middle class is can also be attributed to another reason. Today's conventional idea of what a middle class lifestyle is was not first developed in India, but in the West. A middle class family in the prosperous countries is identified as being able to afford many of the modern amenities within its regular income, and also able to secure a post-retirement reserve in some way. This is what we usually mean in India too -- that 'middle class' families are ones with washing machines, scooters, maybe even a second-hand automobile; things like that. This is the middle class of a different country, not India.

Even if one agrees to double the upper limit of the median income quoted and then consider a 25% spread, one gets a maximum monthly income of Rs. 12,500. I suspect that any Indian family with double that income (approximately Rs. 25,000) thinks of itself as solid middle-class, when it is nothing of the kind. Hits you hard, doesn't it?

So who benefited from the impressive economic growth, the booming Sensex? Not the middle-class Indian, surely; one doesn't invest in the stock market on a monthly income of Rs. 3,600. In fact, it frequently seems like the people who benefit from government policies are the upper-class Indians like you and me, even though we are presumably capable of helping ourselves. Sure, there are schemes for rural employment, subsidies and assistance for the poor. But depressingly often, funds are diverted and don't reach the intended recipients, shopkeepers hoard goods meant for public distribution. It's easy to exploit the real middle-class; they are often not aware of their rights and have no political voice.

"But they do benefit," you say, "that's what the trickle-down effect means. From the rest of the article: "
Politicians and policymakers insist that the engine of our growth is upper-class prosperity, and warn us against any move to derail this engine and unhinge the carriages it is meant to pull along. By this argument, subsidies for the wealthy are given so that they will in turn lift consumption and create employment, thereby indirectly benefiting the poor.
If you're a capitalist, you should be cheerleading increased access to credit as a way of powering up the economy, but it also means you have to ask -- and answer honestly -- who should get this increased access to credit for the economy to really kick into lasting high gear. Is infrastructure funding for large investments the critical area, or is access to personal credit for individual families -- especially the poor -- more important?

A typical middle class family in India will pay up to 50 percent of its income to settle debts at enormously high rates of interest in unregulated markets. Making cheap and regulated credit available to this section will drive consumption and economic growth much more reliably that trickle down ideas will. For the poor, their debt burden is even higher, and correspondingly the potential for money freed up from debt servicing is even greater. That's capitalism.

Another concern that should remain front and centre, if you're a capitalist, is return on investment. The government of India's own figures accept that large irrigation projects like dams have taken up two-thirds of the expenditure made for such purposes and irrigated only one-third of the lands brought under new use. Small projects that preserve more local control, on the other hand, have used one-third of the money but delivered two-thirds of the benefits. What's the capitalistic determination we should make from that observation about interlinking of rivers?

If freer markets and trickle-down economics are to be the underpinning of our hopes for the future, let us have an open dialogue about their merits. Why must we hope for investments in private enterprise to eventually yield gains for all, but cannot mandate state investments in schools and health centres that have immediate employment benefits as well as long-term competitive advantages for the nation?

In spite of all the abuse heaped on him (Uneducated! Politically Unaware! Votes in exchange for saris!), the Indian voter is often smart enough to realise which policies help him and when the government is only helping the rich. (See my earlier post on the subject.) Why else was Chandrababu Naidu, CEO extraordinaire, thrown out of office? Why else has the CPI(M) ruled over West Bengal unchallenged for decades? Go to the middle-class Indian for the answers.

Also, go to rediff and read the whole article.

For all the BITSians reading this

I reproduce in full the text of a mail that was forwarded to me by Jimit. Please take the time to fill out the form, and pass on the word to everyone else you know who's applied for graduate study. A large database will really help students who are applying in the future; I know I would have loved something like this.
Hello BITSians worldwide,

We are embarking on an ambitious effort to increase the admissions of BITSians to international universities through a combination of better marketing to the universities themselves, as well as improved intelligence for our students so they can send significantly better applications.

If you have some experience applying to US or non-US univs for higher studies, please take some time to fill up the following form (at present only for MS/PhD programs; we'll be creating a separate one for MBAs soon)

Link to Form

The information collected will be kept in a highly organized manner on shortly, and will be presented in a way that will be helpful to all students and alums interested in applying for higher studies abroad (something on the lines of which is out of support currently).

Note that BITSian admissions to some of the world's top universities (Stanford, Caltech, MIT) has been steadily increasing, but we are working to make this even better.

This effort is being led by two BITSIANS - Archana (an alum) and Srinath (a student currently in Switzerland). You will be hearing more from them in the coming months.

Kindly popularize this initiative among other BITSians you might have acquaintance with. This database will be made available to you very soon.

Thanks for your time and patience.

for Srinath & Archana

A word of advice... the form takes a while to fill out. If you have a lot to say, don't begin until you have about half an hour to spare.

Saturday, June 26, 2004

Bush, the well-beloved

I was randomly reading the news today, and came across these three stories in rapid succession. An amusing coincidence, since I wasn't actively searching for related articles.

From The Belfast Telegraph, on protests against Bush's visit to Ireland.
Thousands of protesters will greet President George Bush in Ireland today as he starts a diplomatic offensive to bridge deep transatlantic divisions over America's policy in Iraq.
About 4,000 police and 2,000 soldiers more than a third of Ireland's security force are deployed around Dromoland Castle, a luxury hotel in Co Clare that is hosting today's summit. In addition, 700 US security personnel and four naval ships are being called in.
However, Ireland's alert will be dwarfed by the security operation in Istanbul, where Turkish police are expected to deploy more than 23,000 officers for the Nato leaders' summit.

A third of Ireland's security forces? Naval ships? For a visit by a head of state from a historic ally?

CNN has more on the visit to Turkey.
"Public opinion in Turkey may be anti-American these days, mainly because of Iraq, but this government is not."
Traditionally warm ties hit rock-bottom last July when U.S. troops outraged Turkish pride by detaining 11 Turkish commandos in northern Iraq, throwing bags over their heads.

The Guardian has this piece on Bush's possible trip from Turkey to Iraq.
What kind of Iraq will George Bush see when he comes here next week to celebrate the handover of sovereignty to the country's new interim government? It will certainly not be the scene that Karl Rove, the White House political adviser, must have hoped for when he hatched the idea last autumn of bringing his boss into the heart of downtown Baghdad for the ceremony.
Huge crowds of adoring Iraqis would line the streets as the presidential motorcade passed. George Bush would mount a platform at the very spot where Saddam Hussein's statue was toppled in April 2003, the Great Liberator addressing the Iraqi nation and wishing them well as they embarked on the road to freedom and democracy. God Bless Iraq. God Bless America.
Now it will be a much more humble and humbling affair. There will be a speech, of course, but only after a helicopter dash to the heavily-fortified "green zone" where the occupation authorities have held sway for the past 14 months, handshakes with a small group of carefully selected Iraqis in the government which the Americans had a decisive role in appointing, and some hasty photo-ops with US troops.
The Bush visit has not been announced, and may yet be cancelled for security reasons, leaving Colin Powell, the secretary of state, or perhaps not even him, to come in the president's place. Other officials have been suggesting the ceremony will consist of little more than Paul Bremer, the outgoing US overlord, handing a formal document to the chief justice of Iraq's supreme court before the latter swears in the new president and prime minister. "Bremer might not even stay for that. It is the Iraqis' show," said another CPA man.
If in the end Bush decides not to take the security risk of coming to Iraq, it will be a major disappointment for him. But his sense of letdown will be as nothing compared to the disappointment that the vast majority of Iraqis feel about the American performance since April last year. So if Bush appears in Iraq next week, he will have to come furtively rather than in style.

On all three visits, President Bush faces significant popular opposition. I wonder what he could have done to generate that resentment.

Indian workers abused in Iraq

This rediff article describes the plight of Indians who've gone to Iraq to work in US military camps.
It is slavery there in the American camp. We are being treated worse than animals," Peter Thomas, a native of Mavelikkara in Kerala, who did odd jobs such as cleaning and laundry works in an American army camp, told

Thomas along with two of his friends Anil Kumar and Justin C Antony reached Kerala this week, after the Indian government intervened to rescue them in the wake of escalating tension and violence in Iraq.

The average monthly salary of an Indian worker in Iraq is $250, including daily overtime of four hours, Thomas pointed out. But the Americans deduct from this salary the cost of our food and accommodation. An Indian worker finally gets only $165 in hand. "I had paid Rs 60,000 to the Kerala travel agent to go to the Gulf. I have been in Iraq for six months now. But I have come back empty-handed without earning much," Thomas said. He said when the Indian workers protested against the 'low salary', many of them were bashed up by their employer Dawood and Partner, a Jordanian firm.

"We lived in dingy cubicles in the makeshift army camp. We never got food on time. Our movements were always restricted. We never got newspapers to read. We were allowed to call our homes only once in a month," Thomas said.

The Iraq returnees claimed that the living and working conditions in the American army camps are miserable and 'labour and human rights violations are the order of the day'.

I suppose there are many worse things happening to Iraqis in Iraq. It's just that my mother lived in Mavelikkara for 4 years. Funny how the consequences of war spread around the world.

Friday, June 25, 2004

Manmohan Singh's Speech to the Nation

For the first time after becoming Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh addressed the nation yesterday. The full text of his speech can be found here [] or here []. Of course, both contain typos; I can never understand why our media can't employ competent typists and proofreaders.

His speech was statesmanslike and sincere. My favourite extract:
... Growth is not an end in itself. It is a means to generate employment, banish poverty, hunger and homelessness and improve the standard of living of the mass of our people.

The Hindu has a good article about the speech.

Free Software: why it's A Good Thing (TM)

Eric S. Raymond (ESR) has released the latest Halloween Document, eleventh in the series and titled 'Get the FUD'. Unlike the first few documents, which were genuine Microsoft memoranda leaked to Raymond, this appears to be merely biased commentary. It's even intellectually dishonest to call it a 'Halloween Document.'
It's a good time to take stock of where we are, what our favorite evil empire is doing, and how best to respond.

If he wants to be taken seriously, he should stop using phrases like 'our favourite evil empire.' It only makes him sound childish. Can he not produce a reasoned article any more? And then, of course, he doesn't miss the opportunity to take a sideways dig at Richard Stallman and the FSF.
Hello? If there is actually anyone still left on the planet who thinks the term "free software" was a good idea, I hope they're paying attention. Because what Microsoft is doing here is exploiting the old familiar gratis/libre ambiguity of the word "free" in yet another way. They're setting up for a claim that "free software" advocates are lying or deluded because Linux has a nonzero TCO. Therefore, goes the implication, you can't really trust them about that other freedom thing, can you?

I happen to be one of those poor misguided fools who think that "free software" was a good idea. "Open Source" just doesn't cut it. The fact that the source code is available is good, but how would you feel if I distributed source as well as executable code, but made it illegal for you to redistribute modified code? That would reduce the advantage of the Free/Open Source paradigm to essentially nothing. The idea is that any user has the same rights as the author; the right to do whatever he (or she) wishes with the program. The idealism behind free software is precisely what makes it so powerful and appealing. I always had the feeling that ESR never understood this.

Honestly, though, I think Raymond spends too much time attacking Microsoft / defending GNU/Linux (though he, of course, calls it Linux) and not enough time focussing on how to make it better. There was an interesting discussion of the latest Halloween document on Slashdot, and Junks Jerzey had this to say
Remember how Linux advocates, real early on, used to love to quote Ghandi? You know, first they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you've won? Well, it works both ways. Now we have both camps bitterly and intentionally fighting with each other. And what good does it do? If Linux--excuse me, I mean "open source in general" is so blindly superior to Windows in every single way, then that's it. It's over. The existing momentum will carry through and eventually the better solution wins. It's a quiet revolution. Now what should be worrying people like Mr. Raymond is that ... Linux *isn't* so blindingly superior as to carry the day

If you haven't already, visit the FSF website and read about their Philosophy.

I've recently read a lot of reports, often produced by "think tanks", on why Free Software is 'viral', 'unethical', 'un-American' (the authors seem to think this is a bad thing), 'communist' and so on. Typically, I've found that they're badly written, and often plain wrong on substantive issues.

As a classical example, Defenders of Property Rights has this report (Sorry, another PDF) on what they call the "Open Source movement". Of course, it's riddled with atrocious errors. They claim that the movement took off last year in Europe (how dare those socialist Europeans attack our American profit-making way of life?), ignoring the fact that Richard Stallman was working at MIT (which was in Boston, Massachusetts, when I last checked) when he decided to launch the Free Software movement in 1984. What's infinitely worse, though, is that they attempt to shock the reader by explaining how those evil, commie, open software nuts take advantage of the unsuspecting American population with their diabolical licensing schemes.
As unlikely as this might seem to the skeptic, the National Security Agency (NSA), that coordinates, directs, and performs highly specialized activities to protect U.S. information systems and produce foreign intelligence information, made the folly of developing GPL-licensed code to improve the Linux operating system. After reading the terms of the Linux GPL, the NSA realized they needed to post this enhancement to the Internet in source code form for the world to see. Unbelievably, any person with a PC and an Internet connection can now logon to the NSAs website and print out the blueprint for NSAs Security Enhanced Linux software

That's just plain, old-fashioned lying. To begin with, the NSA is well aware of Open Source or Free Software, and the licenses they are usually distributed under. It passes the bounds of belief that they wrote SELinux and then suddenly realised that they would have to release it. Also, the NSA still feels that open source software has a role to play in secure systems.

Much more important, though, is that the GPL does NOT require NSA to release their code, if they wanted it hidden. NSA chose to do it of their own free will, wanting to give something to the community. They would only have been required to release source code if they wanted to redistribute it. And so, even if this had been the latest system of secure communication that the US government was using, and not just a research kernel, the NSA (and the US government) could have deployed and used it freely without making code public. The only thing the GPL prevents them from doing is distributing it to other governments/users. And why would they even want to give away their secure communication systems?

All that Defenders of Property Rights and other think tanks are trying to do is to spread FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt) about Linux and Free Software in general, and they do it through smear campaigns, disinformation, and plain untruths. More people should be educated about the advantages of Free Software. Visit the FSF website today. (And while you're there, make a donation if you can afford to!)

Thursday, June 24, 2004

Vajpayee to resign?

Atal Bihari Vajapayee, former Prime Minister, may leave active politics. Quoting from an article in the Hindu:
In a sudden outburst that overshadowed the Bharatiya Janata Party national executive's deliberations here, the former Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, tonight indicated that he would not lead the party any more as he has "had enough," an apparent reference to the Sangh Parivar's attack on him after the party's debacle in the Lok Sabha elections.
Mr. Vajpayee's supporters shouted "Abki bari Atal Bihari (it is Atal Bihari's turn)". Mr. Vajpayee retorted in Marathi "Aata Nako Bari. Pushkal Jhal. (Now no more turn. I have had enough)."

Vajpayee has always been a voice of moderation in the BJP, and his departure will prove to be a loss for Indian politics. He appeared to try to provide good governance during his term as Prime Minister, though he frequently came up against opposition from within the BJP. His refusal to censure Narendra Modi after the riots in Gujarat is only one instance where he succumbed to party pressure instead of doing what he thought to be right. It eroded his credibility with large sections of society, but I think the worst damage was personal. As a politician who always occupied the moral high ground, he never really recovered from what must have been a blow to his self-image. To be less in one's eyes than one expects is always crushing to an honourable person, and I believe that was one reason for his appearing tired and lost towards the end of his tenure. Of course that's speculation, but it seems reasonable. I suspect the truth will only be revealed with the publication of his memoirs.

What does this mean for the BJP? Judging from the National Executive meeting, a return to hard-core Hindutva seems to be in progress. I suppose RSS pracharaks are thrilled at the prospects, but a large section of voters will definitely be turned off. It might also make life more difficult for some of the BJP's allies. Watching it play out will be extremely interesting.

UPDATE: Aditi tells me that NDTV has reported that Vajpayee claims he was 'only joking' about the attacks. The BJP, in what might be a quid pro quo, has also just announced that Vajpayee is still its 'tallest leader.' If he was only joking, he managed to fool pretty much all his listeners, and the mainstream media. Couldn't he at least claim he changed his mind? Sounds like giving in to the party again, instead of resigning honourably.

Wednesday, June 23, 2004

Books of the week

It's been a long while since I read so many books in such a short time; 6 in the last 3 days. It's also been a long while since I've been so disappointed. I'm normally a fairly tolerant reader, but this was just too much for me to handle.

First, O'Hara's Choice []. The two Leon Uris's I've read before this (QB VII and The Trinity) were both brilliant, so I was looking forward to it. Unfortunately, it was nothing like the others. It was enough to make me swear off Leon Uris for life, but then I heard he died just as he finished the book. It would be charitable to assume that he suffered from senile dementia as he was writing it... either that, or reading it made him so ill he died. It tells of the fate of the Marine Corps after the Civil War, and the romance of perfect Marine Zachary O'Hara with Amanda Kerr, daughter of a shipbuilding magnate. It's a cliched clash of two strong-willed people, with the second-worst ending of any book I've ever read.
I can't think of anything good to say about this book, so I won't bother.

The honour of worst ending to a novel has to go to Shock []. I suppose it serves me right for reading Robin Cook, but I expected something from a writer who's been published so many times. The characters are wooden, the dialogue awkward, and the plot unrealistic. The two protagonists are female grad students at Harvard, who donate their eggs to an infertility clinic for $45,000 each. Curious about the fate of their eggs after a while, the two girls go undercover and infiltrate the clinic. It turns out that the clinic is unethically (and illegally) engaged in research on cloning, besides removing an entire ovary from most women instead of the single egg they promise to take. It appears that Cook couldn't think of an ending, so after the two heroines are captured, he takes the reader straight to an epilogue in which the clinic staff decide to flee from fear of prosecution. We hear nothing more of the fate of the girls, nor if the criminals are brought to justice. If you own a copy, please send the paper to be recycled. You'll be doing future potential readers a favour.

The third disappointment was The Da Vinci Code []. After reading so many rave reviews, I was sure it would make up for the other two. Unfortunately, I was wrong again. Surprisingly, many of the reviewers on Amazon seem to agree with me; how on earth did this become a bestseller? Sure, it's controversial, but that's the best thing you can say about it. Robert Langdon, a noted symbologist, and Sophie Neveu, a cryptologist from the Direction Centrale Police Judiciaire in Paris are accused of the murder of the curator of the Louvre, who is also the Grand Master of the secret organisation called The Priory of Sion. The Priory is believed to guard The Holy Grail, but with the death of the Grand Master and his three senecheaux, its secret location may be lost forever. Langdon and Neveu try to find the Grail, while keeping one step ahead of the law.
I have two major problems with this book. First, it's cliched; man-woman combo are accused of murder and on the run from the cops. They solve the mystery and (of course) fall in love. The symbology, which could save the book, is its second flaw. Fine, detailed descriptions show that the author has done some research, but a discussion of the symbolism in Disney movies does nothing for the plot. Besides which, some of it is just plain wrong! The only reason I kept reading was because I thought there had to be something that merited the reviews it got. I was wrong; save yourself the time and energy.

A return to a couple of old favourites restored me to life. Around the World in 80 Days [] needs no introduction, I'm sure. It's been a few years since I last read it, and it was good as I remembered. Gerald Durrell's The Mockery Bird was the other. Unlike most of his books, this isn't a description of a collecting trip or the peculiarities of his family. Perhaps that's why it's one of my favourites. The pleasant island of Zenkali is facing an upheaval because the British Government wants to construct an airfield and naval base, upsetting the islanders and their way of life. The Government's plans are eventually scrapped when two species believed to be extinct are rediscovered, because their habitat would be in danger from the proposed airfield. Though it deals with the serious subject of (so-called) Progress vs Conservationism, the Mockery Bird amuses as well as instructs. It's an absolute joy; a book I know I'll read aloud to my children someday. Equally funny is Durrell's Rosy is My Relative, one of his few other works that's purely fiction. In fact, I think I'll dig out my copy right away. Reviewing "My Own Country" will have to wait until tomorrow.

Tuesday, June 22, 2004

An incredible anticlimax

I had my visa interview yesterday; it lasted all of two minutes. A couple of questions on my research interests, and that was it. I'm glad that's over, but what a waste of perfectly good worrying! I haven't got my visa yet, though it should be posted to me in a couple of days. Of course, it's quite possible that I made mistakes on the application forms. Still, I'll know in a couple of days.

It's good to be home... I can get down to some serious blogging!

Friday, June 18, 2004

Another break

I'm off to Chennai for my US Visa interview (also here), so no blogging for a while (perhaps until Tuesday). I hope it goes well! I'll write about the experience when I get back. Also, expect a review of My Own Country [] by Abraham Verghese. If you're free this weekend, buy yourself a copy.

Thursday, June 17, 2004

The 9-11 Commission Report

The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (popularly known as the 9-11 Commission) held it's twelfth and final public hearing yesterday and today. They released two staff statements, one titled Overview of the Enemy (sorry, it's a PDF) and the other Outline of the 9/11 Plot. The second is very informative, describing the origin of the idea, recruitment, training, etc. But it's the first statement that's making (rather, will make)news, adding to the controversy on Iraq.

The key paragraph (reproduced below for anyone too lazy to download the PDF and read the report), as far as Iraq is considered, says that there is no evidence Iraq had any links to the attack on September 11th, or even al Qaeda.
Bin Ladin also explored possible cooperation with Iraq during his time in Sudan, despite his opposition to Hussein's secular regime. Bin Ladin had in fact at one time sponsored anti-Saddam Islamists in Iraqi Kurdistan. The Sudanese, to protect their own ties with Iraq, reportedly persuaded Bin Ladin to cease this support and arranged for contacts between Iraq and al Qaeda. A senior Iraqi intelligence officer reportedly made three visits to Sudan, finally meeting Bin Ladin in 1994. Bin Ladin is said to have requested space to establish training camps, as well as assistance in procuring weapons, but Iraq apparently never responded. There have been reports that contacts between Iraq and al Qaeda also occurred after Bin Ladin returned to Afghanistan, but they do not appear to have resulted in a collaborative relationship. Two senior Bin Ladin associates have adamantly denied that any ties existed between al Qaeda and Iraq. We have no credible evidence that Iraq and al Qaeda cooperated on attacks against the United States.

The New York Times has an editorial sharply critical of President Bush, and demanding an apology for his misleading the American people.
Of all the ways Mr. Bush persuaded Americans to back the invasion of Iraq last year, the most plainly dishonest was his effort to link his war of choice with the battle against terrorists worldwide. While it's possible that Mr. Bush and his top advisers really believed that there were chemical, biological and nuclear weapons in Iraq, they should have known all along that there was no link between Iraq and Al Qaeda. No serious intelligence analyst believed the connection existed; Richard Clarke, the former antiterrorism chief, wrote in his book that Mr. Bush had been told just that.

Nevertheless, the Bush administration convinced a substantial majority of Americans before the war that Saddam Hussein was somehow linked to 9/11. And since the invasion, administration officials, especially Vice President Dick Cheney, have continued to declare such a connection. On Monday, Mr. Cheney said Mr. Hussein "had long-established ties with Al Qaeda." Mr. Bush later backed up Mr. Cheney, claiming that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a terrorist who may be operating in Baghdad, is "the best evidence" of a Qaeda link. This was particularly astonishing because the director of central intelligence, George Tenet, told the Senate earlier this year that Mr. Zarqawi did not work with the Hussein regime.

There are two unpleasant alternatives: either Mr. Bush knew he was not telling the truth, or he has a capacity for politically motivated self-deception that is terrifying in the post-9/11 world.

The Washington Post is carrying this article on the report. It's less harsh on the administration, presenting a reasonably well-balanced view. The Post also has an editorial reminding readers that this was not the focus of the reports issued yesterday. A lot of information on the attacks and al Qaeda was revealed, and this is being overshadowed by the lack of ties between Bin Ladin and Iraq.
Yet showing a peculiar instinct for the capillaries rather than the jugular, part of the public debate immediately focused on a single passing point that is no kind of revelation at all: "We have no credible evidence that Iraq and al Qaeda cooperated on attacks against the United States." Administration foes seized on this sentence to claim that Vice President Cheney has been lying, as recently as this week, about a purported relationship between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda. The accusation is nearly as irresponsible as the Bush administration's rhetoric has been.

True, there was more to the report, but how can the author possibly claim that the accusation was irresponsible? It's true: there are no links, which is no kind of revelation to anyone except Vice President Cheney, who is on record as claiming that there are. Or is it irresponsible because it might make the administration look foolish? I'm sure the Post does that as much as any other newspaper!

So what does this mean for Bush and his re-election campaign? My gut feeling is, not much. I think most people who could be put off by this 'revelation' have already decided not to vote for him.

Tuesday, June 15, 2004

Tim Berners-Lee receives Millenium Technology Prize

The Finnish Technology Award Foundation awarded the Millenium Technology Prize to Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World-Wide Web, today. The award carries a cash prize of 1 million euros (about $1.2 million dollars, nearly as much as the Nobel Prize). This is great because he had never made a cent off his incredible idea, refusing to patent it in order to keep the web free. We should be incredibly grateful; that gesture has made the Internet what it is today. Before the advent of the web, hypertext systems weren't interoperable. If he had patented the idea, he would have become rich, but we would probably have had several incompatible 'webs' today.

The International Herald Tribune has a good article on the award, with quotes from Berners-Lee. My favourite:
The problem now is someone can write something out of their own creativity, and a lawyer can look over their shoulder later and say, 'Actually, I'm sorry, but lines 35 to 42 we own, even though you wrote it.' What's at stake here is the whole spirit in which software has been developed to date. If you can imagine a computer doing it, then you can write a computer program to do it. That spirit has been behind so many wonderful developments. And when you connect that to the spirit of the Internet, the spirit of openness and sharing, it's terribly stifling to creativity. It's stifling to the academic side of doing research and thinking up new ideas, it's stifling to the new industry and the new enterprises that come out of that.

Hurray for freedom of thought, speech, good ideas, and software!

More mail, less news

The New York Times reports that Yahoo is substantially expanding the storage it offers for email users. As you might guess, this is in response to Gmail. They're offering only 100 MB for free, though, compared to Google's 1 GB. On the other hand, paid storage has expanded to 2 GB. Current users of the paid service can decide whether they want the larger mailboxes. If not, they can opt for a refund, which seems very fair.

As a business strategy, I don't know how much sense it makes. Perhaps the additional cost of storage won't affect Yahoo, but I'd be willing to bet that a large fraction of their users won't use anything close to 100 MB. I've never filled up even my 4 MB worth of space, so it's not going to make the slightest difference to me. If they want to keep customers loyal, perhaps they should try more innovative strategies, like conversations from Gmail. Still, I'm not complaining!

Also, CNN is carrying an article on Web registration for newspapers. (Yes, I know the New York Times story linked to above requires registration. So register! It's worth it. That goes for you too, Arun!) The story compares registering online to handing over your name, address, age and income to the cashier at a corner newsstand when you pick up the morning newspaper. Many users turn away because they can't be bothered to take a minute to fill out a form. Others are concerned about entering private information and some of them get around this by masquerading as 110-year old surgeons from Bulgaria called Mickey Mouse. Newspapers report that about 15% of the email addresses in their databases are false. Assuming that some of them require a valid email address to register, people are probably faking some of the other information. Worries about spam are another thing, but I've never received any mail from a newspaper. My New York Times subscription is almost a year old now.

It's kind of sad that people feel the need to falsify data. If demographic information helps the newspaper do a better job, I'm all for it. Maybe they'll make more money from advertising, and provide better services for free. And that's a powerful argument against the fairness of the newsstand analogy. If you could give them your name and address once, and get the newspaper for free every day, wouldn't you? Besides, you probably gave them that information when you subscribed, anyway. It's ridiculous for online privacy to mean more than offline privacy.

Monday, June 14, 2004

An insult to our athletes

Today, the Olympic Torch has reached Brazil on its journey to Athens. NDTV news had footage of Pele carrying it through Rio de Janeiro, surrounded by thousands of fans. Several footballers were similarly honoured, along with other athletes and famous Brazilians. Last week, the torch was in India. A host of celebrities carried it, but surprisingly few sportspeople. Famous athletes like P.T. Usha, Milka Singh and Prakash Padukone were ignored in favour of Bollywood stars. It's insulting to see Aishwarya Rai and Bipasha Basu being given the privilege of running with the torch, especially when they're so unused to running that it appears they're going to fall over from exhaustion.

If they're going to represent a country which treats them so shamefully, why would children want to take up sports as a career? Inadequate facilities, poor training, incompetent selectors... and people wonder why a nation the size of India never seems to win medals at the Olympics!

Saturday, June 12, 2004

An unalloyed delight

Two months ago, Lakshmi and I were talking about bookshops. There's a world of difference between a huge chain of stores and a small musty store packed so tight with books that you have to turn sideways to get through some of the aisles. The employees have usually been there for years, and their love for books is evident in everything they do. Bangalore has several little shops like that, and it's always a pleasure to go in, browse for a while and chat with the owner, who's usually delighted at having a customer who shares his passion for good writing. In the course of the conversation, Lachu mentioned a book she had read, 84 Charing Cross Road [] that describes the touching correspondence of a writer in New York with a shop in London that specialises in old books.

A few days ago, I was looking through my cousin's bookshelf and I found this gem. It's an absolute treasure, one of the more memorable books I've read in the last year or two. If you enjoy reading, you're sure to love it. It's sentimental, sincere, and beautifully written. I can't recommend it highly enough. Beg, borrow, or steal it today.

Apologies for Absence

I've not been blogging for the last couple of days; at first my mother was on call at the hospital, which meant I couldn't use the phone line, and then my cousin Sudeep was here for a few days. We had a great time and I only wish he could have stayed longer. Will post photographs of his trips sometime soon. Thanks to the ever-faithful Arun, who kept asking for updates and Lachu, who's been pestering me to write. I'll do better from now on.

Friday, June 04, 2004

The International Herald Tribune comes to India

I've been hearing all day that the International Herald Tribune has launched an Indian edition. On the other hand, the reports seem to be contradictory and inconsistent. (I'm reminded of one of my favourite quotes from Salvor Hardin: "Consistency is the defence of a small mind.") This article at Rediff seems to indicate that it's going to be an Indian newspaper with articles taken from various places, including the Herald Tribune. Government rules mandate that not more than 7.5% of a newspaper's editorial content can be syndicated. If that's all it is, I don't see why they didn't come up with a different name.

It's sad; I would have loved to read the Herald Tribune, especially with an Indian slant. The price seems outrageous for what is essentially going to be an Indian newspaper, though. It's Rs 30 per day, which is about twelve to fifteen times that of comparable newspapers. It's even worse on weekends, Rs 90. They've got to be kidding!

Thursday, June 03, 2004

Underpaid Teachers

Dave Eggers, on has a sobering article on the state of high-school teacher's salaries:

The latest statistics put the average teacher's salary at about $46,000; some teachers earn a little more, some a little less (the average teacher's salary—not the starting salary—is $38,000 in Kansas, $36,000 in New Mexico, and $32,000 in South Dakota). Overall, that's about the same that we pay pile-driver operators ($45,980) and about $8,000 less than the average elevator repairman pulls down. Meanwhile, a San Francisco dockworker makes about $115,000, while the clerk who logs shipping records into the longshoreman's computer makes $136,000.

The first step to creating an education system full of the best teachers we can find is to pay them in line with their importance to their communities. We pay orthodontists an average of $350,000, and no one would say that their impact on the lives of kids is greater than a teacher's. But it seems difficult for everyone, from parents to politicians, to shake free of a tradition in which teaching was seen as something of a volunteer project for women whose husbands brought home the real money. Today's teachers need to, but very often can't, support a family on their salaries. They find it difficult or impossible to buy homes, to save money, to live comfortably, and, in wealthier areas, to live in or near the towns where they teach.

The whole article is excellent, with interviews of 4 teachers working two or three jobs, struggling to make ends meet. The problem is as real in India as in the US; perhaps it's worse here.
I've been thinking about this issue for a while now, because my sister was considering teaching. She's decided to work for CRY (Child Relief and You) instead. One of the reasons was definitely the salary; many schools were paying take-home salaries of nearly Rs. 2500 (About $55) per month. Not one of the non-teaching jobs she was interviewed for paid less than twice that, and most paid four or five times the amount. Her story ended well; she's got a job she loves, working with children. But what about all the thousands of teachers who don't have other options?

After hearing about my sister's job search, I asked about teacher's salaries in my hometown. I was shocked to hear that it wasn't only starting salaries that were low; teachers a year or two from retirement were being paid Rs. 6000 (About $130) per month. How on earth do they manage? Campus interviews after my undergraduate engineering degree landed me a first job that pays five times the amount a teacher with a master's degree and twenty years of experience can expect. At the hospital where my parents work, janitors who haven't gone beyond the sixth grade get paid more than the senior teachers at my high school. In such an inequitable situation, why would anybody seriously consider teaching as a profession?

Apparently private school teachers throughout India are exploited. Many of them work for less than minimum wage. The school management forces several teachers to sign receipts for more than the amount of their salary. To make it worse, they have to pay taxes on their nominal salaries, instead of the actual amount. And they put up with it because they know that a complaint means immediate termination, followed by blacklisting at other schools in the area.

Government-run schools appear to be pay better; it's just that the education students get is much worse. A friend of mine suggested the quickest way to improve that would be to insist that government employees send their children only to government schools. As for private schools, complaints about the teaching standards are widespread; I cribbed about it last week. How can administrators not see that talent goes where the money is?

Tuesday, June 01, 2004

Taking a break

I'm afraid my readers (what readers? -ed) will have to survive without me for a couple of days; I'm going to Madras (ok, Chennai, if you insist) to see off a friend. Anu's going to begin an MBA at the University of Melbourne. Actually, it's pretty much turning into a high-school reunion. It seems like half our class is converging on Madras over the next two days.

Also, someone asked me why I hadn't commented on the arrogance shown by The Wall Street Journal in recommending that "The West should be more hesitant about promoting political competition" in democracies. I thought the original editorial in the Hindu did that well enough. I am very disappointed by the Journal's reporting, though; one might accept this from the worst form of tabloid, but some standards are expected from a publication of such stature.

Encouraging Democracy

The Wall Street Journal (Sorry, you need a paid subscription; I don't have one myself) ran an article about the results of the Indian elections on May 19. I haven't been able to locate the article myself, so all quotes are from an editorial in The Hindu today.
"Democracy is perverse," it [The Wall Street Journal] whined about the poll results on May 19. "Although it is natural for the U.S. to suggest that all countries should embrace democracy, the lesson from India is that Western countries cannot be dogmatic about elections."

"As India's election will testify, democracy is not always supportive of coherent economic policy and prosperity." (Read: the voters are too dumb to know what's good for them.) On countries not yet at India's level, the Journal has some advice. The West "should be more hesitant about promoting political competition... " For alas, that "could destroy the leadership" that pursues vital economic change.


So, did 400 million citizens and voters queue in blistering heat of 40-plus to soothe the fretful nerves of the market? Some of us thought they were asserting their sovereignty. To demand the reforms they really needed. And to pass judgment on the market-driven reforms governments have followed. So what happens when poll verdict clashes with market edict?

The Wall Street Journal's answer: Don't waste time on the electorate. "The lesson of the past week is that if India truly wants to become an economic power it has to pay heed to the global voters known as investors, in addition to its own voters at home." We can listen to our people, says the Journal (gee, thanks guys) so long as they vote the way the investors want them to.

Read the whole article; the comments on the Indian Media are equally interesting. I suppose if the Journal doesn't understand, it's too much to expect the rest of the world to. Why did the electorate vote to "destroy the leadership that pursues vital economic change?" Sure, the previous government though they had done a good job with the economy. All the macro-economic indicators looked good, and they thought that meant people were happy. What they overlooked, and a section of the media pointed out, was that micro-economic and social indices were at all-time lows. The BJP has always appealed strongly to the upper-class segments of society. But people aren't going to vote for a government that just makes rich people richer. The average voter doesn't care about the state of our Forex reserves or the Sensex when he can barely feed his children. Development programmes were poorly implemented, with money flowing into the hands of everyone but the intended recipients. That's why people voted, to quote one of the election slogans, for 'reforms with a human face.'

There's a lesson for politicans (and journalists) here. It's very easy to blind yourselves to reality, and that's just what the BJP did. They ignored all the signs that should have warned them they were heading for disaster, and they paid for their arrogance heavily. Let's hope that they've learned that lesson.

Besides, I'm sure that The Journal hasn't forgotten that our Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh, was the original architect of the Indian economic reforms. I look forward to five budgets from the UPA government that will allow India to "truly become an economic power."